11-4 literature

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

11.4 (Fall 2011)




courtesy of artrenewal.org


The Wasting-Sickness of Cú Chulainn and Marie de France‘s Lay of Eliduc: Translation and Commentary

John R. Harris


                The Serglige Con Chulainn comes to us in unusually corrupt form.  The Lebor na Huidre (Book of the Dun Cow) manuscript dates to the twelfth century—that is, to the time of Marie de France; yet this tale is so clearly a compilation of previous versions that such dating has even less relevance than in other cases (like Marie’s) where ancient stories have at last been set to writing.  In a precise sense, our version is not even a compilation: i.e., a fusion of multiple versions into a more or less coherent whole.  In such a case, the recorder would at least have imposed his own spelling and grammar upon the result.  Here, instead, we find many variations in usage from one passage to another.  It seems, then, that a scribe did little more than copy the labors of previous compilers, perhaps inserting one or two sections (such as the blatant digression where Cú Chulainn imparts kingly advice to his foster-son Lugaid Réoderg) quite clumsily.

                The rough edges of the story are instructive in many ways about the evolving difference between oral habits and literate presumptions.  A traditional story-teller would also have digressed, by our literate standard, and would also have stitched variants of his tale into something like a whole.  The stitching would have been artless at times, and would even have left minor inconsistencies or loose ends here and there.  In the present case, however, we seem to witness a process of forcing distinct materials virtually unedited into a newly conceived larger structure and providing only the frailest of joints between them. Cú Chulainn’s wife almost inexplicably changes from Eithne to Emer (see item “c” in the list below); he awakens restored from his coma and then must reawaken when Emer appears at his bedside; his faithful charioteer Láeg journeys to the Other World once on his behalf and then repeats the journey with little or no suggestion that he has been before (see n. 23).  The literate recorder, in short, does not feel free to claim as his own the narrative components inherited from the past—certainly not to the degree of a traditional raconteur.  He seems somewhat anxious, rather, over the possibility of losing a vital detail from the competing versions, and hence thrusts them all into his pie without any slicing or stirring.  The regard for the text as a fixed, discrete object is growing apparent.

                We can no doubt thank this regard for preserving some very ancient mythic matter with as little molestation as possible.  The nuclear myth at issue varies in several ways from the visit of a Gilgamesh or an Odysseus to the Dead World, where the heroic traveler does little more than bring back to the living a description of what he has seen.  The Serglige possesses that element, too (in spades, one might say)—but many more besides.  Here are the most significant:

a)      Hunting seems to have some connection to the initial phase.  The hero, in his shamanic function, displays a mastery over the animal world unshared by others of his tribe—a bond which is also seen as drawing him closer to the spirits (spirits of human dead, who resemble animals in having lost their power of speech). Cú Chulainn is of course invited to hunt eerily beautiful birds that settle on the water at the beginning of his story.  In the ancient Indian Śakuntala and the Ring of Recollection, King Duşyanta is similarly on a hunt when he blunders upon a lovely demigoddess’s sacred grove.  I know of no myth from the ancient Greco-Roman tradition which offers any such overture to the Other World Journey.

b)     The hero is closely attended by a squire/arms-bearer—a charioteer, in the case both of the Serglige and Śakuntala.  This faithful sidekick somehow assists in mediating the transition between the two worlds, shuttling back and forth to arrange a successful cross-over. The role actually appears to have grown more garbled in the polished, highly literate drama of Kalidasa: King Duşyanta is served by his buffoonish foster-brother in the earlier acts, his charioteer usurping that function only in the last act.

c)       Naturally, the major element of distinction between this and other heroic intrusions into the Dead World is the romantic purpose.  The queen or princess of the strange land has fallen in love with the hero and desperately desires his favors.  Traces of such intimate involvement crop up in some of the Greek myths: a young Medea bears this relation to Jason when he visits the dark land of Colchis, and Theseus and Peirithous aspire to abduct Hades’ queen Persephone.  A crucial factor not to be found in classical myth, however, is the tension that develops between Other World mistress and Living World consort.  The friction grows so heated in the Serglige that Emer attempts to ambush and slay Fand, a desperate endeavor which chases the beautiful phantom back to her realm forever.  In Śakuntala, the same tension is more understated and far less menacing.  Yet the Indian drama may hold a clue to resolving one of the Irish tale’s most awkward features—one which can only be ascribed to scribal ineptitude, otherwise.  Like King Duşyanta, Cú Chulainn may have had multiple wives.  Polygamy is allowed in ancient Ireland’s Brehon Laws, at least for the mighty: perhaps the story’s very odd discarding of Eithne for Emer halfway through reflects an effort in the original material to stress that the hero’s Other World lover was in contention with an impressive battery of living, breathing beauties.  The compiled text that we have inherited does absolutely nothing explicit to arrange such an emphasis, so one must wonder if the clue was already lost on the twelfth-century copyist.  Yet the bedrock myth is another matter.

d)     The Other World in this myth is a ravishing place, unspoiled and seductive to the visiting hero.  It possesses none of those horrors so salient in most mythic journeys, classical and non-classical, to the land beyond known life.  The Irish lays describing Fand’s realm are fine, imaginative pieces that rank very high in their tradition for sheer beauty of vision; while the sacred grove of Śakuntala could scarcely be more like heaven and less like hell.

e)      The Indian play chooses to foreground emphatically the element of forgetfulness in the myth. King Duşyanta’s supernatural loss of his beloved Śakuntala from memory forms the central tension of the drama.  One might argue that the same theme does not appear in the Serglige until the very end, when Cú Chulainn must be dosed with oblivion-inducing medicine before he can fully resign himself to the world of the living again.  Yet in a way, his forgetfulness has come much earlier in the tale, as well, and has turned out to be a powerful motive force in this story, too: the year’s swoon referred to as his pining or wasting-sickness.  He has forgotten his living friends and clansmen rather than his Other World lover at this point, but we may still claim that the myth insists upon a consequential clouding of the hero’s mental clarity as he struggles between the two spaces.

f)       Finally, and curiously, the myth has a component of fighting: the hero assists the Other World king in battle as part of his courtship of the Other World princess.  The battle is no doubt chronologically more correct in the Serglige, where it is waged before the hero enjoys the princess’s embrace.  King Duşyanta drives away the demonic enemies of Indra only years after his initial meeting with Śakuntala, whose troubled progress has drawn him to seek her realm a second time.  In no version known to me of the Other World Journey besides this one does the hero actively, aggressively, and successfully wield weapons in pitched battle.  On the contrary, such myths usually stress the neutralizing of the mighty hero’s legendary strength once he enters the Dead World.

In conjunction with Kalidasa’s play, therefore, this twelfth-century Irish text appears to offer us a glimpse at an extremely old Indo-European myth, the like of which we do not find in the Greco-Roman lore that arose between Celtic and Indic cultural bookends.  Indeed, to find echoes of Celtic matter in ancient Persia or India while the classical world preserves utter silence is not so very unusual.  When an instance of this sort arises, we have good reason to believe that we have come face to face with something distinctly Celtic, as opposed to an element of lore or culture common to most human traditions.  The formula is paradoxical, to be sure: i.e., Irish sequence repeated in India but not in Greece or Rome = originary Celtic material.  In the final analysis, no cultural artifact can ever be completely original, because every human culture—no matter how primitive—always builds upon a layer of precedent.  This is a practical limitation: an anthropological version, if you will, of the indefinite regression bedeviling the search for a cosmological first cause.

Let us content ourselves, then, with the understanding that the Serglige’s mythic foundations are far, far older than the twelfth-century manuscript that transmits them in somewhat doctored form to us.  This is an important assumption, because it tells us that the rest of the Celtic world would have known of similar stories even before the second millennium and even without direct contact with Ireland.  Specifically, it licenses us to discern this very myth beneath the surface of Marie de France’s Eliduc.  While Marie was apparently fluent in Breton (which may have been her native language), we have no reason to suppose that she read or spoke Irish, and the two tongues are not sufficiently similar that speakers of one can readily comprehend the other.  It makes no difference: something like the Serglige would have existed in Breton—we are by no means tied to that single text in arguing that its contents underlie Eliduc.  Consider the following resonances of the French lay with the mythic skeleton already pieced together:

a)                Eliduc is an accomplished hunter.  That this fact is scarcely mentioned by Marie and has absolutely no bearing on the story only raises the question of why she would have inserted such an otiose detail at all.  It certainly appears to be a vestigial member of the hoary old myth—unless she is subtly pointing her audience in the direction of that myth.

b)               Likewise, not much is made of any special attendant—a faithful squire fulfilling Láeg’s role of charioteer—in the French lay.  Yet Eliduc has a suggestive abundance of such useful go-betweens throughout the tale, some of them performing tasks that he might easily have done himself.  For instance, the trusty servant who retrieves Guilliadun from her father’s castle so that she may elope with Eliduc might as well have been the knight himself in disguise, since the subordinate is also sufficiently well known in the city that he must take deceptive measures.

c)                Naturally, carrying off the princess from the strange land is the heart and soul of Marie’s work.  Furthermore, the presence of a “living” consort to complicate the arrangement is utterly critical to the tension of the French lay.  The subject of polygamy is indeed addressed explicitly by Marie’s verse more than once.  She emphasizes that the Christian faith precludes this option, as if something in the audience’s collective understanding of the tale (such as knowledge of a preceding pagan version) might have cast the matter in some doubt.

d)               The charm of the Other World is here merely the hospitality of a benign foreign king: nothing is said to create the impression that the lord of Exeter’s palace is fabulously lavish.  Yet this would have detracted from the drama, for the king must be represented as hard pressed for Eliduc’s heroic assistance to be fully admired.  At the very least, the strange realm is not lacking in delights—and it turns out to be abundantly rich in delights of the soul.

e)                The “loss of memory” theme may appear to be the most neglected of the myth’s basic components.  If Eliduc forgets one of his worlds for the other, the lapse is temporary and also not attributable to any sort of spell that would remove him from culpability.  I shall argue momentarily that this “liberty” with the myth is deliberate and artful: it may well be the reason why Marie chose to engage the myth in the first place.

f)                 In contrast to other elements, Eliduc’s martial role while on his journey into a strange land across the sea is magnified.  It is the original and exclusive purpose of his crossing the Channel.  Note that the ruler he assists is in dire need of his help.  The situation, in other words, closely parallels that in the Serglige, whereas if Marie had simply wanted to portray her hero as a valorous knight, she might have had him slay ruffians rather haphazardly (as does Chrétien’s hero in Erec et Enide.

        Beyond question, the elements above reflect a far less thorough adherence to the original myth than does the Irish text set down in the Book of the Dun Cow.  The compiler and/or scribe of the latter seems to have viewed himself as an antiquarian, his duty being to commemorate the lore of his pagan mother culture as a curiosity and, perhaps, a beloved tradition.  Marie’s work, though written probably within a few years of the Serglige’s extant text, shows a transitional author in an entirely different pose.  Marie’s attitude toward traditional matter is much less conservatory (one might almost say servile) than the Irish scribe’s—and yet, it is actually more traditional in that it freely adjusts component parts to weave a “new old” story.  I strongly suspect that Marie wanted to preserve the full mythic backdrop overhanging her narrative—that she was commemorating her Breton traditions not by thrusting them into the protective, hermetic casement of literacy (as it were), but by shaping them into a metaphor of greater currency.  Eliduc’s passage to La Grande Bretagne is both a journey along the secular map and an intrusion into the spirit world.  When he is smitten by the delightful Guilliadun, he struggles with the real conflicts of a married man falling in love with a woman not his wife—but he also blunders into a topsy-turvy world where what seems vivifying may bring death.  Marie is not somehow saddled with a scarcely serviceable mythic sequence by a heritage grown virtually irrelevant: she is entrusted with a body of deep truths whose key she must provide for her listeners (for most of her audience would have listened to a read text of the lays).

If I am correct, then, Marie would have been so far from seeking to pave over the embarrassing fantasies of myth that, in fact, she would have wanted and needed her audience to remember and understand mythic matter.  Spiritually, Eliduc strays into No Man’s Land.  He will lose his soul if he forgets his honor and reneges on critical promises made to people who trust in his strength of body and strength of character; yet he has made too many such promises, and he cannot possibly keep some without introducing mild fractures, at least, into others.  Running off with Guilliadun means betraying his English lord as well as his wife; remaining strictly bound to his English lord means abandoning his Breton lord; returning to Brittany and Guildelüec means devastating the innocent Guilliadun; attempting to keep two wives at once means violating the commandment of God and the law of man.  If this wretched knight is not in a literal swoon, lying torpid in his sick bed for a year, he nevertheless suffers an inner turmoil that renders him almost hypnotized, as Guildelüec notices of him the first time he returns home.  (This part of the story, by the way, is constructed around a year’s cycle, a detail probably engineered very purposefully by Marie.)

The absence of a real swoon, of course, places the blame for Eliduc’s predicament heavily upon his own shoulders.  That his journey and his lover are materially quite real shifts the death that looms over his situation to the spiritual realm—and its solution, too, can only be spiritual.  Though every auditor of the lay would have known that the living wife vigorously resists and finally drives away the Other World princess in the myth, Guildelüec performs an act which completely shatters the mythic mold and, no doubt, all ordinary human expectations.  She forgives.  Her disinterested compassion for the sleeping beauty and her self-sacrificial renunciation of wifely privilege are something of a miracle.  Marie is announcing to her audience in an elegant play of metaphors that the old myths must rule our lives forever with their eternal tragedies unless the redemptive qualities of faith can come crashing through their edifice as Christ came crashing through the gates of Hell (in the Harrowing).  Her sudden manner of reversing mythic polarities is perhaps not to the taste of the contemporary reader. Guildelüec likely strikes us more as a “pushover” than a saint; and of her husband’s newfound devotion to holy orders and charitable works, we would surely use some choice words among which “self-serving,” “convenient,” and “hypocritical” might be prominent.  It is difficult for us to like Eliduc as much as Marie appears to want us to.

As students of literature, however, we must remember that Marie freely painted herself into this ethical corner—in Eliduc and in several other lays.  She embraced the ancient myths of her cultural tradition precisely because they precipitated a collision of values.  For that matter, she accepted that the unhappy results of such events—of men and women breaking their vows and succumbing to temptation—were just as the myths reported, unless a new light was admitted into the old world.  In framing this argument, she became one of the most ingenious and delicate of medieval allegorists, but the technique itself was common in her era.  Mythic reality was not a false reality in twelfth-century Europe: it was simply not full reality.

Might not the compilers (or one of them, at least) of the Irish Serglige have been trying to pull off some similarly contemporary framing of ancien t—though with far less success, to be sure?  Naturally, we cannot read the minds of authors from almost a millennium away.  Yet today’s casual student of literature may well be tempted to see Fand as one of Marie’s hapless females snared in a web of hopeless relationships, especially since our own world has come to develop keen sensors for the signs of failed marriage.  Indeed, the earlier half of Fand’s final lay sounds like many a plaint heard in divorce court, if not quite like the rumblings of a feminist manifesto.  All the same, we must notice that even this lay closes with overt references to Fand’s being a goddess from the Other World—the kind of reference that Marie took care to mute to a level of sub-textual implication.  The queen’s poem is indisputably moving: it is even beautiful in its power to move—its perceptive portrayal of emotions that human beings have known for a very long time, if not forever.  The work as a whole, however, cannot be said to “break out” of its mythic mold with any coherent purpose.  At best, its narrative remains a puzzling piece of confused purposes, just as its very diction is a hodge-podge of different spelling habits and personal quirks.

