Glimpses of Truth
What Chaucer is to English poetry, Wycliffe is to English prose. So many say, and it is probably a reasonably valid statement. These two men, in roughly the same time frame, began a growth spurt in the English language that culminated a couple of centuries later in the days of Shakespeare and King James.
But there is a real difference between Wycliffe and Chaucer. Chaucer was primarily an entertainer. To him, language was much more than just a tool — he seemed to love it for its own sake. So is the life of a poet. But for Wycliffe, language was more the vehicle for ideas, with expression of those concepts being of primary importance. Where language became important to Wycliffe was in his certainty that the Christian message should be made available to everyone in his or her own tongue. And so, he began the work for which he is most known, the work of translating the Bible into English.
Jack Cavanaugh's novels tell the stories of the men and women who, like Wycliffe, fought the edicts of the church in order to distribute the Bibles translated into the English language. Wycliffe was the first spark in this movement that lasted for a long time, often being called "the morning star of the Reformation." His intention was to reform the church from within, something that only came to fruition two hundred years after his death.
In Cavanaugh's first installment of The Book of Books series, Glimpses of Truth, we get a brief look at the man himself, John Wycliffe. But the story is not his, per se. Rather it follows the twists and turns in the life of Thomas Torr, one of Wycliffe's followers, a young lad who faces great opposition from the church in Rome. Thomas is torn between his desire to do great things for church and nation, and his desire to live a quiet life with the woman he loves, Felice. The unfolding of his personal story gives us a good look at the events that went on as the Dark Ages came to an end and we moved into the Early Modern period in England.
Only the more famous characters in the story — kings, Popes, and John Wycliffe himself — are actual historical figures. The rest are set up to give us a feel for what the times were for those who lived them. Thomas and those in his immediate circle give us a good picture of what life might have been like for peasants. Those circling around, more on the periphery, give us some insight into the movements of nobility, politicians, and the clergy of the day. The glances we have into the scriptorium, the manors, and so forth, present a realistic picture of what we might have experienced, had we lived in the days when Wycliffe was pushing for acceptance of his translation.
On an interesting note, the Wycliffe translation is not the scriptures that are quoted in Cavanaugh's novel, when we get snippets of text from the English Bible. Rather, he uses the King James Version. This is probably a good choice, as use of the KJV serves to familiarize it, drawing the quotations near to us, especially when juxtaposed to the Latin bits. Had Cavanaugh used Wycliffe's translation, we would have ended up with a text still very foreign to our ears, such as, "For they show of you, what manner entry we had to you, and how ye be converted to God from simulacra, to serve to the living God and very; and for to abide his son from heavens, whom he raised from dead, Jesus, that delivered us from wrath to come" (1 Thess. 1:9-10). Not exactly the English we know. And even in its day, it was not particularly close to the spoken language, as it follows Latin grammar. All the same, it was an important step in the development of the Bible in English.
Glimpses of Truth gives a good deal of insight into that development. It treats with respect the work done by the early translators and "pre-Reformers." Even with their faults and follies, these men and women are to be commended for their work, and this novel does a nice job of recognizing, acknowledging, and appreciating those who went before, making life easier for us today.
Reviewed by Shelly Bryant © 2010
Read more about John Wyclliffe and his translation of the Bible into English