Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Magnus by George Mackay Brown

I have just finished reading George Mackay Brown's novel "Magnus" which retells in a poetic way the ancient Orcadian saga of how Magnus, one of the ruling earls in 1100s became the patron saint of Orkney through his life and martyrdom. I am trying to read all of Mackay Brown's books before I visit Orkney in June.
I had only read his "Vinland" previously and that was a traditional historic novel whereas "Magnus" is a much more poetic creation. It is episodic. It tells the life story of the saint through significant events in his life and missing out many other parts. The book is a retelling of the saga so perhaps this is a direct link to that form.  The book is a mixture of styles and some are in modern English whilst others recreate the language of ancient saga. The martyrdom chapter is written in a unique way. Instead of describing how Magnus is killed, a parellel story is told of the execution of Bonhoeffer in a Nazi German prisoner of war camp. This grizzly literary device makes the horror of the execution of an innocent by forces of evil much more real than any historical description. Yet this device confuses the morality because centuries ago, the death of one of the earls brought about peace to Orkney after years of bloody civil war. Magnus is portrayed as knowing his self sacrifice is necessary and he prepares himself for it. Bonhoffer's death on the other hand is a cruel act of violence by a cruel regime that has no greater purpose than the perverted exercise of power against those who disagree with the Nazi project.
After his death many mirculous cures were reported from people visiting his grave.  It is not always an easy book to read but it both gives an insight into the way of life in the twelfth century and the moral and ethical sensitivities of the people of those days. From this work the vikings become a vivid nordic civilisation from Norway to North Wales, with the northern and western isles of Scotland playing an important role in this empire. Brown's catholicism is not critical of the piety practice or role of the church in that fuedal society.
Here is an extract from near the end of the book to give you a flavour....

-  I’m not going a step further till I know where we’re going.
- I told you. To the Birsay Kirk.
She screamed at him.
- I’m not going to any kirk!
- You must.
- I will not!
Echo after echo came back from the low crags. A cave boomed. He put his hand over her mouth. He said, gentle and low and pleading.
- Please, Mary.
She tore her wild mouth from his hand. She screamed like a madwoman.
- No! (…)
- I’m tired of the holy talk of them brothers every time they put a bandage on my eyes. O my poor afflicted daughter, bear your cross with patience… I don’t want any more of that class of talk. O no. I’ve had my belly-full of that palaver.
- Stay where you are, then. I won’t be that long (…)
He [Old Jock]went forward, tremulously, down the nave. There it was, set in the centre of the aisle, a square of new sandstone with a carved cross – the tomb he was looking for. (…)
- A small blink only, Magnus. I’m asking no more (…)
Stone and silence. His knees and hands and mouth were beginning to be numb.
This man [St Magnus] was now in two places at once. He was lying with a terrible wound in his face in the kirk near where the old man and the old woman were girding themselves for the road; Birsay, place of his beginning and end, birth and sepulchre. Also he was pure essence in another intensity, a hoarder of the treasures of charity and prayer, a guardian.
This fragrant vivid ghost was everywhere and always, but especially he haunted the island of his childhood. That morning he had been summoned by a candle, a small pitiful earth-to-heaven cry; its flame quickly quenched, and seemingly futile (…)
Saint Magnus the Martyr accepted the tallow flame. He touched it to immortality, a hard diamond. The radiance he reserved, to give back again when it was needed (…)
She [Mary] screeched. She put her hands to her face.
- Ah-h-h-h! You struck me! You tore my face!…
- Be quiet. Nobody touched you.
Mary whimpered. And rubbed salt scurf from her eyes. And was quiet. And bent down. She plucked, tremulously, a flower from the grass. She knelt. She murmured names – daisy, seapink, thistle…
The old one got to her feet. She turned her glimmering face this way and that. Her finger pointed at the incoming ocean, then wavered over in the direction of Revay Hill…
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Image courtesy of Evgeni Dinev /

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