Pangur Ban, the cat from the acclaimed animated film The Secret of the Kells, has an interesting lineage. The feline character was taken from an Old Irish lyric called “Pangur Bán” or “The Monk and His Cat.” In the movie, the clever creature belonged to Brother Aidan the illuminator. In the poem, which appears in a ninth-century manuscript, a cat named Pangur Bán hunts for mice as intently as a monk hunts for meanings in his Latin texts. Here are a couple of stanzas from Seamus Heaney's translation:
All the while, his round bright eye
Fixes on the wall, while I
Focus my less piercing gaze
On the challenge of the page.
With his unsheathed, perfect nails
Pangur springs, exults and kills.
When the longed-for, difficult
Answers come, I too exult.
"The Irish lyric 'Pangur Bán' meditates on the symbiosis of a scholar's efforts and a housecat's
hunting, to discover within their analogous work a precisely observed
equivalence between their minds," says Susan Crane author of Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in
Medieval Britain. In her new book, Crane describes the unique connection between people and other living creatures that existed in Irish and northern British monastic texts written between the seventh and ninth centuries. Far from Rome, these northern European monestaries were often simple clusters of huts emeshed in the environment. "Wild nature challenged monastic
settlements and domesticated nature facilitated their work," writes Crane.
Her reading of the lyric "Pangur Ban" reflects the intricate bonds between animals, people, and religious culture of the time.
The cat's name, "Pangur Bán," means “white fuller,” a man who works with fuller's earth and comes to be covered in its pale dust. Given the high value of work and craft in the lyric, one might hazard that “white fuller” evokes both the cat's pale fur and his workmanlike behavior. The cat is next anthropomorphized as a net-wielding gladiator or perhaps a huntsman equipped with a net (his extended claws) as he performs “feats of valor.” Cat as workman and cat as valiant gladiator have mock-heroic potential that could reflect doubly on the cat, humorously inflating his worth in order to discredit it and distance him from the scholar. In a counterstrategy, however, the scholar shares mock-heroic status with the cat as "there falls into my net a difficult dictum with hard meaning." Both of them are attempting "feats of valor" that could look small from the net-wielding, death-defying gladiator's perspective. Anthropomorphism can cut in many directions, but in "Pangur Bán" the consistent strategy is to strike analogies that reinforce the scholar's bemused admiration for Pangur with his self-deprecating account of his own efforts to work well.
So, next time a prowling house cat distracts you from your work, don't get too upset. Instead, follow the monastic example by appreciating his skills. Maybe he will be more of an inspiration than a distraction.