Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The High Deeds of Finn Mac Cool

Book Review: The High Deeds of Finn Mac Cool  by Rosemary Sutliff  (Puffin Books 1988, orig. 1967)

I found these stories to be quite enjoyable. They are magical tales of the Fianna of Ireland and their famous leader Finn Mac Cool. There are tales of magic, valor, and as well the tragedy typical of Celtic literature. Rosemary Sutcliff notes in the introduction some contrast between the stories of CuChulain and the Red Branch and the stories of Finn Mac Cool and the Fianna. The Red Branch heroes and tales were from an earlier date (maybe 150 BC), from the northern parts of Ireland, and the Danaan were perhaps more godlike. The Fianna stories were later (maybe 300 AD or later), from the southern part of Ireland, and the Danaan seem to be more Faerie-like.

As a boy Finn was in hiding from the slayers of his father who had come to slay him. He met a Druid named Finegas who had tried for seven years to catch the ‘Salmon of Knowledge” from the Boyne River. The Salmon called Fintan ate the nuts of a magic Hazel tree that fell into the river. Finn Mac Cool finds the Druid and asks to be his pupil. After this the Druid catches the Salmon quite easily. He gives it to Finn to cook but bids him not to eat one drop but Finn burns his thumb on the spit and puts it in his mouth to cool it and thus receives the knowledge bestowed by the Salmon. The Druid now realizes that it was Finn that the Salmon was destined for and so bids him eat it and be on his way for he is now full of ‘knowledge.’ Later in several of the stories Finn would put his thumb between his teeth in order to learn secret things such as the whereabouts of those they were searching for. The unplanned burning of the thumb in a cooking pot is echoed in several Celtic myths such as those of Gwion and Cerridwen and also of Taliesin the bard. Finn also gained the power of saving life by giving water from his cupped hands. The saving ‘water of life’ appears in many European stories – much in Slavic lore as well.

In several of the stories there is the placing of geis, or a specific personal taboo on various characters, usually those associated with magical abilities. These taboos are often linked to the final destinies of the characters and sometimes end in tragedy related to the breaking of the geis but this is not always the case as sometimes (as in the case of CuChulain and his son) the tragedy was precipitated by keeping the geis. Cuchulain’s death came about when an old hag (an aspect of the Morrigan) offers him dog meat and since he had a geis not to eat dog meat and another geis not to refuse food from a woman he was doomed to his fate. 

Finn’s first charge was to overcome a monster called Aillen of the Flaming Breath who on every Samhain at midnight would come and play his silver harp and lure all to sleep and then would proceed to burn the Royal Fortress of Tara so that it would have to be rebuilt. Finn was able to stay awake with the aid of a spear given to him by one whose life was saved by Finn’s father. It was forged by Lein, the Smith of the Gods, who beat into it the fire of the sun and the potency of the moon. It was the bloodlust in it kept by his forehead that was said to keep him awake. In the morning he came back with the head of the beast on his spear point and the thatch remained on Tara. For this deed the king Cormac Mac Art set him as captain of the Fianna of Erin, the roving paramilitary band that protected the kingdom. This he regained from Goll MacMorna, an old enemy of his father who before was captain of the Fianna. Nonetheless Goll remained faithful to Finn as a leader of Clan Morna.

The Fianna were hunters and sharpened their skills in the hunt with the aid of hounds. In magical terms – setting out on a hunt seems to be a metaphor for a ‘quest.’ Many a story of multiple twists and turns begins with the hunt. Indeed Finn hunts a hind who ends up being his future wife Saba in a shape shifted form. She is also of the Fey and after the hounds catch her and befriend her she becomes Finn’s wife as she had hoped. They have a wonderful marriage until she is magically transferred back into a deer and is never seen again. This is the first of several tragedies and it is said that Finn knew well the risks of wedding one of the Fey. She was pursued and finally captured by a Dark Druid but not before she bore a human son, Oisen (Little Fawn) who was found by the hounds and eventually became part of the Fianna. He was also a great minstrel and harper, being part Fey. It is unknown what became of Saba.

