Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Heather Terrell's "Brigid of Kildare": Book Review

It's an ingenious twist on a medieval glitch. If Gerald of Wales in his 12c journey through Ireland saw a treasured book that was not the famed one already at Kells, but that of Brigid's Kildare monastery from the 5c, how might its reliquary, and its secrets, alter-- if slightly-- how Rome treats women, and how the Church interprets the cult of the Virgin Mary?

Terrell, in the style of theological speculation in the form of historical fiction, shows how Alex Patterson, an appraiser of relics and reliquaries, learns about the altered tale via the apocryphal "rejected" gospels that come with refugees after the collapse of the Roman Empire into Ireland, bringing with them alternative views of Christianity. Terrell interprets Brigid as part-goddess by will, part-bishop, open to a blend of matriarchal and Marian devotions, who consecrated by a dying Patrick manages to bridge pagan with Celtic church practices-- until Rome gets wind of "heresy" and sends Decius, a spy posing as scribe.

The story, for me, appealed. Yet, as with the nun early on lecturing Alex about the dates and facts necessary for us (if not a scholar) to find out about the English invasions and Roman domination of Ireland's countercultural worship and somewhat suspect beliefs from the 5th c, it gets awkward to read a novel where characters must recite such information to each other for our necessary benefit. This is never easy to do, and Terrell by mixing the account of Decius with an omniscient portrayal of Brigid's earlier life, alongside Alex's mission to uncover the story of the relic from Kildare, makes for an ambitious narrative for a short tale.

Still, Terrell manages to convey the facts along with the fiction efficiently. The book flows well, but the language edges into cliches of Irish beauty and Roman severity; I'd have appreciated more nuance in the modern-day people in particular. Her characters in contemporary form don't jump off the page, and I wish Alex had more depth; Terrell with Brigid herself and Decius to a lesser degree manages to flesh out more of their inner struggles more satisfactorily. The last chapter does take, considering history's direction with this particular chronicle presupposed, a sudden diversion that does not, for me, jibe with the actual report (I am staying vague here to keep suspense) we have. Therefore, it threw me off, much as I found the scenario Terrell conjures up intriguing in its own way.

So, I recommend it to an general audience who might wish to learn in an approachable way the intricacies of early medieval Ireland and how the Celtic Church might have evolved "off the record", even if as a novel it's a bit romanticized and fanciful compared to what seem the harsher realities of Irish life back then. There's a respect for the material and a level of discussion of the spiritual and practical ramifications that suggests the thought behind the tale. Although the characters veer towards standardized figures, there's a lot of slightly subversive ideas worth mulling over-- I wish they were mulled over more. (Posted 2-2-10)


tamerlane said...

Sounds intriguing. Alternate History (reading & writing) is a dirty, secret passion of mine.

Also reminds me of an historical fiction I once read, Sigrid Undset's "Kristin Lavransdatter" trilogy. Though Undset's historical details were not always precise, her characters are very vibrant and believable.

The 14th century Norway depicted, on the fringe of the Christian World, is being pressured to conform to the orthodoxy of Rome -- the imposition of celibacy in the clergy, for example. Many old pagan beliefs still linger, also. One amusing dialog has two women mocking a pagan "superstition" -- a tonic of brewed herbs to cure a baby's cough -- "when everyone knows the modern way to cure the baby is to place a bible in his crib!"

Coincidentally, I had just recently done some research for my own amusement on the apocryphal gospels and wondered whether inclusion of the Gospel of Mary would have 'feminized' the church, or the radically different worldview - and consequent world -- promoted by a gnostic-laden canon.

Fionnchú said...

"Kristin Lavransdatter" sits on my shelf in an ancient one-volume ed. with a stodgy translation; why it sits for so long? I've heard a newer version freshened its Englishing. I may return to try it again as you make it sound appealing. I'd forgotten about it.

I was reminded of this long tradition when reading in "Modern Paganism in World Cultures" how paganism persisted in Baltic lands (including Prussia-- why the Teutonic Knights were formed to eradicate folk beliefs); we forget how comparatively late in Europe it faded, if not wholly ever, from pockets of resistance or remoteness. Consider Scandinavia and Iceland: their reconstruction and reworking as Asatru and Norse practices is covered in Michael Strmiska's anthology. I find this reversion to and revision of ancient religions to suit contemporary seekers a relevant and engrossing topic.

Terrell but hints at the continuity of Druidry in her imagining of Brigid's upbringing, for of course the (psuedo?-)historical record must be also accounted for Brigid as abbess. As the Gospel of Mary the Mother (no spoiler I guess) enters the plot of "B of K," it's a good pick for you for the "what if" suggestions. I think Terrell should have pushed her pagan-feminist ideas as transmitted in a late-Roman, barbarian-impelled context much further. She seems to lose courage at the point I wanted her narrative's implications to hit hard, but that may have been her point. It's dour New Rome pitted against the dimming Old Ways. Let me know if you get around to the novel and we'll compare notes; I have an advance copy but it's out in March 2010.

evifsight said...

Because of your interest in Irish historical fiction, I thought you might like the chance to read and review Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show, the newest novel from NYT-bestseller author Frank Delaney.

The novel has garnered great reviews from Publishers Weekly, The Library Journal, and other readers.

Please let me know if you are interested, I can be reached at evelyn@ifsight.com.

Thank you!