Tag Archives: Literature

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Tyndale v More: Men, seasons and the KJV

Sir Thomas More was an interesting chap – lauded for his philosophical writing (like Utopia) and his ability to speak truth to power (see A Man For All Seasons).

But, on the whole, he wasn’t a nice chap. Especially so far as bible translator William Tyndale was concerned.

This piece by atheist polemicist Christopher Hitchens on the literary merit of the King James Version is fascinating (on a number of levels). Here’s a snippet:

“Until the early middle years of the 16th century, when King Henry VIII began to quarrel with Rome about the dialectics of divorce and decapitation, a short and swift route to torture and death was the attempt to print the Bible in English. It’s a long and stirring story, and its crux is the head-to-head battle between Sir Thomas More and William Tyndale (whose name in early life, I am proud to say, was William Hychyns).

Their combat fully merits the term “fundamental.” Infuriating More, Tyndale whenever possible was loyal to the Protestant spirit by correctly translating the word ecclesia to mean “the congregation” as an autonomous body, rather than “the church” as a sacrosanct institution above human law. In English churches, state-selected priests would merely incant the liturgy. Upon hearing the words “Hoc” and “corpus” (in the “For this is my body” passage), newly literate and impatient artisans in the pews would mockingly whisper, “Hocus-pocus,” finding a tough slang term for the religious obfuscation at which they were beginning to chafe.

The cold and righteous More, backed by his “Big Brother” the Pope and leading an inner party of spies and inquisitors, watched the Channel ports for smugglers risking everything to import sheets produced by Tyndale, who was forced to do his translating and printing from exile. The rack and the rope were not stinted with dissenters, and eventually Tyndale himself was tracked down, strangled, and publicly burned.”

Tyndale’s work was a precursor to the KJV. Hitchens waxes lyrical about the literary benefits of the KJV in this article, which you should read, and be ready to quote, the next time somebody tells you that religion poisons everything.

“Though I am sometimes reluctant to admit it, there really is something “timeless” in the Tyndale/King James synthesis. For generations, it provided a common stock of references and allusions, rivaled only by Shakespeare in this respect. It resounded in the minds and memories of literate people, as well as of those who acquired it only by listening. From the stricken beach of Dunkirk in 1940, faced with a devil’s choice between annihilation and surrender, a British officer sent a cable back home. It contained the three words “but if not … ” All of those who received it were at once aware of what it signified. In the Book of Daniel, the Babylonian tyrant Nebuchadnezzar tells the three Jewish heretics Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that if they refuse to bow to his sacred idol they will be flung into a “burning fiery furnace.” They made him an answer: “If it be so, our god whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thy hand, o King. / But if not, be it known unto thee, o king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”

A culture that does not possess this common store of image and allegory will be a perilously thin one. To seek restlessly to update it or make it “relevant” is to miss the point, like yearning for a hip-hop Shakespeare. “Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward,” says the Book of Job. Want to try to improve that for Twitter? And so bleak and spare and fatalistic—almost non-religious—are the closing verses of Ecclesiastes that they were read at the Church of England funeral service the unbeliever George Orwell had requested in his will: “Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home. … Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. / Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was.”

The Wire as Dickens

The Wire, polarising TV classic, pretentious and damaging art, or Victorian period piece stolen and passed off as modern… It doesn’t matter what you think of it (be you a West Wing fan, or Baltimore’s Chief of Police), The Wire raised some bars for television production in a manner that suggests it will be one of the lasting cultural texts of our generation, much like Dickens was for his…

You should read this – and read the particularly hilarious (but f-bomb ridden) retelling of a piece of the Wire’s dialogue, which, in the show, consisted simply of the said f-bomb being used in all its adjectival forms.

Check out this essay that treats The Wire as a Dickensian piece of culture that our current cultural milieu can’t stomach properly.

“In our age, we can never experience a modern equivalent of The Wire. We would be unwilling to portray the lower classes and criminal element with the patience or consideration of Horatio Bucksley Ogden or of Baxter “Bubz” Black. We would be unwilling to give a work like The Wire the kind of time and attention it deserves, which is why it has faded away, instead of being held up as the literary triumph it truly is. If popular culture does not open its eyes, works like The Wire will only continue their slow slide into obscurity.”

