Dot writes: Jake’s naming ceremony made me think what book one should give to mark such a significant event in his life. Perhaps we can get some reader comments on this one. If you had to choose a book that would be a cultural treasure, a source of mental and spiritual nourishment or imaginative delight, a representative of the literary heritage a boy could grow up with and grow into, what would you choose? Some suggestions:
The Bible – but this was an expressly secular ceremony so I thought it would be tactless, even though it lies at the heart of so much of Western culture.
Beowulf – as an Anglo-Saxonist I would obviously vote for the first great poem in English! I’d have to choose a translation, though; it would be a bit much to expect Jake to learn OE just to please someone his mum met at yoga. I’d go for Seamus Heaney’s version, even though a lot of Anglo-Saxonists hate it, because it is a cultural monument in its own right.
Malory’s Works – in Vinaver’s modernised spelling this is surprisingly accessible; and the stories of King Arthur have everything – love, treachery, power, passion, humour, magic, castles and the wilderness, nobility sharpened by loss. Malory’s is actually one of the later medieval Arthurian cycles, and although it’s extremely long it is a stripped-down Arthur, tough and simple in its telling.
Milton, Paradise Lost – I first read this embarrassingly late: in fact I read it to teach it to second-year undergraduates. I couldn’t believe I’d missed it up until then, but I think it is one of those works it’s good to read in a disciplined way, with opportunities for discussion. It is extremely intellectually rich and the language has a peculiar quality all its own.
Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings – some people really hate Tolkien, so I wouldn’t in fact choose this as a naming ceremony gift for fear of coming up against parental hostility. However, the droves of imitators have obscured what an original, complex and thoroughly-considered piece of literature this is. It’s odd that a book that was voted Book of the Century should be in some ways so reactionary: it is a book that looks back to our cultural past in its borrowings from medieval literature, and it is full of people looking back to their own past and facing up to irreparable losses. But you could say the same about The Waste Land. In fact you could make a surprisingly good case for LOTR as the best-selling modernist novel; for example, what other writer gets such energy out of the sheer thingness and crunch of words? – how about James Joyce?
P.S. What we actually gave Jake was a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Some cultural treasures come in lockets not chests.