George Mackay Brown 1921–1996
Scottish poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, dramatist, scriptwriter, journalist, librettist, and author of children's books.
The following entry presents criticism on Brown's works through 1996, including reviews of two posthumously published collections. For further information on his life and career, see CLC, Volumes 5 and 48.
One of Scotland's foremost contemporary authors, Brown incorporated in his writings elements from Norse sagas, Scottish ballads, medieval legends and myths, and Roman Catholic ritual. He commonly employed simple language and syntax and explored themes of history, religion, mysticism, and the people and life of his native Orkney Islands. Deeply committed to the values inherent in the elemental existence of Orkney's farmers and fishermen, Brown extolled the virtues that can be gained through hardship and emphasized the damaging effects of the forces of progress on Orkney society. While Brown's antiquated prose style and his preoccupation with Orkney were sometimes faulted for failing to engage contemporary realities, most critics complimented his intimate portrayal of a specific locality and his fundamental insight into the common concerns of human existence.
Brown was born in the seaport town of Stromness on the island of Orkney, attended Stromness Academy from 1926 to 1940, and received bachelor's and master's degrees in English from Edinburgh University. Throughout his career, Brown was the recipient of a number of awards and honorary degrees, including fellowship in the Royal Society of Literature and officer's rank in the Order of the British Empire. Brown never married and remained a dedicated Orcadian throughout his life—he rarely traveled, and visited England only once. Brown died on April 13, 1996, in a Kirkwall hospital at the age of 74, and was buried near Stromness on April 16, the Feast of St. Magnus, a figure significant in his life and work.
Brown began publishing his work at the suggestion of Scottish poet and fellow Orcadian Edwin Muir. In his introduction to Brown's initial collection of verse, The Storm and Other Poems (1954), Muir stated: "[Brown writes] beautiful and original poems, with a strangeness and magic rare anywhere in literature today." Using metrical unrhymed verse and images of arrested action that critics have compared to Muir's poetry, Brown introduced in this volume his contemplation of Orkney and his concerns with religious symbolism and myth. In his next volume, Loaves and Fishes (1959), which was praised for is mature themes and outlook, Brown displays his interest in Icelandic legend, Christianity, martyrdom, and Orcadian history. The pieces in The Year of the Whale (1965) employ evocative symbolism and are endowed with a vivid sense of character and place. Combining secular and religious themes, local and epic subjects, these poems range in setting from Orkney during the Viking era to the United States during the presidency of John F. Kennedy. Brown's conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1961 emerges in this volume through his use of litanies and his preoccupation with birth, love, death, resurrection, and religious ceremony.
Fishermen with Ploughs: A Poem Cycle (1971), a sequence of loosely connected lyrics and sections of prose, is often considered Brown's most impressive poetic achievement. Extending his stylistic forms to include triadic runes and incantations and utilizing poetic structures derived from the months of the year, the days of the week, and the Roman Catholic stations of the cross, Brown depicts Orkney life from its first settlements in the ninth century through its present depopulation and imagines future resettlement following a nuclear holocaust. Replete with apocalyptic despair and disillusionment, these poems solidify Brown's position against materialistic progress and exemplify a central idea in philosophy: "It could happen that the atom-and-planet horror at the heart of our civilization will scatter people again to the quite beautiful fertile places of the world." Winterfold (1976) contains a series of rune-like variations on the stations of the cross and "affirms [Brown's] belief that the journey of Christ parallels the fruitful journey of all things that follow nature to death, and resurrection in harvest," in the words of Dennis O'Driscoll. This volume has been interpreted as an optimistic postscript to the dark vision prevalent in Fishermen with Ploughs. Voyages (1984) continued Brown's interest in history, Norse medievalism, and the Orkneys. The Wreck of the Archangel (1989) confirmed Brown's position as an important poet.
Brown was also a prose writer, and produced a number of short story collections, novels, and essay collections. His first novel, Greenvoe (1972), describes the gradual decimation of a mythical Orkney fishing village after the construction of a secret military establishment on the island. By detailing the events of the five days preceding its final demise, Brown suggests that the banal existence of its inhabitants inadvertently contributed to the destruction of the village. Despite its bleak theme, Greenvoe concludes with an ambiguous but uplifting promise of resurrection. In Magnus (1973), Brown combines the starkness of Norse saga with the ornamentalism of the Roman Catholic mass. The story of the martyrdom and sanctification of twelfth-century Earl Magnus of Orkney, who was killed by his cousin and rival for supreme control of the Orkneys, Magnus extends Brown's fascination with the Christian theme of redemption. Brown's third novel, Time in a Red Coat (1984), is a fable that chronicles the experiences of a young Eastern princess as she journeys through distant countries and flees the devastation of her homeland by marauders. An innocent figure, the princess begins her travels in a white coat that gradually turns red due to the human folly and injustice she encounters. In Vinland (1992) "Brown has returned to the world of his beloved Orkneyinga Saga, that astonishing, bloody and darkly humorous chronicle of early Orkney which also provided material for his novel Magnus," Jonathan Coe remarked. Vinland chronicles the spiritual development of it hero, Ranald Sigmundson, from youthful seafaring adventures to old age. The fictional locale of Vinland "comes to symbolise a hope of release from the grip of the Orcadians' primitive, fatalistic Christianity, as well as providing a model of man in harmony rather than conflict with the physical world—a natural equivalent of the 'Seamless Coat' after which St Magnus was searching in the earlier novel," Coe noted. Beside the Ocean of Time (1994), which was shortlisted for the 1994 Booker Prize, again presents an island hero, a young dreamer named Thorfinn whose adventure fantasies illuminate the Orkney lifestyle.
An eminent chronicler of Orkney life and geography, Brown has published numerous collections of essays, including An Orkney Tapestry (1969), which Seamus Heaney described as "a spectrum of lore, legend, and literature, a highly coloured reaction as Orkney breaks open in the prisms of a poet's mind and memory." In Portrait of Orkney (1981), Brown intertwines contemporary descriptions and facts with history, legend, and anecdote. Brown's works for the stage include A Spell for Green Corn (1970), which is concerned with symbolism, ritual, and the supernatural, and The Loom of Light (1972), an adaptation of Magnus. He has also written radio and television plays and published several children's books, including The Two Fiddlers: Tales from Orkney (1974) and Pictures in a Cave (1977), and a biographical work, Edwin Muir: A Brief Memoir (1975).
Most essays about Brown and his work describe him as a writer of unparalleled importance to Orkney society, and significant as well to readers of all nations. Although some critics have found his chosen narrowness of topics and locales limiting, others have praised Brown's body of work as valuable in its depth rather than breadth, agreeing with his assessment of Orkney as "a microcosm of all the world." Obituaries and tributes described Brown as "one of the great poets of place" (Ray Olson), "a giant of literature and much loved" (The London Tablet), "a major influence" and a leader of "the Scottish literary renaissance" (The Guardian).