Tag: Celtic Studies

Conquest, Classicism, and Characterisation: The Coming of Cuculain #1

Today, I began my reading of Standish O’Grady’s 1894 novel, The Coming of Cuculain. I’ve been slightly putting it off all week, wanting to wait until I had the brainpower to read it thoughtfully, pausing to write up my thoughts, rather than racing through the way I usually do when I read.

According to my Kindle, I’m 31% of the way through the book, although this includes the prefatory notes, so the real percentage may be slightly higher. It’s shorter than I’d realised, as a novel: by this point in the story Cú Chulainn has just reached Emain Macha and been accepted into the boy-troop. And we’ve also had our first appearance of Láeg, which is frankly, perfect and iconic in every way. But more on that to come.

I intend to focus mainly on Láeg as my reading progresses, because if I were to tackle every aspect of this book that strikes me as worthy of discussion, we would be here forever, and I’m sure I’ve got blog readers who would rather I didn’t exclusively post about Standish O’Grady for the next six months. But even before Láeg enters the scene, there is… a lot going on that seems worth talking about, so this first post is going to focus on the quarter of the book before we meet him.

Before I start, I should note that I’ll be referring to the characters by the most familiar form of their names — Fergus mac Roich, Conall Cernach etc — rather than the spellings O’Grady uses. Some of his Anglicisations are very idiosyncratic, and some are just kind of cursed; I’ll reference them if I think they’re interesting or worth discussing, but I won’t use them in the discussion. However, I’ll leave them as they are in the text in any quotes, clarifying in brackets if I think they’re sufficiently odd to be incomprehensible.

Right from the Preface, it’s clear that O’Grady has a very different perspective on the Ulster Cycle than I do, mainly that he seems convinced it represents, on some level, historical fact. “Cuculain and his friends are historical characters,” he asserts confidently. His justification for this is that “imaginary and fictitious characters, mere creatures of idle fancy, do not live and flourish so in the world’s memory”. I would… dispute that, as a reasoning, but it’s worth noting that this is where he’s coming from.

Oh, he acknowledges the fanciful elements of the stories, and doesn’t think they’re literally true on every level, but he believes, deep down, they’re a piece of history. This is not an especially wild claim for the 19th century, but it’s been extensively debunked in more recent decades; the idea that medieval Irish literature could offer us any sort of “window on the Iron Age”, as it has been put, has been widely dismissed. What’s surprising to me, as a modern reader, is how this belief in the story’s historicity doesn’t prompt O’Grady to pare back the weirder elements and present the most rational, sober version of the story that he can. For our friend Standish, history can and does co-exist with a world much stranger than our own…

Moving on, then, to the actual story. We begin with a feast at Emain Macha. Conchobar is a young king; Fergus mac Roich his champion, having abdicated his own claim to the kingship and bestowed it upon his young foster-son. While the tradition that Fergus was once king is familiar to me, I think this is the first time I’ve seen Conchobar depicted as Fergus’s fosterling. I’d be very interested to know if that shows up anywhere else, or if it’s an invention (or misinterpretation) of O’Grady’s.

Fergus stands up and gives a speech about how, “Famous deeds […] are not wrought now amongst the Red Branch. I think we are all become women.” To me, gendered implications aside, this reminds me of the beginning of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (hey look, this post is almost topical). A feast, it seems, is not a feast unless there is some new adventure to tell of, some great deed to recount. But Fergus’s call to arms runs deeper than just looking for diversions. He asserts that the Ulaid should conquer all of Ireland, and consider only the sea to be its borders.

Politically, this is… an interesting take, and it’s worth considering O’Grady’s political standpoint here. He was a Unionist, though proud of his Gaelic heritage; his under-referenced Wikipedia page claims he once advocated “a revitalised Irish people taking over the British Empire and renaming it the Anglo-Irish Empire”. So that’s a take. Perhaps it’s these viewpoints that are reflected in Fergus’s call for conquest, though how we’re supposed to interpret an Ulaid-led united Ireland, I’m not entirely sure.

I’m wary of digging too deep into O’Grady’s intentions, though here, as elsewhere in the book, I think his experiences and beliefs do shape the artistic choices he makes. My knowledge of his political activities (he wrote political books as well as novels) and my understanding of the nuances of 19th century national identity are too lacking to feel like I can tackle that aspect of the reading in any great depth, though I’d be fascinated to read something on the topic from somebody with that expertise.

With that in mind, and remembering that my focus is on how the medieval material is reinterpreted, let’s kill the author for a moment, and move on.

Fergus’s call for Ulaid expansion prompts calls for Cathbad, Conchobar’s druid (and in some accounts his father, though this isn’t referenced here), to prophesy the Ulaid’s future. He does so, offering two prophecies. One, that the Ulaid will be divided by fratricide and it will ultimately destroy them. The other, that “there shall come a child to Emain Macha, attended by clear portents from the gods; through him shall arise our deathless fame.”

Cú Chulainn thus appears on the scene as a prophesied saviour of the Ulaid, or at least their reputation. The Ulaid aren’t thrilled about the whole fratricide part of the prophecy, and Conchobar rejects it, but asks Cathbad for more info about this saviour they’re supposed to await. Cathbad “put on his divining apparel and took his divining instruments in his hands” (a very 19th century image of druidic prophecy, in my opinion) and relates in more detail his prophecy about Cú Chulainn.

One thing that strikes me in these early chapters is the strong emphasis that O’Grady puts on the supernatural world. Prophecies are given great weight, as we can see, but there’s a clue to what’s coming in Cathbad’s reference to “clear portents from the gods”. What this actually seems to entail is multiple on-page appearances of the Túatha De Danann, whose presence indicates that events are unfolding as planned. They seem far more involved in shaping those events than they do in any medieval texts I know of — lurking unseen to move the mortal pieces around the board and ensure that events unfold as they must. It’s a very Classical image, I think: while the TDD appear as shadowy figures in a number of texts, hiding in the background and stirring up mischief, we never really get the sense that they control mortal fates in the same way as the Greek or Roman gods might. Indeed, while they sometimes prophesy about the future, we don’t get the sense that they have the power to change it. Nor do they seem to fulfil quite the function that O’Grady gives them, of appearing briefly to signify to observers that what’s going down is what they had planned.

