Freshman year: St. Brendan the Navigator. Also Nanowrimo and writing

First things first, hello! So obviously I didn’t get around to posting anything in November like I meant to.  Last month was kind of like the aftermath of a train wreck. Not in a destructive death way but more in a ‘great glow cloud I agreed to do way to many things which do I prioritize help’ kind of way.  Nanowrimo was a bit of a flop (I wrote about fifteen thousand words and only 2,668 of those words were for the novel I set out to write on November first), but I did stay on top of my schoolwork, and that’s the important thing. Nanowrimo will come again next year and I should be better prepared for it next time, as I’ve decided to dedicate 2017 to completing the Writing Excuses season 10 masterclass.

(Writing Excuses, if you’re not familiar with it, is a writing podcast hosted by novelists Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Dan Wells, and cartoonist Howard Tayler. Each week, they discuss a writing topic such as ideas, beginnings, character development, and so on. Their tagline is “fifteen minutes long because you’re in a hurry and we’re not that smart” but it’s all kind of a lie. None of their episodes is that short, and they are that smart. It’s a good podcast. Go listen. If you feel like it.)

Anyway, I’ve taken a few technical writing courses over the years, and I feel fairly competent in the art of writing a more or less sensible and intelligent-sounding essay on a subject, but creative writing is what I love, and while I do a fair bit of it already I’ve never sat down and really learned much about it. I just noticed when I was about eight or nine that my older sister was writing a story and she was doing this nano-something thing and because I was small and easily influenced I decided that writing stories would be a fun, cool, easy thing to do.  I wrote about thirty to fifty words, got stuck in the first scene, and forgot about it. Then in 2010 I decided to try writing just a ten thousand word thing (I think it was a retelling of Cinderella) and I just barely managed it (by making several characters bond over chickens), and it was fun, so I’ve just kept writing, going from dreadful to a tiny bit less dreadful over the years.  The Writing Excuses thing should be really good for me.


So, Saint Brendan the Navigator! A fifth-century Irish monk who might have maybe discovered North America, but we really don’t know because he lived fifteen hundred years ago and if he did make it to North America, he didn’t leave anything behind and he didn’t create any kind of ruckus.

Looking at you right now Columbus.

Basically what happened, according to what I learned from The Brendan Voyage by Tim Severin, the summary of the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis in the back of The Brendan Voyage, and Brendan by Morgan Llywelyn, was this guy Brendan was basically just your average guy doing the normal 5th century catholic monk thing of just kind of being a decent person, converting everyone you could get your hands on, and building a lot of monasteries, with the added hobby of being pretty good with boats.  He was happy being a monk for most of his life, rising up kinda gradually through the ranks until he became the abbot of a place called Clonfert, but then one day, so says the summary of the Navigatio in the back of The Brendan Voyage, Brendan was visited by a monk called Barrind, who told him about how this guy Saint Mernoc, the abbot of a monastery on some island or another, had invited this Barrind person to go along with him to the “Promised Land of the Saints.” Well, Barrind goes along and they find a beautiful island that its sole inhabitant told them that it had existed since the world’s beginning, and also guys you’ve been walking around this island for a whole year without eating or drinking go home already I’ll come with you to make sure you don’t get sidetracked.

“After Barrind had left him to return to his own cell, Brendan picked fourteen monks his own community and told them that he dearly wanted to visit this Promised Land of the Saints. Promptly they volunteered to accompany him. … Just as they were about to set sail, three monks came down to the beach, and begged to be taken aboard Brendan agreed, but he warned that two of them would meet a hideous fate, and the third would not return from the voyage.”

