By Kate Horsley.
Boston: Shambhala, 2001.
191 pages
ISBN # 1-57062-719-3.

Comments of Bob Corbett
August 2004

Kate Horsley tells a fascinating story of Gwynn, a fifth century Irish woman living the life of a Roman Catholic nun, yet much more pagan Druid in her culture and inner being.

Gwynn is the daughter of a Druid woman healer, a deeply spiritual woman who taught her daughter a pagan way of life by example and experience. Gwynn met a Druid priest of great wisdom and pleaded and begged him to take her on as a spiritual apprentice which he reluctantly did. Eventually they become lovers and partners and are living a quiet Druid life. Gwynn has strong scholarly tendencies and has learned to read and write (scrolls). Eventually her husband is kidnapped by a rabid Christian band. It is assumed he was murdered but in fact he was muted by having his tongue cut out. Gwynn assumed him dead and he never communicates anything differently to her. She was on her own without many options, and she eventually chose to become a nun of St. Brigit, the only path to any personal independence or freedom to do scholarly work. She became a pagan nun.

Horsley’s attention to the radical conflict of 5th century Ireland and the slow (and violent) transition from a nation which manifested Druid culture to becoming Christian is a great historical tale with easy comparisons to such radical cultural changes in any period of history including our own.

The characters, story, power of the conflicts and intriguing detail of Druid life are gripping. I couldn’t stop reading and loved the novel a great deal. Nonetheless, Horsley’s characterization of Gwynn was not convincing for me and I was unable to suspend disbelief as I like to when I am taken into a fictional world by any author. I suspected the accuracy of Horsley’s history itself, but more importantly, I couldn’t believe the consciousness of the main character, the pagan nun, Gwynn. She seemed to me much more a late 20th century liberated woman with a sense of feminism and individualism which I was unable to imagine in 5th century Ireland.

Despite this difficulty, which might have been fatal for my reading of the novel, I was so gripped by the story itself that I could mainly let go, being riveted to the story with only now and again getting aggravated with the author for giving me what seemed this anachronistic consciousness within Gwynn.

The frame of the novel is a secret scroll which Gwynn is writing in the convent – her assigned tasks, which she does exceptionally well, are to do copying work and scholarly commentaries on holy texts. Unknown to the prioress, and more importantly, unknown to the powerful and close-minded monk who sets himself up over these nuns, she is writing this personal history at the same time.

I was especially taken with the cultural contrast which Horsley claims for the period. There was a radical shift from the Druid religious outlook to a Christian one. But the explanation which weighs on Gwynn is the shift from a focus on the world in which she grew up, rooted in observable natural processes and dominated by human suffering, to a Christian world rooted in an other worldly God who gives promises of a world of bliss to come, replacing any pain of the present.

Ironically, however, it is, on Gwynn’s view, a material change to the local culture which the English monks brought with them which gives their religion its greatest attraction.

The Christians brought new technologies of food. Her mother’s view: “They will bring their stronger wheats and better horses. And what is more powerful influence to a hungry man that a table full of bread?”

It was a better way to harvest barley and breed horses which won over the Irish peasants, giving them some immediate relief from suffering.

In contrast with the Christian focus on an eternal bliss of heaven and improved technology for the present, the Druid world of her youth was one which valued knowledge and THE WORD.

The druid's power was knowledge, and the druid's knowledge came in words. I began then to lust for the druids' power. For if one does not have knowledge of what to do or think, he will told by another what to do or think.

It was this tradition which led her to Giannon, the Druid scholar/priest to be trained and to learn the skills which Gwynn gained and thus attracted the sisters of St. Brigit.

Gwynn does seem to undergo some crisis of religion inside the convent, yet she can’t seem to choose between these two conceptions of the world. She even sees Brigit herself in both worlds.

(I made an) “… appeal to Saint Briget or the goddess Brigit, whatever it is her wish to be called.”

