The Struggle is Real

I thought it might be time to update you all as to the progress of my book.

Just as a quick review, the last time I posted about this, back in February, I told you I hoped to have my revisions and edits done by mid-May. Seeing as I have hit that milestone, I thought I would report back as to how it’s going.

Well, I’m not done, but I’m not far off. I had a goal of revising 10,000 words a week. I wasn’t sure if I could hit that target, but you never know until you try, right? It’s been a challenging goal but in all honesty, it’s helped to have that target. It’s pushed me to keep going and to stick to my writing schedule, which has been hugely helpful.

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Right now, I have about 22,000 words left to edit. I should be able to get those done in the remaining couple weeks of May. So, I figure I will be done my edits by the end of the month. Which is only a couple weeks off of my stated goal, so I am going to give myself a pat on the back for that!

Another thing I have checked off my list of things to accomplish this spring was to start an author newsletter. To do this, I signed up to MailChimp and began to learn all about it, both in terms of the mechanics of how to do it as well as tips on what makes a good newsletter. This all takes so much more time than one thinks it might!

I found it hard to figure out some of the mechanics of MailChimp, especially how to link the sign-up form to the blog and to individual blog-posts, but I think I have it figured out now. If any of you have tried to sign up and have run into difficulty, please let me know by commenting below, or email me at lasnews@telus.net.

My next task after the edits are done is to sit down with the whole MS, read it over, and see what I have. One book? (pretty sure that won’t be the case). Two? Three? And then I have to figure out where to divide it up if I have more than one. And finally, I have to see if my editor’s advice to stick to one POV only is working.

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It’s been interesting. I have had to cut out a lot to keep the book to one POV. I can see where that advice has been good, for it has enabled me to focus more clearly on my main character’s story. But I do think that the book will likely have more than just that POV in it, once I make my final decisions. Some of that will depend on feedback from my beta readers, and some from my own instincts as to what I think works best. Stay tuned!

Assuming my edits are done by the end of the month, I will take the month of June to do my re-read and my final tweaks and decisions about how to structure the book, and then send it off to my beta readers. Once I get Book One, Wilding, nailed down, I will focus on it from now until launch in October. The rest of the MS I can set aside until after its launch, when I will immediately start the count-down to launch of Book 2.

The other task I have from now until the end of June is to get a book launch plan nailed down. I need to set a budget, and figure out all the steps I need to take along the way, and when to take them. I’ll probably also start the book cover design process, or at least researching options for that. I have made the decision that I will get a professional design done, as the cover is too important to scrimp on. Besides, I just couldn’t handle a cheesy design.

As I’ve been doing the edits and delving into the latter parts of my MS that I haven’t actually looked at for quite some time, I have felt a mixture of emotions.

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First of all, I’m continually surprised at how much I have learned as a writer. What I wrote a few years ago, that I thought was pretty good at the time, actually was pretty bad. Which makes me nervous. Is what I’m writing now, the changes I am making, also going to look equally as bad to me a few more years down the road? It tends to erode your self-confidence, let me tell you!

Conversely, I’m also surprised at how engaged I got in the story. After all, I know exactly what is going to happen! But I still got a great deal of pleasure in the story as I read it. There were even a few things I forgot, that I was excited to read again. I think it all works. I hope so, at any rate.

Don’t forget, if you want to keep up with my book’s journey to publication, please subscribe to my author newsletter. You’ll get first hand info there on my progress, plus a lot of other fun stuff that I think you will enjoy. Sign up at the link at the bottom of this post!


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Making a Date in Anglo-Saxon England

Probably most of you know that our calendar comes from the Roman one. January is named after Janus, the two-faced god who looked front and back simultaneously, March comes from the Roman god Mars, the god of war, etc.

But the Anglo-Saxons of 7th century England had a very different calendar.

The most detailed account of this  Anglo-Saxon calendar comes from Bede, who, in his book, The Reckoning of Time, written in 725 AD, details each of the months. It’s interesting to note that by the time Bede writes this book, this is very much an “old” way of reckoning the calendar year. The Julian calendar we still follow had come to England along with the Gregorian mission in 595 AD, and as Christianity spread, the old Germanic calendar fell into disuse.

