Monday, January 31, 2011


Achilles fighting with Hector, attic vase 490 BC
Photo Credit: Myth Image

Most scholars today believe that the Trojan War was a true historical event, one which probably occurred around 1250 BCE.  The war was memorialized in many myths and epic poetry from ancient Greece.  The stories were apparently written down for the first time roughly five hundred years after the war.  The most famous telling of the war is, of course, Homer's The Iliad.  (In my own reading of this story, I have relied principally on the fine translations by Robert Fagles and Stanley Lombardo.)

Although Homer placed his story in a real historical setting, the epic of The Iliad is in no way an attempt at early history.  Nor is it simply a retelling of myths that surround the Trojan War.  We don't hear about the abduction of Helen or the Trojan Horse, both events which may be rooted in history but are often believed to be mythic stories.  We don't hear about the initial volleys or early battles.  We don't even learn how the war turns out at its conclusion.

Instead, what Homer gives us is an enormously personal story of one man's emotional battles--and his personal transformation--during the course of one short episode in the war.  While Achilles was a mighty warrior, his physical strength is not at the core of the plot.  Instead, Homer focuses on his character's changing sense of rage and pain.

Achilles struggles with three kinds of rage over the course of the book:

1. Rage against Agamemnon:
       When the Greeks capture a Trojan-allied town, they enslave two women to be companions for commander-in-chief Agamemnon and his prized warrior Achilles.  When Agamemnon is forced to return his slave to her family, he claims Achilles's woman, the beautiful Briseis, as compensation.  Achilles is furious.  Some modern readers argue that his anger is rooted in real love for Briseis.  Others feel his rage is simply an expression of his wounded pride at having his reward stripped from him.  The anger of Achilles comes to such a boiling point that he refuses to reenter the battle against the Trojans until his concubine is returned.  Whether his pain is mostly from the loss of love or the loss of respect, Achilles feels his honor has been acutely insulted by Agamemnon.

2. Rage against Hector:
      While Achilles stays in his tent away from the battlefields, his beloved friend Patroclus enters the war clad in the armor of Achilles. He and the Myrmidons fight valiantly and successfully--so successfully that Apollo steps in to prevent Patroclus from gaining more honor than the gods have decreed.  Seeing this new weakness, Hector (fighting on the side of the Trojans) puts his sword through Patroclus and kills him.  Now, Achilles is drawn into the battle by his fury towards Hector (and perhaps his own shame for putting his friend's life in such danger).  Revenge rather than wounded pride motivates his rage now.

3. Rage against fate and expectations:
      Finally, Achilles must struggle against the fact that his culture casts him as a great warrior who will be sacrificed in war.  His mother Thetis, a goddess, tells Achilles that he has a choice: stay in Troy where he will be killed in the war but be remembered forever as a great hero, or go home and live a long and ordinary life.  That is, Achilles must choose between a long life that leads to anonymous death, or a death that leads to everlasting life.  In his rage at this unfair choice, he considers the option to go home without victory.  Eventually, however, Achilles comes to terms with his impending death in battle and joins the fight.

I will talk about each of these in more detail over the course of the week, as well as how Achilles comes to the point of redemption in each of these situations.  Join me as I try to make sense of how Homer is shaping our conceptions of war and humanity, as well as how he is contributing to the Great Conversation--a conversation that in many ways started with his voice.

*  *  *

Don't miss Tony's clever tribute to Homer and the Iliad.  And be sure to follow the blog posts all over the web inspired by this month's Classics Circuit theme of Ancient Greek Literature.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Lights Off--and On

My family is pleased to announce that the snow has ended and our power and internet are back on.  Having heat again is also definitely a joy, as is having a working stove.  The inability to make tea seemed to be the greatest disadvantage we faced.

Nevertheless, my family rather enjoyed our time roughing it. I love how quiet the house is when there is no hum from the laptop, the refrigerator, or the heating system.  We lit candles and sat around them, bundled in blankets and long underwear, with a kind of peace that seems absent when there are other distractions.  We cooked our dinner--hotdogs--on skewers over a roaring fire.  There are times when nothing is more delicious than what we create with only our make-do spirit.

During previous storms and power-out evenings, my family members have passed a book around and read by flickering candlelight.  This time, I pulled out my new e-reader and read aloud using the built-in light in its case.  Although I considered starting with the first lines from David Copperfield ("I was born," intoned with a southern accent in honor of Melanie from the movie version of Gone with the Wind), instead we passed around P.G. Wodehouse and laughed through the adventures of Bertie Wooster and his man Jeeves.

