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At a time like the present, when in the opinion of many the great literatures of Greece and Rome are ceasing to hold the influence that they have so long exerted upon human thought, and when the study of the greatest works of the ancient world is derided as "useless," it may be too sanguine to hope that any attention can be paid to a literature that is quite as useless as the Greek; which deals with a time, which, if not actually as far removed from ours as are classical times, is yet further removed in ideas; a literature which is known to few and has yet to win its way to favour, while the far superior literature of Greece finds it hard to defend the position that it long ago won. It may be that reasons like these have weighed with those scholars who have opened up for us the long-hidden treasures of Celtic literature; despairing of the effort to obtain for that literature its rightful crown, and the homage due to it from those who can appreciate literary work for itself, they have been contented to ask for the support of that smaller body who from philological, antiquarian, or, strange as it may appear, from political reasons, are prepared to take a modified interest in what should be universally regarded as in its way one of the most interesting literatures of the world.
The literary aspect of the ancient literature of Ireland has not indeed been altogether neglected. It has been used to furnish themes on which modern poems can be written; ancient authority has been found in it for what is essentially modern thought: modern English and Irish poets have claimed the old Irish romances as inspirers, but the romances themselves have been left to the scholars and the antiquarians.
This is not the position that Irish literature ought to fill. It does undoubtedly tell us much of the most ancient legends of modern Europe which could not have been known without it; but this is not its sole, or even its chief claim to be heard. It is itself the connecting-link between the Old World and the New, written, so far as can be ascertained, at the time when the literary energies of the ancient world were dead, when the literatures of modern Europe had not been born,[FN#1] in a country that had no share in the ancient civilisation of Rome, among a people which still retained many legends and possibly a rudimentary literature drawn from ancient Celtic sources, and was producing the men who were the earliest classical scholars of the modern world.
Before speaking of what the Irish literature was, it may be well to say what it was not. The incidents related in it date back, according to the "antiquaries" of the ninth to the twelfth centuries, some to the Christian era, some to a period long anterior to it; but occasional allusions to events that were unknown in Ireland before the introduction of Christianity, and a few to classical personages, show that the form of the present romances can hardly be pre-Christian, or even close translations into Old or Middle Irish of Druidic tales. It has therefore been the fashion to speak of the romances as inaccurate survivals of pre-Christian works, which have been added to by successive generations of "bards," a mode of viewing our versions of the romances which of course puts them out of the category of original literature and hands them over to the antiquarians; but before they suffer this fate, it is reasonable to ask that their own literary merit should be considered in a more serious manner than has yet been attempted.
The idea that our versions of the romances are inaccurate reproductions of Druidic tales is not at all borne out by a study of the romances themselves; for each of these, except for a few very manifestly late insertions, has a style and character of its own. There were, undoubtedly, old traditions, known to the men who in the sixth and seventh centuries may have written the tales that we have, known even to men who in the tenth and eleventh centuries copied them and commented upon them; but the romances as they now stand do not look like pieces of patchwork, but like the works of men who had ideas to convey; and to me at least they seem to bear approximately the same relation to the Druid legends as the works of the Attic tragedians bear to the archaic Greek legends on which their tragedies were based. In more than one case, as in the "Courtship of Etain," which is more fully discussed below, there are two versions of the same tale, the framework being the same in both, while the treatment of the incidents and the view of the characters of the actors is essentially different; and when the story is treated from the antiquarian point of view, that which regards both versions as resting upon a common prehistoric model, the question arises, which of the two more nearly represents the "true" version? There is, I would submit, in such cases, no true version. The old Druidic story, if it could be found, would in all probability contain only a very small part of either of our two versions; it would be bald, half-savage in tone, like one of the more ancient Greek myths, and producing no literary effect; the literary effect of both the versions that we have, being added by men who lived in Christian times, were influenced by Christian ideals, and probably were, like many of their contemporaries, familiar with the literary bequests of the ancient world.[FN#2]