It’s a good thing Bede bothered to include this old, “heathen” calendar in his book,  because his summary preserved for us a bit of history we would not have, otherwise.

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The Venerable Bede

The Anglo-Saxon calendar was a lunisolar calendar, based on the moon’s cycle. But as the lunar cycles are about 29.5 days each, the year ends up with 354 days instead of 365. After two or three of these shortened twelve month years, the lunar cycle would be out of line with the solar year by about a month. The Anglo-Saxons got around this by inserting an extra month in summer time every so often to keep it all synchronized properly.

According to Bede, the new year began on December 25th, called Modranecht, or “Mother’s Night”. There is much speculation about what these “mothers” might be, but there is a tradition of Germanic peoples honouring female ancestral spirits, so possibly this is what Bede is referring to. It happened at the winter solstice, which was a very important day for the Anglo-Saxons, know as Geola (“Yule”).

The months of the year were as follows:

JanuaryÆfterra Geola, or “after Yule”.

February – Solmonað,  roughly translated as “mud month”, which Bede says refers to the cakes they offered to their gods in that month. However, the word “sol” is not generally translated as “cakes”, but “mud”. So maybe their cakes looked like mud? Or it’s a reference to the soggy English winter? Hard to say.

March – Hreðmonað. Bede tells us that this refers to the goddess Hreða, whom they sacrificed to in this month. We don’t know a lot about this goddess today. There is not much existing Germanic lore about her.

April – Eostermonað, corresponding to the goddess Eoster or Eostre, who was celebrated this month. This is where we get the name Easter, for the Christian celebration of Christ’s resurrection, which is usually celebrated in April. Interestingly enough, like Hreda there is no information about Eostre apart from Bede’s writings.

May – Ðrimilcemonað, or “month of three milkings.” The idea being that the grass is so plentiful and rich that the livestock (cows, sheep, goats) could be milked three times in one day.

June – Ærra Liða, or “before mild”.

July  –  Æfterra Liða, or “after mild”. “Mild” refers to the calm breezes that made it easy to sail on the sea in the summer months (as well as the mild summer weather). At the height of summer, another month would be added occasionally to compensate for the shorter lunar cycles, a “leap month”, if you will. This month was called Thriliða, or “third mild”.

August – Weodmonað, or “weed month”. I’m sure modern gardeners can relate! However, to be fair, the word “weod” could mean “weeds” or could also refer to herbs, or grass.

September – Haligmonað, or “holy month”Unfortunately Bede lets us down here and doesn’t give us any details as to why this month was given this name. Perhaps there were celebrations that happened to do with harvest. He merely says it was a month of sacred rites.

October – Winterfylleth, or “winter full moon”. This refers to the fact that the Anglo-Saxons counted the beginning of winter as the first full moon in this month.

November – Blotmonað, or “blood month”, as this was the month where surplus livestock would be slaughtered in preparation for the winter season, and/or sacrificed and consecrated to the gods.

December – Ærra Geola, or “before Yule”.

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The early Germanic people counted the day as starting at sunset, not sunrise. It is possible the Anglo-Saxons did the same. The concept of the “week” came from the Romans, and was adopted by the Germanic peoples as well.

Although the Anglo-Saxon names of the months have not survived in today’s modern English, we can’t say the same about the names of the week. Perhaps I will do a blog post about those echoes from the Anglo-Saxon past that are still in use today.

In the meantime, I hope you have a happy Ðrimilcemonað!

Featured image is found at Medievalists.net, and is the phases of the moon, from an 11th century manuscript.


 

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Year of Reading Buechner: The Alphabet of Grace

In 1968, Frederick Buechner had just moved with his family to a farmhouse in Vermont, after concluding a successful stint as a the department head of the Religion department at Philip Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

Buechner began working on a new novel, but making the transition from writing amidst a busy career to focussing solely on writing was a challenge, and he soon found himself struggling. He writes in his memoir, Now and Then, that the writing of it…was so painful that I find it hard, even now, to see beyond the memory of the pain to whatever merit it may have.

