Ireland, c500 AD
Giannon's home was a configuration of branches, stones, and mud. A dome and a shed of these materials leaned against one another like old drunken warriors at a banquet. All around these structures was a variety of grasses, blossoms, and bushes that I had never seen before. Drying herbs, jars on tethers, and staffs of yew and oak hung on the sides of his dwelling so that it reminded me of Giannon himself when he travelled beneath a tangle of druidic accessories. The clearing with its gardens and dwelling was empty of human life, though a ragged gray wolf scampered into the woods from there. Some might say that the wolf was Giannon transformed, but I only had the sense that the wolf was hungry and weak, for the past winter had been fiercely cold.
I entered the dwelling and found the inside also strung with dried plants, jars, and staffs. There were shelves on which a chaos of boxes and jars sat along with feathers and scrolls and dust. The only furnishings were a table, a small bench, and a bed made of straw covered with the skins of bear and fox. More scrolls, codices, and tablets sat upon these furnishings, as though the originals had multiplied in some orgy when their master was away.
I walked carefully through this strange chamber, afraid that all of Giannon's belongings and the dwelling itself were capable of collapsing into a dusty pile of rubble. And I believed that a druid's dwelling could likely be set with spells from which I would emerge transformed into a beetle or a bee. I waited for Giannon outside, until the world grew dim and I could see wolves running along the tree line beyond the small clearing in which Giannon's home nested. Finally I saw Giannon approach …
This book has as its setting the period when the Church moved in and took over Ireland. It is the story of Gwynneve, who trains as a Ban-druí (druidess) under a surly and disillusioned druid watching his order pass into history as the tonsured monks and priests swarm over the land.
But two stories run concurrently, in alternate chapters. Gwynneve's story of her childhood with her wonderful mother -
My father accused my mother of starving me by filling me up with stories instead of food. Everyone in my túath was hungry, especially during the months of thick frost. But I did not want food as much as I craved her stories, which soothed me. I listened to my mother weave words together and create worlds, as though she were a goddess. Words came from her mouth and dispelled my loneliness, even when she was not with me. She began every story with the phrase "It was given to me that …"
- and then, when her mother died, her story of her life with Giannon the druid. Meanwhile, in the other chapters, we learn about the life she leads now as a nun among other Christian nuns who are drifting helplessly under the authority of a monk, Brother Adrianus, one of a small band who joined the nuns at the shrine of St Brigit and who has assumed the title and dignity of Abbot.
It is, let me say at once, depressing in parts. How could it not be? But as Gwynneve the nun, in the convent that is becoming daily more like a prison (and longing for her druid lover) writes her story on her treasured parchments, it is also very moving and uplifting.
Take some of Gwynneve's views and comments (recorded in the secret diary). Faced with unbelievable ignorance and stupidity, she writes: "I admonish myself and all who read this not to be ignorant on any matters of which knowledge is available. Do not be afraid of the truth …"
And later: "For we both both were weak in doctrine and strong in questions. But we both loved effort and knowledge, though I saw Giannon become weary in his eyes. I do not understand a man who does not want to know all that he can know."
On the loneliness of incarnation: "Among all the wisdom and facts I learned from Giannon, I also learned the loneliness of incarnation, in which there is inevitably a separation of souls because of the uniqueness of our faces and our experiences."
On God and nature: "I cannot see that any religion is true that does not recognize its gods in the green wave of trees on a mountainside or the echo of a bird's song that makes ripple on a shadowed pool […] This land is full of holiness that I cannot describe. Brigit knows this. Brigit to me is the wisest of all the saints. She knows the value of ale and the comfort of poetry."
On Christ and kindness: "That Christ fed fish and bread to the poor and spoke to the outcast whore makes me want his company on this dark night. The world is full of immortals but sorely lacking in kindness."
It is indeed. And the end is truly shocking. Not depressing, no, on second thoughts. Tragic.