February 2004 Book Review
Flame of Fire by Jane Oliver
Copyright 1961 First American Edition
How many people, asked to name the half-dozen books they would
choose, out of all those in the English language, to mitigate the
solitude of a desert island, would fail to answer: "Well, the Bible to
begin with..."? They would probably add Shakespeare's Plays, perhaps Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, or Milton's Paradise Lost, but few of them
would realise that their first choice might never have been available
without the obstinate, unspectacular courage of a boy from
Gloucestershire, who went up to Oxford, somewhere about 1502, at an
age when many twentieth-century youngsters are entering their
preparatory schools. For at the beginning of the sixteenth century, the
unlicensed possession of a copy of the Bible in English was a serious
offence. A trenchant satirist like Erasmus might indeed write, in the
Latin which was still the common tongue of scholars:
"I totally dissent from those who are unwilling that the sacred
Scriptures, translated into the vulgar tongue, should be read by
private individuals...The mysteries of kings it were perhaps better to
conceal, but Christ wishes his mysteries to be published as widely as possible. I would wish even all women to read the Gospel and the
Epistles of St. Paul. And I wish they were translated into all languages
of all people, that they might be read and known, not merely
by the Scots and the Irish but even by the Turks and Saracens...."
But he cautiously left another man to put his admirable theory into
practice. And, since William Tyndale afterwards described his ultimate ambition in almost these very words, one may guess them to have been
his inspiration. In obedience to them he abandoned the quiet life of a
scholar, the privileges of a priest, choosing instead the poverty, exile and persecution which make his story read like one of the modern epics of the underground resistance, packed with almost as many hairbreadth
escapes as that of his heroic mentor,
To us, accustomed as we are to the freest debate on every aspect of
religion, the death penalty he defied in order to put the New Testament
into the hands of the common people of England seems improbable as a nightmare. But in Tyndale's time the prohibition was a commonplace,
and the part he played in the history of religious emancipation was
crucial. Perhaps, if his predeccessor, Wyclif, could also have had the
benefit of the invention of printing, Englishmen might have had their
vernacular New Testament a hundred and fifty years before Tyndale gave
it to them. As it was, Wyclif died in his bed, and his work died with him. Tyndale, like Joan of Arc and Savonarola, died at the stake.
But his work, like theirs, lived on.
It was in fact during the very year in which Tyndale was betrayed,
captured and imprisoned, that the increasing pressure of the demand
for the vernacular Bible at last moved the Convocation of Canterbury to
petition King Henry VIII to licence the installation of the English Bible in
all churches throughout the land. Indeed, it may well have been in the
very hour of his death that the balance began at last to tilt towards
freedom. Posterity has come to hold many things against Henry VIII,
but it might do well to remember that within a year of Tyndale's dying
prayer he authorised the setting up of the vernacular Bible in every
parish in his kingdom.
The extent of William Tyndale's work, ironically enough, has been more
appreciated by the experts than by the common people to whom he
decicated his scholarship. That great Biblical authority, Dr. Westcott,
writes: "Not only did Tindale contribute to it directly the substantial basis
of half of the Old Testament ( in all probability ), and the whole of the
New, but he established a standard of Biblical translation which others followed. It is even of less moment that by far the greater part of his
translation remains intact in our present Bibles, than that his spirit
animates the whole."
In his History of England, Froude adds: "of the translation itself, though
since that time it has been many times revised and altered, we may say
that it is substantially the Bible with which we are all familiar. The peculiar genius--if such a word may be permitted--which breathes through it, the mingled tenderness and majesty, the Saxon simplicity, the preternatural grandeur, unequalled, unapproached in the attempted improvements of
modern scholars, all are here, and bear the impress of the mind of one
Canon J. F. Mozley adds: "of Tyndale's work, as it appears in the second edition, it has been calculated that ninety per cent stands unaltered in our Authorised Version, and seventy-five per cent in the Revised; and the rate
is even higher, if changes due to obsolete words and to improved Greek
text are taken into account.
His translation has been the foundation, and his method has been made
the norm. Later translators have entered into his spirit. His errors have
been removed, his obscurities made light, and his imperfect renderings replaced by better; and the process of improvement is not yet ended.
This is what he would have wished. He had no false pride..."
As I began to tell the story of William Tyndale ( or Tindale, or Hutchins:
his family seems to have come from the north during the troubles caused
by the Wars of the Roses and to have used a variety of names ). I soon realised that he would naturally translate the Gospels which he intended
for the common folk of his time into the language with which they were
familiar. And so I, too, began to use the intimate "thee" and "thou" of our English Bible, finding as I did so that Tyndale's recorded words fell into
their place without a jolt. I have, admittedly, modified the sixteenth-
century spelling, which would have made the story too tedious for modern readers. My authority for the translation of the satire, Julius Exclusus, is
again J. A. Froude, sometime Regius Professor of Modern History at
Oxford, who included it in his Life and Letters of Erasmus. For the portrait
of Luther I owe most to the work of R. A. Bainton, whose book, Here I
Stand, was published by the Abingdon-Cokesbury Press in the United
States prior to its appearance in this country. I realise that I have taken
a risk in accepting the account of Foxe, the martyrologist, regarding
Tyndale's meeting with Miles Coverdale ( who afterwards produced his
own version of the Bible in English ); and their collaboration over the re-translation of the Pentateuch after the shipwreck in which Tyndale's first rendering was lost. Demaus is inclined to be sceptical regarding this
incident, but Mozley points out that exterior evidence now confirms Miles Coverdale's presence in Hamburg, the epidemic of sweating sickness,
and the identity of Mistress von Emmerson, whose nephew had been at Wittenberg with Tyndale, and at whose house he lodged.
All statements of any importance attributed to men such as Luther,
Erasmus, More, Colet and Tyndale himself, whether in conversation or narrative, have been taken from their published works, translated, or
course, in many cases, from the Latin in which they habitually wrote,
or from near-traditional records.
My grateful thanks are due to the Rev. Canon H.G.G. Herklots, author
of How the Bible Came to Us, for valuable suggestions on books which
might be consulted, to Mr. C.A. Cooke, Bursar of Magdalen College,
Oxford, for his most helpful reply to my inquiries, to the staff of the London Library and Hampshire County Library, who have supplied me with a
variety of books, also to Mrs. E.D. Lukens, for her great patience and trenchant criticism while preparing the typescript for the publishers.
North Gorley, Hampshire, Easter, 1960.........
About the Author: Jane Oliver spent her childhood in Liddesdale,
where the past, everywhere represented in cairn and castle and
ruined church, is very real. She now owns an acre of woodland
on the edge of the New Forest in which nightingales sing and
she takes refuge from the importunities of modern life. She is
an enthusiastic horse-woman and before the war learned to fly
light aircraft and married an airman. Her husband, Hawthornden
Prize winner, killed in the war and is commemorated in the John
Llewelyn Rhys Memorial Prize awarded annually for the best work
by an author under thirty.
Three of Miss Oliver's historical novels have been published in this
country: Sing Morning Star, The Lion Is Come, and The Lion And
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