Three Celtic Voyages: Brendan, Lewis, and Buechner

By Lawyer, John E. | Anglican Theological Review, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Three Celtic Voyages: Brendan, Lewis, and Buechner

Lawyer, John E., Anglican Theological Review

The immram, or voyage tale, is an ancient Celtic story of spiritual adventure. Well established as a genre in pre-Christian times, its seafaring hero sails into the unknown west, drawn by the universal human longing for a perfect land of eternal youth, beauty, and happiness, the Island of the Blessed. His journey is hard and the outcome uncertain, but he encounters beautiful islands, wondrous animals, and supernatural personages to help him on his way. The common impulse behind these tales is the deeply human desire to attain some intangible ideal of perfection, the obverse of the all-too-familiar miseries of mortal life.1 When the Gospel and a culture of literacy came to Ireland in the early fifth century the genre easily assumed a Christian perspective, since the Christian life has always been seen as a journey from this imperfect world to a heavenly commonwealth "beyond the sunset" where God will wipe away every tear.

This essay proposes to explore the role of the voyage tale as an image of the spiritual journey, as presented in its classic early Irish formulation and consciously recapitulated for a twentieth-century audience by two major contemporary Christian writers, C. S. Lewis and Frederick Buechner. As this is an essay in spirituality, the point is not to say something new about Lewis or Buechner, much less to reconstruct a historical voyage. Rather, we will consider what the three texts, the late eighth-century Voyage of St. Brendan, Lewis's Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and Buechner's Brendan, have to say about the life of the spirit, and in particular to see how their Celtic perspective enlarges our understanding,


The Voyage of St. Brendan was one of the most widely read pieces of medieval literature. We do not know where or by whom the tale was first set out in writing, and in all probability it had circulated decades earlier as an oral narrative.2 Current scholarship favors a date around A.D. 800 for the final Latin version of the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, probably compiled in an Irish monastery. The unknown author, presumably a monk, was obviously an excellent classical scholar and thoroughly acquainted with Irish geography, history, and folklore. He drew from earlier manuscript accounts and an extensive oral tradition to produce a well-integrated narrative.3 Brendan's tale has much of the direct and simple appeal we find in the Gospels, with "the journeyings, miraculous meals, fears and wonders that happen around the Sea of Galilee ... transferred to the Atlantic."4 The Voyage gained great popularity in the following centuries; over 120 manuscript copies have turned up in locations ranging from Scandinavia to Spain.5

The historical St. Brendan (actually one of seventeen so named) was born sometime around 490 near Tralee, on the west coast of Ireland, but is more widely known as St. Brendan of Clonfert for the monastery he established in East Galway around 560. He was educated by Bishop Erc of Kerry, and in time became a famous abbot and monastic founder. He died at the age of 93 sometime around 580; the Annals of Ulster put his death at 577 or 583. He probably made his celebrated journey sometime between 515 and 525, when he would have been roughly between the ages of 25 and 40.6 Adomnan reports that he visited St. Columba on Iona sometime after 563; he also founded a monastery at Llancarvon in Wales. A half dozen or more landmarks along the Irish west coast bear his name, and he may well have journeyed to Brittany, the Orkneys, the Shetlands, and perhaps even Iceland in the course of his voyages.

Over time the story of his life collected numerous additional elements, epic feats, and adventures, real or fabulous, drawn from accounts current among the seafaring peoples of the West. In fact, his story comes down to us in two traditions: a more hagiographic but fragmentary vernacular Irish Life of St. Brendan composed sometime in the seventh or eighth centuries, which was translated into a longer Latin version that drew on other sources for Brendan's later years, and the present Voyage of St. …

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