It’s been a quiet few months here at the blog. The PhD is reaching its long-overdue climax so I’ve had less time for frivolous translations and thoughts about medieval Irish literature. Fear not! I shall return for some festive blogging and normal service will resume in the new year.
In the meantime why not enjoy these most popular posts of 2016 and an old spooky story, because it’s nearly Halloween
Today I want to write an ultimately dissatisfying blog. I want to write about emotions and there is no surer way to elicit the opposite response from an audience than to formally and directly address emotions. Have you ever laughed at a book on the history of comedy? Have you ever cried at an academic discussion of tragedy? Crying at the overwrought writing style doesn’t count. I didn’t think so. When I set out to discuss the importance of our emotional connection with medieval literature, how my own emotional connection to texts from the past has shaped my own work, I’m sure you’ll read it dry-eyed and think I am a sentimental fool.
As a sentimental fool, I would like to start with an anecdote. The year is 2005. Summer is clinging to the cliffs of October before being thrown by its brother, Winter, into the path of the wildebeest stampede. Young Tom has just started university. One of the first classes on the timetable is medieval Irish literature and in preparation we have been told to read the Táin. As a studious first year, I sit on the edge of my bed in my box room and start reading. I spend all day reading. I’ve not yet got friends to distract me and I know it’s a short book, but I’ve always been a slow reader. After slogging through countless names that I didn’t yet totally know how to pronounce and repetitive episodes – Cú Chulainn kills a guy, 50s of people die, this is a ford and this is its name – I come to the fight with Fer Diad. After all the posturing and the heroic sang-froid, the overwhelming machismo of the preceding hundred and eighty odd pages, the poetry of tragedy and loss brings me up short.
I linger over the stanzas and feel, deeply, the unavoidable, painful tragedy of two foster brothers, forced to fight. The conflict needs to happen as much as it brings pain to both fighters. There was no other way out. I feel the injustice of this war. I can’t remember if I cried at the death of Fer Diad, but I was certainly moved in a way that I had not experienced before. I think I was aware, even then, that I would not have been so moved if I had read the poetry on its own. It needed the back drop of the rest of the tale, taken in one go, boredom and joy and all. After pacing the small confines of my room, I remember sitting on my desk, sun on my back, book marked by index finger, and staring into space for a while. This is probably why my recollection of the ending of the Táin is a bit hazy.
What does this mean though? Why am I telling this to you? I think as commentators, as academics, and most importantly as readers, we need to keep these emotional responses alive. That October day has always been at the heart of my writing. It is the justification for what I do, more so than anything I officially write on funding application forms. Our responses to literature, to all art, are all valid and all key. We should hold them close. Should we use these responses as critical tools? No. Just because you have an emotional response to a text, it doesn’t mean that it stands up to critical thought. But it can be used to fuel that critical thought. In the pit of the night writing that essay, dragging yourself to revise and reedit, that emotional response drives you on.
Of course, it’s not all good. When I came to write my undergraduate dissertations, I stayed away from Fer Diad. Maybe I didn’t want to un-weave the magic, to understand why that episode made me feel the way it did. Maybe I didn’t feel qualified to take it on. I certainly didn’t want to do it an injustice. Maybe I felt that I needed to actually work, to work hard, slog away at topics I didn’t feel as close to, as I did this piece of writing. Whatever the reason, I wrote about topics I did not love and wrote some unimpressive work. Now I have almost a whole chapter devoted to Fer Diad and Cú Chulainn. Will it be any better than my other work? I don’t know. Not necessarily. But writing that chapter was much easier than writing about something I didn’t enjoy.
I think we all have a piece that elicits this kind of response. I’d really like to hear about yours. How it moved you, how it has changed (or not) your later reading and writing. For good reasons, we don’t often talk about our personal responses. But we would be fools to totally ignore them.
After trying to write up my reactions to this year’s Leeds and having a great discussion on Twitter, I think I should try and write something about ignored or minority disciplines. However I’m not sure that I have a final view on the matter and would love it if you would share any thoughts you may have on the matter. This post is, of necessity, based on my own experiences. Thanks for your patience.
First thing’s first, watch the introduction to Farscape:
Now you have some idea what it is like to be a Celticist, who has been shot through the wormhole of funding and chance into the medieval mainstream. Let’s try and ignore the phrase “medieval mainstream”, but here everyone looks like you, sort of, talks like you, sort of but you mention something you consider well known and foundational and suddenly you get weird looks. What do you mean your saints don’t fast against God? What is this “chancery” you keep talking about?