In the midst of this struggle he received an invitation from the Chaplain at Harvard to present the Noble Lecture series in the winter of 1969, a proposal which both flattered and intimidated Buechner. Previous presenters had included luminaries such as Richard Niebuhr, and Buechner was uncertain he was up to the task.

However, the Chaplain, Charles Price, upon hearing Buechner’s concerns, wrote back, suggesting that he write something about “religion and letters”. And out of that thin sliver of inspiration, The Alphabet of Grace was born; first as the lecture series, and subsequently published as a book.

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Buechner’s idea was to write about the everyday events of life,

…as the alphabet through which God, of his grace, spells out his words, his meaning, to us. So The Alphabet of Grace was the title I hit upon, and what I set out to do was to try to describe a single representative day of my life in a way to suggest what there was of God to hear in it.

The book is broken up into three sections: Gutturarls (6:45-7:30 AM); Sibilants (7:30 -8:30 AM), and Absence of Vowels (8:30 AM – 11 PM). At the time Buechner’s family was growing up around him, and he writes of ordinary things such as getting up in the morning, having breakfast, dropping the kids off at school, and going to work–which in his case was to the nearby church where he co-opted a Sunday School room in which to write–followed by going home and finally to bed.

An ordinary day, in other words, such as is lived by many ordinary people. But don’t be fooled. Out of this ordinary day Buechner has crafted an extraordinary book, which will linger with you long after it is finished. It is a long meditation on how to see God in the midst of an ordinary life, and the difference that makes to the person living it.

The first sentence of the book is this:

At its heart most theology, like most fiction, is essentially autobiography. 

His point is that people understand concepts through the lenses of their own experiences, whether that be the concept of family, love, or friendship. And so it is with our understanding of God and faith. We meet Him in the daily ordinariness of our own existence, or not at all, and this is the theme that runs through this book.

Right at the beginning he quotes a passage from one of his own books (The Final Beast) in which the character, a young clergyman, lies down in the grass, praying a fervent prayer of only one word: Please. A prayer of longing, not entirely sure of what he is asking, until he clarifies it. Please come, Jesus. 

And nothing happens, at least, nothing that anyone would notice. Except for the young man, who, in the midst of an extraordinary moment of timelessness and significance, hears two branches of an apple tree strike together in the wind: clack-clack.

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Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

 

This was not just a moment in Buechner’s novel. He explains in The Alphabet of Grace that this was a moment he lifted out of his life and put in the novel. And it perfectly describes the way in which a person can be moved out of unbelief into faith, in ways that are hard to explain to anyone else but real, nonetheless.

The quote from the novel continues,

It was an agony of gladness and beauty falling wild and soft like rain. Just clack-clack, but praise him, he thought. Praise him. Maybe all his journeying, he thought, had been only to bring him here to hear two branches hit each other twice like that, to see nothing cross the threshold but to see the threshold, to hear the dry clack-clack of the world’s tongue at the approach of the approach of splendour. 

This idea, of the ordinary moment being transformed into one of transcendence, is the idea that Buechner explores throughout the book. The clack-clack of those branches are interwoven in and out of the ordinary events of his day.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that Buechner is a giant of faith, who has it all figured out. Part of his great appeal is that he shows himself just as he is, doubting, confused, and weary, hanging on by the skin of his teeth, so to speak. And yet, he cannot even now turn away from the path.

Cannot is not the right word. If faith is anything, it is a choice. God comes to us with his hand outstretched, and it is up to us to take it, or not. In the moments of his day, through the interactions with his wife, his children, through the struggle of putting words down that convey exactly what he means, Buechner shows us how the choice to take that hand is presented again and again. It’s so easy to forget, in the midst of the minutes passing, that at every moment is a moment in which we can take that hand.

Doubt is not fatal to faith. In fact, doubt can strengthen faith, through an honest wrestling through the questions that plague us. Buechner writes of doubt, and the longing for a miracle that would put all the doubts to rest. But then he muses,

Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be. Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me. 

