Perilous Treasures

The Abbot was a sturdy man. Built like an oak, with the arm muscles of an axe-wielding raider. Wulfstan knew many such as him, back in York. He had seen many of that ilk here too. Dublin was as yet a Norse city, and more than a few old Churchmen in these parts still possessed a passing acquaintance with those devils, Wotan and Thor.   

“Please, Your Grace.” The man bowed. “Our humble monastery welcomes you in the true spirit of Christian Brotherhood.”

Wulfstan smiled, as he caught the accent. Yes, the Abbot’s command of Norse was that of a native. Likely for the best, for it would have been a strange meeting otherwise. Wulfstan knew little enough of the barbarous Irish tongue, and barely half the clergy in these isles could recite the Lord’s Prayer in the appropriate Latin. Conversing in Norse would suffice.

“I thank you,” said Wulfstan. “But I shall not stay long. In truth, I was not planning to venture into your lands at all. But my friends in Dublin insisted I visit your monastery, ere I return home across the sea. They spoke most highly of your illuminations of the gospels.” 

The Abbot’s round face beamed with joy. “We do our best,” he said. “Would you care for supper first, or…”

Wulfstan waved his hand. “I shall sup later. For now, my only appetite is a spiritual one. I would join you first in prayer. Then, perhaps you may acquaint me with the wondrous work of your House?”

The Abbot bowed once more. 

“As you request, Your Grace.” 

***

The monks mangled the Latin all through vespers, but Wulfstan had heard worse. He smiled to himself, as he mused on the shimmering beauty of the chapel crucifix. Why, with better teachers and better education, even this gaggle of Irishmen might soon learn to praise Him in the prescribed manner. Change was coming to the Church, even unto the farthest reaches of Christendom. Thus would God’s anger be averted, and peace come at last to the isles of Britain and Ireland.

Later, he and the Abbot ventured into the monastic library. Two Brothers walked with them, bearing candles. Evening gathered, and shadows lengthened. The candlelight glimmered in the dim room. Wulfstan glanced at the library’s narrow window, and twitched at the slight draught. It would rain tomorrow, for his journey back to Dublin. Luckily, he had packed his thick travelling cloak for just such an eventuality.

“Here we are, Your Grace.”

The Abbot lifted a book from a shelf, and reverently passed it to Wulfstan.

“The Gospel of Mark, as illuminated by our Brothers within these very walls. We finished it the week before Candlemas.”

Wulfstan gently turned the vellum pages. It was indeed a thing of beauty. Whatever this monastery’s difficulty with spoken Latin, the Biblical text had been correctly copied. The rich illustrations in the margins, the reds and the blues and the emerald-greens, spoke of an art well-mastered.

He nodded. “I see my friends in Dublin did not lie.”

In strict truth, he preferred the manuscripts of York. Or Jarrow. He still recalled seeing a giant single-volume Latin Bible from the time of Bede, which had stolen his breath away. This was a lesser work than those mighty tomes, and yet as his eyes passed over the pages, he confessed that they still held a gentle elegance all of their own. The Abbot and his Brother monks had indeed pleased God with their work.

“If you will take supper with me in my chambers,” said the Abbot, “I would be delighted to show you more.”

“As you wish,” said Wulfstan.

***

Black bread and cheese, washed down with a tankard of brown ale. Such was the fare of these parts. Wulfstan had dined on wine and salmon in Dublin, but he was not churlish enough to turn up his nose at this humble offering.

When the dishes had been removed from the table, the Abbot brought out three further books for Wulfstan to study by candlelight. One was the Gospel of Matthew. One was The Consolation of Philosophy, by Boethius. The third… the third puzzled Wulfstan.

He narrowed his eyes.

“This is not Latin.”

“No, Your Grace,” said the Abbot. “It is Irish.”

“What need is there of written Irish when we have Latin?”

The Abbot blushed in the candlelight. “Our Irish Brothers have taken it upon themselves to preserve the old stories of their land, in their own tongue. The stories they learned as babes upon their grandmother’s knee. Just as religious writings, and those of Rome, are preserved through our work, so might future generations read and take joy in the tales of times past.”

“Tales of Patrick, you mean?”

“Before him, Your Grace. The misty age of the ancient Kings and heroes. The Tuatha Dé Danann, Cú Chulainn of Ulster,  the Fianna.”

Wulfstan frowned. “The devil-damned pagans? When Christendom is under siege, you think to celebrate the unbelievers of yore?”

The Abbot paused. “Your Grace, I myself was a pagan once, before I found the true faith.” His voice grew soft and penitential. “Norwegian, I will confess, and not Irish. My old gods were not their old gods. Yet I speak the tongue of the Irish well-enough. I know why my Brothers feel this way. Is it wrong for a people to know their own history, and the lore of their fathers?”

