Patrick: Son of Ireland written by Stephen Lawhead is a book I have read five times, and, at the moment, currently reading. Starting the book on the week of St. Patrick’s Day is coincidental because I go to this book when I’m feeling lost or incapacitated. Personal feelings aside, the writing is full of imagery engaging the senses, and is well researched. For this book, his Pendragon Series, and The Celtic Crusades Trilogy, Stephen Lawhead lived in Oxford, England exhausting the literary and historical resources at the Oxford University Library to create a realistic bit of historical fiction that is also a criticism of Christianity; and that is what Patrick: Son of Ireland is. Much of St. Patrick’s life is lost in history, and the what is known about him is his name, his father’s name, his grandfather’s name, he was a Roman citizen and a Briton—probably Welsh—, he spent seven years a slave in Ireland, he escaped, later became a bishop, and felt a call to return to Ireland to declare the gospel of Christ to his former captors. The details are anyone’s best guess, and Mr. Lawhead takes his best guess from his research to tell a story of religious wandering, religious abuse, and finding a God who saves Patrick outside the chaos of dogmatism. The language Mr. Lawhead employs to describe the arrogance and violence of The Catholic Church in the fifth century can be applied to modern religious behaviors expressed by the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches. In the world the author creates, everyone and everything can be redeemed, but only after enough adversity has broken the heart open.
The book is divided into four parts detailing the four circumstances that made Patrick in to who he is. The first part of the story is called Succat which was Patrick’s birth name when he grew up as a noble born Briton whose life was self-absorbed and saturated with the arrogance of privilege—he treated people as a means to an end including his friends, and his friends behaved likewise. After his by an Irish raiding party, Succat spent a few years in failed escape attempts, beatings, hunger, and disregarded as a human being. As he treated others in his former life so had he been treated, but the blood and broken bones only strengthened his pride and his superiority to those he considered barbarians. For a brief part in Succat’s story his pride does soften with his relationship to Madog, an old shepherd who had been enslaved for thirty-eight years. Madog himself was a Briton, but had forgotten much of his language and past life, and became a mere animal grunting out the king’s desire for the sheep. Succat woke up the dead part of Madog as he reclaimed his lost British language, but soon realized he was nothing more than a distraction until Succat could escape again. When Madog expressed this sense of betrayal to Succat, Succat resolved to stay with Madog; however, Madog died from what seemed to be the flu. Succat refused to die a slave as Madog, and plans another escape but recaptured. He is beaten to the point of death, and the king informs him that the next time he escapes he will die. Succat’s broken body is taken to the bothy, and is soon healed by the work of the Druid, Cormac and his sister, Sionan.
During this time of recuperation, Cormac realizes there is a spark of something deep and mystical about Succat, and arranges for him to join the Druids. Cormac makes his request to the king, and Succat is taken into what resembles a monastery working in the kitchen. After much time had passed, Succat is taken to a hollow mound where novices were sequestered individually without food and water until they have a vision. The vision would determine how a person would serve the brotherhood of Druids and the community. When Succat is placed in the mound he has a vision where the universe is opened to him and when the vision ends he realizes he had spent three days in the mound without food and water. After eating and drinking, Succat spoke of his vision to Datho, and he tells Succat he had a healing vision—a rare vision given to the most powerful of bards—that spoke of his connection to the divine, and confirmed the choices made by the Chief Bard. Datho, with Cormac, and other druids were part of a new faction called Celie De, and they were Druids who had become followers of Christ. There were those in the Druid community who opposed Jesus and his message because they thought acceptance meant certain destruction to their culture. Datho and Cormac disagreed, in fact they believed Jesus a fulfillment to what they had learned in the past and currently practiced. After the ceremony, Succat is given the name Corthirthiac—meaning “bulwark” as stated by Datho—and begins his life as a druid.
Corthirthiac starts his new life similar to how he lived his life with Madog: the druid community became only something to pass through as he still focused on his escape. Corthirthiac did learn the druid’s ways and increased in spiritual power and authority while his robe granted easy movement around the community—or outside the community—without any suspicion raised by the king or his soldiers. When Datho is murdered by Corthirthiac’s rival, Buinne, he fears he will be next, and the plans of escape have to be hurried. He finds a ship of traders where he has earned passage as a translator and an adviser for the ship’s captain on matters of the local culture. Many months pass, and Corthirthiac realizes the promise made by the captain regarding his delivery to Britannia is empty. When confronted, the captain admits he delayed his promise because Corthirthiac had made him rich, but when Corthirthiac refuses to do anything until the promise is kept the captain relents and takes Corthirthiac to the coast of Britannia. Corthirthiac spends days walking through the country side until he comes upon his old village and sees there is nothing left of his home or his local haunts. He finds one his old friends, Julian, who is now a priest and regards Corthirthiac with condescension because he is still dressed as a Druid. Corthirthiac’s patience with Julian’s fellow priests runs thin, and he exclaims to one priest that he “became a pagan to become a better man.” Days later he discovers that Julian, through his father, stole the lands of Corthirthiac’s mother who had become maddened with grief over the loss of her husband and son, and sold it to the church. Enraged, Corthirthiac leaves Britannia for Gaul to become a soldier for hire on the frontier.
