Before I resume my reading of The Coming of Cuculain, I have a brief bit of news to share, which is that I was a guest on the Motherfoclóir podcast this week, talking about Táin Bó Cúailnge. We discussed why it’s weird that Cú Chulainn is so often portrayed as super-muscular, considered whether Fer Diad’s death is really a good starting point for queer readings, and pondered the etymology of Láeg’s name. It’s a pretty good intro to my research interests! You can listen to the episode here.
All right, so, back to Standish O’Grady. For those unfamiliar with this series of posts, I’m currently reading through Standish O’Grady’s 1894 novel, The Coming of Cuculain, and discussing his takes on medieval Irish literature — particularly when they’re weird. You don’t need to have read O’Grady’s work to follow along, although a basic knowledge of who Cú Chulainn is will help and I’d recommend reading the posts in order. (But, hey, you do you, I’m not going to make you.)
Previous posts in this series:
- Understanding Standish (an introduction to the project and an examination of Standish O’Grady’s earlier work on the same subject)
- Conquest, Classicism and Characterisation (a discussion of the first part of The Coming of Cuculain, up to Cú Chulainn’s arrival at Emain Macha)
- The Boy-Troop at Boarding School (a discussion of the second part of The Coming of Cuculain, the portrayal of the boy-troop, and Láeg’s first appearance in the book)
You can find The Coming of Cuculain at Project Gutenberg.
I’d planned for this to be my final post in this series, but, well, it hit 3k and I figured that was long enough, so we’re going to finish it off next time. My apologies to anyone who is waiting for me to blog about literally anything else. I promise those days are coming.
I said all along that I wasn’t going to discuss every aspect of The Coming of Cuculain that I found interesting, because this series would last until Christmas if I did. That means I’m going to skim fairly rapidly over O’Grady’s account of the Deirdre story (Longes mac nUislenn) which has been slightly clumsily inserted into the middle of this book. O’Grady himself seems perplexed by the story, and by Cú Chulainn’s absence from it, which is understandable; it’s hard to make its timeline match up with the Táin. He might have been better served by omitting it entirely, being as how it isn’t part of Cú Chulainn’s story, but he’s obviously trying to build up towards the Táin and felt the need to explain Fergus’s exile somehow.
His take on Deirdre is wild on several levels. In the medieval account, a prophecy is made shortly before Deirdre’s birth that she’s going to bring doom to the Ulaid, and it’s counselled that she should be killed. Conchobar, however, stopped listening after the part of the prophecy that said she was also going to be super hot, and decides to have her reared to be his wife. O’Grady absolves Conchobar of all responsibility by having Deirdre be born during his father’s reign, and generally ommitting the whole sketchy child bride situation that we’ve got going there. He also has Conchobar lecture Fergus at length about how sexually pure the Ulaid are and how this is a source of their strength, which would be great comedy if O’Grady didn’t seem to actually mean it.
There’s a great deal more that could be said about how that whole story is handled, but I said all along that my main interest was how O’Grady portrays Láeg, so I’m going to move fairly rapidly on from that.
Last week, we saw that O’Grady’s Láeg swears his loyalty to Cú Chulainn approximately five minutes after meeting him, and that the two immediately become intimate friends, sharing a bed and generally expressing their deep affection. But Láeg isn’t yet a charioteer, so how does that come about?
Well, before we can look at Cú Chulainn’s “knighting” — sidenote, it’s weird how retellings keep referring to the Ulaid as “knights”; it’s such an incongruous term for the setting — and therefore his acquisition of arms, a chariot, and a charioteer to drive it, we need to take a look at what’s going on with the horses.
O’Grady has a fondness for the supernatural, as we’ve already seen, but he really takes it to new heights when it comes to Cú Chulainn’s horses, the Líath Macha and the Dub Sainglend. He introduces us to the idea of the “sacred chariot” of Macha — an ancient, prophecy-laden chariot that the Ulaid keep and venerate as a sacred relic, which can only be drawn by two equally prophecy-laden horses, who haven’t been seen in three hundred years — “since Macha dwelt visibly in Emain”.
