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Magnus [Paperback]

George Mackay Brown
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 30 1977
First published in 1973 by the Hogarth Press, "Magnus" is George Mackay Brown's tour de force - his most poetic and innovative book. He links the twelfth-century story of the saintly Earl Magnus of Orkney's brutal murder at the hands of his cousin Hakon Paulson, to that of the philosopher Dietrich Bonhoeffer, murdered by the Nazis during World War II. A unique exploration of the eternal questions of guilt, goodness and personal sacrifice.
--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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'Magnus is, I believe, the most beautiful contemporary bookI have ever read.' THE TIMES'A distinctive and distinguished novel, of unusual powerand purity ... Brown uses language with beautifulprecision, resource and power.' THE SUNDAY TIMES'[Mackay Brown] weaves the twentieth-century strand intothe Nordic tapestry more deftly than might have beenthought possible.' THE HERALD --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

About the Author

George Mackay Brown (1921-96) was one of the major Scottish literary figures of the twentieth century - a prolific poet and novelist, he took much of his inspiration from the myths and landscape of Orkney, and also from his deep Catholic faith. He was born in Orkney in 1921 and died there in 1996. Following his first book in 1954 he published many more, including plays, novels and poems. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies has set much of his work to music. In 1988 he was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for The Golden Bird. In 1994 his Beside the Ocean of Time was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and judged Book of the Year by the Saltire Society. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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5.0 out of 5 stars New Favourite June 6 2012
By Wilhelm
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
George Mackay Brown's Magnus is my new favourite novel! It is beautifully written prose that, at times, breaks into poetry.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Northern Light March 11 2000
Format:Paperback
I had the great fortune to meet George Mackay Brown while he was still alive, and the great MISfortune of not knowing what a great writer he was at the time. I was at Stromness in the Orkneys in October 1976 and had just come out of a bookstore where his picture was prominently displayed on the backs of several interesting books of poetry, essays, and fiction. I asked him, "Are you George Mackay Brown?" He smiled, answered, "I do not deny it," and walked on with his hands in his pockets.
Now that I have read several of his books and am continually scouring the world for more, I see this as one of the great missed opportunities of my life.
Who was Magnus? Saint Magnus was one of the great Earls of Orkney in the time when the Isles owed their fealty to the Kings of Norway. Those Viking raids that so terrified Europe all stopped off at Orkney for provisions before going off to pillage the Southrons. Into this maelstrom came a saintly Viking (if that isn't an oxymoron!) named Magnus, who was forced to share power with one of his kinsmen. The latter decided to grab it all, and had Magnus butchered under a flag of truce.
Brown takes episodes in Magnus's life and holds them up in the light to see how it reflects off their surfaces. In Magnus's death, he sees Auschwitz in one famous scene which many critics have disliked, but which I thought was brilliant. Somehow, it took a fellow Orcadian to see Magnus to his core; and Brown does it with majesty, lyricism, and love.
In Kirkwall stands the 12th Century cathedral of St Magnus. I am not sure but that George Mackay Brown, that wild lonely man, built a greater one in this book.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.9 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
36 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Northern Light March 11 2000
By James Paris - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I had the great fortune to meet George Mackay Brown while he was still alive, and the great MISfortune of not knowing what a great writer he was at the time. I was at Stromness in the Orkneys in October 1976 and had just come out of a bookstore where his picture was prominently displayed on the backs of several interesting books of poetry, essays, and fiction. I asked him, "Are you George Mackay Brown?" He smiled, answered, "I do not deny it," and walked on with his hands in his pockets.
Now that I have read several of his books and am continually scouring the world for more, I see this as one of the great missed opportunities of my life.
Who was Magnus? Saint Magnus was one of the great Earls of Orkney in the time when the Isles owed their fealty to the Kings of Norway. Those Viking raids that so terrified Europe all stopped off at Orkney for provisions before going off to pillage the Southrons. Into this maelstrom came a saintly Viking (if that isn't an oxymoron!) named Magnus, who was forced to share power with one of his kinsmen. The latter decided to grab it all, and had Magnus butchered under a flag of truce.
Brown takes episodes in Magnus's life and holds them up in the light to see how it reflects off their surfaces. In Magnus's death, he sees Auschwitz in one famous scene which many critics have disliked, but which I thought was brilliant. Somehow, it took a fellow Orcadian to see Magnus to his core; and Brown does it with majesty, lyricism, and love.
In Kirkwall stands the 12th Century cathedral of St Magnus. I am not sure but that George Mackay Brown, that wild lonely man, built a greater one in this book.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An ancient Orkney saint and a modern German martyr Jan. 11 2013
By J. MUNRO - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is the story of Magnus Erlendson, Earl of Orkney in the Twelfth Century; or rather (as it says in the book) "half-earl", for there were two heirs, Magnus and his cousin Hakon Paulson; the story of Magnus, the mystic, who cares for the seal injured by hunters, who sits in the prow of a ship reading a book during a great sea battle, and was born to be a saint.

