Year of Reading Buechner: Godric

Godric is the second of Frederick Buechner’s books that take place in early medieval England. I reviewed Brendan: A Novel, here on the blog a couple months ago. This month, I turned with great eagerness to Godric.

Godric was published in 1981, so it came before Brendan, which was published in 1987. Probably if I was clever I should have read them in order of publication, but ho hum, oh well.

Godric was published to great acclaim. Edmund Fuller of The Wall Street Journal said in his review, “With a poet’s sensibly and a high reverent fancy, Frederick Buechner paints a memorable portrait.” Similar praise came from The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic, and Publisher’s Weekly. The book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

All this to say that this is a remarkable novel, and again, Buechner succeeds in bringing this all-to-human saint to life, warts and all.

I didn’t realize until 3/4 of the way through this book that this story, like Brendan’s, was based on the life of a real person, St. Godric of Finchale (1065 – 1170AD). Godric was a popular medieval saint, but he was never formally canonized.

His official hagiography (life of a saint) was written during his lifetime by Reginald of Durham, a monk who knew Godric, and who apparently had Godric bless his manuscript before Godric died. There are apparently other hagiographies of Godric as well, but Reginald’s is the most important.

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St. Godric of Finchale, from the Cotton Faustina B manuscript, in the British Library. Image from Wikicommons

The bare bones of Godric’s story is that he was born to poor parents, and became a pedlar, merchant, and finally a sailor, plying his trade to places both near and far. It is possible he owned the ship that ferried the crusader king Baldwin I of Jerusalem to Jaffa in 1102 AD to prepare for a siege against Jerusalem.

During his years at sea, he apparently went to Farne Island, where he had a spiritual encounter with Cuthbert, the beloved Bishop of Lindisfarne, who was long dead by this point. This encounter changed Godric. He dedicated himself to Christ and devoted the rest of his life to Him.

Eventually Godric ended up at Finchale, which is around four miles from the monastery at Durham, where Cuthbert was buried. He lived there for around 50-60 years as an extremely ascetic hermit and died as a very old man.

Godric’s story is a fascinating one. That Reginald actually knew the saint makes his hagiography even more interesting, I think. But even so, it is a “official” account of his life, with hardly a wrinkle showing.

Buechner’s account has no such restraints. There are plenty of wrinkles in this tale. Buechner’s Godric is irrascable, selfish, bitter, and guilt-ridden, and he spends much of the book pining for the love of his life, who happens to be his sister.

I’m glad that I have read a couple of Buechner’s other biographical works – The Son of Laughter (the story of the biblical patriarch Jacob), and Brendan. Both of those books I enjoyed, but they gave me some familiarity of Buechner’s penchance for presenting “holy” figures as all-too-human, no halo attached.

As always, the writing in this book is strong. Buechner gives us lyrical and thoughtful prose, filled with sentences that make you stop and ponder. For example, when he takes his mother to Rome to pray for his father’s soul, they look out over the ruined Coliseum and weep.

Why did we weep? I asked myself. We wept for all that grandeur gone. We wept for martyrs cruelly slain. We wept for Christ, who suffered death upon a tree and suffers still to see our suffering. But more than anything, I think, we wept for us, and so it ever is with tears. Whatever be their outward cause, within the chancel of the heart it’s we ourselves for whom they finally fall. 

The book is full of passages like this. It’s a book that wrestles with faith, doubt and devotion, and what those things meant to Godric in his time and place, and gives you pause to ponder what they mean to you in yours. It’s a portrait of a sinful man who seeks absolution and mercy, and who tries in his humanness to overcome his flaws.

It’s a book that requires more than one reading, I think. I will admit that I did not love it upon first reading, but as I flip back over the pages and see all the places that I underlined and marked, I feel a greater appreciation for it. It’s a book that, like Godric himself, I suspect, you have to sit with awhile to really get to know and appreciate.

There’s a reason why this book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. This honest look at one person’s spiritual journey refuses to rest on pat answers or platitudes, yet it remains reverent all the same. In the book Buechner gives Godric more than one encounter with Cuthbert, and as well with a mysterious figure named Gillian, an angel-type being that encourages him even before he meets Cuthbert to embrace Christ. And despite his flaws, and turnings away, Godric’s life is a trajectory towards Christ all the same.