And so, through the ordinary day of an ordinary man, we see his journey and gain a new understanding of our own., We hear the clack-clack of the branches, signalling the approach of the approach of splendour. 

And with him we say, praise Him.

Introducing: News from the Path

As I explained previously, I aim to publish my novel, Wilding, in October of this year.

As I explore the wild and daunting world of self-publication, one piece of advice keeps coming up: have an author newsletter. The idea is that this allows you to have a dedicated list of readers and fans whom you can easily connect with, giving them bonuses such as extra chapters from your books, or contests, as well as allowing you to inform them of your book’s progress.

So, I have taken this advice.  Today I am launching my author newsletter, News from the Path.

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I know that people hate to be spammed. And so I will endeavour to make this newsletter interesting, and hopefully useful, to those who sign up. I will publish about once a month, unless there is urgent news to share.

So…with all that in mind, here is what I propose to include in my newsletter:*

  • What I’m into this month: I’ll share something that tweaked my interest that month. It might be related to books or reading, or to 7th century Britain, or to writing; or it might be something completely different. But I hope it will be interesting to you!
  • Books I’m reading: I review some of the books I read on the blog, but not all. I thought you might like to see what other books I’m reading as well.
  • E-Books for sale: I’ll share a few of the treasures I’ve found of books on sale that either look interesting to me or ones I have read and liked. You might find some treasures of your own!
  • Just for subscribers: Occasionally subscribers will get perks that won’t be available elsewhere. Deleted scenes, opportunity to be on the launch team, special contests, and more!
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A little not-so-subliminal persuasion…

I aim to keep the newsletter short, but interesting! I hope you will sign up.  I think it will be fun!

To subscribe, you can sign up at the pop-up form that appears when you navigate to my page. If you are reading this on your phone, tap the banner to expand the form so you can fill in your details.

Also there is a link on the right of my page that will take you to where you can sign up. Finally, I will include a link in every post, to make it easy. You will see the icon below, hyperlinked to my newsletter sign up form.

Don’t forget, you can also connect with me on Facebook and Twitter @las_writer.  I’m not hugely active on those two platforms but I am trying to be more intentional of showing my face there more often. You will get notifications of my blog posts there but I also try to provide interesting information or just fun tidbits that you might not get here.

I’m excited about the possibility of connecting in a different way with my readers. I hope you join in!


*As I get going I may tweak these a bit, it will depend on feedback and on how I think it is resonating with readers. So don’t be afraid to let me know!

 

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Society News: The Church

This post is part of an ongoing series, in which I look at various classes of 7th century Anglo-Saxon England society. For previous posts, click the links below. 

Society News: Introduction

Society News: The Kings (and Queens).

Society News: The Upper Crust


I am working my way down through Anglo-Saxon society in these series of posts, and this week I will be discussing the church.  First, just to clarify terms, when I say “the church”, I’m not writing about the average everyday people who might attend a service on Sundays. In particular, I am writing about the men and women who made up the ecclesiastical hierarchy in the seventh century.

The men and women of the Christian church had a bit of a dual identity in terms of where they stood, society-wise. The church was made up of individuals who came from various classes of society, and so there you would find the sons and daughters of kings rubbing shoulders with those who were further down the social ladder. Monks and nuns could be just about anyone, and in theory, so could the abbots and bishops and abbesses, given that they were taken from the ranks of the regular clergy.

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The Anglo-Saxon church at Monkwearmouth, which, together with its “twin” at Jarrow, was one of the earliest monasteries in Britain. The bottom part of the tower and the west wall are from the original building, built in 674 AD. It is where the Venerable Bede lived and worked.

However, it is true to say that many of the higher-ranking clergy also came from the higher ranks of society. Both St. Aidan and St. Columba were from the Ui Neill clan of Ireland, a very powerful and influential clan, and it is likely that both of these men were high-ranking men in their clans, perhaps even of royal blood.  There were exceptions, of course. St. Patrick of Ireland started off as an English slave in Ireland, you don’t get much lower class than that! Depending on which story you believe, St. David may have been the result of a rape, and grew up in a nunnery. Both these men became the most-respected clergymen in their countries, and so you can see that in the church hierarchy a person’s worth was not necessarily tied to their original status in society.

