Some authors and some books are not as well-known as they should be. This is indubitably the case with George Mackay Brown and his tour de force of a novel: Vinland.
George Mackay Brown was an Orcadian, a native of the Orkney Islands, an archipelago to the north of Scotland. Born in 1921, he was received into the Catholic Church in 1961. Thereafter, the Faith was a palpable presence in his work, most evocatively in the quasi-autobiographical short story, “The Tarn and the Rosary.” The publication of The Year of the Whale in 1965 established his reputation as a poet, and the appearance of A Calendar of Love in 1967 heralded his arrival as an eminent writer of short stories.
Living the entirety of his life in the relative seclusion of the Orkneys, except for a brief period as a student in Edinburgh, Brown’s works are imbued with a deep love for the Orcadian way of life, past and present. Indeed, the past is always present in his work, in the lives of crofters, fishermen, monks, and Vikings, all of whom live in a world which is overlaid and underpinned by a deeply religious apprehension and comprehension of eternal verities. His stories and verse express his passion for the ancient, the traditional, and the spiritual; they abound with legend and myth, image and symbol, the very language of mystereality.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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The critic Alan Bold, writing of Brown’s understanding of the crofters and fishermen who were his neighbors, suggested that such empathy and sympathy made him aware of “the elemental relationship these folk have with, respectively, the soil and the sea.” He might also have added that such folk live lives in which the soul is mystically wedded to the soil and the sea.
This soul-soil and soul-sea nexus finds expression in the deep theology of place which informs Brown’s poetry and poetic prose. Such rootedness in incarnate spirituality explains Brown’s reverence for tradition and his conversion to Catholicism, the Old Religion, which was the champion and defender of tradition and its last bastion and refuge. The new anti-traditional religion of what Brown called “our gray twentieth century” was Progress:
There is a new religion, Progress, in which we all devoutly believe, and it is concerned only with material things in the present and in a vague golden-handed future. It is a rootless utilitarian faith, without beauty or mystery…. The notion of progress is a cancer that makes an elemental community look better, and induces a false euphoria, while it drains the life out of it remorselessly.
This plaintive note, expressed in An Orkney Tapestry, Brown’s eulogy to the islands of his birth, was taken up by a character in “The Tarn and the Rosary”:
Progress, that’s the modern curse. This island is enchanted with the idea of Progress…. This worship of Progress, it will drain the life out of every island and lonely place. In three generations Norday will be empty. For, says Progress, life in a city must be superior to life in an island…. Will there be a few folk left in the world, when Progress is choked at last in its own too much? Yes, there will be. A few folk will return by stealth to the wind and the mist and the silences. I know it….
This long preambulatory introduction to George Mackay Brown and his oeuvre serves as a perfect introduction to his novel Vinland, published in 1992. As with his earlier novel Magnus, which was about the early-twelfth-century Earl of Orkney, St. Magnus the Martyr, Vinland has as its inspirational and historical source, the Orkneyinga Saga, a Norse saga which tells of the history of the Orkneys from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries.
Vinland is set in the late tenth and eleventh centuries and, as the title suggests, the story includes Leif Erikson’s pioneering discovery of continental North America in around A.D. 1000, almost half a millennium before the voyages of Christopher Columbus and John Cabot. It also includes the Battle of Clontarf in Ireland, in which Viking forces under the leadership of Sigurd of Orkney fought with an Irish army led by Brian Boru.
Brown’s depiction of the Vikings’ first peaceful encounter with the native Americans and their subsequent bloody encounter with the native Irish is full of the evocative mystique with which he approaches all reality. Nothing merely happens in the literary world of George Mackay Brown; everything is providential, the temporal always being kissed or cursed by eternal powers, which make and break the lives and ambitions of mortal men. This is all set as the backdrop of one man’s life, Ranald Sigmundson, whose growth in wisdom and virtue, through the experience of often self-inflicted suffering, is the thread which weaves the mystic elements together into a unified wholesomeness.
In terms of time and space, Vinland resonates with the mystery of time and space itself. It is set at a time in which the old pagan deities and beliefs are being conquered by the new religion of the Christians, the latter of which offers the only hope for authentic human progress from the grip of barbarism; in terms of space, it is set in the mystic space in which the Old North meets the Mystic West, a space which fired the imagination of Tolkien, Lewis, and Sigrid Undset.
The novel’s concluding pages do not merely evoke this union of the Old North and the Mystic West but consummate it in the mysterious communion in which life and death meet in Christ. Few novels have ended so well in terms of good morals, true religion, and beautiful prose. If it is true that an artist can be defined “as a man who knows how to finish things,” as Maurice Baring claimed, then the conclusion of Vinland proves that George Mackay Brown is a very fine artist indeed.
Editor’s Note: This is the forty-eighth in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”