12.02.21, Miles, Heroic Saga and Classical Epic in Medieval Ireland

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Craig Davis

The Medieval Review 12.02.21

Miles, Brent. Heroic Saga and Classical Epic in Medieval Ireland. Studies in Celtic History, 30. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2011. Pp. x, 272. ISBN: 978-1-84384-264-4.

Reviewed by:
Craig Davis
Smith College

Brent Miles examines prose narratives in Old Irish, most of which were probably composed or committed to writing soon after the year 1000 CE, even though the MSS that preserve them were copied and expanded a century or two later. He uses these vernacular texts to assess the depth and continuity of Latin learning in the island and finds a steady commitment to study of the Roman classics from late antiquity, when they were introduced during Ireland's conversion to Christianity in the fifth century. Even after raids and occupations by Scandinavian vikings during the ninth and tenth centuries, there was little need to import new books in Latin from abroad, so that writers in the vernacular could turn with fresh interest to a study of the ancients during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Miles proposes that Irish authors drew upon their experience of school exercises in Latin grammar and composition, like those found in Priscian's Praeexercitamina (ca. 500 CE), even though knowledge of this work in early Ireland is not certain. However, the Hiberno-Latin Hisperica Famina "Westerly Orations" (mid- seventh century) reveal formal imitations of Virgilian epic similes and martial type-scenes. More distinctively, Christian Irish authors, unlike some of their British and continental counterparts steadily resist a tendency to "redeem" ancient myth and legend by allegorizing it. Instead, they take the Roman poets--Virgil, Statius, Ovid and their redactors--very much on their own terms, as secular authors who supply edifying examples of political leadership, martial virtue and moral challenge. The Togail Troí "Fall of Troy," for instance, resembles nothing so much as a "modern annotated" Penguin classic in its chaste rendering of its source (245), in this case, De Excidio Troiae Historia "History of the Ruin of Troy" (fifth century CE) attributed to Dares Phrygius. Old Irish authors found in the Latin poets themes they took to represent perennial conflicts of human will and heroic choice, which they could then adapt in re-imagining the lives and deaths of their own native heroes like Cú Chulainn and Fergus, Medb and Conchobor. Miles thus argues for a kind of precocious or incipient humanism in the study of Latin literature in medieval Ireland, concluding that the monasteries of the island cultivated a consistently respectful attitude toward the multiple resources of their intellectual heritage: their Christian faith, Latin secular learning and, rather remarkably, the many competing traditions derived from their archaic Celtic culture as well. "It is a central thesis of this book," Miles writes, "that the reception of the classics in Ireland was always intimately bound up with the production of native literature in the vernacular" (13). Latin poems supplied the literary forms and conceptual models that enabled the creative preservation of the teeming native genres of narrative and discourse, as well as a more general cultural re-packing and systematization of native lore cultivated among various regional chiefdoms by different classes of fili, satirist and storyteller. There never was a "renaissance" of interest in Greco-Roman classics in medieval Ireland, Miles argues. These classics had never been lost and they showed Irish writers how to compose new classics about their own people in their own tongue.

Miles opens his account by considering two colophons at the end of the Táin Bó Cúailnge "Cattle-Raid of Cooley" in the Book of Leinster (twelfth century) to illustrate the complex attitudes of Irish writers to their new vernacular classics. (1) In Irish: "A blessing on every one who will study/learn the Táin faithfully in this way and who will not add any other form to it," an insistence upon strict adherence to approved form that itself may have been learned from Roman masters. And (2) in Latin: "But I who wrote this historia, or rather fabula, do not give credence to certain things in this historia or fabula. For certain things in it are the deceptions of demons; certain things, however, are figmenta poetica; certain things resemble the truth, certain things do not, certain things are for the delectation of fools" (Miles's translation, 1). This second comment has sometimes been deplored by modern scholars for its bigotry, but actually reveals a kind of healthy critical distance that comes from long exposure to multiple traditions. The complaint about the "deceptions of demons" presumably refers to interventions by old Irish divinities in the action of the Táin, similar to those of the Greco-Roman deities in the Iliad and Aeneid. These are beings whom the scribe had been taught by St. Augustine to regard as devils in disguise. He considers other parts of the story to be perfectly plausible, however; some parts not so much, and others simply preposterous (though perhaps amusing), like Cúchulainn's famous ríastrad "contortion" or "warp-spasm," as Kinsella (1969) translates the term:

If that passage is only for the "delectation of fools," then put me down as an idiot. But Miles shows, in fact, that the hero's various physical transformations in this scene have numerous prototypes in classical poetry, like Turnus's aristeia "noble rampage" in the Aeneid, kicked up a few notches, of course, by the conventions of native Celtic hyperbole. In short, the copiers of the Táin into the Book of Leinster enjoyed it both as a vernacular classic and as an improbable mixture of history and fancy, the latter of which had its own kind of poetic validity, however, in the potency of the images it supplies, especially of the dogged loyalty of the "Hound of Culainn" who only undergoes metamorphosis into a monstrous killing machine after he hears of the slaughter of his loyal comrades in the boy-troop of Ulster while he slept. Miles quotes a gloss on a translation of St. Augustine's Soliloquies into Old Irish, where that theologian designates fabulae as "lies," but ones that--properly understood--can tell pleasing and improving truths (quoted 2). The glossator affirms the value of these figmenta poetica by remarking that anyone interested in the art of grammatica must collect and study them. This appreciation for rhetorical figures and imaginative fiction reflects the enlightened principle that pagan secular narratives, whether classical or native, retain their own peculiar veracity, a position not too distant from that expressed by Aristotle in his Poetics, where he ignores Plato's concern for the historicity of Homeric epic and Sophoclean drama to stress their universal applicability.

