First published: New York: Atheneum, 1980
Subgenre(s): Historical fiction (twelfth century); saint’s meditation
Core issue(s): Guilt; memory; mysticism; sainthood; sin and sinners
Godric, the protagonist, an octogenarian hermit
Roger Mouse, Godric’s friend and a rogue
Burcwen, Godric’s sister
Aedwen, Godric’s mother
William, Godric’s brother
Reginald, a monk who writes Godric’s biography
Falkes de Granvill, a wicked baron
Elric, a hermit
Perkin, a youth who serves Godric
In Godric, the fictionalized life story of the twelfth century hermit and saint as told to the monk Reginald, Godric recalls experiencing a miracle as a youth: While drowning, he has a vision of a porpoise who speaks to him in the words of Christ. After being rescued by his sister Burcwen, an act that binds the two of them together for the remainder of their lives, Godric leaves home to seek his fortune. Though Burcwen wants to accompany him, Godric forbids her, fearing her love for him and his for her. Godric then recounts the story of Peregrine Small, who is mistaken for a Jew who has converted to Christianity and is stabbed by a rampaging mob. Godric feels partially responsible for Small’s death, yet he profits from it by selling relics supposedly stained with Small’s blood.
Godric next becomes a sailor. With his partner Roger Mouse, he buys a ship, the Saint Esprit. The two transport pilgrims from England to the holy sites of Europe; Godric hides until they are at sea and then appears, pretending to be a pirate and robbing the passengers. Godric adopts the name Deric and keeps this identity as rogue separate from his other self. He makes periodic trips to the island of Farne, where he buries the money gained through piracy and deceit and where he has had a vision of Saint Cuthbert, who tells him God has long been calling him.
Godric returns home to learn his father, Aedlward, has died. Burcwen has blossomed into a young woman. Aedwen, Godric’s mother, has a dream in which Aedlward, in purgatory, asks her to go on a pilgrimage to Rome to pray for him. Godric makes this trip with his mother and finds Rome a corrupt, broken city, an emblem of human wretchedness. On the return trip, he has a vision of a bear feasting on figs and defecating “all that sweetness out its hinder part.” A mysterious woman named Gillian appears to him and tells him the bear represents Godric himself who has for years enjoyed “Christ’s sweet grace and charity” but has abused that grace by living a life of lust and greed. Gillian then brings news that Aedlward has escaped purgatory and now awaits Godric in paradise.
After arriving home, Godric meets the nobleman Falkes de Granvill, who offers him a position as steward. Seeing an opportunity to escape his desire for Burcwen, Godric agrees, becoming tax collector for the baron and meting out de Granvill’s justice to poor tenant farmers, including one wretch accused of stealing eggs. Godric befriends Hedwic, the baron’s child bride. She tells him that de Granvill’s huntsmen sell the deer they kill in the hunt, then steal sheep from the poor, which they pass off to de Granvill as venison. When Godric shares this information with the baron, he is ridiculed. Godric runs away, but feels shame and guilt for his part in oppressing the tenant farmers and for abandoning Hedwic, who is miserable in her marriage.
He joins up with Mouse again, and the two transport pilgrims to the holy land during...
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the crusades. Jerusalem is under siege and is saved only when Godric and Mouse give passage to Baldwin, the king’s brother, who is able to hold off the invaders until reinforcements arrive. A disagreement between Godric and Mouse leads to a break between the two friends, and Godric wades in the Jordan River, where he hears the voice of Christ calling to him again. He returns to Farne, digs up his treasure, and gives it away, becoming a kind of apprentice to an old hermit named Elric, who teaches Godric to see the presence of Satan’s devils everywhere. Godric realizes, however, that Elric’s rejection of the world produces only joylessness.
After Elric’s death, Godric becomes a sexton and goes to school. He is reacquainted with Flambard, the bishop, whom he had known in his youth. One day while hunting, Godric comes across a cave near the River Wear. He builds a cell for himself here and divides his life into two parts, using this day as the demarcation.