The most satisfactory test of the authorship of an Irish romance, and one of the most satisfactory tests of its date, is its literary character; and if we look at the literary character of the best of the Irish romances, there is one point that is immediately apparent, the blending of prose and verse. One, the most common, explanation of this, is that the verse was added to the original tale, another that the verse is the older part, the prose being added to make a framework for the verse, but a general view of some of the original romances appears to lead to a very different conclusion. It seems much more probable that the Irish authors deliberately chose a method of making their work at once literary and suited to please a popular audience; they told their stories in plain prose, adding to them verse, possibly chanted by the reciters of the stories, so that while the prose told the story in simple language, the emotions of pity, martial ardour, and the like were awakened by the verse. They did not use the epic form, although their knowledge of classical literature must have made them familiar with it; the Irish epic form is Romance. They had, besides the prose and what may be called the "regular" verse, a third form, that of rose, or as it is sometimes called rhetoric, which is a very irregular form of verse. Sometimes it rhymes, but more often not; the lines are of varying lengths, and to scan them is often very difficult, an alliteration taking the place of scansion in many cases. The rhetoric does not in general develop the story nor take the form of description, it usually consists of songs of triumph, challenges, prophecies, and exhortations, though it is sometimes used for other purposes. It does not conform to strict grammatical rules like the more regular verse and the prose, and many of the literal translations which Irish scholars have made for us of the romances omit this rhetoric entirely, owing to the difficulty in rendering it accurately, and because it does not develop the plots of the stories. Notable examples of such omissions are in Miss Faraday's translation of the Leabhar na h-Uidhri version of the "Great Tain," and in Whitley Stokes' translation of the "Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel." With all respect to these scholars, and with the full consciousness of the difficulty of the task that has naturally been felt by one who has vainly attempted to make sense of what their greater skill has omitted, it may be suggested that the total omission of such passages injures the literary effect of a romance in a manner similar to the effect of omitting all the choric pieces in a Greek tragedy: the rhetoric indeed, on account of its irregularity, its occasional strophic correspondence, its general independence of the action of the tale, and its difficulty as compared with the other passages, may be compared very closely to a Greek "chorus." Few of the romances written in prose and verse are entirely without rhetoric; but some contain very little of it; all the six romances of this character given in the present volume (counting as two the two versions of "Etain") contain some rhetoric, but there are only twenty-one such passages in the collection altogether, ten of which are in one romance, the "Sick-bed of Cuchulain."
The present collection is an attempt to give to English readers some of the oldest romances in English literary forms that seem to correspond to the literary forms which were used in Irish to produce the same effect, and has been divided into two parts. The first part contains five separate stories, all of which are told in the characteristic form of prose and verse: they are the "Courtship of Etain," the "Boar of Mac Datho," the "Sick-bed of Cuchulain," the "Death of the Sons of Usnach" (Book of Leinster version), and the "Combat at the Ford" out of the Book of Leinster version of the "Tain bo Cuailnge." Two versions are given of the "Courtship of Etain "; and the "Sick-bed of Cuchulain," as is pointed out in the special preface prefixed to it, really consists of two independent versions. It was at first intended to add the better-known version of the "Death of the Sons of Usnach" known as that of the Glenn Masain MS., but the full translation of this has been omitted, partly to avoid making the volume too bulky, partly because this version is readily attainable in a literal form; an extract from it has, however, been added to the Book of Leinster version for the purpose of comparison. In the renderings given of these romances the translation of the prose is nearly literal, but no attempt has been made to follow the Irish idiom where this idiom sounds harsh in English; actives have been altered to passive forms and the reverse, adjectives are sometimes replaced by short sentences which give the image better in English, pronouns, in which Irish is very rich, are often replaced by the persons or things indicated, and common words, like iarom, iarsin, iartain, immorro, and the like (meaning thereafter, moreover, &c.), have been replaced by short sentences that refer back to the events indicated by the words. Nothing has been added to the Irish, except in the Leabhar na h-Uidhri version of "Etain," where there is a lacuna to be filled up, and there are no omissions. The translations of the verse and of the rhetoric are, so far as is possible, made upon similar lines; it was at first intended to add literal renderings of all the verse passages, but it was found that to do so would make the volume of an unmanageable size for its purpose. Literal renderings of all the verse passages in "Etain," the first of the tales in volume i., are given in the notes to that story; the literal renderings of Deirdre's lament in the "Sons of Usnach," and of two poems in "The Combat at the Ford," are also given in full as specimens, but in the case of most of the poems reference is made to easily available literal translations either in English or German: where the literal rendering adopted differs from that referred to, or where the poem in question has not before been translated, the literal rendering has been given in the notes. These examples will, it is believed, give a fair indication of the relation between my verse translations and the originals, the deviations from which have been made as small as possible. The form of four-line verse divided into stanzas has generally been used to render the passages in four-lined verse in the Irish, the only exception to this rule being in the verses at the end of the "Boar of Mac Datho": these are in the nature of a ballad version of the whole story, and have been rendered in a ballad metre that does not conform to the arrangement in verses of the original.