I am a Celticist by training. I know Celtic languages, with varying degrees of proficiency, but my speciality is medieval Irish language and literature. This has been the case from my first day as an undergraduate, although as an Englishman, I never had to struggle through Leaving Cert Irish. This probably explains why I like the language. However, as the years went on I became aware that, although we have a strong and thriving Celtic Studies community (just look at the success of last year’s International Congress of Celtic Studies), that community sometimes does not play well with others.
That is, partially, why when deciding where to study for my PhD, I chose London. I thought, possibly naively, that this would improve my work, fashioning it to appeal to more than just my fellow Celticists. I could also more easily borrow methods and practice from the study of English and French literature, as well as social studies. I thought that I could be a touchstone for others who wanted to introduce an Irish or broader Celtic element into their work, both medievalists and others.
It is too soon to judge this approach. Maybe looking back from hoary old age, with the benefit of hindsight, I could tell you if it was a good or bad idea. But that doesn’t stop me questioning my decision now.
Reflecting on this year’s Leeds, I realised that all I took away from it were some unusual, possible fruitful parallels between literary cultures. Look out for a Finn mac Cumaill/Robin Hood crossover in the future. This sounds good, wouldn’t you say, opening your research up to new ideas and exciting generative possibilities? Yes, I would reply, but if this is all you are getting out of a huge international conference, is it worth it? Do I want to be that guy always dragging the discussion back to his own research? Without any in-depth criticism of your ideas, or deep discussions that are so rare to have anywhere, can I justify the outlay both of money and of time? Beyond this, it is getting wearing having to explain the plot and characters of key, canonical texts, before getting into the exciting detail and analysis. All of which has to happen in the twenty minute paper. It is a good idea to try and get Irish medieval studies into the mainstream but am I the one to do it? Should I endanger my career trying to play Aesop’s bat, neither bird not beast and hated by both?
Of course, there is a problem with big conferences like Leeds, that can be mitigated by attending smaller conferences with more interdisciplinary aims. Everyone has their own agenda, their own timetable at a big congress. It is difficult to attract those who you would want to reach out to, and with good reason. If you want to hear about affective, bodily miracles in the twelfth century, as an example plucked out of nowhere, you would rather attend a talk where the cases studies are in a language you know, English or Latin. This means you can get to the meat of the discussion without having to worry about strange names, unfamiliar language, and new plots. I do this as well, and short of teaching everyone every language, I don’t know how to get around this.
Speaking of language, there is another difficulty in trying to get people on-board with Irish material. The language can seem intimidating and what that language describes can be curious and just bizarre. It is neither of those things, but I can see where the impression comes from. I am guilty of sexing up papers and talks with more outré episodes, but Irish and mainstream medieval studies are not so different. Medieval studies abounds with the odd and the strange. The unfamiliarity of Irish sources makes this aspect of medieval culture new again. The language does the old Brechtian trick of Verfremdungseffekt. I suppose, we just have to keep shoving Irish sources in your faces until they cease to seem so different.
Celtic studies itself, must bear some of the blame for its isolation. There is a tendency to insularity, a suspicion of other approaches to our texts, a high bar of entry in the expectation of rigorous linguistic work. This emphasis on linguistics and language competency comes from the early history of the field. It means that the field defines itself culturally before any thought of temporal bounds. You can be a scholar of modern Celtic language survival and be a Celticist.
You can study Gallo-Roman inscriptions and be a Celticist. Indeed, the modern conception of what “Celts” are often jumps from La Téne to arguments about languages on road signs, but that’s another discussion for another day. In other words, being a Celticist involves lots of interdisciplinary work in the first place. Dealing with this, it is hard to find to time to look outside the field as well.
I love this interdisciplinary nature of the subject. That it is inscribed in the very bones of everything we do. But in the current academic climate Celtic Studies cannot live on its own. We need ways to get others interested and involved in our work. We need to make the languages accessible and enticing without losing any of their rich complexity (easy, right?). We need to collaborate so Celtic material can be seen everywhere in the Middle Ages, where it should be. We need to make sure this material is used with the care and attention it deserves, but so often lacks. I don’t know how to do this, but I think I will keep showing up where you don’t expect Celticist, at least for now. I still reserve the right to give you other aliens odd looks.
