The Adventures of Brother Arcadius and Pangur Ban

A born scholar with a passion for learning and poetry, earnest young Dubliner Brother Arcadius doesn’t quite fit in with his brutal and bloodthirsty 9th-century era. But he’s fortified by his intrepid Irish spirit, and by an unexpected ally–a homeless cat that he’s rescued and named Pangur Ban.  And Spiritus Sanctus offers plenty of challenges in its own right. There’s dark-eyed, enigmatic, and excruciatingly well-connected Father Julian, the head of the monastery (he prefers not to be called “abbot”). What is it that’s on his mind? And enormously super-sized, hulking Brother Atalf, monk of all work–when his brows are knotted up like that, does it indicate thought, or dislike of assistant librarians, or what? And what about the torments of those compulsory, unwinnable weekly chess games? And when a key ingredient of the monastery’s famous herbed game stew goes missing, where might it be? And in those occasional discussions of the shape of the earth, is anybody right?

Funny and touching, these tales of an endearing 9th-century nerd and his very exceptional cat are written for readers from 12 to 112 and beyond. They follow Brother Arcadius and Pangur Ban through their first four years of quirky adventure, misadventure, and non-adventure at Spiritus Sanctus, showing along the way that even in a dark and difficult age, cats and assistant librarians can be forces to reckon with.

In the actual, historical 9th century, when Vikings were on the rampage and bludgeons and battle-axes abounded, a monk whose name has not come down to us picked up his pen and wrote a poem. He wrote it in Irish, on parchment pages that were otherwise given over to writings in Latin and Greek. And although he was writing in Irish, he wasn’t in Ireland or anywhere near it. Rather, he seems to have been situated in a monastery in the foothills of the Alps. His poem was not a battle-hymn or a diatribe against wicked enemies, or a prayer. It was simply about himself and his cat, a cat whose name he gives as “Pangur Ban.” Whoever this person was, he says in his poem that he pursues learning as zealously as Pangur pursues mice. Cat and scholar, he says, are identical in their devotion to their arts. There’s a smile in the words that can be felt even today.

Having survived eleven turbulent centuries in monastic seclusion, the poem became known to the wider world in the early 1900s, and since then has charmed its way into many hearts and Internet discussions, and inspired a good many works of art as well, including several books. Its best-known English translation is perhaps that of the poet and scholar Robin Flower (1881-1946). It appears in Mr Flower’s Poems & Translations, published by Lilliput Press in Dublin. The Adventures of Brother Arcadius and Pangur Ban is a heartfelt response to that unknown poet’s words of so long ago. The shouts and cries of 9th-century battlefields have long been silent, but the poem lives on, a creative force that can still touch lives.

Brother Arcadius would be glad that this is so.


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