In typical 19th century fashion, O’Grady also attributes to each of them a domain within a pantheon: Lir as sea-god, Lug as sun-god (a popular and surprisingly enduring 19th century approach). Jeffrey Gantz once described this kind of approach as “pinning Roman tails on a Celtic donkey” — we have little evidence that the Túatha De Danann had these kinds of specific areas of influence, although certainly some of them seem to be good at specific things. But it’s completely par for the course in the period when O’Grady is writing, and so doesn’t tell us much about his personal takes.

We’re about to encounter the young Sétanta for the first time, but first, there’s an image of Conchobar and Fergus that I want to draw your attention to, because I’m pretty sure this is going to be important to how we read the friendships and relationships elsewhere in the story.

The right arm of Fergus was cast lightly over the shoulder of Concobar, and his ear was inclined to him as the young king talked, for their mutual affection was very great, and like that of a great boy and a small boy when such, as often happens, become attached to one another.

The word that comes to mind here is “homosocial”. We have this all-male warrior setting (so far, there have been no women mentioned on the page), and the friendship between men is being foregrounded. This particular friendship is one with a generational divide: by positioning Fergus as Conchobar’s foster-father, O’Grady redistributes some of the power back to Fergus, despite his abdication of kingship. Knowing as I do that Fergus will eventually oppose Conchobar and go into exile, this moment has a certain poignancy: it’s a friendship that cannot last. I assume, since Cathbad’s prophecy alludes to it, that those events will be covered within this book’s timeline, but I don’t actually know; I suppose we’ll find out exactly how emotional O’Grady manages to make it.

The chapter closes with a peculiar image of a young boy, watching the boy-troop play hurling, weeping. This, we are told, “was the child who had been promised to the Ultonians”. As an introduction to Cú Chulainn, it’s a striking one: a wordless observer, crying, is not a mental image I’d ever particularly associate with him. Normally he explodes onto the scene in a burst of violence, and instead, he’s a weepy outsider with no voice of his own, shrouded in prophecy.

My phrasing there sounds judgmental, as though I object to this characterisation. I don’t, insofar as I’m reading this as O’Grady’s work rather than as an interpretation of the medieval material; I think it would fail as the latter. But it’s certainly a mistier, less blood-soaked image than one would expect. And yet O’Grady’s Ulaid are far from battle-shy. In the opening description of their hall, we’re told:

Aloft, suspended from the dim rafters, hung the naked forms of great men clear against the dark dome, having the cords of their slaughter around their necks and their white limbs splashed with blood. Kings were they who had murmured against the sovereignty of the Red Branch.

This chilling image of the Ulaid feasting below the rotting corpses of their enemies suggests that O’Grady’s account isn’t going to be lacking in teeth… but he seems not to have given them to Cú Chulainn, on this occasion. Is it because of his hero’s young age (seven, we’re told later)? How weepy is his Cú Chulainn going to be as he ages?

The next chapter is where we really start to get the meat of O’Grady’s characterisation of Cú Chulainn. We’ve left Emain Macha for the moment, and we’re in Dun Dealgan (Dundalk), where Cú Chulainn is being raised by his parents and his nurse. There are some intensely sentimental descriptions of his early years, and of how his nurse “washed his garments and bathed his tiny limbs”. These glimpses of Cú Chulainn in the cradle certainly seem to be trying to emphasise his childishness and innocence.

And yet — on the very next page, Cú Chulainn chases a fierce otter (a water-dog), casts a stone at it, and kills it. A prophet sees this and foretells that he’ll do many great deeds, of which “the last will resemble the first”. This is a reference to Oidheadh Con Culainn, the early modern Death of Cú Chulainn, in which Cú Chulainn’s final deed before his death is to kill an otter. He says there that a prophecy was made that his last deed would be to kill a hound, as was his first (a water-dog being classified as a dog for prophetic purposes), but I’ve always assumed that the ‘first’ he’s referring to is the Hound of Culann, whose death gave Cú Chulainn his name. O’Grady seems to have taken it rather more literally, and presented us with an image of tiny Sétanta, enemy of otters.

There are other hints that some of these descriptions of Cú Chulainn’s childhood are extrapolated from later stories. We’re told that he “sailed his boats in the stream and taught it here to be silent, and there to hum in rapids, or to apparel itself in silver and sing liquid notes, or to blow its little trumpet from small cataracts.” This is attributing to a small child a surprising amount of power over the elements which isn’t explained in the least (is it normal to be able to control water, or are we supposed to read this as a sign of Cú Chulainn’s Otherworldliness?). So where does it come from?

I suspect it’s from the first recension of the Táin, where Cú Chulainn calls on a river for aid and it answers. Again, his elemental power is never explained or even presented as particularly remarkable, but it’s certainly there. I can’t be sure, of course, that O’Grady is drawing on this scene when he shows young Sétanta controlling the stream, but it seems likely enough. After all, when I drafted To Run With The Hound, I drew on that exact moment as a reason to show my young Sétanta experimenting with control over nature; perhaps it’s not a stretch to think that O’Grady might have thought alike.

In the Boyhood Deeds episode of the Táin, Sétanta asks his mother leave to go to Emain Macha, and she responds that he should wait until somebody can take him. He refuses, insisting on leaving as soon as he’s been given directions, and turns up announced before the boy-troop. O’Grady takes this brief moment of dialogue and elaborates it into something lasting several pages: the boy’s mother trying to keep from him the knowledge of Emain Macha and far-off places, and his attempts to trick the information out of her.

