‘The catholicity of time in the work of George Mackay Brown’

Gunnie Moberg - George Mackay Brown

The latest issue of Pacifica is now available, and includes my little article on ‘The catholicity of time in the work of George Mackay Brown’. The Abstract reads:

This essay introduces and explores some explicitly theological concerns in the work of the Orcadian poet, novelist, and dramatist George Mackay Brown (1921–96). More specifically, its interest is with Brown’s presentation and treatment of the notion of time. Drawing on examples from a wide selection of his work, it is argued that Brown’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, and in particular his delight in the enchantment of the Mass, allowed him to exploit a distinctly Catholic sacramental theology and aesthetic of creation – its location, people, and history – appraised in light of the Eucharist.

[Image: George Mackay Brown, with cat. Photograph by Gunnie Moberg]

Hope is the strangest protest

Beach pollutionThe poet and novelist George Mackay Brown is well-known for his love of place, and for his laments about their destruction with the advent of stuff like concrete, plastic bottles, portable transistor radios, and what he describes as the ‘menace of cars’, indeed with all signs of industrialization.

In a piece penned for The Orcadian and published on 23 March 1972, he (again) recounts feelings of deep grief about the prevalence of contaminants – oil slicks and junk – that he finds on his sojourns along the coast of his beloved island home. But the piece concludes on a different note:

We must have faith that somewhere, deep down at the very roots and sources of life, there is an endless upsurge of health and renewal. (If there were not, the earth would have shriveled like a rotten apple millenniums since.) A hundred years ago the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, troubled by the pollution of industrial England, consoled himself with the certainty that ‘there lives the dearest freshness deep down things …’. We can only hope that that primal unsullied source will be strong enough to wash away the frightful poisons that men are pouring into the air and earth and oceans every hour of the day and night. So, nowadays, when I take an afternoon walk around the coast, I am not offended any more by the empty sauce bottles and syrup tins on the rocks below. They seem to be simply human friendly objects. The freshness of nature, that lives ‘deep down things’, passes over them, and they are gone.

Hope is the strangest – and the most unbelievable – protest.

[Image: source]

‘Epiphany Poem’, by George Mackay Brown

The Road Stops Here

The red king
Came to a great water. He said,
Here the journey ends.
No keel or skipper on this shore.

The yellow king
Halted under a hill. He said,
Turn the camels round.
Beyond, ice summits only.

The black king
Knocked on a city gate. He said,
All roads stop here.
These are gravestones, no inn.

The three kings
Met under a dry star.
There, at midnight,
The star began its singing.

The three kings
Suffered salt, snow, skulls.
They suffered the silence
Before the first word.

— George Mackay Brown

[Image: David Williamson]

The Song of St Magnus

‘So Magnus Erlendson, when he came up from the shore that Easter Monday, towards noon, to the stone in the centre of the island, saw against the sun eleven men and a boy and a man with an axe in his hand who was weeping … Then in the light of the new day, 16 April 1117, there was a blinding flash of metal in the sun’. – George Mackay Brown

Magnus‘The Orkney Isles, off the northern coast of Scotland, were ruled by the Viking king of Norway in the 13th century, and Magnus was the rightful heir to the Earldom of the archipelago. He was a bit of an odd one. Once he’d joined the King on a raiding party, but he’d stayed back on the ship and sung psalms. He’d refused to fight. It would be something of a theme in his short life. The King wasn’t sure about a ruler who wouldn’t fight, and so he also recognised the claim to the Earldom by Magnus’ cousin, and the two ruled jointly for some years. It worked pretty well, until some of their followers felt things would be better if their respective Earl had the job to himself. Things started to shape up for war. It seemed inevitable. Inevitable, that is, until Magnus insisted that he and his cousin try and talk their way to a peaceful solution. He suggested that they meet on a deserted island where the only building was an ancient stone chapel. They agreed to meet, each bringing only two ships of men, enough for protection but not enough for serious aggression. Magnus arrived the night before with his two ships. He spent the night in prayer.

In the light of the dawn, however, he saw his cousin’s treachery. Eight ships were entering the harbour. Too many for peace. Too many for truce. Not too many for war.

What would Magnus do? He could run, flee and gather his supporters on the mainland and fight this out. Or he could appeal to the King of Norway to deal with his scoundrel cousin. Instead, he turned quietly and went back into the small stone chapel to pray, as if the chapel were his Garden of Gethsemane. The war party surrounded the chapel and demanded Magnus surrender himself. He did, once the cousin had agreed to leave his men unharmed. The gathered chiefs demanded that the Earl’s duel in order to bring an end to the division that threatened to tear the islands apart. But the cousin wasn’t willing to give up his advantage, and Magnus refused to fight, so the cousin decided to execute Magnus. Magnus tried to talk his cousin out of this course of action so as to save his cousin’s soul. Lest we think that Magnus was acting out of self preservation, however, his alternative suggestion was that he be mercilessly tortured and disfigured, left alive but ruined, so as to protect his cousin from committing murder. But the cousin wanted no rival, however broken. He ordered his finest warrior to kill Magnus. The warrior refused. In fact, none of the cousin’s soldiers would meet his eyes or his demands. Finally, under the threat of death, the cousin’s poor cook, weeping and pleading for Magnus’ forgiveness was chosen for the task. Magnus spoke quietly and calmly to him, telling him the sin was not his, that Magnus held nothing against him, that he should do what he must do, and think no more of it.

