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- Heroic Romances of Ireland Volume 1 - 3/44 -


four "Preludes," the Tana of Dartaid, Regamon, Flidais, and Regamna, are taken from the text printed with accompanying German translations by Windisch in Irische Texte, vol. ii.; Windisch's renderings being followed in those portions of the text that he translates; for the "Tain bo Fraich" and the "Combat at the Ford" the Irish as given by O'Beirne Crowe and by O'Curry, with not very trustworthy English translations, has been followed; in the case of the fragment of the Glenn Masain version of "Deirdre" little reference has been made to the Irish, the literal translation followed being that given by Whitley Stokes. The remaining five romances, the "Boar of Mac Datho," the Leinster version of "Deirdre," the "Sick-bed of Cuchulain," the Egerton version of "Etain," and the greater part of the Leabbar na h-Uidhri version of the same, are taken from the Irish text printed without translation in Irische Texte, vol. i., the end of the Leabhar na h-Uidhri version omitted by Windisch being taken from the facsimile of the manuscript published by the Royal Irish Academy.

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.

INTRODUCTION IN VERSE

'Tis hard an audience now to win For lore that Ireland's tales can teach; And faintly, 'mid the modern din, Is heard the old heroic speech.

For long the tales in silence slept;


Heroic Romances of Ireland Volume 1 - 3/44

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