But we’re also given a glimpse into how Cú Chulainn is viewed by others, and this is something that particularly caught my interest:

The next night too he dreamed of Emain Macha, and heard voices which were unintelligible, and again the third night he heard the voices and one voice said, “This our labour is in vain, let him alone. He is some changeling and not of the blood of Rury. He will be a grazier, I think, and buy cattle and sell them for a profit.” And the other said, “Nay, let us not leave him yet. Remember how valiantly he faced the fierce water-dog and slew him at one cast.”

Who are these voices? Are they the voices of the Túatha De Danann? This seems surprising, if they’re accusing Cú Chulainn of being a ‘changeling’ (surely, they of all people would know). But it’s a fascinating image because of the way it presents him as an outsider, seemingly unfit to become a warrior (though the association with cattle is interesting in light of his pivotal role in the Táin), except for this early ‘heroic’ deed that suggests there’s more to him than meets the eye.

Cú Chulainn-the-outsider is one of my key interests, and here, we’ve got hints of it even before he leaves his home and comes to Emain Macha. The idea that Cú Chulainn seems, at this age, an unlikely hero and warrior is also of interest to me – what changed, to make this delicate boy who plays in the stream and occasionally murders animals into the terrifying fighter we know and love?

Part of it seems to be that he gets out from his mother’s apron strings. Because O’Grady appears to be laying the blame on her for not being willing to let go of him: Sétanta demonstrates to her his feats with a ball and hurley, and she still can’t see that he’s ready to leave and go to Emain Macha and spend time with other children. He’s isolated from his peers in Dun Dealgan because she’s concerned not to let him associate “with children of that rude realm whose conversation and behaviour she misliked for her child”. Súaltaim, his father, is here presented as a king, and Cú Chulainn a young noble who is clearly far too good to be the companion of simple peasants — but he’s lonely, and this loneliness drives his desperation to go to Emain Macha and encounter the boy-troop there.

Eventually, his desperation to leave gets the better of him, and he confronts his mother about it.

“These feats,” he replied, “are nothing to what I shall yet do in needlework, O mother, when I am of age to be trusted with my first needle, and knighted by thy hands, and enrolled amongst the valiant company of thy sewing women.”

“What meaneth the boy?” said his mother, for she perceived that he spoke awry.

“That his childhood is over, O Dectera,” answered one of her women, “and that thou art living in the past and in dreams.”

I could probably write a whole blog post about this quote, and the fascinating gendered readings we can make of the way Cú Chulainn equates growing up and attaining weapons with needlework and becoming one of his mother’s sewing women. No doubt O’Grady meant this sarcastic response in a rather misogynistic way, highlighting the absurdity of a hero doing needlework when he should be doing something more fitting, but its implications for a transmasculine reading are immense — especially as Cú Chulainn follows up on this by running away to Emain Macha before his mother realises what’s happening.

(I am barely resisting the temptation to spend 20 minutes reading way much into this one line…)

So, Sétanta flees his needlework, or at least the mother who would rather have him safe at home then out fighting other boys, and sets off for his future alone. There are more supernatural encounters here: he’s met on the road by Lugh, who tells him, “I am thy friend; fear nothing, for I shall be with thee always.” No sign here that Lugh is Cú Chulainn’s father — O’Grady evidently decided against trying to untangle the knot of paternity that we’re offered by Compert Con Culainn. A little further along the way, he meets Manannan mac Lir, who flings a mantle over him — probably the cloak that’s mentioned in the Táin as originating from Tír Tairngire.

And then finally, finally, he comes to Emain Macha, and encounters the boy-troop, and Láeg, and everything I set out to find in this book.

But that, dear friends, is a story for next time.

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You can read The Coming of Cuculain for free via Project Gutenberg.

Legendary Linguist or Mortified Monoglot?

As Duolingo introduces a new level, “Legendary”, above the usual five — one that will turn my golden Irish skill-crowns a silvery blue-purple — I find myself wondering how much my Irish has actually improved in the months years since I started the course.

My 937-day Duolingo streak has not been solely dedicated to Irish: there was also a brief flirtation with Gaelic and Latin, and more recently, a sustained affair with Esperanto. But the Irish course remains the only one where I’ve completed all skills up to level five, and am now in a position to try and prove myself a Legend.

Racing through the no-hint ‘challenges’ required to gain Legendary status for the early skills, I can’t help but think it’s testing me more on my knowledge of Duolingo than my knowledge of Irish. Laziness has meant that, ever since I completed the Irish course, I’ve found myself “practising” skills I already knew back to front whenever my weekly XP dropped too low and I was on the verge of beeing yeeted out of the Diamond League. As a result, I have the sentences basically memorised, at least up to the first checkpoint and some way beyond it, and no longer need to really think about what the words actually mean, or how the grammar is constructed.

There’s certainly a value to the no-hint challenge; I probably overuse hints, not trusting my own memory or spelling even when I’m right, and the structure of these new Legendary lessons means they are harder than the ordinary lessons of the lower levels. But I breeze through them. One done, three done, five done, more. I’m a legend, apparently. I’ve gone from twentieth in my leaderboard to first in a day. I’m proving my linguistic skills with every correct answer.

And yet, when I go to the online Irish conversation evening I attend most weeks, my contribution is always the same. Dia duit. Tá tuirse orm, agus tú féin? Tá sé ag cur báisti i gCorcaigh. And then I lapse into silence, struggling to follow the thread of the conversation, let alone contribute to it. When I do try and speak, my clumsy sentences are peppered with English words and apologies.

My journey with Irish began four years ago, or seven years ago, or longer, depending on where you count from, and it hasn’t been limited to Duolingo — the Irish course in particular offers a woefully incomplete education in the principles of the language — but the app still symbolises the paradox of my failure to learn the language despite going through the motions. No longer a beginner, out of my depth in intermediate classes, and miles from the academic Irish I need to read the articles relevant to my field of study, I exist in a perpetual state of monolingual frustration, wondering how on earth it is people actually attain fluency in any language other than their mother tongue, since I seem completely incapable of it.

