Published in the February 2011 issues of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County) and L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties).
Naples, Florida resident Lee Levin has written and published a remarkable novel in which facts and fantasy blend to reshape our understanding of Jewish history in Europe during the Middle Ages. Working with scholarly sources and such literary classics as “The Song of Roland,” Levin tells (and partly invents) the story of the Jewish Kingdom of Septimania, a region within the developing Frankish empire forged by Charlemagne.
The Jewish king, Natronai, is chosen for his prominence among the Babylonian scholars of the time (8th century). A man of great intellect, he also can prove his lineage of royal blood going back to King David. This is important, as the rule of Pepin III and his son Charlemagne is lacking proof of royal blood to bolster its legitimacy. A political game is played out by which Natronai takes as his queen Charlemagne’s aunt, Alda. Their son, future King William, thus adds a royal bloodline to the Carolingian dynasty.
Natronai, known as King Makhir to his Jewish subjects and King Theodoric to his Christian subjects, develops into a strong, effective warrior-leader. He and his well-trained Jewish forces are instrumental in Charlemagne’s victories, helping Frankia reclaim lands from the Saracens (used here interchangeably with Ishmaelites or Moors).
The conflicts that carry the novel forward are manifold. The military engagements are narrated with abundant detail and energy, as readers are positioned to cheer on the Jewish king’s intellectual and martial contributions to Charlemagne’s advances. Several key nobles and lords under Charlemagne’s sway are resentful of Makhir’s ascendency and scheme against him. The Catholic Church, indebted to Pepin for financial support, must silently grind its teeth at this challenge to its authority. A Jewish king in its midst is an abomination. Mr. Levin invents a dazzling character, Archbishop Agobard, to represent this view and to scheme toward Makhir’s demise.
On the level of characterization, Levin employs broad, bold stokes to define the principal actors. The uneasy relationship between the freakishly small Pepin and his seemingly gigantic son, Charles (Charlemagne) is handled with skill. The traditional anti-Semitism that infects various characters to different degrees is a living force throughout the novel. The conflicts within King Makhir himself become a primary center of interest: Is he a man of God, or a man of war? Is he truly an independent king, or a lackey of Charlemagne, who has invented him for political reasons?
Most importantly, is the Jewish King also the awaited Messiah? Even as he was selected in Babylon, the buzzing began about the emergence of the Messiah. For years, Makhir resists the label and tries to squelch its application to him. But there are many ways in which his life seems to be a fulfillment of messianic prophecy. A proud man, Makhir must work hard at humility. However, the time comes when he, too, becomes convinced that he has been chosen to be much more than a king.
The ultimate test is whether he can interpret clues that will allow him to discover and unearth the long-hidden Temple Menorah, then bring it back to Jerusalem along with other sacred treasures.
The Messiah of Septimania , for all of its vividness and historical interest, would have benefited from another round of professional style editing and proofreading. Still, it is a grand, unusual adventure, true to the spirit and whenever possible to the known facts of a tantalizing and largely unknown chapter in Jewish history.