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Beautiful stained glass commemorating Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, found at St. Michael Church, Workington. Cuthbert is one of those whose original status in society is disputed. Some scholars suggest he came from noble birth, others that he came from a poor family. Either way, he became of one England’s greatest saints. Photo from Wikicommons. 

As the Christian church began to get established in Northumbria, it began to amass land, through gifts from kings who wanted to see the church succeed. Most notably, we can see that the monastery Lindisfarne was begun by the Irish bishop/abbot Aidan, who was granted land by the Bernician King Oswald in 634 AD  to start a monastery close to his royal seat at Bebbanburg. Oswald had converted to Christianity while in exile in Dàl Raida, and when God granted him victory over King Edwin in 633 AD, restoring his family’s claim to the Bernician throne, he wanted to make sure his fellow Angles in Bernicia were converted to the new faith as well. As Aidan and his monks spread out through Northumbria in their missionary journeys and people began to accept Christianity, more monasteries were established along with more gifts of land.

The abbots and abbesses in charge of the monasteries (the Celtic Church allowed for double monasteries, housing both monksand nuns in separate buildings, often presided over by women) became local agents of the king, in many cases, although in theory, their ultimate obedience was always to God. The monasteries were centres of learning, operating schools for the sons and daughters of the local nobility as well as for the novices who joined the monastery, looking to one day become monks and nuns themselves. They also were orphanages and hospitals, taking in the sick or homeless. And so the local people had a certain amount of respect for the clergy which was tied to what they did as well as who they were socially, in terms of what family they originated from.

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St. Hilda (Hild) of Whitby, the important double-monastery of which she was Abbess. Hild’s father was the nephew of King Edwin, so she certainly came from an upper class Northumbrian family.

The locals gave tithes to the monasteries in terms of food, services, land rent, etc, just as they gave tribute to the kings each year (the concept of taxes goes a long ways back!). A priest had the same rank in society as a thegn, and a bishop was seen as equal to an eoldorman.

Although the life of a monk or nun was not an easy one, they certainly were able to have a fairly secure life, and had a mainly respected role in society. This may help to explain why the monasteries grew so rapidly in the Early Medieval period, with some of the major ones boasting a population in the thousands. It was a fairly unusual place in that society, where someone from a very low class could end up being as highly respected as a king or queen. This opportunity for upward social mobility may have attracted some to the church. But bottom line, spiritual devotion was still very important. There may have been some of the excesses in the church that characterized the institution later in the Middle Ages and beyond, but at this time devotion to God and obedience to the monastic rule was still very much emphasized.

The next post in this series will not tackle a certain social class, but I will pause for a moment to explain something that was integral to this whole idea of societal ranking: the concept of weregild. 

That post will be coming up in the next month or so…I hope you join me!

 

 

Beowulf Basics

This post is one of a series of posts on literature from Dark Ages Britian. For the first post in this series, click here.


 

As I have explained here on the blog, there are not a lot of extant manuscripts from the Early Middle Ages. But surely the most well-known is the epic poem, Beowulf.

I will admit that I have thought about writing a post on Beowulf many times and have put it off. The reason being that I hardly know where to start.

It’s a bit intimidating, to tell you the truth. There are people who have had whole  careers built around this epic poem. Much better minds than mine have studied it and offered their interpretations on it, people who have read it in the original Anglo-Saxon language in which it is written. People like J.R.R. Tolkien. I feel wholly inadequate even discussing it. But, as it is such an important piece of literature originating from the times in which my novel (s) are set, I don’t feel like I should ignore it any longer.

But I chose to title this post Beowulf Basics for a reason. I’m not going to go too deep into this poem. And I certainly don’t have the knowledge to contribute to any of many scholarly debates about one aspect of it or another. I’m just going to discuss some of the things that I think are really interesting about it.