Godric’s story is not told in chronological order. It starts with Godric as an old man, looking back on his life, telling the story to Reginald, and this older Godric’s story is interspersed with the tale of his life as a child and going forward. I think this makes for a richer book, as we get Godric’s interpretation of his life’s choices and reflections on them as the book moves along, which makes the story deeper.

I can’t quite decide whether I found this book depressing or hopeful. It’s a bit more gloomy than the other two biographies, to be sure, and because of that I found it more difficult going. But it’s not all shadows. The light peeks in here and there, sometimes more strongly than others. Godric’s final words in the book, just before he dies, are, All’s lost. All’s found. Farewell. That pretty well sums up  the tension in the book between despair and hope.

At one point Godric remarks, How seemly is a life when told to children thus, with all the grief and ugliness snipped out. I suppose it’s how monk Reginald will tell of mine. 

This book contains all the grief and ugliness, to be sure. But because of that, the light that shines is all the brighter.

It’s a complex book. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But it’s a marvellous portrait of one man’s life, in all it’s glory and shame, and the telling of it asks questions of us. And in the end, that’s the kind of book that means the most.


Other posts in the Year of Reading Buechner series:

2018 Reading Challenge: The Year of Reading Buechner

Year of Reading Buechner: The Remarkable Ordinary

Year of Reading Buechner: A Sacred Journey

Year of Reading Buechner: Brendan, A Novel

Year of Reading Buechner: The Alphabet of Grace

Year of Reading Buechner: Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation


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Book Launch Blues

So…my revisions are done! Kinda. Basically.* I have come to the end of The Whole Thing and lifted my fingers from the keyboard. Phew. The next immediate tasks are to read it all over myself and look for obvious flaws and problems in the MS, send it out to beta readers for feedback, and *maybe* a final professional edit.

While that is going on, however, I do need to start focussing on the next phase of this whole she-bang, which is planning out my book launch.

It’s not easy, let me tell ya. First, just for clarity’s sake, when I say “book launch” I don’t mean a party where I invite a bunch of people and we sit around and celebrate and everyone buys my book and goes home happy. I might do that, but that’s not exactly what I mean.

“Book launch” means the process of getting your book ready for publication, and then planning the marketing activities that will happen both before and after the date it goes live at e-retailers (Amazon, Kobo, etc) to ensure people know the book is available for purchase.

This process may or may not consist of the following:

  • cover design
  • book formatting
  • seeking endorsements
  • distribution strategy
  • marketing tactics
  • budget
  • building a book launch team
  • creating pre-launch content for blog and newsletter
  • create a book review campaign
  • create a social media campaign
  • create a pre-order campaign
  • set up giveaways and contests
  • get busy networking with other authors, readers, and influencers in your book’s genre
  • plan blog tours or book tours
  • plan ad campaigns on social media sites

I could go on, and on, and ON. These are just a few of the tasks that various experts recommend for self-publishing authors as they get ready to publish their books.

I don’t know about you, but that list (which I emphasize again is only a partial list) makes me want to crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head. Each one of those tasks is a big job in themselves. And I have to do all of it, and more?

The great part of self-publishing is that you have control over the entire process, and the success of your book is entirely in your hands. The bad part of self-publishing is that you have control over the entire process, and the success of your book is entirely in your hands.

Let me be brutally honest here. The reality is that there are a LOT of books out there for people to read. And it’s very, very difficult for an author to be noticed, hence all the marketing stuff. So I certainly am under no illusions that I will be the next bestselling debut author. I mean, if it happens, yay me, but I’m not holding my breath, here.

But I am excited to get the book out there into the world and into the hands of people like me, who enjoy historical fantasy books.  That means I need to do some marketing so that people like me know that the book is available, at least. There’s no law saying I have to do any of it, of course. I could just upload it to Kindle tomorrow and wait for the sales to begin. But that is not the best strategy. I would sell a handful of copies to my family and friends and that would be about it.

So somehow I have to figure out what I can realistically do and what I am willing to let lie on the way to publication. I wish I had someone to tell me to do “this, this, and that, and leave the rest”, but I don’t. I just have to figure it out myself. I have to be realistic about how much time and money I have to spend on this, and then just get going, one step at a time.