I’ll be honest with you: I don’t know where O’Grady is getting this from. I have never come across the idea of a “sacred chariot” in any of the medieval texts, nor the fact that the Líath Macha and the Dub Sainglend are immortal horses who’ve been roaming free for centuries waiting for a prophesied warrior to come and harness them again. And I’m pretty sure the texts don’t suggest it’s been three hundred years since Macha lived, although O’Grady’s use the word “visibly” suggests he conceptualises her as a figure who lived a mortal life and then became Otherworldly in some way.
On which note: Noínden Ulad tells the story of how the heavily pregnant Macha is forced to race the king’s chariot; she wins, but gives birth as she crosses the finishing line and curses the Ulaid to be afflicted with labour pains in times of great need. We’re told that the curse afflicts all who hear it, and their descendants for nine generations. O’Grady, however, presents Macha’s curse as a looming threat rather than a known reoccurrence. It has yet to fall, but they know it’s coming, and when it does, only their prophesied hero will be able to stand against it…
Now, I’m not ruling out the possibility that elements of this whole sacred chariot malarkey come from texts I’m not familiar with — I will never claim to know everything about medieval Irish literature — but I also think there’s a strong chance here, based on the changes he’s made to recognisable material, that O’Grady is simply… making things up.
Anyway, we have a sacred chariot, we have empty stalls awaiting the return of these ancient horses, and Conchobar has put the young Cú Chulainn in charge of looking after it all. A sacred duty. He wonders, vaguely, whether his nephew is the prophesied warrior, but while Cú Chulainn does excel at games of fighting, we’re told that he’s still… just a boy. Surely, the Ulaid think, the prophesied figure who will come will be like a reincarnation of Lug!
But our promised one is gentle exceedingly. He will not know his own greatness, and his nearest comrades will not know it, and there will be more of love in his heart than war.
I’ll be honest, that doesn’t sound much like Cú Chulainn to me, but it fits well enough with O’Grady’s characterisation — his Cú Chulainn isn’t particularly proud and a lot of his violence has been softened and smoothed away.
Shortly after Cú Chulainn has been given these duties, he receives a visitation from Lug, who tells him that tonight he’ll capture the Líath Macha and the Dub Sainglend. He’s excited about this — enough that Láeg notices something’s up when they’re eating dinner together, and asks him what’s got into him.
“Thy eyes are very bright,” said Laeg.
“They will be brighter ere the day,” he replied.
“That is an expert juggler,” said Laeg. “How he tosseth the bright balls!”
“Can he toss the stars so?” said Setanta.
“Thou art strange and wild to-night,” said Laeg.
“I will be stranger and wilder ere the morrow,” cried Setanta.
Sensing that his friend is in a weird mood, Láeg tries to stop him leaving, but Cú Chulainn manages to get away, and goes off on a wild chase in search of his magic horses.
Here, the details are faintly recognisable: Cú Chulainn encounters the Líath Macha at a lake, and they make a circuit of Ireland until the horse is broken. He then goes in search of the Dub Sainglend, and subdues her by showing that the Líath Macha (“thy better”) has already been tamed. While I’m not aware of any such extended description of how Cú Chulainn obtained his horses in the medieval sources, the broad outline conforms to a reference in Fled Bricrenn:
“Not at all,” said Cú Chulaind, “for I am tired and broken to pieces. Today, I will eat and sleep, but I will not undertake combat.” All this was in fact true, by reason of Cú Chulaind’s encounter that day with the Líath Machae by the shore of Lind Léith near Slíab Fúait. The horse had come towards him from the lake, Cú Chulaind had put his arms round its neck, and the two of them had circled all Ériu until at last night fell and the horse was broken. (Cú Chulaind found the Dub Sainglend in the same way, at Loch Duib Sainglend.)‘Bricriu’s Feast’ in Jeffrey Gantz (trans), Early Irish Myths and Sagas, p. 231
Fled Bricrenn doesn’t, however, tell us that the horses are three hundred years old, or that they have to be yoked to a specific sacred chariot; one feels, if it were going to come up anywhere, that it would probably be there, since it’s the only account I know of that describes their origins. I suspect, then, that this is like O’Grady’s extrapolation of Cú Chulainn’s brief displays of elemental control into a youthful training to control water, or the invention of the otter incident in his childhood — a passing reference turned into a whole story.
There are also a number of other details in The Coming of Cuculain that suggests familiarity with a version of Fled Bricrenn — more on those in my next post.
