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Ulster Cycle. Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature

The tales of the Ulster Cycle belong to the genre of
heroic legend and mythology and represent some
of the finest examples of the medieval Irish epic
that have survived. Rather than being presented as
single tales, Irish mythology is organized into story
groups, each of which concerns the adventures of a
set of characters. There are four main story groups,
or cycles, in Irish mythology: the Mythological
Cycle, the Historical Cycle, the FENIAN CYCLE, and
the Ulster Cycle.While it is tempting to view each
cycle as a discrete entity, there are themes and main
characters that appear frequently in several cycles.
All offer details of early Irish society as a world
dominated by warriors and cattle raids in which
abductions and violence figure prominently.Most
of the stories describe the significant life events of
Irish heroes and heroines, mainly births, training,
battles, feastings, marriages, and deaths. These
men and women are presented not as gods, but as
humans with superhuman abilities.
The oldest of the four cycles is the Ulster Cycle,
which describes the actions of the heroes of Ulster
from about 200 B.C.E. through the fourth century
C.E. The action itself is contained geographically
within the two Irish kingdoms of Ulster and Connacht that encompass the northwestern quadrant
of Ireland. The tales of this cycle revolve around
the activities of the king of Ulster, Conchobor Mac
Nessa, and the adventures of his nephew, CUCHULAIN,
particularly as they fight against the queen of
the neighboring kingdom of Connacht,Medb, her
husband, Ailill, and her lover, Fergus (who also
happens to be an exiled former king of Ulster).
The central narrative is the TÁIN BÓ CUAILNGE
(The cattle raid of Cooley), in which the conflicts
between the kingdoms of Ulster and Connacht climax
when Queen Medb invades Ulster in order to
steal the Brown Bull of Cooley, a magnificent beast
with magical properties. In the great battle that ensues,
the young Cuchulain engages in a series of
bloody single combats that always end in the death
of his opponents. Although seemingly invincible,
Cuchulain is eventually mortally wounded in a
later story, but in typical heroic style, he has himself
tied to a post so that he might die still standing.
The earliest extant version of the Táin Bó Cuailnge
is contained in The Book of Leinster, which dates
from the early 12th century. The Yellow Book of
Lecan contains a later recension of the story from
the late 14th or early 15th centuries. Both manuscripts
are housed in Trinity College, Dublin. Despite
the late dates of surviving manuscripts,
linguistic evidence within the texts points to a much
earlier composition date, certainly by the eighth
century and perhaps as early as the fifth or sixth
century. Like many literary works compiled over
time from written and oral sources, the Táin bears
the marks of several different scribes in the form of
seemingly irrelevant glosses, major inconsistencies,
plot repetition, and no single narrative voice.
Although the escapades of various heroes and
heroines define the action of the tales, place-names
in the Ulster Cycle are as central to the narratives
as are the characters themselves. Many of the stories
exist solely to provide the history behind the
naming of particular physical features. In the final
scenes of the Táin, almost more important than
the fatal wounding of the prized bull of Cooley is
its wandering across Ireland naming places as it
limps along to its eventual death. The same focus
on topographical elements and the origin of placenames
is found throughout the Ulster Cycle and is
a major element in medieval Irish and Celtic literature
generally.
While the Táin is the single most important
tale in the Ulster Cycle, there are about 100 other
stories included in the Ulster grouping, most of
which are preliminary to the action of the Táin
and serve to introduce several of its main characters.
One such story is The EXILE OF THE SONS OF
UISLIU, the story of Derdriu (Deirdre), a beautiful
young woman who is betrothed to the much older
King Conchobor. Derdriu falls in love with one of
Conchobor’s knights, who must then choose between
his loyalty to his king and his love of Derdriu
with tragic results. This same theme of love
vs. loyalty is explored in medieval Welsh literature,
particularly in the tales of the MABINOGION, and
becomes an important element in the tales of
Arthurian legend.
Bibliography
Dillon, Myles. Early Irish Literature. Dublin: Four
Courts Press, 1994.
Gantz, Jeffrey. Early Irish Myths and Sagas. London:
Penguin Books, 1981.
Haywood, John, and Cunliffe, Barry. Atlas of the Celtic
World. London: Thames and Hudson, 2001.
Kinsella, Thomas, ed. and trans. The Tain. Translated
from the Irish epic Táin Bó Cuailnge. Dublin: The
Dolmen Press, 1969.
Koch, John T., and Carey, John, eds. The Celtic Heroic
Age: Literary Sources for Ancient Celtic Europe and
Early Ireland and Wales. New York: David Brown,
2003.
Diane Korngiebel

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