“He was nearly dead. Every few steps he staggered as if he would fall. A stained gown badly torn hung from his shoulders over a seamless undertunic. His bare feet left red splotches upon the stones. An inscription on a board was tied to his neck. A crown of thorns had been crushed hard down upon his head, making cruel wounds from which streams of blood, now dry and blackened, had run over his face and neck. The long hair, tangled in the thorns, was clotted thick. The skin, where it could be seen, was ghastly white. His hands were tied before him. Back somewhere in the city he had fallen exhausted under the transverse beam of his cross, which, as a condemned person, custom required him to bear to the place of execution; now a countryman carried the burden in his stead. Four soldiers went with him as a guard against the mob, who sometimes, nevertheless, broke through, and struck him with sticks, and spit upon him. Yet no sound escaped him, neither remonstrance nor groan; nor did he look up until he was nearly in front of the house sheltering Ben-Hur and his friends, all of whom were moved with quick compassion….Then, as if he divined their feelings or heard the exclamation, the Nazarene turned his wan face towards the party, and looked at them each one, so they carried the look in memory through life. They could see he was thinking of them, not himself, and the dying eyes gave them the blessing he was not permitted to speak.”—Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880)
You don’t read Ben-Hur, the 19th-century publishing phenomenon that broke down traditional Christian taboos against fiction, for the dialogue, which sounds stilted, and even less so for the title character’s encounter with a vamp, which is just plain silly. No, you read it for the description, which can be very fine indeed.
As you might have guessed from the film adaptations—the 1925 silent epic (which I wrote about here) or, even more so, the 1959 Charlton Heston multi-Oscar winner—General Lew Wallace’s descriptive powers were most evident in his action sequences. But it comes to the fore in an unexpected way, in the novel’s closing sections on how the Prince of the House of Hur witnessed the death of the “the Nazarene”—the man who had transformed his life, showing him there was more to life than a quest for revenge, the same Prince of Peace who would transform the lives of countless others in the two millennia since.
One other point: Unlike Mel Gibson's hugely controversial The Passion of the Christ, Ben-Hur is as far from anti-Semitic as you can get. For all the real anguish experienced by Christ on the road to Calvary, there is no imputation of collective Jewish guilt. The title character is himself Jewish, somehow who proves as noble in spirit as in birth.
(The image accompanying this post, by the way, is Pieter Bruegel's oil painting, The Way of the Cross.)