I went on a bit of rant yesterday on Twitter about medievalists engaging with popular culture. This was, in part, prompted by Phillipa Byrne’s blog post. It is something that I have been thinking about in terms of my own work, so here are some more thoughts on medievalism and popular culture.
I think we, as medievalists, definitely should talk about Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, comic books, Great British Bake-Off, the cultural touchstones of the day. When we talk about the medieval echoes, of course, we need to be accurate and sensitive. But, as long as we are professional when we bring medieval voices to bear on modern cultural phenomena, this engagement need not be dumbing down. No topic is unworthy of serious thought.
The worry that talking about popular representations of the medieval distorts the time period and is not proper history, misses the importance of these popular representations to modern audiences. It may seem like Game of Thrones is a distractions, incidental to the real work of culture. But many people are very invested, for good or ill, in these kinds of fandoms. Treating them seriously, treats the fans seriously. Talking about them in terms of the medieval influence, makes medieval studies a living part of modern life. I was recently at a conference in the University of Reading, discussing why our research matters. In the round-table, almost all the participants, post-graduates and early career scholars, said that they became interested in medieval studies through popular representations of the Middle Ages. This is the door through which the next generation of scholars is coming.
When we stop talking about Game of Thrones, we do something pernicious to this spark of enthusiasm. We say, “That’s all fine and good, but it’s not proper history. Now put that down and read this writ”. Joy and enthusiasm are placed in a separate box from real work – which by extension becomes joyless and draining. I want to make a more integrated medievalism. This goes back to treating all texts with sensitivity. As long as we are aware of the short-comings of modern representations, why can’t we use them alongside medieval texts? This is what I do all day. I bore people with anecdotes that begin “I really loved that film/book/play. It reminds me of this thing from medieval Irish literature …” This is my scholarly life and I want to pass my enthusiasm on to others.
“But Tom”, I hear you cry, “shouldn’t we let the texts stand for themselves? Medieval culture is fascinating in its own right, we don’t need to sex it up”. This is very true. As a Celticist, I spend far too much time trying to let the texts speak for themselves as vibrant, funny, grotesque, complicated narratives, not the misty, airy-fairy Celtic twilight that is so popular. But, we must always be aware that we appreciate these texts thanks to years of training and familiarity with the canon. If you give someone a copy of A Song of Ice and Fire, they will read it and possibly enjoy it, but whatever happens they will be familiar with how it is presented. It is a novel, written in English, in the twenty-first century. This is a way of presenting material we are familiar with. Medieval literature is always mediated through some lens. At the very least it is translated. But it is not a novel. That form is alien to it. Should you be reading it at all? Should you be hearing it? Should you be hearing it extemporized or read aloud while you eat? That Biblical reference really makes the text come alive, but who knows Saul II back to front anymore? We always need to mediate and explain a medieval text. They cannot stand alone. So why shouldn’t we present them in the most engaging way possible?
Finally, there is the argument of frivolity. We have all trained for years to attain this level of education privilege. If we use it to parse TV, it is a waste of our talents. I would preface this section, by saying that we often ignore the responsibility this educational privilege gives us. It is a problem that needs to be addressed. However, I would say, returning to the point about the deep cultural impact of Game of Thrones et al., that through popular culture we can make a difference. Game of Thrones is often, and rightly, accused of negative portrayals of women and excessive use of violence against women. Those who seek to ignore this claim that is is historically accurate, so we shouldn’t care that one more show normalizes the violence women face everyday. This is a facile argument and as medievalists we can reclaim the past from those who wish to abuse it. For many in the Western world, that battlefield of history is fought on TV screens and in comic books. Many modern concerns find their expression in popular culture. We can and should add to these debates.
This is a justification of my own approach to medieval studies and popular culture. I think it is a valid one. But I would not force people to follow this model. If you don’t want to talk about Game of Thrones, don’t. Medieval studies is so broad and rich it can be applied to many different cultural areas. But, as long as we are rigorous in though, clear in presentation, and open to discussion nothing should stop us from discussing Game of Thrones. Or anything else, for that matter.
I have been thinking about Marvel’s Civil War, in that on-the-button, zeitgeisty way that I have. Gotta keep it current. But, in my usual fashion, I have been thinking about it through the lens of medieval Irish literature. More specifically I have been thinking how the central conflict of Captain America: Civil War is reflected in medieval Irish literature. Is there a Team Iron Man and Team Cap lurking in the pages of medieval manuscripts?
