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, 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...
(The entire section is 1690 words.)