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 key difficulty in drawing 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 héro de la tribu and Finn was the héro hors de la tribu.(2) But what does this mean? We know that family is central to everything that is done in medieval Irish literature. Cú Chulainn is tied to the men of Ulster, through his family, 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. He does not set his own limits, they way Iron Man does. There are some hints, though, that Cú Chulainn is aware of his inherent danger. 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, shows he is aware 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, on the other hand, 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 mostly villains 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 like-minded men and women. The band is linked by strong, homosocial ties and loyalty to one another is paramount. Caílte and Oisín are his Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes.(7)
We can see Finn mac Cumaill in this quote from Civil War. 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 Scandinavia). 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’)
(2) If you want to read more look here.
(3) Táin Bó Cúailnge Recension III
(6) For delinquency see Kim McCone, “Werewolves, Cyclops, Díberga and Fíanna: Juvenile Delinquency in Early Ireland” (Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, 1986)
(7) You could argue that Diarmait is closer to Bucky, given their sometimes antagonistic relationship, but I never said it was a one-to-one comparison.