First thing’s first, there is a very deep problem in you have to face when you draw parallels between medieval Irish literature and modern American comic books. The superheroes we all know and love, are archetypal loners. They stand alone, without family to hold them back. Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne are rich orphans, Superman is the sole survivor of Krypton, Captain America was frozen in time so (almost) all his previous friends and family are dead. Those heroes that do have families, keep those families in the background. There are, of course, exceptions but by and large this is an American, capitalist version of what is good and worthy, the idealised individual. Medieval literature, on the other hand, is a lot more concerned with family, family ties and what that means for the characters. You only have to look at the Norse sagas to see the importance of family. This is important because the central conflict in Civil War is between the individual’s right to act as he or she wills and their responsibility to society. Full disclosure, I am very much Team Iron Man.
If he had a conscience, which is admittedly a big “if”, Cú Chulainn would be Iron Man. This is not just because he has elaborate arming scenes, a hard working man-servant, and a cyborg episode.(1) All these are good and useful comparisons to make. However, what is really telling is his relationship to the society in which he exists. Many years ago Marie-
Louise Sjoesedt made the famous distinction between Cú Chulainn and Finn mac Cumaill. Cú Chulainn was the hérodelatribu and Finn was the héro hors de la tribu.(2) But what does this mean? I mentioned before the way in which family inheres in everything that is done in medieval Irish literature. Cú Chulainn is tied to the men of Ulster, through his foster connections and his sense of duty to the province. While he strives for glory himself, this all reflects well on the Ulaid. He turns down Medb’s offer to fight for her and the whole of Ireland, rather than the lord of one province and it is said “he preferred his own territory and inherited land and his own people to the territory or inherited land or people of any other”.(3)
Where are the similarities then? The paradox of Cú Chulainn is the dilemma of Tony Stark. He possesses great power that can be used to protect his people, but this power is incredibly destructive and can endanger the very society it is supposed to protect. As a young boy, returning from his first armed expedition to the border, Cú Chulainn’s battle frenzy burns so strong that the lords and ladies of Emain fear it will be turned on them. Conchobur recognises the returning warrior and says ‘It is the little boy, my sister’s son, who went to the marches and shed blood there, but he has not had his fill of combat, and if he be not met, all the warriors of Emain will fall by his hand.’ (4) Later on, when discussing his battle frenzy, the Warp Spasm, and the ways in which it changes his body it is said, “He would recognise neither comrades nor friends. He would attack alike before him and behind him.” (5) This killing of friend and foe is Cú Chulainn’s Sokovia, the collateral damage that needs to be controlled and reigned it.
I began by saying that Cú Chulainn is an unreflective Iron Man. This is because his destructive power is reigned in by others. Returning to Emain in his battle-fury, he is shamed by the naked breasts of the Ulsterwomen and plunged into vats of cold water in order to cool his ardour. Yet there are hints that Cú Chulainn is aware of the danger that lies within his protective power. He doesn’t sign himself up to a Sokovian Accord but he is aware of this responsibilities to his foster father, Fergus. This stops him attacking Fergus and honouring the restrictions on attacking those under Fergus’s protection (for a while, at least). The fact that he needs to show his beautiful form to the armies of Ireland, after they have suffered from his Warp Spasm-ed, distorted self, hints at an awareness of the aberrant nature of his power. To borrow a line from another superhero, with great power comes great responsibility and Cú Chulainn uses (or is made to use) the strategies available to his society to restrict his power. In the same way Iron Man seeks to place his society’s checks and balances on the Avengers.
Finn mac Cumaill, I would argue, stands for unregulated heroic force, not bowing to the will of the society he wishes to protect, but dealing with whatever problems he sees fit. This puts him very firmly in Team Cap. Of course, it helps my argument that he is one of the fían, the wild band of hunter-warriors that exist on the fringes of medieval Irish society. This is not the place to go into the history of the fían but it is worth noting that they were villains whenever they appeared in literature before the twelfth century (big claims like this rarely hold up to scrutiny, but broadly they were not well-liked).(6) With the twelfth century we see an explosion of literature about Finn and the fían which finds its most extended expression in the Acallam na Senórach, The Colloquy of the Ancients.Even when they make it into the literary canon Finn and the fían still have a rocky relationship with Cormac, the high king of Ireland. Sometimes they help him, sometimes they are in conflict with one another.
