For my latest Mini-Syllabus, I begin with the legend of Saint Brendan the Navigator. Saint Brendan was an Irish Bishop who, upon hearing of the Isle of the Blessed, a phantom paradise set somewhere in the Atlantic, sets out with a band of monks in a hand-made boat to sail from isle to isle until he finds what he seeks. Passed by both oral and written means for many years, the earliest existing version of the story comes to us in Latin as the Navigatio Sancti Brendani, written around 900AD, and is discussed by scholars as a religious allegory, a possible early discovery of North America, and as the descendent of the seven Medieval Irish immrama and the echtra “The Voyage of Bran” (all worth exploring in their own right).
It’s a fascinating tale of religious pilgrimage and fantastic creatures, and stands as a showpiece of medieval folk mythology. For this mini-syllabus, I’ve decided for this syllabus to take Saint Brendan as a starting point for a broader exploration of sea-faring spiritual journeys.
Part 1: The Starting Point, Saint Brendan himself
1. The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Navigator, translated by Gerard McNamara from the original Latin text, this edition aims to present the tale in verse while staying as close to the original as possible. The result is an incredibly spare epic. Some of the most exciting scenes – the kind you could imagine stretching into whole films just by themselves – take up only one or two stanzas. It can also, on occasion, be a bit hard to follow, but I don’t mind lingering over passages.
One of the things I love about medieval poetry is how much is left to the imagination. While modern novels tell you exactly what the characters are thinking and feeling, older tales tend to relate plot points as though they were a speaker’s notes, leaving the details up to individual storytellers (and modern readers) to fill in with their own voice.
2. Saint Brendan the Navigator, by Moran Llywelyn, is a highly fictionalized prose account based on the original tale. If you prefer modern retellings of ancient and medieval works to verse renditions, this looks like the way to go. I haven’t read this yet, but that’s just exactly what these syllabi are for.
3. Tim Severin’s The Brendan Voyage is a non-fiction exploration of the feasibility of Saint Brednan’s voyage. Part historical analysis, part adventure tale, part sea-faring storytelling, this is a bonafide classic.
Part 2: Other Tales of Seafaring Self-Discovery and Personal Transformation
Here, I have chosen three well-loved, well known tales of travel and self-discovery. They speak for themselves, so I have left them without explanation.
5. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C. S. Lewis
6. A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Part 3: To Walk on Dry Land
If you are interested in tales of religious journey and transformation that leave the sea behind (for the most part), you may wish to embark with two other saints:
7. Confessions, by Saint Augustine, take a more literal approach to the spiritual journey, but like Saint Brendan and his fellows, Augustine’s travels are filled with pitfalls, backsliding, strife, loss, faith, metaphor, reflection, and spiritual growth. I’ve here linked to Chadwick’s beautiful translation, but I have recently acquired Garry Wills’ version, and am looking forward to reading it soon. Wills’ translation of De Magistro is my go-to for that text, so I have high hopes.
8. The Confession of Saint Patrick is brief but poignant, drawing heavily from the Bible. This 5th century work predates Navigatio Sancti Brendani, and so in addition to exemplifying the general theme of the syllabus, it sets the foundation for the Irish brand of Christianity that led to Saint Brendan’s voyage.
I had fun picking and choosing my favorites from a very rich tradition of sea-faring epics. It seems that rambling voyages and spiritual journeys go hand in hand. If I’ve missed your favorite, please let me know in the comments – I’m always looking for something new to read, and I particularly love stories of ships and adventures.