Tag: Ulster Cycle

An Early Modern Melancholy

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 our friendship 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 lord himself.” 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 companion. 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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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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