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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.