Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 581

Saints in Their Ox-Hide Boat has as a major theme the conflict between Christianity and paganism. Galvin, in his introduction to the poem, observes that during Saint Brendan’s life there existed “no clear distinction between early Christian and late pagan.” Brendan is clearly conscious of the way the “old persuasion” of pagan beliefs has lasted well into the early Christian era. This persistence is particularly obvious in the early part of the poem, as the monks are stalled by the numerous bad omens. While Brendan is part of his culture and is not immune to superstition, he grows frustrated with Owen, the exemplar of the superstitious sailor. Likewise, Brendan criticizes the tendency of scribes to populate their records of saints’ lives with fantastic creatures. At several points, he addresses the young monk who is recording his story, and admonishes him to write it just as he tells it, “whether you consider it/ fantastical, or not fantastical enough.”

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Indeed, though Brendan reminds the boy not to create things or to exaggerate the difficulties, there is much in the monk’s story that is fantastic, not the least of which is the journey itself. The idea of a group of monks traveling in a curragh and reaching the shores of North America seems unbelievable, though it is a journey that has been re-created in modern times.

Perhaps most difficult to understand is why Brendan went on the voyage at all. Indeed, Brendan himself questions his motives, wondering if it was pride that led him to embark on the “blue martyrdom” or if it was an honest attempt to find God. Brendan recognizes, too, it might partly be to escape the “hammering and dust” that accompanies the monastic community that has grown around his personality. Galvin, in his introduction to the poem, explains that abbots often found their desire to “maintain a small community” subverted by their own charisma. The society on land has become oppressive to Brendan, and he believes that he must “break from that abbey’s yoke” to contemplate and come closer to God. It is ironic that so many retreat from society to Brendan’s monastery in order to find God while the leader himself needs still more seclusion. Brendan mulls over the question of his own motives, as he says, “without arriving at a solid answer.” After Diarmuid is swept overboard, he labels himself a “gambler with souls not my own.” It is in part this sort of honesty and self-effacing criticism that makes Galvin’s Brendan so sympathetic a character. When he describes “fishing/ for Diarmuid’s soul with my prayers,” the reader feels the sense of loss and culpability that Brendan feels. Similarly, when Brendan orders the scribe to “make me no miracles. I am no saint,” his honesty is so convincing and so appealing that he seems a saint in spite of himself.

Finally, then, the poem is about exactly what it says it is about: a pilgrimage to find God. Because Galvin has presented Brendan throughout the poem as a realist, not prone to exaggeration or to flights of fancy, the most fantastic element of the poem, Brendan’s vision of the future, seems believable. The scribe need not fabricate a miracle: Brendan provides him with one by describing the appearance of the angel, who says that North America will one day be a “sanctuary” for the Irish. Fittingly, the poem ends with words of Brendan that affirm his faith and, ironically, his sainthood.

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