Criticism: The Book of Mormon as epic

Dave has some interesting thoughts over at Mormon Inquiry on the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf and the Book of Mormon — specifically the oral transmission aspect to both works. He ends with: “Would that someone like Seamus Heaney would come along and translate the Book of Mormon from its rather dated rendition of the King’s English into modern verse!”

The problem, of course, is that we don’t have a source text to work with. Yes, there are poets who have “translated” works without the source text, but any attempt with the Book of Mormon to reach behind Joseph Smith’s mixture of 19th century Protestant discourse mixed with the language of the King James edition of the Bible must needs rely on non-Nephite/Lamanite sources for inspiration in re-casting the text. Interestingly enough, as Justin Butterfield mentions, a BYU professor has attempted to do just that.

Peter J. Sorensen, associate professor of English at BYU, has written a work he calls the Mormoniad. In a paper he presented at the 2002 annual meeting of the Association for Mormon Letters, Sorenson discussed his project and read a few samples from the work. I can’t do justice to the paper — which can be found in the AML Annual 2003 — but I will share some higlights.

First: Sorensen begins with the premise that the Book of Mormon is not a literary work (although it contains literary elements) — nor was it intended to be. It’s true, but it’s a work intended to teach doctrine and so lacks poetic elements, esp. the “concrete images of great literature” (22). He even mentions something I brought up on a Mormon Metaphysics post on translation — that even though chiasmus appears to be present in the text, there’s no way of knowing if chiasmus is present in the original text (I should have known that somebody already had made that point). What’s more, Sorenson reminds us that chiastic language isn’t necessarily “beautiful” (i.e. has literary value) simply because it is chiastic.

Second: Sorensen decided to recast the Book of Mormon as an epic, drawing upon Milton, Homer, Virgil, the Old Testament and Jewish texts and commentaries.

Third: He draws upon the basic narrative of the Book of Mormon, but in writing the Mormoniad he adds quite a bit of material, speeches, narratives, psalms, etc. For example, he adds several paragraphs on the Ark of the Covenant to frame the section in 1 Nephi about the appearance of the Liahona. In doing so, he follows the model of Milton’s Paradise Lost which takes a few chapters from the Old Testament and interpolates all sorts of actions and dialogues.

Fourth: He uses diction and syntax that is specifically 17th century English (as opposed to Joseph Smith’s use of a mix of 17th and 19th century English), reasoning that that is the type of discourse that rings as “epic” for most readers.

Fifth: He sees Jehovah (Yahweh, the pre-mortal Jesus) as the central hero of the Book of Mormon and the narrative as what happens “when mortals pit their wits against Yahweh’s” (25). He writes: “The tribes of the Book of Mormon, like the Trojans and Achaeans, too easily forget the covenants made with gods, usually in favor of battling others in the name of extendend family pride” (25).

In all, I’d say that Sorensen makes a compelling case for his approach to re-writing the Book of Mormon as epic (he considers it in the form we know and love to be a “proto-epic”). But is the Mormoniad any good? I don’t know. It’s hard to tell as he only quotes a few passages — and they’re from different sections of the work so I don’t have a feel for how it all works together. I can say that it still seems like the sort of thing that would have a very limited audience. I’m a fairly sympathetic reader — and probably much more sympathetic than most readers when it comes to pre-19th century texts — and even I have a hard time getting into the language and tone of the piece.

Here’s an excerpt, you decide:

“(xv)When on the morrow Lehi saw the sun in the east, and morning had risen, he came forth from his tent to praise God for the new day, and Behold! A ball of curious workmanship, of finest bronze, set with precious stones: rubies, diamonds, and emeralds. And within the ball two spindles, pointing. Now by means of this globe, called Liahona, that is, the path ahead, were Lehi and his tribe led into the wilderness, and from thence to the sea, and from the sea to the new land of promise (for that Lehi knew the judgement and doom of Jerusalem, which had been Yahweh his crown’s roayl diadem). And they carried their tents, their food, and seed of every kind.”