 

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The first page of the Beowulf  manuscript. You can see the damage from the fire at Ashburnham House in 1731 in the corner and along the edges. image from Wikicommons

When the poem was actually composed is a matter of some debate (there’s lots of debate about many things about Beowulf!). But there are a couple of certain facts. It was written down sometime between 975 AD and 1025 AD. The author is unknown, referred to by scholars as “the Beowulf poet”. The poem is written in Anglo-Saxon (Old English), mainly in the West Saxon dialect, but is about events in Scandinavia. It’s a mix of legends and historical events and include names of some Scandinavian kings and kingdoms. Most scholars agree that some of the events mentioned (battles and the like) in the poem are historically accurate, and occur in 6th century Scandinavia. Many of the people who appear in Beowulf also are mentioned in other Scandinavian works, but not Beowulf himself.

Out of the surviving 30,000 lines of Anglo-Saxon literature, 4,000 of them are contained in this one poem, which shows you its importance in our understanding of Anglo-Saxon literature. The poem is written in typical Anglo-Saxon alliterative style. Alliterative poetry is not rhyming poetry, but it generally is composed of lines of two short phrases which have stresses on various words in a rhythmical pattern. It’s a form of poetry that is not used much any more, but it is well-suited to poems which are read aloud, which of course was true of Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon verse.

This is hard to describe, but easier to hear.  Have a listen to this short excerpt of the beginning of the poem, and you will get a sense of the rhythm of it. Note the repetitive sounds, like the “s”  “f” or “m” sounds, and the way the words lift and fall in a pleasing rhythm.* It’s easier to hear it the longer you listen. By the time this short section finishes you should start to feel the rhythm.

 

The poem itself doesn’t have a name, but it is called Beowulf after the main character, who is a great warrior of the Geats (a kingdom that is located in modern Sweden). Beowulf comes to the aid of Hrothgar, king of the Danes. whose mead hall is under attack by the monster Grendel. Beowulf kills the monster and then also kills Grendel’s mother, who comes to the hall looking for revenge. Beowulf goes back to Geatland in triumph and eventually becomes king of the Geats. After fifty years has passed, Beowulf battles a dragon but is mortally wounded, and is mourned with great fanfare by his people. That is the very bare nuts and bolts of the story!

 

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Grendel and Beowulf, by MunsonX, from DeviantArt

So, this thoroughly Scandinavian pagan hero is the subject of a thoroughly English poem, written in Old English, probably by a Christian Anglo-Saxon monk. Why was this tale treasured by the Anglo-Saxons?

It’s a fascinating window into the times. The Anglo-Saxons were of course the descendants of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, all Scandinavian people-groups who had begun migrating to Britain after the collapse of the Roman empire in the fifth century. These people-groups had their own legends, gods, and culture, that they brought with them to Britain. And through a process of immigration and conquest, a new society and culture began to form, synthesized out of the collision of the pagan Celtic Britons, Christian Celtic Britons, Roman Christian Britons, pagan Roman Britons, and the pagan Anglo-Saxon newcomers.

Beowulf includes hints and threads of both Christian and pagan cultures. Grendel and Grendel’s mother are said to be descendants of Cain. There are references to the flood, and to the importance of humility, generosity, and self-sacrifice. There is also a lot of references to fate, and fame, both of which were strong elements of the Germanic pagan culture of the Anglo-Saxons. Some scholars feel that the author of Beowulf is showing how the pagan culture and beliefs are much better than the new, Christian ones, while other scholars argue the opposite, that the poem shows the superiority of the Christian beliefs over the pagan ones. I’m not sure of either of these two positions, but I do believe that the poem certainly has a synthesis of both of these world-views, and is a glimpse into the mindset of the early Christian Anglo-Saxons. I believe it is because of this intermixing of old and new that this poem had such popularity among the Anglo-Saxons. Also, because don’t we all love to hear about monsters and and the heroes that defeat them, especially around the fire on a dark and stormy night?

Beowulf takes place amidst a typical Germanic warrior society, with the lords and mead halls vividly described. It has given us a snapshot of the culture of the Anglo-Saxons that has been verified by archeology and other literature from the time. In fact, archeologists have found a hall in Denmark which they feel corresponds with Heorot, King Hrothgar’s hall mentioned in the poem.

