All readers of the Book of Mormon mark both the strange and compelling beauty of its language and its frequent awkwardness--a jarring contrast. And often enough that frequently contrasting awkwardness becomes for the devoted reader something he begins to expect, even a compelling, and oddly satisfying, awkwardness. Yet one doubts a conscious attempt at the awkward on the part of the Nephite writers, a conscious shaping in wabi-sabi, unglazed and artfully natural. Where we find the awkward, the people of Zarahemla just wrote that way--and that's that. Too bad for them.
It's tough to decide whether the awkward or the poetic and flowing came more naturally to the Nephite writers. They had their moments anyhow.
Consider Alma's catalog of the cities of the converted Lamanites (Alma 23). It's not the Iliad--and yet. . .
Now, these are they who were converted unto the Lord:
The people of the Lamanites who were in the land of Ishmael;
And also of the people of the Lamanites who were in the land of Middoni;
And also of the people of the Lamanites who were in the city of Nephi;
So far, so good. The catalog proceeds in a stately rhythm, a biblical rhythm, but nothing rises beyond dictionary entry.
Then, as poetic coda:
And also of the people of the Lamanites who were in the land of Shilom, and who were in the land of Shemlon, and in the city of Lemuel, and in the city of Shimnilom.
And these were the names of the cities of the Lamanites which were converted unto the Lord.
Shimmering verse 12 alone packs in 6 l's, 6 m's, 3 n's, and 3 sh's. For those who may savor consonantal above secret combinations, Shilom finds subtle reversal in Shemlon, only to shift back in Lemuel, and all building up to startling Shimnilom.
There's really nothing to say about such loveliness. Read the verses aloud, two or three times. The stolid rhythmic lines end with a touch of playfulness just shy of rococo.
A few verses to come, and we delight in the elaborated name of Anti-Nephi-Lehi. More likely, we shudder, or even laugh, at it. Or what to say about the stunning, and stunningly ambiguous, eruption of geography in the previous chapter? Such moments are all little literary delights, flow or none, that leave the reader longing for more--and sooner or later, more comes. These pepperings, more to be savored than comprehended, remind us that the book has us, however pedestrian the language may at times be.
Much is made of Book of Mormon geography. Oh, good luck with that. The book has you by the tail; not t'other way round. It has you running circles round the head of the river Sidon by the borders of Manti. It's all a tour-de-force of non-specific specificity, and one senses Alma's delight in putting the reader over the border and into the wilderness, little strips of which run every which way. And you wish to lead tours?
Don't get lost in the jungle.
It is wordplay, to be sure; yet again, far too much is made of wordplay in the Book of Mormon, and frankly, I just don't see it in so many, many of the places others point at. I don't see it in the name of Nephi; I don't see it in the name of Benjamin--neither on the left hand nor on the right. I don't even see traces of it, etymological or otherwise. I'll skip that tour too.
We can't just make things up.
Neither were the Nephites gauche--confused maybe, but not gauche.
How about this phrasing? Now it came to pass that after Alma had received his message from the angel of the Lord. . . (Alma 8:18)? In Hebrew (and, likely, in Nephite), the words "message" and "angel" (or "messenger") come from the same root. A play on words? No--just linguistic compactness.
And that compactness, and so much else in the language of the Book of Mormon: the rhythm, the anaphoric cadences, the quotations from the prophets, the jewel-like prayers and hymns (these often belonging to the older strata of the plates), the inverted patterns and chiasms, even the occasional play on words--not to mention the pathos and immediacy of every single narrator--all speak beauty to the reader. The most beautiful verses of all nevertheless belong more to the realm of the spiritual than the literary. We know that. And we can't explain it.
There yet riots throughout--and more especially in the long narrative sweep from Alma on--an awkward and bedizening tangle of undergrowth: behold, or, and it came. . . Behold, and it came to pass that the people of Lamoni, or, the people of his kingdom. And the point? Behold, though too much with us, does signify: it signals a heightened intensity, the moment of surprise. Look at Helaman's letters to Moroni: though really pouring things on, he knows how to use the intensifier as correctly as any biblical writer. And it's beautiful in a biblical kind of way; and to the reader of Egyptian or of Hebrew it may even be very lovely. But we must look askance at it. We simply must.
And then there are Alma's incessant, and for the most part, never truly clarifying, phrases beginning with or. They shoot out of the undergrowth like ankle-seeking tendrils. And yet even these add a certain spell-binding ingredient--a search for heightened expression and exactitude, even in cases where no ambiguity is at hand. Or, especially in cases. . .
It's intriguing to see these or's as the translator's attempt to clear things up as he runs along. And, by the way, Joseph Smith is the translator. (Someone has a different idea?) Or, perhaps Mormon put them in: Alma's text may have seemed vague, non-specific, all the way through. But read Alma again: the or's, or Hebraic ki's or whatever they are, never cease roiling the sea of narrative, and it's clear the tick is built into the original text. It's part of the idiom; yet it's something no English speaker would have ever invented: with such constant, and unnecessary, interruption, such clarity by entanglement, you can never hope for literary beauty in English. And it's hard to believe the usage struck the Nephites as beautiful either.
And yet, once the reader comes to expect the fracturing moments of amplification and clarification, what is awkward comes instead to charm. Frustration finally turns to truth, as we merge from fractured phrase to hypercorrection. What's the truth? It is that Moroni, Helaman, Alma, Ammon, all burden their crystalline, even scrubbed, narratives with or's quite purposefully. The rhetoric loops into a rococo search for specificity. Round and round the shell of narrative curves--the or-phrases conspiring with what is also a constant need to summarize what has just been plainly stated--and for what? Just to tell us it "was that same Zeezrom" who we met moments before in Ammonihah? Alma, who perfectly knows that the reader hasn't quite forgotten anyone bearing the name of Zeezrom, much less a principal and dramatic character, seems unhappy with even the slightest hint of a loose end. It is a peculiarity, a peculiarity for sewing up everything, and it is idiom, and. . . well. . . the Nephites can keep it. And I think we love it.