First written down in the eighth century AD, these early Irish stories depict a far older world - part myth, part legend and part history. Rich with magic and achingly beautiful, they speak of a land of heroic battles, intense love and warrior ideals, in which the otherworld is explored and men mingle freely with the gods. From the vivid adventures of the great Celtic hero Cu Chulaind, to the stunning 'Exile of the Sons of Uisliu' - a tale of treachery, honour and romance - these are masterpieces of passion and vitality, and form the foundation for the Irish literary tradition: a mythic legacy that was a powerful influence on the work of Yeats, Synge and Joyce.
The translation of the Ulster Cycle throughout generally seems strong. The stories are coherent even if much of the rhythm from the verse segments is lost entirely. There is one strange line that appears to be a mis-translation where a suggestion that two of the heroes might fit like children does not fit. Perhaps the translation is of fighting like siblings with an inference of young brothers fighting. With that one exception, the work seems to flow well. The translations appear to be generally drawn from the Lebor na huidre and the Book of Leinster.
Gantz provides good notes and summaries in his work - something all too often forgotten by compilers of ancient epic translations. Gantz provides good context up front in the form of a lengthy introduction. This introduction sets the historical scene as well as the literature context. Gantz provides an introduction to the themes and concepts the various tales tell. Ahead of each individual tale in the cycle, Gantz offers a brief and very welcome introduction. His introductions help to explain what is to come and make understanding of the stories themselves much easier.
Occasionally the interpretation Gantz provides for the tales does not seem to mesh with the story itself. The clearest example is in the Intoxication of the Ulaid. Gantz describes Intoxication as being a parody because it has the warriors of the Ulaid marching across Ireland in an entirely unrealistic set of directions. This seems to be an overly simple reading of the meaning of Intoxication. An alternative reading might be that the authors of this particular tale chose not to overplay the Ulaid's aggressive expansion into the territory of others and so had them arrive at a destination more by coincidence than by invasive design. In that case, it is much more reasonable for the Ulaid to make demands of their hosts than would have been the case for an invading force.
Intoxication is one of a few of the tales to feature Cú Chulaind strongly. He is not the typical heroic figure in that he is never described as being overly massive. Heroes in most mythos stand out in part because of their size. Cú Chulaind does not but he is unmatched in a series of different challenges. Bricriu's Feast provides a list of these challenges to almost comical proportions as Cú Chulaind continually defeats rivals Conall Cernach and Lóegaire Búadach through a series of contests including one that sees Cú Chulaind overcome his own apparent death.
Cú Chulaind's stories are told from his very youngest days and he defeats rivals from a very early age. It is historically very interesting that he takes his training from Scáthach, a name clearly associated with the Isle of Skye. The links between Dal Riada and the Ulaid are clearly very much part of the world of the Ulster Cycle. Cú Chulaind's involvement in the Cycle does include a truly heartbreaking moment with the death of Connla. Perhaps this story was a depiction of battle with the son attempting to usurp his elders but in any case it is a truly depressing moment in the Cycle and is very haunting.
The Cycle also speaks of the relationship between men and women in a decidedly non-modern way. The Wooing of Étaín is perhaps a romance. It is certainly fascinating. Étaín was the most beautiful woman in Ireland and something of a prize to be won, whether that be through armed force or wit at the Fidchell board. The various characters seem to be related to each other in one way or another so the romance between them carries the additional layer of familial bonds. The Wooing of Étaín casts her as a very sympathetic character, very much at the mercy of the cruelty of others including a jealous female rival.
The Wooing of Étaín also travels into the underworld. The various síds are home to the faery folk that speak to a time older than the Ulster Cycle. The mythological origins of the Irish are not delved into in this work but instead are referenced occasionally in the form of giants and underworld beings. They do not play a huge part in this work but crop up occasionally and are a reminder of a more ancient belief system.
While there are some great narratives within Early Irish Myths, not all of the tales are gripping and some of the concepts are a little simplistic. This is not the most sparkling ancient narrative to have survived. While the various genealogies and king-lists are reasonable, the heroes (especially Cú Chulaind) thwart danger by simply being super-human all the time. Victories are won by overwhelming personal abilities such as the ability to cheat death or the ability to leap enormous distances in a chariot. They are not often won by skill or by word. The overly exaggerated abilities are hyperbole that does the tales quite a dis-service. These are fascinating and interesting characters, as involved as others from northern European mythos. They are not all served well by the surviving texts.
However, What is perhaps most fascinating of all about the tales contained in Early Irish Myths and Sagas is the interaction of the people involved with their environment, with their beliefs, and with one another. The values they hold must have been the values held dear by those around at the time. The people so extensively chronicled most likely have some basis in fact. The customs and traditions they observe including surrounding combat and honour provide a glimpse into a long lost way of life. Jeffrey Gantz has produced a good work that combines the characters of the Ulster Cycle well and sets out the stories we have of them in a very effective style. This work is not enough to build a full picture of Irish mythology but it is a good contribution to that picture.
Unfortunately some of the
As for "The Cattle Raid of Froech", he started off the story unmarried "Although he had no wife, his household prospered for eight years", then went off to woo Findabair, and when he came home with just one more task to perform in order to win her hand, his mother gave Froech some bad news: "Not prosperous your expedition - great sorrow has come of it, for your cattle and your three sons and your wife have been stolen and taken to the Alps." What wife and sons? Where did they come from? The story "Bricriu's Feast" was irritatingly repetitive, with the three heroes vying for the hero's portion being judged by one person, refusing to accept the decision that Cu Chulaind was the winner, and going on to the next judge whose verdict they swore they would accept but didn't. And the next judge, and the next, and the next, until I almost gave up the will to finish the story, and certainly couldn't have cared less how it would turn out.
All in all, this probably wasn't the book I should have been reading when I was in such an anti-reading mood. I read too many books on holiday at th eend of October (but what elsxe is there to do in airports and on planes?) and have hardly felt like reading at all ever since.