But he was also born to be Earl of Orkney, and half the islands support him. There is civil war, during which the islanders are reduced to poverty and despair. In the end, after three years of fighting, Magnus is killed by treachery when he agrees to meet his cousin for peace talks.

George Mackay Brown, who died in 1996, was primarily a poet, and this is his most poetic novel, a long prose poem. He was also a superb short story writer and, like his wonderful first novel, "Greenvoe", and the Booker-shortlisted "Beside the Ocean of Time", this book reads like a series of short stories. Yet the same characters appear and reappear throughout, some (like the tinker couple, Jock and Mary, and Magnus' boyhood companions) growing older along with Magnus, others (like the peasants Mans and Hild, and Bishop William) archetypes who are always there unchanging like a chorus in the background.

It is not, as Isobel Murray observes in her Introduction to the Canongate Classics edition of "Magnus", a 'conventional historical novel, and it challenges the reader at every turn.' One of its most unconventional features (considered as HF - Historical Fiction) is that it occasionally slips out of its twelfth-century setting. During the war between the two earls, we are suddenly presented with a news bulletin in modern radio idiom. Then Magnus foresees how it might be, how "in an evil time, when all the furrows are disordered, a chosen man might have to mingle himself with the dust [...] Two images came unbidden into his mind. He saw himself in the mask of a beast being dragged to a primitive stone. A more desolate image followed, from some far reach of time: he saw a man walking the length of a bare white ringing corridor to a small cube-shaped interior full of hard light; in that hideous clarity the man would die."

And in the end it is not the death of Magnus at the primitive sacrificial stone that we witness at all, it is the death at the end of the white corridor, the death of the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the hands of the Nazis. And Hakon Paulson's foreign cook, whom he orders to 'perform the sacrifice' is called Lifolf - as is the officers' chef at Flossenberg, who is called upon to hang Bonhoeffer in a special ceremony on April 9th 1945, one of the last executions of the war and performed at the express orders of Hitler himself.

Unconventional yes, but not a difficult read. On the contrary, it is easy reading, and at times un-put-downable. There are moments and scenes which engrave themselves on your memory (like when Hild tells Mans to give the tinkers food and drink, and says "We're only as rich as the poorest one among us") and when you finish the book you feel you understand a little more of the nature of religion and of sacrifice, and of man's place on the earth - and indeed in the universe.

George Mackay Brown returned to Earl Magnus in the short story "The Feast at Paplay", which, for those - like me - left thirsting for more, forms a delightful postscript to the novel. It is included in his short story collection "Andrina" , and is also highly recommended.

Andrina and Other Stories
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Magnus Indeed! Sept. 26 2011
By L. Mack Hall - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
George Mackay Brown -- do write the name on your look-it-up list if, like C. S. Lewis, you sometimes feel the cool, clean winds of northern-ness blowing across your soul, leading you to want to row among the icebergs and whales off Scotland and the Orkneys. MAGNUS is a fictionalized story about the very real Saint Magnus who was martyred 'way back when -- the date is in the book, which I lent to a friend. We seldom meet Magnus himself; the story is predicated on the experiences and narratives of people around him: earls, a king or so, monastics, farmers, fishermen, beggars, and pirates. The reconstruction of the mediaeval world is brilliant and detailed, and, at the end, Magnus' stream-of-consciousness (the only time we really know him) as he prays on the night before his death is rare and brilliant.

Not a must-read, but rather a must-row, must-sail, must-pray, must-celebrate.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars magnus is a magn ificent novel Oct. 16 2012
By Joel C. Jacobson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
magnus is a magn ificent novel... a deeply thoughtful look at ceremony and sacrifice and life --specifically in the orkneys, but clearly universal. ( perhaps thematically reminiscent to saramago, marilyn robinson.) ... with a crisp, classic, finely tuned poet's ear for wording and rhythm, and not a drop banal in either story or thought or technique.
4.0 out of 5 stars Ghostly whispers June 4 2014
By Richard Druitt - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is my least favourite of his novels, at times it almost seems to become lost in Christian proselytizing. And Magnus does not come across as particularly saintly. Yet what facts are there? We are all drawn into an intricate web of historical inevitability, we are after all materialized on this earthly realm.
Changing perspectives and points of view, the author does manage to convey a mosaic of images that, in the end, does paint a believable picture of Magnus the man.
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