Cuthbert of Farne is a novel based on the life of Cuthbert, the seventh-century saint, covering the key events of his life – his decision to take orders, his progression in the church, the political and religious conflicts of the time, and his decision to live as a hermit on the remote island of Inner Farne. It is a kind of companion volume to The Song of Hild and has a similarly branded cover – although it is written by a different author and has quite a different approach to the story.
The strength of Cuthbert of Farne is in evoking the period and the setting. I’m not a historian so I can’t say if it’s accurate, but as a general reader it feels vivid and real.
The author has made some compromises to help readers, such as changing the names of some secondary characters, which might bother purists but was a boon to me. (There’s also a helpful list of characters at the front of the book.) Cuthbert was a contemporary of Hild and some of the main real-life characters from The Song of Hild, including Hild herself, also appear in Cuthbert of Farne.
The book does feel more like a lightly fictionalised history (it made me think of the dramatic reconstructions you get on BBC4 documentaries) than a novel. Perhaps the difficulty is in being too faithful to what is known of Cuthbert. As historian Tony Morris argues in his BBC podcast on Cuthbert, the most interesting events in his story take place after his death. The mythology around his well-travelled remains and their veneration as relics gives an interesting insight into the Anglo-Saxon church and wider society, which is not reflected here.
There are points in Cuthbert’s life which I felt could have been more strongly dramatised, from his conversion to his friendship with Aelfled, the novice who went on to be Abbess of Whitby, who regards him almost as a father. The prologue brings Cuthbert and Wilfrid together in a chance encounter as babies which suggests the author wanted to highlight their story as the central conflict.
Wilfrid, later Bishop of York, was an educated, worldly and ambitious advocate of the Roman church, Cuthbert an ascetic monk in the Celtic tradition who only reluctantly gave up his life as a hermit to become Bishop of Lindisfarne. However, there is little interaction or drama between them in the book. After the Synod of Whitby, where the Roman church emerged as the victor, Cuthbert seems to calmly accept the decisions made and move on.
Why is Cuthbert so committed to his faith? How does he reconcile the conflicting beliefs which he encounters? After reading this book, I feel like I know what he does, but not what he feels.
If you like fiction with an Anglo-Saxon setting, take a look at my review of The Circle of Ceridwen by Octavia Ralph