The metre of all the Irish four-lined verses in this volume is, except in two short pieces, a seven-syllabled line, the first two lines usually rhyming with each other, and the last two similarly rhyming,[FN#4] in a few cases in the "Boar of Mac Datho" these rhymes are alternate, and in the extract from the Glenn Masain version of the "Sons of Usnach" there is a more complicated rhyme system. It has not been thought necessary to reproduce this metre in all cases, as to do so would sound too monotonous in English; the metre is, however, reproduced once at least in each tale except in that of the "Death of the Sons of Usnach." The eight-lined metre that occurs in five of the verse passages in the "Combat at the Ford" has in one case been reproduced exactly, and in another case nearly exactly, but with one syllable added to each line; the two passages in this romance that are in five-syllabled lines have been reproduced exactly in the Irish metre, in one case with the rhyme-system of the original. With the rhetoric greater liberty has been used; sometimes the original metre has been followed, but more often not; and an occasional attempt has been made to bring out the strophic correspondence in the Irish.
All the elves of Troom seem dead,
I have to acknowledge with gratitude many corrections to O'Beirne Crowe's translation of the "Tain bo Fraich" kindly given me by Professor Kuno Meyer; in the case of O'Curry's translation of the "Combat at the Ford," similar help kindly given me by Mr. E. J. Quiggin; and in the case of the two versions of "Etain," more especially for the part taken direct from the facsimile, I have to express gratitude for the kind and ready help given to me by Professor Strachan. Professor Strachan has not only revised my transcript from the facsimile, and supplied me with translations of the many difficult passages in this of which I could make no sense, but has revised all the translation which was made by the help of Windisch's glossary to the Irische Texte of both the versions of "Etain," so that the translations given of these two romances should be especially reliable, although of course I may have made some errors which have escaped Professor Strachan's notice. The three other romances which have been translated from the Irish in Irische Texte have not been similarly revised, but all passages about which there appeared to be doubt have been referred to in the notes to the individual romances.
It remains to add some remarks upon the general character of the tales, which, as may be seen after a very cursory examination, are very different both in tone and merit, as might indeed be expected if we remember that we are probably dealing with the works of men who were separated from each other by a gap of hundreds of years. Those who have read the actual works of the ancient writers of the Irish romances will not readily indulge in the generalisations about them used by those to whom the romances are only known by abstracts or a compilation. Perhaps the least meritorious of those in this collection are the "Tains" of Dartaid, Regamon, and Flidais, but the tones of these three stories are very different. Dartaid is a tale of fairy vengeance for a breach of faith; Flidais is a direct and simple story of a raid like a Border raid, reminding us of the "riding ballads" of the Scottish Border, and does not seem to trouble itself much about questions of right or wrong; Regamon is a merry tale of a foray by boys and girls; it troubles itself with the rights of the matter even less than Flidais if possible, and is an example of an Irish tale with what is called in modern times a "good ending." It may be noted that these last two tales have no trace of the supernatural element which some suppose that the Irish writers were unable to dispense with. The "Tain bo Regamna," the shortest piece in the collection, is a grotesque presentation of the supernatural, and is more closely associated with the Great Tain than any of the other fore-tales to it, the series of prophecies with which it closes exactly following the action of the part of the Tain, to which it refers. Some of the grotesque character of Regamna appears in the "Boar of Mac Datho," which, however, like Regamon and Flidais, has no supernatural element; its whole tone is archaic and savage, relieved by touches of humour, but the style of the composition is much superior to that of the first three stories. A romance far superior to "Mae Datho" is the Leinster version of the well-known Deirdre story, the "Death of the Sons of Usnach." The opening of the story is savage, the subsequent action of the prose is very rapid, while the splendid lament at the end, one of the best sustained laments in the language, and the restraint shown in its account of the tragic death of Deirdre, place this version of the story in a high position. As has been already mentioned, parts of the fifteenth-century version of the story have been added to this version for purposes of comparison: the character of the Deirdre of the Leinster version would not have been in keeping with the sentiment of the lament given to her in the later account.
The remaining five romances (treating as two the two versions of "Etain") all show great beauty in different ways. Three of the four tales given in them have "good endings," and the feeling expressed in them is less primitive than that shown in the other stories, although it is an open question whether any of them rises quite so high as Deirdre's lament. "Fraech" has, as has been mentioned before, two quite separate parts; the second part is of inferior quality, showing, however, an unusual amount of knowledge of countries lying outside Celtdom, but the first is a most graceful romance; although the hero is a demi-god, and the fairies play a considerable part in it, the interest is essentially human; and the plot is more involved than is the case in most of the romances. It abounds in brilliant descriptions; the description of the Connaught palace is of antiquarian interest; and one of the most beautiful pieces of Celtic mythology, the parentage of the three fairy harpers, is included in it.
