The romance called the "Sick-bed of Cuchulain," the latter part of
which is also known as the "Jealousy of Emer," is preserved in two
manuscripts, one of which is the eleventh-century Leabhar na h-Uidhri,
the other a fifteenth century manuscript in the Trinity College
Library. These two manuscripts give substantially the same account,
and are obviously taken from the same source, but the later of the two
is not a copy of the older manuscript, and sometimes preserves a better
The eleventh-century manuscript definitely gives a yet older book, the Yellow Book of Slane, now lost, as its authority, and this may be the ultimate authority for the tale as we have it. But, although there is only one original version of the text, it is quite plain from internal evidence that the compiler of the Yellow Book of Slane, or of an earlier book, had two quite different forms of the story to draw from, and combined them in the version that we have. The first, which may be called the "Antiquarian" form, relates the cause of Cuchulain's illness, tells in detail of the journey of his servant Laeg to Fairyland, in order to test the truth of a message sent to Cuchulain that he can be healed by fairy help, and then breaks off. In both the Leabhar na h-Uidhri and in the fifteenth-century manuscript, follows a long passage which has absolutely nothing to do with the story, consisting of an account how Lugaid Red-Stripes was elected to be king over Ireland, and of the Bull Feast at which the coming of Lugaid is prophesied. Both manuscripts then give the counsel given by Cuchulain to Lugaid on his election (this passage being the only justification for the insertion, as Cuchulain is supposed to be on his sick-bed when the exhortation is given); and both then continue the story in a quite different form, which may be called the "Literary" form. The cause of the sickness is not given in the Literary form, which commences with the rousing of Cuchulain from his sick-bed, this rousing being due to different agency from that related in the Antiquarian form, for in the latter Cuchulain is roused by a son of the fairy king, in the former b his wife Emer. The journey of Laeg to Fairyland is then told in the literary form with different detail to that given in the Antiquarian one, and the full conclusion is then supplied in this form alone; so that we have, although in the same manuscript version, two quite distinct forms of the original legend, the first defective at the end of the story, the other at its beginning.
Not only are the incidents of the two forms of the story different in many respects, but the styles are so absolutely different that it would seem impossible to attribute them to the same author. The first is a mere compilation by an antiquarian; it is difficult to imagine that it was ever recited in a royal court, although the author may have had access to a better version than his own. He inserts passages which do not develop the interest of the story; hints at incidents (the temporary absence of Fergus and Conall) which are not developed or alluded to afterwards, and is a notable early example of the way in which Irish literature can be spoiled by combining several different independent stories into one. There is only one gem, strictly so called, and that not of a high order; the only poetic touches occur in the rhetoric, and, although in this there is a weird supernatural flavour, that may have marked the original used by the compiler of this form ' the human interest seems to be exceptionally weak.
The second or Literary form is as different from the other as it is possible for two compositions on the same theme to be. The first few words strike the human note in Cuchulain's message to his wife: "Tell her that it goeth better with me from hour to hour;" the poems are many, long, and of high quality; the rhetoric shows a strophic correspondence; the Greek principle of letting the messenger tell the story instead of relating the facts, in a narrative of events (the method followed in the Antiquarian version) is made full use of; the modest account given by Cuchulain of his own deeds contrasts well with the prose account of the same deeds; and the final relation of the voluntary action of the fairy lady who gives up her lover to her rival, and her motives, is a piece of literary work centuries in advance of any other literature of modern Europe.
Some modern accounts of this romance have combined the two forms, and have omitted the irrelevant incidents in the Antiquarian version; there are literary advantages in this course, for the disconnected character of the Antiquarian opening, which must stand first, as it alone gives the beginning of the story, affords little indication of the high quality of the better work of the Literary form that follows; but, in order to heighten the contrast, the two forms are given just as they occur in the manuscripts, the only omissions being the account of the election of Lugaid, and the exhortation of Cuchulain to the new king.
Thurneysen, in his Sagen aus dem Alten Irland, places the second description of Fairyland by Laeg with the Antiquarian form, and this may be justified not only by the allusion to Ethne, who does not appear elsewhere in the Literary form, but from the fact that there is a touch of rough humour in this poem, which appears in the Antiquarian form, but not elsewhere in the Literary one, where the manuscripts place this poem. But on the other hand the poetry of this second description, and its vividness, come much closer to the Literary form, and it has been left in the place that the manuscript gives to it.
The whole has been translated direct from the Irish in Irische Texte, vol. i., with occasional reference to the facsimile of the Leabhar na h-Uidhri; the words marked as doubtful by Windisch in his glossary, which are rather numerous, being indicated by marks of interrogation in the notes, and, where Windisch goes not indicate a probable meaning, a special note is made on the word, unless it has been given in dictionaries subsequent to that of Windisch. Thurneysen's translation has sometimes been made use of, when there is no other guide; but he omits some passages, and Windisch has been followed in the rendering given in his glossary in cases where there would seem to be a difference, as Thurneysen often translates freely.