I was amused by Giannon’s methods of training Gwynn and his “contract” with her. When he finally agrees to take her on, she breathlessly awaiting this boon, he sets the parameters: He turned around as though he had seen me through the back of his skull and said,

"If you will be my apprentice you must not speak your own opinion for nine years. After nine years you may give judgment on one matter, and after the tenth year another, and so forth, until twelve years have passed and you have given judgment on three matters. And then, if I sanction your opinions and you have learned three hundred and fifty tales, you may call yourself a druid and pretend whatever powers you want."

However, the next few sentence aggravated me some since it took me away from this magical moment of the 5th century to today, as the modern-minded Gwynn replies:

I stood still in front of him, waiting for his demeanor to gentle and there to be a smile on his freckled lips, but I had found the surliest teacher in all the land. I said to him, "If I have opinions I will not speak them. But I will have them."

Certainly Giannon’s methods would not be ours today, yet even today it isn’t so very different, if less acknowledged. We children of my youth were hustled off to elementary school where we learned what Gwynn really wanted – access to the word. We were taught to read and write and calculate, any preciously little of our own opinions were sought and even in today’s most “enlightened” world, opinions of the learners, if sought, are not taken very seriously, regarded as “cute” at best.

By the end of 8 years of modern elementary school the tighter holds of authoritarianism are lessened some, but not so very much, such that after 12 years of such pre-college learning today, Gwynn may well have been better off since she had a strong chance of having at least three opinions of significance which would be hers and taken seriously and allowed to stand by the authority in power (Giannon in her case). Many students today don’t get such recognition until they leave the university with advanced degrees! If then!

Gwynn’s view of the world is that life is suffering. Christianity provides ways to cope with suffering or to avoid suffering. Eternity: blissful boredom. But she is troubled by this promise.

I am promised the Kingdom of Heaven, but what then will I do forever in the Kingdom of Heaven, unless there is a bliss that I do not understand, that is eternal without being tedious? When I ponder eternal life, I sometimes imagine a time when I will be sorely weary of endlessness.

Her scholarly work, her reflections on the world have given his life meaning and richness. She is the woman of the WORD. This notion of hers -- some vague eternal life or bliss sounds disturbingly troublesome and down right boring. I deeply sympathize with Gwynn. I’ve had her view of eternal life since I was a young child. Gwynn develops an analysis in which she articulates seven changes wrought by Christianity:

She is attracted to some of the Christian views but:

I would live in a world full of Christ-like humans, but not one full of Christians, may God forgive me.

This view which Horsley gives to Gwynn has been well developed by the mid-19th century Danish Christian theologian, Soren Kierkegaard. He makes a distinction between what he calls Christendom – the institutional church -- and Christianity – following the actual life and model of Jesus Christ. Like Gwynn, Kierkegaard praises the latter and denounces the former.

All but the last few lines of the book is presented as Gwynn’s private scroll. The very last page is not by her, but by her lover, husband and once teacher, Giannon, who lived in her presence at the convent, but unrecognized by her – a wee bit far-fetched fiction – nonetheless, he sums up her life and work to end the novel.

Gwynneve of Tarbfhlaith, scribe of the Order of Saint Brigit, lived over forty years in this incarnation. I, Giannon the Mute, have taken her place as scribe at this place, protector of codices and parchment. Her life is presented in her own words on codices that will hereafter be sealed and protected. She has not included in her own words what reputation others have given her, some of it false and much of it true. It has been said that Gwynneve transformed herself as a druid into a wolf and moved about in wilderness and tuaths as such a beast, bringing both blessing and disaster. These tales relate also her battles with spirit entities, including the altercation with a Formorian incarnated as a bear who sat upon her and would have killed her had she not conjured a spell against it. Thus it is said to have happened.

It should be known that she has herself been inaccurate by excluding the acts that gave her the reputation as a saint, a reputation refuted forcefully by the priests and abbots who pronounce who is saint and who is sinner. Gwynneve disliked hunger and fed those who suffered it. For some time when she was a goatherd, she supplied several tuaths with milk and cheese when they had been stripped of their goods by rivals. Her greatest fame was as one who attends the deathbed. Her strength was in accompanying a woman, a child, or a man to his final breath. Gwynneve did not turn away from the stench or writhing of death. She was known to say, "I will stay with you." Thus it happened.
Bob Corbett

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