It’s exciting, but daunting. October is four months away. Which doesn’t feel like a lot of time, given what I need to do. But I’m sticking with that date, unless something drastic comes along to make me change it. I could fiddle around with all this forever and use it as an excuse to put off publishing (which is alternatively an exciting and terrifying idea). More than likely I’ll miss some important marketing strategy along the way. But it will all be practice for Book II of the series, right?

Here we go. Thanks for being along for the ride. And if any of you wants to be part of my book launch team do let me know in the comments below or by sending me an email. I’d love to have you on board!


*There is a section in the middle that I struggled with for a couple of weeks that I finally threw in the towel on and moved on, because I was going around and around in circles and getting nowhere fast. I’ll have to go back and fix that section. I hoped that when I moved on that when I got back to it, the problems that I was struggling with would magically resolve themselves while I was away. Heh. We’ll see.


Want to read more on my book and my writing process? Check out the links below:

What’s It All About, Then?

A Sign – a chapter from Wilding: Book One of The Traveller’s Path

Stuck In the Middle

Bechdel Blues

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions…

Revision, or, In the Trenches

The Final Push?

Featured photo by Serge Kutuzov on Unsplash

Book review: The Private Lives of the Saints, by Dr. Janina Ramirez

The subtitle of this book, Power, Passion and Politics in Anglo-Saxon England, is a clue to why I was attracted to it. There is not a lot of books on Anglo-Saxons out there, and even fewer on the saints of the period. I was very glad to see that someone had tackled this subject!

Dr. Ramirez is an Oxford lecturer, BBC broadcaster, researcher, and author. Her aim in this book is to widen the stories of the Anglo-Saxon saints to encompass the times in which they lived, and to show how their influence in that tumultuous time gives us clues about the culture and society of the Anglo-Saxons themselves. The book was published in 2015 by WH Allen.

Needless to say, this is a subject near and dear to my heart, so it was with great eagerness that I opened the book. I was a little afraid that Dr. Ramirez would start from the seemingly more and more popular societal view that the Christians were the source of all that is wrong in our world (ok, maybe an exaggeration but you know what i mean, don’t you?), but thankfully I did not see that bias in this book. I found it to be a fair, balanced, and ultimately fascinating view of these real people who lived so very long ago.

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I will admit to knowing nothing about Dr. Ramirez before reading this book, but I was delighted to find she is has many BBC TV specials to her name (including one on The Treasures of the Anglo Saxons) , as well as print publications both academic and mainstream. She has her PhD thesis, The Symbolic Life of Birds in Anglo-Saxon England available at her website. Cool! Plus, she does many lectures and hosts a podcast, Art Detective. Phew! Busy lady! Image from her Facebook page. 

The book begins with a short but succinct description of Anglo-Saxon England. as well as an important explanation of the word, “saint”.  Too often we take our modern definition of “saint” – an extra-holy person officially canonized by the Roman Catholic Church – to frame our understanding of these early saints. However, in the Anglo-Saxon period, a person was declared a saint by the common consensus of the people, which meant that pretty much anyone with influence and high status could earn this title. And even some without those qualifiers.

The lines between secular and sacred, the worldly and the otherworldly, are incredibly hard to define in the early medieval period. A king could be a saint, and a bishop could rule like a king. The idea that someone could be declared a saint simply due to popularity is something that is hard to grasp from our twenty-first century perspective. 

Ramirez gives us a good example from modern times to help us understand how this worked. Princess Diana was a royal figure, who lived in the public eye, and who was known for her good deeds and kindness. Her death sparked worldwide mourning on an heretofore unseen scale. In Anglo-Saxon England, Diana would likely have beeen heralded as a saint (with the caveat that of course, a saint in the early medieval period would also have the added mantle of Christian piety attached). But her example gives us an understanding of the mixture of public status, power, and virtuous living that seized the imaginations of the Anglo-Saxons and prompted them to confer the title of “saint” on various people in their society.

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Princess Di, a modern-day saint? Image by John McIntyre on Flickr

The book looks at the important Anglo-Saxon saints in chronological order, starting with Alban, Britain’s first Christian martyr in the 3rd or 4th century,  and ending with Alfred the Great (died 899 AD). Along the way she covers many of the saints that I have discussed on the blog, such as Brigid, Patrick, Columba, Cuthbert, Hilda, and Bede; plus a few others that I haven’t got to  yet: Alban, Gregory, Wilfrid, and Alfred.

