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 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.
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.
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: