Sunday, November 5, 2000

The Táin, tr. by Thomas Kinsella, summary

Klar, Celtic Romanticism 170

from the Irish Epic Táin Bó Cuailnge
translated by Thomas Kinsella

Kinsella’s 1969 translation of The Táin, the “oldest vernacular epic of Western literature,” was 15 years in the making and long overdue, as the other translations were hopelessly antiquarian, whether Lady Gregory’s Kiltartan paraphrased rendition, Dunn’s 1914 translation, or editors Cross and Slover’s (Standish Hayes O’Grady translation? not notated) 1936 edition.

These Celtic Revival translations utilized the 12th c. Lebor Leinster (LL) manuscript while Kinsella used the older 12 c. Lebor na hUidre (LU: Book of the Dun Cow) version, supplementing it with the 14th c. Yellow Book of Lecan where text was missing. (Some language dates to the 7th c.) 

Kinsella includes remscéla to supply the modern reader with foreknowledge necessary to understand the plot and motivations of The Táin—stories that 5th to 15th c. audiences would have already known. His translation is very much a product of the 1970s, more muscular than the fin de siècle versions written in “...a florid adjectival style, running at times to an overblown decadence....” But this is not a literal translation: he also reorganizes and deletes material as he sees fit, especially inconsistencies and repetitions, for the mindset of the modern reader.

Written for an aristocratic Ulster audience of a thousand years ago, The Táin looks back another thousand years to the Celtic Heroic Age. Often cited as “a window on the Iron Age,” this cattle raiding tale of betrayal, intrigue, magic and love—is of, and for the nobility. A tale within a tale, with the aes dána, poets, seers and bards as witnesses, it is peopled with gods, goddesses, half-mortal heroes who rush naked into battle, giants, and monsters. 

Events are set in motion when Connaught’s Queen Medbh and her consort Ailill, compare their possessions and she comes up a bull short. To even things out, they decide to raid Ulster for King Conchobar’s bull. But the bulls are really magic shape-shifting swineherds, enemies since time began: “Two pig-keepers were friends once—now crows will drink a cruel milk.”

The Táin begins with a tropos like the Mahabarata: a king-making tale lost in the antiquities of time, retrieved through magic. A great mist formed around the druid Senchán Torpéist’s son and pupil, the poet Muirgen (of the sea), who for three days and nights, disappeared as the dead Ulster king Fergus mac Roich, a demigod and a protagonist, recited the Táin in its entirety from the grave on Samhain. 

However, the redactor/scribe embellished hard romantic elements to satisfy his medieval Christian audience. The action takes place from Monday (Doomsday) after Samhain to Spring’s beginning (Easter). In other versions (which the scribe refers to),Conchobar, the self-made king, brought down by his own lust and greed, will later die of a brainball lodged in his head by Ulster’s hero, CúChulainn, when he hears of the death of Christ (thus dating the story-frame to the birth of Christ). 

Grave names are written in Ogham, dating it to the 5th c.; but no one in the story (or in the 7th, or 12th Cs. for that matter) actually knows Ogham; Fergus is called in to read the Ogham warning on CúChulainn’s spansel hoop of challenge.

The Táin, AKA the Irish Iliad, preserves elements of Iron Age society—full of intrigue and betrayal. It includes seemly and aberrant behavior and appetites of kings and princes, druids (and -esses) and heroic warriors (and women); it gives genealogical, and naming data for demigod, warrior/hero and king lists. 

 The story offers formulaic, or sympathetic magic, battles and betrayals take place in water at the liminal boundaries of fords, and the heroes are denied success by their gessa. It explains placenames (though they don’t match up). Like the other heroes, Connaught’s Queen Medbh, a landed goddess, with appetites larger than life; she even pees prodigiously, creating gorges and canyons. Its hard romantic elements include in extraordinary detail, the battle accouterments and clothing of every troop as well as the battles. Even the anachronism of chariots, though chariots never existed in Ireland.

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