44 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on 9 October 2003
Jeffrey Gantz’s translation of The Mabinogion set a standard of excellence that makes it an invaluable tool for those who wish to investigate the Welsh tradition from source texts. Now Gantz has added Early Irish Myths and Sagas to our shelves. This Penguin Classics contains translations of thirteen myths including some of the more common ones such as The Wooing of Étaín and The Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulaind. I found The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel to be excellent. It contains details never found in mere retellings of the tale and this creates a deeper understanding of the archetypal significance of this myth. The Tale of Macc Da Thó’s Pig is wonderful in Gantz's translation. One could spend many months reading, re-reading and pondering this story. The first section of Early Irish Myths and Sagas includes valuable historical data, a bibliography of ancient texts and translations, a guide to the pronunciation of Irish names and words, and a map of ancient Ireland. This is an excellent book and well worth adding to your library.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 16 August 2013
I would not say that this is a well researched book. It concentrates on the main well known Táin story and is a poor representation of that. It has no mention whatsoever of Flidais, lover of Fergus from Rathmorgan in Erris, Mayo and is therefore a huge disappointment as I purchased it to research that story! It is a poor purchase for it only has commodified stuff of public knowledge within its pages and has not researched the entire sagas at all! It informs the reader not one bit and can only have the consequence of turning the reader off entirely. Flidais and the Táin Bó Flidais is a very important story and there is not a whiff nor a mention of it within the pages of this! This is not a serious historical account at all - it seems to be far more perceived Celtic style ravings for an American reader. It contains little of interest but there are some great books out there on this subject. This is not one of them and I do not recommend this book at all. It's nonsensical and choc a bloc full of spelling and typing errors, contradictions and utter rubbish which make no sense whatsoever because the author does not understand the landscape and the concepts! These stories are difficult to comprehend from the manuscripts but they do make sense to those who know the landscape in which they are set - this book would make you throw in the towel because it is just a heap of incomprehensible Celtic sounding words thrown together! I hate it! Regret wasting my money on ordering it! Look further!
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Early Irish Myths and Sagas is a translation by Jeffrey Gantz of much of the Ulster Cycle. In that sense it isn't exactly the earliest of Irish mythos and the stories it tells are part of a tradition long since established. However, Gantz has recounted the words of the chroniclers of the Ulster Cycle to tell a set of tales that speak of those people and their time and place. The tales cover a range of Ulster Cycle heroes including King Conchubar and the seemingly unstoppable hero Cú Chulaind as well as a host of other people of the Ulaid, rival Connachta, and a variety of mortals and faerie folk.
The translation of the Ulster Cycle throughout generally seems strong. The stories are coherent even if much of the rhythm from the verse segments is lost entirely. There is one strange line that appears to be a mis-translation where a suggestion that two of the heroes might fit like children does not fit. Perhaps the translation is of fighting like siblings with an inference of young brothers fighting. With that one exception, the work seems to flow well. The translations appear to be generally drawn from the Lebor na huidre and the Book of Leinster.
Gantz provides good notes and summaries in his work - something all too often forgotten by compilers of ancient epic translations. Gantz provides good context up front in the form of a lengthy introduction. This introduction sets the historical scene as well as the literature context. Gantz provides an introduction to the themes and concepts the various tales tell. Ahead of each individual tale in the cycle, Gantz offers a brief and very welcome introduction. His introductions help to explain what is to come and make understanding of the stories themselves much easier.
Occasionally the interpretation Gantz provides for the tales does not seem to mesh with the story itself. The clearest example is in the Intoxication of the Ulaid. Gantz describes Intoxication as being a parody because it has the warriors of the Ulaid marching across Ireland in an entirely unrealistic set of directions. This seems to be an overly simple reading of the meaning of Intoxication. An alternative reading might be that the authors of this particular tale chose not to overplay the Ulaid's aggressive expansion into the territory of others and so had them arrive at a destination more by coincidence than by invasive design. In that case, it is much more reasonable for the Ulaid to make demands of their hosts than would have been the case for an invading force.
Intoxication is one of a few of the tales to feature Cú Chulaind strongly. He is not the typical heroic figure in that he is never described as being overly massive. Heroes in most mythos stand out in part because of their size. Cú Chulaind does not but he is unmatched in a series of different challenges. Bricriu's Feast provides a list of these challenges to almost comical proportions as Cú Chulaind continually defeats rivals Conall Cernach and Lóegaire Búadach through a series of contests including one that sees Cú Chulaind overcome his own apparent death.
Cú Chulaind's stories are told from his very youngest days and he defeats rivals from a very early age. It is historically very interesting that he takes his training from Scáthach, a name clearly associated with the Isle of Skye. The links between Dal Riada and the Ulaid are clearly very much part of the world of the Ulster Cycle. Cú Chulaind's involvement in the Cycle does include a truly heartbreaking moment with the death of Connla. Perhaps this story was a depiction of battle with the son attempting to usurp his elders but in any case it is a truly depressing moment in the Cycle and is very haunting.