ALSO: Sorensen mentions in one of his footnotes another attempt at a Book of Mormon epic — Orson Scott Card and Stephen King scholar Michael Collings’ The Nephiad: An Epic Poem in Twelve Books. I don’t know anything about this work. Although I do seem to remember reading either a selection from this work or an “epic-like” poem on Joseph Smith by Collings that appeared in an early issue of Irreantum.

RELATED: Getting back to Dave’s original point about the Book of Mormon and readability. Check out Kim Siever’s post on Our Thoughts about a reader’s edition of the Book of Mormon prepared by Grant Hardy, chair of the history department at UNC Asheville. Of note, the reader’s edition puts the poetry in the text into poetic form (i.e. adds line breaks), indents quoted text and italicises biblical prophecies.

SOURCE: Peter J. Sorensen. “Mormoniad: The Book of Mormn as Proto-Epic.” AML Annual 2003. Ed. LAvinia Fielding Anderson. Pages 21-33. Association for Mormon Letters: Provo, 2003.

5 thoughts on “Criticism: The Book of Mormon as epic”

  1. Thanks, William, for your interesting post. Yes, Sorensen’s work is the one I read. Back in the late 1990s, I read the poem and offered written comments and suggestions. That was the end of my involvement (I don’t know his response, if any, to my comments).

    Another epic poem I am aware of is Paul Cracroft’s _A Certain Testimony: A Mormon Epic_. Salt Lake City: Epic West, 1979. I have only read excerpts. I believe the poem covers the creation of the world, events leading up to the Tower of Babel, the Jaredite civilization, the Nephite civilization, and the Restoration up to Joseph Fielding Smith’s time as president of the church.

    Justin Butterfield

  2. As long as you are collecting bibliographic info, you should note there is an “Easy to Read Book of Mormon” by Lynn Matthews Anderson, published in 1995. My local library has a copy. I checked it out and read a chapter or two to the kids at home evening–they couldn’t stop laughing. I kind of enjoyed it in a gentler way myself, although I understand why kids (well attuned to accent, dialect, and jargon) would find it a hoot. It starts out something like “My name is Nephi, and I had nice parents who taught me how to read.”

  3. Well, since there are no new posts, I’ll just leave another comment here. I was rather surprised, actually, that my “Beowulf” post got so many comments. Who’d a thunk it? This suggests Bloggernackers are just a bit more literate than your average Mormon.

  4. Peter Sorensen to William Morris of “A Motley Vision”:
    Your publication of my views on my epic Mormoniad was flattering and very helpful, with two other writers responding to me on e-mail after reading what you culled from my AML talk.

    The epic is indeed finished, though I have to finish the project of annotating it. The publishers’ reception has been a tad cold–one group was “uncomfortable” with it, and others concluded that there was no market for a book like this. I still think enough people value the literary quality of the KJV Old Testament that I could sell enough copies to do more than break even.

    I love the Book of Mormon enough that I don’t want to demean it by making false claims about its literary merits. Any twelve-year-old can tell you it’s boring, and maybe why it is. But it is an epic in embryo, waiting for the right poets to unlock its fiery fragments of image, tone, and power.

    The Book of Mormon is great because it is simple. Theologirans and literature professors will never make the Book of Mormon true; but they can weaken its miraculous provenance by insisting it is a work of art, not a rustic translation by a young man with a third-grade education.

    The Mormoniad is, I hope, the proof of my thesis concerning our scripture’s utterly guileless message.
    Thanks again.

    Peter J. Sorensen

  5. Your welcome and thanks for the update, Peter.

    Sadly, I’m not surprised by the reaction of the publishers you approached. While I agree that the market for your work would be limited, I’m dismayed by the lack of LDS publishers willing to publish literary fiction and poetry. Signature does 2-3 creative works a year, but other than that…

    And as much as I enjoy Irreantum, I maintain the standard English major bias towards long-form works [although I’m much more into short stories and novellas than most].

    [NOTE: That actually may change if Mormon Arts and Letters remains viable and is able to expand its efforts.]

    By the way: I love the phrase “rustic translation.” I suppose that there are those who would be offended by such a characterization, but as you continually point out, it doesn’t change the truth-fulness of it — “guileless” is another great word. To me JS’s discourse is fascinating and powerful because of its rustic blend of 19th century discourse and the language of the KJV.

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