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Volume 16, Issue 2: Ex Libris

Book Reviews

Woelke Leithart

The Brendan Voyage
by Tim Severin
McGraw-Hill, 1978

When it comes to books about the sea, there are all sorts of clichés. After all, man has been sailing around the globe for millennia. You can talk of crashing waves or tanned sailors. But the story of man's conquering of the sea has almost invariably been a progressing yarn. The boats keep getting better. Why would anyone not want to sail across the ocean in a ship so large you don't know you're in the water? The Brendan Voyage serves as an answer.

Historical reenactment is a funny thing. On the one hand, it is very rare that the event or object can actually be recreated perfectly. We can't recreate the D-Day invasion of Normandy, for example. Keeping this in mind, we should still seek to recreate events from the past because they can help us better understand our heritage. When we reenact our Christian heritage, all the better. Thus the reason for historical plays and celebrations. But why reenact the story of St. Brendan?
The story of St. Brendan is a sea-faring tale, filled with monsters, waves, and lands across the waters. Brendan sets sail from Ireland in a tiny boat that he and his fellow monks have built. Together they brave the dangers of the ocean as they sail west, where at their journey's end they find "the promised land." Rejoicing, they sojourn there for a time before returning home.
When we read the tales of the monks of the first millennium after Christ, we find stories of miracles. This is a big part of the reason why it's so easy to write off the legend of St. Brendan as just that: a legend. After all, those monks couldn't have actually made it all the way across the Atlantic. And all the things they saw were far too fantastic to have actually happened. Right?
Tim Severin decided that he would find out. Noticing a number of similarities between the account of Brendan's voyage and the geographies of the places that the monks would have passed, as well as the fact that the land that the monks reached could easily have been the Americas, Severin decided that he would test the waters. To show that the monks could have sailed to America, he would have to build a boat like the one they would have used and sail it across the Atlantic, thus showing the trip was possible. Severin has chronicled his efforts in The Brendan Voyage.
Over the course of several years in the late 1970s, he built a boat using the same materials that the monks of centuries ago would have used. A couple of chapters devoted to how the boat was designed—a detective job in itself—and how the materials were located as well. The bulk of the book is spent in the story of the journey. We follow the leather boat from the coast of Ireland up to Scotland and Iceland. The crew must deal with frequently appearing whales, ice sheets, and boredom.
As they sail around the rim of the North Atlantic, we get a sense of what it is like to be on the ocean. Severin writes vividly, so that when the men in the boat get wet, we feel cold. When they are forced to repair their boat in the middle of the icy ocean, we shiver along with them.
Perhaps one of the most exciting things about The Brendan Voyage is its surprising level of suspense. Since the entire purpose of the voyage is to see if the boat can withstand the water, the cold, and the weather, Severin is really not certain as he sails whether he will be able to make it. In fact that is the point—if he can't make it, it leads us to believe that the original voyage was impossible.
But the reenactment is not perfect, nor is it meant to be. Readers who complain that Severin and his crew had too many modern appliances to be accurately following St. Brendan miss the point of the trip. The boat is being tested, not the men, since proving that 20th century men could sail across the Atlantic would not show that monks could have. The boat is equipped with a radio, and the Coast Guard is often nearby to help. But this doesn't detract from the authenticity of the voyage.
The Brendan Voyage gives us a sea-faring yarn while at the same time confirming the legends of early Christian monks. You may have already read it or have had it recommended to you. It has been out for over 25 years, after all. But if you've already read it, you know that it's a wonderful book. So take this review as an exhortation to read it again. Either that or read through the review again and take note how I avoided using the word intrepid once.

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