Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Loving Les Miz (and Bishop Myriel)

Victor Hugo, the creator of Bishop Myriel.
The musical production of Les Miserables is absolutely my favorite theater show. It is the only production that I have seen twice live, both times in my hometown of Chicago where it played continually for many years. From the very first moments of my first encounter with the musical I have loved it as a profound expression of Christian humanism. Despite my love affair with the musical I have never read the book by Victor Hugo—until now!! With the first movie production of the musical scheduled for release this Christmas I have decided to try and read the massive book during Advent before seeing the movie while in Chicago for the holidays.

I am only just into the book and I already love it. Unlike the musical the book begins with an extensive portrayal of the Bishop. In fact, the whole of Book One is about Monsignor Myriel, Bishop of Digne, and is entitled “An Upright Man”. Hugo paints a picture of Myriel that is deeply sympathetic, indeed nearly iconic. He locates Bishop Myriel clearly within the tumult of France in the 1800s and elevates a vision of Christian faith and charity timeless in its beauty and deep compassion. While viewers of the musical will be well aware of the Bishop’s act of grace towards Jean Valjean, the book has numerous other stories of Myriel’s witness to mercy. Here, for instance, is a section on Bishop Myriel’s ministry to a man headed to the guillotine for murder:

He [Myriel] went at once to the prison and to the [prisoner’s] cell, where he addressed him by name, took his hand and talked to him. He spent the rest of the day and the night with him, without food or sleep, praying to God for his soul and exhorting the man to have regard for himself. He repeated the greatest truths, which are the simplest. He was the man’s father, brother, friend; his bishop only to bless him...
When they came for the man next day the bishop went with him showing himself to the crowd at the side of the fettered wretch, in his purple hood and with the Episcopal cross hanging from his neck. He went with him in the tumbril and on to the scaffold. The man who had been so desolate the day before was now radiant. His soul was at peace and hoped for God. The bishop kissed him and said when the knife was about to fall: ‘Whom man kills God restores to life; whom the brothers pursue the Father redeems. Pray and believe and go onward into life. Your Father is there.’…
Since the most sublime acts are often the least understood, there were people in the town who said it was all affectation. But this was drawing-room comment. The common people, who do not look for shabbiness where none exists, were deeply moved.

With each page of the novel my love for it grows and my anticipation for the movie builds. The trailers that I have seen for it, and the initial buzz around early screenings of it, give hope that this will be a film worthy of the novel and of the stage production. I can't wait!

Greg (I've written some more on the idea of Christian Humanism and Les Miserables over at my other blog site.)


  1. I just replied to your email and was mentioning that I'm going to try to read the unabridged version. I've read the abridged version, but I look forward to the depth I'm sure there will be in the full version. I recently read an abridged Count of Monte Cristo and was so disappointed having read the full version of it more than once previously. You miss so much of the full redemptive story and the character development in the abridged stories (and I've yet to see a true movie adaptation of the Count). Really looking forward to seeing this latest movie version of Les Miz and all the more since we'll get to see it together!

  2. The parts with the bishop are actually some of my favorite in the entire book. If you have the unabridged version with a couple of the sections stuck in the back, I would highly recommend reading the one on Christianity and communion. (On the other hand, the one on how street slang evolved is highly skippable.)

    The unabridged version of Les Mis is excellent in a lot of ways, but can seriously test your patience. Hugo has a tendency to indulge in describing whatever he's interested in, regardless of its relevant to the plot. Hence why you get a 10 page description of the history of the Paris sewer system during one of the climatic moments of the action.