Sunday, March 11, 2012

Brigit Reviews (Series Two): Fiction


     The Tomb of Reeds, by Sarah Baylis, (1987) (YA novel)
    Brigit of Kildare, Ann Egan, (2001) (novel/poetry)
    Brigid of Kildare, Cindy Thomson, (2006) (novel)
    The Brideog by Casey June Wolf. Escape Clause: A Speculative Fiction Anthology, edited by Clelie Rich (2009)
    Brigid of Kildare, Heather Terrell (2010) (novel)

(People! You’ve got to start getting more imaginative in the Brigit book titles! It’s getting a bit hard to tell them apart.)

    Mention only
Confessions of a Pagan Nun, Kate Horsley, (2001) (novel)
Sister Fidelma series (novels), Peter Tremayne/Peter Beresford Ellis (1994 onward)

         Historical novels which are based on real people must be constrained by known facts. The fiction comes in where facts are unknown. An author’s note at the end of the book will point the interested reader to which elements are fact and which are fiction, thus satisfying both the love of imagination and the love of clear scholarship. In the case of St Brigit, much of the “fact” is hagiography, tales written long after the woman’s death, but they nevertheless form a body of understanding that can’t be tossed aside without cause.

         At times authors feel free to dispense with, or are unaware of, important facts about the person or her times, and paint very misleading pictures as a result. Possibly this is unimportant to you if you’re looking for entertainment only and don’t also want to learn about the subject of the book. In our case, we do want to increase our understanding of Brigit, as goddess or saint or both; only one of the three novels included here is worth turning to for that purpose—Brigit of Kildare by Ann Egan.

Writing good historical fiction is a lot of work. If you don’t want to spend energy getting the details right, or if the details don’t suit your plot, there are lots of alternatives. Don’t present your story as historical fiction. Write fantasy, or alternate history; invent a similar situation and character and do whatever you like.

Acknowledgements provide clues as to what sort of novel you have in your hand. Egan thanks, among others, Kildare librarians and the Regional Archivist. Thompson thanks, among others, God and her prayer partners. This does not mean that the one is not prayerful, and the other did no research, but it does hint at how much weight is given to each in the shaping of the book. (Terrell, for the record, thanks her publisher and friends—among others.)

Although Egan and Thompson draw from the same source materials, and approach Saint Brigit as Christians, their interpretations are worlds apart. Egan’s Brocassa and her daughter Brigit live in a world where Paganism is the norm; they understand and are themselves a part of that world. There is no disdain or distance between themselves and those who haven’t adopted Christian beliefs – beliefs which were in their day rare and unimportant in Irish society. Pagans are their relatives and their friends. There is an assumption that it is a good thing that Brigit herself and people around her become Christians, but it isn’t made at the expense of those who do not.

Thompson reveals a very different attitude. Pagans, especially druids, are nearly all deluded or dangerous. To Egan Brigit’s father is a good guy who cares about his land and his family, including Brigit and her mother, his slave Brocassa, whom he is in love with. His wife is greedy, but she is smart. For Thompson he is despicable, fat, and greedy. (Another stereotype I would love to see the back of: if you are greedy you are fat, and vice versa.) His wife is an evil druid. The Christian characters display a smug, knowing arrogance toward the Pagans which becomes more clear as the novel progresses.

Egan is herself an Irishwoman, living in the area where Brigit lived. Her dialogue is natural and readable, with no particular accent attempted. Thompson, who is American, uses a clunky “Irish” accent in the dialogue. This is in part a reflection of their writing skills. These are first novels for both of them, but Egan is an accomplished poet. She has won many literary awards, and Thompson is very much a beginning writer. There is talent here, but her skill is as yet unpolished.
The single short story looks at a traditional visitation on St. Brigit's Eve by Wolf, a Canadian writer of speculative fiction.
Terrell’s novel aims to be a rousing mystery story of the DaVinci Code ilk, with no particular religious sentiment beyond a dash of feminist revisionism. There is more polish in her writing than in Thompson’s, but it never comes alive; between that and the mishandling of historical materials, this book, which I was so looking forward to, is very disappointing.