Four years ago: I spent the week at Oideas Gael in Co. Donegal, for their annual Language & Culture Summer School. Mornings were spent in the level one Irish class with the other beginners, acquiring an Ulster tinge to my Irish that has never entirely faded. Afternoons were spent set-dancing, the Irish instructions more or less incomprehensible to me and my partner, a classmate from level one. Some of them we figured out through logic and process of elimination (“the door says slí amach, so amach must mean ‘out’!”); others we replaced with our own terms (“swap the women!”), having given up on parsing the language being called out as we frantically copied the others in our set.

I left Donegal exhausted and headache-ridden, but with slightly more Irish than I had when I arrived. I intended to go back — last year, this year — but Covid and practicalities have so far interfered with those plans.

The most important vocab: “I would like a cup of tea, please. Thank you.”

Before that, seven years ago: an optimistic fresher with big ideas about how well I’d cope with the workload at Cambridge, I signed up for the extracurricular modern Irish classes being held in the department. I made it most of the way through the term, overwhelmed and exhausted and completely incapable of remembering anything I learned, before I acknowledged that it was never going to happen and dropped out.

Before that… what came before that? Teenage me discovering an early precursor of Duolingo, a website that promised to teach me Irish through flashcards. I learned dia duit and the names of some animals and little else; the one that stuck was féileacán, butterfly. I’m not sure why that word, more than or madra. It charmed me, I think, and in that moment I began to understand Irish as a living language, one that real people spoke, which wasn’t limited to fantasy novels and Clannad.

Before that: not much. The Clannad CD my uncle bought me. Learning Siúil a Rún by ear, with no idea what the words actually meant, the taste of the sounds in my mouth little more than nonsense syllables endlessly repeated.

Where did my Irish journey begin? Somewhere between the ages of 10 and 20. And then it went in circles, endlessly, never breaking out of the loop.

I’m being unfair to myself, of course. I know that I’ve improved from where I was seven years ago, or even where I was four years ago. But how much? Enough to justify the hours spent on Futurelearn, Duolingo, in online classes at UCC and Oideas Gael? Enough to make me believe I’ll ever be anything other than a monolingual Anglophone? Enough to read the articles my supervisor recommends without recourse to Google Translate, a dictionary, and several hours of crying? Enough to stop feeling like an outsider in my field, an impostor, incapable of catching up to those who grew up in Ireland and took Irish at school and never had to go through this painful, painstaking process as an adult?

There’s something intensely alienating about being an English person in Celtic Studies — about being any non-Irish person — and not having Irish, and not knowing how to get it, either.

I have five years of studying Old Irish under my belt, and two more years of independent research on the literature. And yet Modern Irish has never been part of my training, and now, as I move into looking more at early modern material, I feel keenly the lack of it. My inability to read scholarship written in Irish feels disrespectful, but I’ve yet to find out how on earth I’m meant to learn academic Irish. Classes for adults and international students focus on conversation, and the rhythms of dialogue are miles from the complicated passive constructions of academic articles. I have been taught how to give directions, but not what to do when a writer insists on putting their sub-clauses first. I’ve learned how to describe the furniture in my bedroom (when will I ever need this?!), but not the technical vocabulary for the collection of folklore and oral storytelling.

There’s a wall, and I’ve hit it: the endless purgatory of the advanced beginner, the lower intermediate learner, the medievalist with a solid understanding of the grammar who can’t string a sentence together. Classes where the genitive is considered too complicated go over my head in terms of finding the words to make myself understood, and I want to say, Old Irish has four and a half cases, I’m not afraid of the tuiseal ginideach, just teach me how to speak. I can read more than I can understand but my memory fails me when I come to write. My anxiety fills me with distrust in my own ability to remember a word and its usage, and so every sentence I speak is prefaced by apologies and followed by a hasty translation into English, in case I wasn’t understood.

I’m perpetually aware of my outsider status. English in Ireland. English and studying medieval Irish literature. English and explaining the Táin to Irish people, feeling like I’m sasanachsplaining, feeling like one of these days, somebody’s going to tell me I have no right to think I understand Cú Chulainn better than they do, when for four years my research has revolved around him. Self-conscious about my pronunciation at conferences and in videos, second-guessing every name. Unable to explain to supervisors and faculty exactly how bad my Modern Irish is, because they assume I’m being self-deprecating, used to Irish students who, despite their protests and claims that “the way it’s taught” means they’ve learned nothing, still have twelve years of study under their belt. Frustrated at how few resources there seem to be to reach the level I need, because the answer feels like I just asked for directions from an unhelpful uncle: “Well, if I wanted to get there, I wouldn’t have started here…”

Tá Gaeilge agam remains a lie, despite all my promises to myself and despite all my efforts otherwise. But my Duolingo account shows an Irish tree glowing gold and now, partially, a silvery blue-purple that tells me I’m a legend.

Yeah, right. A legend about an anxious Sasanach, verbose in English and silent in Irish, passionate about the Ulster Cycle and afraid to pronounce the Irish name of it. Rúraíocht. Google Translate struggles with that one. Rory? it offers hopefully, and I can’t even mock it, because it handles the sentences in this article I’m reading a lot better than I do, untangles the knots of their construction so that all that’s left for me is to repair the torn threads where a technical term slipped through its net.

What do you buy an Ulster Cycle nerd for Christmas? A framed print of a Cú Chulainn illustration and multiple versions of the Táin.

The real reason I don’t speak at Irish classes and conversation evenings is because I’m ashamed. Ashamed of my outsider’s tongue, ashamed of my failures to learn, ashamed that I seem to have no facility for languages at all. My sensory processing issues and poor memory team up to leave me bewildered and speechless whenever I’m put on the spot, unable to comprehend a word that’s said to me or, if I manage that, find the words to respond. For somebody who can make English dance to their tune and has been known to talk for six hours straight, this wordlessness is humiliating.

It will be good for your Irish, says my supervisor, when I tell him how hard I find reading articles in Irish. Wait, you can read Old Irish but Modern Irish is a struggle? ask incredulous internet friends, not realising that when it comes to Old Irish, nobody is trying to take my dictionary away from me, and nobody is asking me to shape my own thoughts into the language. Only to unravel others’, and that’s easier, because try as I might, my thoughts seem unshakeably English in their nature, and resist the process of dismantling required to remake them into something that makes sense in Irish.

