One spring morning all the peasants of Birsay were out on the bishop's land, ploughing behind their oxen.
The land went in a gradual fertile sweep from the hill Revay to the shore of Birsay. Just off the shore of Birsay. Just off the shore was a steep green island, with a church on it, and a little monastery, and a Hall. A sleeve of sea shone between the ploughlands and The Brough of Birsay (as this island was called). Occasionally the peasants could hear the murmur of plainsong from the red cloister. (p. 1)
Summary: Magnus Erlandsson is destined for greatness -- he is one of the candidates for being Earl of Orkney, and even his name signals that he is born to be great. But to be a claimant for the title of Earl of Orkney is to be destined for battle. The King of Norway has a vested interest in keeping the Earls of Orkney weak, and so the claimants for the title are regularly set against each other, leading to a cycle of civil war, which Norway fosters so that it can just as regularly swoop in at the right time to set things right and keep Orkney dependent. Thus it is unsurprising that the King of Norway names both claimants, Magnus and his cousin Hakon, joint Earls; it is unsurprising that, after an initial attempt to work together their unity falls apart and they are at war; and, given that Magnus is a much more peaceable person than Hakon, it is unsurprising that it ends with Magnus's death.
The book is an experimental novel, and thus we don't get a straightforward story of Magnus; we see him at key parts, but much of the book is concerned with others. We get something of how Magnus and Hakon look from the perspective of Mans and Hilda, peasant farmers, and how things look from the traveling tinkers, Jock and Mary. More jarringly we get bits of the story translated to modern journalese and others transposed to World War II. The book, while highly lauded, is usually criticized for the unevenness and visible seams that this approach causes. But in some ways one should read the book less as a straightforward novel and more as a prose poem. This fragmentary approach is really an exploration of how a historical event entirely within time can also be a symbolic and moral event transcending time, and as we approach the event, the Martyrdom of Magnus, the time-blurring and time-shifting of the narrative highlights that we are dealing with something that is not just something that happened once.
The Martyrdom is presented as in some sense a world-shattering event for Norse society. It could look just like a weaker claimant for Earl being outfoxed and destroyed by a stronger one. But it is not so. Scandinavia is in the grip of a notion of Fate, and of resignation to it: the cycles of war are inevitable, the bloodshed inevitable, death inevitable. There seems no way out. The Catholic Scandinavia that is beginning to emerge does not throw this notion out. But, as one of the characters mentions in a letter, "we who stand at the altars of Christ see history across a broken tomb" (p. 31). Fate is not strongest. Fate can have all its sway and still be broken in the end. And it is sacrifice that does it. Magnus is killed in what could very well seem an ordinary political game. The book's fascination with the timelessness of symbolism -- the meaning that rises above the inevitable cycle of things -- is precisely a fascination with how his death is not just a murder but a martyrdom, not just an assassination but an allegory, not just a slaying but a sacrifice. What makes something a timeless event?
One of the more famous time-experiments in the novel blurs together the death of Magnus and that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This is not, in itself, particularly plausible -- Bonhoeffer and Magnus are radically different people, and St. Magnus would certainly have been horrified by almost all of Bonhoeffer's theology. But there is at least one point of contact -- I don't know that it's brought out all that successfully in the book, but it does provide something of a tie between the two. One of Bonhoeffer's criticisms was of a 'pious indulgence' that hides from the world rather than engaging it; it withdraws, not to bear the cross but to evade it. One of Magnus's five temptations is precisely this: the Tempter tries to get him to give up the notion of defending his claim -- just let Hakon have the earldom and retire to a monastery, a life he certainly would prefer and that would save a great many lives. It is a temptation that Magnus, at least, must overcome. It is precisely because Magnus does not succomb that his death can be the sacrifice that changes how the Orcadians see the world, so that the cycle of war changes and a people that has become blind to higher things recapture -- however ungratefully -- something of their sight. Magnus was not called to the monastery, which for him would have been but a pious indulgence to evade the cross; he was called to be a saint in the midst of the muddy and bloody and sometimes impossible situations of the world.
...A certain king made a marriage feast. 'Magnus, thou art bidden now to the marriage.' ... 'No, but I cannot come, for that I am myself to be a bridegroom soon.' ... 'Magnus, thou art bidden to the marriage feast of Christ with his church.' ... 'No, but I cannot come, for that I have to study statecraft and the duties of a ruler; but I wish well to the ceremony and the guests.' ... 'Magnus, thou art summoned.' ... 'No, but I have no suitable clothes to put on. See what I wear on my body -- a garment scorched and stained with the burnings of desire.' ... 'Magnus, there is a coat being woven for thee for the wedding. I have told thee.' (p. 56)
George MacKay Brown, Magnus, Polygon (Edinburgh: 2008).