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- Heroic Romances of Ireland Volumes 1 and 2 Combined - 1/70 -








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.

[FN#1] The only possible exceptions to this, assuming the latest possible date for the Irish work, and the earliest date for others, are the kindred Welsh literature and that of the Anglo-Saxon invaders of Britain.

The exact extent of the direct influence of Irish literature upon the development of other nations is hard to trace, chiefly because the influence of Ireland upon the Continent was at its height at the time when none of the languages of modern Europe except Welsh and Anglo-Saxon had reached a stage at which they might be used for literary purposes, and a Continental literature on which the Irish one might have influence simply did not exist. Its subsequent influence, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, upon Welsh, and through Welsh upon the early Breton literature (now lost) appears to be established; it is usually supposed that its action upon the earliest French compositions was only through the medium of these languages, but it is at least possible that its influence in this case also was more direct. In Merovingian and early Carlovingian times, when French songs were composed, which are now lost but must have preceded the extant chansons de geste, the Irish schools were attracting scholars from the neighbouring countries of Europe; Ireland was sending out a steady stream of "learned men" to France, Germany, and Italy; and it is at least possible that some who knew the Irish teachers realized the merit of the literary works with which some of these teachers must have been familiar. The form of the twelfth-century French romance, "Aucassin and Nicolete," is that of the chief Irish romances, and may well have been suggested by them; whilst the variety of the rhythm and the elaborate laws of the earliest French poetry, which, both in its Northern and Southern form, dates from the first half of the twelfth century, almost imply a pre-existing model; and such a model is more easily traced in Irish than in any other vernacular literature that was then available. It is indeed nearly as hard to suppose that the beautiful literature of Ireland had absolutely no influence upon nations known to be in contact with it, as it would be to hold to the belief that the ancient Cretan civilisation had no effect upon the liter ary development that culminated in the poems of Homer.

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]

[FN#2] It seems to be uncertain whether or not the writers of the Irish romances shared in the classical learning for which Ireland was noted in their time. The course of study at the schools established for the training of the fili in the tenth and eleventh centuries was certainly, as has been pointed out, very different from that of the ecclesiastical schools (see Joyce, vol. i. p. 430). No classical instruction was included in this training, but it is not certain that this separation of studies was so complete before what is called the "antiquarian age" set in. Cormac mac Cuninan, for example, was a classical scholar, and at the same time skilled in the learning of the fili. It should also be observed that the course at the ecclesiastical schools, as handed down to us, hardly seems to be classical enough to have produced a Columbanus or an Erigena; the studies that produced these men must have been of a different kind, and the lay schools as originally established by Sanchan Torpest may have included much that afterwards gave place to a more purely Irish training. The tale of Troy seems to have been known to the fili, and there are in their works allusions to Greek heroes, to Hercules and Hector, but it has been pointed out by Mr. Nutt that there is little if any evidence of influence produced by Latin or Greek literature on the actual matter or thought of the older Irish work. On this point reference may be made to a note on "Mae Datho's Boar" in this volume (p. 173), but even if this absence of classical influence is established (and it is hard to say what will not be found in Irish literature), it is just possible that the same literary feeling which made Irish writers of comparatively late tales keep the bronze weapons and chariots of an earlier date in their accounts of ancient wars, while they described arms of the period when speaking of battles of their own time, affected them in this instance also; and that they had enough restraint to refrain from introducing classical and Christian ideas when speaking of times in which they knew these ideas would have been unfamiliar.

It may be, and often is, assumed that the appearance of grotesque or savage passages in a romance is an indication of high antiquity, and that these passages at least are faithful reproductions of Druidic originals, but this does not seem to be quite certain. Some of these passages, especially in the case of romances preserved in the Leabhar na h-Uidhri (The Book of the Dun Cow), look like insertions made by scribes of an antiquarian turn of mind,[FN#3] and are probably of very ancient date; in other cases, as for example in the "Boar of Mac Datho," where Conall dashes Anluan's head into Ket's face, the savagery is quite in 'keeping with the character of the story, and way have been deliberately invented by an author living in Christian times, to add a flavour to his tale, although in doing so he probably imitated a similar incident in some other legend. To take a classical parallel, the barbarity shown by Aeneas in Aeneid x. 518-520, in sacrificing four youths on the funeral pyre of Pallas, an act which would have been regarded with horror in Virgil's own day, does not prove that there was any ancient tale of the death of Pallas in which these victims were

Heroic Romances of Ireland Volumes 1 and 2 Combined - 1/70

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