Book Reviews

Magnus

by George Mackay Brown

Magnus is an atmospheric mystical book that guides the reader through the key events leading up to the martyrdom of Magnus Erlendson whose 900th anniversary was celebrated this year.

The tale is frequently carried by two peasants, Mans and Hild. Their lives are bound to the seasons, to their faith and to their poverty. They who suffer first hand the effects of civil strife between Magnus and his cousin Hakon Paulson because of the divided Orcadian Earlship. At times, two tinkers also take up the narrative. The pair are made up of the good hearted Jock and the blind, irascible Mary who is eventually cured following Jock makes devotion to the recently slain Magnus.

The diversions into the scraps between the Paulson and Erlson men are thrown into sharp modern day relief with a sinister passage set in the Jew extermination camps of Nazi Germany (I wondered for a long time why my library copy had a swastika on its cover). Again a chef is called upon to do a filthy and barbarous act by men who are barely recognisable as animals, never mind humans.

This is far more than a pastoral sequence and the telling of the life of a saint. There are no pallid tableaux to warm the hearts of the faithful and send comfort that even in this windswept locality great martyrs rise. The narrative is an indictment of human weakness and the negative effect of logical political conclusions on the lives of the people that leaders are meant to serve rather than exploit. Modern parallels abound.

There is no aggrandisement of Magnus the man, nothing convoluted or hyperbolic about his uniting with Christ during that final night of torment and prayer.

What choice did Magnus have? That remains an eternal question for so many human actions. It can be applied to Hakon as freely as to Magnus, to their men at arms, to the way Mans drinks and abuses Hild, to the way Mary remains ungrateful and feckless. Do they have any more choice than the barely seed thrown into the rill on the hillside? or the seeds carried by the wind and throttled by weeds?

There is delightful richness in George Mackay Brown’s prose, slowing the reader down as poetry does, producing a steady rhythm, an ebb and release of story that is born of confidence and mastery of the form. It is certainly not a book to be rushed through, as the library will know from my many renewals.

There are passages that I want to revisit, to hold again in my mind – I will now return my copy and in time, seek out a copy of my own.

Gabrielle Barnby

Orkney, 1st Nov, 2017