Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Strange Islands

The story of the adventures of the Irish abbot St. Brendan or Brenainn was a popular one in the middle ages, with a substantial number of manuscripts surviving. The most familiar version, the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, was written in Latin and may date to the eighth century, that is, roughly two centuries after Brendan is thought to have died. A translation is found in the Penguin Classics volume entitled The Age of Bede (where it's arguably an odd fit); another, by John J. O'Meara, is available from Colin Smythe Ltd under the title of The Voyage of Saint Brendan, Journey to the Promised Land.

Brendan's travels, like those of Odysseus, involve visits to several wondrous islands, including in his case one that is inhabited entirely by psalm-singing birds and another that turns out to be an enormous sea-creature named Jasconius (from Old Irish íasc, fish). He and his fellow monks come upon what seems to be an iceberg as well as something that sounds very much like a volcano, and these and other passages have led some observers to surmise that Brendan or other early Irish travelers may have visited the North Atlantic and even North America. The notion isn't entirely far-fetched, as Irish monks — the papar — traveled as far as Iceland at a very early date. On the other hand, Brendan's adventures seem to have mythological parallels in pre-Christian Ireland and elsewhere.

But there's another Brendan tradition, one that is preserved in the Irish language in a manuscript known as the Book of Lismore. This version, the Betha Brenainn, seems to be harder to find outside of scholarly works like Whitley Stokes's Lives of Saints from the Book of Lismore and Denis O'Donoghue's Brendaniana: St. Brendan the Voyager in Story and Legend, both of which date to the 1890s. The Irish-language version may be less satisfying to the modern reader than the Latin one, but it has its own charm (at least in translation). Here, for example, is Stokes's rendering of a dazzling passage — not unworthy of Homer — that describes the outset of Brendan's voyage:
So Brenainn, son of Finnlug, sailed then over the wave-voice of the strong-maned sea, and over the storm of the green-sided waves, and over the mouths of the marvellous, awful, bitter ocean, where they saw the multitude of the furious red-mouthed monsters, with abundance of great sea-whales. And they found beautiful, marvellous islands, and yet they tarried not therein.
The writer's sheer delight in language receives its richest expression in a lengthy enumeration of the sights of Hell, which are shown to Brendan in consideration of his special sanctity. Stokes again:
It goes on from there, itemizing "cats scratching; hounds rending; dogs hunting; demons yelling; stinking lakes..." and, finally, "tortures vast, various." No torment is left uncatalogued, no linguistic resource left unused. If no one has thought of doing so, it would be fun to see an edition bringing together translations of the Latin Navigatio and the Irish version in one accessible volume.

Below is the first installment of a three-part reading of the O'Meara translation of the Navagatio by the Dean of Canterbury, the Very Reverend Dr. Robert Willis.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975

I was predisposed to like Richard Thompson's new memoir (published by Algonquin Books in the US and Faber in the UK) because I've been a fan of his music since at least the 1980s, but I also awaited it with some trepidation, because even as intelligent and literate a musician and songwriter as Thompson is could easily fall flat when picking up the tools of a very different form of expression. The tragic death by suicide halfway through the project of Thompson's collaborator, the writer Scott Timberg, raised concerns about whether the final product would be patched together by too many hands and lack a unified voice. Not to worry, though. However the process of writing and editing the book was managed, the end-result is seamless and satisfying, and Thompson's vision comes throughly richly and recognizably as his own.

If introduction is necessary, Thompson, born in London in 1949, was one of the founders of the seminal folk-rock combo Fairport Convention, with whom he played lead guitar, occasionally sang, and eventually took on an important role as a songwriter. Thompson left the group, more or less amicably, in 1971, and subsequently made one eccentric solo masterpiece, Henry the Human Fly, as well as a series of landmark albums with his then-wife Linda in the 1970s, before going on to a long and productive solo career. Many people regard him as both one of the most accomplished songwriters of the last 50 years and one of the finest guitarists, both acoustic and electric. (And yet he'll never be a household name.)

Beeswing (a title taken from one of his best songs) covers only the beginnings of his career, and he says he has little interest in writing a sequel, but those few years were eventful both artistically and in terms of human drama. It's a litle astonishing to reflect that after the Fairport years (including still highly listenable records like Unhalfbricking and Liege & Lief) and the first solo album, Richard and Linda recorded the astonishing I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight when he was all of twenty-four.

It was a creative period but one haunted by tragedy. Fairport's teenage drummer, Martin Lamble, and Thompson's girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn were both killed when the band's touring van was involved in a horrific accident. Another bandmember, Sandy Denny, a fine songwriter and a singer of fathomless emotional depth, died in 1978, and her death serves in effect as the closing chapter of both the period and the book.

Much has happened since then — children, divorces, records, decades of touring — and Thompson, still very active musically, is old enough to look back objectively but sympathetically at his younger self, to own up to mistakes, mourn old friends, and reflect without bitterness or a sense of things left undone. The book leaves much unsaid — creative genius, in the end, can't really be explained — but it makes a fine companion to his legacy as a songwriter and performer.

Below is a track recorded during the Liege & Lief sessions (though not included on the original LP). The wisp of a song was written by Roger McGuinn of the Byrds (an early influence on the band); Dylan also reportedly had a hand in its composition. It's basically a dialogue between Denny's incomparable singing and Thompson's relentlessly questing guitar.