first_imgThe Tain is one of 80 tales making up the Ulster Cycle, which tells the story of the Ulaid, the prehistoric inhabitants of Northern Ireland. The Tain begins when wife Medb is forced to concede that her husband Ailill possesses a better prize bull than she. In order to rectify the matter, Medb resolves to steal a better bull, The Brown Bull of Cooley, from the province of Ulster. The Tain documents the mission of Medb and her army, prevented as they are by the great warrior Cu Chulainn, who is eventually the main protagonist of the tale. By translating The Tain, Carson takes on a daunting task. As with any story that is initially part of the oral tradition, The Tain has been a fluid entity, changing and growing under the hands of many generations, the needs of each different from one another. Carson’s translation is based on multiple texts, themselves fragmentary and influenced by the personality and beliefs of the transcriber. To make matters just a little more difficult, The Tain uses a multitude of linguistic forms, from poetry and prose, to ‘rhetorics’ – unpunctuated blocks of ryhthmic prose. Amazingly, Carson makes it work. The epic gushes by in heated but steady waves. The action is always imminent but there is never too little time for a diversion into a character’s past or a dwelling’s layout. An emphasis on the landscape of Northern Ireland pervades throughout the book and creates something like the rhythm of a bass guitar; subtle but unyielding. The melody of the work, the story itself, is a celebration of bloodthirstiness. While today, participation in war is usually, and rightly so, a source of guilt, there is no such guilt in The Tain. Indeed, the characters are happily driven by impulses to war with one another. Warring camps are not portrayed as those of in the conventional sense of the word, acting on real contempt for one another. Rather, they have a reluctant respect, even love, for one another. After all, the initial dispute which leads to great battles occurs between husband and wife. The importance of poetry, written messages and Druid prophecies attenuates the hideousness of war, until the decapitation of troops in Medb’s army is seen as part of some happy banter. To so remove our contempt for death is a difficult undertaking that Carson is, luckily, more than capable of. by Mona Sakrlast_img

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