The Tomb of Reeds, Sarah Baylis. Julia MacRae Books, London. 1987. Hardcover, 174 pp. Young Adult (YA), (Also available in paperback from Swallow Books, 1988.)

I was rummaging around in Lawrence Books the other day (my favourite “Old and Used” bookstore) and discovered to my complete surprise a young adult novel very much to do with Brigit. I had never heard of it, and I wonder how many other books there are out there about her that I haven’t come across. Please, if you know of any not on these lists, let me know. I’ll search a copy out if possible, and if not, will simply add it to the list.

As I noodled around the front and back of the novel, in order to learn who wrote it and when and who saw fit to publish it, I was sorry to read that the author had died in an accident shortly before the publication of the book.

The Tomb of Reeds was Sarah Baylis’s third novel, though I thought while reading it that it had been her first.

Don’t get me wrong. I am thrilled to have found this book and it has a lot to offer. It is the only one of the four novels reviewed here that focusses on the goddess Brigit, rather than the saint. It immerses the reader into a small iron age community with all its labours and celebrations, stratifications and stresses. It tantalizes with hints of times more ancient still. Unlike the other Brigit novels, it suggests early on that there is magic afoot, and that we shall soon be caught up in it. The detail is rich and the prose is often smooth and beautiful, a pleasure to read. There is an energy to the work that is stimulating; unlike the others, which focus, one more successfully than the rest, on being thought-provoking and inspiring, The Tomb of Reeds endeavours also to be an adventure. To be exciting.

Both goddess and saint are in the past tense in this novel, though the saint is much closer in time than the great goddess. Her Leinster convent is small, with wooden sanctuary and stone beehive huts.

Bridey is a teenage girl whose family works with willow, making baskets, mending chairs, and providing for the many needs of the community with their skill. We follow her at the book’s opening as she gathers and works with the willow, enjoying her round wicker boat and the privacy of working on the lakeside alone. I was quite drawn in by the opening chapters of the novel.

In short order Bridey has gained an ancient, rusted crown which seems connected to her growing discontent and a preoccupation with war horses and warriors. Soon she meets a young poet-in-training—the unfortunately named Canola. (I guess in London in the 1980s they were still calling the crop rapeseed, but here in Canada we began in 1978 to call it canola—from “Canadian oil, low acid”. It took some adjusting to call this young woman after a low acid oil.)

Canola looks a lot like Bridey, but with blonde hair to Bridey’s dark locks; she enjoys class privilege and able speech to Bridey’s poverty and uneducated stutter. Somehow the girls are linked with each other, and Bridey is linked to the goddess who is no more. The history stops and imagination takes over when Brigit is described as a goddess of two sides, the warrior and the poet, and the tension gathers around her lost crown and the subsequent warfare that spread over Ireland as a result. Though not portrayed as evil, Brigit is very tough and warlike.

The Brigit of tradition, of course, had three equally important sides1, and no story of her crown or hegemony over Ireland or the Tuatha De Danaan survives that I have heard. Where there is perhaps a connection to warfare through the obscure Brig Ambue2, and through Brigit’s patronage of smiths (the makers not only of buckles and cauldrons, but of swords and shields) it is a leap to make her a warrior goddess and another leap to being the greatest deity over all Ireland. Leaps, but not absolutely insupportable. So let’s enjoy the what if.

And there is much to enjoy here. Baylis’ familiarity with and love of the countryside, lore, and Celtic traditions, bring her setting alive. The plot worked fine for me, and I enjoyed her protagonists and their loved ones.

The difficulty that arises is her uncertainty in handling the subtler motivations and emotions that drive the characters. This is where I began to think it was her first novel, and to wish she had had a strong editor or writing group to help her find her feet in this important authorial duty. It of course substantially weakens the book as a whole.

Related to her clumsiness in writing the subtler emotions and motivations of her main characters is a tendency to make the antagonists one dimensional. Baylis is against war, which is a fine perspective to be coming from, but her analysis of war and those who make it is superficial and therefore further weakens the book. Although she is Pagan-positive—showing no favoritism between Christians and Pagans—her treatment of the Druids is as unsympathetic as her treatment of the King and warriors. In other words, her literary Achilles’ heel is not her feelings about religion, but about class and outlook.

