A Boy-Genius Builder In a Medieval World


THE WHITE CUTTER by David Pownall, New York: Viking, 320 pp., $18.95

THE 13th century in Europe saw the construction of some of the world's most magnificent Gothic-style cathedrals. It saw the rise of the Albigensian creed or heresy, and the subsequent persecution of its adherents. In England, it witnessed a prolonged power play between kings and barons, which eventually resulted in the first Parliament as formed by Simon de Montford, the erstwhile and most savage enemy of the Albigenses. It was an era when the architects of the castles, cathedrals, chapels, and manor houses were one and the same with the individuals who carved and built these structures - the masons.

David Pownall has taken all of this vaguely interrelated information and has crafted it into a multifaceted narrative in ``The White Cutter.''

Written as a penitential autobiography, Pownall's novel relates the story of Hedric Herbertson, a mason and a mason's only son. The book opens with Hedric's description of his father, Bert, and of his reason for telling his tale: It is the fourth part of the penance laid upon Hedric by the Abbot of Iona for the sin of patricide. Having announced at the outset that he killed his father, Hedric then remains silent on that subject until the conclusion of the book. The reader, for the next 300 some pages, is left to build a case for this action by relating the events of the boy's life with a motive that led him to murder his father.

Hedric tells of his infancy and early childhood as he was carried about by his father in his mason's bag - along with his father's tools - from building site to building site in the north of England. He tells of the interest taken in him by Henry de Reyns, King Henry III's chief architect, and of being captured and held in Sherwood Forest by the (Robin) Hood. Most of all, Hedric tells of this quest for architectural innovation and perfection, for Hedric is a boy-genius striving to define the act of creation in philosophical, religious, and architectural terms.

The plot is as Dickensian as it sounds, and there are times when ``The White Cutter'' resembles nothing so much as a medieval ``David Copperfield.'' Hedric's travels take him and his father from the north of England to Mann to Ireland and back to England. Throughout their journeys, they encounter such eccentric individuals as a mad Manx pirate, a brilliant Dutch mason and architect, and a medieval philosopher and monk, Roger Bacon, known as Ham. As in life, or a Dickens novel, these characters cross paths with the protagonist and may or may not reappear later.

Central to the novel is Pownall's wedding of the Albigensian creed and the masonic brotherhood, with their network of lodges. One of the principal tenets of the Albigensian creed, though the sect wrote nothing down, is that creation was and is the result of a continuing struggle between the Good Spirit and the Evil One; thus creation is eternal, and man, as a builder, is an active participant in creation. Within the framework of ``The White Cutter,'' the masonic brotherhood is the secret society of the Albigenses; the cathedrals they design and build for the Cretins, as they call the Christians in a corruption of the French word Chr'etian, are actually temples of praise to their own gods.

But the great pleasure of ``The White Cutter'' is found in the exquisite delicacy of Pownall's prose. Whether he is writing of Hedric's father's hands or floating on a barge on the River Shannon at night, the author's descriptions are precisely detailed and carefully wrought. Though he sometimes lapses into contemporary idioms, he manages to conceal that slightly surreal, stranger-than-fiction air that permeates accurate works about the Middle Ages. And, at the end of Hedric's autobiography, the reader may look at the great cathedrals of England with new eyes.

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