In translating the Serglige Con Chulainn, I followed the Irish text provided by Myles Dillon’s edition (Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies, 1975 [reprinted from 1953]).  For Eliduc, I used Alfred Ewert’s edition of the Lais (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978 [reprinted from 1944]).    ~   J. H.


The Wasting-Sickness of Cú Chulainn

(Serglige Con Chulainn)

Translated by John R. Harris


                The men of Ulster held a festival every year, three days before Samhain and three days after, and the day of Samhain itself.  All of them would be a while in Mag Muirthemne a-celebrating the festival every year.  And nothing would be done during that while by them if it were not games and gatherings, pleasures and pastimes, feasting and eating.  ’Tis thus [i.e., from this cause] that the thirds of the season are as they are across Ireland today.

                So at the right time the Ulstermen would be gathering for their festival in Mag Muirthemne.  A chance was this gathering ever at every Samhain for them each one to be publishing his glories and wondrous feats.  A certain custom was theirs in the publishing of glory before the festival’s gathering: that is, the tips of the tongues of every man they had slain to produce in a bag.1  And some would bring the tongues of cattle to multiply that triumph, and each would then be a-lifting his glory to the skies as they all spoke in their turn.  They would do this with their swords a-hanging at the sides the while they would be glorying.  Their blades would then bend whenever they would be speaking awry.  ’Twas as it should be, for they would call their gods to witness through their weapons so that the weapon would be a guarantee.

                On this occasion, all the men of Ulster came to the festival but for two: Conall Cernach and Fergus son of Roigh.  “Let the festival begin!” said the Ulstermen.  “It will not begin,” said Cú Chulainn, “until Conall and Fergus come.”  For a foster-father to him was Fergus, and his foster-brother was Conall Cernach.2  Sencha said at that,  “Well, let chessmen be brought to us meanwhile, and let poems be sung, and up with the acrobats.”  And that much was done then.

                While they were at it thus, a flock of birds settled upon the lake before them.  There were no birds more beautiful in all of Ireland.  Most eager were the womenfolk about the birds, and great talking followed.  Each of them stirred contention among the others about the capture of the birds.  King Conchubair’s wife, Eithne Aitencháitrech, said, “I will have a bird upon either of my two shoulders of those birds there.”  “We all of us,” said the other women, “will have the same.”  “If they be given to any, it’s to me they should be given first,” said Eithne Ingubai, the wife of Cu Chulainn.3  “What shall we do?” said the women.  “Not difficult,” said Lebarcham, the daughter of Oa and Adarc.  “I will go on your part to seek the answer of Cú Chulainn.”

                So she went indeed to Cú Chulainn, and she said to him, “The womenfolk all request those birds of you.”  But he set his sword to playing about her.  “So the trulls of Ulster find nothing but the hunting of birds to lay upon us today, is it?”  “It is unjust of you,” said Lebarcham, “to rage so against us, for ’tis through you that the women of Ulster have their third epithet: namely, blind.”  For there were three epithets upon the women of Ulster: bent-necked and tongue-tied and blind.  “Bent-necked” was called every woman who loved Conall Cernach, and “tongue-tied” every woman who loved Cuscraid Mend Macha son of Conchubair who would be muddling his words.  And in like fashion, every woman who loved Cú Chulainn would wince with one eye to resemble him in a loving way.  For it was his habit whenever his wrath would rise to an evil pitch to draw one eye into his head so that a crane’s bill would not reach it.  The other would he thrust out to the same size as cauldron fit to hold a yearling calf.4

                “Yoke the chariot for us, Láeg,” said Cú Chulainn.  Láeg thereupon yoked the chariot, and Cú Chulainn went into the chariot, and he dealt such stunning blows to them [the birds] that their claws and wings followed the water’s flow.  They gathered them all then and carried them off with them, and they made distribution to all the womenfolk so that there was not one woman who had not two birds of them saving only Eithne Ingubai.  He came then to his own wife.  “Ill is your spirit,” said Cú Chulainn to her.  “Not ill at all,” said Eithne, “for it is by me that distribution was made to them.  ’Tis fitting what you did,” said she.  “Not a woman of them but gives you her love or part of her love.  While as for me, not a portion of love for another is in me but for you only.”  “Let not your spirit be ill, all the same,” said Cú Chulainn.  “If the birds of Mag Muirthemne or the Bóind should came again, I will give the two most beautiful birds to you.”

                Not long was it after when they saw two birds upon the lake and a chain of red-gold between them.  They warbled a short song.  A sleep fell upon the mass.  Cú Chulainn leapt up in their pursuit  “If I be heeded,” said Eithne, “you will not go after them, for is not there rare power upon these birds?  Other birds may be taken for me later.”  “Is it likely that I shall be evaded?” said Cú Chulainn.  “Get a stone for the sling, Láeg.”   Láeg thereupon got a stone and lay it into the sling.  Cú Chulainn hurled the stone at them.  An errant shot, it was.  “Aye me!” he said.  He took a second stone and went wide with it.  “My doom upon me!” he said.  “Since I took arms, not a day ever my shot went wide until today.”  He threw his javelin upon them so that it went through a wing of feathers upon one bird.  With that, off they went across the water.

                Cú Chulainn wandered along after that till he rested his back against a rock, and ill the spirit in him, and a sleep fell upon him.  In that state he saw two women come upon him.  The one of them with a green cloak about her.  The other with a crimson cloak of five folds sitting upon her.  The woman in the green cloak came nearer, and she laughed merrily over him, and she dealt the blow of a horsewhip to him.  Then the other came upon him, and she laughed over him, and she smote him after the same manner.  And they were a great time at it: that is, either of them after the other ever a-beating him until he was dead but for a little.  Then they went away from him.

                The men of Ulster perceived how things stood, and they applied themselves to awakening him.  “Hold!” said Fergus.  “Let ye not move him till he finish seeing!”  Thereupon he started from his sleep.  “What has come over you?” the Ulsterman said to him.  Not possible was it for him to converse back and forth with them.  “Let me be taken,” said he, “where I may languish—to Téte Brecc.  Not to Dún Imrith, nor to Dún Delc.”  “How if you be delivered to Emer’s care in Dún Delc?” said Láeg.  “”Aye!” said he.  “My wish is for Téte Brecc.”[i]5  So he was taken from there to the plain [which he had named] till the end of a year, without ever speaking to anyone at all.

                A few days before the next Samhain at the year’s end, the Ulstermen were gathered in that house: that is, Fergus beside the wall, Conall Cernach beside the bedpost, Lugaid Réoderg beside the pillow, Eithne Ingubai at his feet… thereupon, as they were thus disposed, a man came to them into the house and sat upon the border of the bed in which was Cú Chulainn.  “Why have you come here?” said Conall Cernahc.  “Not hard, that,” said he.  “If the man a-lying there were in his health, he were my surety upon all the Ulstermen.  Now that he is in his weakness and sickness, ’tis yet more of a surety that he is upon them.  I fear not a man here, therefore, since ’tis to converse with him that I have come.6  “Welcome to you.  Be not afraid of aught,” said the Ulstermen.

                At that the man arose to standing, and he delivered to them the stanzas here below:

Lord Cú Chulainn, though you pine,

No improvement comes with time.

Áed Abrat’s daughters might—

Were they here—dispel your night.


’Pon the right hand of swift Labraid,

Lí Ban murmurs, “Every Samhain

Pines my mistress Fand to lie

In Cú’s arms throughout the might.


‘Joy,’ she cries, ‘the day it’s true

That our land might welcome Cú;

Gold and silver his would be

And such wine as gods will drink.


‘Were he less rude heretofore,

Cú mac Sualtaim might report

Wonders to his dumbstruck tribe

Seen upon sleep’s other side.


‘Fertile Mag Muirthemne need

Ne’er more Samhain’s darkness weep

If Lí Ban bring you in time,

Lord Cú Chulainn, though you pine.’”

                “Who are you?” they said.  “I am Óengus son of Áed Abrat,” said he.  Thereupon the man went from them, and they knew not whither he had come nor whence he had gone.  Cú Chulainn arose in his sitting after that and then spoke.  “’Tis high time, indeed,” they said, “your doing that.  Say what has happened.”  “The truth is, I beheld a vision,” said he, “Samhain a year ago.”  He told to them all as he had seen it.  “What’s to be done now, wise Conchubair?” said Cú Chulainn.  “Let deeds be done backward,” said Conchubair, “unto the pillar-stone where the first happened.”

                So Cú Chulainn went from there till he came to the pillar-stone, where he [again] saw the woman with the green cloak upon her.  “Welcome, Cú Chulainn,” said she.  “Not well for us at all anything about your visit to us last year,” said Cú Chulainn.  “Yet not for your injuring,” she said, “came we, but for to seek you in love.  I came truly to summon you,” said the woman, “on behalf of Fand daughter of Áed Abrat.  Manandán son of Lir has left her, and ’twas after that she gave her love to you.7  For me, Lí Ban is my name. I am sent as a messenger to you by my consort Labraid Swifthand-on-Sword [Lúathlám ar Claideb].  He will give Fand to you for one day’s fighting with him against Senach Síaborthe and Eochaid Íuil and Éogan Inbir.”  “In truth, not much good am I,” said he, “for fighting against men today.”   “But a short while is that now,” said she.  “Your health will come, and you will be improved with the return of your strength.  That much will be done for you by Labraid, for it’s he is the hero best of all the world’s young braves.”  ”What is the place where this one is?” said Cú Chulainn.  “’Tis in Mag Mell,” said she.  “It’s best that I go back there now,” said the young woman.  “Let Láeg go with thee,” said Cú Chulainn, “to know the land whence thou hast been brought.”  “Let him come, then,” said LÍ Ban.8

They set off thereafter until they came to the place where Fand was.  Then Lí Ban came around in front of Láeg and clasped his shoulder.  “Let thee not, friend Láeg,” she said, “go forth this day upon thy life if not a woman be protecting thee.”9  “Never much were that my custom until now,” said Láeg, “a woman my surety.”   “Aye me, and twice aye me, that Cú Chulainn be not now in thy place!” said Lí Ban.  “It were well with me, besides, that ’twere he that was in it,” answered Láeg.

 They set off thereafter until they came to the side of an island, whereupon they saw a brass boat upon the lake headed their way.  They came thereafter to the boat, and they came across to the island, and they went to the entrance of a dwelling where they saw a man before them.  And what Lí Ban said to him is this:

Where’s Labraid Swift-Hand-to-Pommel,

The head of victory’s squadrons—

Crowned his car by victory’s shimmer

And red the blades around him?

                The man there answered her a-saying thus:

Labriad’s might is full and fast,

Not remiss.  Hosts will come.

Troops are mustered.  Slaughter vast—

Mag Fidgae red will run.

 Thereupon they went into the dwelling until they saw thrice fifty couches in it, and thrice fifty women upon them.  They all extended greetings to Láeg.  What they all said to him was thus: “Ease and peace, Láeg, for her sake with whom you journey and for his sake from whom you journey, and for your own sake itself.”

“What wilt thou do now, Láeg?” asked Lí Ban.  “Wilt go to converse with Fand at this time?”  “I will go if I may know the place where she is.”  “Not hard, that.  She is in a chamber to the side,” said Lí Ban.  They thereupon went to address her, and she extended welcome to him in the same manner [as the other women].  Fand, by the way, was the daughter of Áed Abrat: that is, “the fire in the gaze”.  ’Tis the fire of the eye that is the little gleam in the pupil.  “Fand”, further, means “tear that falls across [the eye]”.  For her purity was that name given to her, and for her beauty, for there was not throughout the world her equal. 10

A short while after the time they were thus [conversing], they heard the noise of Labraid’s chariot a-coming to the island.  “’Tis ill the spirit of Labraid today,” said Lí Ban.  “Let us go to receive him.”  They came out from there, and Lí Ban extended welcome to him, a-saying thus:  

Hail, Labraid Swift-Hand-to-Sword!

Heir to marshaled squadrons,

Spear-bristling battalions—

Heavy sledge on hostile shields,

Reaper of sharp-pointed fields;

Burrower of bodies,

Reckoner of grim tallies;

Slaughter ever ready,

Surpassing female beauty;

Flood of foes’ disaster,

River of friends’ treasure.

 Hail, Labraid Swift-Hand-to-Sword! 11

                Yet Labraid did not answer, so the young woman spoke further:

Hail, Labraid Swift-Hand-to-Battlesword!

Swift hand also to endow,

Ever generous to bestow;

Arrow-like to battle,

Ribs of thick-scarred metal;

Faithful in word-giving,

Forceful in law-giving;

Kingship most kindly,

Right hand most mighty;

In righteous vendettas

The scythe of aggressors.

Hail, Labraid Swift-Hand-to-Battlesword!

                Still Labraid did not answer.  She sang another lay yet again:

Hail, Labraid Swift-Hand-to-Sword!

Most heroic of warriors,

Most right-prideful leader!

He wrings valor from havoc—

He turns battles to panic;

Slices the sallying,

Lifts up the faltering,

Lays low the swaggering.

Hail, Labraid Swift-Hand-to-Sword!

“Not good is what you have spoken, woman,” said Labraid. Whereupon he himself spoke thus:

Nor high nor haughty I, thou lass:

The thrills of taunting do not blend with sense.

Roiled ranks ring us round in reckonless razing,

Red swords drawn to drub in clenched right hands,

We and one-minded Eochaid Íuil’s multitudes.

Haughty be not we.

Nor high nor haughty I, thou lass:

                “Let it be well with your spirit, then,” said the woman Lí Ban to him.  “Here is Láeg, the charioteer of Cú Chulainn, and a message to you from him that [the likeness of] a host will come from him.”12  Labraid thereupon extended welcome to him, a-saying, “Peace to thee, Láeg, for the sake of the women with whom thou camest and for everyone on whose behalf thou dost travel.  Go thee home now, Láeg,” said Labriad, “and Lí Ban will go behind thee.”

                Láeg thereupon came away from the place to Emain and related his story to Cú Chulainn and everyone else. After that Cú Chulainn arose in his sitting and passed a hand across his face, and he conversed with Láeg energetically, and the force of the knowledge conveyed to him by his gillie was a strengthening to him.


                [At that time there was an assembly of four of Ireland’s five main provinces, for that they might find someone pleasing to them to whom they would give the kingship of Ireland.  For not to their liking was it that the hill of Ireland’s chieftaincy and lordship—that is, Temair—was without the laws of a king upon it, nor to their liking that the tribes were without the power of a king a-holding straight their dealings.  For the men of Ireland had been without the power of a king upon them for a span of seven years, from the destruction of Conaire at Dá Derga’s Hostel to that great assembly of the four provinces of Ireland at Temair of the Kings in the house if Erc son of Corpre Níad Fer.13

                And these are the kings who were at that assembly: Medb and Ailill, Cú Rí and Tigernach Tétbannach son of Luchta and Find son of Rossa.  Not indeed would these worthies include an Ulsterman in their assembly of kings on account of the unity that was among them against Ulster.  So the bull ceremony was thereupon held by them that they might know from it to whom they would give the kingship.