Beowulf may be one of our oldest pieces of literature, but it still fascinates us today. Even in the 21st century we are still interpreting and re-imagining this poem. In 2006 a live-action film called Beowulf and Grendel, was released, followed by a CGI version in 2007 called Beowulf (I’m not sure that Grendel’s mother was supposed to look like Angelina Jolie, but oh well…). Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands was  a short-lived TV fantasy series which aired in Britain and the US in 2016.

It seems as if this story is one that is going to be part of our heritage for many more years to come. And for that, I am glad!

 


*The last line of that section, Þæt wæs god cyning! leaps out to our modern ears. Did it sound to you like the reader said, “that was good kinging!” to you? Well, basically, he did. The translation for that phrase is, “That was a good king!” You will find phrases and words like this standing out to you when you listen to Old English read aloud. Amazing that even after almost two centuries we can still pick out a word or two that we modern English speakers still use today.

 

Featured image from vvilkelyte.wixsite.com

Year of Reading Buechner: Brendan, A Novel

I have really been enjoying the non-fiction books I have read so far in my Year of Reading Buechner, but this month I turned my eye to one of Buechner’s fiction books. I have been eager to read Brendan: A Novel, for a couple of reasons. One, because a few years ago I read and really enjoyed Son of Laughter, his fictional account of the life of the Biblical patriarch, Jacob; and secondly, because this book was all about one of my favourite people from the Early Middle Ages: Brendan the Navigator.

Brendan

Brendan was published in 1987, and won the Christianity and Literature Belles Lettres Prize that year. As I mentioned, it is the fictional account of the life of the 6th century Irish saint, Brendan the Navigator, whose story of adventures and miracles encountered during a sea voyage with fellow monks was one of the most popular stories in medieval times.

The tale is told from the point of view of Finn, Brendan’s companion and best friend, and is set in a realistically dark and dirty sixth century Ireland. Brendan is no polished saint in this book, in fact far from it. Finn is a nominal Christian at best, and he casts a skeptical eye on some of Brendan’s tales, because he knows how much Brendan loves to embellish the truth. But there are times when Finn sees Bren performing a miracle himself, and is unable to explain away the occurrence except as a miracle.

There is a great tension in this book between truth and lies; faith and doubt. Brendan himself struggles between these dichotomies. He makes his way with great self-confidence at times, but at others he is racked by doubts. This novel does not allow you to think of him as a saint in the way we normally think of them, as people who are so advanced in holiness that they have left us behind in the dust.

I love the way Buechner portrays the people of sixth century Ireland in this book. They feel like real people. And I appreciate they way he shows how Christianity met and mixed with the old religions that the Irish Celts practiced.  Even Brendan himself, when sent to pray in a cave overnight as penance by the Abbot Jarlath, also turns to the Celtic god Dagda.

He knew it was the one and only true God he was supposed to call on for mercy but he thought it would do no harm to call on the Dagda as well. He only whispered his name in his heart instead of speaking it out loud though. The last thing in the world he wanted was for the Dagda to turn up there in the cave lugging his terrible great club and his brass cauldron. All the boy was after from him was a bit of luck. 

And when Brendan sets off on his voyage, he does so in order to reach Tir-na-nog, a kind of earthly Paradise, the land of the young, where the gods of the Irish Celts lived. It eventually morphed into the idea of the Otherworld, the land of the Elves. These tales  abounded in Celtic folklore, but it is not exactly a kosher concept from a Christian point of view.

But this was an age where the old beliefs were meeting head-on with the new, so this juxtaposition of pagan and Christian is very realistic for the times.The Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Navigator), the medieval manuscript that details Brendan’s voyage, says that Brendan was trying to reach the Promised Land of the Saints. The idea is of an earthly Paradise, such as the Garden of Eden. The stories of Tir-na-nog could certainly have been meshed with that idea, in the minds of Celts who are new to the faith. So I like this insertion into the book, although it is not strictly true to the stories of Brendan.

