Year of Reading Buechner: Wrap-up

I know it’s now been a couple months since 2018 wrapped up (how did that happen?) but I have just now realized that I never did a wrap-up post on my reading series from last year, The Year of Reading Buechner.

Last year I took on the challenge of reading one Frederick Buechner book a month. The books I read are as follows (all linked to the posts about them):

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

Year of Reading Buechner: Godric

Year of Reading Buechner: Telling Secrets: A Memoir

Year of Reading Buechner: A Room Called Remember

Year of Reading Buechner: Lion Country

Year Of Reading Buechner: Eyes of the Heart

Year of Reading Buechner: Crazy, Holy Grace

Highlights and (not really) Lowlights

I am so glad that I spent a year with Frederick Buechner, an author I had heard much about before but had never got around to reading. His books were challenging, beautiful, layered, and impactful. It’s hard to summarize exactly how I feel about his books, but here’s some of the highlights of the year for me, anyway.

  1. Favourite book of the year (nonfiction) – this is tough. But if I have to pick just one as a favourite, it would have to be A Sacred Journey, his first memoir, which I read way back in February 2018. This is an astonishing book. It is short, but packed full of insights and sentences that make you want to stop and ponder your own life. Probably one of the best memoirs I have read. It’s so wonderful how he can take the tale of his life, a very ordinary life in many ways, and make it into a profound meditation on life, death, and faith. I don’t want to give too much away. I want you to read it for yourself and discover its treasures as well.
  2. Favourite book of the year (fiction) – see how clever I am? I can get two favourites this way! But I should really say, look how clever Buechner is, that he can write both nonfiction and fiction with such skill. I will admit that his fiction was harder for me to get through than his nonfiction. But that says more about me than about him. My favourite that I read this year was Brendan, the tale about the Dark Ages monk who set out with some other monks to find the land of the saints. This book featured a saint whom I am particularly fond of, and I loved seeing him brought to life in Buechner’s tale. Buechner is such a clever writer, and he’s not afraid to tackle life as it is in his novels, not life as we wish it would be. So he presents us a very human saint, which is not a bad thing at all. But don’t read this book if you are expecting a sanitized view of life in the Early Middle Ages, or a “typical” Christian fiction book.
  3. Favourite book I didn’t read this year – Son of Laughter. It’s perhaps cheating a bit to include this book on my list of favourites seeing as I didn’t read it this year, but I don’t want you to miss this one. The story of Jacob, the scheming son of Isaac (whose name means “laughter”, as his mother Sarah laughed when the angel of the Lord told Abraham he would have an heir), was my first introduction to Buechner. I read it a few years ago, but it has stayed with me ever since. Jacob is no sanitized saint in Buechner’s hands. But it is in his very real and flawed humanity that the grace of God shines so brightly. A brilliant book, and I loved it very much!

Although I really enjoyed most of the books I read this year, there were a couple that were my least favourites. Which means out of a scale of 1-10, they would get a 6 or 7, instead of the 9-10 the others got. In other words, they are still excellent books.

  1. Least favourite nonfiction – if I had to pick one, I would choose the last one I read, Crazy, Holy, Grace. And that is only because it is a compilation of essays and pieces of some of his other books, some of which I had already read during the year. But for someone who was looking to get an introduction to Buechner’s works, you wouldn’t go too far wrong with this book.

   2. Least favourite fiction – Lion Country. So many people love the tetraology of books    called The Book of Bebb, of which this is the first book, that I hate to put it down as my least favourite. It’s very well written, and I like the way Buechner presents the tensions in the book between doubt and faith, dark and light.. But the whole insinuation of Bebb possibly being a pedophile was just a little too much for me. That being said, I do have the other three books on my Kindle. I will read them, because I love Buechner so much that I am willing to go a little further into the story just to see where he goes with it.

What I learned as a writer. 

I would be foolish not to take some tips from Buechner, the writer, to carry with me from my reading series this year. He is a master of the craft, hailed by many as one of America’s best writers. So, what have I learned from Buechner?

First of all, be honest. In both his fiction and non-fiction books, Buechner is not afraid to explore all aspects of what it means to be human. His memoirs are painfully honest at times, and in his his fiction he is not afraid to use a lamp that throws into stark relief both the best and worst of humanity.

This is terribly important for all writers, but especially, I think, for those of us who write either about faith or about people of faith. It’s so tempting to gloss over the character flaws and hard times, and to just show the sunny side of life. Buechner’s writings are a good reminder that as writers we need to show the truth, both good and bad, in order for our readers to come to terms with that truth in their own lives.

Secondly, make your words sing. Buechner is a beautiful writer. I’ve said before that he is probably the most quotable writer I have read (C.S. Lewis and he vie for this honour in my mind). He hones his words well, polishing them until they shine. The quote that I have had as the featured picture for each of the posts of the series is a good example.