Our electricity is back on now.  We are warm again and drinking coffee while my partner David makes homemade clementine scones.   Power outages remind us of how important our time together is--and make us consider when technology serves us and when it does not.

What do you do during storms and power outages?  When does technology start feeling intrusive?  Do you ever take breaks where you choose to unplug?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Beginning Homer's The Iliad

A huge winter storm has knocked out power--and access to the internet--to our home.  Right now I am spending a few minutes in a local cafe which offers wifi to its customers.  All of my neighbors are here as well, charging cell phones and blackberries or typing on their laptops.  There is quite a line just for electrical outlets.  So here I sit, typing as fast as I can to put together a quick little post for this week's Book Beginnings.

For the next several posts, I'll be talking about my reactions to Homer's The Iliad. Today, I'll share with you the first lines from a variety of translations which have appeared in English over the years. I'm fascinated with how different translations can shape our emotional and intellectual responses to a given text. Consider these examples:

1. Translation by Stanley Lombardo, 1997

RAGE: Sing, Goddess, Achilles' rage,
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls
Of heroes into Hades' dark,
And left their bodies to rot as feasts
For dogs and birds, as Zeus' will was done.

2. Translation by Robert Fagles, 1990:

Rage--Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.

3. Translation by Robert Fitzgerald, 1974

Anger be now your song, immortal one,
Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,
that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss
and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,
leaving so many dead men — carrion
for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

4. Translation by Richmond Lattimore, 1951

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished.

5. Translation by Alexander Pope, 1715

The Wrath of Peleus' Son, the direful Spring
Of all the Grecian Woes, O Goddess, sing!
That Wrath which hurl'd to Pluto's gloomy
The Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
Whose Limbs unbury'd on the naked Shore
Devouring Dogs and hungry Vultures tore.
Since Great Achilles and Atrides strove,
Such was the Sov'reign Doom, and such the
      Will of Jove.

6. Translation by George Chapman, 1598-1611

(note: Chapman was a contemporary of Shakespeare and King James.  This translation was immortalized in John Keats poem "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer")

Achilles’ bane full wrath resound, O Goddesse, that imposd
Infinite sorrowes on the Greekes, and many brave soules losd
From breasts Heroique—sent them farre, to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their lims to dogs and vultures gave.
To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begunne
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike Sonne.

*  *  *

Which translation speaks to you? Why?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

"Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!"

Photo by Michael Dudley

On Tuesday evening, my family celebrated the birthday of Robert Burns, the famed 18th Century Scottish poet.  People all over the world--be they Scottish, part-Scottish, or just honorary Scottish for the night--gather together that evening to eat haggis, drink whiskey, and read poetry.  What could be better?

My family cooked a dinner of leek soup, vegetarian haggis, tatties and neeps, green beans, and shortbread. (Recipes can be found at the links.)  Although we did not have a bagpipe on hand to pipe in the haggis ceremoniously, my 11yo son played a few Scottish tunes on his fiddle.

After dinner, we read some poetry by Burns while sitting by a blazing fire.  None of us read nearly as well as this gentleman:

Address to A Haggis by Robert Burns

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Who was Homer?

Homer I
Photo by Martin Gruner Larsen

This month's Classics Circuit explores the literary productions of ancient Greece. I am thrilled to help kick off the week with a discussion of the history and context of these works.

As hard as it is to imagine a world without written language, that is exactly what Greeks experienced before texts such as the Iliad and the Odyssey came into being.  Before the Mycenaean civilization fell (in roughly the 12th century BCE), residents of area used a script called Linear B in order to write an early form of Greek.  This writing script was based on signs for syllables and on ideograms rather than on alphabetic notation.  We have discovered no stories or personal narratives written down in Linear B.  Instead, the language seems to have been used in more utilitarian ways--for record-keeping and the like.

When the Mycenaean culture was decimated, Greece was left with no written language for at least two or three hundred years.  This period, sometimes called "the Greek Dark Ages," was a time without writing but not a time without stories.  Bards traveled the land creating and refining stories of the exploits of gods and goddesses, myths and histories of war, and stories of men and women and their experiences of love.