                ’Tis thus that the bull ceremony was performed: a white bull to be killed and a single man to eat his fill of its flesh and its broth, and for him to sleep upon that fullness, and for the spell of truth to be chanted over him by four druids, and for him to see in a dream the manner of the man who would be kinged from his shape and his appearance and the manner of the actions he did.  This man awoke from his sleeping, and he made known his vision to the kings: that is, a young warrior, noble and able, with two red circles across him and he (hovering) over the pillow of a pining man in Emain Macha.

                Messengers were sent on that account to Emain.  And there the Ulstermen were in a grand assembly about Conchubair at that time, with Cú Chulainn a-languishing in his sickness.  The news was made known to Conchubair and to all the other noblemen of Ulster.  “There is among us a lad noble and able of that description,” said Conchubair.  “That is, Lugaid Réoderg, son of Trí Find Emna, the foster-son of Cú Chulainn, who is standing thus at the bed’s pillow beyond a-heartening his foster-father—Cú Chulainn, it is—as he pines in sickness.”14 Cú Chulainn arose at that, and he gave instruction to his foster-son, so that he spoke thus:

“Be not in search of brawls bloody and brutal.

Be not a coarse contemptuous cad.

Be not shaking [then] surging, sudden and impulsive.

Be not enamored of treasure—’tis ruin and confusion.

Be not the fly-in-the-ale at a nobleman’s feast.

Be not ever and always scuffing boundaries that separate.

Keep not company with men ill in repute and out of power.

Close not the lanes of legal redress with a code’s cavil.

Learn the land’s past from those whose roots run through it.

Seek advice of the wise with unwinding of truth thy witness.

Let judges sort out squabbles of siblings o’er land shares.

Let family trees be traced to the first roots of the race.

Summon the dead to life through oaths sworn where they died.

Through legal channels be inheritance funneled.

Let those not of the clan in sanctuaries band.

Take exception with discretion.

Emptiest heads make loudest echoes.

Play not the fool.

Stay clear of jeers.

Do not intimidate the elderly.

Be not suspicious of the wide world.

Do not spout prayers and vows at every step.

Do not slight guests without large retinues.

Whether thou lend, loan, or decline, be composed and polite.

Be humble and kind before wise men.

Accept the correction of old men.

Hold in high regard ancestral rules.

Be not tepid-friendly with thy friends.

Be full vigorous against thy enemies.

Be not bristling for contention at assemblies.

Be not a fault-finding prattler.

Bully not in parley.

Hoard not aught for narrow profit.

Correct thy correction when laws cause corruption.

Trample not the truth at the whim of the many.

Let not be forgiven he who does not repent.

Let not stir dissent he who flees consequences.

Let him not hang back who has strength to go forth.

Let him not be too keen who is not too quick.  

Fit yourself to the following of those precepts, my son.”15

                And here below is how Lugaid answered Cú Chulainn:

“Well it were that every man

These precepts should have at hand.

Naught shall lack but that your ’dvice

Put in practice will I try.”

After that Lugaid went with the messengers to Temair, and the title of king was conferred upon him, and at Temair did he pass that night, and after that each (of the assembled kings) went to his own dwelling.]


                Now, as for Cú Chulainn, the tale about him will be told from this point on. “Away with you from me, Láeg lad,” said Cú Chulainn, “to the place where Emer is, and tell her that fairy women came to me and destroyed me, and say to her that it’s better in every way I am now, and let her come ahead to me.”16  ’Tis thus that the lad spoke to Cú Chulainn a-strengthening him:  

Great the hero’s lunacy

Lying, pining senselessly:

’Twere to Tenmag Trogagi’s

Fay-folk victory to concede.

Grant that they beat thee?

Grant that they bound thee?

Grant that they skewered thee

Through the power of female guile?

Rive these womanly mystic spells!

That thy hero’s fame may dwell

Ever ’mong the grandest names.

Let thy young blood run again!

Let the bards sing thy acclaim!

Deeds of daring be thy game!

Though the vigor of Labraid struggle,

Thou, wakened man, art might and muscle.

                After that the gillie went to the place where Emer was, and he informed her how was Cú Chulainn.  “Ill to you, lad,” said she, “for it’s you that visited the fairy people without bringing back with you a magical gift for your lord.  Woe to the Ulstermen,” said she, “not to have sought his cure!  Were Conchubair wasting away or Fergus overpowered with sleep or Conall Cernach oppressed with wounds, ’tis Cú Chulainn would help them.”  Thereupon she chanted the lay that follows in this manner:

Son of Ríangabur—alas!

Why didst through the fay-folk pass

Yet not soon has reached from you

Cure for Mac Dechtere’s swoon? 17


Sad the Ulstermen so many,

Generous, with kin aplenty,

Not to seek the wide world round

Till a cure for Cú they’ve found.


Were it Fergus in a swoon

And one druid only knew

What the cure, Dechtere’s son

Seek would till he found this one.


If ’twere Conall, furthermore,

Ringed about in wounds and sores,

Cú would probe the bounds of being

For a sage to bring him healing.


If ’twere Láegaire Búadach

On whom risks were mounting up,

Cú would wander Ireland’s wastes

Help to find for Iliu’s race.


If on Celtchar of the Tricks

Sleep and swoon themselves had fixed.

’Mong the fay-folk night and day

Sétantá would wend his way. 18


If Furbaide, lord of rovers,

Were long time a-bed to suffer,

Search would he the earth’s reserves

For to find a saving herb.


Dead the great hosts of Síd Truim:

Mighty deeds are fall’n to ruin.

Greyhounds will their Hound excel

No more under fairy spell.


Alas, your sickness seizes me,

O blacksmith’s Hound of Ulster’s king!

A pain bisects me heart and bone.

Would I might cure you on my own!


Alas, my heart a-pining bleeds

A horseman ’cross the plain to see!

O, why never did he repair

From Mag Muirthemne’s festive fair?


Since from Emain ne’er he came,

Thanks to fay-mist in his brain,

Scarce my voice finds words to speak,

Thinking how his bed he keeps.


Month on month—a season, year—

Ne’er a manly voice to hear,

Ne’er a manly couch to share—

Láeg lad, ’tis hard to bear.

                Emer went forth to Emain after that to visit Cú Chulainn, and she sat upon the bed where Cú Chulainn was and began a-speaking to him.  “Shame upon you,” said she, “a-lying thus for love of a woman, for it has caused you an over-long debility.”  And she began a-calling him forth and chanted a lay:

Rise, thou prince of Ulster’s worthies!

Wake from dozing, hale and hearty!

Macha’s king—behold—comes early:

Lie not thus a-bed so surly.


Crystals stud—behold—his shoulder.

Drinking horns—behold—run over

At his feasts.  Behold his chariots

Outside: in at chess sit myriads.


Behold his warriors bursting strong.

Behold his maids of stature long.

Behold his kings—though stare be risk;

Behold their queens that stately sit.


Behold the start of winter white;

Behold the wondrous turn of night.

Then think to what thou bendest knee—

Its cold and dark—beyond thy sleep.


A vast abyss, this heavy doze—

An unseen, foul-enchanting foe.

A dram too much, this wine of sleep,

The taste of death its wasting weak. 19


No pleasure drink that lays one down.

Throw off this torpor in a bound!

Honeyed words I rich have served thee.

Rise, now, prince of Ulster’s worthies!

                Cú Chulainn arose thereafter, and he passed a hand over his face and put his weariness and his heaviness from him, and he arose after that and came forth to the place where was Airbe Roír.20  Thereupon he saw Lí Ban [coming] toward him, and she spoke to him and was a-coaxing him to the fairy folk.  “What is the place where Labraid is?” he said.  “Not hard, that,” said she.

Labraid lives in water clean

Ringed in female company.

No regret will dog the stride

Ent’ring Labraid Swift-Hand’s tribe.


His right hand the scourge of hundreds—

Knows she well who to you chants it.

Purple as a violet’s bloom

Sits in Labraid’s cheeks the hue. 21


Conchend, friend of battles keen,

Flees his sword’s blade, red and lean;

’Fore him shatter spears of moiled

Hosts, and shields of heroes royal.


Fighting, like an eye he gleams;

Ne’er betrays he friend in need.

Honored o’er the fairies all,

On his manhunts thousands fall.


Famed more broad than heroes young,

Eochaid Íuil’s land has he won.

Head of hair like golden twine,

Sighs he fragrance of fine wine.


Wonder ’f men, he leads attack,

Savage beats intruders back.

Punts and ponies race for prize

’Cross his island paradise.


Man of many deeds abroad

Labraid Lúathlám of the Swords;

In his realm fights ne’er a dog—

Lasting sleep subdues his throng.


Reins of red-gold ’pon his horse—

Nothing of inferior source.

Crystal pillars, silver trabes—

Treasures such his palace make.

“I will not go,” said Cú Chulainn, “upon the invitation of a woman.”  “Well, then,” said the lass, “let Láeg come there to behold every detail.”  “Off with him, then,” said Cú Chulainn.  Thereupon Láeg set off with the woman [Lí Ban], and they went to Mag Lúada, and to Biliu Búada, and to Óenach nEmna, and to Óenach Fidgai, and just there was Áed Abrat with his daughters.  Fand extended welcome to Láeg.  “For what is it that Cú Chulainn has not come?” said she.  “’Twas not his wish to come upon the invitation of a woman, and therefore [he has sent Láeg] to find out was it from you that news came to him,” said she [Lí Ban].  “’Tis from me,” said she, “and let him come ahead to us apace, for it’s today that battle will be joined.”22

Láeg went back to the place where was Cú Chulainn.  “How stands it, Láeg?” said Cú Chulainn. Láeg answered him a-saying, “It’s high time to come,” said he, “for the battle is being joined today.”  And it’s thus that he was a-speaking then, [as] he chanted a lay:

I walked into splendid play—

Place of marvels every day;

Saw a mound hold bands in twenties,

There found Labraid Hair-a-Plenty.


Found him sitting in his mound

Did I, glistening arms him round;

Mane of amber flowing back,

Held by golden apple’s clasp.


From my purple cloak of pleats

Five he recognizes me;

Says to me, “Wouldst follow, friend,

To the house of Fáelbe Find?”


Pair of kings beneath this roof:

Fáelbe Find and Labraid, too.

Fifty thrice served either—grand

Entourage in one hall’s span.


Fifty beds upon the right,

Fifty more spread hard beside;

Fifty beds upon the left,

Fifty more spread overhead.


Copper pillars on the beds,

Posts of white-gold on their heads;

For a candle giving light,

Precious stone forever bright.


Past the doorway to the west,

Where the sun doth daily set,

Herds of horses mottle-maned,

Some of roan and some of gray.


Past the doorway to the east,

Trees of reddish crystal three

’Mong which birds do ever pipe

Gently to each child inside.


At the throne-room’s door, a tree—

Words touch not its symmetry;

For a sundial, tree of silver—

More like gold at brighter hours.


Three score other trees were there,

Vying tops that tangle ne’er;

Thrice a hundred from its crop

Ample feeds each without stop.


In a shaft, the fairy folk

Hoard thrice fifty dappled cloaks;

Each cloak’s corner brightest gold

Broach adorns the cloak to hold.


Barrel vast of heady mead

Waits the clan’s distributing:

Waits it still—’tis never finished,

For its drink is e’er replenished.


Always in the house, a maid

Fit to halt the wand’ring gaze:

Yellow hair about her flows;

Beautiful her every pose.


Any ear that her words reach

May the sound of beauty teach;

Split the heart of any man;

None such wonder may withstand.


Said she after patient pass,

“Who this lad unknown to us?

If thou serve Muirthemne’s hero,

Come thou to our corner nearer.”


Slowly, slowly, came I forward:

Feared I lest my ways seem froward.

Said she to me, “Will he come,

Dechtere’s one wondrous son?”


A shame, he came not long ago—

And all who’ve sought him thus to go,

That he might see how matters stand

Within the great house and its land. 23


Were I to all Ériu heir

And the throne of Brega Fair,

Dally would I not to give it

For that wondrous place to visit.


                “’Tis well, that,” said Cú Chulainn.  “Well, indeed,” said Láeg, “and ’tis fitting to go there for to visit, and good is each thing in that land.”  And again Láeg spoke to him a-telling about the delights of the fairy mound:  


Noble land saw I and bright

Where no fiction false sees light,

Kinged by one who bloodies hordes:

Labraid Swift-hand of the Swords.


Coming ’cross Mag Lúada,

I was shown Bil Búada;

In Mag Dena hand I placed

On pair of two-headed snakes.


What Lí Ban murmured to me

Where passed our brief colloquy:

“For me,” said she, “treasured image,

If to Cú’s should change your visage.”


Lovely, perfect victory,

Áed Abrat’s daughters be;

Yet Fand’s form, voice, color fair,

Ne’er another royal shared.


From report though I recite

Sinless Adam’s lengthy tribe; 24

Fand’s appearance trumps that nation:

Not her like in all Creation.


Warriors saw I flashes spray

In displays of slashing play;

Saw I clothes of many colors

Worthy of a royal dower.


Gentle women wined and dined

With their daughters fine saw I.

Young lads hunting full equipped

Saw I ’pon the wooded ridge.


I saw minstrels in the hall

Playing tunes that queens enthrall.

Were not my departure soon,

Helpless I had stayed in swoon.


Saw I high above the sea

Lovely Eithne Ingubai; 25

But the woman I exalt

In their tracks would armies halt.

                Cú Chulainn went with him after this to the land, and his chariot bore him until they reached the island.  Labraid extended welcome to him, and thus did all the womenfolk, and Fand thereupon extended a special welcome to Cú Chulainn.  “What’s to be done now?” said Cú Chulainn.  “Not hard, that,” answered Labraid.  “What we shall do is take a turn about assembled host.”  They thereupon came away until they reached the host’s great throng, and kept on until they had cast an eye over it.  And to them the host’s number was beyond reckon.  “Away with you now,” said Cú Chulainn to Labraid.  Labraid thereupon went away and Cú Chulainn remained among the host.  The great throng distinguished the calling out of two druidical ravens.  “’Tis likely,” said the host [i.e., men among the host], “that the crows are singing [to announce the] distorted rage of Ériu.”26  The host thereupon pursued them until they [the ravens] found not a place for themselves upon dry land.

Thereafter Eochaid Íuil came to a spring for to wash his hands early in the morning.  Cú Chulainn spied his shoulder through [an opening in] his cloak.27  He cast a spear at him that went through [the opening].  He slew three upon thirty of them by himself.  Senach Síabortha attacked thereafter, and they waged a great battle, and Cú Chulainn finally slew him.  Labraid thereupon came and was ever putting the host to flight.  Labraid besought him [Cú Chulainn] to desist from the slaughter.  “Verily, I fear,” said Láeg, “the man’s turning his fury upon us, for not his fill of combat yet has he found.  Come away, now,” said Láeg, “and let three vats of cold water be readied for to dampen his rage.”  The first vat in which he went boiled over.  The second vat [warmed] till no one might have endured its heat.  The third vat [settled at] a moderate heat.28

                When the women looked upon Cú Chulainn, Fand chanted this below:
Stately drives his chariot near

One too young for heavy beard;

Fine horse-handler rolls this eve

West across Óenach Fidgai. 29


From his lungs no fairy lay:

Blood upon him—deep its stain;

Such his dance that rumbling wheels

Under him do play the reel.