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. 

Three phrases, each of them short and to the point. But all together they give us truth and hope in equal measure, stiffening our spine for our forays down the paths life gives us.

And what about another one of his most famous quotes?

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace. 

– From

These are words that speak to the hidden springs within us, that make us stop, give us eyes to see things we may not have seen before. It’s not just the thought, which is profound, but the way he expresses it, which brings the thought to life in our minds.

He does this in his fiction, too:

What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup. (from Godric)

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

I could go on and on. Pretty much each page I have read has some kind of underlining or note on it. He is just that good.

What I learned about life.

You can’t come away from a year immersed in Frederick Buechner’s words and not learn something. In my case, his words were a reminder of the importance of paying attention, to listen and see all the ways that God speaks to us every day, and to look back and see the ways in which He has been present all along.

Buechner reminded me that everything is important. Even the most mundane encounters or events holds layers of mystery that we would do well to examine.

His flawed characters gave me hope. If God could use them, and He does, then surely He can use me, too. The bumbling steps of faith these characters make, sometimes stubborn, sometimes naive, sometimes clueless, are a picture of all of our journeys. It’s always comforting to know we are not alone, right?

It’s been a marvellous year reading through a few of the works of Frederick Buechner. I heartily recommend him to anyone who loves good writing and is not afraid to slow down a bit to catch a glimpse of the glory of our lives.

 

 

 

Year of Reading Buechner: Crazy, Holy Grace

Near the beginning of the year, just as I was starting this year’s reading series, I picked up a few of Buechner’s books to have on hand as the year progressed. As Crazy, Holy Grace (published in 2017) was one of his newer books, it was readily available, unlike some of the older volumes. I started to read it as the second book of the series, back in February. But I quickly realized that this was not new material, but a compilation of  sections of other works. As some of the books included were ones that I had been planning to read this year, I set this one aside to read as my final Buechner book of the year, to serve as a bit of a summary and reminder of what I had been reading all year.

And here we are, December already! This is my last month in my Year of Reading Buechner series, and I will be sad to see it go. I will write a little more about the year’s books in a final summary of the series in January, but for now I will say that I have enjoyed his books very much, on many different levels.

This book is subtitled, The Healing Power of Pain and Memory, and the excerpts from various of his works all touch in some way on those topics. However, they are pretty loosely related, in some cases, and because this book is a compilation, it doesn’t have the same flow that his other books do.

Which I missed. Buechner is a careful and precise writer, at his best, and although his books are short, they pack a lot of punch because of the thought he puts into not only the words he uses but the structure of the book. Crazy, Holy Grace feels like a bit of a hodgepodge in comparison.

God+Can+Turn+It+To+Good.jpgThat’s not to say that the book has no value. The book is divided into three sections. Part I is Pain and God’s Crazy, Holy Grace, and it consists of just two chapters, a new essay, “The Gates of Pain”,  and a chapter from his first memoir, A Sacred Journey.  The first chapter  is a wise reflection on the different ways we deal with pain in our lives, and how facing it instead of burying it is the way out of the pain into healing and joy. He uses the Parable of the Talents, found in Matthew 25:14-30, to show us why it is important to be good stewards of our pain, not to ignore it or bury it. In the parables the man who is given the one talent (unit of money) and ends up burying it, is condemned as being a “wicked and slothful servant”. As  Buechner reflects on this, he writes,

…sloth is what this man is condemned for. Sloth is getting through life on automatic pilot. Not really being alive. Not really making use of what happens to you. Burying what you might have made something out of. Playing it safe with your life. To bury your life, bury your pain, to bury your joy. To bury whatever it is that the world gives you, and then live as carefully as you can without really living at all.

It’s a good reminder to try not to miss all that we can learn from the events in our lives, and to not neglect share what we have learned with others.

Part II, The Magic of Memory, consists of four chapters, one from A Room Called Remember, and the rest from his second memoir, The Eyes of the Heart. These all touch on memory and the power of remembering your life and trying to see beyond the simple events that happen down to the deeper meaning, to where God has met you even when you may not have noticed.

Part III, Reflections on Secrets, Grace, and How God Speaks, consists of little snippets of his writings from various books on those topics.

This book touches on many of the themes that resonate through Buechner’s writings: pain, memory, loss, faith, meaning, And in that way it could serve as a good introduction to his writing. But because we only get bits and pieces of his works, a reader new to Buechner’s works would miss the real depth and breadth of his skill as an author.

But even bits and pieces of Buechner are better than nothing! Crazy, Holy Grace was a good reminder of the power of his words, and a fitting end to my reading series this year.