In his first chapter, Miles examines writing by Irishmen in Latin to assess the state of the question on classical learning in medieval Ireland, complaining that this assessment has been conducted largely by classicists rather than by scholars of Irish vernacular literature, where the fruits of a classical education can be best seen. He concludes with a twelfth-century list of the kings of Ulster, where old Irish heroes of the Ulster cycle are compared to the ancient heroes of the Trojan War:

Asia is as famous as Ulster

in deed, in fame and in pride;

Priam is the name of Conchobhar of Codal

who rages around northern Troy.

Troilus and Cú Chulainn are equal

in battle, in lifespan and in fortune;

Aeneas is Fergus in consideration of exile,

a brilliant, constant pair, boundless in battle.

Powerful Naoise is Alexander [Paris]--

their beauty caused Troy and the Táin;

Hector is like honest Conall Cearnach,

a fierce strength against the iron of battle.

Every single man in Eamhain's land [Ulster]

has a counterpart in spirited, lordly Troy;

it would be pleasant to count them all,

every hero of the fair company. (Miles's translation, 49)

Chapter 2 reviews the texts and sources for retellings of classical narrative in Irish prose, the most important of which, the Togail Trói, is presented in Chapter 3 as the first serious attempt to emulate the dignity of epic style in vernacular prose, that is, to create an epic aesthetic using native forms of saga which could be interspersed with dialogue, laments, prophecies and other passages in verse. This effort comes to fulfillment in the Táin itself, where in Chapter 4 Miles traces the influence of classical themes and rhetorical techniques in this account of Connacht 's attack upon Ulster, whose warriors lay in pangs of childbirth under a curse, defended only by the teenage Cú Chulainn at its fords. A depiction of single combats seems to have been a cherished feature of traditional storytelling, so that it took Irish authors some time, Miles suspects, to discover a taste and aptitude for descriptions of larger battles between armies. In Chapter 5, he offers an example of the "iconography of battle" learned from classical authors, choosing an episode in the Táin called the Carpat Serda 7 in Breslech Mór Maige Murthemne "The Sickled Chariot and the Great Rout of the Plain of Murthemne." This episode, he hypothesizes, was later added to the saga in the Middle Irish period under the influence of the Togail Troí, showing the reaction of Cú Chulainn to the massacre of the boy- troop. The healing of the hero and the slaughter of the youths in this episode seem indeed to have been taken from classical prototypes, but Miles goes on to suggest that the placement of the Breslech at the very heart of a newly expanded Táin was intended to remind readers of what its original creators had intended all along, that the Táin should be an epic worthy of the name. Miles thus sees the Breslech as a one-off virtuoso performance adapted from a school exercise independent of the saga into which it has been inserted. He notes that the hero's rout of the armies of Ireland seems to diminish their troop-strength not a whit as they return in the next episode to their assault upon Ulster. The rout has no consequences for the outcome of the war and, indeed, the appearance of the sickled chariot itself is so brief and inconsequential that Miles concludes that its use as the designation of the episode was simply "the name of the model exercise, or template, from which the second half of the Breslech was constructed...Given the obvious model of Servius's and Statius's currus falcatus for the phrase carpat serda itself [and] that the 'scythes' of this chariot are put to no use in any of the occurrences of the carpat serda, there is, one concludes, no purpose in these scythes other than to flag the classicizing character of the model" (242). Possibly--though similarly "inconsequential" routs of attacking armies occur in the Iliad and elsewhere where they serve several narrative or thematic purposes simultaneously, including the simple generation of suspense or illustration of the ironies of war or deeper characterization of the combatants. But this is the sole example the author can find of a school exercise that he suspects was composed originally for its own sake, rather than to advance the saga into which it has been interposed. Its awkwardness and irrelevance, he believes, shows the way students were trained to imitate epic type-scenes in Irish monastic schools. Whatever the merits of this particular argument, we can agree with Miles that an education in classical epic had very satisfying results in its influence upon heroic saga in medieval Ireland, especially in the ferocious loyalty and tragic dignity with which the saga-writers imagine their hero Cú Chulainn, as well as in their complex characterization and searching critiques of the other major characters in the work.

The author acknowledges that the strength of his argument lies in its accumulation of possible Latin models for individual passages, rather than in the irresistible force of any particular comparison. But he has catalogued enough of these analogues to give pause to scholars who have heretofore stressed the work's native singularity, its common Celtic cultural heritage or even its more ancient Indo-European roots. It is true that we never meet anywhere in the world a queen quite like Medb of Connacht and that many of the themes and motifs of the Táin--the relations between hero and his charioteer, the catalogue of warriors, the incremental repetition of individual combats, the marvelous weapon, the arming and healings of the hero, his conflicts of loyalty--all these can be found in comparable narratives from other Celtic traditions, like the roughly contemporaneous Middle Welsh Four Branches of the Mabinogi, or ancient Sanskrit epics, like the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Nonetheless, Miles has shown that there are sources for these parallels very much closer to hand in the Latin poems that were studied in medieval Irish monasteries, texts that themselves may have mediated some of the archaic ideas that reveal themselves in native sagas. In his conclusion, one can sense a sympathetic but partially patriotic motive in the author's warm defense of his island's proto-humanism during the earlier Middle Ages. He has certainly shown that Latin learning had the power to shape and inspire, if not by itself to create, the compelling vernacular sagas of the period.

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Craig Davis

Smith College