Author: Scott O’Dell
Illustrator: There are illustrations; the illustrator isn’t named that I can see
Publication Date: 1975
Audience: 12 years and up
Summary: In the early 15th C the port of London, where Tom Barton and his Uncle Jack dock the Black Pearl, is filled with “Searchers” like Herbert Belsey who report smugglers to the Crown and informers like Henry Phillips who report heresy to both Crown and Church. Despite the dangers, the Black Pearl carries a mixed cargo, some legal, some contraband, the most lucrative and dangerous being tracts by Martin Luther. Looking for a market for these, Tom, who narrates this story, seeks out William Tyndale, a scholar and chaplain, as a possible buyer and begins a friendship that will change his life. Tyndale is translating the New Testament into English from Greek, a crime in England, and he asks for passage to the continent where there is more freedom for this activity. There are also printing presses in Germany. Uncle Jack grants the request on condition that his ship will smuggle 5,000 of these New Testaments to England when Tyndale’s work is complete. Tyndale, wanting everyone to read the Bible, begins to teach Tom to read using 1st Cor. 13 as they sail to Hamburg. Tyndale hides in Europe from agents of Church and Crown and completes the New Testament in 1525. The pages being printed in Cologne are almost seized but Tom manages to conceal them in barrels within barrels of wine and transports them to the ship. While the translations are being sold in England, Tyndale continues his work, studying Hebrew, translating parts of the Old Testament, revising the New, and ministering to exiles that have fled England because of religious persecution. Tom stays in contact with Tyndale whenever he lands in a European port and can finally tell him with joy and pride that he can now read the entire New Testament. Tyndale, eventually betrayed by Henry Phillips who has posed as his friend, is tried, convicted of heresy, strangled and burned in Holland in 1536. Tom finds Phillips in order to avenge Tyndale’s death but the example of his friend and the words of his Testament restrain him.
Literary elements at work in the story: Newbury award winter Scott O’Dell brings complex and turbulent 16th C Europe and the Reformation to life as the backdrop for the work of William Tyndale. It was a harsh time with smuggling, plague, intolerance, ignorance and persecution. All of the characters mentioned are historical persons except for Tom and his uncle and the letter from Tyndale in prison in Ch. 38 is verbatim. Through Tom’s growing perception Tyndale emerges as a courageous, compassionate, gifted linguist determined that “every plowboy read the Bible in his own language.” There is a real advantage in meeting Tyndale through the eyes of a contemporary, even a fictional one, for the reader has both a credible picture of the man and his effect on the narrator and others. This is an exciting story, compellingly told, full of courage, peril, spies, pursuit, and uncertainty about who is friend or foe.
How does the perspective on gender/race/culture/economics/ability make a difference to the story? Tyndale made the famous remark about providing every plowboy with a Bible to read. It may rank as sexist today but in the 16th C, when only clergy read the Bible in Latin, it was remarkable for its expansive vision.
Theological Conversation Partners: Tyndale’s was not the first translation of the New Testament in English but his was the first translation from Greek and the first produced in quantity by the printing press. His dying prayer, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes,” was answered within four years of his death when several translations appeared with royal approval. All of these, including the King James or Authorized Version, translated less than a century later, relied on Tyndale’s work. More than 80% of the King James Version of the New Testament comes from Tyndale. With a Bible in every American hotel room, it’s difficult to return to a time when there were few Bibles in English and death was the penalty for owning one. Yet Tyndale, ignoring danger, was determined to provide common people with the scriptures in their everyday language. The Hawk offers a good opportunity to discuss the place of the Bible in the lives of individuals and the church. The Study Catechism published in 1998, Questions #55-59, may be a helpful resource. There’s a significant exchange at the end of Ch. 28 in which Tyndale is encouraging Tom to read the New Testament. He asks Tom to visit the exiles that are poor and need help since he will be gone. Tom promises to read the New Testament but won’t promise to visit the exiles as Tyndale does. Tyndale says, “If you read the Testament, you will make the visits.” Tyndale’s own life and ministry is a testimony to the impact the Bible has on a life. Isaiah 55:10-13 is a stirring affirmation about God’s Word. This could be an occasion to examine the many translations of English Bibles you may have on hand. Translation may be a new concept and merits some discussion.
Faith Talk Questions:
- Imagine a world without electronic or printed media. Mentally remove all the books and computers from your home. There is little reason for you to learn to read and there are no schools. What would your life be like? What would you miss?
- Do you own a Bible? How many Bibles are in your home.? In your church? Are they all in English? (or the language that you speak?) Are they all the same translation?
- Imagine that you will be killed if a Bible is found in your home. What would you do?
- Why is Uncle Jack eager to transport the New Testament to England?
- Do you think Uncle Jack is sincere in praising God? What actions make you doubt this?
- How are people who read Luther’s tracts treated?
- Do you think Tom’s motives for smuggling the New Testament change?
- What influence did Tyndale have on Tom’s life? What actions show this?
- Why was Tyndale determined to translate the Bible?
- What impact did Tyndale have on the history of the church?
- What picture do you have of Tyndale from Tom’s descriptions?
- Explain the title of the book.
- Martin Luther is one of the Cloud of Witnesses. How did he affect Tyndale and Tom?
This last review in our Biography series is written by regular contributor Virginia Thomas.