 

 

 

Letters from the Dark Ages: Berhtgyth

It’s that time of year when letters and cards might actually arrive in your mailbox. Real letter, hand-written by a friend or loved one who lives far away. Isn’t it wonderful? One of the sad things about this modern age is the pen-and-paper letter has gone the way of the dodo, for the most part.

Of course, this is a relatively new phenomenon. Up until even thirty years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to get a letter from someone far away. And even in Anglo-Saxon England, in the midst of the so-called Dark Ages, there were people who communicated to one another via letters.

This was not an easy task, and, just like today, not exactly a common one. There wasn’t the convenience of a centralized postal system which would handily take care of getting your letter to its destination. You had to find someone who was going to the letter’s intended destination, and then someone at that destination had to get that letter to the recipient.

Couple these difficulties with the fact that most people could not read and write, and you can easily see that for the general population, this means of communication was not possible. It’s hard for us to imagine now, but for most of human history, when people left their homes to go to faraway places (in those days, that could even be relatively close by, to our minds), it was likely that they would never be heard from or seen again by their loved ones.

Having said all that, it’s amazing that some letters from the 7th century survived through the centuries. They are  fascinating, as they give us a first hand view of one person’s life at the time. Since these close and personal glimpses of life in the Early Middle Ages are few and far between, these letters are very instructive to us today.

The one group of people who could easily write and send letters were those in religious life, as they learned to read and write as part of their vocations. And because there were often travellers between the various monasteries, they had a way for letters to be carried back and forth. So, it’s not surprising that the letters we have are mainly from Church men and women.

And seeing as the Church was engaging in missionary work at this time, establishing monasteries on the Continent, there were even opportunities to send letters back and forth across the ocean.

Today I want to introduce you to Berhtgyth, a Anglo-Saxon nun who grew up in Wessex. She eventually went overseas to Germany as part of a mission to that country, likely with her mother, Cynehild, and taught in the region of Thuringia, Germany. She likely worked under the leadership of the Abbess Leoba. At the end of the 8th century* she  wrote some letters to her brother, a monk named Balthard, who at the time of receiving the letters could have been Abbot of the monastery at Bad Hersfeld, in central Germany. The letters themselves aren’t clear exactly where Balthard was, but it is evident he was some distance away, either in Germany, or perhaps even back in England.

We don’t have Balthard’s side of the correspondence; just three letters that Berhtgyth wrote to him have survived. You might wonder why. Although it seems she was a learned woman and accomplished teacher, Berhtgyth was, by all accounts, an ordinary nun, doing the work set out for her as part of an English missionary circle which included the much more famous Boniface, the celebrated English missionary to Germany.

According to a later, 11th century Life of St. Boniface, Berhtgyth’s mother Cynehild was a maternal aunt of Lull. Lull (or Lullus) was the eventual successor of Boniface as Archbishop of Mainz. Because Boniface and Lull were both important figures, the correspondence between the two of them, as well as letters to and about Boniface, were saved for posterity. In the midst of that bundle of letters that have been saved (probably compiled by Lull), you will find these three letters from Berhtgyth to her brother Balthard. I will touch on why this might be so later.

500px-Lullus_statue_hersfeld.jpg

Statue of St. Lullus, in Bad Hersfeld. Image from Wikipedia

The letters are short, but remarkable. To give you a taste, here is the opening of the second letter:

Most beloved brother in God and dearest in the flesh, Berhtgyth salutes Balthard in the name of Christ. 

My soul is weary of my life because of our fraternal love, for I am alone, left behind and without help of kin. For my father and my mother abandoned me, but the Lord has taken me up. Many are the congregations of water between me and you, yet let us be joined in love because true love is never divided by the borders between places. But still I say that sadness never recedes from my soul, nor can I rest my mind in sleep, because love is as strong as death. I therefore ask you now, most beloved brothers to come to me or have me come to you, so that I might see you before I die, because your love never leaves my soul. Brother, your only sister salutes you in Christ. 

All three letters follow this theme. In them, Berhtgyth begs her brother to come and visit her, and expresses her loneliness and sadness at being abandoned by her parents (by their death). In fact, as you can tell from this excerpt, she does lay it on rather thick. However, we have to keep in mind that this type of overblown rhetoric only seems that way to our  modern eyes. In some of the other literature we have looked at, such as The Wife’s Lament, you can see hints of this same style, so it’s not like this was unusual for the times.

In the third letter, we get a glimpse of some of the ways letters travelled from one person to another, as we see that Balthard has obviously replied to Berhtgyth’s letter.

It may be known to you that your missionary words came to me through a faithful messenger named Aldraed,  together with gifts that are embraced with intimate love. And now I confess to you that with the help of God I long to fulfill all that you instructed me, if your will might deem it worthy to come to me, because I cannot in any other way suppress my fountain of tears.

