Godric

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Frederick Buechner’s tenth novel, Godric, is an evocation of a man whose name defines and delineates him. The name also establishes the tensions and ambiguities which give the novel its power and serves as a base for the language Buechner creates in his effort to authenticate the man and his time. Told in the first person and, as Godric says in the penultimate chapter, from both ends at once (the pun is intended), where present and past times mesh, the effect is not only of contemporaneousness but also of simultaneity. Godric, the man, lives in his future and our present, as his voice continues to be heard across centuries, rescued from the pages of the lives of the saints.

A conversation between Godric and Reginald, whom Godric calls the gelding-monk, establishes the ambiguities present in the name. God, the father, reigns in Godric. The point is made by Reginald and disputed by Godric who argues that the ric is not reign but wreck. “’God’s wreck I be, it means,’” or, put another way, Godric’s sins have made a wreck of God. The name, Godric argues, can also be split another way: go and drick, drick being a coarse Welsh word not fit for monkish ears. Reginald, however, will have none of it. He rejects Godric’s interpretation, passing if off as a holy man’s humilitas. In fact, Reginald is not fit by training, experience, or competency to understand the man who is Godric, “a peasant’s brat,” Godric says, who tumbled all the maids and cuckolded his neighbors, who, taking up peddling as a trade, cheated and tricked, passing off the old for the new. He was usurer, flatterer, wanderer, thief, and when he went to sea, pirate; but these are only the things Godric tells Reginald. He spares him the worst—his relationship with his younger brother and sister.

Godric’s brother, William, covers his fears by talking constantly; and as the father Aedlward denied himself to his children for fear that if he did not constantly work they would starve, so Godric denies himself to William and, worse, takes from William Burcwen who was William’s only comfort. From the time that Burcwen saved Godric by breathing life into him after he almost drowned, Burcwen is Godric’s and Godric Burcwen’s. Further, although Godric refuses to take her with him on his travels and they both struggle against the inevitable, in their midlife they do succumb to incestuous desire. In one night together they relive their past and chart the future; for Burcwen leaves to take up life in a nunnery and William, not knowing where she has gone, drowns himself in the river Wear by accident or suicide; and Godric does penance for the rest of his years for the sins he committed out of love.

Nor can Reginald understand that even now, when Godric is more than a hundred years old, he cannot control his mind any better than he could earlier control his body. He tells Reginald that he is no true hermit but remains in his mind a “gadabout” and a lecher in his dreams. He describes himself as self-seeking, proud, hypocritical, slothful, greedy; and all of this Reginald cannot understand.

What Reginald understands is that Godric lives as a hermit, prays, does penance, and has had visions—of St. Cuthbert, of John the Baptist, of Jesus, and of Mary. Reginald understands that Godric customarily mortifies his flesh in the river Wear, that he has surrounded himself with serpents who menaced others but gently twined themselves about him, that he has cleansed a leper and wrought other miracles by his touch,...

(This entire section contains 1690 words.)

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and that above all he is pure of soul and magnanimous of spirit. Reginald’s voice closes the novel. His is the last word. It is, however, the penultimate chapter that encloses the ambiguities and juxtaposes the tensions, for here Buechner sets in counterpoint Godric’s voice and Reginald’s. The passages that Reginald reads to Godric as he seeks Godric’s blessing on the biography are in fact Buechner’s free translations from the medieval Latin saint’s life of Godric.

The juxtaposition of Godric’s voice and Reginald’s words also acts to underline the differences between the Latinate biography and the Anglo-Saxon based autobiography given in Godric’s words, for it is not the words on the page that finally survive but Godric’s voice grounded in the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary and often presented in a form close to the standard Old English isochronic. Sentences break in two in a manner reminiscent of the strong caesura; strong stresses balancing each part, the whole being bound by alliterative measures. At times, also, Godric’s voice soars to the lyrical by means of metered lines that go on, often in lengthy paragraphs, never deviating from the iamb. Indeed, the mix of the language reflects the linguistic complexities of the Middle Ages (beginning around 1100) when several different poetic forms existed simultaneously, the Old English four stress line and its heavy accents gradually giving way to the eight syllable line until the five stress decasyllabic line finally emerged in Chaucer’s work.

