A Month of Ireland: The Magic, Faerie-Hunting Cat Named Pangur Bán

Last week I provided a very dark but beautiful bit of poetry about the faeries stealing away a child.  This week, my Irish-themed post has a slightly happier note.  As previous posts have mentioned, there is a cartoon called The Secret of Kells about the writing of the Book of Kells.  In that film is a cat named Pangur Bán, white with one blue eye and one green eye.  Multicolored eyes indicate magic, as we all know.  So today, we will talk more about what it means to have a magic cat.

The original cat Pangur Bán (he was real!) exists for us in the pages of a 9th century Irish manuscript.  An Irish monk reflects on how his own struggle for words compares to the hunting of his “whiter than white” cat.

Messe ocus Pangur Bán,
cechtar nathar fria saindan
bíth a menmasam fri seilgg
mu menma céin im saincheirdd.
    . . .
I and Pangur Bán my cat
Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

The thing about magic cats is they have a tendency to show up in unexpected places.  This Irish cat now lives in my house.

pangur ban white green eye blue eyeThe other thing about magic cats is that they do not see the world the way other cats do.  Pangur Bán’s eyes are her gift and her curse.  She sees our world with her blue eye, the mundane eye.  However, with her green eye, she sees the faeries.

Pangur Bán’s eternal battle with the invisible house faeries has been going on for months now.  She hunts them, chases them, and pounces on them, but our house is overrun.  Fortunately, Pangur Bán refuses to give up, and her hunt for the faeries continues.

 

The Pangur Bán of the 9th century hunted mice, so says the poem, but he, too, was a magic cat.  He had the ability to inspire his master to write. It is through observing his cat that the anonymous Irish monk is able to conclude:

pangur ban

He fesin as choimsid dáu
in muid dungní cach oenláu
du thabairt doraid du glé
for mu mud cein am messe.
                   . . .
Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

(Translation by Robin Flowers)

The Irish monks of this man’s time were facing many years of darkness – literary darkness, that is. They are responsible for preserving much of the early literature that we value so much today. They were writers and readers, lovers of books, masters of their craft of illumination. You know a true book-lover when he not only writes the book, but he is driven to make it beautiful.

This poem is so especially beloved not just because it is such a strange little bit of writing tucked in the margins of a manuscript.  It also shows us just a glimpse of man’s thoughts aside from his long hours of writing down and preserving valuable texts.  Over a thousand years ago, a man sits at his desk and struggles to find inspiration and to use just the right words.  Another translation of the first verse by Seamus Heaney:

Pangur Bán and I at work,
Adepts, equals, cat and clerk:
His whole instinct is to hunt,
Mine to free the meaning pent.
How many times has any one of us sat in front of a blank screen or stared at a page, pen in hand, and struggled to free the meaning trapped in our thoughts?  If we could just find the right words, the story would come to life.
Pangur Bán may seem to be no more than a small white cat, but this cat has managed to travel through time to tell a very simple, but universal story of the writer’s experience.  A magic cat, indeed! Although the author of this poem is nameless, he has given us a name to remember.  It seems, thanks to his cat, he found his words, after all.
pangur ban cat rabbit friends
Pangur Ban makes friends with the evil Bella Bunny.
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Pangur Ban – Whiter than white

I was going through some random files I had saved on my computer when I came across  a poem, “Pangur Ban.”  Instantly, I was reawakened by the imagery and the beauty of it:  Something so simple, yet something rather profound.  It is strange to see how animals effect our imaginations and how they illuminate our understanding.

My first real introduction to the character of Pangur Ban was in the movie The Secret of Kells. I instantaniously fell in love with the little white cat, who had more character and attitude than a precocious three-year-old. Some of you may remember that Melissa wrote a very nice post about the movie, but I want to focus on Pangur.

Pangur has genuine personality, but not so much so that he ceases to be a cat.  He is the epitome of cat-ness.  Everything about Pangur is cat-like and true from his haughty nature, to the swish of his tail.  There are moments that it would appear that Pangur had human qualities, but he is too much of a cat to say that he is anything but cat. His quirks are  perfect in cat-like nature.  If only every cat could be a Pangur Ban.

Have you ever looked at a picture, particularly an abstract one and discovered that in that abstract you saw its soul?  Have you seen a color, the truest blue, and known in that moment that that is what blue was supposed to look like?  Maybe it was a sunset…and you saw the golden hues and the pinks and oranges blending, the way the sun’s rays glinted off trees and fields, and you knew in that moment that all sunsets were trying to be that sunset? Well if you can relate to any of these moments, then you will know what I am talking about when it comes to Pangur. He is cat.

Creating such a character is not an easy task particularly for writers, so much of Pangur’s cat-ness in The Secret of Kells comes from the visual, where he is on the screen, how he moves from place to place.

So after watching the movie, I became rather intrigued by this little creature.  I don’t remember who it was that told me Pangur Ban was named so after an actual character in literature, but I soon found the a little poem that was written by a monk in the 9th century.  The monk was an illuminator of the Book of Kells.  If you look closely in some of the illuminated pages you will see glimpses of this enchanting cat within…

Pangur Ban
(written by a ninth-century Irish monk in St Gallen, Switzerland) . . . .

I and Pangur Ban my cat ‘

Tis a like task we are at:

Hunting mice is his delight,

Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men

‘Tis to sit with book and pen;

Pangur bears me no ill will

He too plies his simple skill

Oftentimes a mouse will stray

In the hero Pangur’s way;

Oftentimes my keen thought set

Takes a meaning in its net.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye

Full and fierce and sharp and sly;

‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I

All my little wisdom try.