The stories are told of how Finn meets up with and gets his two great and magical hounds, Bran and Skolawn. In a few stories the Finn and the Fianna battle those from a Lochlan kingdom on the east coast of Britain – either Viking or possibly earlier Norwegian settlers. Other stories are told about how Finn’s best warriors come to join him, such as Dearmid O’Dyna who was fostered by the Danaan deity Angus Og (typically the Celtic god of love).

Finn experiences being enchanted into great old age by a daughter of the Danaan blacksmith Cullen. The other daughter eventually removes the spell but yet seeks to entrap him with a second drink from the golden cup whereby he refuses and must keep his silver hair for the rest of his days.

In the story of the ‘Giolla Dacker and His Horse’ the Fianna are even magically led into the service of a Fey prince in order to overcome his evil brother. This story had some nice humorous elements.

The story of the “Hostel of the Quicken Trees” is about a great battle where the Fianna fight an army of Lochlan kings, warrriors, and mages who hold them hostage with magic.
Dearmid O’Dyna and others are heroic in this effort as is Osca, the grandson of Finn Mac Cool.

Next ensues the off-and-on tragedy of Dearmid and Grania. Finn seeks as a wife the daughter of the High King Cormac Mac Art whose name is Grania. She accepts but before the wedding she falls in love with Dearmid O’Dyna and puts a geis on him to take her away while Finn and several of his men were drugged to sleep. Here the power of the geis is seen as Dearmid asks counsel from those who were not drugged such as Finn’s son Oisen and his grandson Osca. They and the others say that foremost he must not break the geis for to do so is a greater dishonor than even raising the wrath of his captain Finn Mac Cool. So off they went and the chase ensued with Finn deep in seeking Dearmid’s head in vengeance. Dearmid is aided by the magic of his foster-father Angus Og and so escapes to the point where a peace deal is made and Dearmid is given a fitting plot of land and cattle far away from the haunts of the Fianna.

The story of ‘Niamh of the Golden Hair’ recounts the taking of Oisen into the Land of Youth, the Land of the Ever Young, Tir-Na-nOg to be the husband of the beautiful Niamh. He promises to visit in the future.

Another geis from his childhood finally does Dearmid O’Dyna in as he hunts a wild boar
who ends up being his murdered step-brother long ago transformed into a magical black boar by his father the steward of Angus Og, the one who fostered Dearmid. Dearmid and the slain boy shared the same mother and through the steward’s curse which he administered with the aid of a hazel wand – they would also share the same death. After this Angus Og lays a geis on Dearmid that he never hunt the wild boar. In the course of Finn and his men being finally invited to visit and hunt with Dearmid – it is the wild boar that appears and pride and frenzy (and the doom of the curse) overtake Dearmid so that he and the boar are slain as is foreshadowed. Finn has the chance to save him with the water of life in his cupped hands but refuses several times in his bitterness of the feud between them and though he finally concedes it is too late. Indeed in Finn’s older days and in the bitterness of his feud with Dearmid we see the pride and stubborn nature and even spoiled nature of the hero. We see that the hero is human and can be shallow at times. Strangely enough, a time after Dearmid’s death Grania does become wife to Finn Mac Cool – though after much patience on his part.

The end of Finn and the Fianna come finally at the Battle of Gavra after the new High King Cairbri of the Liffey decides that the Fianna are too powerful and independent as a force and devises well to split them up with old feuds, and battle with them to their end.
They all of course die the deaths of hero’s. Osca manages to slay Cairbri but he is also slain as are all the Fiana and so they are no more.

Alas there is the peculiar story of the ‘Return of Oisen.’ He returns from the Land of Youth on a horse which he was instructed never to dismount. Unfortunately he stops to help some farmers remove a great stone and falls off of his horse doing so. He immediately becomes an aged man. For this he must remain in the human realm and so yet another tragedy ensues. Here he is said to meet Priest Patrick and various Christian monks who were not there when he left. He enquires about Finn Mac Cool and the Fianna but all say that it has been 300 years since their time. Oisen tells his story to Priest Patrick, including his great happiness in Tir-Na nOg and is lost to his grief. It was said that the harp songs of Oisen were still played and known at that time.

This is really an easy to read version of a great Celtic literature cycle that evokes the emotions of the best of the genre of sagas.  I just hope I didn’t give away too much.

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