I’m not monolingual by choice. But I seem incapable of being anything else.

And so I go back to Duolingo. Maybe this time, by the time I’ve got through the course, I’ll dare say more than I’m tired and it’s raining in Cork. Maybe I’ll start to trust my tongue not to fail me and my memory to give me the right words. Maybe I’ll stop freezing whenever anyone addresses me directly in conversation.

Maybe, but probably not.

Legendary, indeed.

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The Road To ASNaC: Blog Bodies

I met Eleanor during Freshers’ Week 2014, amidst the whirlwind of introductory sessions for ASNaCs (students in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic) during which they crammed our heads full of information that, in my case at least, was immediately pushed out by other things. We sat at the back of the room, exchanging memes about Achilles and Patroclus, and that was it. We were friends.

I know there must have been more to it than that — what was it about Eleanor that made eighteen-year-old me think she was a safe person to talk to about queer readings of mythological figures? — but that’s what I remember. Being overwhelmed, sitting next to Eleanor, and exchanging memes. 

Being silly on King’s Parade, October 2015

This proved to be an accurate representation of how our friendship would progress, and now here we are, near enough seven years down the line. We’re a long way from the versions of ourselves who first embarked on their medievalist journeys, but a lot of things have stayed the same. And today we thought we’d talk a little bit more about how we ended up studying what is probably Cambridge’s most obscure subject. How did we find out it existed, and what made us think — in an era of high tuition fees — that this was what interested us? Were we budding medievalists from the cradle, or was everything new?

This isn’t intended as an advertisement for the ASNaC course in particular, but since it’s where we both started our medievalist journey (and where Eleanor has continued hers), it seemed like a good starting point to kick off our Blog Bodies series.

This is our first discussion post, so we’re still figuring out the logistics — let us know what works and what doesn’t!

Finn: For me, the road to ASNaC very much started with children’s books. Specifically, one children’s book: The New Policeman by Kate Thompson, which my grandma gave me when I was about ten — it sparked an interest in Irish music and folklore that later led to me becoming an Irish dancer. It also probably latched onto roots laid down by my childhood obsession with The Load of Unicorn by Cynthia Harnett (a historical novel about Caxton, the printing press, and Sir Thomas Malory, first published 1959), the nightmares I had after reading The Owl Service by Alan Garner, and of course, the huge influence of Tolkien on my childhood. You’ve definitely mentioned Alan Garner and Susan Cooper to me as influences, so did you have a similar experience?

Eleanor: I definitely didn’t have as good an idea of what I was interested in as you did! I found ASNC the absolutely classic way, by going onto the Cambridge website and seeing it at the top of the alphabetical list of subjects. But the books I read as a kid, and then as a teen, definitely set me up to be enthusiastic about it once I’d found it. Like you said, I read a lot of Alan Garner (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, Elidor) and Susan Cooper (The Dark Is Rising Sequence) – at the time, I didn’t realise just how much they were both drawing on ASNC-type lit and folklore: it’s more that I picked up The Vibes from them, and then when I saw ASNC on the website, The Vibes appeared. History-wise, I was a massive fan of Rosemary Sutcliff novels, and some of my favourites were set in the Late Antique and early medieval period (Beowulf: Dragonslayer, the entire series from The Eagle of the Ninth to Sword at Sunset), so I knew in theory that I liked the period. Even so, I absolutely didn’t anticipate just how much I was going to love it!

Finn: To be fair, I found ASNaC by accident while poking around on UCAS, so we have that in common. And we could probably do an entire post just about our childhood reading experiences, if people would be interested (let us know in the comments!). But for now… getting started as a nerd. I had no prior experience with medieval history or literature — I hadn’t studied it at school or anything. I’d been researching ‘Irish mythology’ for writing purposes for a couple of years, but most of my sources were… unreliable, and it wasn’t until a few months before starting at Cambridge that I actually read Táin Bó Cúailnge rather than relying on Edwardian retellings. It was a big learning curve. What about you, did you have much of a medievalist background? 

Eleanor: Does being into Julian of Norwich count? But in all seriousness, I was in a very similar position to you, really. I hadn’t covered medieval history since my first year of secondary school. My school was unusual in focusing on the 16th and 17th centuries for A-Level History, so I knew that I liked looking at earlier history, and the further back the better – I liked immersing myself in a version of society very different from my own. And I knew that I enjoyed the language element of medieval studies because I’d done Latin (thank you, Catholic school) – and even that was unusual in our cohort: I’d done Latin up to A-Level, but most people were starting from scratch, and the people in the intermediate classes with me had largely dropped it after GCSE. But I had no real experience of studying the medieval period at all! So it was a big shift to go from “all dates start with 19- or 20-” to “all dates start with 15- or 16-” to “all dates start with something between 4- and 10-”. 

Finn: My school pretty much only focused on the 20th century, so I’m a bit jealous you got to do earlier stuff! I know there’s a stereotype that everyone’s studied the Tudors a million times, but I just did the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations over and over again… it’s one of the reasons I didn’t take History A-Level, I couldn’t face doing it again. 

I have to say, there were definitely moments in first year when I was profoundly disappointed by the way that the Irish material didn’t live up to my Romanticist expectations. Most of my sources as a teen were from the 19th century, or relied on scholarship that was, so I went into it expecting gods and fairies. Instead, I got a lot of monasteries. Like, a lot. The amount of ecclesiastical history involved was something that really hadn’t clicked for me before I started. Of course, as you know, I ended up going purely literary and hiding from the concept of mythology, so I got over that, but… are there ways in which ASNaC destroyed your dreams or preconceptions?

