Sunday, September 18, 2011

Book Review : Tain Bo Cuailgne (The Cattle Raid at Cooley, aka "The Tain")

The Tain: A New Translation of the Tain Bo CuailngeThe Tain: A New Translation of the Tain Bo Cuailnge by Ciarán Carson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I learned that China Mieville had appropriated the title "The Tain" for one of his little apocalypto-dystopic excursions back in 2002, my reaction was something like this:


Because, as every cultured person knows, "The Tain" (pronunciation "Thoyne") is the name given to the most important story in ancient Irish literature, the collection of tales also referred to as "The Ulster Cycle", or "The Cattle Raid of Cooley".

I sputtered with indignation at the thought that someone would steal the name of Ireland's best-known legend for some weirdo post-apocalyptic novella about a race of wraith creatures that humans have subjugated by trapping them in mirrors. Then I learned that "tain" is a legitimate English word meaning "the tinfoil used as backing in mirrors" and I felt pretty stupid. SORRY, CHINA!

Like any self-respecting national saga, the (Irish) Tain lacks a single definitive version. Most versions draw on two different ancient manuscripts, from the 12th and 14th centuries, respectively, but its origins are far older. Some of the language dates back as far as the 8th century, and most Celtic scholars believe the the story had a long oral existence before eventually being committed to writing by monastic scribes. Both the content and the style of the narrative place the events in a timeframe that predates the introduction of Christianity to Ireland in 432, possibly as far back as the first century.

Most Irish people of my generation are familiar with the 1969 translation of the epic by the poet Thomas Kinsella (with brush drawings by Louis de Brocquy). I read the Kinsella translation at some point when I was in college, largely from a sense of obligation. Its brilliance was completely wasted on me at the time. I recently stumbled across a more recent (2007) translation of the Tain, by the poet Ciaran Carson. I really liked Carson's translation of Dante's Inferno, so I was interested to see what he would make of the Tain. So this past weekend I sat down with both the Kinsella and Carson translations, to reacquaint myself with the legendary exploits of the Celtic heroes of the Tain.

Like any self-respecting national saga, whole chunks of the Tain are unreadable. But much of it is hilarious; I had forgotten how weirdly entertaining the story is. A successful national epic will presumably reflect the concerns of the listeners -- people who make a living by taking to the sea in boats worry about sea-monsters, lost ships, threats of a maritime nature. In Argentina, cattle are central to economic survival, no surprise then that the gaucho is the hero of Argentina's national epic, Martin Fierro. Cattle were important in pre-Christian Ireland as well -- at its heart the Tain is the account of a cattle-rustling expedition gone terribly, terribly wrong.

The story of the Tain is straightforward; its particular charm lies in the telling. Here are some of the details I find totally kickass:

The opening scene, in which Ailill and Maeve, the king and queen of Connacht get swept up in a competitive enumeration of the wealth and possessions each has brought to the marriage, is referred to as the "pillow talk" scene. Maeve loses the competition by a bull and vows to get even; this is the McGuffin that launches the whole disastrous expedition to steal Donn Cuailgne, the great Brown Bull of Cooley, from the neighboring kingdom of Ulster.

The men of Ulster are all laid low by "the pangs". Because of a previous incident, involving a distinct lack of chivalry towards a pregnant lady, nine generations of Ulstermen have been cursed to suffer the pains of childbirth for five days and four nights "at their moment of greatest difficulty". So, just as the marauding Connacht army reaches their border, all the men of fighting age take to their beds, howling as if each was about to give birth to twins. Oops, make that "all but one" of the men.

For unspecified reasons, the hero CuChulainn (aka the hound of Culann the blacksmith, aka Setanta) is exempt from the curse, so it falls to him to keep the marauders at bay until his fellow Ulstermen have recovered from the pangs. It's roughly 30,000 to 1 out there. In other words, a completely unfair set up. The Connacht soldiers don't stand a chance.

CuChulainn isn't your average 17-year old. He's Ireland's version of Hercules. Super-endowed physically, not particularly bright, poorly developed emotional control, no impulse control, the boy has some serious combat skilz. With a couple of nifty superpowers thrown in. That cloak of invisibility, for one thing. Those heightened sensory powers. But the worst thing you can to is to make him angry, because that can trigger the riastradh, (the twisting, or contortion), a Hulk-like physical transformation that is followed by a killing frenzy. Kinsella translates this wonderfully as the "warp spasm"; in a rare misstep, Carson tries too hard and comes up with the the "torque" (he wants to evoke the kind of Celtic collar known as a torque, but why?). The killing frenzy proceeds by repeated implementation of the "thunder-feat", wherein enemy soldiers are taken out in increments of 100. I can't imagine that there's not already a video game.

CuChulainn's deadly kill-weapon, the Gae Bolga, totally rocks (as does its name). And the passage where he ultimately has no choice but to use it to disembowel his beloved childhood friend Ferdia is simultaneously devastating (OMG, he is forced to kill his best bro Ferdy) and provocative (explicit homoerotic imagery in ancient Celtic texts, who'd a thunk it?)

There's also an entertaining array of secondary characters -- backstabbing relatives and courtiers, wild women with the gift of prophecy, assorted figures from Celtic mythology, including the very nasty shapeshifting morrigan, a kind of unpleasant Celtic valkyrie you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley.

Both the Kinsella and Carson translations are highly readable. There are slight differences in their choices of what to include. Kinsella's coverage is greater, because he includes full translations of certain key remsceala (backstories), where Carson limits himself to summarizing them briefly in his endnotes. Both authors comment on the particular difficulties posed by certain sections of the manuscript, those written in the specific verse form known as rosc. These sections are apparently so obscure that both authors felt obliged to include an explicit disavowal of accuracy for their attempted translations. Carson tries for a greater fidelity to the original verse form, which makes for a much choppier, less intelligible translation. Obviously I can't judge the accuracy of either translation, but I thought both authors did an impressive job in terms of clarity, fluidity, and readability. Neither translation seems clearly superior - they are just different.

I feel obliged to include a caveat. There are certain aspects of the text that make some portions eye-glazingly unreadable. Two features in particular come to mind. The first is a kind of listmania -- the number of warriors taken down by Cuchulainn is enormous, and the authors of this manuscript want you know each one by name. This leads to this kind of incandescent prose:

These are the names of their chiefs and commanders: two Cruaids, two Calads, two Cirs, two Ciars, two Ecelss, three Croms, three Cauraths, three Combirges, four Feochars, four Furachars, four Casses, four Fotas, ....(varying numbers of 18 more family names)...., ten Fiachas and ten Fedelmids.

The second issue is related. In Carson's words, the Tain is obsessed by topography, by place-names and their etymologies . It's hard to convey just how deep this apparent obsession runs. At times it seems as if the entire manuscript is nothing more than an effort to come up with a (dubious) etymology for the name of every topographical feature of the Irish landscape.

Lethan came to his ford on the river Nith in Conaille. Galled by Cuchulainn's deeds, he lay in wait for him. CuChulainn cut off his head and left it with the body. Hence the name Ath Lethan.

This kind of stuff is both extraordinarily dull and highly questionable, particularly when one takes into account that the word "lethan" means "broad". One begins to suspect that the brave warrior "Lethan" might not have existed at all. There are huge swaths of this kind of material scattered throughout the Tain. The good news is that it is eminently skippable.

Bearing this caveat in mind, I think anyone would enjoy the Tain.

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