“Imaginary evil,” Simone Weil wrote, “is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.” Is it even possible to portray goodness convincingly in fiction? Not many contemporary novelists have tried. In GODRIC, published in 1980, Frederick Buechner took as his protagonist not merely a good person but a twelfth century saint. Buechner’s Godric is far from perfect, all too human in his failings, yet he is also a man touched by grace, a vehicle of genuine goodness.

In BRENDAN, his first novel since GODRIC and his eleventh to date, Buechner turns to another saint’s life. The historical Brendan was born in western Ireland in A.D. 484 or thereabouts and lived for some ninety years. At the time of his youth, Christianity had only recently been introduced to Ireland and pagan practices still flourished. Soon, Irish monasteries were to become vital centers of culture, preserving knowledge that was being lost in Europe’s Dark Ages. To later generations, however, Brendan was best known for his fabulous voyages, which became the basis for a widely circulated medieval legend.

Taking the sketchy historical record as his point of departure, Buechner re-creates the world of fifth and sixth century Ireland. Except for one brief section, the story is told not by Brendan himself but by his friend Finn, who makes no pretensions to sainthood. The tone of...

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