[Edit: I was reminded shortly after posting this that an alternative tradition has the horses being born at the same time as Cú Chulainn. If I remember correctly, this comes from Feis Tige Becfholtaig, “version B” of the story of Cú Chulainn’s conception and birth. It’s weirdly hard to find a translation of this version, but I’m pretty sure Lady Gregory uses it, which explains how it ends up in so many retellings and popular accounts. O’Grady doesn’t seem to be using this one, however; his source for the horses’ origins looks to be Fled Bricrenn.]
Cú Chulainn brings these horses triumphantly home and they go to their stalls in the stable that has been waiting for them for centuries, and then he returns to his dormitory. His return doesn’t go unremarked:
Laeg was asleep with the starlight shining on his white forehead; his red hair was shed over the pillow. Cuculain kissed him, and sitting on the bed’s edge wept. Laeg awoke.
“Thou wert not well at supper,” said Laeg, “and now thou hast been wandering in the damp of the night, and thou with a fever upon thee, for I hear thy teeth clattering. I sought to hinder thee, and thou wouldst not be persuaded. Verily, if thou wilt not again obey me, being thy senior, thou shalt have sore bones at my hands. Undress thyself now and come to bed without delay.”
Cuculain did so.
“Thou art as cold as ice,” said Laeg.
“Nay, I am hotter than fire,” said Cuculain.
“Thou art ice, I say,” said Laeg, “and thy teeth are clattering like hailstones on a brazen shield. Ay, and thine eyes shine terribly.”
It seems that running around Ireland in the middle of the night isn’t without its consequences — Cú Chulainn has fallen ill, and after berating him for it, Láeg goes to fetch a doctor to look after him. But let’s pause here a moment, and think about Láeg.
We already saw last week that Cú Chulainn and Láeg are sharing a bed. This is presented as unremarkable, although we’re not told whether it’s typical for the boys to pair up like this — remember that this is before Láeg has been chosen as Cú Chulainn’s charioteer, so they aren’t yet a formal warrior pairing. It’s clearly not a one-time thing, as even when he might have been better served by sneaking in and not waking Láeg up, Cú Chulainn still goes to where Láeg is sleeping, and wakes him up.
I don’t know why Cú Chulainn is crying right now. He cries a lot in this book, and while I have no objection to that, that doesn’t mean I can always tell what emotion is supposed to be expressed by it. In this instance, his tears are met not with sympathy from Láeg, but exasperation — I told you you’d get sick, but would you listen?
I also enjoy that Láeg flexes his authority here — I’m older than you, you have to do what I tell you — and even threatens to beat Cú Chulainn up if he doesn’t get into bed right this instant. Unfortunately, Cú Chulainn is chilled to the bone, so sharing a bed with him doesn’t sound like much fun, and out of concern for his health, Láeg has to go and call for a doctor and explain that his friend is ill.
Exasperated mumfriend Láeg is my favourite Láeg. I enjoy the instances of the two of them being chaotic together, but there’s something about the way Láeg is the one who grabs Cú Chulainn by the scruff of the neck and tells him to Stop that’s special. It’s a relationship that Cú Chulainn doesn’t really have with anyone else — usually, when somebody tries to tell him what to do, he does the precise opposite. Sure, he doesn’t always listen to Láeg, but that just gives Láeg more opportunities to roast him for being a fool.
Now, obviously, being who I am and being interested in queer readings, I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight the obvious potential for reading O’Grady’s Cú Chulainn and Láeg in that light. It hardly needs to be pointed out — the bed-sharing and the kissing is obvious enough. Of course, within the ancient/medieval setting of the story, bed-sharing doesn’t have the connotations it has for us now in the modern era, but I do think the kissing is unusual. We get a lot of that in later medieval French texts (it’s the feudalism), but I’ve found comparatively few instances of kissing in medieval Irish texts, especially “casual” kissing. Perhaps it’s O’Grady using ideas imported from continental romance literature (there are a few of those in the novel), but for us, it still provides a foundation on which we might build a queer reading.
I mean, last week we saw Cú Chulainn was prophesied to be Láeg’s “life-friend”, so they’re basically already married, but you know. I try and at least pretend I’m acknowledging a heteronormative reading too (though the utter absence of Emer save for a brief and unconvincing reference later in the text means it really doesn’t lend itself to that).
In any case, a doctor is fetched and we have a healing scene that seems to be lifted straight from the Táin — three days of sleep, after which he wakes recovered. It’s not long before he goes to Conchobar and asks if he could be “knighted”.