In each chapter Dr. Ramirez gives us a thorough understanding of the times in which the person lived, and attempts to go beyond the official hagiographic account of the saint to explore what this person was really like, as well as their impact on their society. Along the way we learn fascinating details about the Anglo-Saxons and the incredible diversity of people, religion and culture that made up the mix of life at that time.

Dr. Ramirez gives us a really good principle to follow when studying the past, and it’s one that resonated with me. It is exactly this principle that has made it easier for me, as a novelist, to tackle the sometimes daunting task of bringing an era that is so far removed from our own to life:

…it is a central premise when studying the past to remember that humanity never changes beyond recognition, and regardless of the seeming differences between people past and present, basic human interests remain largely the same. 

It is this connection to the humanity of these sometime plastic and daunting figures that makes The Private Lives of the Saints so interesting.

I was happy to see that my own ramblings on these subjects on the blog lined up fairly well with what Dr. Ramirez presents in her book. As I have said before, I am very much an amateur on these subjects – I’m a novelist, not an academic historian – but I have done careful research on the times and people of the Early Medieval period in order to present that era as accurately as I can in my novel.

Dr. Ramirez does take a different view of Brigid than I did, which is fair. She come down on the side of the theory that Brigid was not a real person, but her cult grew out of a Christianizing of the goddess Brigantia. I won’t quibble with her. I think there are compelling cases to be made for either view. And I would certainly not recommend you skip that chapter if you disagree with her on that, because if you did you would miss one of the highlights of the book for me. The chapter on Brigid contains a wonderful explanation of the history of monasticism and how the Celts looked to the early Desert Fathers for inspiration as they established their monasteries in extreme, harsh locations. This chapter is well-worth reading, even if you might not agree with her ultimate conclusion about Brigid.

I also loved that Ramirez included a couple of favourites of mine who are not officially names “saints” but whose influence cannot be denied, that being the Venerable Bede and Alfred the Great (I haven’t done a post on him yet, but I definitely will!).  They were highly important figures not only in their day but also in our own. We owe a lot to them both, and in this book you will find out why.

I highly recommend The Private Lives of the Saints. I learned a lot, but never get bogged down in dry history. Dr. Ramirez has brought these people and the era in which they lived into bright relief. I really appreciate her careful and thorough scholarship throughout, as well as her knack of making it all so very interesting.

I give this one 5 stars. Perfect for lovers of history, especially of the Anglo-Saxon era, but really for anyone who wants to understand more about these fascinating people who have shaped the world we live in today.


Want to know more about my book, Wilding (publication date October 2018) as well as access to contests, ebook deals, and other fun stuff? Subscribe to my newsletter !

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Year of Reading Buechner: Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation

American writer Frederick Buechner has written four memoirs: Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days (1982); Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation (1983); Telling Secrets (1991) and The Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found (2000)

Throughout the course of this year’s reading series, A Year of Reading Buechner, I am working my way through the memoirs. I read the first one, A Sacred Journey, a couple of months ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it, and so it was with great anticipation that I settled  down on the couch to read Memoir #2, Now and Than: A Memoir of Vocation. 

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I was not disappointed. Like the first one, this second memoir is short, but full of rich meditations on life and vocation.

A Sacred Journey finished at the point where Buechner is going off to seminary to become a Presbyterian minister, and this book begins right where he left off. He details his life at college, and the beginning stages of his career as a college professor and a writer.

However, “details” is probably the wrong word. Unlike The Alphabet of Grace which took readers through one day in detail, this book is more of a bird’s-eye view of about thirty years in his life, in which he began as a student and ends as a best-selling author and successful lecturer.

The book is broken up into three sections. The first, New York, details his life as a student at Union Theological Seminary, his wrestling with the decision to give up writing to become a minister, and his marriage to his wife, Judy.

However, as it turns out, he doesn’t exactly have to make the choice between writing and the church. Shortly after his graduation, when he had resolved to set writing aside and embrace his call as a minister, and was waiting to find a church at which to serve, he received a letter from a colleague who was trying to organize a full-time religion department at Phillips Exeter Academy, in New Hampshire, and asks Buechner if he would take it on. The second section of the book, called Exeter, takes place here, where Buechner and his wife move and he accepts the job as Head of the Religion Department.