As late as the eighth or ninth century BCE, an alphabetic writing system began to develop and spread in Greece.  Two of the texts we can date back all the way to this date are the Iliad and the Odyssey.  We know nothing about how these books were created and written down, nor do we know much about the authorship of these books.  As the old joke goes, we think these works were written by Homer--but perhaps they were written by some other Greek chap who went by the same name. 

Was Homer the poet who constructed a poem out of the storytelling tradition?  Many scholars believe so, given the two poems' connections to the traditions of oral poetry (such as repetition and stock epithets).  If the poems were composed by an oral storyteller, was he (or she, as some scholars suspect) also literate?  Did he write the poem later, or did he recite it to a scribe, slowly and in pieces as the writer scratched the words laboriously onto animal skins?  It is a process that is hard to imagine.

Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey: A Biography (Books That Changed the World)As Alberto Manguel shows in his wonderfully written and clearly argued study Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey: A Biography, the fact that  these two epics were written had profound consequences for the development of literature.  The Iliad and the Odyssey "may have been the first to take advantage of the possibilities offered by written language" including the ability to tell a much longer story, a more complex development of both plot and character, new ideas about poetry with rules to be obeyed and appreciated by the eyes as well as the ears, etc.  But perhaps most importantly, a "poem set down in writing allowed the work a wider, more generous reach," argues Manguel.  "He who received the poem no longer needed to share the poet's time and space."

Although individual scholars put forth many theories about the composer(s) and writer(s) of these two poems, we are left with a great deal of uncertainty.  As Manguel says, "It may be that Homer was born not as a man but as a symbol, the name that ancient bards gave their own art, turning a timeless activity into a legendary primordial person, into a celebrated common ancestor of all poets."

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"Nothing New Under the Sun"

Begat: The King James Bible and the English LanguageThe King James Version of the Bible is celebrating its 400th anniversary this year.  Oxford University Press has put out several books this year to acknowledge the milestone: a gorgeous and historically accurate edition of the Bible itself, a history of the King James Version by Gordon Campbell (reviewed on this blog yesterday), and a study of the impact of the KJV on the development of the English language.  The latter, David Crystal's Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language, is a fascinating and accessible study that makes a terrific pairing with Campbell's history.

David Crystal introduces his book by wondering if it is true that "no book has had a greater influence on the English language" than the King James Version of the Bible.  In an effort to answer that question, he explores the idioms in our language today which have their roots in this translation of the Bible. 

The author is quick to point out that "simply recognizing a phrase as coming from the King James ... tells us very little about the extent to which that phrase has become a part of our linguistic consciousness."  Instead, he seeks to find "expressions in daily use, where people take a piece of biblical language and use it in a totally nonbiblical context."  That is, phrases that are extremely well known but used religiously--whether it is the "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" used at funerals or a recitation of well-known lines from the Christmas story--are not idioms but quotations.  Only phrases which are "adapted to express a special (often playful) effect" separated from the original religious context count.

Not surprisingly, many of our most popular KJV-based idioms can be found in the most popular books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, and Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament (otherwise known as the Hebrew Bible), and the Gospels in the New Testament.   Crystal tracks his way through the Bible, chronologically for the Old Testament and thematically for the New, and investigates specific idioms throughout and how they have been used.  The phrase 'Adam and Eve' can be used in Cockney rhyming slang to mean 'leave' or 'believe'.  'Adam and Eve' can also refer to fried eggs on toast.  The phrase 'Be fruitful and multiply' has been used creatively to discuss everything from sales of sculpted fruit "flower" arrangements to wise nutritional choices.  The 'multiplying' has been mathematically transformed to give us 'Be fruitful and divide' (about evolution) and 'Be fruitful and subtract' (a call to have families with only one child).

One of my favorite sections is Crystal's discussion of the phrase 'Let there be light.'  He tells us about his internet explorations of such puns as 'Let there be lite' (a phrase about dieting), 'Let there be flight' (used by the airline industry), and 'Let there be night' (coined by urban astronomers bothered by the bright lights of the city).  "Google was often bemused when I searched for such strings,"  says Crystal slyly.  "Did you mean to search for 'Let there be light'?, it asked me wistfully."

Crystal concludes his study by stating that if one looks at idioms, it is clear that "no other single source has provided the language with so many idiomatic expressions."  Although most of the phrases that Crystal suggests come to us from the King James Version were also found in other translations or were known to be in usage beforehand, it was the KJV that "gave them widespread public presence" since this translation was so widely used.

