The King James Bible has long been established as the best literary work ever written by a committee, and Adam Nicolson has set himself the agreeable task of finding out how this masterpiece came to be. He enjoyed the inquiry, and communicates his pleasure to the reader. This is an easygoing, companionable exploration of Elizabethan and Jacobean England, and of the circumstances that prompted King James, in 1604 at the Hampton Court Conference, to set up the machinery for this new translation. Power and Glory does not claim to be a work of original scholarship, and Nicolson generously acknowledges those who have gone before him. He pays particular tribute to the labours of the pioneer Americans E E Willoughby, Ward Allen and Gustavus Paine, who in the 1950s rediscovered in Oxford ("the king's favourite place in England") papers that trace "the very heart of the process" of this celebrated collaboration. But he adds to the story something that is peculiarly his own. He manages to take this wordy textual subject outdoors, and give it a breath of the open air.
Nicolson, like that other biblical enthusiast George Borrow, is best known for his writings about landscape and place. He is a walker, a man with a love of the land. And here the illumination of that love keeps breaking through. In the second chapter, entitled "The Multitudes of People Covered the Beautie of the Fields", he gives us a delightful description of the London that King James found when he first arrived from Scotland on his royal progress: a London of foxtailed grass and meadow saxifrage and marsh woundwort and "the little yellow-spired herb called pennywort, a native of rocks and cliffs, now found only in Cornwall and the far west", which then grew over the door of Westminster Abbey. Pennywort even appears in the index, and quite right, too. Perhaps more pertinently, the description of Hatfield House, that emblematic masterpiece of Jacobean architecture, is so vivid that it makes the reader long to rush off there at once and see it through his eyes.
This is an eccentric book, showing many quirks and prejudices, some of which may enrage the purist, but are more likely to delight the general reader, for whom it was written. For example, Nicolson has an unusual attitude - not quite a grudge, but verging that way - towards the celebrated divine and preacher Lancelot Andrewes, director of the First Westminster Company of Translators, the group in charge of Genesis to Kings II. Andrewes emerges here as pious, greedy, cruel and cowardly, a challenging portrayal to those brought up to admire his fine prose. The boldly partisan spirit in which Nicolson denounces as "despicable" the conduct of Andrewes towards the separatist martyr Henry Barrow is exhilarating. Writing fine prose, Nicolson reminds us, does not necessarily make a good man.
Nicolson's own prose is eccentric; he shows a marked partiality for the "beautiful" word "irenic", which, by the end of the volume, we know to be connected with Greek peace rather than Roman wrath. But he writes well enough of the majestic cadences of the Authorised Version, and of the manner of their composition, which involved testing by ear as well as by eye. "Endless conversation and consultation," he tells us, "flowed across the final judging committee." He offers a vivid picture of this disparate group of scholars meeting, talking, comparing notes and reading aloud together. He pays respect to the one-man monument of Tyndale and to the Geneva Bible, and quotes some of the celebrated improvements of musical enrichment in the King James, but he also acknowledges that the King James is full of phrases that were archaic even when they were introduced. The age, he said, had "word inflation built into it": the sermons of Lancelot Andrewes were wordy and contorted, saying much about little, and he describes a general Jacobean tendency towards adding phrases for sound not sense. No wonder, then, that another committee was eventually appointed in 1947 to work on the New English Bible, a translation which is generally derided by the literary world, but is nevertheless not without merit.
It all depends on what you think the Bible is for. The King James Bible is held in special reverence by many who have little or no religious faith, but who find its resonances dignified and comforting. Like Shakespeare, it sounds well. But is it to be relied upon? We will all have our own testing places: I happened to look up the deeply familiar 23rd Psalm, which in King James ends with the reassurance that "I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever". Spurred by Nicolson, I checked this in the earlier Geneva Bible, which promises only that "I shall remain a long season in the house of the Lord". This seeming a somewhat different proposition, I took myself to the NEB, which tells me that I will dwell in the Lord's house "my whole life long". This did not make things much clearer. Which life? This life, or the afterlife? It is all very confusing. There is, in theory, though not perhaps in practice, a big difference between "a long season" and "for ever" and "my whole life long". It is true that "for ever" sounds much, much better, just as it is grander to say "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" than to say "Greater love than this hath no man, than that a man bestow his life for his friends." But can we trust the Lord to be our shepherd? What kind of contract is on offer here?
Nicolson takes one back to the Bible with a fresh eye and ear, which is not easily done these days. He is also a fine narrator, and saves his best moment until the last page. It would be wrong to reveal his moving and magnificent denouement, but not improper to divulge that, in true Nicolson style, his quest ends not in a committee room, but in a graveyard on the west coast of Harris, in the Outer Hebrides. Once more, he makes the reader long to follow in his footsteps.
Margaret Drabble's latest novel, The Seven Sisters, is out in paperback from Penguin on 5 June