Gaze would I if they relent

’Pon those horses nightward bent;

Not their likeness ever seen—

Swifter than the winds of spring.


Fifty golden applets sport

Playful in the spume they snort.

Not the likeness of this king

E’er among high-born or mean.


Sits in each of his two cheeks

Shade of red as if they bleed;

Sits a shade of purple, too,

Shade of green, and shade of blue.


Seven lights sit in his eye—

Little risk of going blind!

Lashes blackest blue all round—

Ornament of noblest brow.


Sits upon his head—this man

Known the width of Ériu’s land—

Hair of three distinctive hues:

Much renown for beardless youth!


Strides he o’er the ranks of killed,

Pacing parlous slaughter-mills;

Name your fiercest champion—

Not a match for Cú Chulainn.


Culann’s Hound our precinct enters,

Mag Muirthemne’s youthful warrior.

Áed Abrat’s lovely daughters—

They ’tis who have brought him over.


Ruddy ball of falling blood—

     High-as-treetop falling fist!

Glory shout of loudest lung—

     Banshee keen that chills the mist!

                Thereupon Lí Ban extended welcome to him, a-saying what is here below:

Peace here to thee, Cú Chulainn—

Raging boar!

Mag Muirthemne’s chieftain grand—

Soul that soars!

Vaunting victors’ honor crowned—

Heroes’ breath!

Pond’rous stone of wisdom round—

Reddened wrath!

Prompt thy hand on hostile heads—

Ulster’s manhood!

Beautiful thy hues, loved best

Where women look.

So peace here.

“A question, Cú: what is it you’ve done?” asked Lí Ban.  What Cú Chulainn said is thus:

Target of my unleashed spear

Fortress of Éogan Inbir.

I know not, though grand its arc,

Whether ’t hit or missed its mark.


Be my strength used well or ill,

Never cast I this day till

’Pon a face vague in the mist:

Maybe this throw no one missed.


Bright and bloody host did ride

Me pursuing from the side:

Manandán o’ Lir’s tribe, they,

Éogan Inbir’s final stay.


Mattered not which way I turned me

Once the full force came upon me;

Man alone ’gainst thirty hundred—

Yet to death I sent them humbled.


Heard I groans from Eochaid Íuil—

Sound of heart expelling soul:

Sound, perhaps, of dying army—

Know I not.  The throw was mighty.

Cú Chulainn bedded with the woman after that, and he remained a month in her company.  And at the end of the month, he was taking his leave of her, and she said to him, “In what place,” said she, “wilt thou tell me to come to thee in tryst?”  And ’twas then that they arranged a tryst at Ibur Cind Tráchta.  Word of that matter was passed along to Emer.  She had knives fashioned for to kill the woman.  She herself came to the trysting place and fifty women with her.  It happened that Cú Chulainn and Láeg were a-playing a chess match, and they did not perceive the women going before them.  Fand indeed came, and she said to Láeg, “Behold, Láeg lad, the thing that I see.”  “What is that?” said Láeg.  And Láeg looked, and ’twas then that the woman—that is, Fand—said these words: 30

“Behold, Láeg, at your back.  A-listening to you are women well appointed, keen-witted, with gray-sharp blades in their right hands and gold high upon their breasts.  A lovely shape is seen [upon them] as when warriors in their glory ascend their battle chariots.  Bright has turned the face of Emer daughter of Forgall.”

“Fear thou not,” said Cú Chulainn, “for she will not reach thee ever.  Trust thou in my mighty chariot with its sun-blazing seat resting just here before me—in its saving thee from various numerous womenfolk in the four quarters of Ulster; for whatever might boast the daughter of Forgall in desperate deeds before her foster-sisters, nothing would she dare trying with me at hand.”

Then Cú Chulainn said further [to Emer}:

“I overlook thee, woman, as every man overlooks the one he loves.  I parry not thy hard, hand-brandished spear, nor thy lean, measly dagger, nor thy feeble, weak-bridled wrath, for most grievous would be unleashing my strength upon the strength of a woman.”

“A question, then, for thee,” said Emer.  “Why hast thou caused, Cú Chulainn, my dishonor before the various women of the province and before the sundry women of Ériu and before all folk of rank in general?  For ‘tis under thy protection I came [as a wife] and under the vast sweep of thy guarantee; and though thou wax now with the pride of thy countless conflicts, it may be my desertion will not work well for thee, lad, though thou should’st try it.”

“A question, then, Emer,” said Cú Chulainn.  “Why would’st not allow me a spell a-trysting with women, especially this woman so clearly virtuous, pure, polished, king-worthy?  Many-mannered this woman [riding] upon the waves of the full-flowing ocean, with her shapeliness and fair frame and fine-bred lines, with her embroidered cape and hand-made lace and hand-savvy drapery, with her wisdom and sense and steadiness, her affluence of horse and cattle.  For not beneath the heavens is there thing her consort might wish for that she would not bring to pass, though thou swearest otherwise.  Emer,” said he, “thou willt not find winsome many-wounded battle-winning warrior ever as worthy as I.”

“It may be,” said Emer, “this woman that you follow is no better [than I].  But ever is beautiful what is red, and bright what’s new, and lovely what’s tall, and bitter the custom.  Honored everything unknown, and neglected every known, till all knowledge be learned.  O lad,” said she, “we were one time as it pleased you, and we might again be so if ’twas to your liking.”  And a gloom settled upon him.  “Upon my word,” said he, “thou art pleasing to me and wilt please as long as thou hast life.”

“Depart from me, then,” said Fand.  “’Tis more fitting that I depart,” said Emer.  “Not so,” said Fand.  “I, rather, will be abandoned, for ’tis I who was threatened but a while ago.”  And she betook herself to grieving and lamenting great, for her abandonment was shameful to her, and she went to her house at once and was troubled by the deep love she bore Cú Chulainn.  And it’s thus she was a-grieving, and she made this lay:

On my way I go again,

Though remain here I would fain;

Though a hero new I find,

Would that here I might abide!


Better here my taste to stay—

That much free of doubt I say—

Than life (think’st I lie?) resume

In Áed Abrat’s sunny rooms.


Emer, for thee is the lad:

Joy have of him, woman glad!

What my hand reach not, ne’er less

Must I long for without rest.


Many men have sought my favor,

Whether ’n plain or hidden pleasure:

Yet before no tryst they made,

For ’twas I did them evade.


Woe to her who love doth bear

To a man who not it shares.

Better put aside such trade

If not love with love be paid.


Fifty women came distressed,

Mistress Emer yellow-tressed,

For to ambush Fand—foul plan—

Slaying her alone, unmanned.


Fifty thrice are yet to me—

Lovely, chaste—beneath the sea

In my palace all about:

Ne’er them will I be without.

                After that the matter was conveyed to Manandán: that is, Fand daughter of Áed Abrat to be in unequal struggle with the women of Ulster, and to be abandoned by Cú Chulainn.  Thereupon Manandán came westward to stand before the young woman, and he was in her presence, and none of them perceived that occurrence but Fand alone.31  And it’s then that great regret and sad spirits seized the woman a-looking at Manandán, and she made a lay:

See, the warrior-son of Lir

Comes where fell Éogan Inbir:

Manandán, lord of the world.

At his sight my thoughts once swirled.


Were then now, my wails were loud—

But my heart is now too proud.

O, what useless thing is love!

Wisdom bides not when it comes.


When Lir’s son and I called ours

Castle Inbir’s glassy towers,

Thought we not to hesitate

Vowing ne’er to separate.


Manandán a wife in me

Had as fitting as could be;

When we matched our wits at chess,

One win he, one I, would wrest.


Manandán a wife in me

Had as fitting as could be;

Paid he fine of bracelet gold

For the blush he from me stole.


Mine with heather-honey dewed

Fifty women wondrous hued;

His the fifty men I gave

When I brought my fifty maids.


Fifties four—ye want not proof—

Served us ’neath a single roof:

Fifty twice lads strapping, strong,

Fifty twice lithe lasses blonde.


I can spy upon the sea

What the best eyes may not see:

Knight on Ocean’s long-maned steed

Pacing ’fore the fairy fleet.


Horseman, none thy passing by

See might but a fairy’s eye;

Magnified the distant host

That eludes the mind of most.


Would such sight I turned to time—

For obtuse is woman’s mind!

He who my love held unmixed

Set me here at mortal risk.


Fare thee well, my lovely Cú!

I with pride alone leave you,

Though my longing with me stays:

Broken rules leave whetted blades.


Rise and go I—high time, too,

Though for one, ’tis hard to do.

Láeg Ríangabra, to thee

Only I admit my grief.


Off I to my proper mate

Who declines me not to take:

Say not that I from thee steal—

An it please thee, watch my heel.

                Thereupon the young woman then set out after Manandán, and Manandán extended welcome to her, and he said, “Well, woman, will you be a-waiting upon Cú Chulainn now, or will you follow me?”  “Upon my word,” said she, “there is a man of them all I would rather follow as husband.  But,” said she, “it is with you I will go, and I will not wait upon Cú Chulainn, for he has abandoned me.  And another thing is in it, besides, good soul: thou hast no worthy queen for thyself, but indeed there is such a one for Cú Chulainn.”              

Verily, Cú Chulainn saw the woman a-going from him with Manandán, and he said to Láeg, “What is this?”  “Not hard, that,” said Láeg.  “’Tis Fand a-going with Manandán son of Lir for that she is not pleasing to you.”  And then Cú Chulainn leapt three lofty leaps and three leaps a-south toward Lúachra, so that he was for a long while without drink, without food, beyond in the mountains, and ’twas there he would sleep each night upon Slige Midlúachra.32

Then Emer went to have audience with Conchubair in Emain, and she related to him how Cú Chulainn was.  Conchubair called upon the poets and practicers of crafts and druids of Ulster to find him that they might detain him and might bring him to Emain with them.  But he attempted to slay the practicers of crafts.  The druids sang spells over him until his feet and his hands were [= could be] seized, so that in a while he came into his [right] mind.  After that he was a-seeking drink of them.  The druids brought the drink of forgetfulness to him.  Even as he drank the drink, there was no memory of Fand in him nor of anything he had done [on his journey].  They then gave the drink of forgetting jealousy to Emer, since she was [still] no better.  Then Manandán shook his cloak between Cú Chulainn and Fand so that they might never meet again.

So that is the show of destruction [made] by the fairy folk upon Cú Chulainn.  For great was the demonic power against the [Christian] Faith, and such was its extent that they would fight in demonic bodies with men and would [also] manifest pleasures and secret trysts to them as if these were everlasting.  And thus indeed they [i.e., men] would believe.  So that ’twas through those manifestations that the fairies and their tribe would bear away the ignorant.33



1  I have never found any other reference to this strange custom—a “counting coup” very similar to scalping which may be historically accurate, all the same; but Celtic peoples were far fonder of severing the entire head of their vanquished foe.  The redactor is most likely confused about this point.  The medieval Cath Críonna, a text in the Silva Gadelica which dates from about the same time as the Serglige, begins with a description of the annual Samhain celebration: not a word appears about bragging rights and bags of tongues.


2  Ancient Irish society employed a complex system of fosterage which clearly would have strengthened tribal coherence.  Such bonds were not necessarily formed because of any close genetic connection (as between sisters or cousins).


3  In the tale’s second half, without any sort of explanation, Emer is named as Cú’s wife.  This is usually taken as a relic of the redactor’s having clumsily fused two (or more) manuscripts.  Yet Cú Chulainn may also have more than one wife, like King Duşyanta in this tale’s ancient Indian cognate, Śakuntala and the Ring of Recollection.


4  These distortions are described in the Táin Bó Cúalnge and elsewhere.  What is unique to this text is the suggestion that women infatuated with various warriors would mimic some distinctive physical characteristic.


5  The few lines of Cú Chulainn’s speech here are bracketed by Myles Dillon, and with good cause.  The assertion has just been made that the hero cannot sustain a conversation.  The Irish redactor, however (or an Irish redactor—a late one) appears to have chosen this occasion to thrust in an early mention of Emer, presumably so that her exclusively fulfilling the role of Cú Chulainn’s wife in the tale’s second half will come as less of a jolt.


6  The stranger’s meaning appears to be, not that the men of Ulster are physically unimposing without their hero, but that Cú Chulainn’s indisposition renders the indulgence of an odd intruder more needful than ever, since they obviously lack the solution to his paralysis themselves.


7  Manandán corresponds precisely to the Welsh Manawydan vab Llyr of the Mabinogion, though here he has his more authentic identity of a full-blown god of the sea—the Irish Neptune.  There can be no question that the original Irish audience recognized in this and many preceding clues an appeal to Cú Chulainn from the Other World.


8  The journey of Láeg, preceding Cú Chulainn’s to the same mystical land, may seem redundant, and so it is from a strictly narrative standpoint.  It very likely commemorates an ancient mythic sequence embedded in the tale wherein the hero’s attendant plays some initiating role in his passage to the Other World.  The Indian King Duşyanta is always ministered to, if not preceded by, his charioteer or the Fool when entering Śakuntala’s sacred grove.  Marie de France’s Eliduc likewise depends heavily upon a trusted attendant on the night of Guilliadun’s elopement with him.

   It should also be noted that Láeg is the son of Ríangabra, himself one of the fairy people (síd), and that the charioteer is hence endowed, perhaps, with some special ability to communicate with “the beyond”.  See n. 17 below.


9  The hero’s introducer to or guardian/guide through the Other World is typically female: the Sibyl, Circe, etc.  Perhaps there is an apotropaic quality to her relative vulnerability, or perhaps the feminine is seen as closer to Otherworld spirits and certain kinds of prophecy.


10  Such fanciful etymologizing is not uncommon when medieval redactors seek to explicate the details of very ancient material (cf. the Gawain poet’s ingenuity at accounting for the pagan pentangle on the hero’s shield).  If any truth at all attaches to this recorder’s theory of bright eyes, it may be connected to the affinity between rulers of the Other/Under World and the sun, which ancient myth invariably views as passing beneath the earth’s surface by night.


11  The following flights of hyperbole, while they may seem grotesque to the modern reader, are fully typical of bardic praise poetry as it has survived abundantly in the Hebrides region; and, indeed, Pindar merely adds further metrical polish to the elevation of his subjects.  Traditional cultures devoted much energy to extolling their leaders in this fashion.  The language of these lays is quite archaic and—as anyone can plainly see—has nothing of the narrative.  Hence such compositions probably predated by a great span whatever attempt Irish Gaelic culture may have made at producing some sort of Homeric epic.  They are not the remnants of that epic, as some have fantastically maintained, but the bedrock upon which any heroic epic would have been constructed.