None of this would have bothered me forty years ago, though, if I had had the opportunity to read this book. Even today I’m not daunted. I can appreciate a book for what it is, despite its flaws, if there is enough good to hold me, and there is enough here, from a subject that is dear to my heart, to a time that intrigues me, to the sensibilities of the author, to the pleasing prose, to the promise of magic and adventure.

Enough, indeed, that I abandoned a very polished but somewhat lifeless collection by a much lauded writer3 in favour of this rough-hewn but heartfelt adventure story, which managed to hold my interest till the end.

Thanks to you, Sarah Baylis, for your heartfelt Brigidine offering.

1Indeed, was three sister goddesses, daughters of The Daghda.
2For brief mentions of her see John Carey's King of Mysteries, Kim McCone's Pagan Past and Christian Present in Irish Literature, and Nerys Patterson's Cattle-Lords and Clansmen. Celtic Reconstructionist Erynn Laurie says “Brig Ambue is "Brighid of the Cowless Warriors" -- a Goddess who integrates outsiders back into the tribe.” (
3Dream Angus, by Alexander McCall Smith—based in large part on Irish mythology but straying to the present time in half of the stories. For a more enthusiastic review go here.

Brigit of Kildare, Ann Egan, Kildare County Council Library and Arts Service, Eire. (2001)

        This novel was commissioned by the Kildare County Council Library and Arts Centre, Kildare, Ireland. Its author is intimately connected with the arts community in Kildare and with the annual festival of Saint Brigit, Féile Bhríde, presided over by the sisters of Solas Bhride. Recipient of a number of awards for poetry, Ann Egan brings her poetic touch to her first novel, Brigit of Kildare. She has deeply observed the elements that make up her subject and her surroundings. Her eye for the details of country life, her reverence for her Celtic Pagan ancestors and their medieval Christian counterparts, and her own spiritual sensibility come through on every page.

In this gentle, detailed rendition of Brigit’s life, we are offered major characters, both Pagan and Christian, whose motivations and views are understandable and respected by the author. Minor characters suffer from a two-dimensionality that leaves them “good” or “bad” in contrast with the care Egan has taken with the others. The book doesn’t completely satisfy as a novel, due to this occasional two-dimensionality and some lack of tension in the latter part of the book as an accounting of Brigit’s achievements take the place of her earlier and more personal struggles. But in all it is a beautiful, informative, and enjoyable read.

        Egan’s intent is to evoke Brigit and her times, to tell the saint’s and Ireland’s story as faithfully and beautifully as she is able. The richest moments in the book are those which show the relationships between Brigit, her mother, father, and her father’s wife, as well as characters like the druid Maithín and his sister Mongfind. Many scenes, such as of Brigit absorbed in contemplation of nature, are transcendent and delightful. A few, such as when the fire maidens decide to join her as Christian nuns, are lightweight and unconvincing.

Despite her broad knowledge of the material and spiritual culture of her forebears, in the absence of certain details Egan, like the rest of us, has to rely on her best guess. She envisions fire maidens tending a “holy fire” for the druid rather than organizing their own devotion around the goddess Brigit. These maidens become nuns when their beloved druid dies. Why Egan felt the need to put a man in charge is unclear, but I like that she has a different take on it, reminding us that there is no evidence regarding the origin of the perpetual fire, and that it could have begun in many different ways. (I discuss this at greater length in my review of Kondratiev's chapter on Imbolc in Devoted to You, edited by Judy Harrow.)

On the whole this book is one of wonder and of excellent writing. Brigit remains throughout a human being; the occasional miracle is mentioned without much emphasis. There is much drawn from history and tradition here, and much invented by Egan to create a story of a young woman with a remarkable life.

