Allegory in the Voyage of St Brendan

Dr Nokes post today on “Reading Medieval Allegory” got me thinking…. the Voyage of St Brendan is all allegory after all. Sure some think it was a real voyage out to discover America, and have even proven that it can be done in an Irish craft of the era, but any close reading of the text should be obvious that it is not a real voyage. To think it is real, you would have to ignore things like the fact that he goes round and round the same circle of places for seven years. A sailor like Brendan would never get that lost!

As Dr Nokes wrote:

“When the Gawain-poet stops to tell us what the five fives on the pentangle represent, he’s basically telling us, “Yup, the pentangle is an important symbol. Now that I’ve already established that for you, where are you going to take this poem?”

So it is in the Voyage of St Brendan that near the beginning of the voyage the steward explains to Brendan exactly where he will be spending the major feast days of the year and that he will be repeating that cycle for seven years! Don’t bother to try to get out of this whirlpool of destinations, its God’s will that you go back to spend every Easter vigil on the back of a great fish, and so you shall go! Now you figure out what the great fish means and why you must go back…

Don’t feel bad if you forget that Brendan is running in circles; after all, Brendan seems to forget fairly regularly and must be reminded by the authority figure of the island. Thus, reminders to the forgetful Brendan, serve to remind you dear reader, lest you forget and think that Brendan will find a shortcut to the Isle of the Saints. This also brings us to all those islands (or pseudo-islands) he visits; each is an allegory in itself. Yes…this is clearly a road-map to North America. 😉