It’s not exactly the same as being the minister of a local church, but he finds out it is very much like it. As well as conducting classes at the Academy, Buechner is called upon to preach at the (then mandatory) chapel services, where he encounters a congregation of young, bright, skeptical, and even hostile youth who attend services only because they are forced to be, as part of their requirement for their degrees.

And these students, who share, with all of us, the same dark doubts and wild hopes, in turn force Buechner to be on his toes. As he explains,

what little by little I learned from those years at Exeter was that unless those who proclaim the Gospel acknowledge honestly that darkness and speak bravely to the wildness of those hopes, they might as well save their breath for all the lasting difference their proclaiming will make to anybody. 

During his nine years at Exeter, as the Religion Department grew under his leadership, his family grew, too. Three daughters came along, and with them, a cosy family life. But after about four years, he takes a year off to do some writing, out of which comes a novel, The Final Beast. 

It is also during the years at Exeter that he encounters Agnes Sanford, whose teachings on healing prayer had a great influence on many Christians both then, and now. From her he learns how to pray, how to listen in prayer, and the importance of faith in prayer. And for one whose early childhood was marred by the suicide of his father, her teachings on the healing of memories must have struck a profound chord.

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Phillips Exeter Academy, where they still have a Religion Department. It includes a course called Faith and Doubt, which requires the students to read one of Buechner’ s works, The Alphabet of Grace. I think he must be pleased by that. Image by JeffL on Flickr

The final section of the book, Vermont,  is about the time after Exeter, when he left the thriving Religion Department and moved to Vermont. There, crippled by doubt that he was making the right choice, he lays aside his busy academic life and begins to write in earnest.  It is during this time that he comes face to face with a character who will engage him like none other before, Leo Bebb, who becomes the main character of The Book of Bebb, published originally in four parts (1971, 1972, 1974 and 1977) and finally bundled together and published together in 1979.

During this time Buechner’s daughters grow up and move out, and as he says,

Life went on, of course, and I managed to get around much as before, but there were times when it felt like trying to get around on broken legs, and there are times when it feels that way still. 

As one whose children have left the nest to follow their own adventures, I can very much relate.

This book is engaging and thought-provoking.  Buechner revisits the theme he explored in A Sacred Journey, that of looking at our lives as not only “what happens to us” but as how God is speaking to us through the events in our lives.

Listen to your life, he writes. All moments are key moments. He further explains,

What are the words, what is the meaning, that this living alphabet of events spells out?–not meaning in the sense of a lesson to be drawn, a moral to be appended, but meaning in the sense of what your life means to you, of what your life is telling you about yourself? 

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It’s a good reminder to stop and ponder these things, and to think about how God arranges your life, and the decisions your make and the paths you take, along with the ones not taken, and how it all becomes more than the sum of its parts.  Not a movie, but more like a stone that Joshua took from the Jordan as the Israelites passed over and set on the side of the river as a remembrance, for the Israelites to revisit and remember their great escape. There are a great many of these remembrance stones to be found along the path of our lives, if we would just look for them.

In this book Buechner also touches briefly on the craft of writing. I found a couple of good pointers.  One, to use words in your writing that are the most accurate and alive that you can find. This is great advice for any writer, whether of fiction or non-fiction.

I also like this advice:

If you have to choose between words that mean more than what you have experienced and words that mean less, choose the ones that mean less because that way you leave room for your hearers to move around in and for yourself to move around in too. 

All in all, this is a graceful, poetic, interesting memoir that is not only about Frederick Buechner and his life as a lecturer and author from the 1950s to the 1980s, but it is also about every one of us. As he says in the introduction,

If you tell your own story with sufficient candor and concreteness, it will be an interesting story and in some sense a universal story. I do it also in the hope of encouraging others to do the same–at least to look back over their own lives, as I have looked back over mine, for certain themes and patterns and signals that are so easy to miss when you’re caught up in the process of living them. 

I think he succeeds, and so I highly recommend this book.

Listen to your life. You may just hear God’s voice speaking to you, too, and be surprised and delighted at what He says.


Other posts in this series:

2018 Reading Challenge: The Year of Reading Buechner

Year of Reading Buechner: The Remarkable Ordinary

Year of Reading Buechner: A Sacred Journey

Year of Reading Buechner: Brendan, A Novel

Year of Reading Buechner: The Alphabet of Grace

 

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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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