October 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 6
The border line between the known and the unknown is very hazy. History is in one compartment, legend and myth are in another, and between the two there is an undiscovered world whose margin, as Tennyson remarked, fades forever and forever as we move. We know a little of our past, and much less of our future; somewhere between what we know and what men who lived before us have dreamed, there is a haunted half-world out of which we can never quite make sense but which we can never possibly ignore. We are bounded in myth and legend, and it is never really possible for us to determine just what we know and what we wish that we knew.
Who knew about America, for instance, before anyone had given the place a name or really seen it? Why is that word magical? Just where, before history had its dawn, did someone know about it, touch its shores, and make out of it something that stirred the pulse and quickened the imagination? Was all of this just a figment of the imagination, or did someone—centuries before Columbus—know something that got lost in the mist of prehistory?
Land to the West: St. Brendan’s Voyage to America , by Geoffrey Ashe. Viking Press. 352 pp. $6.75.
Probably we will never know; yet the business is unsettling, arousing the imaginative faculty, stirring queer racial memories that touch our vision of the future rather than of the past. We look ahead when we look backward. What we really know may matter less than the haunting things that make us wish we knew, the stray hints that cannot quite be brushed aside: the racial evidences that people went farther and found out more than they were ever able to admit.
Thus: did the Irish get to America before Columbus, before the Vikings, before any solid historical record? Maybe not, and it does not make much difference if they did; yet more than a thousand years ago someone knew something about what lay beyond the Atlantic mists, and if what they knew got buried in myth and legend, the important fact now is that they did know something . That simple fact makes us restless. How did they find out about it?
Hunting for the answers to such questions is like exploring the matter of just what songs the Sirens sang, to which there is no positive answer. But the quest is worth-while, and Mr. Geoffrey Ashe, an inquiring Englishman who has the happy faculty of doubting that anything is really impossible, looks into it in a completely fascinating little book, Land to the West , which is a modest inquiry into the question of whether the Irish had seen and known America half a millennium or more before Columbus sailed.
Mr. Ashe begins by examining the legend of Saint Brendan, who is said to have gone a-voyaging in early medieval times and to have found a strange continent beyond the western ocean before the Vikings even got to Greenland. Did Saint Brendan get there or did he not? What is the evidence?
Ireland had seagoing monks and anchorites, as Mr. Ashe remarks, as early as 600 A.D. They went islandhopping, impelled partly by missionary zeal and partly by a yearning for solitude—the same sort of impulse that drove the Egyptian hermits into the emptiness of the deserts of North Africa. They were, at that time, the best scholars in western Europe, they had a solid knowledge of geography, and they wanted to know what lay beyond the sunset. Did they just dream, or did they know something?
The evidence is mixed and contradictory. Early in the Christian era, Irish monks clearly prowled through the outlying islands in their flimsy coracles, going from landfall to landfall and embellishing their accounts with the richness of imagination that goes with Celtic storytelling. But sometime before the Vikings had got to Greenland, a body of lore about Saint Brendan had developed. Instead of a coracle he had an ocean-going ship made of wood, and the stories tell how he went forth, a month or more from land to land, going down the sunset path, and finding a strange earthly paradise far to the west.
As Mr. Ashe emphasizes, this legend probably does not tell about a real voyage; yet it seems to be based on genuine knowledge of such voyages. It is not like the earlier legends, where men hourly discovered new islands; it is full of details about distances, directions, landfalls, and times: somewhere back of it there does seem to be the discovery of a continent. It is a fantastic of the map of the Atlantic, and no one needs to believe the fantasy—and yet the map, somehow, is a good one. Whoever put these legends into writing knew something about the western ocean, about its currents and perils and distances. Brendan may not have been a pioneer, but he was (as Mr. Ashe says) a good listener; and he had been listening to someone who knew something.
“To take the legend seriously,” says Mr. Ashe, “is not to make Brendan the discoverer of America, but to remove the discovery back beyond him.” It seems to Mr. Ashe that when this story is followed down far enough, one is almost obliged to embrace the theory that someone actually crossed the Atlantic before the tenth century.
On a quest of this kind one never encounters certainty. On the other hand, one never quite encounters absolute disbelief either. The reality behind myth and legend is notoriously insecure—and yet, in the last analysis, myths and legends do not always come out of a complete vacuum. In his search for a proper background, Mr. Ashe goes far afield—even to the legends of the Lost Atlantis, to the odd tales which hang about the sea-wanderings of the early Phoenicians, to the mid-American tales of Quetzalcoatl and his emergence from (and final departure into) the eastern sea, to the queer legends in meso-America of bearded white men who came, stayed, and then vanished, and, first and last, into the deep body of Irish legend which says that people went west, saw something, and sent back stories about it.
Nothing at all can be proved. There is no certainty anywhere. And yet—as Mr. Ashe says, “there is something there.” The infinite mystery beyond the horizon of the western ocean had been touched, just a little, had been explored by men who—heaven only knows why, or how—went on a voyage fully as perilous and hair-raising as the ventures of our present-day astronauts, and came back to tell, as best they could, what they had seen.
We live in a good time for this sort of discussion. We too are poised on the edge of a stupendous jumpoff. Our own horizons are being expanded, and the final effect upon us will be just as epoch-making as was the final effect, on men six hundred years ago, of the discovery that off beyond the gulf there is a land that ought to be explored and known. Just at the moment when we have felt ready to give way to despair, an outer door is swinging open. We face what Columbus himself faced: not so much the task to see what lies beyond the outer limits of human thought as to see just what it is, to bring back evidences of it, and to enable mankind to take one more long leap into the perilous, dismaying, and infinitely rewarding unknown.