Well, they head off westward, finding, in succession:

  • A rocky island inhabited by a dog. The first of the last-minute monks meets his death here when he tries to steal a silver bridle from a mysterious hall and Brendan casts a devil out of him
  • The Island of Sheep
  • A stony, barren island where they land to have some dinner, but when their pot of water begins to boil the island is like “You guys actually thought I was an island wow rude find some place else to light a fire you peasants” and swims off angrily with the fire still burning on its back.
  • The Paradise of Birds, inhabited by a bunch of human souls in bird form.
  • Then nothing
  • Just ocean
  • For about three months
  • They all hate it
  • Then a dark, rocky island with a monastery called the Community of Saint Ailbe on it inhabited by two dozen silent monks who have all really enjoyed not having to talk to anyone for eighty years. Introvert goals right there. Brendan and crew spend Christmas there.
  • Then an island with a bunch of plants, fish, and a well containing water that makes a bunch of them fall asleep.
  • Then they have some bad weather and decide to let God make the navigational decisions. God sends them back to the Island of Sheep.
  • Then back to the whale
  • Then back to the Paradise of Birds, where the Steward of the birds tells Brendan and crew that they’re just going to keep repeating the same cycle for seven years:
  • “Maunday Thursday on the Island of Sheep, Easter on the whale; from Easter to Pentecost on the Paradise of Birds; and Christmas with the Community of Saint Ailbe.”
  • *Doctor Who theme plays in the background*
  • Then suddenly they’re not continuing the cycle.
  • “A very large wooded island.” They camp there and eat a dead sea beast that tried to kill them earlier.
  • An “extraordinary flat island, barely above sea level.” It is covered in purple and white fruit and three roaming choirs. The second last-minute monk is invited to stay, and he does.
  • An island that smelled like pomegranates but apparently only grapes the size of apples grow there?
  • Then it’s time for Christmas with the silent monks before heading on to Sheep Island and Bird Paradise.
  • Then a giant pillar made of crystal in the middle of the ocean? Like a really big pillar: “Brendan measured each side at seven hundred yards.” What even?
  • An island inhabited by a bunch of really angry smiths who scream and throw lumps of slag at them.
  • A mountain inhabited by demons who kill the final last-minute monk.
  • A rock that Judas gets to sit on and be slightly less miserable on holy days as a respite from the fires of hell.
  • A circular island with a two-hundred-yard circumference inhabited by an anchorite who was one of Saint Patrick’s original monks.
  • Then a detour back to the Island of Sheep, Jasconius the whale, and the Paradise of Birds, where they pick up the Steward, who is going to guide them toward the Promised Land of the Saints, which they had probably all forgotten about by then.
  • Then back to the Island of Sheep for supplies.
  • Then Brendan and crew finally go to the Promised Land of the Saints, where Brendan is told that they were forced to sail in circles for seven years because God wanted them to take the scenic route and really enjoy it. Also, Brendan’s going to die soon.
  • Then they go to the Island of Delights, whatever that is.
  • Then back home to Clonfert where Brendan has enough time to tell everyone about all the freaky stuff they saw and take the sacrament before he dies.

Morgan Llywelyn’s novel Brendan follows that basic narrative, but there’s a lot of other stuff thrown in too. It’s actually a really confusing book at first. There’s all the sailing around maybe discovering North America, which is formatted in bold type, and told in first person past tense. Then there’s the story of Brendan’s life leading up to that, which is formatted in plain type and told in third person past tense. Then there’s Brendan’s internal monologue that just kind of shows up every few paragraphs throughout the book as in the present (whenever that is) he is writing his memoirs or something, and that is told in first person past tense and formatted in italics. It took me a good while to figure out what in the name of sanity was going on, but once I gave up and hoped the mysteries of Brendan would reveal themselves to me eventually (They did) it was a very good book.

The Brendan Voyage by Tim Severin is also very good. In it, Severin tells the story of how he decided in the 1970s to see whether or not Saint Brendan could have actually sailed from Ireland to North America, by building a leather boat from materials as close to what boatmakers in the fifth and sixth centuries would have used, and sailing off across the Atlantic ocean in it with a few volunteers/friends. It’s a very good book: funny without being gimmicky, and technical without being boring.  There’s also a very good documentary summing up Severin and crew’s voyage, using footage filmed during the voyage and the building of their boat, christened the Curragh Brendan.

And that’s really all I have to say on that. Not many solid facts are known about Saint Brendan’s life, so probably a lot of Brendan was fictional, but I really enjoyed all of it.

Tune in next time (and next time will happen sooner than two months from now) for Charlemagne.



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