Aldread has brought a letter back to her from Balthard, along with some gifts. It almost seems like the package of a letter and the gift maybe passed through more than one hand, finally getting to Aldread and thus to Berhtgyth. And at the end of the letter, she reciprocates:

A little present, although small, still loaded with great love, which we send to you by the faithful messenger named Alfred; that is a ribbon.

Try to look past the “fountain of tears” to see the woman who wrote the words, who has given up husband and family to serve Christ as a nun, and who is missing her only kin, her brother, longing for a glimpse of home in a foreign land. They write back and forth, sending gifts via a messenger or messengers they can only hope and pray will reach their destination. It’s really rather touching, don’t you think?

There is some speculation that these letters were included with the bundle of Boniface correspondence as a type of “form letter” that others could use in their own correspondences to use in similar circumstances. If you were missing your brother/sister/aunt/uncle/mother/father, etc, you could pull out these letters, personalize it with the appropriate names, and you would have a letter already done for you. Keep in mind that letter writing was an important skill that was taught in Classical times, and although we don’t know for sure, there are hints that it could have been taught throughout the Early Medieval period in England as well at the monastery schools. It was expected that letters would follow certain forms and include specific parts. It would have been handy to have examples of a “good” letter to work from for busy church men and women.

At any rate, no matter why there are there, I’m really glad these letters still survive. We get a small glimpse of an ordinary person of the times, in her own words. That it is a woman’s voice we are hearing is even more remarkable. These letters are a small window into this long-ago time, one far removed from the battles, warriors, and saints we usually see.

But I wish we knew whether Balthard finally visited Berhtgyth or not, don’t you? I really hope so!


Featured image from medievalists.net

If you want more in-depth info on Berhtgyth’s letters, have a look at Berhtgyth’s Letters to Balthard, a scholarly paper from the University of Iowa by Kathryn Maude.

 

Cover Reveal! 

This is it! If you are one of my newsletter subscribers, you got a sneak peek at this last week, but today I’m releasing to the wider world the cover of my first book, Wilding: Book One of the Traveller’s Path.

I think it looks awesome, how about you? The designers at Ebooklaunch did a fabulous job, and I am very pleased. I would recommend them if you are in the market for a cover. And bonus: they are Canadian, to boot!

Someone asked me, “What are the significance of the elements of the cover?” I wasn’t able to give a very coherent answer, mainly because we were sitting at a table at a social event with loud music and lots of conversation in the background, so it was difficult to explain anything in-depth. But it was a good question, and I thought I could answer it properly here.

1. The Celtic Cross – the main bulk of the story action takes place in 7th century Northumbria. The cross represents this time and place because it was a time when the Christian faith was beginning to become the dominant faith, and in particular, the variety of Christianity that we now call Celtic Christianity was the one the people there adhered to. This Celtic Cross could be found dotted across the Northumbrian landscape, at various monasteries and as well as at places where they would be known as “teaching crosses”, places where travelling monks would stop and preach the Gospel on their rounds throughout the kingdom. The cross on the cover also represents the monastery at Lindisfarne, where Thomas, my main character, finds refuge. And finally, it symbolizes the spiritual journey Thomas undergoes as he is swept away from everything familiar, and his already struggling faith is challenged in new and unexpected ways.

2. The crows – I don’t want to give too much away, here, but I can just say that the crows represent Thomas’ main adversary in the Travelling Path series (which will likely be three books, but I’m not exactly sure yet).

3. The mist – Thomas, and others, have a recurring dream, of him walking through the mist, heading towards an unspecified, but earth-shattering, threat. So I thought it would be good to include this on the cover.

I wanted a cover that was not too cluttered but gave readers a sense of the book’s content and genre. One thing that was tricky was to impart the sense that this is not just a historical book, but a historical fantasy. In the end, we decided to do that by making the font stylized and artistic, rather than just block letters. Barring dragons and wizards on the cover (neither of which appear in my book) I think it helps to give the cover a fantasy feel.

It was an interesting process to get this designed, and a fun one. And to see my name on the cover…whoo.

My final bit of news is that I have firmed up my publication date. Wilding will be available on Amazon and all the other e-book retailers on February 5, 2019. 

Lots to do until then….stay tuned!


If you are interested in a sneak peak at the first chapter of Wilding, sign up for my newsletter!  You will also get other exclusive book content, interesting articles, and maybe even a fun contest or two along the way. A new edition will land in your inbox about once a month, unless I have something important to share. Your privacy is important to me, and I will never spam you.

Year of Reading Buechner: Lion Country

Frederick Buechner published Lion Country as a stand-alone novel in 1971, to great acclaim. It was a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction in 1972. Buechner would go on to write three other novels featuring Leo Bebb, one of the main characters in Lion Country: Open Heart (1972), Love Feast (1974) and Treasure Hunt (1977). These were all compiled together and published as a one-volume tetralogy called The Book of Bebb, in 1979.