“No,” said Wulfstan. “But I fear such a work, however well-meaning, will endanger souls and anger Him. The Church must work for the salvation of its flock, not its damnation, and dare I say, this land has always engendered peculiar ideas. Bede tells us as much.”

“Your Grace, Ireland has long been an ark for the literary glories of Rome, even those from before the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I myself have copied the words of Julius Caesar, as he records his victories over the Gauls and their Druids. I cannot see how such preservation is wrong.”

“It is wrong if it damns souls to the brimstone of Hell, and erodes the walls of Christendom. Why, did not Augustine of Hippo spill much ink in his great work, The City of God, decrying the malevolence of those devils who posed as Roman gods?”

The Abbot shook his head. “In truth, Your Grace, I have not read Augustine, and I know not of the subtlety of his arguments. But I speak only of Kings and not gods. We record no devil-worship. Not now, six centuries after Patrick sailed across the sea to end the dark reign of the Druids. We only tell the stories of heroes. Every land needs its heroes, and if the Romans may have Hercules, I feel Ireland may again have Cú Chulainn.”

Wulfstan reflected on the man’s words. Perhaps an evil spirit possessed this monastery, but he did not think it likely. No. These were good men, one and all, and it would be monstrous to report them as heretics to Canterbury. But nor could he allow malevolent forces to take advantage of such a project. The Christians of these isles were already displeasing God, as seen with the continued Danish raids – it would not do to aggravate Him further.

Wulfstan steepled his fingers. “And how will you ensure that your work is compatible with the true faith?”

“Your Grace, it has always been my belief that the pagans possessed some fragmentary insight into the Good, and the Beautiful, and the True. Their gods were no true gods at all, of course. And yet the pagans, whether English, Norse, or Irish, were men like us. They lived and loved upon this Fallen World with all the wisdom and follies of our race. We might harness their wisdom for ourselves, if we could but find a place for it. Shorn of all that is harmful, keeping all that is true, melding it with the steel of scripture… that is my hope and my dream. I trust I have not fallen into heretical error?”

Some might well think that, my dear Abbot. Wulfstan had always stood for a better, more educated, and more consistent Church. What else was Latin for, if not to be the universal tongue of the universal faith? Rome had spent many long years struggling with local eccentricities, the Irish not the least. He could, if he so chose, report them to Canterbury, and no-one would think anything of it. And yet, having seen this humble former-pagan and his Brothers, having dined at their table, having prayed with them… he could not bring the fiery wrath of the holy hierarchy down upon their heads. Besides, an idea had occurred to him.

“Father Abbot,” said Wulfstan. “Know you of John the Scot?”

“I confess, I do not.”

“He was an Irishman, much like your Brothers. A brilliant scholar and philosopher, he worked in France for many years. John also knew Greek.”

The Abbot’s eyes widened. “He knew Greek? He must have been some man.”

“He was indeed. A man who could read the Platonists in their own tongue, no less.”

“I wish I knew Greek,” murmured the Abbot.

“So do we all,” said Wulfstan. “Maybe one day, we shall even have the full Organon of Aristotle at our fingertips. But I digress. John was a man who delved deep into the work of the Greek Church Fathers, just as they themselves delved into the ancient philosophers. And there, in pondering the ideas of Plato, he found something.”

“What did he find?”

“He found Goodness, Father Abbot. He found the Beautiful and the True. He found deep wells of wisdom in the thoughts of a man who lived and died a pagan. A foreshadowing of our own Christian faith. Think on that, as you and your brothers perform your work.”

The big man only grinned. 

***

Wrapped in his travelling cloak, Wulfstan urged his horse back along the muddy road. The rain had eased off into a soft mist, granting a sweet freshness to the early afternoon air. 

At last, the Norse city of Dublin appeared on the horizon. Wulfstan halted. From the saddle, he looked back, out over the trees and green fields. Wulfstan imagined how all this must have looked in Patrick’s time, six long centuries earlier. A fair land indeed was Ireland.

“And maybe a fair land deserves its ancient heroes back,” he murmured to himself.

Wulfstan smiled. Just this once, that which Canterbury did not know would not hurt it. 

[Daniel Stride has a lifelong love of literature in general and speculative fiction in particular. He writes both short stories and poetry; his first novel, dark steampunk-flavoured fantasy, Wise Phuul was published in November 2016. Daniel can be found blogging about writing, reading, J.R.R. Tolkien, and other geeky stuff, at A Phuulish Fellow (https://phuulishfellow.wordpress.com/). He lives in Dunedin, New Zealand.]

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