Sacred Texts  Sagas and Legends  Celtic  Index  Previous  Next 

Alfred Nutt

I HAD hoped to accompany these tales with as full a commentary as that which I have affixed to the Argylishire Märchen, collected and translated by the Rev. D. Maclnnes. Considerations of business and health prevent me from carrying out this intention, and I have only been able to notice a passage here and there in the Tales; but I have gladly availed myself of my friend, Dr. Hyde's permission, to touch upon a few points in his Introduction
Of special interest are Dr. Hyde's remarks upon the relations which obtain between the modern folk-tale current among the Gaelic-speaking populations of Ireland and Scotland, and the Irish mythic, heroic and romantic literature preserved in MSS., which range in date from the eleventh century to the present day.
In Ireland, more than elsewhere, the line of demarcation between the tale whose genesis is conscious, and that of which the reverse is true, is hard to draw, and students will, for a long while to come, differ concerning points of detail. I may thus be permitted to disagree at times with Dr. Hyde, although, as a rule, I am heartily at one with him.
Dr. Hyde distinguishes between an older stratum of folk-tale (the "old Aryan traditions,") and the newer stratum of "bardic inventions." He also establishes a yet younger class than these latter, the romances of the professional story-tellers of the eighteenth century, who "wrote them down as modern novelists do their stories." Of these last he remarks, that he has found no remnant of them among the peasantry of to-day; a valuable bit of evidence, although of course, subject to the inconclusiveness of all merely negative testimony. To revert to the second class, he looks upon the tales comprised in it as being rather the inventions of individual brains than as old Aryan folk-tales. It must at once be conceded, that a great number of the tales and ballads current in the Gaelic-speaking lands undoubtedly received the form under which they are now current, somewhere between the twelfth and the sixteenth centuries; that the authors of that form were equally undoubtedly the professional bards and story-tellers attached to the court of every Gaelic chieftain; and that the method of their transmission was oral, it being the custom of the story-tellers both to teach their tales to pupils, and to travel about from district to district.
The style of these stories and ballads enables us to date them with sufficient precision. Dr. Hyde also notes historical allusions, such as the reference to O'Connor Sligo, in the story of the "Slim Swarthy Champion," or to the Turks in the story of "Conall Gulban." I cannot but think, however, that it is straining the evidence to assert that the one story was invented after 1362, or the other after the fall of Constantinople. The fact that "Bony" appears in some versions of the common English mumming play does not show that it originated in this century, merely that these particular versions have passed through the minds of nineteenth century peasants; and in like manner the Connaught fourteenth century chieftain may easily have taken the place of an earlier personage, the Turks in "Conall Gulban," of an earlier wizard-giant race. If I cannot go as far as Dr. Hyde in this sense, I must equally demur to the assumption, that community of incident between an Irish and a Bohemian tale necessarily establishes the pre-historic antiquity of the incident. I believe that a great many folk-tales, as well as much else of folk-lore, has been developed in situ, rather imported from the outside; but I, by no means, deny importation in principle, and I recognise that its agency has been clearly demonstrated in not a few cases.
The main interest of Irish folk-literature (if the expression be allowed) centres in the bardic stories. I think that Dr. Hyde lays too much stress upon such external secondary matters as the names of heroes, or allusions to historical events; and, indeed, he himself, in the case of Murachaidh MacBrian, states what I believe to be the correct theory, namely, that the Irish bardic story, from which he derives the Scotch Gaelic one, is, as far as many of its incidents go, not the invention of the writer, but genuine folk-lore thrown by him into a new form.