This is an instance where O’Grady’s Cú Chulainn considerably diverges from the hero we see in the Boyhood Deeds. In the Boyhood Deeds, Cú Chulainn essentially obtains weapons and a chariot through trickery. He overhears the druid Cathbad saying that whoever takes arms upon a certain day will achieve great fame (in one recension he leaves then and doesn’t wait to hear the “but have a short life” part of the prophecy; in another he hears it and simply doesn’t care) and tricks Conchobar into arming him by saying it was Cathbad’s decree that he should be given weapons that day.
O’Grady’s Cú Chulainn, on the other hand, goes to Conchobar very politely and says, “If it be pleasing to thee, my Uncle Conchobar, I would be knighted on the morrow, for I am now of due age, and […] I am thought to be sufficiently versed in martial exercises”. We’re also told that he’s “now a man’s full height”, which is very much not the case in the Boyhood Deeds, where he’s still only about six years old. O’Grady has extended the Boyhood Deeds to cover Cú Chulainn’s entire adolescence, cutting out his training with Scáthach and any intevening pre-Táin deeds to finish up with a seventeen-year-old Cú Chulainn newly invested in arms.
Is this more realistic? Probably. Does it nevertheless complicate things? A little. It’s why O’Grady has to shove the Deirdre story in where he does. Yes, it’s always a chronologically problematic story; even the early modern authors noticed that, and tried to include an explanation for Cú Chulainn’s absence by having him appear briefly and say, “You don’t want me involved, everybody will die.” (Probably true.) But if we had a gap between these childhood adventures and the Táin itself, there’d be more space for Fergus’s exile to take place off-screen, without having to worry about how to fit it in.
This older Cú Chulainn doesn’t have to resort to tricks and misdirection to get Conchobar’s consent, although the king is still hesitant. He asks him to think carefully, pointing that there’s a prophecy that whoever is knighted on that day “will be famous and short-lived and unhappy”. But Cú Chulainn won’t be dissuaded, so Conchobar agrees. That doesn’t mean he’s happy about it:
They went to the boys’ dormitory and to the couch of Cuculain. Cuculain and Laeg were asleep together there. Their faces towards each other and their hair mingled together. Cuculain’s face was very tranquil, and his breathing inaudible, like an infant’s.
“O sweet and serene face,” murmured the King, “I see great clouds of sorrow coming upon you.”
Brief digression here: last year, Tumblr user riseupriseupandcomealong illustrated this scene, and it makes me emotional every time it crosses my path (click for original):
This isn’t the first time Conchobar’s seen sadness for Cú Chulainn: after giving him responsibility for the chariot, there’s this curious exchange…
“Why art thou sad, dear Setanta?”
“I am not sad,” answered the boy.
“Truly there is no sadness in thy face, or thy lips, in thy voice or thy behaviour, but it is deep down in thine eyes,” said the King. “I see it there always.”
Setanta laughed lightly. “I know it not,” he said.
It’s true that Cú Chulainn is repeatedly described as “sad” in medieval texts. In Fled Bricrenn, he is a “sad, melancholy man”; in Tochmarc Emire he’s a “dark, sad man”. It’s probably these descriptions that O’Grady’s drawing on when he repeatedly paints his Cú Chulainn in these clouds of sorrow. They’ve always struck me as interesting — never is Cú Chulainn’s sadness explained, and it’s not the emotion one would immediately associate with him. (Something like “rage” would be more typical, probably — but then, Anne Carson would say that rage and grief go together, at least in the creation of tragedy.)
From this earlier reference to a sadness of which Cú Chulainn himself is unaware, we’ve progressed to a more immediate sense of threat. Cú Chulainn has won these sacred horses, as the prophecies said that he would, but at the cost of falling ill; is this a sign of things to come? Even as he prepares to take arms, the climax to which his training has been building, sorrow is descending on him. We get the impression that his glory won’t come without a cost, and O’Grady repeatedly implies that it’s going to be high one.
It’s on this ominous note that we’ll be leaving our discussion for today. The next post will be the last, and we’ll look at Cú Chulainn’s “knighting” and subsequent escapades with Láeg, and then we’ll be done with O’Grady. See you then!
If you enjoyed this post, please consider buying me a coffee.