Finn does what he wants. He is motivated by a love of his own lifestyle and is convinced of the rightness of that lifestyle. He is surrounded by a group of likeminded men and women (although the women do not appear as often as the men in the tales). The band is linked by strong, homosocial ties and loyalty to one another is paramount. I’m sure you are able to see the similarities between Finn and the fían and Team Cap. Also we can see Finn mac Cumaill in this quote from the film. Discussing signing the accord and putting their powers in the hands of UN Steve Rogers says, “If we sign this, we surrender our right to choose. What if this panel sends us somewhere we don’t think we should go? What if there’s somewhere we need to go and they don’t let us? We may not be perfect but the safest hands are still our own.” This notion is reflected in the geographical boundaries of Finn’s actions. We saw above that Cú Chulainn fights to defend Ulster. He is an Ulster boy, that is the reason for his heroics. Finn, on the other hand, has adventures all over Ireland. His enemies come from over the sea, the Otherworld, or Lochlann (which might be the Otherworld, or it might be over the sea). Finn goes where he feels like going and fights who he feels like fighting. This may, ultimately be good for Irish society, but the desire to fight these fights comes from Finn. He may not be motivated by as noble ideals as Steve Rogers but, he relies on his own council over the king’s.
I have tried to draw comparisons between Iron Man and Captain America, and Cú Chulainn and Finn mac Cumaill. This may seem a bit arbitrary, a cynical attempt to make medieval literature relevant to a Marvel obsessed modern audience. But, I am still convinced the parallels hold up, if we take into account the vastly different societies that produced these four heroes. Annoyingly, for my argument, Finn and Cú Chulainn never come to blows, the metaphorical struggle between individual and society is never made concrete. That struggle does lie behind the actions of the medieval heroes. All four represent different responses to that perennial problem: how should power be controlled; where does it really lie, with the warrior or the politician? The individual or society? Captain America: Civil War is just the latest battle in a war that has been raging for centuries.
(1) The arming scene before the slaughter of Mag Muirthemne, Láeg mac Riangabra is a good counterpart to J.A.R.V.I.S., and towards the end of the Táin he uses a chariot to bind his wounds (see Aled Llion Jones, ‘Two by Two: The Doubled Chariot-Figure of Táin Bó Cúailnge’)
I enjoy a powerpoint presentation as much as the next academic. Putting up quotes for all to see is very helpful, but I mainly use it to show daft pictures and to take people unfamiliar with medieval Irish literature. For this reason I am often scanning the pages of Google image search for pictures of Cú Chulainn, Medb, Fergus mac Roich, saints, and the members of Tuatha Dé Danann. What I have taken away from these searches is that all pictures of medieval Irish characters are terrible. So I thought I’d try and answer that question: why is the artistic response to medieval literature so dire? There are obviously many different answers to this question and my response is not going to cover everything. I’m intrigued by your thoughts so feel free to leave a comment below.
I am going to try to make a specific point about medieval Irish literature but there are a few universalities that need addressing first. Three things to be precise. The first is the clear debt many of these images owe to fantasy tropes. The muscle-bound heroes and scantily-clad women of 80s and 90s fantasy art are all here. Half-decent representation of women is something that fantasy art, and the genre more widely, struggles with.
That’s one reason why the art’s bad. The second point is closely tied to this. I was recently at a talk given by Rosie Weetch, one of the curators of the Celts exhibit. As part of their public engagement they asked the attendees of the exhibit what they thought about when they thought of the Celts. Oddly, one of the most common responses was vikings. So representations of medieval Irish characters is caught up in modern popular culture’s obsession with the old north and fantasy Norsemen. This trend has been discussed in a recent article on our Northern obsession. This too produces naff images. Finally there is a New Age aspect to much of this art, which attempts to move the gods away from the Romanising images we see in the historical record.These are common problems with all modern representations of medieval literature. What I want to discuss is Irish literature itself and the peculiarities that make creating visual representations of its characters so difficult. I suggest that it does not, and possibly cannot, work on a representative level. I will propose a reason for this later, but for now lets get involved with an example, the famous Warp Spasm of Cú Chulainn. This is the state of warrior-frenzy that overtakes the young hero in battle. Here is a description of it from the Book of Leinster version of the Táin.
Then his first distortion came upon Cú Chulainn so that he became horrible, many-shaped, strange and unrecognisable. His haunches shook about him like a tree in a current or a bulrush against a stream, every limb and every joint, every end and every member of him from head to foot. He performed a wild feat of contortion with his body inside his skin. His feet and his shins and his knees came to the back; his heels and his calves and his hams came to the front. The sinews of his calves came on the front of his shins and each huge, round knot of them was as big as a warrior’s fist. The sinews of his head were stretched to the nape of his neck and every huge, immeasurable, vast, incalculable round ball of them was as big as the head of a month-old child.