Had we all the materials necessary for forming a judgment, such is, I believe, the conclusion that would in every case be reached. But I furthermore hold it likely that in many cases the recast story gradually reverted to a primitive folk-type in the course of passing down from the court storyteller to the humbler peasant reciters, that it sloughed off the embellishments of the ollamhs, and reintroduced the older, wilder conceptions with which the folk remained in fuller sympathy than the more cultured bard. Compare, for instance, as I compared ten years ago, " Maghach Colgar," in Campbell's version (No. 36), with the "Fairy Palace of the Quicken Trees." The one tale has all the incidents in the wildest and most fantastic form possible; in the other they are rationalised to the utmost possible extent and made to appear like a piece of genuine history. I do not think that if this later version was invented right out by a thirteenth or fourteenth century ollamh, it could have given rise to the former one. Either "Maghach Colgar" descends from the folk-tale which served as the basis of the Irish story, or, what is more likely, the folk, whilst appreciating and preserving the new arrangement of certain well-known incidents, retained the earlier form of the incidents themselves, as being more consonant with the totality of its conceptions, both moral and aesthetic. This I hold to be the vital lesson the folklorist may learn from considering the relations of Gaelic folk-tale and Gaelic romance (using the latter term in the sense of story with a conscious genesis) that romance, to live and propagate itself among the folk, must follow certain rules, satisfy certain conceptions of life, conform to certain conventions. The Irish bards and story-tellers had little difficulty, I take it, in doing this; they had not outgrown the creed of their countrymen, they were in substantial touch with the intellectual and artistic laws that govern their subject-matter. Re-arrange, rationalise somewhat, deck out with the questionable adornment of their scanty and ill-digested book-learning--to this extent, but to this extent only, I believe, reached their influence upon the mass of folk-conceptions and presentments which they inherited from their fathers, and which, with these modifications and additions, they handed on to their children.
But romance must not only conform to the conventions, it must also fit in with the ensemble of conditions, material, mental and spiritual, which constitute the culture (taking this much-abused word in its widest sense) of a race. An example will make this clear.
Of all modern, consciously-invented fairy tales I know but one which conforms folly to the folk-tale convention--" The Shaving of Shagpat." It follows the formula as closely and accurately as the best of Grimm's or of Campbell's tales. To divine the nature of a convention, and to use its capabilities to the utmost, is a special mark of genius, and in this, as in other instances, whatever else be absent from Mr. Meredith's work, genius is indubitably present. But I do not think that "The Shaving of Shagpat" could ever be acclimatised as a folk-tale in this country. Scenery, conduct of story, characterisation of personages, are all too distinctively Oriental. But let an Eastern admirer of Mr. Meredith translate his work into Arabic or Hindi, and let the book fall into the hands of a Cairene or Delhi story-teller (if such still exist), I can well imagine that, with judicious cuts, it should win praise for its reciter in market-place or bazaar. Did this happen, it would surely be due- to the fact that the story is strictly constructed upon traditional lines, rather than to the brilliant invention and fancy displayed on every page. Strip from it the wit and philosophy of the author, and there remains a fairy tale to charm the East; but it would need to be reduced to a skeleton, and reclothed with new flesh before it could charm the folk of the West.
To bring home yet more clearly to our minds this necessity for romance to conform to convention, let us ask ourselves, what would have happened if one of the Irish story-tellers who perambulated the Western Isles as late as the seventeenth century, had carried with him a volume of Hakluyt or Purchas, or, supposing one to have lingered enough, Defoe or Gil Blas? Would he have been welcomed when he substituted the new fare for the old tales of "Finn and the Fians?" and even if welcomed, would he have gained currency for it? Would the seed thus planted have thriven, or would it not rather, fallen upon rocky places, have withered away?
It may, however, be objected that the real difference lies not so much in the subject-matter as in the mode of transmission; and the objection may seem to derive some force from what Dr. Hyde notes concerning the prevalence of folk-tales in Wicklow, and the nearer Pale generally, as contrasted with Leitrim, Longford, and Meath. It is difficult to over-estimate the interest and importance of this fact, and there can hardly be a doubt that Dr. Hyde has explained it correctly. It may, then, be urged that so long as oral transmission lasts the folk-tale flourishes; and only when the printed work ousts the story-teller is it that the folk-tale dies out. But this reasoning will not hold water. It is absurd to contend that the story-teller had none but a certain class of materials at his disposal till lately. He had the whole realm of intellect and fancy to draw upon; but he, and still more his hearers, knew only one district of that realm; and had it been possible for him to step outside its limits his hearers could not have followed him. I grant folk fancy has shared the fortunes of humanity together with every other manifestation of man's activity, but always within strictly defined limits, to transgress which has always been to forfeit the favour of the folk.
What, then, are the characteristic marks of folk-fancy? The question is of special interest in connection with Gaelic folk-lore. The latter is rich in transitional forms, the study of which reveal more clearly than is otherwise possible the nature and workings of the folk-mind.