Idioms, of course, are not the only way to determine the linguistic impact of a particular text.  Crystal is quick to admit that if scholars look for the number of new words admitted into our lexicon, the King James Bible falls well behind Shakespeare.  The difference, he explains, is that the Bard worked with genres of text which encouraged linguistic play, while translators of the Bible were more "linguistically conservative"--that is, more constrained by both their subject matter and their traditional theological approaches.

Success at spawning idioms and achievement at coining new words are qualities which can be more easily quantified than broader elements of language such as grammar and rhythm.  Numerically tracing the influence of deep resonances of style is nearly impossible to do, despite the fact that poets have seen the echoes of the King James Version for centuries.  As Crystal confesses, this work remains to be done as we try to understand fully how the KJV has helped to beget our English language.

Thank you very much to Oxford University Press for sharing with me a copy of this fascinating book.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Gordon Campbell's Bible

First edition King James Bible, 1611. IMG_6134.JPG
Photo by Bookchen

As I suggested in my post on Friday about various biblical translations, the King James Version of the Bible is perhaps the most important book ever published in English.  The book is extremely influential religiously, as can be seen in the translation's centrality in the development of various denominations of Christianity.  The King James Bible is also momentously significant in the development of literature throughout the English-speaking world.  For four hundred years, this text has resonated widely and shaped much of Western culture.

Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011In celebration of the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, scholar Gordon Campbell has written Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011, a history that covers not only its initial creation but its impact throughout the centuries and across English-speaking nations.

Before the spirit of the Renaissance came to England, bibles in the vernacular were almost completely unavailable.  Most preachers used Latin translations.  Only in 1583 was the first complete English translation available.  When the King James Version was published in 1611, it was printed in gothic-looking "Black Letter" font on thick folio pages, 11 inches by 16 inches.  This edition, arriving in a world of newly-expanding literacy and love of literature (as can be seen by the success of Shakespeare and Donne), was a sensation in the world of books.  The translation's traditional and poetic language alienated some readers and listeners, but its style also assured that the translation would be of lasting value.

The King James Bible was also born into a world of religious conflict.  The Church of England was at war ideologically with Puritan churches.  There were disagreements among the members of different sects about Biblical interpretation and translation.  King James I proposed the creation of a version which could unite the groups.  He assembled a group of scholars with a variety of viewpoints and charged them to work together to produce a translations both sides could accept.  Marginal notes and interpretations were removed from the final text, since they had the potential to create conflict on either side.  James I's official endorsement of this translation underlined the king's authority as the head of both church and state, increasing his own claims to power.

Campbell's study carefully traces the history of the King James translation across time and place.  I find his chapter on the history of the King James Version in America to be especially fascinating.  Pointing out that America now has one of the highest rates of church attendance in the world (while Europe has become increasingly secular), Campbell suggests that "the centre of gravity of the King James Version (KJV) has gradually moved across the Atlantic."  Although other translations are often used in the States, Campbell argues that the KJV has a special place nonetheless.  The chapter explores the version's impact in this country from the earliest days (when British embargoes encouraged American colonists to prepare their own editions) through the inauguration of Barack Obama.

Although one does not expect a history of the Bible to cause one to laugh aloud, I found myself not only giggling throughout but wanting to read aloud to my family all the funny bits.  I was especially amused while reading Campbell's catalog of typos and other errata in the early editions of the King James version.  (He acknowledges that one or two examples were perhaps sabotage rather than pure errata.)  One edition of the King James made adultery compulsory by omitting the word not in the Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt commit adultery."  Another version featured this adjustment of a verse from 1 Corinthians: "Know ye not that the unrighteous shall inherit the kingdom of God?"  And the people who set the text must have been feeling especially guilty when they recast one psalm to say that printers (rather than princes) "have persecuted me without cause."  And the stories continue.  Errata led to the Wicked Bible, the Murderer's Bible, and even a very sour Bible, where instead of grapes being turned into wine, the word vineyard is turned into vinegar.

Although laugh-out-loud anecdotes play only a small part in the book, Campbell's style is consistently smart and witty whether the author is making lighthearted remarks about pub lunches or referring us to websites selling t-shirts with the words "Real Men Use a King James Version Bible."  Academics will appreciate his scholarly rigor while more casual readers will find his book understandable and appealing.

