Friday, July 29, 2011

Book Review: Brendan

Since I named my third son after St. Brendan, and he's now two and a half, I figured I should finally get around to reading the Fredrick Buechner novel about him as well. I may have put it off a while because, while I saw the point of Godric and it had an indelible effect, I can't say I "enjoyed" Godric. Godric was just so dark and inverted that it was difficult for me to see much light in it. I know, I know that's part of the point, and I get that point, but it's just difficult for me toLIKE it. Godric came out before Brendan and was nominated for a Pulitzer, so I was worried Brendan would be the same way.

Well, it is and it isn't. I think Brendan is superior to Godric, on the simplest level because more stuff happens and it's not all darkness and sin. There's still a lot of darkness in there, even perhaps more affecting and intense than Godric's, in fact (some truly horrible characters and events), but there's also the wonder of exploration and as much healing in it as there is hurt. So I'm glad to say I named my kid after the right book three years before I knew it.

Here's a wonderful paragraph when Brendan and Finn (the narrator) enounter a pod of whales:

"It wasn't just the size of the monster froze us. It was knowing he come from another world than our entirely, a shadowy world fathoms beneath us. There's great monsters moving about lazy and soundless as clouds. Wonders are hid down there the eye of no mortal man has ever seen since time began. We all knew the sea belonged rightly to him and we was only trespassers on it. Next to him we was the size of gnats." p. 162

A 2010 Tolkien professor podcast about the role of tragedy in Tolkien's works noted how, when Aragorn is telling the hobbits a story as the Black Riders advance on Weathertop, he tells them not a happy story but a sad one, yet it warms their hearts and encourages them for the coming conflict. Tolkien knew the power of tragedy, and so did Buechner. That's what makes Buechner's "hagiographies" so powerful. The lead monks are so flawed that in a sense their flawed nature makes them holy. That is very powerful, but somewhat overwhelming in Godric. In Brendan it seems richer because there is light with the darkness. I think Godric is like one of Rothko's late paintings, mostly black, whereas Brendan is a true chiaroscuro like Caravaggio. Both are worth reading but I personally prefer the mixture. Just like my little Brendan himself.

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