There is also quite a bit of comedy in this book. The “holy fool” is a theme you find often in Buechner’s writings, and in this book Brendan takes on that role. He is a braggart, full of wild tales and exaggerations; and odd-looking, with his mis-matched teeth, pointy head, and large derrière. He stumbles through this book, at times serenely performing miracles and at others cowering in unbelief and doubt. And so in this way Buechner makes a larger-than-life saint a person we can relate to.

Other characters also have their comedic moments. Finn himself is cheated out of going on Brendan’s first voyage because as they set sail a sudden squall comes up and he falls out of the boat, the others not noticing in the dark.

In the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Navigator), the medieval manuscript that details Brendan’s voyage, the saint only takes one voyage, but in Buechner’s book, he divides it into two. Finn accompanies Brendan on the second voyage, and finds both miracles and heartache along the way. In the end, we are again left with uncertainty about exactly what they encountered, and where, and how much was truth, and how much exaggeration.

Saint_brendan_german_manuscript

An illustration from the Navigatio from a 14th century manuscript. It shows one of the stories in the tale, of Brendan and his monks staying on an island which they later discover is actually the great whale Jasconius. Image from Wikicommons.


Many of the other famous people from this time appear in this book, such as Saint Brigid, and Saint Malo. I particularly like the appearance of Gildas in this book, near the end, after Brendan is back from his voyages and goes away to Wales to escape his fame.  Gildas is a sour and bitter monk, which actually kind of fits the work for which he is best known today, called De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), in which he details the many sins and failing of kings and churchmen alike.

As Finn says,

He spent his days in his hut with a quill in his hand scratching out on his parchment the nastiness of his times. 

But through Gildas, Brendan gets to meet the great king, Artor, an old man now, still serving as king at Caerlon. Brendan and Finn go to meet him, as Brendan wants to bring him God’s peace after he hears the tale of the betrayal of his queen Gwenhwyfar and the child Artor had with his half-sister. Finn doesn’t hear what Brendan says to Artor, but Artor is grateful for his visit. As they leave Caerlon, the small, wizened figure of the king stands at the battlements, his hands raised over his head in farewell.

Finn says,

I pictured him standing there all the rest of the day and the night as well with his arms in the air and his beard blowing. If I went back in a thousand years it wouldn’t surprise me to find him standing there yet if there’s anything left standing by then in the world. 

I love this picture of King Arthur, watching over Britain throughout the ages.

During a conversation with Gildas, as Brendan reflects on this voyages and expresses the fear that perhaps he had missed the point of what God had called him to do, it comes out in the conversation that the old monk only has one leg.

“I’m crippled as the dark world,” Gildas said.

“If it comes to that, which one of us isn’t, my dear?” Brendan said.

Gildas with but one leg.  Brendan sure he’d misspent his whole life entirely.  Me that had left my wife to follow him and buried our only boy.  The truth of what Brendan said stopped all our mouths.  We was cripples all of us.  For a moment or two there was no sound but the bees.

“To lend each other a hand when we’re falling,” Brendan said.  “Perhaps that’s the only work that matters in the end.”

This book comes at you sideways. It is a window into the life and times of Brendan, well-researched and imaginative. But it’s more than that, too. Brendan’s voyages, both physical and spiritual, mirror our own voyages through life, with their ups and downs, their triumphs and tragedies. The book contains many treasures, but not all of them are ones that you find along the surface. It forces you to dig deep and ponder a little bit. Not a bad thing, nowadays.

The New York Times Book Review called Brendan: A Novel, “Strikingly convincing…sinewy and lyrical.” I agree.  There is a lot that is earthy in this novel, but at times it will take your breath away. It reminds me a lot of Son of Laughter in that way.  It  took me a few chapters to get into it, but by the end I knew it was one I would have to read again.


Other posts in my Year of Reading Buechner series can be found here:

 2018 Reading Challenge: The Year of Reading Buechner

Year of Reading Buechner: The Remarkable Ordinary

Year of Reading Buechner: A Sacred Journey