Lion Country wasn’t the first novel Buechner had written (it is his sixth), but it does come before the other novels I have read in this series. I was greatly anticipating reading it, based on some reviews and comments I have read about it.

Unknown-1

The original 1971 cover

Unfortunately, I have to say that I struggled with this book.

Buechner’s fiction is often populated by slightly grotesque figures, and this book is no different. He delights in writing about odd, deeply flawed people who nonetheless, have a hint of the holy about them. It’s a stock character that he first encountered as a boy in King Rinkitink, in the Oz books, but continued to be haunted by throughout his life. He explains his attraction to these characters in his memoir, The Sacred Journey, writing about the whiskey priest in Graham Greene’s  novel, The Power and the Glory:

…what Greene fathomlessly conveys is that the power and glory of God are so overwhelming that they can shine forth into the world through even such as one as this seedy, alcoholic little failure of a man who thus, less by any virtue of his own than by the sheer power of grace within him, becomes a kind of saint at the end…

Buechner’s characters, from Godric to Brendan to the biblical patriarch Jacob (in Son of Laughter) all have this hint of the “holy fool” about them.

Leo Bebb, the holy roller diploma-mill charlatan, is definitely cut from this mold. He is a slippery character to pin down, sometimes heroic, sometimes foolish and vain, and with a shadowy past of jail time for exposing himself to children, hovering over him. And to be honest,  this last part of the book is where the novel fell down for me. Perhaps the times have changed too much from 1971 until now. This possible scandal of Bebb’s past, which surfaces again in the novel’s present time action, is too fraught with pain and sorrow and agony, in our modern-day reality of pedophile priests. Especially since Buechner uses it as a sort of strange comic relief at the end.

The main character, Antonio Parr, is pretty much a regular guy, although slightly neurotic, and drifting through his life. He has a girlfriend that he hasn’t been able to commit to for seven years; he has tried teaching, writer, and artist as a career, never getting too far with any of those. He is a man very much waiting for something to happen to kick him out of his rut, and Bebb comes along just in the nick of time.

Antonio answers an ad in the paper which states “Put yourself on God’s payroll–go to work for Jesus NOW”, and after enclosing a love offering and a self-addressed envelope, receives an ordination certificate in his name, from the Church of Holy Love in Armadillo, Florida. Antonio writes back, offering to meet with Bebb the next time he was in New York to discuss various ministries he might do, but secretly planning on exposing Bebb as a charlatan.

The novel opens with their meeting in New York, and Antonio is immediately captivated by Bebb, with his odd appearance and mannerisms, and his strange way of speaking. I am here to save your soul, Antonio Parr, Bebb tells him. How could Antonio not be intrigued?

Antonio ends up making a trip down to Florida to do more in-depth research for himself, leaving gloomy New York with his dying twin sister and his stalled relationship, and finds himself in sunny, hot Florida, where he meets Bebb again, along with his assistant Brownie, wife Lucille, and their adopted daughter Sharon. All of these characters are odd in their own ways, and it adds to the circus-like atmosphere of the world surrounding Bebb.

The action of the book moves between these two worlds, Florida and New York, and takes us along with Antonio on a journey of doubt and faith, but not in the way you might think. This is not a story of an unbeliever who has a dramatic faith conversion. Far from it. This is a glimpse at the beginning of someone’s faith journey, of those first few musings, the beginning back and forth between belief and doubt, when doubt very much has the upper hand.

There are a lot of ambiguities in this book. Is Bebb a charlatan, or no? What happened to Bebb and Lucille’s infant daughter, exactly? Are the “silvers and golds”, as Bebb calls them, really aliens from outer space? Did Bebb really resurrect Brownie from the dead? And when Bebb exposes himself during Herman Redpath’s ordination, was it done on purpose, or not? And if he did, why would he?

I suppose there are layers in this book that I am missing. Perhaps I need to read the rest of the books and get Bebb’s whole story.  I probably will, but not just now.

quote-frederick-buechner-can-find-grace-and-redemption-even-in-the-shoddiest-phoniest-aspects-louis-auchincloss-121-17-60

Just to give you another view….This fellow obviously got more out of the book than I did. 

So, I can’t say I loved it, which I’m sad about. It’s the first thing of Buechner’s that I can’t wholeheartedly recommend.

But that’s ok. There’s more Buechner to read, and I’ll be diving into more of his non-fiction this month. Look for my next Year of Reading Buechner post at end of November, where I will be discussing Eyes of the Heart, his fourth (and last) memoir.


For more posts in my Year of Reading Buechner series, see the links below

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

Year of Reading Buechner: Godric

Year of Reading Buechner: Telling Secrets: A Memoir

Year of Reading Buechner: A Room Called Remember

 

 

The Franks Casket

The Franks Casket, also known as the Auzon Casket, is a singularly fascinating object from early 8th century Anglo-Saxon England, probably Northumbrian in origin.