The KJV has had an enormous impact on our current language.  Often we are complete unaware of the book's echos in our daily speech.  "When people are said to be 'at their wits' end,' for example, there is no awareness of the source of the phrase in Psalm 107:27," explains Campbell.  "Similarly, an escape by 'the skin of my teeth' no longer evokes Psalm 19:20" and "the 'salt of the earth' no longer recalls the words of Jesus at Matthew 5:13".  Even phrases like 'the writing on the wall,' 'the fly in the ointment,' and 'you can't take it with you' come from the text of this Bible.  Campbell points out that while many of these phrases were not new to the King James translation, it nevertheless served as "a conduit through which many phrases in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English have survived up to the present."

In addition to these and other particular phrases, we imitate both the formal archaic language and the distinctive rhythms of the King James in our efforts to create solemnity and a sense of wisdom.  We do this even when we do not intend to be religious.  I will explore this theme of the linguistic continuity of the King James translation more tomorrow when I review David Crystal's Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language.

In the end, Gordon Campbell argues that the linguistic importance of the King James version has been far less relevant than its emotional impact.  "It is the King James Version that has been loved by generations of those who have listened to it or read it to themselves or to others," says the author.  "Other translations may engage the mind, but the King James Version is the Bible of the heart."

*  *  *

Thank you very much to Oxford University Press for sharing with me a copy of this important book.

Note: In addition to his history of the King James version, Campbell, a professor of Renaissance Studies at Leicester University, has prepared a special anniversary edition of the King James Bible to celebrate the its anniversary.  Campbell discusses the preparation of his historically authentic edition in a brief and fascinating video

Friday, January 21, 2011

Not Yet, part 2

As I wrote on Wednesday, I don't plan to read the Bible until after I have read through the rest of the Ancients on my reading list.  Nevertheless, I thought I'd talk a little today about the various versions that are available.

For centuries, observant Jews have handwritten the words of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible onto Torah scrolls. A scribe called a sofer works carefully (and with extensive guidelines) for as long as eighteen months to complete one Torah. And this is how scrolls are created even in the 21st century.

*  *  *

For those of us who must read in English translation (and those who think it might be awkward to cuddle up on the couch with a scroll), we as readers have a great variety of choices. I've listed a few I plan to consult in my reading later this year, as well as a few I have stumbled across in my local library.

I have three editions on my shelves to which I will refer extensively when I read the Bible (after reading the other Ancients on my list):

The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Augmented Third Edition, New Revised Standard VersionThe New Revised Standard Version of the Bible emphasizes both accuracy in translation and clarity of English for the modern reader.  It is a very common Bible used in Protestant churches.  The original RSV was published in the mid-twentieth century and the revision in 1989.  The NRSV uses no archaic language (doing away with thee and thou, art and hast).  It also changes gender-neutral masculine usage to more inclusive language (such as changing the English brothers to brothers and sisters when the original text is not referring explicitly to a single-sex group).

When I was young, I read the RSV translation (sneaking it under the sheets with a flashlight and reading late into the night). The edition I had did not have the kind of supporting material provided in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Augmented Third Edition, New Revised Standard Version. I chose the third edition because of its reputation for having essays helpful to non-religious readers. From what I have heard, the newer fourth edition might be more appealing for observant Christians.  Although I plan to use this edition as support, it will not be the primary translation I will rely on this time.

The Bible: Authorized King James Version (Oxford World's Classics)Celebrating its 400th birthday this year is the King James Version of the Bible.  The first official English translation, there is no more influential book in the shaping of all the English and American literature to come.  In other words, the KJV can fall into two places in a Lifetime Reading Plan: during the Ancient period for the original Bible, and during the 17th century for the specific translation.  I'll talk a little more about this translation in the following posts.  This will be the primary translation I will read for this project.

If you have a bit of  money to spare, Oxford has just published a gorgeous edition of the King James Version to celebrate the book's anniversary.  But if you have a more limited book budget, try the incredibly affordable (and easier to hold) Oxford Paperback, The Bible: Authorized King James Version.

The Jewish Bible: Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures--The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text: Torah * Nevi'im * Kethuvim Another major version of the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) to which I will sometimes refer is the translation put out by the Jewish Publication Society, published in 1985.  This Tanakh (the traditional Jewish way of referring to the Bible) is translated directly from Hebrew rather than using a prior English translation.  The version strives to be both modern in sound and faithful in its translation of Hebrew.

