Inside take on a Folger, Bodleian, and Ransom Center exhibition on the creation and afterlife of the King James Bible on the 400th anniversary of its publication.

My Favorite Exhibition Item?

William Tyndale, Hertford College Chapel, Oxford, photo (c) Tim Rawle

What is my favorite item in the exhibition (which opens, of course, later this week)? There are so many to choose from, and the scope of our exhibition is so broad, but here are a couple of items I’m particularly fond of.

First, the fragments of William Tyndale’s 1530 translation of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) are truly remarkable. That they survive is nearly miraculous in itself. There is only one complete copy of this book known to exist, in the collection of the British Library. These few leaves of another copy, lent for the Folger exhibition from The Ohio State University, were discovered in an entirely different book, where they had been used as binding waste (scrap paper used by printers for book covers, spine linings, or endpapers). Tyndale’s translation was printed cheaply and designed for practical use by eager Protestant readers. The fact that so little survives of this book suggests that it was simply read to dust. Yet what an enormously important little book!

Tyndale. Bible. Old Testament (fragment). 1530. The Ohio State University.

Tyndale is the real hero of English Bible translation. A remarkable linguist, Tyndale must have learned Hebrew, in order to translate the Old Testament, somewhere in continental Europe, since few in England knew the language. He worked under extreme duress, in hiding and on the run from authorities, and yet his translation proved so powerful that it shaped all other English Bibles for the next four hundred years. Statistics that claim that 85% (or other figures) of the King James Bible is pure Tyndale are misleading in their mathematical precision, but anyone who reads the two translations side by side can see that they represent a genuine truth. For all the praise heaped on the literary magnificence of the style of the King James Bible, it is Tyndale who largely created this style. In his own way, Tyndale was a writer of the rank of Shakespeare, Milton, and Bunyan. His influence on the English language may be greater than all these. For his great pains, Tyndale was publicly strangled, and his status as a writer has suffered because of our modern prejudice against translation in favor of “original” literary works. I hope our exhibition does something to increase awareness of this remarkable man and his literary achievements.

My other favorite (among many others) is Linus reading the Nativity story from A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Linus and Charlie Brown in an earlier scene from A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). CBS/Photofest.

Despite the fact that the show is an animated short based on a popular comic strip, Linus’s attempt to explain to Charlie Brown the “meaning of Christmas” is deeply serious, cutting through the crass commercialism that has enveloped the holiday (and in 1965!! imagine what Charlie Brown would think in 2011). I’ve watched this show dozens of times, and I still love it. Culturally, and speaking for myself, it’s as important a part of Christmas as Handel’s Messiah, Christmas carols, or a Christmas Eve service. I’ve heard and read Luke’s Nativity narrative more times than I can count, but I always hear Linus’s sweet, slightly lisping voice in the back of my head. I’m glad we could include it in Manifold Greatness.

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

One response

  1. Pingback: Countdown to Friday! The Folger Exhibition Arrives « Manifold Greatness blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 68 other followers