Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Book Review: Brendán

As my series on the Magic of Medieval Fiction nears the Sixth Century, I decided to read Brendán by Morgan Llywelyn, a novel about one of that century’s most renowned Irish saints. I must say that in reading this book, all my research about Irish monks for Enoch’s Device seemed to come to life (which made me quite happy, by the way). My review follows this image of the book’s cover.

Set in Sixth Century Ireland, the novel reads like a biography of Saint Brendán the Navigator. While it’s primarily written in the third person, the narrative is interspersed with the saint's first-person recollections as if he was writing his memoir, as well as passages that purport to be from The Voyage of Saint Brendan, his personal account of his most legendary journey.

Brendán’s mentor is Bishop Erc, one of Saint Patrick’s original disciples and a former druid, and the connection between the druids and the early Irish clerics is one of the more interesting aspects of this novel. Erc wants Brendán to become an ordained priest, but Brendán’s wanderlust spoils the bishop’s plans. Eventually, Brendán convinces Erc to allow him to go on a pilgrimage across Ireland – the first of many such travels – and it’s these journeys that shape Brendán’s life.

His journeys also make him famous, allowing him to attract a variety of followers, including a pet raven named Préachán, who provides some of the novel's more touching scenes. Brendan ends up founding two monasteries, including Clonfert, where he became abbot later in life. Yet it is his final journey – a voyage across the Atlantic in search of Paradise – for which he is best known, and the tale of that journey weaves itself in short narratives throughout nearly every chapter of the book. While the rest of the novel is clearly grounded in reality, this final voyage is more of a mystical, spiritual journey, complete with angels and other miraculous happenings that reminded me a good bit of C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

An illumination of Saint Brendán from a medieval manuscript!
My one criticism is that the conflict level is fairly low throughout the story, which made the book too easy at times to put down. I kept reminding myself, however, that this was never intended to be an adventure tale, but rather an introspective and spiritual journey amid a backdrop of early Celtic Christianity. Fortunately, Saint Brendán is a likeable and admirable character, so following him on his journeys was enjoyable enough and made for a fulfilling read. 
Note, one of the most interesting theories about Saint Brendán's voyage is that his journey to discover Paradise actually took him to North America, centuries before Columbus supposedly discovered it. There is an interesting National Geographic article about this theory, which you can read here.

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