Corthirthiac arrives at a Roman garrison because Julian had mentioned their friend Rufus was now a Centurion, and sought him out by joining a group of soldiers to fight the Germanic tribes. He earns a reputation for himself as a fierce fighter, and eventually received the name Magonus–meaning “great.” The killing Magonus does in the name of the empire is mechanical, but something changes in a battle where be begins to see the face of Cormac in the Germanic warriors he fights; and becomes sick with the blood he has shed; but does not leave until after he saves the life of an influential senator. The senator also has a daughter, with whom Magonus falls in love, but the senator will not have it because Magonus is a soldier instead of a prominent man who could take care of his daughter. At the daughter’s suggestion, Magonus says that he too can become a man of authority through the word of the senator. and begins a comfortable life with his new family until a plague breaks out taking his wife and two children along with his wife’s parents. Magonus wastes away at the family villa with the servants taking care of him, but he survives the sickness only to haunt the nearby hills as an empty ghost. While he stares blankly at the grave of his family, Pelagius the priest to the Celtic tribes condemned as a heretic by the church and reviled by Augustine and Jerome, meets Magonus. Magonus pours out his despair to Pelagius while he listens. Pelagius’ word comforts him, and affirms the vision he had of an angel speaking on behalf of the Irish people to return; and he realizes he must go to Ireland to bring healing to others and to himself.
Magonus sells his estate, loads the money into a ship, and returns to Ireland as Succat. Upon leaving the ship, Succat finds a soldier who recognizes him and asks to be taken to the king, but the soldier reminds him that the king would kill him if he saw Succat again. He understood, but he thought the gold he brought might dissuade the king. When he walks in to the king’s presence, Succat is gripped with anxiety, but finds relief when he sees his old friend Cormac is the king’s adviser. The king sees the amount of gold Succat has brought, and is enraged because he thinks he is being shamed by a slave; but that is not Succat’s intention. Succat brought the gold to purchase his freedom and to pay back the king for the services he was due. For Succat the act is not about the money, but about honoring another human being he once loathed and accepting responsibility for how he treated the people in the community. With the king’s acceptance of the payment, and his freedom, Succat is able to complete instructions under the druids to become a bard, and take his place with the Celie De. This nobility in Succat had always been present, but distorted by his own pride. As he lit the fire on Beltane, and performed a miracle that brought glory to God, Succat became Patricius, Patrick, Nobleman. In this story there is comfort to be had in the darkest of times because there is the hope that something inside us is blocking us from our own calling.
Lawhead’s story takes on the hero’s journey as argued by Joseph Campbell when he saw a commonality of hero stories in cultures that were not aware of one another at the time of their compositions or recitations. Campbell extrapolated his research into the realm of the various religions that likewise share the similar hero stories, and concluded these religions were speaking of the same impressions of the divine and spiritual growth but with different languages and imagery. The conclusion of Campbell is various religions are pointing to the same thing, and that people need to pick a story they are most comfortable with and become the hero of that story. Lawhead follows that similar thought, but the story is choosing Succat, and he refuses the choice because he does not appreciate the imagery of his Irish captors or his druid teachers who see Jesus as a fulfillment of their story; and this Jesus is not a Roman, civilized and heavy with hierarchy. Through the Irish raiders, God had called Succat to leave his home, his family, and friends to begin a life that would restore him and the Irish people. Succat treated this journey with reluctance, and the route home had been met with recapture and beatings. Even after Succat’s eventual escape the story did not stop, but paused while Succat gained everything he thought entitled to him as a noble born. When he lost everything he returned to Ireland to resume his journey. If Succat had not lost everything twice he would have lived an unremarkable life drenched with complacency and immaturity. The demand on Succat’s life had been on one of spiritual growth, and that growth could never be achieved without suffering. God did not bring about his suffering to cause Succat to grow, but used Succat’s loss to complete his story.