Eleanor: I definitely had some preconceptions, going in, about the degree to which things would be “pagan” – euhemerized gods showing up in the literature, Secret Pagan Mindsets sneaking into the Christianity, all that sort of thing. Stuff that’s less studied these days, or that arose based on faulty assumptions in the first place. I do remember going into my first Welsh lecture and being told “we basically have no evidence about pre-Christian religion preserved in our lit, and also, the Mabinogi are definitely not as old as some people will tell you”, and going “…oh. Wait, what? Then why am I doing this course?” But what I realised pretty quickly was that things didn’t have to be explicitly non-Christian to be interesting – they just had to be weird. And the early medieval period has plenty of weirdness! Every time someone told me, “it’s more complex than that,” I just got more enthusiastic about digging down into the complexity. And I think we both found that the literature doesn’t necessarily have to preserve the secrets of an earlier time in order to speak to us. It speaks just fine on its own.

Finn: Yeah, medieval Christianity is way weirder than your bog-standard modern English church where everything’s very respectable — something you never see represented in pop culture depictions of the medieval period! Saints’ lives are wild. And I agree about the literature not needing to preserve secrets to be interesting. That doesn’t mean I dismiss all possibilities of mythological survivals or whatever, but it does mean I don’t really care if they’re there or not.

Did you know going into it what your focus would be? It was always the Irish material that drew me, but I flirted with the idea of Old Norse for a while (which I ended up dropping after first year), and I made a valiant attempt at Welsh in final year before returning to my true love. But you seemed a bit more consistent in terms of what papers you took.

Eleanor: I knew that I liked Old English, and I did end up taking it all through undergrad, so in that sense, yes. But I thought Old English lit, and Scandinavian and pre-Conquest English history, would be way more important to me than they actually ended up being! Everywhere I applied outside of ASNC, I was originally applying for things like Viking Studies! Welsh was kind of a neat add-on for me at first, because I thought it looked cool and I liked going on holiday in Wales. I really struggled with the language to start with, too. It wasn’t until I started writing essays on Welsh lit, and learning how beautiful englyn poetry was and how gloriously weird Welsh Arthuriana is, that I discovered I wanted to keep doing it and actually make it my focus. (And look at me now – these days I focus on saints, and I had no idea I had any interest in saints’ cults until my third year of undergrad!)

Finn: I applied for English and History at most other places… but I’m really not a historian, I’m definitely a literature person. Funny how we can be wrong about these things. Fortunately, though, we ended up in the same place, or I wouldn’t have one of my closest friends <3 And maybe one of these days we’ll get you to tell everyone here about some of those saints’ cults!

So that’s where we started — where are we now? I’m finishing up an MA in Early and Medieval Irish at University College Cork, and Eleanor is doing a PhD in the ASNaC department at Cambridge, researching a 14th-century manuscript of saints’ Lives and trying to pin down where it was made. 

And we exchange memes about medieval lit.

A lot of memes. 

Some things never change. 

At the People’s Vote March, London, 2019

You can find Eleanor here: @englynsmith 

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Introducing: The Blog Bodies

One of the things I’ve been struggling with about blogging, and the reason that it’s been so quiet around here lately, is the sense that I have nothing to say which hasn’t already been said by somebody else, probably more eloquently. I’m sure this kind of self-awareness is good for you, in small doses — it’s an important part of growing up to realise we’re really not that special, and that probably, nobody wants to hear the most mundane details of our lives — but in large doses it can be paralysing.

It’s also strange, because every time I try and tell somebody about this fear, that there’s nothing unique or interesting about me and therefore nobody will be interested in anything I have to say, they laugh and point out that I’m a complete weirdo. I’m doing an MA in Early and Medieval Irish. My closest friends are a bunch of huge nerds who live and breathe obscure medieval nonsense. I’ve had a number of unusual hobbies, I write novels, and on top of that I’m queer, trans, and disabled — which has to be good for something, right?

And, well, I’m not sure I live a particularly interesting life (particularly at the moment, when I do literally nothing, because there’s a pandemic), but it’s true that my interests are fairly niche, and that I know more about medieval Irish literature than your average person. And while I’m not about to start posting large chunks of my research on the internet, for a number of very good reasons, that’s something I can talk about where I do have something to say and a unique perspective.

I think I get caught up sometimes in the idea of being marketable, having a brand, trying to keep things tidy online. I write YA thrillers about assassins, so I can’t let my online spaces get too academic, because that doesn’t fit, etc. But by trying to keep all the parts of me distinct, I just end up silencing the biggest parts of who I am. I’m not here to market myself. I’m here to share thoughts and ideas and information that I think is cool. I’m here to be myself, and if me being myself is interesting to you, then I hope you’ll stick around to watch me do it. I’m pretty sure that’s more what you want from a blog you follow than me attempting to Have A Consistent Brand, after all.

And if I’m going to blog about the things I’m thinking about and the things that interest me…? That’s going to be medieval literature.

And yes, I know, you’re thinking, “Okay, how is this at all different from what you’re already doing?” Because it’s true. I already sometimes blog about academic topics, like my post about why we need queer theory in Celtic Studies, or the one that’s a thinly veiled excuse for me to throw my emotions about Láeg mac Riangabra and Horatio at you.

The difference is that I want to talk about being a medievalist, not just about the material itself. I want to talk about how I ended up studying weird stuff that I have to explain every time I tell someone my degree title, and some of the challenges that entails, which might not occur to people who’ve never encountered it. It’s the kind of thing I’ve shied away from talking about too much on here, and I’m not entirely sure why. Because it feels like an interview? Because there’s something self-centred in assuming anyone would be interested in why I picked my degree subject? Except that people are interested; it’s usually the first thing they ask when they hear what I’m studying. So why not talk about it? Why not lean into the one thing that’s genuinely unusual about me?

I also want to start talking more about my reactions to medieval-inspired media — retellings and adaptations, for example — from the point of view of a medievalist. Although I drifted away from doing general book reviews a while ago, I’d like to start seeking out some medieval retellings to review and discuss. I’ve got a couple on my list to start with, but I’m taking suggestions for more, especially new releases. I don’t want to do this from a nit-picky “here’s what they got wrong” perspective, though; it’s easy to drift into that, but rarely much fun for those on the outside. I want it to be a more positive, “here’s where this comes from!” kind of approach.