It is a small chest (the word “casket” is a bit deceiving, it is only 9″ by 4″). It’s unknown exactly what its original purpose was, but possibly it was made to hold a Gospel book or a book of Psalms (a psalter). It is made out of whale bone.

It is amazing that this small chest survived at all through the centuries. It first came to light in medieval France, as a reliquary in St. Julien’s Basilica in Brioude. It next appears on the record as a possession of a family in Auzon, France. Possibly it was looted from the church during the French Revolution, but it’s hard to say. At any rate, the box was used as a sewing box until the silver hinges and fittings were taken off and traded for a silver ring.

220px-Augustus_Wollaston_Franks

Sir Augustus Wolloston Franks, described by Marjorie Caygill, historian of the British Museum, as “arguably the most important collector in the history of the British Museum, and one of the greatest collectors of his age”. Image from Wikicommons

Without the hinges the box fell apart, and the panels were shown to a professor who sold them to an antique dealer in Paris. Three of the panels were bought by Sir Augustus Wolloston Franks in 1857, and he donated them to the British Museum as he was the Keeper of the British and Medieval collections there,

The missing fourth panel (the right end) was found in a drawer by the family in Auzon and sold to the Bargello Museum in Florence, where it still resides.  It wasn’t until 1890 that the discovery was made that it belonged to the other pieces in the British Museum. The British Museum made a cast of the missing piece and reassembled the casket, and it is now on display there.

What is so interesting about this small chest are the exquisite carvings that adorn the sides and the top. Each panel depicts a different scene, all of them include runic inscriptions of varying lengths, with one Latin word thrown in for good measure. The dating and place of origin of the Franks casket comes mainly from the linguistic evidence of the words and the artistic style of the carvings.

The inscription on the front is a riddle, which also includes the answer. It is a riddle that describes what the box is made out of:

The flood lifted up the fish on to the cliff-bank;
the whale became sad, where he swam on the shingle.

Whale’s bone.

The casket was most certainly made in a monastery for some important figure, likely a king. There have been some attempts to tie it to the monastery at Ripon, founded by Wilfrid, but nothing definitive can be said about that.

There have been reams of scholarship on the decorative carvings, and that is because they are all so very different, and have many possible interpretations. The runes are not exactly straightforward, either, as in one spot the carver has used a simple substitution cipher to encrypt the words, and in other places has even written words backwards. This type of playing with words and letters is familiar – the use of riddles and encryption is seen in other surviving manuscripts from this time period. Anglo-Saxons obviously had a great respect for the power of the written word, don’t you think? I find it so fascinating, Don’t you wish you could sit down with the maker and find out exactly what was in his mind as he made this object?

Originally all the carved panels were thought to be random scenes, placed with no overall thought or design in mind. However, scholars are starting to reject that idea. They are now coming to see the carvings as an extremely clever and intellectually rich commentary, chosen precisely for how they all fit together.

The trouble is that the overarching theme or commentary is still unknown, and likely will never be known. Some postulate that the casket is telling the story of the history of England, from its pagan past to its Christian present (at least at the time of the 8th century, when it was created). Others see it as a commentary of the superiority of Christianity over pagan religions.

Because the obviously Christian element on the panel is only one small part of it, though, the thinking is that the casket was likely meant for a secular ruler. There are certainly  many references to secular/pagan legends and history.

There is so much informed and scholarly thought about what each of the carved panels represent that it would be a longer blog post than you likely want to read to tell you all of the possible interpretations. But, in a nutshell, here are a brief description of the panels and some of the proposed meanings of them.

Front panel – contains the riddle described above, flowing around the top, bottom, and sides of the panel, written in runes. The pictures are broken up into two distinct scenes. One the right, you have the only obviously Christian scene on the casket, that of the Adoration of the Magi after Christ was born in Bethlehem. We know this because the maker has helpfully included the word “mægi” over the three figures who are bowing to the baby held by the woman. Easy-peasy.

On the left, there is something completely different, namely, a depiction of part of the Germanic legend of Weyland the Smith. In this scene Welyand has been captured by the cruel king Niohad.. It also depicts the headless body of Niohad’s son, whom Weyland has killed in revenge for his captivity. Weyland is holding a goblet in his tongs, this could be the missing head, which he has made into a goblet. In the legend he offers a goblet of drugged beer to Niohad’s daughter, whom he then rapes. A female figure is in this scene, probably this is her.

Why on earth would the creator of this casket put these two scenes together? Possibly it is juxtaposing the benign Christ and his rule as opposed to the darkness and death of paganism from which the Saxons have escaped.

