Frederick Buechner may well be the finest self-consciously Christian novelist in the United States. While the late twentieth century is certainly no golden age for artists of this description, Buechner runs in good company: Walker Percy, Reynolds Price, Will Campbell, and Madeleine L’Engle are names that come immediately to mind. With Godric (1980), Buechner turned away from the realistic mode of the novels in the Bebb series (Lion Country, Open Heart, Love Feast, and Treasure Hunt) to treat the life of a twelfth century saint. Brendan also concerns a saint, but now the setting is even further removed from the present. The subject of the novel was born in 484 near what is now Tralee, Ireland. Brendan intrigues some historians because of the claim that his famous voyages brought him to the New World (he may indeed have gotten as far as Florida). Buechner, however, wishes to see the voyages in another light: how they both hindered and advanced Brendan’s progress toward sainthood.
This task is clearly a very difficult one, for sainthood is extremely difficult to comprehend, let alone to portray convincingly in fiction. It cannot be sought, for to seek sainthood would mean attempting to earn a status which must be imputed—that is, attempting to exert control over God. Yet comprehending that sainthood is an unseekable gift can lead one to even subtler perils, for the properly humble would-be saint is tempted to take pride in the very humility he or she is “required” to possess. As if these pitfalls were not enough, Buechner’s subject forces him to cope with other problems. Saints are Christian heroes, but ours is the age of the antiheroic. Saints perform wonders and miracles, but modern science produces miracles sufficient to most of our needs. Saints are celibate and chaste. How can they possibly offer us a thrilling enough story?
Despite these obstacles, Buechner has written a thoroughly compelling novel about Saint Brendan. A major reason for the novel’s success has to do with Finn, its narrator. He tells nearly the entire tale, and Buechner provides him with qualities which evoke the reader’s trust and loyalty. Two years younger than Brendan, Finn comes to know him at the school of Abbess Ita in County Limerick. Brendan had been taken from his peasant parents at the age of one and placed there by his kinsman Bishop Erc, a former druid converted by Saint Patrick himself—“at the mere sound of whose name the high angels wet their holy breeches,” says Finn. Ita prepared Brendan for a priestly vocation, but earthy, skeptical Finn takes no vows. To be sure, his is a reverent skepticism—he crosses himself to ward off the Devil, checks his ruminations on the nonexistence of the soul, and is an empathic observer of Brendan’s spiritual development. Yet he never becomes Brendan’s follower, though the two finally become friends. Whether Finn ultimately accepts the new faith is an interesting question, the answer to which depends on one’s interpretation of the last sentence of the novel.
In any case, Finn is Buechner’s bridge from modernity to the rough, faith-saturated, impoverished world of sixth century Ireland. Buechner supplies Finn with a startlingly pungent, densely metaphorical, and completely Irish narrative language in which to chronicle a vast tale filled with remarkable characters, strange adventures, and madly improbable events. Brendan’s birth is attended by a huge brush fire which leaves no trace of its destruction. A doe (was it Saint Ita transformed?) suckles him when his mother’s milk ceased. Brendan converts the heathen king Bauheen by reading in the old man’s eyes the name of his beloved dog Fiona. With one prodigious spit, Maeve, the warrior woman of Irish legend, splits a rock in two. More impressively, she keeps her virginity while ascertaining whether Hugh the Black has two testicles or one. The Abbess Brigit dries her wet cloak by laying it over a sunbeam. Brendan heals a man who has received a deep spear wound and conjures a mist in order to forestall a battle.
The most celebrated adventures of Brendan occur on his two great voyages. Finn narrates only the second of these, for he is washed overboard near shore at night just as the first begins. The tale of the first voyage is related through Brendan’s journal, recorded on parchment and later copied by Finn. For a brief space (twenty-six pages), the reader is thus given direct access to Brendan’s consciousness. Not everyone will appreciate this break in the novel’s narrative consistency. Brendan’s voice is distinctive but far too modern. Excluding the lovely prayers addressed to God, “my dear,” it could be mistaken for the voice of Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald. Also, Brendan records much more dialogue than one would expect of a diarist.
Yet the power of the narrated events allows the reader to overlook these flaws. Buechner’s historical end note explains that he relied heavily on Tim Severin’s The Brendan Voyage (1978), a description of his forty-five-hundred-mile journey in a leather-covered curragh (or coracle). Severin reached Newfoundland, substantiating the claim that Irish monks might indeed have discovered America. Severin did not, however, camp on the back of the black great whale Jasconius, who cries out his own name. Nor did he meet Judas, banished to a rock in the far Atlantic and no longer able to shape his lips to speak Christ’s blessed name.
Brendan’s first journey lasts five long years. His second voyage commences more than a decade later, after he has been made a priest, founded his own company of monks at Clonfert, built churches, and spread Christianity. The goal of this voyage is again Tir-na-n-Og, the Country of the Young, the Land of the Blessed. Also called Hy Brasail, it is pictured by bards as a place where the righteous go after death, where sin is unknown, and where “gentle men and handsome women lie together in the shade . . . without shame or sorrow . . . and all you’ve ever prized and lost is once more found.” Brendan yearns to meet Erc there, as well as to find his parents. Finn seeks his dead son. Each of the fifty crew members of the large vessel longs for some profound reunion, completion, transcendence of finitude.
The tropical paradise that they find, however, does not yield such treasures. Surprisingly, it is ruled by a long-lost, merrily crazy Irish...
(The entire section is 2632 words.)