So he did, and Magnus was killed. And there was peace, for there was no one left for the cousin to fight. But there was also grief, such grief among the people that Magnus’ body was shortly recovered and buried with honour. A church was built to mark the place and his death, the cross of Magnus became their flag, and the sacrifice of Magnus their pride and their shame.

Could this be what faith looks like, when the beloved ones of God  love peace more than themselves, that even the wicked moments of human cruelty might, in the mysterious grace of God, be made to tell the story of love which covers all and conquers all?’

These (lightly edited) words, and the wonderful song that follows, were penned and recorded recently by my dear friend Malcolm GordonThose, like myself, who consider themselves fans of the work of George Mackay Brown, from whose pen many of us first heard of Magnus, will enjoy this:

The Song of St MagnusThe northern miles
Hold the Orkney Isles
Lands of windswept vale.
And from this place
Comes a tale of grace
Of love amidst betrayal.

Magnus ruled
With his brother too
And peace shone out like dawn.
But rumours spread
That blood would be shed
As battle lines were drawn.

Before we fight
Let’s see if we might
Find ways to live together.
We’ll each bring two boats
See if peace might float
Even in this stormy weather.

For he went to war
But he would not fight
Yet peace he won undying,
For his hands were tied
But his heart on fire
Saint Magnus Earl of Orkney Isles.

Eight ships appeared
And the trick he feared
This truce became betrayal.
Would he run away?
No, he stayed to pray
To find the strength to fail.

‘One chief we’ll have’,
The brother said,
‘And that chief will be me’.
But he could not find
Someone of his kind
To kill this saint to-be.

For he went to war
But he would not fight
Yet peace he won undying,
For his hands were tied
But his heart on fire
Saint Magnus Earl of Orkney Isles.

No soldier would
And the brother stood
Alone with death’s desire.
But he found his one
And the sin was done
For fear of him, a murder.

But Magnus swore
This sin is not yours
Your tears will count for something,
So do this deed
And find God’s peace
I’ll hold against you nothing.

For he went to war
But he would not fight
Yet peace he won undying,
For his hands were tied
But his heart on fire
Saint Magnus Earl of Orkney Isles.

The blow fell sharp
And the saint fell hard
Truce was bought with his blood.
The people wept
But this peace they kept
They kept the peace of Magnus;
Yes, they kept the peace of Magnus.

For he went to war
But he would not fight
Yet peace he won undying,
For his hands were tied
But his heart on fire
Saint Magnus Earl of Orkney Isles.

Martyrdom of St Magnus

[Image: Scotiana.com]

You can access more of Malcolm’s music here and here.

‘January’, by George Mackay Brown

bowl of soupJanuary

6.1.1972

January is the month when for a morning or two you expect to wake up with a dry mouth at least.

January is the month when you observe, sadly, six of your seven good resolutions blow away on the cold wind.

January is the month when you dismantle – on a precise date, the sixth – the Christmas tree and give all those expensive Christmas cards to the children to scrawl on with their crayons.

January is the month when bills seem to seep through your letter box with pitiless monotony. The man who was as rich as Rockefeller on Christmas Eve is as poor now as a church mouse.

January is the month when you wait for the worst of the winter to fall, sleet and hail and snow out of the north-east. You kind of exist between an iron earth and a leaden sky.

January is the month when turkey and sauterne and tangerines are forgotten about for another eleven months. You are grateful for simple things – a fire, a bowl of soup, a piece of bread.

January is the month of Robbie Burns, that marvellous man whose memory has been ruined in great splurges of sentimentality and hogwash.

January is the month when you go through a box of tissue handkerchiefs a week.

January is the month of the double mask. It looks both ways, into the follies and delights of the past year, and into the nebulous hopes of what is to come. Either way, it tells you very little.

January is the month when you are appalled by the number of empty screwtops in your cupboard. Hopefully you order more malt, more sugar, more hops.

January used to be the month when the people of Orkney read books. Now we grow sick on a surfeit of television. Imagination in the north, which used to be most vivid at this time of year, slowly withers.

January is the month of rubber boots and bonnets and the mittens Aunty Bella knitted.

January is the month when bed is the most beautiful place of all. The eight o’clock news on the bedside wireless is a hateful sound. You rise and have to lay aside all those beautiful swathings of dream.

January is the month when the full moon is most glorious of all (though I think the stars have it, for December).

There is no month of the year quite like January. What is better than a walk along the west shore in that cold, silver air?

On the glory of our Anzac heroes

Roll of honour

Regular readers here at PCaL may have noticed (from the sidebar) that I’ve been reading a fair bit of stuff lately from the Orkney writer George Mackay Brown. Indeed, Brown’s work was the focus of my recent sabbatical project (to be continued) wherein I have been particularly interested in Brown’s presentation of the notion of time. But more on that later.

Brown’s third novel, Time in a Red Coat, is an extraordinary tale of a somewhat Melchizedekian heroine who travels through time in order to bring healing to a history and race marked by tragedy, mistrust and violence, and by the sheer absence of an imagination of a world unmarked by such.

Along the way, I was struck by these words, and was again reminded of the great pagan charade that Antipodeans know as ‘Anzac Day‘ (celebrated each year on 25 April, a day marked to remember the dishonesty of worldly politics, the brutality of empire, and by the fact that many ministers serving in the Antipodes are seduced every April by a temptation to place their salvation on the line):

‘If a knight was brought into the courtyard mortally wounded, words like “heroism” and “glory” and “fame” were invoked to cover the ugliness – and beautiful words were carved on his tomb stone’. (pp. 36–37)