Absent are the more distressing miracles, such as her causing her brother’s eyes to burst in his head to stop him from marrying her off. Absent is an exploration of her connection to the goddess who preceded her—apart from a brief tantalizing reference early in the book. What would this young woman, drawn to the Christian life but immersed in a Pagan community, have thought of her namesake? Would she have worshipped her, before coming to Christianity? Would she have rejected her or absorbed her worship into her new religion? Indeed, how fully Christian would she have been when her entire worldview would have been shaped by the Celtic Paganism she was born into? These questions wait to be addressed by another author. (Certain parallel questions are addressed in the person of Gwynneve, a druid cum Brigidine nun in Kate Horsley's book Confessions of a Pagan Nun, mentioned at the end of this posting.)

Egan has a surprisingly sympathetic feel for the Pagans in the story and the Pagan world view, but doesn’t explain why Brigit would leave her traditional religion for a new one, and why it is seen as good when others do. This would have been interesting to address.

Though Brigit of Kildare by Ann Egan is not the polished offering of a professional novelist, it is the work of a fine poet—an often beautiful, often absorbing, always interesting work of imagination and love.

Brigid of Kildare, Cindy Thomson, Monarch Books, UK. (2006)

Another first novel, this one by American ex-kindergarten teacher and amateur historian Cindy Thompson.

I don’t like to write negative reviews. I’m aware of the effort and passion that go into writing. Looking at the author’s website and reading the intent behind the story in Brigid of Kildare, I see an amiable woman with potential as a writer. She seems kind, well intentioned, enthusiastic, and in love with her subject. I wish her well in her prayer life and her writing, and I sincerely apologize to Ms. Thompson if my comments offend.

The intent of this book is to proselytize and to tell an adventure story that will support the reader’s belief in the superiority of the Christian religion. Like Ann Egan’s Brigit of Kildare, Thompson’s Brigid of Kildare is directed at a Christian audience, but with a very different sensibility.

To continue from my opening remarks in the introduction to this post: from a technical point of view, the book suffers from many beginner mistakes, such as characters with simplistic drives and responses, and phrases like “the chicken-hearted man bobbed his head” (pg 111) or “We must save Brigid from her clutches” (pg 80) (which weren’t meant to be funny) .

Point of view is unconvincing. Thompson’s Brigid reads like someone transported into a culture she little understands, fears, and despises. The arrogance and anti-Pagan prejudice of Brigid and her mother ring false for people whose world is nearly entirely Pagan. She would have shared much of the world view of her contemporaries, would see druids and other Pagans simply as people. Indeed, druids play a positive role in a number of places in her medieval Lives. Thompson’s Brigid has never even seen a druid, unlikely at best, especially as we are told in her vitae1 that she was raised by a druid after leaving her father’s house. Even Brigid’s uncomprehending, sulky, and resentful attitude toward slavery evokes a person who is unused to the practice and the social order of the time. This isn’t to suggest a slave in ancient Ireland would have been delighted with her lot, but her response to it would be subtler and more convincing than what is shown here.

Other technical blunders: Thompson’s grasp of the history and setting of Ireland is shaky. She has masses of starving poor where they did not exist, purple-robed, sceptre-bearing kings in castles rather than ordinary looking chieftains in fairly ordinary wattle and daub huts, Christians hiding in terror for their lives at a time when they were too few to be much noticed and lived in apparent harmony with their more traditionally minded fellows. She has druids evoking evil spirits—something dreamed up in a Christian’s nightmare rather than a reflection of Celtic beliefs—and kings powerless to stop them. Odd, when the druids were a class of person closely attached to and supportive of the chieftains of old Irish society. In a plot line that reads more like a cartoon than historical fiction, the leader of all the druids vies for ultimate power but needs others to do his evil bidding.

The book has strengths, of course. There is warmth, often a pleasant feel, some good detail, and a few moments of inspired writing. Her writing is clear and the story moves along.

It isn’t just that this book isn’t to my tastes, or offends me because of its intolerance, where the morally superior teach the ignorant (or evil) Pagans a thing or two about God and life. It is poorly written and extremely misleading in its depiction of history and the conclusions we can draw from it. Reading this, I learn that druids were basically evil and murdered Christians; it’s a lucky thing we got rid of them. Not only a distortion of the facts, but an appeal, however unintentional, to bigotry and hate.

