Sunday, May 17, 2009

Catching Up, and St. Brendan

I was in Sacramento again Friday and Saturday and didn't have a chance to write anything. Also, summer has occurred in earnest; it's a bit hard to think, let alone write when there is no place to get away from the heat. My trip was not much to speak of. I moved a carload of things (books, mostly, if you'll believe it) into my new apartment. Furthermore, I tried an orange creamsicle milkshake from the drive-through at the Santa Nella Carl's Junior, and heard Dvorak's New World Symphony in its entirety on the radio between Stockton and Sacramento. The former was nothing to complain of, but the latter was remarkable, and I forgot to wish I had brought my CD player.

The only big (to me) thing I missed was a chance to post a short something about St. Brendan the Navigator yesterday, which was his feastday. Since I had left myself a note at least two months ago to be sure and do this, I was a little put out that I didn't do it in time after all.

Anyway, St. Brendan, an Irish monk, is the patron saint of sailors. It is quite likely that he sailed through the Hebrides and founded religious houses there, but even more intriguing is the possibility that another voyage took him as far west as North America--in the 6th century. The legend associated with his voyage might read rather fantastically at a first glance, but in the 1970's the adventurer Tim Severin decided that following in St. Brendan's alleged footsteps would be worth a try. Severin commissioned a large curragh, an Irish boat of hides stretched over a wooden framework, and in it he sailed from Ireland to Newfoundland, with a small crew. He lived to write a book about it, The Brendan Voyage. This book is quite interesting as it details the construction of the Brendan, as the boat was inevitably named, not to mention the voyage itself. One conclusion which Severin reached was that many details of the medieval legend were not as unlikely as they first appeared (a "pillar of crystal," for instance, is not unlike an iceberg). As you might expect of any book that treats of a voyage through the North Atlantic, this one is an excellent antidote to hot weather.

An interesting literary footnote--the Irish tradition of an earthly paradise that could be reached, God willing, by sailing West is not unsimilar to Tolkien's land of Valinor. In fact, Tolkien himself is responsible for an obscure poem called Imram (the old Irish term for a questing voyage like St. Brendan's) which is a dialog between a young Irish monk and the now-dying Brendan. A piece of it:

'But men say, father that ere the end
you went where none have been.
I would here you tell me, father dear,
of the last land you have seen.'

'In my mind the Star I still can find,
and the parting of the seas,
and the breath as sweet and keen as death
that was borne upon the breeze.
But where they they bloom those flowers fair,
in what air or land they grow,
what words beyond the world I heard,
if you would seek to know,
in a boat then, brother, far afloat
you must labour in the sea,
and find for yourself things out of mind:
you will learn no more of me.'

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