Posts Tagged ‘George Mackay Brown’

Brown: Magnus

May 28, 2018

Magnus
George Mackay Brown
(Berlinn, 2018) [1973]
208 p.

Just why it is that the Orkney Islands exercise such an outsized influence on my imagination is hard to say. Maybe it has something to do with their remoteness, dropped in a swath of cold, wild seas, in combination with their proximity, both geographically and culturally, to the familiar terrain of Scotland, which together give them the character of a borderland, not wholly alien, but still distant and mysterious.

George Mackay Brown was a poet and novelist who himself hailed from those islands, and here he novelizes the life of St Magnus Erlendsson, a twelfth-century Earl of Orkney. Magnus is not a conventional saint; he is a powerful man embroiled in a succession dispute in a violent age. There are few scenes of gentleness or cheerful piety; this world is hard and stern. Yet even so, Magnus stands out. In one memorable scene he goes to war in a longship; surrounded by brutal violence on all sides he stands, courageously, reading aloud to the men from the Psalter. But, as Earl, he bears not only his own interests, but also the interests of those who depend upon him for their livelihood, safety, and welfare. This responsibility he cannot escape, and it drives him forward, tragically.

The story is told unconventionally. We never, unless I am mistaken, get very close to Magnus himself. Rather the tale is told by those around him, or those under him: monks, tinkers, farmers. Sometimes the story wanders, following the trials and travels of these other figures in apparent forgetfulness of its main subject. But Magnus is always there, in the background, in fragments of conversation that refer to him, or simply inasmuch as he is responsible for the conditions under which these, his people, live, work, and suffer.

As one might expect from a poet novelist, the writing is superb. Brown is exquisitely sensitive to tone, and he varies it effectively as he switches from scene to scene. For the most part the prose is unadorned, as befits the rough condition of his setting and characters. Here is a passage chosen at random:

Mans the peasant from Revay Hill in Birsay laboured at the rowing bench. His clenched fists made circles. His oar rose and fell. He sweated. His face went from bilgewater to the gulls above the mast, then back again to the swilter and glug of foul water among the bottomboards.

That gives a sense of the style in which much of the book is written, but there are numerous exceptions. The opening chapter is a beautiful description of a bridal party preparing the bride — Magnus’ mother — for her wedding night, a sequence that concludes with a scop composing bridal songs:

Blow out the lamp now. There is a hand at the latch. Now I pray to Christ and the Blessed Immaculate Virgin and to all saints and martyrs that this shape I imagine in my body, this boy, may wear the white coat of innocence always. War to redden it, intrigue to fray it, lust to filthy it, treachery to tear it: these things must be. But I pray that his soul may never be wrapped in the seamless flame of eternal loss. I pray that he may bring his white weave continually, this Magnus, to the waters of grace, and in the hour of his death to the last brightest rinsings of absolution.

A miracle of imaginative fiction is that by it we see the world through the eyes, and with the sensibility, of another, and this whole bridal sequence is an outstanding example of an author allowing us to see and feel how our ancestors saw an intrinsic connection between marriage, sexuality, love, and fertility.

There is another marvellous section in which Magnus prays through the night in a church, meditating at length on the Mass and the nature of sacrifice in religion. It is a beautiful piece of writing in itself, but I recommend it particularly to Catholics, whom I think would appreciate it both aesthetically and spiritually, as I did.

Returning to the tonal variations: at one point the authentic ring of Anglo-Saxon verse can be heard:

I must tell now concerning the jarl Hakon Paul’s son, how he summoned about him an host, and set them in eight war-hungry ships. Then those tryst-men heard a great boast, how that from the meeting in Egil’s Isle but one jarl would fare him home at sunset, and that not Magnus. A death-lust on listening faces about the mast, a weaving of warped words. Sigurd and Sighvat were the blackest mouths in all that hell-parle. Fierce sea stallions trampled the waves.

And, finally, there is one virtuoso example of tonal shift, dramatically placed at the climax of the story, that put me in a state of wondering admiration, not only at how Brown subtly transitioned from medieval to modern times, his setting and characters gradually transforming into something else, creating a literary effect very much like a cinematic dissolve, but also for how his doing so greatly expanded the book’s range and ambition. I’m strongly tempted to write about this in detail, it being, in some real sense, the centrepiece of the novel, but out of consideration for those who might like to read the book and be surprised, I will not.

When I closed the last page of Magnus I wanted to go back to the beginning and start again. As it happens, I did not actually do this, but over the intervening weeks it has lingered in my imagination, and I may return to it again before too long.

From the book’s Wikipedia page I have learned that Peter Maxwell Davies adapted this novel into a 1977 opera. I’d like to hear it.