Then his face became a red hollow. He sucked one of his eyes into his head so that a wild crane could hardly have reached it to pluck it out from the back of his skull on to the middle of his cheek. The other eye sprang out on to his cheek. His mouth was twisted back fearsomely. He drew the cheek back from the jawbone until his inner gullet was Seen. His lungs and his liver fluttered in his mouth and his throat. He struck a lion’s blow with the upper palate on its fellow so that every stream of fiery flakes which came into his mouth from his throat was as large as the skin of a three-year-old sheep. The loud beating of his heart against his ribs was heard like the baying of a bloodhound or like a lion attacking bears. The torches of the war-goddess, the virulent rain-clouds, the sparks of blazing fire were seen in the clouds and in the air above his head with the seething of fierce rage that rose above him. His hair curled about his head like branches of red hawthorn used to re-fence the gap in a hedge. Though a noble apple-tree weighed down with fruit had been shaken about his hair, scarcely one apple would have reached the ground through it but an apple would have stayed impaled on each single hair because of the fierce bristling of his hair above him. The hero’s light rose from his forehead so that it was as long and as thick as a hero’s whetstone. As high, as thick, as strong, as powerful and as long as the mast of a great ship was the straight stream of dark blood which rose up from the very top of his head and became a dark magical mist like the smoke of a palace when a king comes to be attended to in the evening of a wintry day.
This is an evocative image of a bodily transformation and distortion caused by his great anger. This is what it looks like when I try to put myself through the same transformation.
I think we can all agree that it is a bit less evocative. There have been many attempts at representing this transformation. Some meet with more success than others. I think the best is the spasm in 2000 AD’s Sláine, as it captures something of the comic grotesquery but even here the visual is a reduction, a flattening of the effect of the writing. This is a transformation to be read or heard, to be recreated in the protean space of the imagination, not delineated on a page.
The transformation here is grotesque. An often over-looked features of popular presentations of the Warp Spasm is what follows after the transformation. After Cú Chulainn distorts himself to wreak bloody vengeance on the men of Ireland, he feels it necessary, on the next day, to show off his natural beauty. He prettifies himself and gets in his chariot to show how really, really good-looking he actually is. Throughout the description we are told that he is beautiful but when we look at the text we may disagree:
Beautiful indeed was the youth who came thus to display his form to the hosts, Cú Chulainn mac Sualtaim. Three kinds of hair he had, dark next to the skin, blood-red in the middle and hair like a crown of red-gold covering them. Fair was the arrangement of that hair with three coils in the hollow at the back of his head, and like gold thread was every fine hair, loose-flowing, golden and excellent, long- tressed, distinguished and of beautiful colour, as it fell back over his shoulders. A hundred bright crimson twists of red-gold red-flaming about his neck. A hundred strings with mixed carbuncles around his head. Four dimples in each of his two cheeks, a yellow dimple and a green, a blue dimple and a purple. Seven gems of brilliance of an eye in each of his royal eyes. Seven toes on each of his feet, seven fingers on each of his hands, with the grasp of a hawk’s claws and the grip of a hedgehog’s claws in every separate on of them.
What do seven pupils even look like? The dimples and colours are similar to a description of ideal female beauty that we see in Tochmarc Étaíne. So we may be dealing with a disjunction between medieval and modern aesthetics. That aside, even with beauty we see that a drawing would struggle to capture it. This is why the most successful art based on medieval Irish literature is the more abstract work of Louis Le Brocquy.
I will finish with a possible explanation for this. Medieval Irish art, as seen in manuscripts, tends away from the figurative. It is most famous for the carpet pages in the Book of Kells and the geometric interlace designs. When we do see figures, such as the famous Durrow man or carvings on high crosses, they tend to be abstract.
What I would tentatively conclude from this is that the medieval Irish mind was not as ready as our modern one is to approach texts through figurative images. The visual vocabulary was more abstract. It is a hackneyed observation that we are over-exposed to images in the twenty-first century, but I think this is central to understanding the differences between us and medieval audiences. All of this is merely speculative, however, and I invite you to disagree with me in the comments below. I think that it is so hard to draw Cú Chulainn because, at heart, he is not meant to be drawn.
