Wednesday, October 14, 2015


Ralph O'Connor (ed.), Classical Literature in Medieval Irish Narrative. Studies in Celtic History, 34. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2014. Pp. viii, 244. ISBN 9781843843849. $99.00.

Reviewed by Richard P. Martin, Stanford University (

Version at BMCR home site


Not long ago, this seemingly innocuous title might have sparked a brawl. During the emergence of Ireland (most of it) to independence in the 20th century, its medieval literary past became a shibboleth. "Nativist" scholars (as their opponents came to style them) stressed the uniqueness of the earliest vernacular texts in Europe, their archaic Indo-European features of style and content, their representations of a heroic age rivaling that of Homeric epic, and their witness to a flourishing indigenous society that never bowed before Rome (read: "Britain"). Among the few Celticists who dared talk of latent Classical influences was James Carney, whose 1955 book, Studies in Irish Literature and History (influenced by his reading of E. R. Curtius) provocatively suggested that "native" Irish sagas like the Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle-Raid of Cooley = TBC), only assumed epic length and structure when their anonymous authors imitated Latin exemplars (pagan or Christian). The idea was not well received.1

The present book joins a few recent monographs (in particular Heroic Saga and Classical Epic in Medieval Ireland [2011] by Brent Miles—constantly cited here) that revisit Carney's vision. But it does so by methodically transcending the native/non divide, exposing in each of its ten essays the creakiness of the construct. A richly informative volume, growing out of a May 2011 workshop at Aberdeen, its eight authors (two double-dip) superbly accomplish their stated goals of introducing medieval Irish literature to nonspecialists, while encouraging cross-disciplinary contact among Celticists, Classicists, folklorists and experts in Hiberno-Latin. In addition, anyone interested in epic, or the textualization of oral traditions, should read this straight through. It is especially relevant to reception studies and translation theory. Instead of simply giving the Classicizing camp its day, the volume helps us imagine how a blended, bilingual scribal culture of scholar-authors, consciously preserving their age-old culture while discovering the Classical world, created some of the world's most compelling literature.

In his prefatory chapter, O' Connor sketches the problematic. While the introduction of Christianity and its associated learning in the 5th century soon led to a burst of Hiberno-Latin writing, from hagiographies to the strange Hisperica Famina, and the almost parodic work of Virgilius Maro Grammaticus, this wave had subsided by the 9th century. The 10th century, however, for reasons unknown experienced a different effervescence, centered on reception of Classical heroic myths. Before then, there is little evidence for engagement with continuous Classical poems, although clearly the Irish had their hands on Latin treatises, grammars, encyclopedias, and exegetical work like Vergil scholia (genres that instantly appealed to the hereditary learned class of poets, historians and lawyers). Then, by the end of the 10th century, the Irish had produced a version of the De excidio Troiae historia attributed to the sixth-century Dares Phrygius (one lost but detectable in a later recension) and a book of lore about Alexander the Great, filtered through Orosius (Scéla Alaxandair). The 11th century saw the first extant recension of The Destruction of Troy (Togail Troí =TTr) based on Dares; the later 11th or 12th another recension thereof, as well as a prose version of Vergil, the Adventures of Aeneas (Imtheachta Aeniasa = IA). Prose versions, of Lucan's Pharsalia (In Cath Catharda) as also of the Thebaid of Statius (Togail na Tebe), were written in the 12th century; perhaps slightly later came the Sgél in Minaduir (basically Servius on Cretan myth) and, most surprising, a wondefrul ten-page mini-version of the Odyssey, the Merugud Uilix Meic Leirtis (=MUML), a must-read for Hellenists. O'Connor's list of editions, tentative datings, and recent work is invaluable for the subsequent discussions. His methodological sophistication, emphasizing the creative artistry involved in Classical reworkings, sets the tone for what follows.

