Magnus by George Mackay Brown

<Spoiler Alert> This isn’t a review so much as a series of thoughts prompted by a novel. If you want to not know what happens in the book, go read this glorious take-down of a different book notionally connected to Bonhoeffer.  </Spoiler Alert>

Magnus by George Mackay Brown is the strangest book inspired by Dietrich Bonhoeffer I have ever come across. Even weirder than that so-called biography by Eric Metaxas. The legendary Orcadian poet weaves together the story of the ill-fated Magnus Erlendsson, who competed against Haakon Paulsson for rule over Orkney and Shetland in the early 1100s. This story about Viking culture on the islands to the north of Scotland is also about a 20th Century Lutheran pastor.

Embedded within the story of civil conflict in medieval Scotland is the story of the holocaust and the martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. You remember Bonhoeffer? He was the great German theologian of the 1930s, who opposed the NAZI rule, sought to protect the German church, evacuate Jews and uphold the Gospel. He was also put to death at Flossenbürg, weeks before the end of the war, having been found guilty of conspiring to assassinate Hitler. Earlier, in 1937, he had written in his classic book on discipleship:

When Christ calls a man, he bids him
come and die.

So the story that unfolds in Magnus is a disjointed and complex one. This medieval saga is told in a very modernistic fashion. We see things from the perspective of soldiers and peasants, tinkers and monks, but rarely from the view of Magnus or Haakon. Yet Brown leaves us in no doubt but that in some ways, history is made by powerful men using their power. It’s just they don’t seem to have a choice. Events overtake them. Things spiral out of hand.

This book should be better known among Christians and I encourage you to track it down. But there are three points in it that I specifically want to focus on.

Early in the novel, Magnus is pressed into marriage, before he can discern his vocation and he comes to make peace with it in a very unsatisfactory way. But in discussion with his friend Hold, he cannot express himself in a way that is understood. Things are too fraught with meaning. Hold is left smiling “with simulated understanding, but in truth he was more perplexed than ever” after the Earl had explained his marital difficulties by saying:

This crucifix is the forge, and the threshing-floor, and the shed of the net-makers, where God and man work out together a plan of utter necessity and of unimaginable beauty…

– George Mackay Brown, Magnus, 73.

The cruciform shape of human life that Bonhoeffer bears testimony to is summed up in this “deep sincerity” which Magnus can only express “in falterings and sudden fluencies.” The darkness of human anguish does not exhaust the hope of the Gospel, even if we cannot imagine God bringing beauty out of it. This is part of Bonhoeffer’s witness to us.

Perhaps already you can see the two aspects of this book that are very striking. It is a book suffused by the Christian faith that deeply reflects the Gospel and yet because it is a modernist novel, this is all under the surface. It is the working of the logic of the thing, that only occasionally and in brief reveals itself unambiguously to the reader. It was neither JM Coetzee nor Thomas Pynchon who said after they had told a great story, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”


The theology does poke through. I loved Brown’s reflections on the eco-systems of the islands. The seals and the tides and the birds are ever-present characters. This paragraph lingered with me, because it draws out a very mundane fact that we can easily forget now that the most important ingredient in our agriculture is petroleum. But farming is an act of faith. It always was and always will be:

Now that the seed was uttered upon the land the peasants waited for the sun and the rain to do their bit. What they had performed was an act of faith. They trusted that the seed they had buried would return from the grave, first the shoot, then the ear, then the stalk with a full burden of corn in the ear. But this yearly resurrection of the seed was encompassed with dangers. The rain might fall in black deluges on the hill all the month of June. The sun might shrivel the crop with unwonted ardency while it was still green. More terrible still, the black worm might bore into the root.

The peasants had done what they could.

– George Mackay Brown, Magnus, 93.

Yet the connection that I made at the end of this novel is probably the one that will linger the longest with me. It is no spoiler to say that Magnus is killed, martyred as a sacrifice for the sake of the islands. After years of wasteful civil strife, he is axed in the head to bring peace, to make atonement between the battling factions, to inaugurate one and only one as Lord.

Both within the literal pages of the book and the thematic momentum of the book, here we are at close parallel with Bonhoeffer. He imagined himself as a sacrifice for the sins of Germany, for his middle-class Berliner people, for his comfortable Christian congregations, for the complacency and violence of his civilized nation. Peace came soon after his death.

That Bonhoeffer was wrong about this should be no limit to Brown making art. At the end of the book he artfully places us three years into the peace. While they toil at harvest, the peasants are robbed by some tinkers. One of the peasants wants to make an example of the thieves, bring them to justice, even see them hanged. His wife is more benevolent and wins the day. Having reminded her neighbours of their surplus and how desperate they were for sustenance in the years of war, Hild, says:

– Remember this, man. We’re only as rich as the poorest among us.

– George Mackay Brown, Magnus, 190.

Hild does not know of the violence that erupted at the peace talks which led to Magnus’ death. Hild is unaware of how the peace she now enjoys was won by the murder of a saintly man. Hild is ignorant of the fact that the government for which she is so thankful was only raised to power by an act of cowardice.

The sincere and magnanimous leadership of Hild appears superficial and cynical when we zoom out to take in the entire picture. The poorest among them is the ghost of Magnus, who was slain to make their peace. He does not even have his life anymore. The success of the state always rests on the violence exerted on the people we cannot see.

This too echoes with the legacy of Bonhoeffer. We Europeans live in the recent shadow of the carnage of the World Wars. We praise our liberal governments for securing our peace and facilitating our prosperity. We issue forth the lofty words of social democracy, saying things very similar to Hild. But we can only do so by remembering to forget who are the poorest among us. We use legal and social and cultural devices to make sure that the poor who would challenge our ease are non-persons. Thus we live amongst but ignore the asylum seekers in “reception centres”, the mentally disabled aborted before they are born, the slaves who sew our clothes and assemble our phones and harvest our food.

This is the strangest book I have yet read about Bonhoeffer. But it is marvelous.

Your Correspondent, His usual order is one Kwik-E-Dog, one bubblegum cigar, and the latest issue of “Success” magazine.

2 Replies to “Magnus by George Mackay Brown”

  1. I read this book earlier this year and I said at the end that it was definitely too smart for me. Thanks much for unpacking it for me.

    I did so love that bit about farming, though.

  2. I too found it hard-going in places! I don’t know how credible my unpacking of it is either! But I am glad someone else read the agriculture bits and thought they were great!

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