The highly lyrical quality of Godric, whether it be isochronic, syllabic, or a mix of the two, makes it possible for Buechner to effect and maintain not only authenticity of voice but also corroboration of time and action, for a reader immersed in the voice finds it easy to accept not only coarse and brutal behavior when it is done in times long past but also the reality of miracles and simple faith, an animation of landscape, and beasts made human. Indeed, around the whole novel, the language creates magical effects.

One of the most horrifying scenes in the novel occurs shortly after Godric leaves home to seek his fortune and finds himself at a fair where he intends to peddle his wares. There, where rich and poor are out to gawk, where merchants have set up numerous stalls, where notaries seal contracts and bargains, where magicians draw doves out of the air, Jews and Christians become embroiled until the Jews are routed and the Christians turn on themselves. Godric, with a stick intended to clobber anyone who threatens him, suddenly sees a small and effeminate man cowering behind a shelter. Godric’s cry to the fellow to stand up like a man is misunderstood by the crowd who believe that Godric has routed a Jew, and the crowd turns on the helpless man stabbing him in his throat, breast, and stomach until, drenched in blood, the man falls back on Godric, baptizing him in the ways of the world by anointing him with blood. His lesson learned, Godric takes advantage of events that ensue by turning the unfortunate man’s demise to his own advantage. Also, although Godric never sees the devil in objective form as Elric does who fights the Prince of Darkness in every guise, still Godric knows the form because it lives in his own breast. Unlike Elric, however, who sees shadows everywhere but never light, Godric is drawn as often to the light as he is to the dark.

On the island of Farne, Godric meets and speaks with St. Cuthbert who tells him that he is no more a ghost than Godric’s foot which casts a shadow on the ground before his foot comes down. Of his meeting with John the Baptist, Godric tells Reginald that John is somewhere between “a goat and a Jew,” a “man clad in rags and anger,” but still kinsman to the Lord. Clad in blue with the crown of Heaven on her head, Mary appears to Godric, and he makes for her a poem or else she taught it to him; and one day a face forms itself from shadows and leaves, and Godric knows it is his Lord. Living close to the earth, Godric sees his earth take life.

The identification of people with gods and with animals, a motif which runs through the novel turns easily into anthropomorphism of gods and animals. From the time at the beginning of the novel when Godric rushes godlike into the sea after the great porpoise which speaks to him in the words of Jesus to his sighting of the great bear at Peter’s tomb which he has visited with his mother, Beuchner prepares for the miracle of the snakes Tune and Fair-weather, who appear in the opening sentence of the novel, though not explained. Godric describes the snakes as bedmates and playfellows, as keepers of his hearth and heart who hissed their snake-love and coiled themselves about his legs to warm them. Although in a fit of petulance Godric dismisses them from his presence, telling them never to come again, they are always near, and Godric knows that he has dismissed them to punish himself because he loved them.

The snakes are two of the five friends Godric describes in the opening chapter of the book. A third is Ailred, an abbot who sees that Godric is cared for in his hermit’s cave. A fourth is Gillian, a vision of a girl, who pointed out to him that the bear he saw was Godric. The fifth is Roger Mouse, friend and partner of his adventures and who called him Deric. While Godric is Deric his goals are fortune and sport, and he and Roger Mouse pursue them. Godric, however, does not blame the trickery and the thievery on Mouse. Mouse’s sin, he says, is less of evil than of “larkishness.” It is Deric Godric needs to rid himself of before he can move to atonement, and it is Deric that he tries to leave behind.

The attempt, however, is not always successful; throughout his life, Godric is tempted and falls, to rise again and again to fall; and this is Buechner’s Godric: part god, part beast, all man, who was born in 1065 and died in 1170.

Buechner’s book is fine; the craft is sure; the theme, in its affirmation, unusual for a novel cast in the contemporary mode. It deserves continued reading.

Literary Techniques

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Godric's structure is that of a hagiography, a literary genre of the Middle Ages used to recount episodes in the life of a saint which may be seen as a testimony to his or her holiness. Buechner's use of this form is ironic. Although Godric's visions of Christ and Mary are recorded, so are Godric's misadventures and temptations. In constructing Godric, Buechner felt free to combine known historical facts and pious legends with his own interpretation of the life and times of the saint.

Bibliography

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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.

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