"The Brideog", Casey June Wolf, from Escape Clause: A Speculative Fiction Anthology, edited by Clelie Rich

This story is found in a collection of fiction that has nothing to do with Brigit, some of it horror, some fantasy, and so on. “The Brídeog” itself could be described as magical realism, and describes a situation where a traditional-minded mother is anxious to please the saint when she is brought around in effigy, where her daughter thinks the whole thing is a daft idea.

The story can be read on the blog Brigit’s Sparkling Flame:

Brigid of Kildare, Heather Terrell, Ballantine Books. (2010)

I awaited the publication of Heather Terrell’s Brigid of Kildare with hopeful anticipation. The cover art suggested something of the quality of Kate Horsley’s Confessions of a Pagan Nun. Unfortunately, it was a disappointment. Despite obvious good intentions of its author (and I respect both them and her) it is neither real historical fiction nor honest fantasy.

The intent of Terrell’s book is to tell a rousing mystery, to critique the church and its attitude toward women and power, and to hint at possible greater roles for women in church history than have come down to us through patriarchal hands2. Marring this effort is the novel’s spurious claim to historical validity. While speculating on theological and hagiographical matters in the context of mystery—is this newly revealed group of manuscripts and religious items genuine, and do they challenge our understanding of the Bible and the role of women like Mary Magdalene and Saint Brigid in religious history? —Terrell places fast and loose with both historical fact and hagiography. While flagging the speculative element in the area of the manuscripts, she treats the foundation on which they rest as fact, even where she has diverged wildly from facts she had to have known.

Her understanding of the times and culture she is writing about is spotty, and her conclusions and representations of figures within that culture are therefore misleading. In Brigid of Kildare Terrell gives enough accurate information to disguise the abundant misinformation, thus creating the antithesis of a good historical novel. Instead of learning while being entertained, we are led into utter confusion. The unwary reader is left believing she is learning something real about a time gone by. If you enjoy this sort of story, by all means read it, but don’t take Terrell’s word for anything about Ireland. Go elsewhere for your facts.

Terrell assumes, as many authors do, a time of feminist freedom for women in pre-Christian Ireland. This is a modern fiction, based on our awareness that medieval Irish women did at times fill roles that in other societies were strictly in the domain of men. But women’s slightly better role in Celtic society, in certain classes and at certain times, does not mean that women were equal to or, as some believe, greater in status and power than men. Lisa Bitel, in her Landscape with Two Saints, discusses Saint Brigid’s independence and power as starkly in contrast to those of the women of her time.

Gender had been built into the Irish landscape long before Christians arrived. Land belonged to men, but much of the landscape belonged to women—at least, to female entities ... Aspiring monarchs mated with these divinities to prove their virile right to rule historical territories.” (pg 132)

In Terrell’s story, Saint Brigid and her stories are irrelevant and can be altered at their core. No longer a slave as in her vitae, Brigid is a sword-wielding princess who vies for her father’s favour. Broicsech, her mother, who is also a slave in the vitae, is portrayed as an arrogant, cruel, and glamourous queen. Terrell refers in the book to Cogitosus’ Life of Saint Brigid, but changes its contents for the story. Brigid’s life is an envelope emptied of its contents and refilled with Terrell’s ideas about Mary Magdelene and church politics. Nothing wrong with those as subject matter, but they are uneasy bedfellows with Brigid’s story, which I suppose is why it has been completely rewritten for this book. Unfortunate for readers who are fond of Brigid and want to see her in action.

It would have been a far stronger novel if she had left Brigid out of it entirely and created a new, fictional saint to suit her needs. I’m baffled. Why use the names but completely change the characters? I get that she wants to use Brigid in order to work in the lost Book of Kildare, and link it and Brigid to Mary Magdelene, but why change the details of Brigid’s life? Why not have a lost Book of a made-up saint, and be consistent and fair? The overwhelming amount of misleading and just plain wrong detail serves no purpose that I can see in furthering the story.