Because it comes out of an interdenominational team of Jewish scholars,
The JPS Tanakh differs substantially from more Christian texts.  The assumptions of different theologies affects not only commentary but occasionally translation itself.

*  *  *

Two other Jewish translations of the first five books of the Bible have received tremendous reviews.  I'll  be referring to library copies on occasion.

The Everett Fox translation attempts to capture the rhythm and poetry of the Hebrew original, creating an English text that echos with a sound very different from the versions we may be used to from the RSV or KJV.  Characters retain their Hebrew names ("Moshe and Aharon" instead of "Moses and Aaron," for example) and the imagery comes from literal translation.  In addition, the work is known for the strength of its notes and commentary.

The Robert Alter version of the Torah is also praised for its extensive notes and commentary.  Alter emphasizes close translation, thinking through the complexities of the Hebrew and calling the English reader's attention to nuances of meaning as well as literary effects of the Hebrew text.  In doing so, he recalls features of the Bible that we miss in other translations.  Alter also has a new translation of The Book of Psalms which has received excellent reviews.

*  *  *

Genesis: New Translation of the Classic Bible Stories, AStephen Mitchell, the scholar who put together the wonderful edition of Gilgamesh that I've just read, has produced versions of several chapters of the Bible. I'll be looking at his Genesis, his editions of The Book of Job, Psalms, and his Gospel According to Jesus: A New Translation and Guide to His Essential Teachings for Believers and Unbelievers.

One of Mitchell's goals is to tease out what he believes to be authentic from what he believes to be doctrinal reshaping of the text over the centuries.  I'll discuss the ways in which he succeeds and fails (as well as how controversial his approach is) when I get to this point in my project

Another goal the author has is to make the Biblical text relevant and meaningful in today's world.  Although he uses methods that make some critics' hair stand on in, his efforts are both fruitful and fascinating.

*  *  *

Stephen Mitchell's efforts to make the Bible relevant in today's world seem tame compared to some other attempts to modernize it.  I was fascinated to run across a couple of other very respectful graphic forms of the text:

The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb The Book of Genesis as illustrated by R. Crumb is stunning.  Using the full text of Genesis (inspired by both the King James Version and by the Alter translation), Crumb produces a graphic volume that is completely respectful both to religious readers and to the text itself.  His intense contemporary art--comic book style that is in no way comic here--brings new resonances to the text and pulls out themes that are sometimes not emphasized in more traditional translations despite the fact that they are in the text (especially themes of sex and violence).  As an NPR reviewer stated, "It’s a cartoonist’s equivalent of the Sistine Chapel. It’s awesome."

* * *

The Wolverton Bible Another illustrated edition is The Wolverton Bible, drawn by legendary cartoonist Basil Wolverton in the 1960s and 1970s and compiled recently by his son.  In some ways similar to Crumb's version of Genesis, Wolverton uses his contemporary style of comic art to emphasize the violence and intensity of the Bible.  But unlike the Crumb edition, this is not a complete text.  And unlike Crumb, Wolverton was a devout Christian.  In fact, the drawings were made for the Worldwide Church of God publications.

*  *  *

Finally, I want to mention one series of books which, although aiming at contemporary relevance, are not quite as respectful as the works by Crumb and Wolverton.  Nevertheless, the illustrations had me both engaged and amused.  The illustrations are the ones to be found in the Brick Testament.

The Brick Testament: The Ten CommandmentsIllustrator Brendan Powell Smith claims that while having his lunch in the local Taco Bell, his "bean burrito burst into flames" and he was commanded by God to illustrate the entire Bible, completely in LEGO.  Paralleling Moses's hesitation when God called him to service, Smith responded to the deity, "I am but a simple man with no special talent for building with plastic bricks."  When that did not work, he pointed out that he was an atheist.  Nevertheless, God pressed on--or so says Smith.  The artist has now produced Stories from the Book of Genesis as well as The Ten Commandments and The Story of Christmas.  Although Smith's tone in the introduction is snarkily comic--and it is hard not to laugh when you're looking at Noah's Ark and a pair of giraffes made entirely out of little cubes of interconnecting plastic--the text is a respectful abridgment of the traditional Bible and the illustrations are completely true to the original stories.  (I must say the binding of Isaac looks remarkably like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark crossed with The Princess Bride, though!)

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