But the biggest difference is that I don’t want this to be only my perspectives on things. Like I said: my closest friends are big nerds. They have stuff to say, and are willing to say it, and I’d love to share this space with them. So while this will remain my personal blog, where I post my extended thoughts about my experiences and interests, I’m also going to be varying things a little bit more. Bringing in some guest posters, some discussion posts and collaborations, that kind of thing.

I realise this is the kind of thing that people start podcasts about. Discussion about medieval-inspired media from the point of view of medievalists? There are probably a bunch of podcasts on that exact topic. There are even probably a bunch about how people ended up in their niche area of study. However, I am allergic to podcasts, which is to say that my ears and my brain are not friends and I would always 100% choose to read a transcript instead, so we won’t be doing that.

Nope, we’re doing this the old fashioned way. On the blog. Like it’s 2010 again. It’s like if a podcast had a transcript but then there was also no audio and you could read it on your phone while listening to music or something. Feels like a radical innovation these days, but I think there’s room in the internet ecosystem for the old way of doing things.

And we — me and the Blog Bodies, as the team is currently nicknamed* — hope you’ll join us. (And yes. We probably will end up talking about The Green Knight, when the long-awaited summer of Dev Patel finally arrives.)

But don’t worry, the ‘usual’ posts (if such a term can be applied when I write them once in a blue moon) will still be here too. Hopefully I’ll have some writing news to share with youse before long, and I still maintain hope that I’ll get back to dance eventually and will have things to say about that too. This is an addition to the blog roster, not a replacement.

It should be fun. We’ll see how it goes. And don’t forget to drop some medieval retelling/adaptation recs in the comments if there’s anything you think I’d enjoy.

*This is of course a reference to bog bodies, aka bodies preserved in peat bogs, chosen because I think all of us secretly dream of becoming a bog body one day. As a friend put it: “It’s time. Peat me up, boys.”

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The Case for Queer Theory in Celtic Studies

Most of you have heard enough about my research interests to last a lifetime, but for those who may have stumbled on my blog for the first time, one of my primary areas of academic interest is queer readings of medieval Irish literature. In particular, I look at the Ulster Cycle, and I’m fascinated by the character of Cú Chulainn and the various ways in which he performs heroic masculinity, or fails to do so.

This makes me fairly popular in some circles – particularly on Tumblr, where I regularly have people asking when and where they can read my research – but this positivity isn’t universal, and although explicit hostility towards the subject is rare, I still feel the need to defend the legitimacy of this area of study. I’m apologetic about it, careful to couch everything in the most ambiguous of terms and to keep terminology specific to queer theory to an absolute minimum. I was even told not to use the word ‘queer’ in my undergraduate dissertation title – instead, it was about ‘ambiguities of gender and sexuality’.

It’s not just queer theory. Celtic Studies isn’t exactly known for its cutting-edge literary theory in general. Kind of the opposite. There are a bunch of reasons for that, not least because our ratio of scholars to texts compared to, say, Old English literature is completely absurd. This has its drawbacks – it can be hard to know which journals will be willing to publish anything too new-fangled and theory-heavy, for example. Still, queer theory is what I do, so it’s what I know the most about — and I’ve often found myself turning to other disciplines for comparative material I can pillage and bring back with me, because there isn’t nearly enough of it within our own field.

Sometimes, I read queer approaches to Arthurian literature or similar and marvel at the complexity, and how deep it’s able to go, because it feels like I can only skate over the surface, tentatively suggesting that maybe we should allow for the possibility of atypical constructions of gender within a text. Like I’m stuck at 101 level and other medieval disciplines are at 401 and I don’t dare to advance any further until I’ve proved I’m allowed to be here in the first place.[1]

Of course, it’s not wholly negative. It creates a space for younger scholars to take new approaches, knowing that it hasn’t all been said before, and it would be wrong to suggest that nobody in the field is using theoretical approaches. There are a number of scholars who work from a more theory-heavy angle, and queer theory isn’t unheard of – Sarah Sheehan’s 2005 article, ‘Fer Diad de-flowered: homoerotics and masculinity in Comrac Fir Diad’, explores queer readings of the relationship between Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad and is hardly recent, even by medievalist standards. I might be the first within academic circles[2] to argue for a transmasculine reading of Cú Chulainn, but I’m not entirely breaking new ground here, and it would be arrogant to suggest that I am.

Still, the theoretical approach is a minority one. In my experience, it’s entirely possible to study medieval Irish literature without ever being exposed to concepts of literary theory. We explore a lot of angles – but they’re linguistic, historical, mythological angles. Not theoretical frameworks.

I wonder if this is different for those studying Celtic material within an English or Comparative Literature department – and I’m willing to acknowledge, too, that it may also have been a Cambridge quirk, and not universal. But for me, when I brought ideas of narrative foils and literary doubles into my undergrad essays, I was drawing on concepts I learned in A-Level English Literature, and I never moved on from that until I decided of my own accord to go down a queer theory rabbithole. Now, as I embark on postgrad studies, I’m trying to fill some of the huge gaps in my understanding of theory, but that’s because it interests me – because at heart I’m interested in this material as literature (not necessarily mythology, history, or interesting expressions of language). Nobody else is going to make me do it, because it’s not seen as particularly necessary.

I suspect it’s the absence of these broader theoretical approaches in the field that means the possibility of queer readings can often be dismissed out of hand. The most recent and relevant example of this that comes to mind is Tom O’Donnell’s book Fosterage in Medieval Ireland, where he discusses the relationship between Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad and claims that it has been ‘misconstrued as homosexual’ due to a lack of understanding of the emotional richness of fosterage on the part of modern readers.[3]

I’m perfectly willing to accept that their relationship can be read as a normative relationship between foster brothers, and I appreciate that O’Donnell’s purpose in this chapter is to emphasise the bonds of affection within medieval Irish fosterage. However, I don’t accept that this rules out the possibility of a queer reading, and I think implying that a queer reading negates or contradicts a normative interpretation shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what a queer reading is.

