Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Voyage of Saint Brendan

A Brief Rewarding Bliss:

The Voyage of Saint Brendan

Originally published on About.coms Classic Literature Page

The historical Saint Brendan was born in Ireland in the late fifth century and is thought to have lived for approximately one hundred years, and although it’s widely accepted that he founded several monastic cells in his native country, little else is known for certain about the true events of his life. As with most medieval saints, he’s more of a product of legend than he is of verifiable records, and among the saints of his period, his legacy is perhaps the most fantastical. Any fan of medieval literature knows that vague knowledge often lends itself to gorgeous visions and revisions by later seers and thinkers, and as recorded in the utterly crystalline travel narrative The Voyage of Saint Brendan, his is one of the most moving and compelling legends in all of religious literature.

Written perhaps as early as two hundred years after his death, and almost certainly based on a combination of earlier written and oral versions, as well as on other intertwining folk and epic elements, The Voyage of Saint Brendan recounts Brendan’s seven-year pilgrimage in search of “the Promised Land of the Saints.” This isn’t Palestine, the Biblical Promised Land, but rather an island where the sun never sets and where visitors never get tired or hungry and are filled at all times with complete satisfaction and bliss. Brendan hears of this land from Saint Barrind, a traveling monk who visits Brendan’s monastery at Clonfert, and in response he immediately assembles fourteen chosen monks who as a group resolve to make the journey to their Promised Land.

After building a boat and preparing to embark, however, a trio of monks from Brendan’s monastery rush to join them, pleading that they will die on the spot if they aren’t allowed to make the voyage too. Brendan admits them to their company, but with Christlike clairvoyance, which he exhibits throughout the narrative, he proclaims that God has prepared a special place for one of them along their journey but that the other two are doomed to meet a “hideous judgment.” Thus none of the three is destined to make it to the Promised Land of the Saints, and two of them are destined for Hell, but Brendan remains silent about which is which, his words setting up a tension that the reader looks forward to following but which is borne out with a hilarious inattention to the reader’s attentiveness.

On the trip the group encounter marvels that rival The Odyssey in strangeness, but at less than one hundred pages, The Voyage of Saint Brendan is itself a marvel of succinct purity. They visit an island that turns out to be an enormous fish named Jasconius, an uninhabited island where food is magically left prepared for them—an episode that seems to have made it into C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, along with a few other of this book’s most striking scenarios—and an island called the Paradise of the Birds, where a tree teeming with birds, which are in fact souls that were destroyed during Lucifer’s fall but which are themselves blameless and are allowed to assume corporeal form on holy days and Sundays, sings God’s praises with one voice. The travelers also encounter a “coagulated” sea, which is probably ice, and which from the description the narrative’s writer had clearly never seen, as well as a stunning crystal pillar that rises from the sea up into heaven. Commentators have suggested that this crystal pillar may be an iceberg, which the writer would never have seen either but which through a combination of mutated tellings and a cloistered imagination (it seems clear that the writer was quite literate but had probably never left his monastery) becomes a fantastical vision of the most sublime order.

For the modern reader, The Voyage of Saint Brendan also offers many accidental pleasures common to medieval literature, ranging from comical contradictions to mind-boggling howlers. When they arrive at the island of Ailbe, they find a community of monks who are sworn to silence, but upon meeting them, their abbot engages Brendan in by far the most verbose discussion in the book, during which he explains why the monks in his community don’t age, even though they seem ancient and are described as having “snow-white” hair. The most astonishing lapse, however, is in how the text deals with the three uninvited monks: When the first one turns out to be possessed by “a small Ethiopian,” which jumps from his breast before he dies, there’s no moment when the other two uninvited monks look at each other or anyone says anything like, “Hmm, I wonder which of these other two is doomed.” The book just continues its journey, paying no heed to how the monks (or the reader) would have reacted to this important shift in information. Then even more amazingly, when Brendan decrees that the second latecomer has found his place among the Island of the Three Choirs, signifying that he’s the one of the three latecomers who isn’t doomed, there isn’t a peep from (or about) the remaining extra monk, whom the reader instantly knows to be destined for Hell. It’s as if this revelation wouldn’t create an overwhelming impression on everyone involved, who all just keep traveling along without a word, and the book’s complete silence about it is simply startling—and amusing—beyond belief.

Attempting to tease out the real geography of The Voyage of Saint Brendan—or to manipulate it to their uses—many modern readers have tried to make the claim that Brendan beat both Leif Ericson and Christopher Columbus to the New World. As with so many other cases of scholars going to any length to bend a text to the benefit of some particular nationality or cause, this is of course just another laughable case of wishful reading. First of all, it doesn’t seem possible that Brendan’s small ship—a currach—could ever make it that far across the Atlantic. And just examining the book’s internal evidence—if anything in this book could be used as serious evidence—the group makes the same small circuit all seven years of their journey, following the same rituals each year and not venturing beyond the magical geography that only the most dedicated reviser of reality could attempt to locate on any modern map of the world.

Simply reading The Voyage of Saint Brendan for what it is—a thoroughly credulous book of wonders written by a true believer of perhaps the early tenth century—we’re left with a narrative of surpassing beauty whose unsophisticated construction only adds to its sense of uncluttered purity. Brendan’s seven-year circuit of devotions—which is rewarded by a mere forty days of bliss in the Promised Land of the Saints, followed immediately afterward by his death on the book’s final page—fills the reader with a similar kind of devoted bliss, whether we share any of the book’s faith or not. Reason tells us that this is all religious hogwash, but the pleasures of this book, as with any book of great beauty, are almost all beyond reason. As with Dante or Milton, we criticize and argue with the text’s fundamental wrongness, but in suspending our disbelief and surrendering our imagination to it, we’re afforded a brief bliss that may be one of our truest rewards in life.

—David Wiley