Melvyn Bragg has got a new book out in April [The Book of Books – which is on order for library stock]. I found this news in The Bookseller, which I read to savour the superlatives competition – which publisher can outstrip the rest in describing his latest products? (“A timeless collection”, “the chronicler of his generation”, “definitive insider’s account” – all real, and all on the same page!)
Bragg’s book interests me because it is about the gestation of the King James Bible. If I tell you I’m a confirmed heathen, you might ask what business of mine is the Holy Bible. And if I tell you that my interest is in the book as a literary classic, you might suspect me of being a cleric in disguise, trying to get you interested in the poetry so that I can sneakily intrude the religious messages. Not so. I have read hundreds of pages of this massive tome, without the slightest temptation to join up and join in on Sundays. But what a read!
“And it came to pass at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh dreamed: and, behold, he stood by the river. And, behold, there came up out of the river seven well favoured kine and fatfleshed; and they fed in a meadow. And, behold, seven other kine came up after them out of the river, ill favoured and leanfleshed; and stood by the other kine upon the brink of the river. And the ill favoured and leanfleshed kine did eat up the seven well favoured and fat kine. So Pharaoh awoke. And he slept and dreamed the second time: and, behold, seven ears of corn came up upon one stalk, rank and good. And, behold, seven thin ears and blasted with the east wind sprung up after them. And the seven thin ears devoured the seven rank and full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and, behold, it was a dream.”
A familiar story to anyone who’s seen Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Tim Rice put a modern spin on the language for the musical, and I have enjoyed it several times on stage and film, but I love the language of the KJB. It has majesty, poetry, a sense of wonder, but it also tells a story very straightforwardly. I want to know what comes next – what did the dreams mean? Actually, of course, I know very well, but I still want to read on, just as I watch Lear or Othello in spite of the fact that I know they won’t end well. Because they are great stories, told in marvellous language.
Furthermore, the language of the above chunk from the KJB is poetic, not “poetic” – there are no obscure words (“kine” might not be familiar to every modern ear, but the context makes it pretty clear what sort of beast we’re talking about). The only decorative flourish is “behold”, but it’s fully justified. It’s saying, “pay attention – this is a good bit”, and so it is.
2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. As well as Melvyn Bragg’s book mentioned above, there will be other literary and religious offerings during the year. Indeed, David Crystal has got in early with his own analysis of the KJB’s influence on the English language. Crystal, “the world’s greatest authority on the English language” (it must be true – it’s on the book jacket!) makes even bigger claims for the KJB than I’ve done, and he doesn’t just wax lyrical, he quotes chapter and verse (to coin a phrase!).