12  At one of its many incoherent and almost surely corrupt points, the manuscript claims here that a host is on its way from Cú Chulainn—but only the hero himself will come, and only his services have been requested.  I have therefore translated the passage as a trope.


13  This and several subsequent paragraphs have been bracketed by Dillon for reasons that soon become very apparent.  Nowhere are the seams of this narrative patchwork rougher: the interlude’s relevance to the rest of the tale is negligible (not to mention that several dialectical peculiarities are unique to this bracketed section).  It must be added, however, that very casual excursions are typical of oral style, and that the chain of redactors is therefore following this style as they set the story in writing.


14  Nothing is said in the process of identifying this lad about the “two red circles across him”.  His fulfillment of this criterion would no doubt be self-evident to an Irish audience, which would understand in the sobriquet “Réoderg” that he was red-haired (“derg”), at the very least.  The complete meaning of this epithet may be “red moon”, which elicits visions of a lunar eclipse.  How the ring in such a case would be doubled is unclear to me.  A red Moon (or one of any other color) would certainly appear to carry a ring about it in humid air thanks to the effects of diffraction; or perhaps the young man’s mop of hair and his lunar affinity account for the two circles.


15  To protest that this long ramble of cliché advice has much of the sententious, like the words of stale wisdom that Polonius imparts to Laertes, would be inappropriate; and to observe that they are out-of-character in Cú Chulainn’s mouth—an invincible hero who has tended to live by his own rules during his meteoric life—would likewise be misdirected.  These nuggets belong precisely the genre of proverbial utterance which one must expect in a traditional setting; and Cú Chulainn, like every other member of the tribe of Ulster, would have memorized them with much reverence, little reflection, and no inclination to impromptu amendment.  In a nutshell, his advice to his foster son is this: “Obey the proverbs.”


16  Eithne is never again mentioned in this version of the tale as Cú Chulainn’s wife or consort except within one lay’s brief and vague reference (see n. 25): Emer has fully (though not seamlessly) assumed the role.


17  Dechtere is Cú Chulainn’s mother. Ríangabra, as previously noted, is Láeg’s father and one of the fairy folk.  Emer’s chiding of the charioteer for not returning with an antidote from the Other World seems odd insofar as he has come to her with word of Cú Chulainn’s rapid improvement—yet another indication that this text is a weakly edited compilation of previous versions.  It is well worth adding, however, that travelers to the Other World in the myths of unrelated cultures not infrequently seek some sort of magical cure.  Gilgamesh attempts—unsuccessfully—to transport the plant of eternal life from the Dead World, Hermes presents Odysseus with moly, and so forth.


18 Sétantá is the hero’s original name; “Hound of Culann” was bestowed upon him after one of his stunning boyhood deeds.


19  Most of this lay appears to be (and has been treated by scholars as) little more than a “Get up, sleepy-head!” kind of rebuke on the part of a consort who did not witness the mystical encounter with the birds a year earlier and whose role, furthermore, seems to have been spliced awkwardly into the original tale.  Yet this stanza and the previous one suggest to me a more dramatic intent.  Though I have slightly finessed the translation to emphasize certain elements, I believe Emer’s words here to reflect a clear understanding that Cú Chulainn balances between the living world and the dead world.  The story-teller and/or scribe at this point, in other words, demonstrates his awareness that Fand’s rival love for the hero is nothing less than a Siren-like call to death.  Emer seeks to surround her husband’s stultified imagination with bright images of the here and now, much as any of us might do at the bedside of a loved one scarcely clinging to life.


20  The place-name Airbe Roír is perhaps not otiose detail. Cú Chulainn would eventually end his glorious heroic career—and his mortal life—at this site.  Though the text does not overtly imply any significance in the name’s insertion, the name itself would no doubt suffice to alert the audience that the hero has entered the life/death interface and is about to “cross over”.

   It need hardly be said that this second passing of the hand over the face is yet another rough seam in the stitching together of the tale’s several versions.  The scene has already been played!


21  A see-saw motion between fierce prowess on the battlefield and physical charm and gentle nature in domestic settings clearly animates this lay, often opposing the couplets within a quatrain one to the other (as here).  The technique is typical of oral praise-poetry dedicated by a bard to his chieftain; but we are perhaps receiving a hint, as well, that Labraid is a distinctly “liminal” figure—a paradox that occupies the border between life and death, culture and nature, humanity and savagery.  For that matter, any successful chieftain would be recognized as occupying the same perplexing position: killer and life-giver, wild man and legislator, etc.


22  The text’s expressions grow distinctly sloppy in this prose section, leaving one very much with the sense that another hand is scribbling in a new episode (or the same hand doing so with much less care).  Of course, Láeg has already made this trip once; and besides, Fand’s invitation comes no less from a woman than Lí Ban’s, and her message amounts to no more than, “Tell him that what you said on my behalf was on my behalf.”  To be sure, the doubling and tripling of narrative matter is by no means unknown to oral story-telling—it is, indeed, standard procedure.  Yet perhaps what we see in such artless repetition as this is the literate compiler’s desire to work in more poetry that he has come upon.


23  Láeg’s reference to the many solicitations of the hero’s presence may reflect a weak attempt on the recorder’s part to show that he is aware of having doubled the journey to the Other World—that the charioteer, too, is somewhat wearied by this shuttling back and forth!  If so, this is the text’s only indication of such apologetic self-consciousness.

   The preceding few stanzas, I should stress, wherein Láeg is invited to Fand’s side of reality, represent one of the very few instances where lays such as this one actually advance a narrative.  Irish bardic poetry may be descriptive, hortatory, or laudatory—but the tradition never employs lays at any length to communicate a story, since the verse form simply lacks the needed flexibility.  Certainly no other of the many poems in this text performs such a function very convincingly.  Even the brief lay (forthcoming) wherein Cú Chulainn describes his routing of the enemy is a tightly condensed retrospective, sweepingly general and invincibly vague.


24  Obviously, this biblical reference within a pagan tale is a scribal intrusion.  Such modest adjustments and embellishments are typical of the literate Christian handling of pagan traditions in Ireland (as opposed to wholesale suppression of non-Christian elements).


25  Of course, Eithen Ingubai is the wife attributed to Cú Chulainn as the tale opens, the recorder either having forgotten to alter the name here or else simply not wishing to tamper with the verses before him.  The gist of the passage’s meaning is dramatic: Láeg as much as declares that he saw the hero’s living wife above the fairy land (lit., “on a hill”), and he sets her in stark opposition to the ravishing Other World queen who awaits the hero’s visit.


26  In grand shamanic fashion, Cú Chulainn endures grotesque physical distortion when the fury of battle takes command of him.  These transformations do not so much add material strength to the affected warrior (and they are well attested in oral traditions around the world) as they render him frightening for the enemy to behold.


27  There is clearly more to this story than the scribe/compiler is letting on: perhaps he knows too little to fill in the gaps, or perhaps he assumes that all of his audience can read between the lines.  Other Celtic tales involve a hero who can be slain only by a spear-cast attaining a special part of the body as the victim bends over water (cf. the Welsh Math vab Mathonwy).  Surely Eochaid Íuil has some such vulnerability.


28  As the previous note also emphasizes, the action scenes of this section appear severely curtailed.  Yet at least we may confidently assume that the Irish audience would well know about the trick of the three vats, for it figures in several manuscripts where Cú Chulainn’s battle fury (ferg) must be managed after victory.  In Horace et les Curiaces (New York: Arno, 1978), Georges Dumézil observes that similar rites aimed at reintegrating the shaman-berserker back into the community belong to many unrelated cultures (40-50).  We may probably assume, as well, that Fand’s ensuing lay has occupied the place of one of these rites, described in the Táin Bó Cúalnge: the tribe’s females baring themselves so as to shame the hero back into a compliant state.  (But is the hero’s submission here not achieved, rather, by sexual engagement?)

   Could any text better demonstrate that the versified matter must have preceded the prose narrative in these Irish manuscripts, and not the other way around?  In this passage, at least, the prose offers the most skeletal of connections between much more carefully elaborated lays.


29  The terms of Fand’s lay force us immediately to understand a) that Cú Chulainn is now doing his own driving—Láeg has apparently run for cover, a course of action implied in his foregoing instructions to Labraid; and b) that the fairy queen is attempting to channel the hero’s virile display toward a sexual outlet with her seductive praises.  See the note above for how this latter endeavor might have been part of the ritual calming of the berserker.


30  The extreme artlessness of the sudden transitions, the neglected detail, and the uninspired choice of words and expressions as this adventure abruptly catapults through its most romantic stages is shocking.  One must conclude that the compiler had run out of ornate lays as he faced the critical part (as modern readers must think it) of the story, and that his own very limited narrative gifts and ambitions allowed him to do no more than supply the flimsiest framework necessary to reach the next oasis of preexisting material. 

     Strangely enough, this forthcoming material is in prose.  The compiler introduces it with the same guileless “and this is what she said” formula as prefaces a lay, and the ensuing dialogue is downright elegant by the standard of the previous paragraph.  In fact, I have translated the prose here with more license than usual because the phonetic effects within the Irish (much alliteration and assonance, and even short bursts of poetic rhythm) are those of verse.

     Perhaps, then, the climactic confrontation between the hero, his wife, and his lover which immediately follows was once versified, the verses were lost as a whole but survived in fragments, and the drudging scribe proceeded to set down those recollected fragments as prose.


31 Manandán, as a marine deity, appears to be associated with the Irish Sea (so he is, certainly, as the Welsh Manawydan).  That would account for the text’s insistence that he comes west to meet Fand.  The queen herself has been variously located in a fairy mound, on an island, in a lake, and under the sea throughout the tale—evidence of the many portals of entry into the Other World identified in Celtic culture.


32  There is much both of the puzzling and the significant in the foregoing scene and in the one preceding it (i.e., Fand’s reunion with Manandán).  That Fand regards herself as cast off by Cú Chulainn is clear, and yet his last words to her were a credible reassurance that he could hold Emer and her fifty attendants in check.  Certainly the hero is quite shocked to learn from Láeg—whose half-fairy eyes he apparently needs to make out what has happened—that the lovely queen has departed.  His bigger-than-life leap into the mountains thereafter may seem a gratuitous reassertion of his superhuman powers; but mountains enjoy a typical mythic connotation of being beyond the pale of human settlement, and often represent yet another entry/exit to the Other World.  In terms of the “mythic code”, then, one might well say that Cú is exiting Fand’s Land Beyond when he performs this feat, even though the confused melding of the story’s many versions by the compilers actually has him leaving the good earth of Ulster for a remote space.

     From a less mythic and more romantic vantage point, we may note that Fand, in representing herself rather curiously as the victimized party (it was she who seduced the hero, after all, though knowing that he had a wife/wives), begins to look like Marie’s innocent Guilliadun in Eliduc.  If the Irish tale’s compilers wanted the queen to be ignorant of Cú Chulainn’s marital ties, they of course failed miserably to arrange that complex situation.  Yet here we see a little evidence that one or more of them may have been veering in that direction.  In other words, there are grounds to claim that traditional myth and quasi-literate romance were engaged in a tug-of-war for the story matter—an unequal tug-of-war, but one that stirred a bit of friction.


33  This fascinating postscript, of course, not only has nothing to do with the original tale (or any version close to the original) but has not even been integrated into the present manuscript through tactful intrusion from time to time.  Jeffrey Gantz ignores it in his translation, quite defensibly.  Yet it shows us something of the spirit in which Irish copies or compilations like this one were made.  The pagan matter is set down with remarkable fidelity: then the scribe (probably a Christian monk) adds words to the effect of, “Such were the errors that flowed from their pagan beliefs,” thus turning the text into an argument for the faith without significantly altering it.  Not all of Europe’s Christian community was so tolerant in transcribing pagan lore.



The Lay of Eliduc


Marie de France

French, c. 1180

Translated by John R. Harris  

I mean to put in French the lore

Passed from a rocky Breton shore,

As well as I can understand

The wondrous tales of that wild land.


In Brittany there was a knight                                 5

Courtly and brave, not loath to fight.

His name was Eliduc, I hear:

In gallantry without a peer.

A lady high-born, fine and wise,                             10

Of ancient lineage, was his wife.

Together they had lived for years

In loyal love and faith sincere.

Then they were parted by a war

When up for sale he put his sword.                        15

It happened that he met a maid—

A royal princess—while away.

This girl was known as Guilliadun,

Whose beauty held him far from home.

His wife, in Breton, bore the name                          20

Of Guildelüec, and bore its fame,

The lay about them widely known

As Guildelüec and Guilliadun.

Its title first was Eliduc,

But now that name is in dispute                                 25

Because the ladies steal the show.

You soon shall hear how they do so

As I their ‘dventure pass along

Just as it’s sung in Breton song.


This Eliduc served loyally

The king of Lesser Brittany,                                           30

Who prized and loved his vassal much,

For much the knight did merit such.

And when he sailed to foreign parts,

’Twas Eliduc stayed home on guard.

The knight’s  skill made his value rare,                     35

For much he knew and all would dare.

Through forests thick he joyed to hunt, 1

No baron of the realm so blunt

As to deny him right of way

Or his commissions disobey.                                         40

Yet as has happened oft on earth,

A cloud of envy smirched his worth.

Behind his back, to his great liege,

He suffered calumnies so mean

That he was ordered from the land.                           45

No chance to answer reprimand.

For Eliduc besought the king

T’ explain their long bond’s severing—

To tell him straight what poisoned words

Had dripped, and see if there be cure,                     50

Since e’er before they two were one.

But nowise could the king be won.

All hope of audience thus dispelled,

The knight made plans to leave the realm:

Withdrew him to his own estate                                55

 And summoned all ’pon him to wait.

He told them of his sovereign’s ire—

How wicked tongues had well conspired

To paint his faithful service black

Despite the witness borne by fact.                            60

The common people often say,

Admonishing some rustic plain,

That royal love’s not money banked.

Thus wisdom of the highest rank

Serves loyally its proper lord                                        65

But also keeps good friends next door.


Desiring to leave far behind

His mainland woes, our kingless knight

Resolved to cross to London realm

And to his homeland turn his helm.                         70

His wife remains the first in charge.

His men will stand her faithful guard

(So he commands, and so he trusts)

As well as friends bound fast in love.

With this plan he contents himself,                         75

Then sets about to arm him well.

Much grief expressed his honest friends

That he must needs depart from them.

Ten doughty knights his entourage—

Also his wife, but not for long.                                   80

Her tears of parting fell piteous

As from him she was gently thrust.

Yet he assured her on his soul

That he their vows would sacred hold.

She left them there along the coast                         85

To board a ship for parts scarce known.

They crossed the Channel in a day

And raised the port of Totenais.


Throughout that land ruled several lords:

Among them, constant strife and war.                     90

Within a stretch called Exeter,

There dwelt a baron once secure

But now, alas, advanced in age

Without male heir to take his place.

A daughter had he, ripe to wed.                                 95

On her account, he was beset

By one he wished not son-in-law

To be to him.  This brute marauds

The whole domain, the castle keep

The only corner safe to sleep.                                     100

Nor man nor boy dare leave its walls

Lest he encounter rude patrols.

