This week’s texts are The Birth of Cú Chulaind, The Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulaind (extracts from Táin Bó Cúailnge), The Death of Aífe’s Only Son, and The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulaind & The Only Jealousy of Emer. All are available in Jeffrey Gantz’s 1981 translation published by Penguin Classics in Early Irish Myths and Sagas (pp. 130-178). These texts are part of what is called the Ulster Cycle or Heroic Cycle, one of the four Cycles of Irish literature (the other three are the Mythological, Fenian, and Kings’ or Historical Cycles).
The Ulster Cycle focuses on Conchobar mac Nessa (king of the Ulaid and Cú Chulainn’s grandfather) and the Ulaid’s struggles against the Connachta led by Queen Medb and her husband Ailill. The Cycle classification is a modern one and it is more likely that the tales were classified by type: birth (compert), wooing (tochmarch), battle (cath), cattle-raid (táin bó), violent death (aided), etc.
The tales come from oral tradition and were later written down by monks. The earliest extant MSS are Lebor na hUidre (Book of the Dun Cow, early 12th century) and the Book of Leinster c. 1160. Another MS containing this week’s texts is the fourteenth-century Yellow Book of Lecan. The eighth-century Book of Druimm Snechtai also contained a version of the Birth of Cú Chulaind but is unfortunately now lost.
Reading soundtrack: Karl Jenkins’s Adiemus IV: The Eternal Knot (especially the first one: “Cú Chullain”)
Topics for discussion:
- The significance and meaning of Cú Chulainn’s threefold conception.
- Animals (especially birds) and magic
- Cú Chulainn’s ríastarthae (battle-fury)
- Cú Chulainn’s names: Sétantae ‘he who knows paths’ and Cú Chulaind ‘The Hound of Culand’
- Fate and Fame
- Cú Chulainn’s fear of naked women in the Boyhood Deeds v. his fathering a son in Aífe’s Only Son
- Cú Chulainn’s filicide: misfortune or murder?
- Cú Chulainn the lover and husband / The double love-triangle
- Druids: foretelling and spells
- Boy heroes
- The síde (otherworld folk)
- Geraint son of Erbin, tr. Sioned Davies (Oxford, 2007), pp. 139-157 and 175-178
- Chrétien de Troyes’ Arthurian Romances, “Erec et Enide”, tr. Carleton W. Carroll (London, 2004), pp. 37-67 (vv.1-2429) and 103-122 (vv.5319-6878)
The story can be divided into five parts but only the following four will be discussed:
- I. Meeting of Geraint/Erec and Enid(e) (Geraint pp. 139-149; Erec pp. 37-55, vv. 1-1409)
- II. Wedding of Geraint/Erec and Enid(e) (Geraint pp. 150-157; Erec pp. 55-67, vv. 1410-2429)
- III. Adventures of Geraint/Erec and Enid(e) (Not part of the reading).
- Summary: After the wedding, Geraint/Erec starts spending all his time with his wife in their chamber and abandons his duties. Enid(e) hears the complaints of the court about his behaviour and, one night, he hears her lamenting about the situation and misinterprets what he heard and thinks she is unfaithful. He decides to go alone with her to test her love (and keep her away from her alleged lover). After many an adventure – during which they meet (Y Brenhin Bychan / Guivret le Petit, a dwarfish king) – Geraint/Erec realizes that he was mistaken and that she has always loved him, so they leave Y Brenhin Bychan / Guivret to return to Arthur’s court.
- IV. The Enchanted Games / La Joie de la Cour (Geraint pp. 175-178; Erec pp. 103 -115, vv. 5319-6358; numbered ‘III’ on the photocopy)
- V. Crowning of Erec and Enide (Geraint ends after the Enchanted Games so this part of the story only appears in Erec, pp. 115-122, vv. 6359-6878; numbered ‘IV’ on the photocopy )
Suggested Topics for Discussion:
- What do you think is the most striking difference between the two texts? Why? E.g.:
- Description of the characters
- Evolution of the characters / Character arcs
- Description of events
- Some elements more emphasized than others
- An event in particular
- General tone of the tales
- What could be the reason(s) for the differences? E.g. Geographical (Wales vs. France), method of delivery (reading vs. performing), different audience (status, age, gender, …), etc.
- What would you say is the main message / moral of the story? Is it the same for both?
- Considering the differences in tone and message, should both texts be classified in the romance genre?
M. Bowley, Guinevere’s Lady Insulted by Edyrn’s Dwarf, from: Nora Chesson (1871-1906), Tales from Tennyson (London: Raphael Tuck & Sons)