This blog post is another experiment. Aided Meidbe, the death of Medb, is a confusing tale. Even in terms of dating the linguistic evidence vacillates, but the version we have surviving seems to be a mid-twelfth century compilation. If you have access to JSTOR, there is an edition and translation in Speculum 13. The text is confusing because it is a tale about death, whose driving action comes from the life of a family. It also makes many references to other Ulster Cycle tales.
For this reason I have prepared, for your delectation, a more literal translation and a much looser one, that tries to fill in some of the gaps. The literal translation comes first, so you can see what I have changed. The second version is much further removed from the Irish and as such I have made some interpretative choices that may be controversial. I’d like to see your reactions in the comments. So enjoy!
Version I: Literal.
What is the cause of the tragic death of Medb, the daughter of Eochaid Feidlech from Tara?
Finn had three sons, Conall Anglonnach, Eochaid Find, and Eochaid Feidlech. Of these Eochaid Feidlech had three sons and three daughters. His three sons were Bres, Nár and Lothur, the Three Finns of Emain. His three daughters were Eithne Uathach, Medb of Cruachu and Clothru of Cruachu. Eithne Uathach, Eithne the Terrifying, was called that because she used to feast on the flesh of children. For this reason children always fled from her. The poets had a line about these three sisters:
The three daughters of Eochaid Feidlech
A cry throughout the North
Eithne Uathach, Medb of Cruachu
This last, Clothru, was queen in Cruachu before Medb took the sovereignty by force from Eochaid. One day his three sons were trying to take the kingship away from their father. Clothru came to stop them and restrain them. In spite of this, they went to battle against Eochaid. Clothru came to them and said, “Do you really want to insult your father like this?” she said. “What you do is a great injustice!”
“It is done, all the same”, the young men said.
“Do you have any children to follow you?” their sister asked.
“None at all”, they replied.
“You will likely die, if you go to battle with a cause as unjust as yours. Come to me, each of you, and see if you can leave a child with me. It is my time of conception, after all.”
They did this, and each man went with her. The union was not wholly bad, as Lugaid Riab n-Derg was born of this union, the son of the Three Finns of Emain.
“Don’t go against your father now”, Clothru said. “It’s bad enough that you have slept with your sister, without going into battle against your father.” They were not victorious in their battle because of their injustice.
Clothru used to spend the tributes she received from Connacht in Inis Clothrand, Clothru’s Island, on Loch Rí. It is said that Medb killed her while she was pregnant with another child. The babe that was cut from her sides by swords was Furbaide mac Conchobuir. After this, Medb took the rule of Connacht and brought Ailill with her, to enjoy the sovereignty. She used to spend the tributes of Connach in Inis Clothrand. It was geis for her not to bathe in a well before the island.
At one time, Furbaide came to Inis Clothrand and he stuck a stake into the flagstone where Medb used to wash herself. He tied a rope to the top of the stake at the height Medb would have been at, since the stake was the same height as her. He then stretched the rope across Loch Rí and then took it back to his house.
Whenever the youths of Ulster would play a game, this is the game Furbaide would play. He would stretch the rope between two stakes and then cast a stone at either end, until he struck an apple he placed there off the top of the stake.
One day there was a great assembly of the men of Connacht and the men of Ulster around Loch Rí. Early in the morning Medb was bathing herself in the well above the loch, in accordance with her geis.
“That’s a beautiful body”, said everyone who saw her.
“Who is that?” asked Furbaide.
“The sister of your mother”, everyone replied.
At that moment Furbaide was eating a piece of cheese. He didn’t wait to look for a stone but put the piece of cheese he was eating in the sling. When Medb turned her head towards him, he let fly with his sling and the cheese struck her on the top of her head. He killed her in one cast, in vengeance for his mother.
That is the death of Medb.
Version II: Alternative Translation.
Do you want to hear about the death of Medb of Cruachu, the haughty queen of Connacht, the face that launched a thousand chariots when she sought the Bull of Cuailgne?
This story is not about that cattle raid or its aftermath. This is a story about family. Medb was one of three daughters of Eochaid Feidlech, king in Tara. There was Eithne Uathach, called the Terrible. Children used to flee from her because she ate their flesh. There was Medb of Cruachu herself and there was Clothru of Cruachu, so called because she reigned there before Medb.