To Eliduc comes word of this;

He thinks to sell his services

No farther need he stray, right there                       105

The perfect spot to sell his ware.

He wishes more to be for hire

To him whose want appears more dire—

To lend a mighty hand where more

Of weakness is, and less resource.                            110

So to the aged king were brought

His smuggled letters, where he taught

How from his own land he had passed

To sell the help of sword and lance.

Let Exeter but send him word:                                    115

If this be to decline his terms,

Then please to grant him passage safe

In other realms to ply his trade.

The king, when he these missives read,

Admired them like a sacred text.                               120

His constable he promptly told

To muster up a safe escort

Equipped to bring the knight within

The castle’s walls sans incident,

And further to prepare them room                            125

That they might lodge as them behooved:

Further, to give them coin enough

For ample living through the month.

The escort was appareled soon

And sallied forth to Eliduc.                                             130

He was received with honors rare

As one who could mischance repair.

A burgher gave him lodgings fine—

A subject courteous, sure, and wise.

A chamber richly draped and hung                              135 

Awaited him, his journey done.

Not stintingly did Eliduc

Arrange his supper; all the troop

Of cavaliers starved in the siege

Invited he to share his feast.                                          140

To his retainers, he forbade

All conduct so importunate

As to accept a penny’s worth

In gifts before a month of work. 2


The third day of his new employ,                                  145

A cry went out for man and boy

To fill the battlements with haste:

Their foe, abroad and laying waste

The countryside, would forthwith turn

To batt’ring their defensive works.                               150

Sir Eliduc had overheard

How panic ran the streets uncurbed.

He snatched his arms without adieu,

And so did his companions do.

Of seasoned knights, fourteen by chance                   155

Were in the saddle, grasping lance,

The bulk of them by wounds long stayed

But now resolved t’ resume  the fray.

When these saw Eliduc a-horse,

They finished arming, round him formed,                  160

And cantered with him through the gate—

Ne’er word nor sign required him make.

“Milord,” they said, “with you we ride

And strike a blow whene’er you strike.”

To them he answered, “Thanks, my braves!               165

Is there among you one who may

Recall a twist or bottleneck

In the terrain for ambush fit?

If we await them here, no doubt

We’ll give them fair exchange in joust.                         170

But more advantage need we scout

If we their greater force would rout.”

They said to him, “Sire, by the Rood,

Within this copse a thicket broods,

Dense, cleft by but a single path                                       175

Which oft they travel going back.

Once they have finished their assault,

’Tis by this track they will withdraw—

If they behave as is their wont,

Free rein to horse and lance athwart                              180

The saddlebow; such disarray

Exposes them to bold essay.”

A chance to pay back harm received

With int’rest rich this ambush seemed.

So Eliduc replied, “My friends,                                           185

Believe me, never dividends

Befall the man who shirks high stakes

When lean odds cause his heart to quake.

Risk naught, ne’er prosper; such reserve

Will only poverty preserve.                                                 190

You one and all obey the king—

So for him venture everything.

Where’er I lead you, follow me:

Whate’er I do, the same do ye!

I swear to you upon my faith,                                               195

I shall leave none in desperate straits

If breath and body stay together.

Though this exchange win all for neither,

Yet great the profit still to sow

Such fear among our haughty foe.”                                    200

His men, their frail hopes new made good,

Led Eliduc unto the wood.

Along the path they hid themselves,

For once a step ahead in stealth.

Their leader had with them devised                                  205

A sign, and urged them to surprise

With battlecry and harrowing shout

While picking each his target out.

Once in the snare their foe had passed,

Sir Eliduc released the trap.                                                   210

His cry brought mayhem from the trees—

A thunderclap, the swift sortie!

Th’ enemy file turned left and right,

Nor any blow could they requite

In their confusion; all were dazed.                                      215

Whoe’er were from their mounts not razed

At once gave spur and fled in terror.

The day was won within the hour.

The foe’s commander captive ta’en,

 Another thirty fully laden                                                       220

With arms and plunder—this the haul

Of twenty-five, who none had lost. 3

The take entrusted to their squires,

They scoured the wood for horseless riders,

Then back to town in triumph gay                                        225

Their small procession made its way.


The king had scaled a tower to wait,

Distressed about his soldiers’ fate.

Of Eliduc he half-divined

Some devious plot to draw his knights                              230

Beyond the castle’s solid walls

To their destruction, one and all.

But lo, his men returned unscathed,

In wealth and glory brightly bathed,

Their cavalcade much longer now                                        235  

Than when they’d galloped forth erstwhile.

Their greater number fooled the king

And made him think alarming things.

The gates he ordered bolted shut,

Called all hands to the battlements                                     240 

That shots might rain down in a cloud—

Yet needless were the manned redoubts.

The riders prudently sent forth

A squire, who shouted from his horse

That all was well: the foreign knight                                    245 

Had brought them to a prosp’rous fight.—

Had hatched a clever strategy

And petrified the enemy.

Their paladin from God had come

(He cried); th’ opposing captain one                                   250

Of thirty captives in their care,

Full many more beyond repair

Left on the field.  The king this news

Could scarce believe.  As one renewed

In life his perch he joyously                                                    255 

Relinquished, leaping stairs in glee.

He ran to Eliduc, embraced

Him as a benefactor, gave

The captives to him as reward

(Their ransom his, harness and horse                                 260

To others, and for royal share

But three bold steeds of bloodline rare).

The portions drawn, the king intact

His own share gave the captive lads. 4  


After the bold deed told above,                                           265  

The king bestowed esteem and love

On Eliduc and all his band,

Retaining them a full year’s span.

For oath of fealty in exchange.

He named him Guard of the Domain.                                270


Polished and fine was Eliduc,

A warrior for the court well groomed.

The princess often heard him named—

And with the name the highest praise.

Through her most trusted chamberlain,                           275

A chaste request at last she sent

That they might haply choose a day

To meet and wile the time away.

Much marveled she that ne’er they two

Had chanced t’ encounter hitherto.                                   280

So ran the message.  He replied

That he would willing at her side

Converse.  Straight with a trusted knight

He rode, at her gate to alight

Almost before the chamberlain,                                         285 

Who for decorum ushered him

(A fit delay observed) where she

Might properly his bows receive.

With gentle manner, simple cheer,

And dignity, to speak than hear                                           290  

Less eager, he plied their exchange,

Oft thanking her to have arranged

Such pleasant interlude.  Princess

Guilliadun had his ev’ning blessed

(He said).  Before her beauty rapt,                                      295

His eyes fed full (he said not that).

At one point she his fingers took

And brought him to a cushioned nook 5

Where of the world they spoke at ease;

The virgin, too, her eyes did please                                   300 

To look upon his face, his form:

Nature (she thought) did ne’er distort

The male shape less, while braver heart

Was never known…  Love launched his dart,

The one that stings its target’s soul.                                   305 

Wounded, she blanched, grew hot and cold,

Yet carefully her symptoms hid

Lest she should stir reproach in him.

They parleyed thus more than an hour—

Forever, if ’twere in their power,                                        310   

They’d so remained; but he must rise

And she consent with lowered eyes

That he depart.  Home he returns,

All frowns and bittersweet concerns.

A lovely girl had wakened him—                                         315 

The daughter of his sovereign—

As from deep sleep; her gentle tones

Reminded of another home.

He guessed himself caught in a spell

To have in these parts all year dwelled                             320 

Yet not one time remarked the girl…

And then his thoughts began to swirl.

His tender wife’s docility,

His oath of strict fidelity

Sworn from the parting lugger’s deck—                            325 

His wakened love awoke regret.


Once she had seen him, Guilliadun

Thought only how to make her beau

Of Eliduc: none other so

Had snared her heart.  To let him go                                    330 

Would cost her life, she felt.  All night

She flails as if with dreams she fights.

Ta’en sick, she rises ere the morn

And to her window drifts forlorn.

Her trusty chamberlain she calls                                            335  

And to him true confesses all.

“God help me!” says she.  “No amends!

I’ve fallen where no stair ascends.

I love the knight my father hired—

Sir Eliduc is my heart’s sire.                                                     340

This whole night past I thrashed and sighed.

My eyes closed but to open wide.

If he should wish to love me back

And join our souls in faithful pact,

I’d do whatever he desired—                                                 345 

To loftiest heights he might aspire.

He could be king of all the realm.

How sweet the man hid in that helm

So dire in war… have I him not,

I tell you, friend, I’m good for naught.”                              350


When she had emptied her full heart,

The princess left a keen alarm

In her good chamberlain; he thought

Until a prudent plan he wrought.

“Milady,” said he, “should you wish,                                   355

Convey with word a special gift

By me or other—belt, sash, ring:

True souls are bonded by such things.

If he receives it in good form

And shows himself far from forlorn,                                    360

You may be sure he loves you well—

As well he should!  What emperor dwells

Within the wide world who would shrug

At half a chance to win your love?”

When this advice the virgin heard,                                       365

Faint hope sparked in her callow words:

“But how from presents shall I know

If his heart be inclinèd so?

The well-bred courtier ne’er has lived

Who, honored with a lady’s gift,                                           370    

Would not far sooner bow and smile

His thanks than say without kind guile

That for the dame he had no taste. 6

Oh!  How I should despise disgrace

In such prim rite!  Be thou my spy                                         375 

To read what truth peeks through his eye.

Equip thee now, and go to him!”

“I will,” replied the chamberlain.

“My girdling sash and golden band,”

Continued she, “put in his hand,                                           380 

And shower my blessings on his day.”

Her worthy man went straightaway.

At once her soul was sorely racked:

‘Twere near that she did call him back.

And ne’ertheless, she let him go,                                         385  

And called instead her tortured soul.

“O heart, how wast thou quick surprised

By unknown face from foreign skies!

Thou know’st not if he be of blood—

Perchance hailed home, a prince’s son,                             390

Tomorrow.  Then, heart, must thou break.

How foolishly hast all, all, staked!

But yest’reen we first spoke to him,

And now his loss must our life end.

Our folly he would not approve…                                         395 

Yet grace his gentle soul may move

To pity us.  The die is cast.

If he love’s bleeding cannot stanch,

Our life must trickle slow away

Until we find a welcome grave.”                                           400


While she was thus half out of mind,

The chamberlain made haste to find

Sir Eliduc, that him he might

To private parley straight invite.

They talk; he gives the knight the sash,                             405 

The ring, and greetings on behalf

Of their sweet princess, Guilliadun.

The chevalier not thanks alone

But pleasure showed as round he placed

The ring his finger, sash his waist.                                        410

The valet said no more than this,

And for his part, the knight but wished

To give some small gratuity:

The man declined, and took his leave.

Forthwith returns he to the maid.                                        415

Within her room she yet remains.

On Eliduc’s behalf he thanks

Her with recited phrases blank.

“But to it, man!” she blurts.  “Does he

Appear to harbor love for me?”                                             420

He answers calm, “’Tis my opinion

Nothing like a courtly minion,

Bows and smiles all, plays he spoof,

But honor gives to quiet proof.

I greeted him as you directed,                                                425 

Gave him gifts, which he accepted,

Binding one about his girth

(In knot much studied and secure),

He settled t’ other ’pon his finger.

Nothing more.  No need to linger.”                                      430

“Was this, though, mere courtesy

By booklet played—ah, woe is me!”

“Mistress,” said he, “swear can I not,

Yet do but hear my judgment out.

Were his heart wearing not your face,                                 435  

Ne’er he had your gifts on him placed.”

“Your syllogies are tiresome; come,

I know he does not hate me: one

Hates only those who do one wrong.

My crime’s been but to love too strong.                             440 

If he should wish me ill for that,

Then let the Devil love him back!

Oh, I shall ask him nothing more—

Not through yourself, nor any other—

Until I speak to him myself.                                                      445  

I needs must show him how love’s spell

Has stunned me: he’ll see at a glance.

Yet of his staying… what’s the chance?”

“Milady,” said her man, “your sire

By oath him holds a year in hire—                                         450 

A year from when our peace he won.

Of that remains more than enough

(He’ll keep his oath) for you to find

If him to new oath you may bind.”


When she was told how long he stayed,                             455

The virgin such relief displayed

That from her sleepless death she leapt;

Yet naught she knew of how he’d slept.

Since he had seen her, Eliduc

Felt only gloom and self-rebuke                                             460 

Unless he daydreamed just of her…

Yet, once roused, felt himself a cur

Because his pledge to Guildelüec

Him bound in terms tight and correct:

Till back in France, he must love none.                                465

A clever web had he him spun!

His solemn vow he wished to keep,

But thoughts of Guilliadun would creep

Through his defenses; unrepelled,

Her beauty his soul’s fortress felled,                                    470

Assaulted by her voice’s song

(And fancies of her kisses long). 7

Yet union would he not pursue

That to dishonor would accrue.

His vow as husband swept away,                                            475

His vow as vassal ta’en in vain… 8

These options so oppressed the lord

That straight he called for horse and sword,

For escort, and—w’thout more advice—

To palace hot spurred in a trice,                                              480

But one intent fixed in his mind:

The maid howe’er he might to find.


The king, arisen from his meat,

Would to his daughter’s room retreat

And undertake a game of chess                                              485

Against a master foreign bred

Who tutored Guilliadun each day

How gambits, feints, and checks to play.

The knight advanced and made his bow.

The king, most glad to see him, down                                  490

Did seat him at his side, and firm

To Guilliadun extolled his worth.

“My child, this is a chevalier

Whom well you ought to entertain

As one for highest honors born:                                              495

His like comes seldom to our shores.” 9

No sooner had the princess heard

These orders couched in gentle terms

Than joyfully she did obey,

Rising to lead the knight away.                                                500

The game resumed as they them sat

Far off to try a different match.

Her tongue at first lay in a knot:

What he’d prepared, he had forgot,

Save only that he thanked her deep                                      505

For sending him such treasures sweet.

Naught owned he held in more regard.

She answered to her King of Hearts

(Her tongue revived) that she was glad

The gifts had pleased, for through them had                     510

She meant to show the loop he’d wound

Her happ’ly captured soul around.

She loved him so (the words now flowed)

That with him to the altar go

She would fain soon; that otherwise                                     515 

She’d have him know that no man’s prize

E’er she would be: now was ’t his move

(She said) a Queen to take or lose.

“Milady,” said he, “gratitude

Beyond descript is mine to you—                                           520

And joy, as well: to be thus loved

By such as you is heav’n above.

This moment keep I till I die.

You know a year contracted I

To serve your father; bound by oath                                     525 

I will not leave until I both

Have filled the terms and won the war.

Then for my home I leave your shore.

For I by no means may remain,

If I to go your leave obtain.” 10                                                530 

To this the maid discreet replied,

“I thank thee thus much to confide.

I know thou ‘rt prudent, Eliduc.

Hast time till then well to review

What course may lead from thee to us.                                535

I love thee, and thy plan I trust.”

The two took heart from this assay,

And spoke no more of love that day.

To quarters Eliduc returned,

Rejoicing in a peace well earned.                                           540  

Now oft could he his love address,

Th’ intent of both tacit confessed.

As for the war, new turned he to it

With such a zeal that, ’fore they knew it,

Th’ enemy reeled, their leader caught,                                545

In ransom forced to face his loss

And leave the land.  All far and wide

Dubbed Eliduc most brave and wise.

