I’ve been working this week on Oidheadh Con Culainn, the Early Modern version of The Death of Cú Chulainn. It’s a fascinating story that pretty much nobody seems to care about, as is often the way with these early modern prose tales — too late for the medievalists, too early for the modernists, or at least that’s how it can feel. This lack of interest means there’s no English translation of it than I can find, so I’ve been translating sections myself, gradually uncovering the story.
I went into it looking for Láeg mac Riangabra. I knew I’d find him — I had, at least, been able to read a summary of the story beforehand, so I knew that his role had grown and developed from the medieval version of the text. As Cú Chulainn’s charioteer, he’s also largely neglected in the scholarship, relegated to footnotes and passing remarks. In one analysis I read that listed the main differences between the two versions of the story, his role wasn’t even mentioned, despite the fact it has changed entirely.
In the medieval story, then, Láeg dies shortly before Cú Chulainn, hit by a spear meant for the hero. It’s poignant enough. There would have been a poem, originally, Láeg’s last words — this is lost, as the redactor of the only surviving copy of the story thought we knew it well enough that abbreviating it to a single line was enough: “Bitterly have I been wounded.” Cú Chulainn draws out the spear, bids him farewell, and goes alone to his death after that. A heroic blaze of glory.
But in this later text, it happens a little differently. Láeg is wounded, not killed, and Cú Chulainn sends him away: begs him to go home, to survive, to tell his story to those left behind. Except Láeg doesn’t go. He takes himself to the edge of the battle and he watches, and when it’s over he goes to bind Cú Chulainn’s wounds and assure him that this isn’t how he dies. Cú Chulainn knows otherwise: he recognises his mortality, the culmination of prophecies, and all that remains is to take some control over the place and manner of his death. He asks Láeg’s help to prop himself against a standing stone, holding his weapons, facing his enemies, and it’s there that he dies. But at least this time, he doesn’t die alone.
For me, the most moving moments of the text are here: as Cú Chulainn begs Láeg to leave, and Láeg refuses. As the hero says, “From the first day we bound ourselves together, we have never before quarrelled or separated, not by day or by night, until this moment.” And this quarrel, this separation, is with the goal of saving Láeg from meeting the same fate. Of saving the charioteer and with him the story.
It seems a very early modern melancholy to me. Of course, I’m a medievalist, and no expert — a piece of A-level coursework on Hamlet and The Duchess of Malfi back in 2013 does not an early modernist make. Still, it’s Hamlet that this brings to mind: the melancholy, the friendship, the tragedy of the one who survives.
It feels, in these moments, that the redactor is appealing to a very different aesthetic and emotive sensibility than their medieval predecessors. No more the blaze of glory — now the grief. Now the friend. Stay alive, begs the tragic hero, in whatever words he’s given. Stay alive so that you can tell my story. No longer the impartial narrator of myth: instead the story is given to the grieving beloved, who holds the narrative in their trust.
And the hero is proven tragic by his ability to die (as Anne Carson says, immortality defies tragedy). It surprises him too. Cú Chulainn says — “If I had known that my heart was one of flesh and blood, I would never have performed half the feats that I did.” He’s caught out. His mortality is almost a shock. So this is it. Our medieval hero is waiting for the end to his short life; our early modern hero finds his humanity a disruption.
But the friend — the friend is condemned to survive. Horatio and Láeg, made unwilling bards by their endurance. Both would probably have found it easier to die there, and the medieval hero would have let them. But the early modern one bids them live, entrusts to them the precious role of remembrance. It’s a cruel kind of love, that one, to abandon your friends to life.
And then the curtain falls. Then Horatio is left among the dead — no word as to whether Fortinbras believes his tale, or if he’s tried and hanged for treason and the murder of a dynasty. Then Láeg, in his grief, leaves Emer and Conall to their revenge — and goes where? The story doesn’t say. As friend, his part is tied to the hero’s. Perhaps he walks the landscape alone. Perhaps he goes home, to his mother, and weeps with his head in her lap for a young man who was beloved by him. Perhaps she saw this coming, and would have tried to protect him from it, if he had let her.
It’s a melancholy erasure, this fading out. It refuses grief. It gives in to it. It crumbles under the weight of aftermath and then it hides from it. Cowardly, almost. Where does Láeg go? Or Horatio? To another story, one nobody will tell, because that kind of survival is too raw a wound to salt it with words. They go to the gravestone of endpapers.
How early modern of them.
Or at least, that’s how it seems to me, a medievalist, caught up in the peculiar, melancholic loss everpresent in this text. “It is then fell the chief of valour and arms, glory and prowess, protection and bravery.” But left behind was Láeg, his most loyal friend. And wounded and grieving, he mounts Cú Chulainn’s one surviving horse and rides home, alone, “and it is slow and spiritless he came,” until Emer spots him from the ramparts of Emain Macha and understands what has been lost.
Maybe Láeg could have had another story — found another hero in need of a charioteer, perhaps, just as Horatio could have stayed at court as an advisor, or perhaps gone back to Wittenberg and his studies. In Horatio’s case, we don’t know that he didn’t. But Láeg tells us clearly: “I will not be the servant of any other person forever after my own lord.” Still an ending, then, but a messier one than his medieval counterpart, who dies at Cú Chulainn’s side, king of charioteers. This one is a loss of identity, he who has been defined by his counterpart now walking the rest of his story alone.
We aren’t told where it takes him. Of course we aren’t. The text isn’t Merugud Laeig, the Wanderings of Láeg, the Going-Astray of Láeg. The text is Oidheadh Con Culainn, the Violent Death of Cú Chulainn. And so the beats it follows, of prophecy and plot and battle and death and mourning and revenge, are those of the hero’s story.
Láeg is, I think, somewhat genre-savvy, though all he tries for optimism when he kneels at the wounded Cú Chulainn’s side and tells him the end of his life hasn’t yet come. He knows what’s coming. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t beg to stay, to be a part of it, to meet the end as he has lived before now: by Cú Chulainn’s side. “A chomalta inmain,” he says: O beloved foster-brother. Perhaps it makes it easier, to think that it didn’t come as a surprise. Perhaps it makes it worse, the anticipation of tragedy a preemptive grief that never eases the sting when it comes for real.
Either way, the result is the same. He is the story-carrier, the news-bearer, the messenger of grief, who takes word back to Ulster and sets in motion Conall’s vengeful rampage. As such he cannot be allowed to die. Cú Chulainn is genre-savvy too, to recognise that. The closest of companions must be sent away.
How early modern of him. Or so it seems to me.
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.
— Hamlet, Act V Scene II
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