The publishers, I suspect, hoped the allure of the premise, so popular in the DaVinci Code, would result in the sale of some books. I say this because the novel itself, for all its good intentions, is inexpertly written. A few insertions of unwieldy modern language in the ancient scenes stand out among generally capable prose. In outline and plotting, there is more technical skill than in Thompson`s Brigid of Kildare, but the story never comes to life. Characters are stilted and predictable, never really motivated from within—Brigid, for instance, supposedly acts out of a connection to God and prayer. But there is no sense of either in the portrayal of her. She remains superficial and contrived throughout.

The writing lacks vigour, and there is a sense of being herded toward inevitable conclusions dictated by the author’s personal beliefs rather than a feeling of discovery and immersion in the times and story, and the lives of the characters. Although the book is about Brigid, the only character who begins to be interesting is the Roman cleric who is sent to spy on her. It’s easier for me to suspend disbelief with him, too, as I know nothing about Rome, so if it is inaccurately rendered, I’m oblivious. I dearly wish I could trust Terrell’s facts because the idea of a papal spy in Kildare is intriguing, but I suspect it is far too early in church history for such a thing. Anyone out there who can cite chapter and verse on this?

It does have its moments. Terrell’s description of the unwrapping of the ancient manuscript is contagious in its excitement. The description of the scriptorium had me wishing for a time machine. (Again.) And I would have loved to walk the curragh by Brigid’s side.

The long and the short of it, though, is that despite potentially interesting plot ideas and careful outlining, the book is flat and dull. The characters, language, and story never wake up and come to life.

I wanted to like this book, and I do like what I sense of the author through her book. It is simply too riddled with problems for me to recommend either as teaching material or as entertainment.

Brief Mentions:

Confessions of a Pagan Nun, Kate Horsley, (2001) (novel) Shambala, Boston and London.

I first read this novel over a decade ago, and was blown away. I haven’t reread it recently and as my tastes and knowledge base have evolved, my critique of it might be different now. Even on first reading I doubted the historical accuracy of some of the parameters she set for the novel, such as the presumed persecution of druids in Ireland. Nevertheless it is a well-written and compelling story, bleak in some ways but beautifully drawn.

Horsley gets around the difficulties of writing about an historical personage by inventing a woman druid who becomes a nun in Saint Brigit's monastery some years after the saint's death. There is a startling feeling of authenticity in this novel, whether all its details are accurate or not. I do question whether the pressures of the time were as she portrayed them. My understanding is that the Celtic church was be far more tolerant than the Roman and more attuned to the surrounding culture, that there was no great conflict between druids and Christians, and I suspect that the more oppressive and horrible elements of the story she tells—such as the persecution of druids—are more appropriate to the treatment of so-called witches in later times. However since I am only mentioning and not really reviewing this book (because it is only peripherally related to Brigit) I am not going to search out the details. Please comment if you know them; citations would be helpful, too.

Sister Fidelma series (novels), Peter Tremayne/Peter Beresford Ellis. First in series: ABSOLUTION BY MURDER, Headline Book Publishing, London, September, 1994.

Sister Fidelma is a Brigidine nun, living after the death of the saint herself, and an expert in Irish law. Her Saxon monk sidekick is no slouch in the laws of his own land, and they entertain themselves and more bookish reader with debates over fine points of law while they go about solving murders in 7th century Ireland. I read a couple of Tremayne's (Berresford Ellis's) Fidelma books years ago and liked but was not blown away by them. For the historical-mystery buff who is also a fan of Brigit, they do have an obvious appeal. As of 2011 there are 22 books in the series.

1Vitae are Lives: stories of saints written by clerics of Medieval times, often long after the death of the saint, and on which much of our understanding of them is now based.

2For a book that actually shows this in vivid and scholarly style, read Lisa Bitel’s Landscape with Two Saints: How Genovefa of Paris and Brigit of Kildare Built Christianity in Barbarian Europe


So you want to talk about it! said...

It's too bad I read this review after purchasing the e-book.

I will be sure to read it with eyes half open.

I was hoping for some historic accuracy, but, knowing now, that I won't find it in the Terrell novel, makes me quite sad. Thank you for this review.

Mael Brigde said...

Thanks for your comment. I understand your feeling. I was so excited when I heard the book was coming out and waited months for it, only to be so disappointed. I hope you can just enjoy it as a fantasy novel.