Who owns our myths? If we alter them, do we undo the sacred? Do we show hubris unaccountable? Do we strike down the work of great poets against their will, when they are forever unarmed and can not defend themselves or their honor?
Complications, of course, exist, perhaps even explode on the scene of the first, next and last myth. They were once merely spoken and endlessly passed down from generation to generation, never finding their way onto paper or parchment, never once locked in, set in stone, tamed. And when finally written down, these markings of our cultural, collected soul were often distorted, revised beyond recognition, generally conforming with societal and political norms centuries removed from the oral tradition. Though there were exceptions to this template.
(Someday, many centuries from now, our own tales will be rewritten through the prism of that age. Would we even remotely recognize ourselves in those retellings?)
When I first encountered mythology and fell in love with its worlds at the age of nine, I sought the “authentic” versions and bristled when I thought they had been altered. I bristled when I thought someone had the titanic nerve to change Greek, Norse, Irish, Persian, Native American or Chinese myth to suit their own purposes. To suit the purposes of the storyteller. Ironically enough.
For the myths themselves were probably already changed and changed again, beside endless campfires. Though the degree of change depended in large part on the fame of the heroes in question and their particular destinies. If the people knew the story in a certain way, it was unwise for the poet to change paths too much, because an oral culture hears everything, every nuance, every subtlety, and their listening powers are heightened because they do not read. They listened more closely than we do now.
It is within that context that I think again about Morgan Llywelyn’s Red Branch.
Her novel is a page turner, and well constructed from beginning to end, and she remains true to most of the original source material. When she does decide to change things, it is generally in the service of modernizing Cuchulain, humanizing him, which works for me for the most part until the end, when she takes too much off the wild edges of this relentless warrior who never surrendered — internally or externally. The original sources give us a ferocious and violent fighter until his last breath, while Ms. Llywelyn’s vision brings in the psychology of doubt and despair. Her Cuchulain questions the battle itself, his own sanity, his own reason for being. In a sense, she picks up where Yeats left off. The Irish Achilles was for Yeats a North Star of psychological drama and turmoil, as well as a symbol of endless strength and courage:
Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days!
Come near me, while I sing the ancient ways:
Cuchulain battling with the bitter tide;
The Druid, grey, wood-nurtured, quiet-eyed,
Who cast round Fergus dreams, and ruin untold;
— From To The Rose Upon The Rood Of Time
William Butler Yeats
Tragedy is the air the Irish breathe and it follows them across the seas and through the generations. In Greek mythology, unlike Celtic, Freud wins. The son conquers the father and fulfills his destiny, despite the father’s violent machinations to prevent his overthrow. In the ancient Irish tales, Freud loses, the father kills his only son, not because he struggles to keep the kingship for himself, but because he made the mother jealous long ago by marrying another. In Morgan Llywelyn’s Red Branch, it is Cuchulain who puts the geis (ritual prohibition or injunction) on his son, which later takes a tragic, unintended turn. In some ancient sources, it is the mother, Aoife, who imposes the three taboos on their love child:
Then Aoife gave him the arms of a champion, and bade him go to Ireland, but first she laid three commands on him: the first never to give way to any living person, but to die sooner than be made turn back; the second, not to refuse a challenge from the greatest champion alive, but to fight him at all risks, even if he was sure to lose his life; the third, not to tell his name on any account, though he might be threatened with death for hiding it. She put him under geasa, that is, under bonds, not to do these things.
Then the young man, Conlaoch, set out, and it was not long before his ship brought him to Ireland, and the place he landed at was Baile’s Strand, near Dundealgan.
— Cuchulain of Muirthemne, by Lady Augusta Gregory
There is something incredibly earthy and existential about the Irish myths. They are not abstract or pretty or given to intellectual solvents. Their vigor and rawness make fools of those who would try to tame them and turn them into complexes. Llywelyn’s version does away with most of the glorious hyperbole that makes the original sources so magically absurd, but she doesn’t get rid of the rawness or the earthiness. Her ancient Ireland is fully alive, with warriors honor-bound to fulfill their gesa, even if it results in horrific tragedy, and they are fated to do just that.