Playing the Hero

Full Title: Playing the Hero – Reading the Irish Saga Táin Bó Cúailnge

Author: Ann Dooley

Publisher: University of Toronto Press

Published: 2006

ISBN: 9780802038326

Pages: 298 including notes, Bibliography, and Index

Synopsis:

Review: I have never been utterly confused by a book as much as I have been confused by this one. I don’t know if it is because the author like to complicate things, or it is the subject matter, or it is just above my pay grade.

The book is supposed to be a series of thematic essays grouped around the main saga representation of the Irish martial hero Cú Chulain. The study conducted is about the relation between Recension I and II. It is not a study that gives a complete picture of the entire saga so if you are looking to see what this saga is then this is not the book for you.

In this study the author is more interested in all the complex and varied aspects of how texts reveal themselves of how it is that they came to mean. This bit was copied word for word from the Introduction. I am not sure exactly what is meant by “come to mean”. And the whole book is like that. This was just a taste of what the writing in the book is like.

Like I said in the beginning this book is confusing to me. And based on a few reviews I read online it seems like it is confusing to a lot of people. So here is my verdict. Stay away from this book if you are : (a) a beginner, (b) an intermediate or, (c) looking for an analysis of the actual text of the Táin because this is not it.

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The Great Queens

Full Title: The Great Queens – Irish Goddesses from the Morrígan to Cathleen ní Houlihan

Series: Irish Literary Studies 34

Author: Rosalind Clark

Publisher: Colin Smythe Limited

Published: 1991

ISBN: 0-86140-290-1

Pages: 277, including Notes, Bibliography, and Index

Synopsis: From GoodReads.com

Review:

The book is made up of an Introduction, four chapters and a conclusion.

The Introduction discussed the background of the Irish language and the stories the author is talking about the rest of the book.

Part One, which is made up of two chapters, discusses who the Morrígan is as a goddess and how She was portrayed by authors who wrote (or didn’t write) about Her in Myths.

Part Two, which ends with Chapter Four, discusses Sovereignty goddesses and how they turned into an allegory in Medieval times. The author then takes that one step further and discusses how They go from an allegory to peasant “ordinary” women from the end of the Middle Ages through the Irish Renaissance.

Finally, the conclusion puts it all together and ties it up with more information.

I’m a little torn about this book. It has a lot of great information on the War Goddesses but sometimes I wanted to scream at the book “nope, nope, nope!” It has more to do with how I read the myths and my own thoughts on the War Goddesses then with actual wrong information. So in the end, read the book and see if it jives with your thoughts on the subject matter…some of it certainly didn’t jive with me.

Inside the Táin

Full Title: Inside the Táin – Exploring Cú Chulainn, Fergus, Ailill, and Medb

Author: Doris Edel

Publisher: Cruach Bhán Publications

Published: 2015

ISBN: 978-3-942002-20-2

Pages: 371, including 2 Appendices, Works Cited and Index

Synopsis: This is the first literary-critical study of the Táin Bó Cúailnge in its entirety, and as an autonomous literary work.

The key to a more deeply probing understanding of the semiliterate epic is the study of its characters: what they do and why they do it – why more important than what. Why reveals the differences between the various versions. Most promising is the multilayered Recension I, mainly preserved in Lebor na hUidre, which testifies of the keen interest of its compilers in the portrayal of the characters, while the version in the Book of Leinster, with its tendency to omit what might lessen the heroes’ prestige, pays for its greater unity with loss of depth.

The multi-facetedness of the characters in the early version, combined with the deceptive simplicity of the plot, lends the work a remarkable pragmatism. Despite occasional baroque descriptions of battle frenzy, the main heroes Cú Chulainn and Fergus embody a heroism reined in by prudence. All through the war they do everything in their power to limit the use of force. Ailill and Medb represent a new type of ruler-entrepreneur, who seeks to realize his aim at the lowest possible cost and accepts failure matter-of-factly. So the epic has no fatal end-point. The greater part of the two armies are able return to their countries. The theme of mutual destruction is relegated to the Battle of the Bulls. The lasting antagonism between the North and the remainder of the island must have endowed the Táin with contemporary significance at various points in time, as the allusions to (near-)contemporary events suggest.

Review: This is one of the most interesting books I’ve read as a companion to the Táin. The Introduction to the book gives very good basic information on the recensions of the Táin, which goes into technical details that assume you are familiar with he content of all three Recensions of the TBC. The book then goes into a deep analysis of the actions of Cú Chulainn, Fergus, Ailill, and Medb. As usual when we talk about the analysis of a single person I don’t agree with everything that is concluded but for the most part the analysis presented is a very sound one. The author raises some good points and also explains things in an easy manor that helps the reader get a deeper feel for the Táin and its most important characters.

The amount of information in this book is no joke. I think I would have gotten this book for the Appendices only, never mind all the deep analysis in the body of the text. A must read book.

