Let me tell you a story. It’s about hope, and about love, and about poetry. It’s also about movies.
I recently saw a movie called The Secret of Kells, and you should see it too. Try Netflix. It’s a gorgeously hand-drawn animated film, a bit over an hour long, very sweet. It tells the fictionalized story of the creation of the Book of Kells, a gloriously illuminated Gospel manuscript created in Irish monasteries beginning in 600 AD. The Book of Kells is old, and it is unbelievably, intricately beautiful. Google it. The movie features the abbot of the Monastery of Kells; his young nephew Brendan; the aging manuscript illuminator Aiden and his cat Pangur Bán; the monks of the Scriptorium at Kells; an ethereal forest spirit named Aisling; a horde of menacing Northmen (or Vikings); and St. Columba (or Columkill).
There’s historical evidence for two characters. One is St. Columba. Would you like to guess the other?
It’s the cat. Pangur Bán was real.
We know this because sometime around the 9th century AD, an anonymous monk jotted down a sweet little poem in Gaelic about his cat Pangur Bán, on a copy of St. Paul’s Epistles (Letters). He drew parallels between the cat’s hunting for mice and his own hunting for words and meaning. They both took joy in their seemingly endless pursuits and joy in their resting at the end of their labors.
We know a few things about Pangur Bán. He would have been one of the monastery’s mousers, because the poet presents that as his role. We know he was a white cat, because the suffix Bán means “white” or “fair” in Gaelic. His name means “Fair Fuller”, although I’ve seen it translated “White Washerwoman” – a fuller is someone who works cloth to make it thicker and warmer. We know someone loved him.
He wasn’t magic. He wasn’t special. But one small poem made this little cat immortal.
“Pangur Bán” has been translated many times, including by Beowulf translator Seamus Heaney. If you’d like to read more of it than the excerpt below, you can find it here; Wikipedia has links to more versions. It was also sung by Irish singer Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin in 2011. Pangur Bán continues to appear in fiction; years before The Secret of Kells, he was the star of a set of children’s books by Fay Sampson I loved as an elementary school student. (I was heartbroken when the librarian discarded them because they were too worn; years later, I realized I could track down my own copies.)
Right now there are terrible things going on in the world, but researching this poem, and this one little cat, made me hopeful that good things endure. Words are powerful that way: I could tell you why libraries matter, or I could tell you about Pangur Bán. Somehow this insignificant expression of love survived for over a thousand years: jotted down in the margins, buried on a bookshelf somewhere. Sometimes it only takes a very small light to push back the darkness.
You too have been hunting for meaning. May you find as much joy in your work and your resting as did Pangur Bán.
I and Pangur Bán, my cat
‘Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight
Hunting words I sit all night.
So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.
Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.