|Cúchulainn in battle, illustration by Joseph Christian Leyendecker|
For the past few weeks, I have been preparing for a workshop I’ll be teaching at the NJ Storytelling Festival this weekend. The workshop will offer advice on how to keep focus through the telling of a long story. It’s a workshop I’ve taught once before and it’s about something that I do all of the time, but for some reason, I’ve been having a hard time putting it together for this event. Today, Friday, practically on the eve of the event, I think I’ve hit upon my problem. It has to do with the story I’m using as the center of the workshop.
Because the workshop is about working with lengthy texts, and because I like to practice what I preach, I’ve been working on a new story to present as a workshop model. The story, The Tain Bo Cuailnge, is the center of the much longer Ulster Saga. These are very old stories about the Red Branch Army of Ulster and its tragic young hero, Cuchulain. Many of the stories in this cycle are stories of war, and the Tain is particularly bloody and violent. This week as I worked on the story and the workshop, I asked myself, “Why are you telling this? Why on earth would you decide to offer the people who are taking your workshop such a terrible story?”
The questions stopped me. The story choice had been automatic. It is a story I love and that I have wanted to tell for a long time. It seemed appropriate for the workshop because it presents the teller just the kinds of problems that make many of us avoid trying to extract a meaningful performance piece from an epic tale. It is intricately connected to the larger story. The cast of characters is large and many of them come with a history that adds context to their actions in the episode of the Tain, but which is hard to include in the story without taking the audience out of the tale. Deciding which parts to keep and what to leave out of the center of the story is an exercise in, literally, picking your battles because, like many stories of heroic deeds, the Tain is, in part, about a series of combats. So why am I, a mother and grandmother and a modestly calm and peaceful person, so drawn to it?
The story begins in the bed of Queen Maeve of Connaught when she and her husband, Aillel, begin to argue about whether she is better as a result of her marriage and association with him. After establishing that they are equal in birth and temperament, they decide to measure their belongings, one against the other, to settle the point. At the end of this accounting, Aillel comes out ahead by one bull, a creature so wonderful and valuable that it has only one rival in all of Ireland, the eponymous Donn Cuailnge, the Brown Bull of Ulster. This discovery sets up a series of events that ends in the deaths of thousands of men, the loss of much property, and the destruction of the land. Woven through this tragedy are the stories of individuals: soldiers, fathers, sons, and daughters who get caught in the merciless rush of war, and these are part of what attracts me to the story.
There is Queen Maeve, herself – manipulative, ruthless and selfish, she is admirable for her courage and for her insistence that a woman can take her place to rule and fight among men. Yet, in spite of her insistence on her own autonomy, she doesn’t hesitate to use her daughter Findabair as bait for any man whose army or battle prowess might serve her purposes. Other compelling characters in the piece include Fergus mac Roich, a wise and powerful king who exiled himself from his kingdom rather than compromise his integrity, and Ferdiad mac Daire, a young soldier of Connaught whom Maeve manipulates into fighting his friend and foster brother, Cuchulain. And, of course, at the center of the story is Cuchulain, himself. He is a hero in the Greek fashion, the child of a god and a mortal, who is somehow able to maintain his courage, strength, and integrity in the midst of impossible physical and moral odds.
In stories like the Tain, as in Homer’s Iliad, I think that war provides the kind of exaggerated picture of human experience that we are used to finding in fairy tales where mothers are either child-devouring witches or exemplars whose goodness transcends even the grave. War allows us to view the virtues and foibles of men and women under a microscope. Nothing is subtle; everything seems either hideously deformed, intricately lovely, or heart-wrenchingly noble.
In the Tain Bo Cuailnge, Cuchulain stands at a ford in the river day after day, tirelessly meeting one enemy combatant after another, and each battle presents its own particular problem. Sometimes the challenge is physical: an enemy with the heads, arms, and legs twenty-eight men. At other times it is mystical or spiritual: the druids and satirists who fight with spells and curses, or the goddess Morrigan who seeks revenge for spurned sexual advances. But harder than any of these are the complexities of facing in battle men whose actions have earned his love and respect. At the end of the story Cuchulain is so covered in wounds that “if birds were in the habit of flying through human bodies, they could fly through his rended flesh.” Yet, he perseveres until he is sure that he has done all he can to defend his homeland from destruction.
When I first called the Tain Bo Cuailnge a terrible story, I meant an unpleasant, uncomfortable story, a sad gift to give at the opening of the Storytelling Festival. And it is that. But it is also terrible in way of W.B. Yeats's "terrible beauty" of April 1916, that is, awe-inspiring and wonderful. It is a story that changes us by forcing us to think beyond our limited existence, to marvel at the deeds of those who came before us, to wonder about the lives of those who will live after us, and then to try to maintain our humanity in the face of these reflections. A good way to begin a festival day.