Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Táin

After finishing The Mabinogion, which I discuss here, I decided a fitting companion piece would be the Táin Bó Cúailnge (according to translator Thomas Kinsella, it's pronounced "Toyn Bo Coolinga" which basically means "Cattle Raid of Cooley"). Though mostly prose, it is the closest thing Ireland has to a great poetic epic. I've been aware of it since junior high, and even tried to read a fantasy novelization by Gregory Frost that I never quite got through.

The hero of the story is Cúchulainn (Koo-kullin), sort of an Irish Hercules, part-god, with all kinds of over-the-top powers. Single-handed, he defends the kingdom of Ulster from a cattle raid cooked up by the wicked (and somewhat slutty) Medb, Queen of Connacht, to steal a famous red bull, thus augmenting her own worth. After sleeping with several important chieftains to get them to go along (at which her husband winks) she raises a huge force and marches to Ulster. The men of Ulster are suffering from "pangs" - pains akin to what women feel in labor - as part of a curse, and cannot come to meet the challenge. But Cúchulainn is not affected, and he harries and harasses the assembled Irish force for weeks until the rest of the men of Ulster come storming in for the climax. 

Several times, Medb manipulates strong men into going out to fight Cúchulainn, and has no problem pimping out her daughter Finnabair or herself if that's what it takes. But in a series of (almost shockingly) graphic combats, Cúchulainn defeats them all. 

The most mysterious and impressive thing about Cúchulainn is his ability to go into ríastrad, or what Kinsella (awesomely) translates as "warp-spasm" and another translates as "torque," and it's best described by this passage from The Táin: 
"The first warp-spasm seized Cúchulainn, and made him into a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of. His shanks and his joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from head to foot, shook like a tree in the flood or a reed in the stream. His body made a furious twist inside his skin, so that his feet and shins switched to the rear and his heels and calves switched to the front… On his head the temple-sinews stretched to the nape of his neck, each mighty, immense, measureless knob as big as the head of a month-old child… he sucked one eye so deep into his head that a wild crane couldn't probe it onto his cheek out of the depths of his skull; the other eye fell out along his cheek. His mouth weirdly distorted: his cheek peeled back from his jaws until the gullet appeared, his lungs and his liver flapped in his mouth and throat, his lower jaw struck the upper a lion-killing blow, and fiery flakes large as a ram's fleece reached his mouth from his throat… The hair of his head twisted like the tange of a red thornbush stuck in a gap; if a royal apple tree with all its kingly fruit were shaken above him, scarce an apple would reach the ground but each would be spiked on a bristle of his hair as it stood up on his scalp with rage.”

 That's cool. 

As a gamer, what also struck me was a tendency of not only Cúchulainn but the other heroes to enumerate their specific heroic abilities, which Kinsella translates as "feats." Sometimes they seem like d20 feats, or Savage Worlds edges. Some names are evocative, others are more obscure: the Shield Feat, the Hero's Scream, the Salmon Leap, the Sixfold Slaughter. 

Cúchulainn is called the "Hound of UIster," and one of the Gaelic versions of my own last name (MacCon Uladh or MacConallaidh) means "Son of the Hound of Ulster," so I like to imagine that I am related to Cúchulainn. That's probably not the case. But I do know that I occasionally enter my own warp-spasm, and it's not always pretty.

At any rate, this tale - at least as translated by Kinsella - seems remarkably fresh, and what with all the wanton sleeping around, graphic violence (an image of a guy running around with a spear sticking out of his head, praising its caster for making such a good shot, comes to mind) it's a little more "pulp fiction" in tone than, say, The Illiad or Beowulf. It has a certain weirdness and charm that people associate with the Irish, and though I'm actually more Scottish than Irish, I still feel a certain pride in it.

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