The Cycle also speaks of the relationship between men and women in a decidedly non-modern way. The Wooing of Étaín is perhaps a romance. It is certainly fascinating. Étaín was the most beautiful woman in Ireland and something of a prize to be won, whether that be through armed force or wit at the Fidchell board. The various characters seem to be related to each other in one way or another so the romance between them carries the additional layer of familial bonds. The Wooing of Étaín casts her as a very sympathetic character, very much at the mercy of the cruelty of others including a jealous female rival.
The Wooing of Étaín also travels into the underworld. The various síds are home to the faery folk that speak to a time older than the Ulster Cycle. The mythological origins of the Irish are not delved into in this work but instead are referenced occasionally in the form of giants and underworld beings. They do not play a huge part in this work but crop up occasionally and are a reminder of a more ancient belief system.
While there are some great narratives within Early Irish Myths, not all of the tales are gripping and some of the concepts are a little simplistic. This is not the most sparkling ancient narrative to have survived. While the various genealogies and king-lists are reasonable, the heroes (especially Cú Chulaind) thwart danger by simply being super-human all the time. Victories are won by overwhelming personal abilities such as the ability to cheat death or the ability to leap enormous distances in a chariot. They are not often won by skill or by word. The overly exaggerated abilities are hyperbole that does the tales quite a dis-service. These are fascinating and interesting characters, as involved as others from northern European mythos. They are not all served well by the surviving texts.
However, What is perhaps most fascinating of all about the tales contained in Early Irish Myths and Sagas is the interaction of the people involved with their environment, with their beliefs, and with one another. The values they hold must have been the values held dear by those around at the time. The people so extensively chronicled most likely have some basis in fact. The customs and traditions they observe including surrounding combat and honour provide a glimpse into a long lost way of life. Jeffrey Gantz has produced a good work that combines the characters of the Ulster Cycle well and sets out the stories we have of them in a very effective style. This work is not enough to build a full picture of Irish mythology but it is a good contribution to that picture.
13 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on 15 January 2007
I liked the way it has things in no particular order like it lists mighty warriors and the main characters are somewhere in the middle. It keeps you awake!
also the introductions at the bginning of each story were for once really interesting.
These are the stories in the book. i'm not quite sure how they were chosen, it seemed slightly random.
The Wooing of Etain: This starts out with the birth of the god Oenghus(usually called Aonghus). It tells of his growing up raised by the (man who is usually called his brother but is unexplained in the text) Midir and his discovery of his true parentage and winning of land from his stepfather. After an argument with Midir when Midir comes to visit him, Oenghus promises Midir a wife if he makes up and they settle on a girl named Etain. With the help of is newly dicovered father, Oenghus wins Etain for Midir but he knows there are still going to be problems since Midir already has a wife-a druidess named Fuamnach. The story continues as Fuamnach turns Etain first into a pool of water and then into a fly. By the time Oenghus finds Etain in fly form, her having flown round the world several times avoiding Fuamnach, both Oenghus and Etain seem rather annoyed with Midir as well as Fuamnach, since he's done nothing to stop any of this and if this was a modern novel it would be the point where they get together but since it isn't...oh well. Oenghus nurses Etain back to health but then Fuamnach discovers her again and in trying to escape her tormentor, Etain mistakenly causes herself to be reborn as a human. Having apparently forgotten her former life, she marries the new High King of Island and should at this point live happily after, despite frequent visits from a mysterious stranger(Midir) and the fact that the King's suicidal brother Aillil is in love with her. But it turns out that Midir has decided he wants Etain back and when he challenges Aillil to a contest in which the prize is Etain, he looks set on a path to achieve this.
This was one of the stories with the most moderen appeal-with some updating it could make a really good film or book today, although I don't think Midir ever actually deserves Etain and she needs more development as a character.
The second story is The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel, which is about King Conaire More. Conaire is a sympathetic but flawed character who struggles to control his court, particularly some troublesome relatives and is tricked into breaking the oaths that were laid on him by his bird god father. This eventually leads to his death in "Da Derga's Hostel" a frightening building of death ,at the hands of his now exiled relatives and a sinister new friend they've picked up who is also an exile.
Or at least I thought that was how it was supposed to read. To be honest I found this story confusing and not that interesting. Half the text is taken up with a very long list of Conaire's warriors and their special abilities, almost none of which is particularly relevant to the main plot. Conaire Mor is also descended from Etain, but, as the introduction in the book explains, the part of the text explaining how this works is missing.
