Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.”

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...

(The entire section is 581 words.)