The "Sick-bed of Cuchulain" and the Leabhar na h-Uidhri version of the "Courtship of Etain" seem to have had their literary effect injured by the personality of the compiler of the manuscript from which the Leabhar na h-Uidhri was copied. Seemingly an antiquarian, interested in the remains of the old Celtic religion and in old ceremonies, he has inserted pieces of antiquarian information into several of the romances that he has preserved for us, and though these are often of great interest in themselves, they spoil the literary effect of the romances in which they appear. It is possible that both the Leabhar na h-Uidhri version of "Etain" and the "Sick-bed" might be improved by a little judicious editing; they have, however, been left just as they stand in the manuscript. The "Sick-bed," as is pointed out in the special introduction to it, consists of two separate versions; the first has plainly some of the compiler's comments added to it, but the second and longer part seems not to have been meddled with; and, although a fragment, it makes a stately romance, full of human interest although dealing with supernatural beings; and its conclusion is especially remarkable in early literature on account of the importance of the action of the two women who are the heroines of this part of the tale. The action of Fand in resigning her lover to the weaker mortal woman who has a better claim upon him is quite modern in its tone.
The nearest parallel to the longer version of the "Sick-bed" is the Egerton version of "Etain," which is a complete one, and makes a stately romance. It is full of human interest, love being its keynote; it keeps the supernatural element which is an essential to the original legend in the background, and is of quite a different character to the earlier Leabhar na h-Uidhri version, although there is no reason to assume that the latter is really the more ancient in date. In the Leabbar na h-Uidhri version of "Etain," all that relates to the love-story is told in the baldest manner, the part which deals with the supernatural being highly descriptive and poetic. I am inclined to believe that the antiquarian compiler of the manuscript did here what he certainly did in the case of the "Sick-bed of Cuchulain," and pieced together two romances founded upon the same legend by different authors. The opening of the story in Fairyland and the concluding part where Mider again appears are alike both in style and feeling, while the part that comes between is a highly condensed version of the love-story of the Egerton manuscript, and suggests the idea of an abstract of the Egerton version inserted into the story as originally composed, the effect being similar to that which would be produced upon us if we had got Aeschylus' "Choaphorae" handed down to us with a condensed version of the dialogue between Electra and Chrysothemis out of Sophocles' "Electra" inserted by a conscientious antiquarian who thought that some mention of Chrysothemis was necessary. This version of the legend, however, with its strong supernatural flavour, its insistence on the idea of re-birth, its observation of nature, and especially the fine poem in which Mider invites Etain to Fairyland, is a most valuable addition to the literature, and we have to lament the gap in it owing to the loss of a column in that part of the Leabhar na h-Uidhri manuscript which has been preserved.
The last piece to be mentioned is the extract from the "Tain be Cuailnge" known as the "Combat at the Ford." This seems to me the finest specimen of old Irish work that has been preserved for us; the brilliance of its descriptions, the appropriate changes in its metres, the chivalry of its sentiments, and the rapidity of its action should, even if there were nothing to stand beside it in Irish literature, give that literature a claim to be heard: as an account of a struggle between two friends, it is probably the finest in any literature. It has been stated recently, no doubt upon sound authority, that the grammatical forms of this episode show it to be late, possibly dating only to the eleventh century. The manuscript in which it appears, however, is of the earlier part of the twelfth century; no literary modem work other than Irish can precede it in time; and if it is the work of an eleventh-century author, it does seem strange that his name or the name of some one of that date who could have written it has not been recorded, as MacLiag's name has been as the traditional author of the eleventh-century "Wars of the Gaedhill and the Gaill," for the names of several Irish authors of that period axe well known, and the Early Middle Irish texts of that period are markedly of inferior quality. Compare for example the Boromaean Tribute which Stokes considers to take high rank among texts of that period (Revue Celtique, xiii. p. 32). One would certainly like to believe that this episode of the "Combat at the Ford" belongs to the best literary period, with which upon literary grounds it seems to be most closely connected.
But, whether this comparative lateness of the "Combat at the Ford" be true or not, it, together with all the varied work contained in this collection, with the possible exception of the short extract from the Glenn Masain "Deirdre," is in the actual form that we have it, older than the Norman Conquest of Ireland, older than the Norse Sagas. Its manuscript authority is older than that of the Volsunga Saga; its present form precedes the birth of Chretien de Troyes, the first considerable name in French literature, and, in a form not much unlike that in which we have it, it is probably centuries older than its actual manuscript date. The whole thing stands at the very beginning of the literature of Modern Europe, and compares by no means unfavourably with that which came after, and may, in part, have been inspired by it. Surely it deserves to be raised from its present position as a study known only to a few specialists, and to form part of the mental equipment of every man who is for its own sake interested in and a lover of literature.
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