Lord of the Rings as a loser’s history

The task of writing history goes to the victors – so we can be sure Lord of the Rings is full of pro-Gandalf bias and pretty much dismiss anything it says about hobbits, wizards or elves. They’re the real bad guys. The invaders and the oppressors of Middle Earth. What you’ve read is just propaganda. So here’s the alternative history – written by a Russian named Kirill Eskov, this guy named ymarkov wrote an English translation (here’s a PDF).

Ring-Wraiths
Image Credit: Flickr
Here’s an excerpt.

“Should our reader be minimally acquainted with analysis of major military campaigns and examine the map of Middle Earth, he would easily ascertain that all actions of both new coalitions (Mordor-Isengard and Gondor-Rohan) were dictated by merciless strategic logic, undergirded by Mordor’s dread of being cut off from its food sources. Through Gandalf’s efforts the center of Middle Earth turned into a highly unstable geopolitical “sandwich” with Mordor and Isengard the bread and Gondor and Rohan the bacon. Most ironic was the fact that the Mordor coalition, which wanted nothing but the preservation of the status quo, was in an ideal position for an offensive war (whereby it could immediately force its opponents to fight on two fronts), but in a highly unfavorable one for a defensive war (when the united opponents could conduct a blitzkrieg, crushing foes one by one).”

Salon.com has a review of the book.

The elves are the bad guys. Gandalf is basically Hitler. Here’s some more from the book.

“To make a long story short: the situation was highly unfavorable, but we have managed, at the cost of all those sacrifices, to shield the Mordorian civilization, and it had made it out of the crib. Another fifty, maybe seventy years, and you would have completed the industrial revolution, and then no one would’ve been able to touch you. From that point on the Elves would’ve dwelled quietly in their Enchanted Forests, not getting in anyone’s way, while the rest of Middle Earth would’ve by and large gotten onto your path. And so, realizing that they were about to lose the contest, the wizards of the White Council decided on a monstrous move: to unleash a war of total destruction against Mordor, to involve the Elves directly, and to pay them with the Mirror.”

“They paid the Elves with the Mirror?!”

“Yes. It was absolute madness; the head of the White Council himself, Saruman, a foresighted and prudent man, fought this plan to the last, and quit the Council when it was adopted after all. The Council is now headed by Gandalf, the architect of the ‘final solution to the Mordorian problem.’”

“Wait, which Saruman is that? The king of Isengard?”

“The same. He formed a temporary alliance with us, since he understood right away what those games with the denizens of the Enchanted Forests mean to Middle Earth. He used to warn the White Council for the longest time: ‘Using the Elves in our struggle against Mordor is akin to burning down the house to get rid of roaches.’ And that’s exactly how it came out. Mordor lies in ruins, and the Mirror is in Lórien, with the Elvish Queen Galadriel; soon the Elves will brush the White Council away like crumbs off the table and rule Middle Earth as they see fit.”

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Confessions: #2 sometimes I fake literary conversance

Making references to great literary works is a surefire way to impress educated people. Sometimes I do it even if I haven’t read the book – I find knowing a book’s opening and a little about the protagonist is enough to get by. Great literature often opens with a great, and memorable opening. It’s often possible to fake a workable knowledge of the classics just by paying attention to how other people use them.

For instance, this week, in Ben’s quiz, I made a “call me Ishmael” joke even though I’ve never actually read Moby Dick.

Do you have anything to confess?

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More on Christian games

After exploring the topic of Christianity in gaming a couple of weeks ago two things happened.

Firstly, Mika told me about this flash fighting game where you pick a Bible Character and fight other Bible characters.

Secondly, I read this other article on the matter that came with this quote from James Wyatt, a game designer (Dungeons and Dragons) who is also a Methodist minister. Because games are the new literature he appears to be talking about classic pieces of fantasy:

“Games aren’t a place where you are expected to cling to a belief in something that can’t be seen or proven,” Wyatt explains. “It’s a world where the power of gods is demonstrated daily. [The Lord of the Rings’] Gandalf was — almost literally — Jesus walking around with the adventuring party.” I’ll admit to being somewhat shocked when Wyatt, in a calm and fatherly tone, explains how awesome it was to cast aside the preconceptions of our shared faith: “Fantasy has this ability to open our eyes to the enchantment of our world, and to view real things with more wonder.”

To illustrate his point, Wyatt invokes Chronicles of Narnia author (and notable Christian scholar) C.S. Lewis:

“[A child] does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted. This is a special kind of longing.” — C.S. Lewis, On Three Ways of Writing for Children