The witness of the saints : literary method and theological matter in the hagiographical novels of Evelyn Waugh, Frederick Buechner, and Walter Wangerin, Jr.




Payne, Rachel Lynn.

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Evelyn Waugh, Frederick Buechner, and Walter Wangerin bring the contemporary witness of three obscure saints to life in the pages of their historical fiction. These modern hagiographers perceive divine revelation in all aspects of the natural world, and their fiction reflects this worldview and attempts to make it manifest for their audience. Sometimes they succeed brilliantly; at other times the seams in their tapestry of art and faith are glaringly visible—to the point that they compromise the fabric’s integrity. Many secular critics dismiss their work because they admit to plying their artistic talent for the sake of illuminating sacred mysteries. Waugh, Buechner and Wangerin recognize the pitfalls of embodying supernatural realities in concrete images, but they are eager to imitate the biblical model by recasting sacred mystery into story. The way they found to do this in Helena, Brendan, and Saint Julian is to use the outline of a historical saint’s life and experiment with the genre, narrative voice, metaphorical language, magical realism, and comic vision to shape a work of literary art that reflects their faith perspective. Moreover, they weave their own life-stories into fictionalized accounts of saints’ lives. Their obsessions with sin and penance, their fears of abandonment and death, their concerns about strained relationships with parents and difficult neighbors—all find a place in these writers’ hagiographical narratives. Waugh idealizes the supernatural, so he writes about a saint who goes in search of a physical symbol of faith to represent the inner transformation of baptism and belief. Buechner romanticizes the natural world, so he conjures a saint who seeks a celestial paradise but finally finds hope and love in his earthly companions. Wangerin yearns to show his readers a way to ease the weight of sin and guilt, so he retells an ancient legend about a seemingly hopeless case to show the triumphant power of God’s grace and mercy. All three perform a valuable service by reviving the cult of an early medieval saint for a contemporary religious audience, but the one who most effectively unites form and function is Walter Wangerin in Saint Julian.



Christian hagiography in literature., Christian saints., Saint Julian, the Hospitaller., Saint Helena, Empress., Saint Brendan, the Navigator., Wangerin, Walter., Waugh, Evelyn., Buechner, Frederick., Historical fiction., Christianity and literature.