Sometime in or around the 9th century, a monk wrote a poem, in Irish, in the margins of a manuscript in the Monastery of St Paul in Lananttal, Austria. The poem, entitled “Pangur Bán”, compares the life of the monk to the life of his white (bán) cat, Pangur. There have been many translations and Jo Ellen Bogart explains in the author’s note at the end of The White Cat and the Monk, that she has drawn on several of these for the text she uses in the book.
The simple text is elegant, distilling the poem’s ideas to language young readers can appreciate and enjoy. The book opens wordlessly as we follow the white cat into the monastery and the cell of the monk, to whom we are then introduced
“I, monk and scholar,
share my room
with my white cat, Pangur.
By candle’s light, late into the night
we work, each at a special trade.
The monk goes on to compare and contrast his life and scholarly pursuits to the cat’s life and feline pursuits. And yet, in the end they are not so different. The final pages show the monk and cat, together at a window.
In our tiny home,
Pangur finds his mouse…
and I find light
in the darkness.
The illustrations are beautiful, modern, yet evoking a time and place long ago.
This is a quiet book, contemplative even, but I think many young readers would enjoy it. I think it would make an excellent bedtime read aloud for people of all ages. You can hear the poem, read it is original Irish in the clip below, from Seamus Heaney’s Memorial Service.