The king did not only have daughters, he had sons. And like a good, mythical king he had a triad of sons, triplets so close that their own names are often forgotten in the tales. Bres, Nár and Lothur were better known as the Three Beautiful Ones of Emain. Though their form was fair, their deeds were foul and it all started when they tried to seize the kingship of Connacht from their own father by force.
They had their battalions arranged before the fort of Cruachu. Their sister, Clothru came out of the fort to parlay with them and to stop them trying to take the kingship from their father. You must remember that in Ireland at this time fingal, or kin-slaying, was one of the worst crimes imaginable. Of course, that didn’t stop many people trying to do it.
When Clothru came in front of her brothers, she began to shout at them. “You idiots! Do you really intend to go into battle against your father? There is no way this isn’t a great injustice. You are in the wrong and you know what happens when you go into battle without right on your side?”
“Nevertheless, we must do it,” her brothers replied.
“Since you’re going off to certain death, do you at least have any children? Or is this the end of our family?”
“We have no one to succeed us”, the brothers admitted.
“If you are still dead-set on going to battle tomorrow, then you will die”, said Clothru. “In that case, you’re in luck. It is the time of my conception. If you sleep with me, maybe you’ll leave a child behind and this foolish battle won’t totally destroy us.” Clothru was still right, though, all the Three Beautiful Ones of Emain died in battle the next day.
From this union Lugaid of the Red Stripes was born. He was called Lugaid of the Red Stripes because of his unusual conception. He had all the Three Beautiful Ones of Emain as his father. From his head to his shoulders he looked like Bres. Then there was a red stripe across his body. His torso was that of Nár’s and was separated from his legs, which looked like Lothur’s, by a red stripe. He was a good hero, but his story cannot be told here.
As queen of Connacht, Clothru used to distribute the tributes of that province. She would do this by Loch Rí, so that the island in the lake became known as Inis Clothrand, or Clothru’s island. Sadly, for her, she was not be queen for long. While she was pregnant with her second son, Furbaide, her sister Medb heard a prophecy. This prophecy said something about her sister’s son bringing about Medb’s destruction. So Medb had her sister drowned in a river and the child who was still in Clothru’s womb was violently cut out. That, incidentally, is where Furbaide got his name from. It means, ‘Cut out’. The child, however, survived this violent birth and was taken to be raised in Ulster.
Meanwhile, Medb had assumed the queenship that her sister had held until now. As queen Medb still had to distribute the tributes of the province at Inis Clothrand. On the island named after the sister she had murdered, she had to come and try to claim the queenship of Connacht for herself. A difficult and morbid task. A task, which was mad all the more difficult because Medb had a geis. This geis meant that she had to bathe in the well on Inis Clothrand every morning.
Furbaide grew up, knowing of the death of the mother and so he harboured a great hatred for his aunt. One day, as a young child, he went to Inis Clothrand and to the well in which murderous Medb had to bathe every morning. Young Furbaide took a stick, roughly the same height as Medb, and drove it into the ground by the well. Then he took a rope and began to make measurements of the land. He measured how far it was between the stick and the shores of the lake, how high the stick was out of the ground. Then he threw the stick away and took his measuring ropes back to Ulster.
From that day on, whenever the boys of Ulster would play, Furbaide would refuse their offers to come and play hurling. Instead he would take his measuring ropes and recreate the shores of Loch Rí. In the distance he would place an apple, at head height, on a post. Then he would stand, as if he were on the shore and make casts with his sling, until he struck the apple off the post. This was the only game he would play and he wouldn’t stop until he knocked the apple off.
Years later, there happened to be an assembly of the men of Connacht and the men of Ulster by Loch Rí. The warrior Furbaide had come along with all the other young warriors of the province. He was up early one morning, sitting outside his tent, eating a bit of cheese for breakfast. There was a group of his fellow warriors, gathered all together, not far away. Furbaide got up and approached them. The group were excitedly nudging one another and furtively whispering. They could not take their eyes off a sight in the distance. Furbaide came and asked them what they were looking at.
“Your aunt”, one of the lads replied, “and she is absolutely stunning.”
“She’s just washing. Bare-arse naked for all to see”, another chipped in.
Furbaide was silent. He was over-come with rage and excitement at his chance to avenge his mother. But mostly rage. Without thinking, without stopping to stoop down to the lake side to pick up a stone, Furbaide put the cheese he was eating in his sling and cast at Medb.
The hard cheese struck the queen of Connacht on the top of her head. She fell, dead to the ground, killed with one shot. That is the story of the death of Medb.