English Literature and Language, a Religious Debt

English Literature and Language, a Religious Debt

As part of this month’s GBC theme; interfaith, we have been looking to celebrate the collective positive influences of the different religions that are part of British life. So what is more British than our literature and language? There might even be a few surprises; words and phrases that you didn’t even know were first composed in religious texts. And don’t worry, this won’t be an essay about ‘The Da Vinci Code’.

Remembering The Classics

An image from Jack and the Beanstalk
Jack and the Beanstalk

So many modern narratives that cover not just literature but also script and narrative in film, theatre and television have their roots in stories from religious texts. From that first time you were read Jack and the Beanstalk as a child to sitting down for that epic ‘Rocky’ marathon with your mates you are at the debt of David and Goliath. Possibly one of the most famous stories from the bible whose trope of ‘little guy beating the big guy against all odds’ has been reused a thousand times. (You’ve also probably heard the phrase being brought out during a few classic boxing matches)

Islam and The Canterbury Tales

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is often noted as a cornerstone of English literature and the development of the English language, yet it might surprise you to know that it has a history of Islamic influence. Chaucer makes note in the prologue to the tales of a number of famous Muslim scientists and philosophers. He uses Arabic terms, implying he had a basic grasp of the written language.

Muslim scholars have also noted the similarities in the structure and composition of The Canterbury Tales and 1001 Nights (Arabian Nights). The framing of the tales has parallels, as well as some specifics, such as the flying brass horse in the Squire’s Tale. Written during the Islamic Golden Age, the collection of stories in 1001 nights has influenced many of the behemoths of British Literature from Dickens to Wordsworth.

King James Bible

The King James Bible is often referenced as one of the most important works of literature in the English language, on a par with the works of Shakespeare and the Oxford English Dictionary. Not only has it, obviously, been hugely influential to millions of people, and the history of Britain. But also stands alone from its religious significance, as a work of literature and the source of a huge amount of now common words and idioms.

An image of text from the Bible
The Holy Bible

If you have ever been said to suffer from a broken heart, worked on something that was a labour of love, gotten away with something by the skin of your teeth, noted something was a sign of the times, described something as white as snow, if you have ever been the one to cast the first stone, had a fall from grace, had someone put words in your mouth, been irritated by the fly in the ointment or known that the writing is on the wall then you owe a debt to the literature of The Bible.

20th Century Classics: ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust …’

T.S Eliot’s (born American but naturalised as a British Subject in 1927) ‘The Wasteland’ has been described by former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion as ‘one of the most important poems of the 20th century’. It is known, in part, for its diverse range of literary and cultural references and influences. You can look to the repetition of the Hindu peace mantra in Sanskrit ‘Shanti Shanti Shanti’ throughout the poem for one of these religious influences.

Parts of the poem are a reference themselves to another work; ‘The Rape of the Lock’. A mock heroic poem devised around a feud between two catholic families during a ban on Catholicism in England.

The Problem Play

An image of Claudio and Isabella from Measure to Measure
Claudio and Isabella from Measure to Measure

It is not just the reusing of language and narrative that defines the influence of religion in our literary history. The national atmosphere and influence of religion on the author can also have a profound impact that defines how we read their work. A classic example of this is the writings of William Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Religion is a constant theme in many of his works, despite the danger that this involved. Shakespeare wrote during a time of oppression for the Catholic Church, and there is constant debate around his own affiliations, with many arguing that despite the risk he was secretly Catholic.

In plays such as Measure for Measure his characters often engage in morally dubious actions despite their christian faith, something that would have taken guts to write at the time. As readers we should always be reminding ourselves of quite how serious the consequences of insulting religious bodies could be for the individual.

A Literary Heritage

What we speak and read everyday has a strong debt and legacy in many different religious texts and culture (not just Christianity!.. though of course that is one of the stronger influences in the history of English literature). Regardless of our individual relationships with religions, it is important to remember and celebrate their wide ranging cultural impacts.

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