His star to zenith seemed to rise…


Meanwhile, his Breton lord revised                                       550

The rash exile—thrice letters plumed

To beg the paladin resume

His former service; homes attacked

Now lay in shambles: cities sacked,

The countryside to dust reduced                                             555

And royal forts to smoking fumes.

Bad counsel (said each messenger)

Had Britt’ny oped to plunderers

By driving Eliduc away:

The king had lived to rue that day.                                          560 

The traitors who did him surround

The pot to stir, ’twixt up and down

Him puzzling sore—at last he had

Forever exiled from the land.

In this high tide of need, adjured                                             565

He—ordered, summoned, and implored—

His one-time vassal to recall

That service pledged is once for all: 11

So come he now to aid his lord,

Who needs him now as ne’er before.                                     570 


As summons each the knight received,

He deeper for his princess grieved.

Their future racked his anguished soul:

Upon him turned her joy or woe.

Not that they prudence to the wind                                        575 

Had ever cast, by passion driv’n.

Exchanging precious gifts and words

Was all the risk they e’er incurred

In showing how they loved each other

When safe removed from worldly bother.                           580 

The fondest hope and strong’st intent

In Eliduc placed her with him

Fore’er in an imagined life:

Of course, she knew not of his wife.

“Aye, that I ever left my land,”                                                   585  

He pined, “to draw these fiery brands

Upon my head!  Too long I’ve stayed!

The virgin Guilliadun has made

Me captive in her royal hall—

And she to me is no less thrall!                                                  590

As soon as I should take my leave,

One of us two must die of grief—

Or both, most like, may die at once. 12

And yet, take leave I plainly must.

My former lord, the exile waived,                                             595 

Doth write my oath to reinstate…

And then there’s Guildelüec—my God,

I must be keenly on my guard!

I must depart from here forthwith!

I walk a tightrope over sin!                                                           600  

Were I to marry whom I love,

Revenge should smite me from above.

Where’er I look, to step is fatal:

Dear God, to leave will I be able?

I know, whoe’er may call it vile,                                                 605

I cannot harm this harmless child.

I’ll do her bidding: if I err,

Sooner be damned while pleasing her.

The king her father I at least

Have fixed within a lasting peace.                                             610 

Thus based upon my lord’s distress,

I may betimes release request

From my year’s ’gagement to keep safe

This realm from foe already chased.

I’ll straight this morn to Guilliadun                                            615

The whole of my affairs to show.

To her considered preference

I’ll fit me in obedience.” 13


No more does he delay, but quick

The king he begs to count him quit                                            620

Of their agreement; tells him right

About the Breton’s per’lous plight

And even shares the letters sent

To prove the danger imminent.

Perceiving in this summons dire                                                 625 

His Eliduc no more for hire,

Lord Exeter grew deeply troubled—

Ne’er promised just the wage to double

But all his lands and wealth to carve,

Instead, and give the knight one part                                       630

Of three; so much would he bestow

(He said) ’twere madman’s plan to go.

Said Eliduc, “By Christ’s sweet blood,

Milord, I cannot show me numb

To pleas of him whom once I served,                                       635

Though he me banished undeserved.

I cannot stay for any price.  14

Yet should you need me in a fight,

With mounted force—say but the word—

Ten times my ten will we return.”                                             640


The king accepted with good grace

And wished him Godspeed on his way—

Did even open for his use

All royal coffers, vaults, and rooms:

Dogs, horses, silver, clothes of silk—                                       645  

What joys at home or serves afield—

Was his for choosing.  Eliduc

Chose sparingly; then all but mute

His tone, asked if the princess might

He tell that he must go tonight.                                                   650

The king concurred, “I think it meet,”

And sent a servant who, discreet,

Tapped at the maiden’s door to say

That Eliduc asks to convey

Best wishes.  Past his bow she rushed                                      655

And bid her lover in at once.

Urgent advice he claims to need,

Explains his sudden haste to leave—

Yet ’fore he can his duty show

That he must e’en this evening go,                                            660 

The gentle virgin ashen blanched

And sank to earth like fallen branch.

When he saw how her lifeblood drained,

Polite aloofness flung away

The knight cried frantic; her he lifts,                                         665  

He kisses through his tears her lips,

Her shoulders in his mighty arm

Rocks cradling till, retrieved from harm,

She opes her eyes.  “My darling dear,”

He sighs, “Do but with patience hear.                                       670

My life and death are bound in you.

To you whatever comfort’s due

That I enjoy.  For this I sought

Your counsel, since agreement wrought

Between us by my leaving’s broken.                                         675

The king and I’ve already spoken

About abridgement of my terms.

Now to your pleasure I me turn.  15

My future’s yours.”  “Then take me hence,”

She cried, “if you cannot dispense                                             680

With going.  I will slay myself

If here alone in grief I dwell.”

More Eliduc must quiet her,

Protesting love that e’er endures.

“My little queen, by sacred vow                                                  685

I’m to your father solemn bound.

I cannot steal away his heir

And call my dealings plain and fair.

To that part of our bargain still

Applies the year’s term.  Then until,                                         690 

Accept my pledge that I’ll return

Once bonded year plus one day earn

My freedom, thee to whisk away—

No force on earth will hold me ‘t bay

If in me life its path pursue!                                                          695

There, now: in thy hands sits my doom.”  16

The girl’s love for her knight was such

She to his plan for dear life clutched.

They named a day when he would come

Take her away, then sobbing hung                                            700

Each on the other; rings exchanged

And kisses more than gold appraised.


Down to the coast he rode that night.

Fair wind did on his sail alight.

Eftsoons before his Breton liege                                                705

Bowed Eliduc, at once besieged

By king, dependent, cousin, friend—

All joyed to have him home again.

Yet most rejoiced, serene as e’er—

And lovely more—his lady fair.                                                   710

As day chased day, he sullen grew

To find such love.  His belle scarce knew

Why home, wife, chateau, hunting grounds

Could all toge’er not lift his frown.

In his heart, thought he never more                                          715

To know delight upon this shore.

His manner ever turned within

And moved his spouse to deep chagrin.

She wondered at her empty bed

And many secret tears did shed—                                              720

At times attempted finding out

If some malicious unnamed mouth

Had told him she had played the bawd

While he was courting death abroad.

She begged he call the household forth                                   725

At last, and truth from each extort.

“Milady,” said he, “none you stains

With lewd affair or breach of faith.

What weighs upon me is a vow

Still to defend that kingdom’s bounds                                       730

Where fought I for a year; return

I must, for much my love they earned.

As soon as e’er my Breton lord

Recovers peace beneath my sword,

I shall not stay a week.  The task…                                                735 

’Tis bringing things unto that pass.

                As long’s my vow goes unfulfilled,

                With joy can nothing my heart fill—

                For loath am I to be foresworn.”

His wife, though little less forlorn,                                               740

Let matters rest.  At his king’s side,

Th’ ensuing days the knight did ride

Throughout the realm, securing borders,

Chasing bandits, settling order.

Soon approached the day he’d pledged                                     745

To meet his love, come life or death.

His wit and wile he fiercely taxed

To make ’twixt neighbors lasting pacts;

In nick of time, himself equipped

To undertake the promised trip;                                                    750

But two belovèd nephews doth

He with his mission full entrust,

Of chamberlains but one, who safe

Had message borne of time and place—

A pair of squires; than these, no more.                                       755

All five to secrecy he swore.

They understood that loose tongues kill:

Palavered least is best fulfilled.


Post haste they to the Channel ride

In time to catch the sooner tide.                                                    760

They landfall make where Eliduc

Has dreamed for weeks of setting foot.

Lest he do aught to mar the plan,

He beds them down far from the strand

That none of those who bustle round                                          765

The docks might see and hail him loud.

Final instructions gives he to

The chamberlain for her he woos:

To tell her he has duly come

At just the hour they ’greed upon.                                                 770

That night, when all be wrapped in gloam,

She is to steal forth from her home,

The chamberlain still at her side

Who knows where he will her abide.


So left, thus charged, the trusty man                                             775

On foot, his liv’ry changed for rags.

To Castle Exeter in haste

He came long ’fore they closed the gate.

From hide to seek, he stealthy oped

At last the door to what he’d hoped.                                             780

The dazzled girl he gives with cheer

Good news of her knight’s waiting near—

Dazzled the more when this she heard:

Her sweet tongue ne’er could shape a word

In rapture numb and blank delight.                                                785

She ’mbraced the pawn as if the knight

Were in his rags.  Relayed the plan

He faithfully and her began

To ready, though yet hours elapsed

Before thick dusk was safely cast.                                                   790

Among the final country folk

To file from town as gates were closed

They mingled: steward, maid lovesick—

None but they two to turn the trick.

Her heart did thump lest she be seen.                                          795

Rags she had none: a silken thing

Embroidered finely all in gold

She scarce concealed beneath a cloak.

An arrow’s flight beyond the gates,

In pasture wrapped, a copse awaits,                                               800

Part carpentered to add defense:

And there her knight waits in suspense.

From saddle leapt, his love he holds

As he to one soul them would mold.

Yet not to kisses give they rein                                                         805

Since he her mare’s reins must restrain

And guide through shadow from his steed.

Mute haste does their elopement need.


At Totenais they board their craft,

Assuming stations fore and aft,                                                        810 

No one among the crew except

Whom Eliduc did hand-select.

Fair wind they had for passage smooth

And seas that scarce could churn a spume.

Already France was in their sight                                                     815 

When sudden squalls did thrash the night,

And such a foul gale lashed their faces—

Gashing sails and snapping braces—

That they wandered far off course.

And fell to praying in remorse.                                                         820

The fainter hearts beseeching asked

Saint Clement and Saint Nicholas

And Mary Merciful to bring

Their pleas to Christ that He redeem

Their bodies now, as souls fore’er,                                                 825

From death unto safe harbor’s care.

An hour to starboard, one to port,

They tacked to keep afloat their barque.

The lee shore gnashed its teeth aloud

And made one quailing deck hand shout                                      830 

In t4error, “Sire, what is ’t we do?

The lady carried off by you

Hath in her baggage damnèd curse

That makes to us all winds averse.

You have a faithful wife ashore—                                                    835

Yet you must ’bark this dainty whore!

You break the law that God set down,

And man’s law, and your sacred vow!

God’s wrath to bottom sends us all

’Less overboard we toss this trull!”                                                  840 

These words the knight to such a rage

Did lift that lower seemed the waves.

“You whoreson knave!” he roared.  “The curse

Is she who gave you living birth!

If but my arms dared her release,                                                     845

I’d show you quick the bottom’s peace

To speak so of a princess!”  Yet

He ’deed dare not the lady let

From his embrace such rolls to bear.

He knew not death had her by air                                                     850

Assailed, who hearing of a wife

Besides herself, was ’reft of life.

Her lovely face drooped, sickly white:

Her lids o’er sparkling eyes brought night.

In this suspension she remained—                                                  855

No momentary swooning faint

He thought who clasped her, but of breath

Surcease complete, display of death.

He gently on the tossing deck

Secured the corpse—then without reck                                         860

He leaps like madman to the prow

And with one stroke of oar lays out

The recreant; one kick besides

Consigns the wretch to th’ angry brine  17

With mighty splash.  His vengeance wreaked,                             865 

Away to stern the helm he seized.

So wrestled he against the flow

That by sheer will he to a cove

Brave thrust the craft.  They anchor dropped,

Slow crossed themselves, and gangplank propped,                  870 

Their lord alone not joyed, but stunned

That Guilliadun still mortal stung

Appeared.  He kneeling mourned her death

And mourned that he yet living wept.


At last he ’midst a constant plaint                                                      875

Besought his comrades where the maid’s

Sad remnant they might lay to rest—

Some place, needs be, where unsuppressed

He oft may ’mbrace her blessed tomb:

                An hallowed ground, where honors due                                         880

Would be to royal virgin pure

In thought and act full right observed.

Yet none said counsel audible:

All thought his wish impossible.

        The knight himself was forced to bide                                     885

Till he could dress for his cold bride

Some bed eternal, safe from gossip.

His chateau an easy gallop

Distant lay; through virgin woods

        It took the rider.  Tall pines stood                                              890

So pensive that a hermit saint

Did fast there and a shrine maintain.

Twice twenty years he’d dwelt alone,

Though Eliduc with him oft spoke.

To this monk he would take his tears                                               895


Who’d in his chapel tend her bier.

As well, donation of his grounds

He’d make that would an abbey found:

A place to house meek canons, friars,

And nuns who Guilliadun in prayer                                                   900 

Might every day extol to God

And incense burn in sacred clouds.

Conceived was done: they disembarked

Their horses, mounted to depart,

And one and all swore to their liege                                                905

That ne’er these works their lips would leave.

Before him on his palfrey’s saddle,

He bore his love as in a cradle.


They rode straight ’long a desert track

                         That to the forest brought them back,                                            910

                         Then passed on to the chapel’s door

                         And rapped long while with never more

         Response than silence: none appeared

         To open up and give them cheer.

         Reluctant, Eliduc permits                                                                     915

         An agile squire to slither in

         And ’lease the bolt.  Inside he reads

         That his true monk hath lain a week

In death, the time ’graved on a tomb

          Which solemn greets him, sadly new.                                          920

          The others wish the lid to pry

          That maid and saint may ’n one grave lie—

          But he commands them hold aloof,

          Austerely speaks in mild reproof,

          “’Tis wrong.  We must the counsel seek                                      925

          Of fasting friars in like retreat

          Throughout the wood, how we may scour

          Devout space for an abbey’s tower

          Beneath whose cross—her soul God keep—

          In blessed rest her corpse may sleep.”                                         930

          He had her bedsheets brought, and there,

          Upon the spot, they nestled her

          As if both soul and body slept

          Together, though they knew her dead.

          When ne’ertheless time came to go,                                            935

          The knight thought he must die of woe.

          His gaze he steadied on her ease

          So peaceful, saying, “May it please

          God, soul of mine, that ne’er again

          Draw I a sword, my heart in twain                                                   940

          Thus ever severed—and of years

          Not live one more!  Aye, hapless dear,

          That e’er thou saw’st or knew’st me!  Queen

          Had’st been, did’st not so constant cling

          To one sad knight devoted true.                                                      945

          Half heart have I, for half was you.

          The day when I will you forsake

          Is when I holy orders take

          That I may daily at your tomb

          The litanies of grief resume.”                                                           950

          With that, he fled the virgin’s side

          And sealed the chapel door in stride.  18


            To his estate he had conveyed

            In message that he would come late,

            Exhausted by his work abroad:                                                     955       

            His wife he primed with gentle fraud

            Against his gloom.  All joyous she

            ’Ranged house that naught but comfort be.

            Her lord she royal welcome gave,

            Yet he no smile of thanks could pay                                           960       

            For services so well prepared

            Nor so much as a kind word share.

            None dare him call to an account.

            Two days a hermit in his house,

            He rose for Matins on the third,                                                   965       

            Then saddled up without a word.