Queer theory draws on a post-structuralist approach, which tells us that we can have multiple, even contradictory readings of texts, because there is no single true reading. These readings can exist simultaneously. In our case, we’re working with anonymous material that may have developed over hundreds of years through the oral tradition before reaching anything like its surviving form, so we can make no claims about authorial intent – of course we can’t. But we can look for different ways that we, as modern readers, can interpret and understand material, and no eleventh-century monk is going to take to Twitter to tell us that we’ve misread his intentions. Death of the author has never been so literal.

There’s this pervasive idea that a queer reading is in some way anachronistic, but a queer reading is not an attempt to impose modern identities on premodern characters. For a start, queer identities and behaviours have always existed; both gender and sexuality are culturally defined and therefore change over time. Relationships and expressions of identity that are normative now might be viewed as subversive or queer at various points in history, and vice versa – behaviours we might identify as ‘queer’ may have been normative within specific social structures (see, for example, Ancient Greek pederasty).

We’re in danger of assuming our modern understanding of normativity is the one that applies to these texts, but even in the rigid, hierarchical, Christian world of medieval Ireland, our modern western idea of the gender binary fails to fully encompass the concepts expressed in the texts and the laws.[4] And since ‘heterosexual’ is as much a modern concept as ‘homosexual’ why do we think it’s somehow neutral or historically accurate to position this as the norm?

What a queer reading does is disrupt the assumptions on which our conventional understandings of a text are based. How many more possibilities are opened up when we stop assuming that everybody in a text is heterosexual and cisgender? How much more carefully do we look at characters, power structures, conflicts and oppositions, if we stop making assumptions about gender and sexuality? A queer reading reminds us that there are always other ways of understanding relationships. It reminds us to examine how gender is constructed uniquely within a specific narrative, and to explore how this affects our understandings of other power dynamics.

In other words, a queer reading is a way of thinking outside the box when we analyse a text, creating alternative understandings that may contradict, inform, or problematise the mainstream interpretations.

Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad’s relationship is a great illustration of this multiplicity of possible interpretations, because I’d argue that the fosterage argument and the queer reading are in no way contradictory. Firstly, because a relationship that was normative to a contemporary audience may still hold queer resonances for modern readers. Secondly, because even within its historical context, a structure doesn’t have to be inherently queer in all its iterations to create space for queer identities and behaviours to exist. It would be absurd to suggest that historically, all brothers-in-arms were ‘kinda gay for each other, actually’ – but that doesn’t mean there weren’t those who found this brotherhood a space in which they could express themselves within a normative structure that rendered it acceptable.

We see elsewhere how institutions formed around homosocial bonds can facilitate queerness. In the medieval church, we find the rite of spiritual brotherhood (or ‘adelphopoiesis’ – brother-making), intended as a spiritual bond between two men and invoking aspects of marriage rites. This rite wasn’t intended as a romantic or sexual one, and historians have often argued with attempts to compare it to modern queer relationships. But in the 13th century, Athanasius I condemned it because it “brings about coitus and depravity.”[5] This structure, then, was creating a space for queer behaviours. The institution was not itself inherently queer, but for those looking for ways to express their unswerving commitment to their close companion and repudiate the possibility of heterosexual marriage… well, it clearly looked appealing.

Thus a type of relationship doesn’t have to be inherently or universally queer to create space for queer behaviours and readings to exist. We can simultaneously read Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad’s relationship as a societally normative bond between foster brothers, and acknowledge a queer reading, without either necessitating opposition to the other.

And yet I’m still nervous about doing so. Still afraid that expressing my interest in and enthusiasm for queer readings will mean more advanced scholars look down on me, or that I’ll be dismissed as not really understanding the historical context of material. When I stand up at a conference and say I’m talking about transmasculine readings of Cú Chulainn, as I did a couple of weeks ago, I couch it in caveats and disclaimers. Emphasise that ‘all’ I’m suggesting is an unconventionally expressed masculinity which may resonate with modern transmasculine experiences, and that this reminds us not to automatically categorise Cú Chulainn as a ‘hypermasculine’ figure simply because he’s a hyper-martial figure.

I was grateful that on this occasion the response to my paper was so positive – people responded far better to it than I feared, and I had a bunch of really interesting questions. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t nervous, before and during it, because I had absolutely no idea how it was going to go down. And I still hesitate, when meeting someone new within the field – especially a more senior academic – to talk to much about that side of my research.

I hope one day I’ll be able to be unapologetic about it. Because it’s not anachronistic, to suggest that we as modern readers might interpret texts in ways which resonate with modern queer identities and experiences. Nor to point out the ways that gender is constructed, and how characters succeed or fail at performing that. Nor is it ahistorical to look beyond the normative explanation of relationships and explore alternative understandings.

Queer theory and queer readings belong in Celtic Studies. We make no claims to have the only truth or the only valid interpretation. We accept contradiction and alternatives and arguments which problematise our own. But we’re sticking around, because our readings have value, too.

Or at least, I am. You couldn’t be rid of me if you tried.

[1] I can’t imagine a Celtic Studies journal publishing something like Blake Gutt’s “Transgender genealogy in Tristan de Nanteuil”, for example, nor half of what I’ve read by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen.

[2] I say ‘in academic circles’ because it’s actually quite a popular reading among young people on the internet, most of whom aren’t studying the material formally.

[3] O’Donnell, Fosterage in Medieval Ireland (2020), p.95. This is in no way intended to call Tom O’Donnell out specifically – I have a lot of respect for him, and his pop culture-heavy blog posts about medieval Irish lit have been an inspiration to me in thinking about public-facing academia. But I have to admit this statement made me grumpy when I read it.

[4] When we look at material from outside the western/Christian world, we have to be even more wary about imposing colonialist ideas about binary gender – this is not, and has never been, a universal truth.

[5] See https://time.com/5896685/queer-monks-medieval-history/ for more on this.

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