Thursday, May 06, 2010

weekly writing coach: the grandness of simple words

I've started my summer reading with Philip Pullman's contrariwise novel, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, a retelling of the Bible that is getting noticed as much for its plain language as for the conceit of the novel (that there were two brothers, one named Jesus and one named Christ).  One reviewer said the tone was as if someone were conversationally telling you a story.  The language is spare, especially for Pullman, and compared to many versions of the Bible.

It reminds me of a book I first picked up in college, John Steinbeck's retelling of the Winchester manuscripts of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, as The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights.  A true work of scholarship and a story well told in clear, modern English, this Arthur lost none of the excitement and gained loads of clarity.  (Dramatically, it ends abruptly in the middle of Guinevere and Lancelot's betrayal of Arthur, at the point where Steinbeck died before completing the manuscript.)  Steinbeck writes in the foreword of how much he loved the old language in this book, turning each word over on his tongue, and yet he carved from it a thoroughly modern voice.

Since I spend a lot of time helping scientists and science communicators unravel technical language in a long search for clarity, it occurs to me that these two books offer a different version of that exercise. They're all about the word choices.  You might turn to either of these this summer as examples of how to write simply and well.  And humor me while I show you a sample of what Steinbeck did with his dedication to his sister, which he first wrote in Malory's language, and then in ours:

Whan of IX wyntre age
I toke siege wyth King Arthurs felyship emonge knyghtes
most orgulus and worshyppful as ony on lyve
In thos dayes grate lack was of sqyres of hardynesse and noble
herte to bere shylde and glayve to bockle harnyss and succoure
woundid knyghtes
Than yit chaunced that squyre lyke dutyes fell to my systir of
vi wyntre age that for jantyl prouesse had no felawe lyvynge
Yt haps somtymes in saddnesse and pytie that who faythful servys
ys not faythful sene so my fayre and sikker systir squyre dures
yet undubbed
Wherefore thys daye I mak amendys to my power and rayse
hir knyghte and gyff her loudis
And fro thys hower she shall be hyght Syr Mayrie Stynebec
of the Vayle Salynis
God gyvve hir worshypp saunz jaupardye

Jehan Stynebec de Montray

The translation:

When I was nine, I took siege with King Arthur's fellowship of knights most proud and worshipful as any alive.
In those days there was a great lack of hardy and noble-hearted squires to bear shield and sword, to buckle harness, and to succor wounded knights.
Then it chanced that squire-like duties fell to my sister of six years, who for gentle prowess had no peer living.
It sometimes happens in sadness and pity that faithful service is not appreciated, so my fair and loyal sister remained unrecognized as squire.
Wherefore this day I make amends within my power and raise her to knighthood and give her praise.
And from this hour she shall be called Sir Marie Steinbeck of Salinas Valley.
God give her worship without peril.

John Steinbeck of Monterey

1 comment:

Tammi Kibler said...

I love Steinbeck's rewrite of Mallory. So sad to have only a partial manuscript.

There's a lesson to all of us to start now with the hope that we do not die with our magic only half expressed.

I will check out Pullman's novel. The premise sounds interesting.