Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

It is possible to see Brendan in a number of literary, cultural, and religious contexts. One of these is the literary tradition to which the life of Saint Brendan the navigator has given rise. The founding work of this tradition, the Latin work Navigatio Sancti Brendani (c. 900; the voyage of Saint Brendan), became one of the most popular legends of an age that saw the appearance of many such works and was widely known in various languages throughout Europe. Widespread awareness of this work is a reflection of the missionary presence of Irish clerics in Europe during the early medieval period. This historical fact is glanced at in Brendan by the inclusion among the protagonist’s intimates of a character named Malo, whose name is commemorated in the noted French resort of St. Malo.

In addition, Navigatio Sancti Brendani belongs to the medieval Irish genre known as the imrann, or tales of journeys to other worlds. The genre still has imaginative appeal. The modern Irish poet Paul Muldoon has written poems within the loosely defined specifications of the imrann, and Seamus Heaney, the best-known Irish poet of the postwar period, has included a poem, “The Disappearing Island,” inspired by an incident in Brendan’s voyages in his collection The Haw Lantern (1987).

Frederick Buechner’s reputation as a novelist who addresses important theological issues has been highly regarded since his first novel, A Long Day’s Dying (1950). In his early work, he located his concerns in contemporary settings. A more imaginatively free treatment of these concerns is what distinguishes novels such as Brendan and Godric (1980), the life of a twelfth century saint. In addition, his work has gained from his theological writings, which not only seek to disseminate the Christian vision, as in Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale (1977), but also meditate on its wonder, relevance, and appeal. The confluence of the various traditions in Brendan suggests the continuing fascination of the sense of disturbing renewal that is such a dramatic component of the Christian message.