After an interlude of poetry posts, I want to return in this post to my theme of translation, sparked by the celebrations of the 400th anniversery of the King James Version of the Bible. At the heart of that effort was a desire for openness and availability. The introductory epistle spoke of “removing the cover from Jacobs well” so that people could come and draw deeply of the waters for themselves. That effort to make something fresh and available is not confined to the meticulous translation of the exact wording of a sacred text, vital and primary as that effort is. It also applies to every telling and retelling of the mysterious and ever-fruitfull stories contained in the Bible.
Every parent who tells their children a Bible story in language they know their childen will understand, is also ‘uncovering the well’, and maybe dipping down to a depth their children cannot yet reach to lift up story-shaped a cup of that living water thats just the right size for their children to enjoy. Of course these tellings and retellings are not a subtitute for the source from which they are drawn, but more like a series of tasters and appetisers whch will prepare for a lifetime of encounters with ‘the real thing’.
So its important that when a book of ‘Bible Stories’ is published they should be told by someone who both understands the art of story telling and also knows that their stories are not a ‘definitive’ version, but rather an evocation, an invitation to love and grow into a reading of the Bible itself. By that meaure this Lion Classic Bible is a real success. Andrea Skevington has achieved a clear, compelling, and elegant story-teller’s voice. Though she simplifies things for her young audience she also knows when to elaborate and explain and at all times she seems alert to the need to invite and evoke an imaginative response. For a child’s imagination will often apprehend in a Bible story more than an adult’s cool reaon ever comprehends. So for example in her version of Genesis, ‘dividing the waters of the firmament’ she has:
‘..separate the blue above from blue below. so the wide expanse of sky unfolded shining and full of light’
This is lovely both because it has the child’s sense of pleasure in simple colour and yet with that slightly more ‘grown up’ language of ‘the wide expanse of sky unfolded’ she is lifting her young listener up into a wider and higher region, linguisticly as well as imaginitively.’
Young listener, is a key term here. These retellings are clearly designed to be read aloud (as indeed the KJV was) and they seem to have been shaped on the tongue, for clarity, and simplicity, but also for their evocative sound and resonance. Here for example is her description of the ‘mighty rushing wind’ at Pentecost:
“It started with a sound- a sound like the wind – but this was no gentle harvest breeze. This was a shaking and a roaring: a sound of power whooshing and roaring about the house, rattling every door and shutter. The sound seemed to come down from heaven itself, and filled the house as the wind fills sails.”
This is fine writing. All the assonance of sound, power, about and house are working in her favour, and the choice of the onomatopeic ,but also child-like and celebratory ‘whoosh’ is excellent. Then she follows through all the exciting ‘whooshing’, with the phrase ‘down from heaven itself’ and the telling simile of wind in the sails, a power to move and change, which together bring out the theological depth of the event she is describing.
This book is also superbly illustrated, something of a feature of Lion’s childen’s books. As with Andrea Skevington’s text, Sophy Williams’ illustrations whilst attractive and colourful, are not at all cartoony or condescending, (a fault with many childens Bibles). Like the text, these illustrations work with the imagination to open out into mystery, rather than close down possibilities. Jacob’s lader for example, perhaps one of the most vital and numious symbols in the whole of the Old Testament, and an image that Christ applied to himself in John’s gospel, is beautifully done. I love the balance of light and shadow, the sense of mysterious purple night as well as the gold light from the angels wings that also seems to glimmer as gold dust on the ground at Jacob’s feet. But best of all here is the beautiful, spiralling, living trunk of the tree beneath which Jacob sleeps,whose top we cannot see, half lit by Heaven’s light and half shadowed by our world. That seems to me a profound image which will help readers ultimately to apprehend something of the mystery of Gethsemane and the cross.
These lovely pictures which are scatterd through the text as well as given full pages seem a good image with which to summarise the role of such a retelling as this.
This collection of well-told stories are to the text of the Bible, what pictures are to a landscape; evocative and well wrought glimpses that invite you to leave the gallery and set off on your own for some adventures in the mysterious terrain from which the pictures were drawn.