The Hermit in Lore: Frederick Buechner's Godric.
New York: Atheneum, 1980; HarperSanFrancisco,
Historical fiction has always enjoyed the potential for bridging history and literary creativity. It should not merely entertain but inform us about the lives and ideas of the past without forcing us to resort to textbooks and scholarly tomes we naturally avoid. Historical fiction is a vehicle for more than romance, piety, or antiquarianism.
But what has plagued the genre has been not the getting of facts but the authentic voice, the challenge of recreating the lives and hearts of people as they were, in their own times, minds, and spirits. People of the past were certainly every bit as complex psychologically as ourselves, and to capture their psychology is not a matter of mere fact-mongering, nor a litany of politics, battles, and betrayals as if that alone comprises history.
Interestingly, the better historical fiction writers have been women. Some that come to mind are Naomi Mitchison, Marguerite Yourcenar, Mary Renault, and Bryher for antiquity, Sigrid Unset and Helen Waddell for the European Middle Ages. They have managed to avoid the trap of Thomas Carlyle's notion that history is the biography of great personalities. Perhaps, too, their insights as women have provided greater awareness of psychology and emotion in common people and unsung lives. Their work entertains and inspires decades after being first published.
That is a lengthy introduction to Frederick Buechner's Godric, an introduction which hopefully sets a criteria for evaluating this novel. Buechner, like most of the aforementioned names, did not specialize in historical fiction, but all the better is the result. His subject is Godric of Finchale, eleventh-century British hermit and saint.
Buechner pursued all the correct research; there are no anachronisms or shoddy chronological tricks to mar the facts. The chief source for the historical Godric is Reginald of Durham, who took down facts from Godric's own mouth, and we have no reason to doubt the outlines of his life. Buechner's strong sense of characterization is evident as a strength in his other fiction, and he has a keen sensibility about Christianity as seen in his non-fiction. In Godric, both are brought to bear with success.
This is not hagiography or pious folklore. Godric is portrayed with the full psychological voice of his era, not only as the likely person he would have been but with the full stubbornness, attitudes, fears, lusts, longings, compromises, and sensitivities we might expect.
In the Middles Ages, a man or woman might be popularly conceived to be a saint by association, sanction, authority, or eccentricity, but it is the role of the writer (historian or novelist) to see past the hagiography because even medieval people would have done so had they been given a voice. Buechner gives Godric that voice, and the result is a fascinating and compelling portrait.
The outline story of Godric can be found in many books and reference sources, though the only source, the aforementioned biography by Reginald of Durham, remains untranslated except in an occasional excerpt. Godric is credited as the first English poet, but Buechner rightly shows how this appellation can be construed as happenstance. In the novel, Godric scoffs at Reginald's saint-making: Reginald is taking notes, cringing as the elderly Godric narrates his life all too honestly. The author gives our protagonist a marvelous narrative voice reminiscent of the cadence and vocabulary of a medieval epic character, but entirely plausible, even likely.
Here are some long but representative lines from Godric introducing himself:
I started out as rough a peasant's brat and full of cockadoodledoo as any. I worked uncleaness with the best of them or worse. I tumbled all the maids would suffer me and some that scratched and tore like weasels in a net. I planted horns on many a goodman's brow and jollied his lads with tales about it afterward. I took up peddling as my trade. I cozened and tricked the way a baker yeasts his loaves till they are less of bread than air. I passed off old for new. I thieved and pirated. I went to sea. Such things as happened then are better left unsaid. ...
There's much you're better not to know, but know you this. Know Godric's no true hermit but a gadabout within his mind, a lecher in his dreams. Self-seeking he is and peacock proud. A hypocrite. A ravener of alms and dainty too. A slothful greedy bear. Not worthy to be called a servant of the Lord when he treats such servants as he has himself like dung, like Reginald. All this and worse than this go say of Godric in your book.
Of course, Reginald did not write the unsavory parts, but Buechner does as a literary re-creation. This gives a realistic insight into the psychology of the man, let alone the hermit and saint. Is it confession genre after St. Augustine, the "scoundrel to saint" genre of Christianity? Perhaps, but Godric is so self-effacing, so humble, lacking a trace of dissimulation, even naive and innocent in his bald retelling of scandal, cruelty, and lust that to speak of spirituality leading him forward is too formulaic, too convenient. Is it "Christian fiction"? Perhaps that, too, but no more than a parallel novel, Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, is "Hindu fiction" or "Buddhist fiction." To be universal, a story must be rooted in its present. It cannot be but existential. One whiff of piety and the tale is doomed.
Nor is the story of Godric a trajectory towards the good with an ending we already expect, almost as anticlimax. For Buechner begins his story at the end, or nearly so, and we see the events in Godric's life not as a prelude to personal conversion and faith but as the rocky course towards eremitism.
Yet we never really know why Godric became a hermit. Perhaps it is silence and solitude, that then resonated within the emptiness of his heart. Godric does not countenance changing his life until pangs of conscience or frustration lead him to want to stay alone awhile at St. Cuthbert's old hermit haunts at Farne -- which, however, he first discovered as an ideal place to hide ill-gotten booty.
Godric then begins staying away from people, dwelling alone in the forest near the river Wear because everything has become an occasion of sin and sorrow except when alone. This taste of silence and self waters a seed that does not sprout, however, until later when Godric meets the old hermit Elfic. Here, example becomes an ajunct teacher to solitude.
Elric, an wizened little old man reminiscent of Tolkien's Gollum, beset by voices and demons, is brilliantly recreated by Buechner. Godric measures him carefully, with great sympathy. On day he tells Elric of a dream at Farne in which St. Cuthbert urged Godric to become a hermit.
When I told Elric of my dream, for once he didn't say that I'd been cozened by the fiend. He said, "You'll be a hermit then like me. Those trees will be your house, you'll wear the river for your scarf. The sky will be your cap, the rain your cloak. The snakes will teach you watchfulness. In time, by grace, you even may find happiness as I have found it here."
"I never knew you had," I said.
"Nor yet did I till now I know that I must leave it soon. I'll miss it sore when I am dead and gone. How many things I'll miss!"
We might dare to liken the river Wear to the river in Hesse's Siddhartha, with Elric the hermit as the ferryman in Hesse's novel, were it not that these facts are an integral part of Reginald's narrative.
Godric learned the eremitic discipline from Elric though ever wary of the legions of demons crowding the old hermit's mind. Once Elric tapped his brow and said:
My skull's a chapel. So is yours. The thoughts go in and out like godly folk to mass. But what of hands that itch for gold? What of feet that burn to stray down all the soft and leafy paths to Hell, the truant heart that hungers for the love of mortal flesh? A man can't live his life within his skull. His other members harry him. They drag him forth. The Devil and his minions lie in wait without.
This is surely a medieval voice and the voice of the desert, but a universal voice rightly understood. We need not be religious to understand the itch, the burning, the truant heart. Life is attachment and desire. Even attachment to attachment, as the dying Elric owns:
Months later, on his deathbed, Elric points to the demons in the shadows of his cave and notes their tears because they won't be able to torment him any more. Then he whispered, "I fear in Paradise I'll even miss the fiends."
To the hermit and the solitary -- and to each person who pauses long enough -- is the insight that we have so much worldly contrivance to drop from our backs to lighten the journey. And still we will be haunted by memory and the accretions of the past -- what the East would call karma. Godric is a glimpse into the magnificent struggle, and a novel that wonders at the possibilities of the human spirit.