Friday, August 20, 2010

Red Branch (The Story of the Hero Cuchulain)

Book Review: Red Branch by Morgan Llewellyn

This is a novelized version of part of the Ulster Cycle of so-called Irish Mythology. It was a very readable and exciting novel about the semi-magical warrior-hero Cuchulain – the Hound of Cullen. This story is sometimes called the Ulster Tragedy for indeed there is great sadness therein. But also there is great comradery and love. Indeed the strange coexisting contradiction of gentle love and savage brutality runs throughout. One can see quite easily the dire results of the common human indulgences – greed, desire, jealousy, hatred, fear, addiction, and the dark side of duty and honor. As for the historicalness – there is a king noted by the name of Conor mac Nessa around 50 BCE so that is a likely time period when the story takes place. Ms. Llewelyn paints a well-researched picture of ancient Irish-Celtic life. The characters come to life – Cuchulain, Fergus mac Roy, Conor mac Nessa, Maeve and Ailel, Emer, Skya – the warrior woman of the Isle that bears her name, Ferdiad mac Daman, Ayfa, Cathbad the Druid, Sencha the Brehon judge, Deirdra and Naisi, Laeg, and many another.

One’s place in legend and story was so important to these people that there was great fear of the satirical poets who could make or ruin reputations - great enough to cause best friends to battle one another to the death. Cattle raiding skirmishes were routine among the tribes in order to replenish food supplies and sharpen war skills. She says that it was not uncommon for the warring tribes to join one another for food and ale after a skirmish. Indeed formal warfare with strict rules and one on one fighting of champions is fairly common in the story. The Celtic notions of death and honor show a wild tribal society yet with a strong sense of order and well-defined duty. Promiscuous sex and alcoholic revelry are ubiquitous. The idea of ges, or one’s personal taboo – or magical obligations are very important to the story. There is ges bestowed by Druids but also ges bestowed by a father to a son.

The whole story is called the Tain bo Cualnge – or the Cattle Raid of Cooley - as the first war is basically an excursion to steal a very large and powerful bull for breeding purposes. Magick is everywhere in this book with the sea god – Mannanan mac Lyr and his wife who appears with the Morrigan in the form of geese commonly appearing. Indeed the musings of the goddess Morrigan – the Battle Raven – who thrives on the gore of war and the heat of sexuality – occur throughout the book. Since I have not read the actual saved texts – I do not know what is from the original text and what is from the author’s own ideas – although I know from reading excerpts of the actual Cuchulain Saga that there are many parts and features that are not mentioned in this novel version. I wonder how much is missing or changed.

Cuchulain is born from a human woman, Dectera and a magical father – equated with the God Lugh – or Lewy of the Long Hand – of the Tuatha de Dannan race. His main magical ability is the manifestation of the battle rage where he overcomes foes readily athough he sharpens his skills without it and tries not to use it unless necessary as can have a tendency to kill everything in sight, including friends. The Three deformed daughters of Calatin trained by a powerful Druid develop a powerful magic and use it to exact revenge on Cuchulain who killed their father.
Cuchulain is considered a warrior-hero, a protector of the land, the king’s champion. As a hero born of magic he is bound to serve the clan/tribe/race. He has been referred to as the Celtic Achilles. His ignoring of the Morrigan – goddess of war, death, and sex - as a lover is part of his downfall – although one can say he was in a sense a sacrificial victim for the benefit of the tribe. The Red Branch refers to the elite warriors of the Ulster province of Erin (Ireland). Other tales within the tale involve the curse of Macha of the Yellow Hair, The Hound of Ulster’s magical spear called Gae Bolga, and the tantalizing and maddening effect of a beautiful woman called Deirdra on men.

There are some interesting quotes but with over 500 pages they are hard to find. There are some good ones regarding the nature of war. Here is one I found where Fergus mac Roy describes war as “the simplest method for acquiring cattle, slaves, and glory” and Queen Maeve rebuts by saying that war is “the process by which we tear down so that we may rebuild. War forces change and development and growth. No spring without winter, Fergus.” The Morrigan triple goddess appears as a raven and offers observations in first person in the novel. She appears in her guise as the Washer at the Ford washing the armour of a dead hero and this is the death omen of Cuchulain.

At the end of the book there is a short section about Ireland of the time and a bibliography. I look forward to reading more of Ms. Llewelyn’s books – here is a write-up about her therein:

“Morgan Llewelyn is celebrated as the high priestess of Celtic historical fiction; she is recognized in Ireland and America as an expert on early Irish history and folklore. Her previous novels in addition to Lion of Ireland, include Bard, the Horse Goddess, and Grania.”

I originally got this book for my son who urged me to read it. He is now reading one of her newer ones called Druid. I know in Ireland there are great festivals to this day in honor of Cuchulain – both a mythic and historical hero – with games, contests, and revelry.

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