The products of folk-fancy (putting aside such examples of folk-wisdom and folk-wit as proverbs, saws, jests, etc.), may be roughly divided among two great classes:
Firstly, stories of a quasi-historical or anecdotic nature, accepted as actual fact (of course with varying degrees of credence) by narrator and hearer. Stories of this kind are very largely concerned with beings (supernatural, as we should call them) differing from man, and with their relations to and dealings with man. Not infrequently, however, the actors in the stories are wholly human, or human and animal. Gaelic folk-lore is rich in such stories, owing to the extraordinary tenacity of the fairy belief. We can hardly doubt that the Gael, like all other races which have passed through a certain stage of culture, had at one time an organised hierarchy of divine beings. But we have to piece together the Gaelic god-saga out of bare names, mere hints, and stories which have evidently suffered vital change. In the earliest stratum of Gaelic mythic narrative we find beings who at some former time had occupied divine rank, but whose relations to man are substantially, as therein presented, the same as those of the modern fairy to the modern peasant. The chiefs of the Tuatha de Danann hanker after earthly maidens; the divine damsels long for and summon to themselves earthly heroes. Though undying, very strong, and very wise, they may be overpowered or outwitted by the mortal hero. As if conscious of some source of weakness we cannot detect, they are anxious, in their internecine struggles, to secure the aid of the sons of men. Small wonder that this belief, which we can follow for at least 1,200 years, should furnish so many elements to the folk-fancy of the Gael.
In stories of the second class the action is relegated to a remote past--once upon a time--or to a distant undefined region, and the narrative is not necessarily accepted as a record of actual fact. Stories of this class, whether in prose or verse, may again be subdivided into--humorous, optimistic, tragic; and with regard to the third sub-division, it should be noted that the stories comprised in it are generally told as having been true once, though not in the immediate tangible sense of stories in the first class.
These different narrative groups share certain characteristics, though in varying proportions.
Firstly, the fondness for and adherence to a comparatively small number of set formulas. This is obviously less marked in stories of the first class, which, as being in the mind of the folk a record of what has actually happened, partake of the diversity of actual life. And yet the most striking similarities occur; such an anecdote, for instance, as that which tells how a supernatural changeling is baffled by a brewery of egg-shells being found from Japan to Brittany.
Secondly, on the moral side, the unquestioning acceptance of fatalism, though not in the sense which the Moslem or the Calvinist would attach to the word. The event is bound to be of a certain nature, provided a certain mode of attaining it be chosen. This comes out well in the large group of stories which tell how a supernatural being helps a mortal to perform certain tasks, as a rule, with some ulterior benefit to itself in view. The most disheartening carelessness and stupidity on the part of the man cannot alter the result; the skill and courage of the supernatural helper are powerless without the mortal co-operation. In what I have termed the tragic stories, this fatalism puts on a moral form, and gives rise to the conception of Nemesis.
Thirdly, on the mental side, animism is prevalent, i.e., the acceptance of a life common to, not alone man and animals, but all manifestations of force. In so far as a distinction is made between the life of man and that of nature at large, it is in favour of the latter, to which more potent energy is ascribed.
Just as stories of the first class are less characterised by adherence to formula, so stories of the humorous group are less characterised by fatalism and animism. This is inevitable, as such stories are, as a rule, concerned solely with the relations of man to his fellows.
The most fascinating and perplexing problems are those connected with the groups I have termed optimistic and tragic. To the former belong the almost entirety of such nursery tales as are not humorous in character. "They were married and lived happily ever afterwards;" such is the almost invariable end formula. The hero wins the princess, and the villain is punished.
This feature the nursery tale shares with the god-saga; Zeus confounds the Titans, Apollo slays the Python, Lug overcomes Balor, Indra vanquishes Vritra. There are two apparent exceptions to this rule. The Teutonic god myth is tragic; the Anses are ever under the shadow of the final conflict. This has been explained by the influence of Christian ideas; but although this influence must be unreservedly admitted in certain details of the passing of the gods, yet the fact that the Iranian god-saga is likewise undecided, instead of having a frankly optimistic ending, makes me doubt whether the drawn battle between the powers of good and ill be not a genuine and necessary part of the Teutonic mythology. As is well known, Rydberg has established some striking points of contact between the mythic ideas of Scandinavia and those of Iran.
