St. Brandon

Note: Though it stands alone as a story, "St. Brandon" originally appeared as one of many tales told during the course of Wolfe's novel Peace. Discussion of "St. Brandon" in the context of the novel is placed behind "Hide" buttons to avoid spoiling the novel for those who have read the story elsewhere.

Position and Context

minor spoilers for Peace

Den hears this story when he and his Aunt Olivia are dining at the house of one of her suitors, Stewart Blaine. Blaine sends Den away after dinner and Doherty, who is Blaineís gardener and hostler, tells Den this story to entertain him. Doherty heard it from his grandmother, Kate Boyne. The story is interrupted (if it isnít finished already) by Olivia coming to take Den home.

The Story

Finn MíCool is the strongest man in Ireland. He has a dog and a cat, both of whom will turn out to be rather extraordinary, and he works for the High King at Tara. The High King sends Finn to take the king of the rats off St. Brandonís boat so as to make sure Brandon reaches the Earthly Paradise. When they reach the boat, they find it is enormous, and the mast goes up forever. A rat as big as a cow is chewing on the anchor cable. Finnís dog draws his sword and duels the rat. He only wins because the cat sneaks up and trips the rat, but the dog doesnít admit to receiving help.

The next day Finn goes out to the ship and sees two old men on deck, ďalike as two peas.Ē Finn canít tell them apart, but the cat says that the one on the right is the king of the rats. Finn tosses the cat on board, goes to the High King at Tara, and tells him the job is done.

When the cat lands on deck, Brandon says "weíve captain, cat, and rat, all three, and can sail." The cat discovers the rat is quartermaster and asks why. Brandon tells her "the wicked do His will as well as the just. Only they donít like it. How do you think I could have weighed anchor, a sick man like me, without the rat gnawed the rope?"

When they reach the Earthly Paradise, itís dark. The cat asks "If this is the Earthly Paradise, whereís the cream?" Brandon replies "Itís two oíclock in the morning Ö You donít expect the cows milked at two?" The cat jumps ashore and asks "How long until five?" and Brandon answers "Twenty thousand years." Brandon jumps off the boat and sets up a cross. The boat sinks, and the king of the rats swims ashore. The rat then asks Brandon whether he should kill the cat. When the cat objects, the rat tells him that "all you cats are fey heathen creatures," and that he is a Christian rat sent by the High King at Tara to get rid of him. While theyíre fighting, "an angelóor somebody" comes by and asks what is going on. Brandon replies "the one is wickedness and the other is a fairy cat, and now Iím watching to see which wins." The angel replies "Watch away, but it appears to me theyíre teariní one another to pieces, and the pieces runniní off into the woods."

And here, the story is interrupted.

Note

St. Brandon (or Brendan) was a sixth century Irish monk who some people believe discovered America, which he is reported to have called the "Promised Land of the Saints".

Interpretation

spoilers for Peace

In the story, there is some discussion as to whether St. Brandon's ship is made of wood or stone. The final word is had by Brandon, who says that it is stone, in places. Which parts are stone may be answered by a passage a few pages later in Peace, where Den describes a cloud tower: "To me it was Brandon's mast and at the same time the princess's tower rising from the sea, so that the Irish holy man captained a wicker vessel with sails the size of continents bent to that enchanted edifice of stone." So the boat is wood with a mast of stone. This is reminiscent of a grave, with the wooden hull being a coffin and the mast a tombstone rising through the earth's surface.

major spoilers for Peace

With this key, the symbolism of the story is easy to figure out.

  • The High King at Tara is God,
  • Finn M'Cool is an angelóor somebody,
  • Brandon is Den (there is even a phonetic correspondence),
  • the ship's sinking is the burial of the coffin,
  • they are headed not for the Earthly Paradise, but Heaven,
  • the twenty thousand years between two and five am are Purgatory (and also an insomnia joke),
  • the rat is Den's wickedness,
  • the cat may be his heathenism.

This interpretation is supported by another mention of St. Brandon in Peace. In the banshee story, Kate says that Jack and the banshee fought "like Kilkenny cats, I was about to say, but it was really more like St. Brandon and the Devil." In this version, St. Brandon never fights the devil. So maybe in the archetypical version, St. Brandon and the king of the rats (alike as two peas in a pod) fight. This is reminiscent of the purported objective of purgatory: to purge the wickedness from one's soul. Here, wickedness and the fairy cat fight, but nobody wins; they tear each other into pieces and the pieces run off into the woods. Whatever is going on here, it's not the original program.

Note:

We can tell that the story isn't exactly the one Kate Boyne originally told, from Doherty's comment that the dog "would have had this tale if you hadn't laughed at the cat."

Unresolved questions

What is the significance of the pieces running off into the woods?
spoilers for Peace

This is vaguely similar to the sidhe story in Peace, where the three children of the sidhe are turned into a flock of geese. It is also vaguely reminiscent of the story of the Kilkenny cats.

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