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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 227

The book Brendan by Frederick Buechner is about a man named St. Brendan the Navigator. The novel is written in such a way to make it look like a real accounting of the saint’s life, narrated by Finn, one of Brendan’s friends.

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The book Brendan by Frederick Buechner is about a man named St. Brendan the Navigator. The novel is written in such a way to make it look like a real accounting of the saint’s life, narrated by Finn, one of Brendan’s friends.

If you’re writing a summary of the book or something that relies on a summary, you may want to start at the beginning, which is 484 CE, when St. Brendan was born. A natural ending would be when Brendan dies at the age of ninety-four.

He meets a number of historical people, including someone named Bishop Erc, who was converted from being a pagan druid to being a Christian. The book lingers on the differences between the sixth century and today, hinting that God affected mankind more directly back then. The figure of St. Brendan is a real person; it’s worth noting, but the novel takes liberties since the historical record doesn’t have enough material on him to create any kind of absolute narrative.

Brendan became famous for his journeys and was written about in that context in the centuries after his death in real life. This is all to say that there are many different approaches you can take in your essay, focusing on his journeys, exploring the connection to the historical figure, or writing more of a theocratic summary.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 828

Although it is set in the sixth century and features many of the historical personages who gave significant impetus to the learning, building, and evangelizing that distinguished the onset of Christianity in Ireland, Brendan is less a historical novel than a meditation on the profound simplicities of the religious faith. It takes as its focus the remarkable career of Saint Brendan and through it represents the spirit of the age. The period is depicted as one in which the human mind was more liable to be overwhelmed by the proximity of God’s presence in the world and when the world of creation impressed itself more immediately and strikingly on the senses of those who lived in it.

As the historical note at the end of the novel makes clear, the protagonist Brendan is noteworthy for a number of different reasons. The fact that he was a saint is one obvious reason for his significance. He was also an important churchman, and he founded the monastic settlement of Clonfert, a name that survives in contemporary Ireland as that of a Catholic diocese. Yet these achievements, relevant as they are to an appreciation of the reality of the protagonist’s context, pale in comparison to Brendan’s legendary status. From at least the tenth century onward, Brendan’s name has been synonymous with voyages of discovery.

Two of these voyages are recounted in the novel, the first by Brendan himself in what is in effect a ship’s log. Nothing more than extremely localized geographical locations and climatic conditions are provided in this clearly incomplete narrative of the journey. Internal evidence suggests that the coast of Iceland is sighted. Of much greater importance is the second voyage, an account of which is provided by the novel’s narrator, Finn. The second voyage locates the other world of pre-Christian Irish mythology, Tír-na-Nog, a name that means “the land of eternal youth.” This landfall is not only Brendan’s apotheosis as a navigator but is also the basis of his historical status as a legendary figure among whose exploits is said to be the discovery of America.

Exciting as these journeys are, however, the author carefully insinuates that these are simply a means to an end. They are simply spectacular and risky phases in a career that is replete with restlessness and dedication, and the novel itself is conceived as a biography of Brendan by his lifelong companion, Finn. For that reason, the voyages are not seen as the climax of Brendan’s career; rather, they vie for significance with other episodes that have an explicit historical dimension. These episodes include the establishment of Brendan’s monastic settlement at Clonfert and his trip to Wales in later life. The visit to Wales culminates with Brendan’s involvement with the internal politics of Camelot and features a cameo appearance from King Artor, as he is called.

Yet while the historical element of Brendan’s career is unavoidable, Brendan does not dwell on it. The background to the protagonist’s life is economically sketched, but no effort is made to provide a comprehensive picture of the emergence and consolidation of Christianity in Ireland, of the religion’s relationship with the religions it supplanted, or of the complex territorial and juridical issues that formed a constant undercurrent of turbulence in the politics of clan life in ancient Ireland. Such omissions make all the more plausible the intimate view of Brendan’s career that Finn’s narrative provides. The overall effect of the omissions is to emphasize the novelty and interest of Brendan, so that the view of him that ultimately emerges is of a personage who is representative of more elusive and awe-inspiring facets of humanity than those that typify a given historical period.

The novel’s concentration on these facets is clearly indebted to the author’s theological training and influenced by his well-known theological writings. The end that Brendan’s life is understood to serve is that of maintaining a sense of spiritual wonder, an almost palpable awareness of the greatness of God’s creation. Such an emphasis is maintained primarily by the impressive spiritedness and color of the novel’s style. At times, the style is virtually a pastiche of the simplicity, sensoriness, and delight in detail that may be found in both the lyric poetry of early Christian Ireland and in the ornamented gospels such as the Book of Kells. A judicious sprinkling of Magical Realism also contributes to the establishment of the novel’s remote and poorly documented environment. This perspective does not merely assist in underlining the element of wonder that runs throughout Brendan; it also makes acceptable the various miraculous events with which Brendan is involved that provide him with the basic credentials for sainthood. These events heighten and crystalize the undogmatic faith in, and commitment to, the divine dimension to the mortal lot by means of which the world of Brendan maintains an even keel.

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