In striking contradiction to this moral, optimistic tendency are the great heroic sagas. One and all well-nigh are profoundly tragic. The doom of Troy the great, the passing of Arthur, the slaughter of the Nibelungs, the death of Sohrab at his father's hands, Roncevalles, Gabhra, the fratricidal conflict of Cuchullain and Ferdiad, the woes of the house of Atreus; such are but a few examples of the prevailing tone of the hero-tales. Achilles and Siegfried and Cuchullain are slain in the flower of their youth and prowess. Of them, at least, the saying is true, that whom the gods love die young. Why is it not equally true of the prince hero of the fairy tale? Is it that the hero-tale associated in the minds of bearers and reciters with men who had actually lived and fought, brought down to earth, so to say, out of the mysterious wonderland in which god and fairy and old time kings have their being, becomes thereby liable to the necessities of death and decay inherent in all human things? Some scholars have a ready answer for this and similar questions. The heroic epos assumed its shape once for all among one special race, and was then passed on to the other races who remained faithful to the main lines whilst altering details. If this explanation were true, it would still leave unsolved the problem, why the heroic epos, which for its fashioners and hearers was at once a record of the actual and an exemplar of the ideal, should, among men differing in blood and culture, follow one model, and that a tragic one. Granting that Greek and Teuton and Celt did borrow the tales which they themselves conceived to be very blood and bone of their race, what force compelled them all to borrow one special conception of life and fate?
Such exceptions as there are to the tragic nature of the heroic saga are apparent rather than real. The Odyssey ends happily, like an old-fashioned novel, but Fénélon long ago recognised in the Odyssey--"un amas de contes de vieille."
Perseus again has the luck of a fairy-tale prince, but then the story of his fortunes is obviously a fairy-tale, with named instead of anonymous personages.
Whilst the fairy-tale is akin in tone to the god saga, the ballad recalls the heroic epos. The vast majority of ballads are tragic. Sir Patrick Spens must drown, and Glasgerion's leman be cheated by the churl; Clerk Saunders comes from the other world, like Helge to Sigrun; Douglas dreams his dreary dream, "I saw a dead man win a fight, and that dead man was I." The themes of the ballad are the most dire and deadly of human passions; love scorned or betrayed, hate, and revenge. Very seldom, too, do the plots of ballad and märchen cross or overlap. Where this does happen it will, as a rule, be found that both are common descendants of some great saga.
We find such an instance in the Fenian saga, episodes of which have lived on in the Gaelic folk memory in the double form of prose and poetry. But it should be noted that the poetry accentuates the tragic side--the battle of Gabhra, the death of Diarmaid--whilst the prose takes rather some episode of Finn's youth or manhood, and presents it as a rounded and complete whole, the issue of which is fortunate.
The relations of myth and epos to folk-lore may thus be likened to that of trees to the soil from which they spring, and which they enrich and fertilize by the decay of their leaves and branches which mingle indistinguishably with the original soil. Of this soil, again, rude bricks may be made, and a house built; let the house fall into ruins, and the bricks crumble into dust, it will be hard to discriminate that dust from the parent earth. But raise a house of iron or stone, and, however ruined, its fragments can always be recognised.
In the case of the Irish bardic literature the analogy is, I believe, with soil and tree, rather than with soil and edifice.
Reverting once more to the characteristics of folk-fancy, let us note that they appear equally in folk-practice and folk-belief. The tough conservatism of the folk-mind has struck all observers: its adherence to immemorial formulas; its fatalistic acceptance of the mysteries of nature and heredity, coupled with its faith in the efficacy of sympathetic magic; its elaborate system of custom and ritual based upon the idea that between men and the remainder of the universe there is no difference of kind.
A conception of the Cosmos is thus arrived at which, more than any religious creed, fulfils the test of catholicity; literally, and in the fullest significance of the words, it has been held semper, ubique et ab omnibus. And of this conception of the universe, more universal than any that has as yet swayed the minds of man, it is possible that men now living may see the last flickering remains; it is well-nigh certain that our grandchildren will live in a worldout of which it has utterly vanished.
For the folk-lorist the Gospel saying is thus more pregnant with meaning than for any other student of man's history--" the night cometh wherein no man may work." Surely, many Irishmen will take to heart the example of Dr. Hyde, and will go forth to glean what may yet be found of as fair and bounteous a harvest of myth and romance as ever flourished among any race.

Next: Dedication