Erich Poppe undertakes a series of meticulous close comparisons that extends to IA the sort of analysis Miles used in arguing that TTr had emulated and amplified the Aeneid (creating, so he claimed, a style subsequently influential in recensions of TBC). Poppe shows how IA employs a different translational aesthetic than TTr—even though the former is nominally closer to the Aeneid. Its author clearly had a weakness for expanding similes into the extravagant alliterating style seen in the second recension of TBC. The IA 's typical exuberance emerges in such examples as its rendering of the storm description in Aen.1.102-7. Imitated austerely in TTr, with a near-equivalence of 30 Irish words to the 38 in Latin, the scene inIA unleashes a cinematic torrent of 78 Irish words, with lots of sand, wind, and waves.

Helen Fulton sees in the style of TTr clear traits from Late Antique historiography (itself derived from Latin epic), with a viewpoint akin to the Boethian emphasis on the cycles of fortune rather than the Augustinian view of history as linear. For her, TTr resembles the avowedly "historical" Book of Invasions (Lebor Gabála) rather than the epic TBC. In a skilled handling of these deeper roots she relies on the notion of "re-mediations" (think: novels turned into films) rather than straight translation, obviously inapplicable in this case. A concluding comparison with the Welsh Ystorya Dared (early 14th c.) makes for telling contrasts.

Robert Crampton writes the first of two essays in the volume on MUML, the compact tale in which Ulysses takes three years to return, is recognized most memorably by his multi-colored hound, and survives by following the advice of a mysterious Judge of Truth, which saves him from slaying on the spot Penelope when he finds her in a bedchamber with another man (Telemachus, as it emerges—the son he never knew). Crampton tries to account for how MUML oddly knows some exact Odyssey details (e.g. the brooch) but ignores larger episodes (the suitors, and most others except the Cyclops). He imagines the author as part of a scholarly elite around 1200 familiar with some Classical works but also cribbing from florilegia. For the influence of the latter, he adduces the Slaying of the Clan of Tantalus, a saga-like reworking of Seneca's Thyestes. Odysseus in MUML penetrates to reality through appearances, Crampton notices, but he does not go so far as to conjecture an Irish Ulysses transmitted through NeoPlatonic sources. (I would.)

Barbara Hillers catches the same moral tone in the MUML, and suggests that the Judge of Truth figure echoes allegorical discourses about Christ from patristic writings. She is more sceptical that anyone in the 12th century could have known the Odyssey first-hand. The Cyclops episode was probably derived from Vergil via IA; the Isle of Sheep is a far fetch from the Cattle of the Sun; and the Judge of Truth recalls more immediately the international tale-type of The Master's Good Counsels (Aarne-Thompson-Uther 910B). Her chapter is in close and fruitful dialogue with Crampton's, making for illuminating disagreements that get to the toughest question (essential for Classicists): just what is an intertext anyway?

Michael Clarke contributes two densely learned back-to-back chapters (6 and 7) exploring the transmission of Classical mythological material in Irish sagas. In the first, he observes their common concern with historia. A highly self-conscious cultural comparatism also marks the medieval texts. In TBC Recension 1, for example the Irish battle-deity Morrígan is explicitly described as the equivalent of the Fury Allecto. Virgilian imitatio or gleaning from glossographers? Wisely avoiding this false binary, Clarke explores instead systematic "cross-cultural translation" as it appears in the equating of native with pagan demons and divinites that is found in various exegetical sources. He traces the basic method in Jerome, Eriugena and—most influentially —Fulgentius, the fifth-century AD mythographer, often cited by the Irish peregrini of the Carolingian period.

Clarke's second piece focuses on tales of two Irish kings afflicted with horse-ears, the legendary Labraid Loingsech and Eochaid. Midas, of course, say the Classicists. But how did the authors get that myth (Ovid, is seems, not yet being available)? Again, handbooks offer answers: the closest version sharing details with Irish multiforms appears in the Second Vatican Mythographer. Pursuing further the Eochaid story with its motifs of a lustful queen and kinslaying (fingal), Clarke uncovers in The Kin Slaying of Rónán (circa 1000 AD) another set of Classical allusions, this time to Seneca's Phaedra (another text not thought to have been available). Florilegia with tragic excerpts, like that in the 9th-century Codex Thuaneus, might have bridged the gap.

