Books: Celtic arrangers

Melvyn Bragg has written a 750-page chronicle of wordy synods and sweating Saxons. Hugo Barnacle joins the pilgrimage; Credo: An Epic Tale of the Dark Ages by Melvyn Bragg Sceptre, pounds 16.99

A regular toe-breaker at 750 pages, ideally to be read on a stout lectern unless you wait for the paperback, Melvyn Bragg's 16th novel tells the story of St Bega, a semi-mythical Irish princess who lived, if she lived at all, as a nun in Cumbria during the last years of the old Celtic church - the age of Lindisfarne, of St Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede.

Since almost nothing is known about Bega (whose name rhymes, incidentally, with Swarfega, not with Suzanne Vega or Samantha Eggar), Bragg has been able to improvise on the theme of her forbidden love for Padric, a character of Bragg's own invention, a British prince who was her tutor back home in Galway.

This is not wildly involving. Bega and Padric are already in love when we first meet them at her father's court, but how they got that way neither we nor they know. Bragg only explains why they never did anything about it. "The strategic presence of others and the watchfulness of rules had blocked any public display of affection and appeared to nullify any possible flow of erotic feeling." The bureaucratic language does not make us care.

Bega, who was given a fragment of the True Cross as a child, decides on a career in chastity to avoid an arranged marriage to one of the O'Neill warrior clan. Her father orders her to change her mind and holds the wedding feast anyway, but it all falls through because the slobbish groom rapes a slave girl who exacts terminal vengeance. Bega and Padric escape to Britain, but Bega has to keep herself for God, so they hardly ever meet again. She founds her nunnery, he forms a war band and goes about fighting the Saxons.

The bulk of the book thereafter consists of debates about religious conscience and duty, with a few battles and miracles and much background detail concerning seventh-century diet, medicines, customs and beliefs. The love story never goes away, but then it never goes anywhere.

The language problem continues to obtrude. It is not so much the anachronisms, such as Bega recalling a ``sensation that had swept through every cell in her body'' at a time when cells were unknown to science, or a poet singing at "full throttle", a term that conjures up Bentleys hurtling down the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans or Spitfires diving out of the sun but categorically not Dark Age poets reciting in candlelit halls.

Nor is it the occasional lapses in sentence construction, though some of these are remarkably awful. Bega, for instance, reminds Padric of his own teachings on the afterlife, concluding, "And to sacrifice anything, anything at all, for that eternal bliss would be stupid as well as sinful", though Bragg presumably means the very opposite, that any sacrifice is OK and refusal to sacrifice is sinful. Again, at the wedding feast, "all but the last dogged crew, almost somnambulistic in this final drinking, were endlessly repeating incoherent lies", and the meaning is the opposite, that everyone else has passed out and only a few are still telling tall stories.

As for the fine cheeses "eaten with great burps of appreciation and then pelted around the hall," even making full allowance for the table manners of a barbarous epoch, the mind boggles. But this kind of thing becomes less common after the first 100 pages.

No, the major obstacle to pleasure in the reading of Credo is the leadenness of the style. Bragg's afterword, written in his own persona, shows that he can put words together perfectly well when he isn't misguidedly trying to do posh prose, but the struggle to find an idiom for an "epic tale of the Dark Ages" defeats him, and throughout the narrative he falls into an ungainly pomposity.

Some passages do take off, notably (and surprisingly) the long speeches at the Synod of Whitby, which achieve a fine rhetorical flow, but these are adapted from Bede's account. Bega's talks with Cuthbert and the pagan priestess Reggiani also show signs of life, as do the very rare scenes where Bragg remembers to give some visual idea of the northern landscape, and one or two of the fights have a certain authentically sweaty vigour, but the final combat between Padric and the Saxon arch-villain Ecfrith sees an anticlimactic return to mock-antique diction and dull euphemism.

Credo is admittedly more gripping than the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but it is still a very hard slog.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine