The Tain (part one)

Well, here we are again with another epic. The Tain starts with an argument between Queen Medb and her husband King Ailill about a bull - but it's really about a power struggle, then a war, a doomed hero, magic, and epic battles. Excellent.

The Tain is an Irish epic based on a war between Connacht (Medb and Ailill) and Ulster. It's part of a larger cyle of stories, the 'Ulster Cycle', which presents stories preceding The Tain's events, exploring the backgrounds or motivations of characters found in The Tain.

'Ulster' by Flickr user Hunter333 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Chariots and horses are featuring a lot in the war so far - nice gentle hills to be riding around for chopping people.

'Ulster' by Flickr user Hunter333 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Chariots and horses are featuring a lot in the war so far - nice gentle hills to be riding around for chopping people.

At the moment, we're hearing about the epic hero Cu Chulainn (many of these Irish names have diacritics, but I don't know how to do them on the computer). Like Rostam and many other famous heroes, he's a prodigy of power and strength from a very early age. He's committing atrocities and petty acts of violence from about the age of five, and he's only seventeen when The Tain begins. We also know (because the story tells us) that he is doomed to die young.

The violence so far is indescribable. It's made more powerful by the style of storytelling - it's an oral narrative after all, so the structure is repetitive and episodic, and within this structure the violence is presented in a very matter of fact way.  People act; the story reports the result. The subtleties of character and motive are more for the listener to discern. 

So what is actually happening right now? Medb and Ailill have a fight about who is more powerful. Their assets differ by one bull. The bull has chosen to be in Ailill's herds, and Medb decides to borrow a bull from somewhere else to even things up. Naturally her attempt to do this results in war with a king of Ulster. Cu Chulainn is fighting for Ulster - and the story digresses to explain why he's such a bad ass. That's the bit I'm reading now. If there wasn't so much chopping off heads and stuff, I might be a bit further.