No this isn't (cheap shot coming) another post about teenagers. I was in church on Sunday and we sang He Who Would Valiant Be. This is a hymn I have not sung for years, but I was pretty certain I remembered it from my childhood.
Well, I sort of did: what I actually remembered, I found out in a bit of post-church research, after being thoroughly confused by the complete absence of the hobgoblins and foul fiends I was convinced should have been there, was the original by John Bunyan: Who Would True Valour See, rather a different beast to the 1906 version by Percy Dearmer which is all we're now allowed. The two different versions are given here.
This disconnect between what I think should be there and what actually is happens quite often. "Oh good," I think, as the organ starts the next hymn. And off I launch, only to find that as I am often singing from memory, I'm not singing quite what I am now supposed to. Complete Anglican Hymns Old and New, which is the hymnbook we use, is not the worst offender here by a very long way. The previous Anglican hymnbook butchered Be Thou My Vision, turning it into You Be My Vision, thereby replacing the flow of the original with the aural equivalent of being hit by a brick. Thankfully this appalling revision has been consigned to whatever circle of Hell is reserved for these foul efforts dredged from the souls of those who like to massacre perfectly decent hymns in the names of relevance and modernity.
For far, far more on this butchering of tradition, see this wonderful blog.
When I was at primary school, we used to sing hymns from huge flipover charts hung from the wall. As I think most children are if given the chance, we were hugely enthusastic singers, and at the end of every school year we would vote on our favourite hymns. Who Would True Valour See was always one of the favourites, along with When a Knight Won His Spurs and Oh Jesus I Have Promised. What appealed to me, and I suppose most of us if you go by what made the top slots, was the strength of the imagery: knights and spurs, and the hobgoblins, and the lion: all good swashbuckling stuff, combined with a thumping good tune.
The hymns I remember best from childhood are the ones where I saw the images most clearly. I could see a pilgrim fighting for his God; and the green hill without a city wall, and the buttercups which were our gold, and the daisies our silver.
The Anglican church every now and then gets an attack of relevance. We must, they think, make hymns/prayers/services relevant for today's people. To some extent I agree with that: it is a big help if you have at least a faint idea what you're singing or reciting means: but the inaccessibility of the language did not trouble me or my friends when we were young. I think children often don't have an exact understanding of everything they read, but they can still see something of the power and beauty of what is there, and respond to it.
Here is a version of Who Would True Valour See, by Maddy Prior. I hadn't heard it before I did a Youtube search to illustrate this post. I love it. It's not sung as I sing it now; all straightlaced Anglican choir, but with the passion and verve of childhood.