The Tain Bo Cuailnge, centre-piece of the eighth-century Ulster cycle of heroic tales, is Ireland's greatest epic. It tells the story of a great cattle-raid, the invasion of Ulster by the armies of Medb and Ailill, queen and king of Connacht, and their allies, seeking to carry off the greatBrown Bull of Cuailnge. The hero of the tale is Cuchulainn, the Hound of Ulster, who resists the invaders single-handed while Ulster's warriors lie sick.Thomas Kinsella presents a complete and living version of the story. His translation is based on the partial texts in two medieval manuscripts, with elements from other versions, and adds a group of related stories which prepare for the action of the Tain.Illustrated with brush drawings by Louis le Brocquy, this edition provides a combination of medieval epic and modern art.
That being said, I do believe I like Carson's translation better. He tends to play with words a bit more and that lends a bit more immediacy to this translation--it sounds more like I imagine the oral versions would have. This is especially notable in the rosc passages, though as Carson says in his introduction, this is because strides in translating them have been made since Kinsella's translation. Everything I've read says they're extremely difficult passages. I did miss the remscela--the prequels to The Tain--that Kinsella included, though the important ones are told in the endnotes so it's a minor quibble.
But just once I'd like to see a version of The Tain without a bull on the cover.
The Táin is part of the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology and along with other similar works forms a distinct genre known as Táin Bó, or Cattle Raid.
In Táin Bó Cúailnge, Medb the Queen of Connacht goes to war against Ulster for the sake of Brown Bull of Cúailnge. Opposing her is the mighty hero Cú Chulainn who alone stands against the assembled armies of all Ireland. Cú Chulainn then singlehandedly goes about killing all the heroes and soldiers Medb sends against him in feats of supernatural martial skill. Eventually, the rest of the Ulster armies arise from the periodic curse that afflicts them and is victorious over Medb's armies. She however is able to take back the prize Ulster bull but it kills the prize bull of Connacht and escapes.
This is one of the defining stories in Irish literature and Carson has ably translated the prose text; the smaller sections of Irish verse are much more cryptic and do not lend themselves to a fluid translation. Also, the traditional tána literature include a number of remscéla, or preludes, that Carson has either not included or reduced to endnotes.
The list of heroes Cú Chulainn kills fighting against Connacht and the list of place names named thereafter does get repetitive yet the lively and engaging spirit of Ireland's own Iliad is never lost. This is truly a classic of world literature.
I found this book fairly easy to read, especially in comparison to the texts that are available online. The endnotes were especially helpful, though I am not sure if some matters were left out as there were references to, say, the history of the bulls themselves, but nowhere in the book was this history related. Perhaps I missed it? I would also have apprecited an pronuncation guide to the names when listed in the endnotes. As I am not an Irish speaker, this would have been invaluable.
I did have some difficulty with the poetry[?] sections, as I could not make sense of them, but I imagine this is because of the difficulty in translating from Irish, with its propensity for double meanings.
Overall, a good introduction to the Táin Bó Cúailnge.
However, I can't always find I'm sympathetic to Ulster simply because of the origins of the pangs. Kind of serves them right--the king does speak for his people after all, and therefore he caused his people to suffer. That's not to say Maeve of the Friendly Thighs is not a bit greedy herself. Nor Ailill. Really, everyone's to blame, except our hero CuChulain, who just goes so crazy when challenged that he's never at fault. But then, that's what happens when your father is a god.
I was actually surprised by how little I knew about The Tain. I'm sure I've read plenty about Cù Chulainn, but knew very little about what goes on in the Cattle Raid.
The translation seems clear and is very easy to read, though I can't comment on accuracy. The introduction is helpful, and the notes are comprehensive and informative.
While there's much to enjoy, I have mixed feelings about the story. I weary of the repetition - the same battle sequence over and over, with Cuchulainn killing someone at a place then named after the dead man. It's silly to say an epic tale is repetitive, because that's what traditional oral tales are like, but it's not engaging me in this particular story. I'm not sure why, but I do know there is more to this story than I'm willing to consider. My copy is translated by Thomas Kinsella and has some of Louis le Brocquy's illustrations. I can see other reviews here praise Ciaran Carson's translation for its liveliness, so another time I'd like to read it and see. I'm glad I read this version so I could experience Le Brocquy's illustrations, but perhaps the translation or my current mood are doing this tale an injustice.
Furthermore, if you are a fan of the modern rock band "The Decemberists", check out their E.P. titled "The Tain" and then give this book a try. You won't be disappointed.