Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Voyage of Bran, Son of Febal (and a few other Irish legends)

Source of book: I own this

I got this book as a gift, but it was one I had on my wish list, primarily because it was one of the ancient works that is said to have inspired The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis. Since I am in a snarky mood, I’ll give just a quick summary, and then give some important lessons learned from the poem and the additional legends that are in this book. The Voyage of Bran dates to the 8th Century, but the tales themselves may well have been told in oral form centuries before that. The story is believed to have influenced the tale of St. Brendan, whose voyages also inspired Lewis. 

Manuscript of the story of St. Brendan

So, Bran is met by a woman/fairy sort who tells him of mysterious islands over the sea, where a magic plant can be found, and many other wonders. He takes a boat and some men, and voyages to these islands, over the course of 50ish quatrains, returning to tell his story, but finds that he has been gone for centuries and he is only known in legends. (50ish, because the poem refers to 50 stanzas, but only thirty-some-odd are found in the various surviving versions, and even combined and added up, they still fall short.) Many of the stanzas describe “Mag Mell,” the Happy Plain (perhaps paradise?) and the delights and wonders found there. A stanza or two may suffice:

The size of the plain, the number of the host,
Colors glisten with pure glory,
A fair stream of silver, cloths of gold,
Afford a welcome with all abundance.

A beautiful game, most delightful,
They play sitting at the luxurious wine,
Men and gentle women under a bush,
Without sin, without crime.

In addition to the poem itself, there are also some short prose works included in this thin volume, filling in the back stories of characters that appear in the saga of Bran. The most notable is Mongan, the king of the Cruithin people of ancient Ireland. Mongan was a real person, although the stories told about him are clearly mythical. He was believed to be a reincarnation of Fionn mac Cumhaill (aka Finn McCool).

In legend, Mongan’s birth and subsequent adventures were told and retold, eventually ending up in the Cycles of the Kings. (This would be a fun book to get some time.)

So, without further ado, here are the snarky lessons to learn from these:

  1. If a woman comes to you and encourages you to take a crazy trip, she will always be dressed in “strange raiment.”
  2. If a chick in funky clothes sends you on a trip, you are probably in for trouble, but you might become famous. Even if it kills you. (I’m pretty sure this holds true across all legends from all places. The human universal of epics.)
  3. If the king sees you as a rival, perhaps taking that voyage is a good idea.
  4. It is always a bad idea to offer someone “anything short of the kingdom.” This never ends well.
  5. Chances are, if you have a hot wife, you will be asked for her.
  6. On a related note, the best way to get a hot woman (unless you are king already) is to make a wager or bargain with the king and ask for his wife.
  7. Ergo, if you want a hot woman, best to be sly and cunning, or a wizard. Preferably both.
  8. Also, if you have something the king wants, like, say, the world’s prettiest herd of cattle, you can drive a hard bargain.
  9. It sucked to be a woman in those days. You might find yourself having to bed some random dude because of a bet gone bad.
  10. Except that apparently human women are irresistible to fairies and gods, so at least one occasionally got some serious bragging rights.

So there you have it.

My translation was by Kuno Meyer, an old German scholar, who had no hesitation to call all older women “hags.” On the other hand, he was willing to admit when he had no clue what a word meant and footnote how he came to a guess. It would be fun to find the rest of the legends, and fill in the gaps.

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