Celtic Mythology

Title: Celtic Mythology – Tales of the Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes

Author: Philip Freeman

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Published: 2017

ISBN: 978-0-19-046047-1

Pages: 272 including Notes, Bibliography and Index

Synopsis: Most people have heard of the Celts–the elusive, ancient tribal people who resided in present-day England, Ireland, Scotland and France. Paradoxically characterised as both barbaric and innocent, the Celts appeal to the modern world as a symbol of a bygone era, a world destroyed by the ambition of empire and the spread of Christianity throughout Western Europe. Despite the pervasive cultural and literary influence of the Celts, shockingly little is known of their way of life and beliefs, because very few records of their stories exist. In this book, for the first time, Philip Freeman brings together the best stories of Celtic mythology.
Everyone today knows about the gods and heroes of the ancient Greeks, such as Zeus, Hera, and Hercules, but how many people have heard of the Gaulish god Lugus or the magical Welsh queen Rhiannon or the great Irish warrior Cu Chulainn? We still thrill to the story of the Trojan War, but the epic battles of the Irish Tain Bo Cuailgne are known only to a few. And yet those who have read the stories of Celtic myth and legend – among them writers like J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis – have been deeply moved and influenced by these amazing tales, for there is nothing in the world quite like them. In these stories a mysterious and invisible realm of gods and spirits exists alongside and sometimes crosses over into our own human world; fierce women warriors battle with kings and heroes, and even the rules of time and space can be suspended. Captured in vivid prose these shadowy figures-gods, goddesses, and heroes – come to life for the modern reader.

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Review: I was really excited to get this book. I know Philip Freeman’s work and it usually very scholarly. This book…tried. I’m not going to discuss the simplification of the myths through retelling them. I knew this book will include the retelling of the myths, but I also expected a little about the history of the books the myths were found in or at least an introduction of how and why these books came into being. There was none of that. Even the little bit of history that he included about the Celts seemed to be a bit one-sided in that he mostly quoted Caesar.

This book, however, is a good place for people who want to read the myths in a simplified and easy form. They can be a good way to understand the myths before reading them in their longer forms…and that is about it.

Tara A Pagan Sanctuary of Ancient Ireland

Author: R. A. S. Macalister

Publisher: Charles Scribner’s Sons

Published: 1931

Pages: 208 including notes, index and bibliography.

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Review:

This book is made up of six chapter. Chapter one is a detailed study of the site of Tara. Macalister draws a picture using the Dindshenchas, mythology and archaeology. It was really fascinating the way the author weaves the information he has to make us understand what is meant when we say Tara. There is a map of Tara in the beginning of the book. I photocopied it and kept it in front of me while I read the description.

Chapter two was all about who built Tara. Macalister used the Dindshenchas again as his jump off point. I think the make take away from this chapter though is this sentence: “In other words, it was less a political than a religious centre: the king was a priest-king, nay, a god upon the earth. Tara was a temple before it became a palace.” (p.87)

Chapters three and four discuss the Gods and the kings of Tara, respectively. These two chapters complement each other even if one doesn’t agree with them 100%.

The reason for me buying this book was chapter five. The chapter discusses an assembly at Carman during Lunasadh. The author uses the Dindshenchas and Keating’s writings to give us a look at what these assemblies would have looked like and then extrapolating that to the assemblies at Tara.

The final chapter of the book was about the last years of Tara, from Cormac to the last battle that was fought there…I felt a bit sad reading this chapter. It was called The Ending of Tara.

I’m glad I found this book. I’m glad I came across another book that put me on to it. I’m glad I read it, and even after 84 years it is still very much relevant.

A Guide to Irish Mythology

Author: Daragh Smyth

Publisher: Irish Academic Press

Published: First published in 1988, this edition 1996

ISBN: 9780716526124

Pages: 200 including source material list and index

Synopsis: This guide, structured alphabetically with a helpful cross-reference system, allows the reader to delve into the ornate world of Irish mythology and its four cycles of tales: the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian or Ossianic Cycle, and the Historical Cycle or Cycle of Kings. The characters associated with each of these cycles are vividly brought to life — heroes such as Cuchulainn, Oisin, Cormac Mac Airt, Conchobar Mac Nessa, Finn and the Fianna.

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Review: I really wanted to like this book, but in the end I could not get past a few things. The author starts the book with a Preface in which he quotes Robert Graves…that was strike one. In the Introduction he talks about “scholars” saying this or that and my reaction was always WHICH scholars. Then there is all the incorrect information or out of date information in many of the entires. The truth is I knew this book was old so I was expecting some out of date information but what I found was even worse than I thought. And finally, SOLAR DEITIES EVERYWHERE!

Here is what I did like about it, the author wanted this book to be a cross-reference system for the person reading the Irish myths, in that he has succeeded. I can look up a name and get their story, honestly though; there are many books out there which do a better job and are more up-to-date than this one.

I’m filing this one under lessons learned…moving on.

Irish Trees – Myths, Legends and Folklore

Author: Niall Mac Coitir

Watercolours: Grania Langrishe

Publisher: The Collins Press

Copyright: 2003, Reprinted 2006, 2008, 2012

ISBN: 9781903464335

Pages: 231 including watercolours, references, and bibliography.

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Synopsis: In ancient Ireland, mythology and folklore were part of the general knowledge about each tree. This book gathers the myths, legends and folklore associated with the native trees.

Review: Where to start? I liked the watercolors and the black and white pictures in the book. They helped me visualise the trees that were being talked about and associate them with what is being written. There were some good footnotes, and great books in the bibliography, and it was obvious to me that the author had done his research and had read A LOT of great sources. I also liked that it was very much pagan friendly. There was some great folklore and mythology associations shown for each tree. But…

In some places I kept thinking…WHAT? You read McManus on Ogams and you still think THAT? Or dear Gods you thought Robert Graves was right about THAT? (Just to be clear the author knows that Robert Graves took a lot of poetic licence in his book White Goddess but he still thought he was not wrong in some aspects). In some other places there were good and interesting tidbits but I kept thinking citation!! (Again there were footnotes in this book but in some places they didn’t materialise).

I would recommend the book just for the information about the trees and the myths, legends and folklore associated with them….the rest though? I’d take that with a sign that says…caution, and please cross-reference with other books, as well as please discard in some cases. So basically, a mixed bag of good, sort of good, and UH?