274672983_3e9591f0cc_z

Front panel. Image from John W. Schulze, on Flickr

Left side panel – this is a depiction of the legend of the twins Romulus and Remus, the two founders of Rome. The legend states that they were suckled by a she-wolf. The panel shows the wolf on her back, protecting and suckling the twins, with four men with spears watching. The runic inscription says, Romulus and Remus, two brothers: a she-wolf fed them in Rome city, far from their native land. 

This legend shows up in other Anglo-Saxon artifacts from the 8th century, so it’s not necessarily surprising to see it here. There are some parallels to it and the story of Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon brothers who were the legendary founders of England. Bede tells us that they were invited to Britain by King Vortigern along with a mercenary army of Saxons, Angles, and Jutes, to help him fight against the Picts of the north in the light of the departure of Rome’s legions in the 5th century.  Soon the money ran out and the erstwhile saviours turned against the British and began to claim England for their own.

Therefore, this panel could also be a reference to England’s past.

Alternatively, Rome was the centre of the Christian church at the time, so this could be symbolizing the aid and succour that Mother Church gives to her children.

I hope you are starting to see the difficulty scholars have in interpreting these scenes!

Franks_Casket_the_left_panel

Left panel. Image from Wikicommons

Back Panel – this depicts the conquest of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD by Titus. Again, the runic inscription explains this. Interestingly, some of the words here are carved in Latin script, not with the runic alphabet.

Again, one might wonder why this scene is included here. This conquest of the Jews  by the Gentile Roman, Titus, was seen as a divine punishment by God for the wickedness of the Jews in their rejection of Christ. Similarly, Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of England,  presents the invasion of the Saxons as punishment of the Britons for their moral laxity. This panel, then, could be a subtle, or not-so-subtle, commentary on a painful episode in England’s history that God used to chasten his wayward people. Others speculate it is more general than that, and is a commentary of the triumph of Christianity over Judaism.

Franks_Casket_-_Back_side

Back panel. Roman soldiers are on the left, beseiging Jerusalem. On the right are the captive prisoners being led away. Note the Latin letters on the top right. Image from Wikicommons

 

Lid – The top is missing the two panels that border the centre panel, which, assuming it was similar to the sides, contained the runic inscription. Perhaps these were made of silver as well, with the runes etched on it? Hard to say.  It also has a round spot in the middle which could have had an embellished silver boss or a knob-like handle attached.

Without the helpful runic inscriptions, it’s a little harder to suss out the meaning of the carvings. Some speculate it depicts an unknown part of the legend of Egill, a Germanic hero who is Weyland’s brother. There is one runic word incorporated in the carving, which says Ægill, hence the above interpretation. Other scholars argue that the word is actually referring to Achilles, and the carving is a depiction of the death of Achilles at Troy.

images-1

Lid. Image from Wikipedia

images-2

Here you can see the centre panel on the lid, with the obvious missing pieces on either side. Image from Wikicommons

Right Side Panel – this is the most enigmatic of all, and the one that generates the most scholarly debate. The inscription reads,

Here the horse stands above the mound of woe,
It suffers tribulation; just as to her Erta appointed anxiety,
A grave of grief, in sorrow and anguish of heart.

Wood. Biter. Rush.

Hmm. Not really helpful. This is the panel that contains the encrypted words, and as well the words run together without separation between them, adding to the difficulty of translation.

The picture is of a horse standing over a mound, which contains a human-like figure (possibly a burial mound, the “mound of woe”). On the left there is a strange figure with the body of a man and the head of a horse sitting on a mound, with a man wearing a helmet and carrying a spear in front of it. On the right there are three figures. This possibly echoes the three magi on the front.

The word “horse” is sometimes translated as Hos, a name. But no one knows who Hos and Erta (or Eratae)  are, or what legend they refer to. There are also possible references to the Norse god Woden, as the symbols under the legs of the horse are ones that could refer to him.

Some believe this picture refers back to Hengist and Horsa again. The word “horsa” means “horse” in Old English, so perhaps this depicts Horsa mourning over the death of his brother Hengist.

There are several other interpretations of this panel which I won’t go into here. Needless to say, it’s a mystery!

Franks_Casket_the_right_panel

Right side panel (this is the cast that was made from the original). Image from Wikicommons 

So, the pictures and inscriptions on the casket are a great source of scholarly discussion. To top it all off, there seems to also be some numerological significance to the number of runes on the casket. There are 72 runes on the front and left panels, and a total of 288 runes in total. The 72 could correspond to the 72 disciples mentioned in the Latin Vulgate Bible familiar to the Anglo-Saxons. The number 288 is a multiple of 24, which is the number of runes in an early continental Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet, which had magical significance for the Anglo-Saxons.

Phew! No wonder many scholars have devoted so much time and effort on trying to decipher the runes and pictures on this little box. The more you look at it, the more you discover.

