Rediscovering Ronald Knox
David Rooney’s study of one of the great twentieth century apologists is as welcome as it is needed. Father Ronald Knox was one of the premier figures of the Catholic Literary Revival, deserving a place among the Revival’s illustrissimi, such as Newman, Manning, Hopkins, Chesterton, Belloc, Tolkien, Waugh, Greene et al. Yet he has been sadly and unjustly neglected in the half-century since his death. His translation of the Bible into what he hoped would be “timeless English” is overlooked in favour of other, often worse, translations, and his other works, ranging across the spectrum of genres, are similarly unread and largely forgotten. It is, therefore, encouraging that we are seeing something of a Knox revival, a timely resurrection, in the wake of a revival of interest in the whole Catholic Literary Revival of which he was such a key player.
Baronius Press has secured the rights for the Knox translation of the Bible from the Diocese of Westminster and has produced a new complete edition, thereby bringing this literary gem back into print after several decades in the biblio-wilderness. In 2007 Ignatius published a major work on Knox’s Apologetics by Father Milton Walsh, Ronald Knox as Apologist: Wit, Laughter and the Popish Creed, and in 2008 Ignatius published a comparative study of Knox and Lewis, also by Father Walsh, entitled Second Friends: C. S. Lewis and Ronald Knox in Conversation. David Rooney’s literary biography is a welcome addition to this recent flurry of activity.
Rooney is to Knox what Dale Ahlquist of the American Chesterton Society is to Chesterton, an avid reader and amateur enthusiast who becomes, in time, an acknowledged expert. This book serves as testimony to Rooney’s diligence in research, from the brief biography of the opening chapter to the sermons and retreats with which the volume concludes. In between, Rooney presents us with a comprehensive overview of the whole Knox oeuvre, from the relative levity of his satire and detective fiction to the gravitas of his work as translator and apologist, mindful nonetheless that, as a disciple of G. K. Chesterton, Knox’s levity always has gravitas, and his gravitas levity. For, as GKC reminds us, angels can fly because they take themselves lightly, whereas the devil falls by the force of gravity, i.e. by taking himself too seriously. Like his mentor, Knox was able to fly with the lightness of an angel because he never took himself as seriously as the topics he was tackling.
If The Wine of Certitude has one irritating weakness it is the disjointedness attached to excessive quotation. Throughout the length of the book, the flow of Rooney’s dexterous prose is interrupted by chunks from Knox’s own works. The reader, or at least this reader, would have preferred Knox’s works to have been presented within the seamless garment of Rooney’s narrative, rather than, at times, the narrative fading into little more than a segue between the quotations. This is, however, a mere quibble. Rooney has succeeded in doing what he evidently set out to do. He has given us a superb introduction to the life and work of Ronald Knox in a solitary volume. Anyone wishing to know more about this great defender and champion of the Faith need look no further than this timely tome.