Máire Ní Mhaonaigh's work on the The War of the Irish Against the Foreigners (Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib), about Brian Boru's victory over the Vikings, prompted a distorting headline in The Belfast Telegraph last April (on the event's millennium): "Battle Account 'Borrowed from Troy'." Of course, her nuanced study, continued here, aimed not at demolishing veracity, but at demonstrating the artistic deployment of Classical comparisons in an eleventh-century text vital for later Irish nationalism. Murchad Mac Briain, Brian' son, is praised several times as "Hector." Ní Mhaonaigh shows how this usage stems from traditions of sex aetates mundi, going back to Augustine via Isidore of Seville, that were employed in establishing a whole series of heroic parallels to integrate Irish, Greek, and Biblical heroes. The trope must have been part of the stock-in-trade of praise-poets. That Murchad was further called "the metaphorical (intamlaigtech) Hector of Ireland" reveals a sophisticated composer and audience for whom such a meta-level allusion foregrounding the very device of rhetorical comparison would be significant.

O'Connor's second contribution takes on Carney's 1955 assertions and more recent re-statements by Hildegard Tristram among others, concerning the necessity of Classical imitation in the making of TBC. Against the notion that only Latin epic could offer a model for a complex "macrotext" he cites the ambitious tenth-century poem-sequence, Saltair na Rann (150 cantos versifying Bible history) and the Bible itself. Furthermore, since the lost tenth-century pre-text of TTr would have been contemporaneous with the earliest formation of TBC as we have it, O'Connor hypothesizes, in place of one-way imitation, a classicizing vernacular literary culture with a taste for larger, even cycle-like compositions. Influences surely flowed both ways. The literary device of the watchman-dialogue functioned as amplification in TBC and a few other "native" sagas but, tellingly, was not so used in TTr—an oddity if in fact this key device for episodic expansion was really pure Classical borrowing.

Abigail Burnyeat rounds out the volume with an intriguing hypothesis that the medieval understanding of compilatio as a literary technique could have influenced how Irish vernacular writers tackled the construction of large-scale narratives formed out of smaller discrete episodes. (It is still an open question just how TBC in any recension might even fit such a description—as it is, I would add, for Homeric epic.) At least one eleventh-century poet, Flann Mainistrech, clearly knew the anecdote (attested in Jerome, Macrobius and the Lives tradition) that Vergil, considered the ultimate compilator, had called his borrowing from Homer "wrenching the club from the hand of Hercules" — a Bloomian (Harold not Leopold) show of agonistic mettle meant to silence his critics. Did the composer(s) of TBC model their working methods on those they imagined for this "strong" poet and encyclopedic sage? Unfortunately, Flann as far as we know was not a saga-writer, but the type of work with which he was associated (dindshenchas poetry on the lore of place-names, historia like the Lebor Gabála) shows him to have been no mean compilator. In fact, this sort of non-epic Irish literature, suggests Burnyeat, was the true heir of the compositional strategy that some had attributed to Vergil. Her meta-critical discussion of the twentieth-century discursive shift concerning the proper comparanda for TBC (from Homer to Vergil) is an instructive reminder of the mummifying effect our unexamined paradigms can have, whether oralist or scripsist, nativist or Hiberno-Classicist. ​


1.   For a primer on the debate, read Kim McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature (Maynooth: An Sagart, 1990) in conjunction with the review by Patrick Sims-Williams (Éigse 29 [1996] 179-196). The finest extended interpretation of early Irish texts that articulates the combination of Latinate Christian with pagan Celtic world-views is Joseph Falaky Nagy, Conversing with Angels and Ancients: Literary Myths of Medieval Ireland (Cornell 1997). ​

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