This vignette was written for my newsletter, but I thought I’d share its conceit with a wider audience. And since no one knows who wrote the 9th century poem Pangur Bán, why not my character Cillian?
“Lord Sorley?” Mhairi called to me as I crossed the hall, returning from a morning’s ride. A rest day, nominally, but without teaching responsibilities I’d used the time to inspect fields and ditches, looking for winter damage. “Could you take the Comiádh his tea?”
“As long as you add a mug for me,” I said.
She brought me the tray, the scent of rosehips rising from the pot. “Thank you. I have milk heating, and I should not leave it.”
I pushed open the door to the annex with my foot, carrying the tray along the hall. The door to Cillian’s library stood ajar, and I could see he was writing. He looked up at my footsteps, smiling a welcome. Curled up on pile of papers on his right, his white cat slept.
The kitten had been presented to Druise, the year Gwenna left for cadet school at the White Fort. ‘A kitten so you miss your Kitten less,’ Lena had said. He’d taken the little thing in his big hands, smiling at its loud purr, but in the end it had been Cillian it had adopted, not Druise. Privately, I’d been glad: over the years, we’d amassed a collection of Casilani glass: bowls and jugs. The havoc a kitten could have wreaked didn’t bear thinking about.
Cillian put his pen down and stretched. I poured us both tea and sat in the other chair. “You’ve been out,” he said. “I can smell the fresh air and sunshine on you.”
“More likely the mud on my boots,” I said. “A fair bit of ditching to do this spring.” I glanced at the paper in front of him. “What are you writing?” It didn’t look like a lesson, or the history he’d been working on for years. “A poem? Who are you translating now?”
“Not a translation,” he said. He looked, I thought, nearly embarrassed. I grinned at his discomfiture.
“Original verse? Isn’t that my job?” I held out a hand. “Shall I judge your scáeli’s skills?”
He hesitated, reaching for the paper as if to move it away from my grasp. I raised an eyebrow. “I can’t read it? Are you writing love poetry to Lena now, after all these years?”
His startled look made me laugh. “You wouldn’t even think of it, would you?” I wrote the songs of love in this household, and they weren’t to Lena. Reluctantly, he handed me the paper. I scanned the first line and stopped. He’d picked up his cup and was sipping the tea, watching me. “You wrote a poem to the cat?” I asked.
“Not to the cat,” he said. “A comparison, of how his skills parallel mine: we are both hunters, in a way. An analysis, you might say. Read on, my lord Sorley.”
A few minutes later I handed him back his poem. “Better far than praise of men, it is to sit with book and pen”, I said, quoting his own words back to him. “You know yourself well, mo duíne gràhadh. But has Pangur here ever actually killed a mouse? I thought him too well fed for that.”
He stroked the cat. It raised its head, blinking, mewed, and settled back into sleep. “Nightly,” Cillian said. “He has a rather unfortunate tendency to bring them to me, dead or alive. Watching him hunt the ones he brings in alive was the source of the comparison.”
“Shall I write music for it?”
He chuckled. “No. It was only to see if I could make the argument stand, and in verse. An exercise, nothing more. It is not worth your time, nor likely mine. A diversion from the history that is my real work.”
But eleven centuries later, the poem Pangur Bán is still known; is, in fact, often called the best-known Irish poem. Written (in Irish) by an unknown monk in the 9th Century, I have taken the liberty of giving its authorship to Cillian. Here is its best known translation, by the Irish scholar Robin Flowers (although I prefer this one by Seamus Heaney, and somehow think it is closer to what Cillian might have written).
I and Pangur Bán 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.
‘Tis a merry task to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.
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.
When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!
So in peace our task 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.
Reichenau Primer photo: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons