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J.R.R. Tolkien’s Bible translation is basis of new comic book version of Jonah story

Jonah's Voyage to Atlantis
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Aleteia writer Philip Kosloski pens account of Old Testament hero and his journey to a legendary city.

The ancient city of Nineveh is under the spell of a malevolent demon who thirsts for souls. In an effort to liberate the people from the evil darkness that enslaves them, God sends the prophet Jonah to deliver a message of warning.

That’s the setting of a new comic book by Philip Kosloski, author of Finnian and the Seven Mountains and The Mission of Joan of Arc.

In writing his new comic book, Kosloski, spirituality writer for Aleteia and founder of Voyage Comics & Publishing, was inspired by the Old Testament Book of Jonah — as translated by J.R.R. Tolkien. Not many people know that the author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy translated Jonah for the Jerusalem Bible in the late 1950s.

Here Kosloski gives Aleteia a little background about the new project, which he describes more on his Kickstarter page.

Tell me a little about your latest project.

Jonah’s Voyage to Atlantis is a comic book centered on Jonah, as he travels to the legendary city of Atlantis after being thrown overboard at sea. It takes the traditional story told in the Bible and explores various legends and myths that have been passed down over the centuries. It is a mix of biblical history, fantasy and mythology, all merged together to tell a story of mercy, forgiveness and the light that shines in the darkness.

What inspired you to create a comic book about the Old Testament story of Jonah?

I have been exploring this idea for the past several years, ever since I read J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation of Jonah in the Jerusalem Bible. His translation is unique and it is the only place where it says Jonah “went down into the countries underneath the earth, to the peoples of the past” (Jonah 2:7). I couldn’t let go of that single verse and what surprised me is that there exists an ancient Hebrew tradition that narrates how Jonah visited the “underworld” and met the Jewish Patriarchs (such as Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, etc.).

How did Tolkien, a fantasy author, end up translating a book of the Bible?

Fr. Alexander Jones, head of the English translation of the Jerusalem Bible, asked Tolkien in 1957 to contribute to the new translation, and he accepted. Tolkien was a widely known philologist at the time, and it was the hope of Fr. Jones to enlist the best literary minds in the English-speaking world. After his initial work Jones wrote back to Tolkien, saying, “In truth I should be content to send you all that remains of the Bible, with great confidence, but there is a limit to generosity and opportunity!” In the end, time constraints only allowed Tolkien to translate the book of Jonah.

Where does Atlantis come in?

I found a few historians making connections between the myth of Atlantis and the city of Tarshish mentioned in the book of Jonah. Additionally, for Tolkien, the Atlantis myth was a big part of his life and he wrote a version of the story set within his famous Middle-earth mythology.

Is your comic book a work of biblical history or fantasy, or both?

It is primarily a work of fantasy, inspired by biblical events. It certainly is not a word-for-word adaptation, but more of a “Jonah story,” rather than solely based on the book.

What kind of research did you do? Did you learn anything that surprised or inspired you?

I have dug deep into biblical commentaries as well as Hebrew traditions. I have learned much about Jonah, a fascinating character who is very relatable. He runs away from God and his plan, which we so often do in our own lives.

Many people think of Jonah and the whale as a mythical story, rather than a historical event. Do you agree?

I am not a scholar, but I believe biblical stories can be both historical and mythical. Our modern scientific mindset can often dismiss these stories entirely, but I believe there is truth in the book of Jonah and that we shouldn’t let the details get in the way. As Christians we believe it is divinely inspired and so we should trust that God allowed it in the Bible for a reason.

Who do you think this comic book will appeal to? Will your readers be any different than those who enjoyed your other comic books? 

This comic book will appeal to both children and adults, as have other comics produced by Voyage Comics.

Do you think this comic book could be a “crossover” type graphic novel that could reach secular audiences? 

Both Jonah and Tolkien have a wide readership, crossing religious and culture barriers. For this reason I believe Jonah’s Voyage to Atlantis will appeal to both the believer and non-believer alike. It is a universal story about mercy, trust and how light will ultimately conquer the darkness.

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