Practice every day has made

Pangur perfect in his trade;

I get wisdom day and night

Turning darkness into light

(This poem appears in The Book of Kells exhibit at Trinity College, Dublin and was kindly transcribed for AuthorScoop by Felicity O’ Mahony, Assistant Librarian, Manuscripts Department)

Turning Darkness Into Light: Truth and Magic in the Story of a Book

I recently had the pleasure of watching a movie that has now joined the ranks of Melissa’s Absolute Favorite Films of All Time.  It doesn’t happen often, but this movie deserves it several times over.

The movie came out last year and was nominated for an Academy Award, and yet few people have actually heard of it or know what it is.  I saw the preview and was very interested, but forgot about it by the time the DVD release rolled around.   Fortunately, I was giving the opportunity to watch it last week.

The movie is called The Secret of Kells.  It is a cartoon done in the old style with all hand drawn art.  The odd topic and the cartoon style probably deterred many a potential viewer.  Unfortunately, the movie is more aptly named than it probably means to be.  Far too few people seem to know anything about the Book of Kells at all, and that, my readers, is a crying shame.

Trinity College Library: This is one of my tourist destinations when I cross the Pond this fall...

The Book of Kells is the most treasured piece of literature in Ireland.  Its origins are shrouded in a haze of mystery due to the chaos of the seventh and eighth centuries, but despite the ravaging of many a monastery in those days, the Book of Kells survived.  It now resides in Trinity College in Dublin, encased in glass, with one page turned every month for the viewing pleasures of visitors.

What makes the Book of Kells so fascinating and astonishing is the intricate illumination work done on each page of the text.  Few examples of such quality illumination exist.  The Book of Kells is a manuscript primarily dedicated to the four Gospels, and each page is a work of loving, carefully rendered art.

Because the origins of the Book are unknown, screenwriters felt able to create their version of the story and capture it in the masterpiece that is The Secret of Kells.  This movie is magical, a blending of history and Irish faerie tale that is perfectly suited for the story and the approach the early Irish Christians had to their faith.

I won’t give away the whole story.  I want you to watch it for yourself!  Suffice to say that this is the story of a young boy named Brendan who lives in the monastery of Kells, ever under the threat of Viking invasion.  When the unfinished Book is brought to Kells, Brendan goes on an adventure in which he encounters remnants of the ancient, mythic past while striving to help complete the beautiful Book.

What I really want to focus on in this post is the movie’s incredible blending of Christianity and Irish myth.  The Irish people, as you may well know, were largely brought to faith because of the providential coming of Saint Patrick.  Ireland’s conversion to Christianity was one of the most peaceful national conversions.  There are several reasons for this, but one of them, I believe, is that the old Irish religion was not so much abandoned as relegated.  The Irish people recognized the truth of Christianity, but they saw no reason to cease believing in the Tuatha de Danaan.  The gods of the Irish lost their power in the eyes of the people, but not all of their presence.  They became the Sidhe, the fair folk, the faeries.  Believing in God and believing that a brownie lives in your bedroom (the faerie, not the baked good…) were not mutually exclusive.  The Irish had the ability to hold fast to a new faith while seeing magic in the world that their newly accepted God had made.

The artwork of the movie was stunning: the forest was filled with Celtic knotwork.

Thus, the Irish are able to have stories such as those of Taliesin and Oisin. Taliesin is the bard of some of the oldest Welsh Arthurian tales who speaks of his many magical transfigurations in one line of poetry and his faith in God in the next. Oisin is a mortal who marries a faerie queen and lives in the Otherworld for hundreds of years before returning to Ireland.  When Oisin’s feet touch mortal soil, his years catch up with him, but he is converted to Christ before he dies.  Having the Sidhe and Christianity in one world is not only acceptable, but beautiful in Irish literature.

In The Secret of Kells, this blending is brought to light in the movie’s subtle incorporation of the meaning of the Book with Brendan’s encounters in the woods outside the monastery.  The movie never outright states the content of the Book, but hints are woven into the movie as carefully and integrally as Celtic knots.  Brother Aidan talks about the Chi Rho page, the most important page in the Book.  Chi and Rho are the first two Greek letters of Christ’s name.  It is also repeatedly emphasized that this Book is more important than any other book and that it is the Book that “turns darkness into light.”

The stunning Chi Rho page from the Book of Kells

On the other hand, the first one to explain this book’s significance is an immortal Sidhe who whispers of the many things she has seen in her time, ending with the Book that turns darkness into light.  A mythic creature interacts with a Christian text.

Brendan also stumbles upon the dwelling place of Crom Cruach, an ancient dark pagan deity and, incidentally, one that Saint Patrick is said to have destroyed (its image, of course, not the deity itself).  Brendan’s use of the very same art that he will later use on the Book to conquer this enemy is significant.  A creature of ancient darkness encounters the light and falls before it.

Pangur Ban is an endearing little character, but even he is integrally connected to the history of the Book of Kells. Pangur Ban (meaning Whiter than White) is found in an old poem written by a monk. A white cat is also woven into the Book of Kells.

I found this movie enchanting, astonishing, and incredibly moving.  The artwork of the movie itself imitates the illumination of the Book with intricate borders, snowflakes that resemble tiny Celtic knots, and repeating patterns in the forest and trees that are unmistakably Celtic designs.  The story is touching and engaging, with both humor and somber tragedy, but an ultimate note of triumph.  This is a movie that will touch anyone who loves beautiful artwork, lovely Celtic music, and a subtle touch of Faerie in an amazing Christian story.