Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Patrick: Son of Ireland

This week I’m taking a brief respite from my series on The Top 5 Clichés in Fantasy Fiction in honor of Saint Patrick’s Day, one of my all-time favorite holidays!

Appropriately, I’m focusing today’s post on Patrick: Son of Ireland by Stephen R. Lawhead. I had little appreciation for the story of Saint Patrick until I began researching my first novel, which begins in Derry in what is now Northern Ireland. Prior to that, Saint Patrick’s Day was merely a good excuse to drink Guinness at a raucous Irish pub. But once I began my research all that changed, especially after reading How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. I cannot recommend this book more strongly to anyone who is of Irish descent or who’s even remotely interested in the amazing role the Irish played in the survival of Western civilization during the Dark Ages.

Cahill’s book contained the first account I had ever read about Saint Patrick. Here's the abridged version. By the beginning of the fifth century, with the Goths and Huns threatening Rome, the Roman garrison in Briton became depleted as troops moved back to defend the continent. This exposed Briton to attacks by foreign enemies, including the Celtic Irish who ravaged Briton’s western coast. One of the largest raids occurred around the year 401 A.D., when literally thousands of Britons were captured as slaves by Irish raiders. One of those captured was a teenage boy who we know today as Saint Patrick.

Patrick was a Romanized Briton and the son of a noble family. He was not born “Patrick,” and his original name remains in question, yet at least one source has him named Succat. Patrick served his enslavement as a shepherd to an Irish chieftain named Miliucc, who ruled a kingdom in the hills of Antrim. According to legend, Patrick remained captive for six years before escaping after hearing a voice in a dream about a trader’s ship that would return him to Briton. After finding the ship and returning to home, Patrick eventually made his way to Gaul at a time when hordes of Germans were crossing the Rhine to engage the Roman army. There, Patrick studied religion, became a priest, and later a bishop – the title he held when he returned to Ireland as one of its first and most famous Christian missionaries. It is with this background that I read Stephen R. Lawhead’s Patrick: Son of Ireland.

I had anticipated that this novel would tell the story of how Patrick converted the Irish Celts to Christianity. I was wrong. The book actually tells the tale of Patrick's early life, before he returned to Ireland. Aside from a brief epilogue, the novel provides no account of Patrick’s later years which earned him his sainthood. Instead, the author focuses on Patrick’s captivity and enslavement. And this is where the novel truly shines. Patrick’s enslavement introduces him to a druid named Cormac and his sister, Sionan, the woman with whom Patrick falls in love. After surviving several failed attempts at fleeing his captivity, Patrick, with Cormac’s aid, escapes his brutal life by agreeing to serve in a house of druids, and eventually studies to become a bard. This is where the novel becomes both fascinating and controversial.

The bards and druids of Lawhead’s Ireland can use magic, which firmly places this novel on the fine line between historical fiction and historical fantasy. Many of the druids and bards who teach Patrick are also members of the Ceile De, essentially Christian druids who believe in the one true God. Patrick ultimately becomes one of the Ceile De; he never becomes a priest or a bishop, though this is not necessarily foreclosed because the novel ends before the reader learns what becomes of Patrick later in life.

Not surprisingly, this plot point is controversial for those who feel the novel downplays or even eliminates Patrick’s Roman Catholicism. After all, they argue, the Roman Catholic Church would never have canonized a druid. But I view Stephen R. Lawhead as taking artistic license for the sake of his story. And overall, his story works – especially the two-thirds or so of the novel that take place in Ireland.

Although it was not what I expected, I enjoyed this novel, very much at times. And while the author may have taken artistic license with his subject, it works well in the end, telling a story of faith once lost only to be discovered again.


BJB said...

From what you've described, this book (which I admit I haven't read), possibly exemplifies my deepest concern about "historical fiction." Anyone not well versed in the undisputed facts won't be equipped, when reading this book, to distinguish between the history and the fiction. It's one thing for a reader to come into an historical fiction novel understanding that most, if not all, of the specific dialogue and minor details of the characters' lives are from the author's imagined attempt to flesh out and segue between the major and historically established factual arc. But in this book, a huge issue is dealt with in a manner you admit is artistic license.

Joseph Finley said...

BJB - thanks for the comment! The point you raise is always a pitfall with historical fiction, especially fiction set so long ago that the figures are as much legend as they are historical. To be fair to Stephen R. Lawhead, there is some historical evidence that Patrick served in "a house of four druids" during his captivity, so the extent of artistic license taken by the author is debatable. I do think it is helpful when authors include a historical note or author's note that explains what parts of the actual history have been changed for the sake of the story. Bernard Cornwell includes one of these in all his books, and his explanations for changing historical "fact' are always very persuasive.

Other than that, I think readers can inform themselves by simply reading reviews on Goodreads, Shelfari, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble. And where "history" is concerned, a quick peek at Wikipedia never hurts either.

As an aside, in my own novel, which is probably best considered historical fantasy, I am following Cornwell's example and penning an author's note to explain what portions of the "real" history I have changed and why.

Cindy Keen Reynders said...

That sounds like an interesting book. What I've read while conducting historical research during that time period offers a lot of different schools of thought about various events. Possibly it's just me, but I've found much of the information offers different acounts, so it would seem to be challenge to have all facts completely accurate in order to write a book. I think there would have to be some creative license in a work of this nature. I love history! Can't get enough of it.

Joseph Finley said...

Cindy - Thanks for the comment and for joining my blog! Your point is well taken, especially for older figures like St Patrick. There are only two letters from Patrick deemed authentic, but most of the details on his life are debated by historians. In fact, historians can’t even pinpoint the years in which he lived. Stephen R. Lawhead cites a late seventh century reference to Patrick (which mentions the name Succatt and his service in the House of Four Druids) at the beginning of his novel. Obviously, the closer you get to the twentieth and twenty first centuries, the more details we have about the life of a historical figure. But still you have works like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – and it's a bestseller, and soon to be motion picture!