This beautiful box has so much to tell us about this fascinating period in England’s history. It’s an extremely important object that demonstrates for us the rich cultural milieu from which it sprang, giving us tantalizing hints into the way they saw themselves.


Featured image from Wikipedia


Do you want to know more about Anglo-Saxon England, or the other topics I cover here on the blog? Do you want to be kept up to date on the publication of my first novel, Wilding: Book One of the Traveller’s Path? Sign up for my newsletter and you will get all this, and more!

NewsletterSubscribe

Year of Reading Buechner: A Room Called Remember

Full disclosure: I haven’t finished this book. In fact, I am not even close to being done. My Kindle tells me I am at the 33% mark, so you might wonder how I can possibly review a book I haven’t even finished halfway yet.

It’s because of the kind of book this is. A Room Called Remember is a collection of essays, addresses and sermons, published in 1984. I chose this book as one of the 12 Buechner books to read during my Year of Reading Buechner series because it was one of the lesser-known of his titles, and because it contained an essay on writing and language that I was interested in reading.

So, it’s not like it’s a book that has any kind of narrative arc or central theme, it’s very much a book that can be picked up and put down. The different chapters themselves could be read in no particular order, although in general I am working my way through the book from beginning to end, with the exception that I read the essay on writing so I could include some thoughts about it in this review.

IMG_0966

It’s quite a long book. Which is another reason why I haven’t made it through to the end. But the main reason for my slowness of reading the book is because it’s not the kind of book you can read quickly, in big chunks here and there. Each chapter invites careful reflection by the reader. It’s just too much to keep barreling through the book without stopping to appreciate the truths and perspectives Buechner offers us here.

So, with that caveat in mind, I do think that even though I haven’t read the whole thing, I have a good sense of what the book is like. And in a word, it’s marvelous. This collection is full of profound truth and honest reflections on faith, God, and life, and as such is a wonderful opportunity for the reader to ponder these things as well. Buechner is a wise friend and mentor in these writings, coming alongside us to point us to profound insights. He is never pushy or dogmatic, but carefully, with sensitivity, pulls back the surface layers to show us deeper meanings we may have missed in the ordinary events of our lives.

The first essay, from which the book gets its title, A Room Called Remember, is a great example of Buechner at his finest. It is based on a profound dream he had, in which he searched for a hotel room he had found that was the most comfortable of all, just right for him in every way. The clerk tells him he can find the room again if he could ask for it by name, and tells him that the name of the room is Remember. Upon reflection on the dream, he concludes that,

The name of the room is Remember–the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.

The room called Remember is the place where we reflect on our lives. “Listen to your life”, as Buechner puts it, a theme that resonates through much of his writings that I have read so far. In this room we search for glimpses of what has sustained us, the hand that has led us thus far. As he says,

Faint of heart as we are, a love beyond our power to love has kept our hearts alive.

This book is full of thoughtful insights like this. Buechner is a lovely writer, using his words to challenge, delight, and comfort us. He is one of the most quotable writers I have read, and that’s saying a lot. It’s hard to go more than a page without finding something you want to underline. This is true of this book and of all the books i have read of his so far. Many of the chapters begin with Bible verses, the accompanying text (presumably sermons) a reflection on the verses, giving a richness and depth to both his words and the verses.

The essay on words, language, and writing, called “The Speaking and Writing of Words”, is where Buechner develops a theory that language developed out of humanity’s need to understand the world more deeply and to share experiences with others

He goes on to say, there is no world for us until we can name the world. In other words, the things we see and experience do not fully exist until and unless we name them, and even more profound than that, time itself has no meaning without the words to understand past, present and future.

Ultimately, he postulates that the whole purpose of language is so that humanity may speak to God, can look beyond the events of our lives and ask the question, why.

From the spoken word he moves on to writing, exploring how the written word is both like and unlike the speech, becoming more powerful by the fact of its permanence. He explains,

Words written fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, can have as much of this power today as ever they had it then to come alive for us and in us and to make us more alive within ourselves…not even across great distances of time and space do they ever lose their capacity for becoming incarnate. 

This is a a powerful and humbling thought for us writers. I suppose, if we are honest, its one of the reasons we attempt to write anything at all.

I am only 33% through this book, but I am not finished with it yet. Nor, I suspect, is it finished with me. I am looking forward to reading the rest of  it, and to rereading it in the years to come. It’s not a book that lets you go lightly.

In the last paragraph of “The Speaking and Writing of Words”, Buechner writes,

…a library is as holy a place as any temple is holy because through the words which are treasured in it the Word itself becomes flesh again and again and dwells among us and within us, full of grace and truth.

It’s a fitting epitaph for this book, too.


For more posts in this series, click the links below:

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

Year of Reading Buechner: Godric

Year of Reading Buechner: Telling Secrets: A Memoir