The third story is The Dream of Oenghus. It tells how Oenghus falls in love with a girl he's never met but who has appeared in a dream he was having. His parents and others search for this girl and eventually discover she is a shapeshifter named Caer. This is sort of like a sequel to The Wooing of Etain since it continues themes like Oenghus's relationship with his parents and has a happy ending for Oenghus which never happened in the Etain story.
Next was The Cattle Raid of Froech(Froach). Froech is a fairy prince, the son of a goddess who may actually be a form of Etain-at least according to Midir in the first story. When he hears that Findabair, the daughter of Queen Medb(the queen who later fights the hero Cuchulain) has fallen in love with him through hearing stories of him, he decides to go and ask her parents for her hand in marriage. Although Medb is charmed by Froech, her husband Aillil is rather less keen and decides, with Medb, to set Froech some tasks before he can marry Findabair. Findabair, meanwhile, meets Froech in secret and gives him a ring. Seeing that Froech has the ring after he has defeated a sea monster, Aillil becomes convinced Froech is actually sleeping with Findabair and decides to kill her. However Froech lies to him about how he got the ring and Findabair publicly rejects and disowns her father, choosing for herself to marry Froech. The story would have been better if it ended there but then there is a sideplot in which Froech and the hero Conall(see the later stories) go to rescue his cattle wife and sons from a rival who has kidnapped them. This bit was very confusing as it was unclear if the wife was Findabair (although they haven't really had time to have sons)or some other wife(which would completely ruin the whole romantic plot). I'm not sure why this story was put fourth since many of the character's earlier lives feature in later stories in the same book.
Then it was The Labour Pains of the Ulaid and the Twins Of Macha. In this shorter story, a king meets and marries a mysterious woman who is an extremely fast runner. after boasting that she is faster than his friends team of horses ,he is then pushed into getting her to race against them even though she is pregnant. Macha-the name of the woman-wins the race but then dies giving birth and curses the kingdom that at it's greatest time of need all the men will suffer labour pains. The Kingdom turns out to be Ulster and the curse comes true in the middle of their war with Connacht, inexplicably leaving only the hero Cucuchulain unaffected, but that story is not actually in this book.
After that, Cucuchulain starts appearing in the stories under his non-translated name Cu Chulaind. The next story is about his birth, the one after that his childhood and these are followed by one about how, whhile courting his future wife Emer, he kills his young son with a warrior queen Conlai, who is too proud to tell his father who he is.Then there is The Wasting Sickness of Cu Chulaind and the only jealousy of Emer which tells of the heroes affair with a fairy queen ,Fand,who contacted him by having her maids make him ill by whipping him, so that he could defend her home from monsters.
The Tale of Macc Da Tho's Pig, whilst it does not feature Cuchulain ,is about most of his friends and relatives who are squabbling over the meat of a pig with their enemies the Connachtians. in The Intoxication of the Ulaid, Cu Chulaind throws a party, gets drunk and then he and the entire of the Ulster warriors get lost going home and end up in Connacht, where they are greeted as friends but suspecting treachery, start a fight anyway. Briciu's feast is about a trickster who throws a feast at which he turns Cu Chulaind and Emer against their peers as they try and prove they're the best man and woman respectively.
Finally, the Exile of the Sons of Uisliu is the story of Deidre and Naiosie. Before Deidre's birth, the Druid Cathbad prophesied she would cause a war and the death of King Concobohr's son. However hearing she will also be the mos beautiful woman in the world, Concobohr protects her from the warriors who want her killed and has her raised with the expectation she'll one day sleep with him. Resenting the fate planned for her and hearing of a man named Naoisie who fits her ideas of the perfect man, she meets with Naiosie and forces him and his brothers to elope with her by chalenging his honour. Met with danger and treachery wherever they go ,Naiosie and his brothers are grateful for an invitation to return from Concobohr but Deidre suspects it is not as good as it seems and she is right. concobohr's actions cause the prophecy about Deidre to come true.
This is far from a complete account of Irish Myth and often you will have to look up elsewhere what actually happens to many of the characters introduced here. But it is still a good book, giving very literal translations of the original Irish epics to produce often surpriingly modern stories. One complaint I must make, however is that Irish mythographers did not go for realism as much as ,say, Greek ones did. O.k., so Grrek Myths have monsers, but they do speak rather more like normal people then characters in this book mostly do. "Not difficult that" is the standard response to a question. maybe that was how the ancient Irish actually spoke, but in some stories the character's behaviour is just as unconvincing and was obviously written like that just to advance the plot. Characters start fights over the most trivial issues, resolve them in the oddest ways and at one point Cu Chulaind is taunted for wanting to leave a place he's stumbled into by mistake without first having an adventure! Personality development is secondary to a tragic and compelling plot and poetic exagerration is employed even in the more modernly written stories(the harpists played such sad music that twenty men died from weeping!) This might not bother you at all, but it did annoy me.
But they are actually a pretty good collection of stories and I personally think Irish mythology is underrated.