            Unto the wood he rode alone

            Where he had settled Guilliadun

            Fore’er, he thought: for t’ all surmise

            Not breathed she, much less was revived—                           970       

            And yet, miraculous to say,

            In cheeks and lips did roses stay:

            Her lovely colors naught did wilt

            Save for a pallor o’er them spilt.

            Left to himself, he wept aloud,                                                     975       

            Knelt at her feet, and prayed devout

            For her eternal peace.  That done,

            He rode a lonely way back home.


           Thus passed the days, till at long last

                            His wife a valet after Mass                                                               980       

            Did promise generous reward

            (A suit of arms and handsome horse)

            If undetected he could trace

            What path her lord each morn would take.

            This trusty fellow did as bid:                                                           985      

            Went step for step, but ever hid,

            Along his master’s brooding path

            (Child’s play to trail one thus entranced)—

            Not only found the chapel small

            But heard the wails within its walls.                                            990       

            Awaiting not the knight’s return,

            The servant to his lady spurred.

            He told her of the shocking sounds

            Wherein did moans and sobs abound

            Soon as his lord the chapel entered.                                            995       

            Guildelüec’s great heart was splintered.

            She said in pity, “Let us go

            That we may see what works such woe.

            The hermitage we’ll search entire

            This even, when the king requires                                                1000    

            My lord at court attend him.  Sure

            Th’ old saint’s decease would not so stir

            My husband, though he loved him well.

            Some other grief must cast this spell.”


            She sent her man away with that:                                                   1005    

            ’Fore even song returned he back.

            His master gone to see the king,

            He through the woods his lady brings.

            The solitary chapel’s door

            She opes and humbly kneels before                                              1010    

            The altar.  There she sees the bed

            Where lies the maid, as live as dead—

            Like corpse outstretched but pink as rose.

            She lifts the sheet o’er such repose

            As seemed but sleep: the shoulders limber,                               1015    

            The wrists and fingers long and slender…

            From ’neath the cover leaps the truth:

            His lover’s death mourns Eliduc.

            Her gaze unwav’ring, near she calls

            Her lad to view the miracle.                                                                1020    

            “See you,” says she, “this virgin furled

            Whose flesh does yet resemble pearl?

            Sure, my lord for this angel fine

            Once lost his heart, now fatal pines.

            No wonder he doth grieve!  Such youth                                         1025    

            And beauty nipped while in such bloom!

            My joy’s gone, too, forever: love

            And pity do my senses stun.”  19

            More can she not, but bathes her cheeks

            In tears such waste of life to think.                                                   1030    

            She falls to weep beside the bier.

            Just then, as quick as harrier

            Might stoop, from under th’ altar boards

            A weasel leapt upon the corpse.

            The valet, shocked to see such play,                                                 1035    

            Did with his cudgel swat it ’way.

            Slack in mid-air, it hit the flags

            Where lay it limp as soggy rag.

            As suddenly, another hurried

            Out, around his poor mate scurried,                                                 1040    

            Prodding oft about her head

            And hoping not to find her dead.

            Yet moved she not.  The clever beast

            Did seem at last to brood in grief.

            He paused, then from the chapel ran.                                              1045    

            They watched him vanish where of plants

            A rare assortment grew.  When next

            He ’ppeared, a flower brilliant red

            Clenched ’tween his teeth, he back inside

            Streaked, and upon his little bride’s                                                  1050    

            Unbreathing mouth arranged the cup.

            Though cold as stone she had been struck,

            Within a minute, up she pricked.

            The lady marveled at the trick.

            “Catch her, my man!” she cried.  “At least                                       1055    

            Your stick again fling at the beast!

            That flower must we have!”  He threw,

            And at her heels as she withdrew,

            The weasel dropped the herb.  The lad,

            His stick recovered, plant in hand,                                                      1060    

            Presented it to Guildelüec,

            Who promptly tested its effect.

            She lay it on the sealed pink lips

            That ’fore seemed gem stones: now they twitched

            With trembling life: the eyelids leapt.                                              1065    

            The corpse sighed, “Dear God, how I’ve slept!”—

            A corpse no more!  When she heard this,

            Milady’s grief revived to bliss

            A prayer quick made, she asked the girl

            Had she a name within this world.                                                      1070    

            “In London, Guilliadun am I,

            The daughter of a king nearby,”

            The virgin answered.  “All I left

            For Eliduc, who me bereft,

            Though noblest knight as e’er drew sword,                                     1075    

            Of sense and life when he foreswore

            Our pacted marriage: wife had he

            Already, ’dmitting naught to me.

            When of this lady others spoke,

            Their words combined a deadly stroke.                                             1080    

            Alas!  How ’nlike his seeming grace

            To steal and leave in foreign place

            Her whom he swore love!  May my folly

            Warning be how men will dally.”

            “Sweet,” the lady answered soft,                                                         1085    

            “In all the wide world, hath he naught

            These weeks observed to give him cheer.

            I more than other see this clear.

            He full believes you dead because

            Of him, and grieves without a pause.                                                 1090    

            He comes to mourn you every day—

            Hath found you e’er in death’s display.

            To watch his pain doth split my heart—

            And, know thou, I’m that wife that art

            Distressed to think on: followed I                                                        1095    

            His pilgrimage t’ uncover why

            This anguish doth him slay: and here

            I find thee live, though lain on bier!

            Praise be to God!  Now come anon,

            That he and thee I may make one.                                                        1100    

            Though mine by right, his heart is yours.

            Hence bride be I to our one Lord.” 20

            With such chaste vows to Heaven tied,

             She courage gave the child to rise


            Meanwhile, the valet rode the wind.                                                   1105    

            His news to Eliduc portends

            Much int’rest.  Quick he finds the knight,

            Salutes as from his mount alights,

            And breathless gives him the report.

            His master scarce awaits a horse                                                             1110    

            And spurs alone back through the dust

            Yet swirling where the first had rushed.

            Outraces he the nightfall.  Safe

            He finds the girl at his estate.

            Words fit to thank his wife are moot:                                                   1115    

            His show of joy doth more her suit.

            The maid must he at every glance

            Kiss new, nor asketh she more chance

            To kiss him back.  So evident

            Their joy toge’er that ne’er repent                                                         1120    

            The wife does of her earlier vow

            T’ exchange a veil for man and house.

            Her Eliduc (not hers for long)

            She plucks aside, forgives his wrongs,

            Asks for new abbey grant of ground                                                       1125    

            Where she may holy order found:

            Insists the princess he make plan

            To marry, for within the span

            Of God’s decrees two wives fit not,

            Nor king nor law license allots                                                                   1130    

            To error such.  The knight full ’grees,

            To Guildelüec grants boundless leave

            From wifely vows to build retreat

            Where sainted nuns in fashion meet

            May live.  The chapel in the wood                                                            1135    

            Where once poor hermitage had stood

            Became the site of abbey great.

            On such the knight did meditate—

            Green leagues of uncorrupted calm

            Stirred but by gusts of holy psalm—                                                        1140    

            As for himself once.  Now his wife,

            New bride of Christ, in veil did hide

            Her beauty.  Helped by thirty nuns,

            Deep peace from fleeting hours she spun.


            Sir Eliduc his lover wed                                                                                  1145    

            With holy rites that honor spread

            Upon their union.  Even so

            Was published in broad festival

            Their joy that day.  And lived they more

            Days happy than mere words afford                                                         1150    

            Description.  Alms they freely gave

            And works of holy merit made

            Until to God they vowed their lives;

            Near their chateau was rich designed

            By Eliduc a noble church                                                                                 1155    

            Which high on finest land was perched—

            Not just with most his land endowed

            But gold and silver.  Saints encowled

            To sing God’s praise he also found

            Who grew their faith and tilled the ground.                                           1160    

            Once he’d supplied their every need,

            He pledged himself a friar to be.

            Each waking moment now he spent

            In serving God omnipotent.

            His dear belovèd second spouse                                                                 1165    

            The former very willing housed

            In high’st respect with her among

            The other sisters as a nun—

            Exhorted her to be God’s maid

            And taught her all the order’s ways.  21                                                   1170    

            They both petitioned grace divine

            For Eliduc, from whom most kind

            They garnered thanks; so through him they

            Did harvest grace whene’er he prayed.

            By daily messages he kept                                                                             1175    

            Apprised of how they ate and slept,

            What needs, if aught.  Each of the three,

            Besides in th’ other two, did deep

            In God’s complete forgiveness trust.

            Thus died they not in gloom and dust.                                                     1180    


            The Bretons set this tale to verse

            That it might be all times rehearsed:

            A worthy subject, worthy done.

            Now it for France’s court I’ve sung.




1  This is the lay’s first and last mention of Eliduc’s extraordinary skill at hunting.  That it transparently serves no purpose in advancing the plot or developing the hero’s character merely underscores the vestigial presence of some mythic connection.  King Duşyanta, a master huntsman, is engaged in chasing deer when he crosses into his future lover’s mysterious realm in Śakuntala and the Ring of Recollection.   Cú Chulainn is likewise occupied in hunting birds shortly before he enters the otherworldly realm where he will meet his lover in the Serglige Con Chulainn.  Though buried in irrelevancy here, therefore, the function of Master of the Hunt was clearly attached to the prototype of Marie’s Breton hero.

2.  Recall that the retainers have already been paid a month’s wages (ll. 127-128).  Marie wants her audience to notice Eliduc’s punctilious courtesy in matters of money.  Not only does he strictly limit himself to the original sum offered, but he also generously feeds the less fortunate knights trapped within the city.  Cf. the similar generosity of the eponymous hero in Marie’s Lanval upon suddenly acquiring wealth.

3  The degree of dry precision in this scene is remarkable for its time, when a hyperbolic inflation both of the enemy’s numbers and of the hero’s dozens of slain would represent standard fare.  Marie’s account reads far more like the “incident report” of a contemporary military officer.  Her attention to realistic detail is indeed often evident in the Lais.

4  Marie obviously does not mean that the king returned three horses to the captives, but rather that he distributed their worth in materials to the hapless prisoners.  Once again, her eye for minute detail is evident.  Surely these lines also attempt to portray the king as a good soul, kind even to those who have unfairly besieged him.  Marie no doubt wishes to save him from the stain of cowardly ineptitude and scheming exploitation that attaches to his type in many legends—a role such as the ancient Greek myths, for instance, bestow upon the feckless Eurystheus as he profits from the convenient servitude of Herakles.

Desur un lit erent asis, reads l. 298, employing the word for “bed”.  In cultural context, however, such furniture doubled as what we would call a sofa, divan, or couch on semi-formal social occasions without any hint of impropriety.

6  Guilliadun here shows herself superior to a complete ingénue: she understands that much of what is called “manners” consists of  polite duplicity.  Marie may have wanted to award her this degree of worldliness lest her sudden head-over-heels love seem “girlish” in a frivolous sense.

7  Marie’s wording invites severe misunderstanding, but the plot itself eliminates any question of Eliduc’s having made love physically to Guilliadun at this point.  They have had only the one meeting, and their next will remain equally proper.  The torrid embraces remain in the knight’s imagination!

8  As a sworn servant of the king, Eliduc not only lacks the typically required social status to court a princess but could also be charged with treason for courting this particular princess.

9  The king’s words, though far from recommending Eliduc as a possible suitor, effectively soften any hint that the knight’s interest in his liege’s daughter is traitorous or her interest in him unfilial and rebellious.  Marie is again trying to redeem her main characters from any villainy to the degree that she can.

10  All that comes clear about this short speech of Eliduc’s is that he wishes to communicate through unclarity.  It apparently works: Guilliadun’s ensuing words show that she does not perceive his answer as a rebuff.  Probably she understands that his accepting her hand while in her father’s employ might appear dishonorable, if not treasonous.  His zeal to cross back to France, overtly ending any bond of fealty, could therefore be interpreted as consent to seek her hand openly.

11  It is tempting to think that the terms of the Breton king’s summons (which seem of questionable legality) may have been framed by Marie so as to stress that Eliduc knows how to keep a lifelong bargain, even when the other party has broken faith.  Of course, this is the opposite of how he will soon treat his marriage vow: hence the need of a redemption “in advance”.

12  This soliloquy vexes the question of the lovers’ earlier understanding even further, since at that time Eliduc’s announced departure had been greeted by Guilliadun with relief and trust.  Perhaps he is most distressed here by the Breton king’s having so accelerated the need for them to sort out their complicated love.

13  Eliduc’s transfer of the decision to Guilliadun may seem more pusillanimous than courteous, yet Marie surely intends it to demonstrate his chivalrous concern for his lady’s will.  In any case, as we shall see, the decision has largely been dictated already by his obligations: he no doubt wishes above all to have his lover understand and approve of this decision rather than to make it.

14  Coherence in motive grows extremely hard to trace in Eliduc after this speech.  He has just resolved to let Guilliadun make his final decision, yet he approaches the king first and presents his departure as morally obligatory.  To be sure, his professional duty dictates that he do exactly this; but what part of his decision, then, did he expect to leave in Guilliadun’s hands?  As suggested in the previous note, one must infer that he intends to explain his case to her until she fully understands it—a theory which agrees with the following scene.

15  Again, one must wonder what precisely Guilliadun’s options are in this “generous” offer, and also on what basis Eliduc’s departure had seemed so much more amenable to them both 250 lines earlier.  Those pre-existing questions are now magnified.

16  Eliduc appears to say that, though Exeter has released him practically from fulfilling a year’s service, he remains bound legally and morally by all implications of the agreement that may still be observed while he assists his former king.  His punctilious interpretation is admirable—but, once more, it leaves Guilliadun with no option but the one he proposes.

17  Contemporary readers may think Eliduc’s “murder” of this hapless sailor the most criminal in a series of dubious deeds.  By the standards of Marie’s day, however, such a view would be entirely mistaken.  The sailor a) shows extreme disrespect to someone of a much higher class than he (and a lady, at that), b) acts contumaciously to his immediate overlord, and c) acts mutinously to his captain (who happens to be his lord, as well).  All such insubordination might readily be punished with death.

18  Tortured as ever beyond the brink of coherence, Eliduc spares not a thought in his grief to the king he has not only deprived of a daughter but will deprive (if his vow hold true) of all effective defense.  This speech, furthermore, while demonstrating the knight’s devotion to a religious faith whose law he had almost betrayed, shows distinct signs of idolatry.  Will Friar Eliduc be serving God or the memory of Guilliadun?

19  The exact lines (1027-1028) run thus: Tant par pitié, tant par amur, / Jamés n’avrai joie nul jur.  In this amazing couplet, Guildelüec can only be saying that the misery endured by both lovers has overpowered her.  The pity infused in her love disqualifies this sentiment for any variety of response that might be called”wounded”: her grief is not in the least self-centered.

20  The medieval church permitted remarriage when one of the parties of a preceding marriage entered a holy order.  The procedure was in nowise considered a divorce, though its practical consequences give that appearance to a modern observer.

21  Thus does Marie appear to mop up any residual opprobrium attaching to this affair: all concerned enter a holy order.  The same strategy for redeeming a tarnished hero is followed by Malory at the end of Le Morte Darthur, where Lancelot and Guinevere both take such vows.


Dr. John Harris, The Center’s founder, is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Texas at Tyler, where he teaches World Literature and Latin.