Aedwen, Burcwen, and Godric’s brother William come to live with him. Aedwen dies, and one day not long after Godric sees Burcwen wading in the river. Godric burns with passion for her, so he shuns his sister until Burcwen comes to him in the night. Out of love and pity for her, he sleeps with Burcwen, even though he recognizes the act is “the worst that Godric ever did.” William then comes looking for Burcwen and falls in the river and drowns. Godric considers himself his brother’s murderer; Burcwen becomes a nun.
Near the end, Reginald reads to Godric from the biography he has written. Though Godric dismisses it as having little relation to reality (when Reginald refers to him as a “saint,” he calls him a blasphemer and falls into a swoon), he accepts that some good may come of others reading a bowdlerized version of his life story. Near death, Godric calls for his servant Perkin to lower him into the river where he “washes all my foulness off.” Godric dies at age 105.
What does it mean to be holy? Godric considers this question as it breathes new life into many familiar Christian tropes. The theme of life as a spiritual journey is introduced early in the novel when a priest tells Godric, “This life of ours is like a street that passes many doors. . . . Every day’s a door and every night.” Eventually, he tells Godric, “you’ll reach the holy door itself,” which is not so much the door to eternity as it is the door to communion with God in this world. Holiness is seen not in keeping oneself unspotted from the world but in embracing God’s presence in the world and responding to his calling. Godric’s subsequent experiences suggest that he is continually in the process of finding God, even when he does not realize it. In many of his works, Frederick Buechner indicates that this communion is what all people hunger for, even when trying to satisfy that desire with other pleasure, and Buechner’s view of life, according to one critic, is that “every part [of life] is sacred and may become in any moment and in unexpected ways a window through which we see God. . . .”
Godric’s mighty struggles with sin recall Saint Augustine’s battles in his Confessiones (397-400; Confessions, 1620). Wracked by grief for his sins, the aged Godric wears an iron vest and submerges himself in freezing water to mortify his flesh. Yet Godric’s life is far from misery, as he shows in rejecting Elric’s view that good in this world is illusory. Though he revolts when Reginald declares him a saint, Godric maintains an ironic, self-deprecating sense of humor, amazed and amused by God’s insistence on making him an agent of grace to others. Godric becomes a minister of reconciliation in spite of himself, recognizing that others yearn for the same spiritual blessing that he seeks. This amazement—that God would use deeply flawed, sinful human beings to accomplish his will, is addressed in an interview printed in The Door Interviews (1989), edited by Mike Yaconelli, in which Buechner speaks of “the subterranean presence of grace in the world that haunts me. . . . And the mystery of the mysteries at the bottom of the well . . . is the mystery of God, of Christ” in the world.
Sources for Further Study
- Allen, Victoria S. Listening to Life: Psychology and Spirituality in the Writings of Frederick Buechner. Baltimore: American Literary Press, 2002. Explores the way that psychotherapy and memory both function to produce healing and forgiveness. Sees Buechner’s concept of “listening to your life” as akin to psychotherapy. Chapter 5 discusses Godric.
- Buechner, Frederick. “An Interview with Frederick Buechner: Ordained to Write.” Interview by Richard A. Kauffman. Christian Century 119, no. 19 (September 11-22, 2002): 26-34. Buechner discusses what it means to him to be a Christian writer and speaks about his life with the Church.
- McCoy, Marjorie Casebier, with Charles S. McCoy. Frederick Buechner: Novelist/Theologian of the Lost and Found. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988. Chapter 5 provides an overview of themes that characterize Buechner’s work. Includes discussions of God’s presence in human history and themes of grace, redemption, and faith.
- Yaconelli, Mike, ed. “Frederick Buechner.” The Door Interviews. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1989. Buechner discusses his conversion to Presbyterianism, writing as ministry, the Gospel as fairytale, and his awareness of grace and God’s presence in the world.