Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race
Page: 138This tale with its fascinating mixture of humour, romance, magic, and love of wild nature, may be taken as a typical specimen of the Fian legends at their best. [pg 296] As compared with the Conorian legends they show, as I have pointed out, a characteristic lack of any heroic or serious element. That nobler strain died out with the growing predominance of Christianity, which appropriated for definitely religious purposes the more serious and lofty side of the Celtic genius, leaving for secular literature only the elements of wonder and romance. So completely was this carried out that while the Finn legends have survived to this day among the Gaelic-speaking population, and were a subject of literary treatment as long as Gaelic was written at all, the earlier cycle perished almost completely out of the popular remembrance, or survived only in distorted forms; and but for the early manuscripts in which the tales are fortunately enshrined such a work as the “Tain Bo Cuailgné”—the greatest thing undoubtedly which the Celtic genius ever produced in literature—would now be irrecoverably lost.
The Tales of Deirdre and of Grania
Nothing can better illustrate the difference between the two cycles than a comparison of the tale of Deirdre with that with which we have now to deal—the tale of Dermot and Grania. The latter, from one point of view, reads like an echo of the former, so close is the resemblance between them in the outline of the plot. Take the following skeleton story: “A fair maiden is betrothed to a renowned and mighty suitor much older than herself. She turns from him to seek a younger lover, and fixes her attention on one of his followers, a gallant and beautiful youth, whom she persuades, in spite of his reluctance, to fly with her. After evading pursuit they settle down for a while at a distance from the defrauded lover, who bides his time, till at last, under cover of a treacherous reconciliation, he procures the death of his younger rival and retakes [pg 297] possession of the lady.” Were a student of Celtic legend asked to listen to the above synopsis, and to say to what Irish tale it referred, he would certainly reply that it must be either the tale of the Pursuit of Dermot and Grania, or that of the Fate of the Sons of Usna; but which of them it was it would be quite impossible for him to tell. Yet in tone and temper the two stories are as wide apart as the poles.
Grania and Dermot
Grania, in the Fian story, is the daughter of Cormac mac Art, High King of Ireland. She is betrothed to Finn mac Cumhal, whom we are to regard at this period as an old and war-worn but still mighty warrior. The famous captains of the Fianna all assemble at Tara for the wedding feast, and as they sit at meat Grania surveys them and asks their names of her father's Druid, Dara. “It is a wonder,” she says, “that Finn did not ask me for Oisīn, rather than for himself.” “Oisīn would not dare to take thee,” says Dara. Grania, after going through all the company, asks: “Who is that man with the spot on his brow, with the sweet voice, with curling dusky hair and ruddy cheek?” “That is Dermot O'Dyna,” replies the Druid, “the white-toothed, of the lightsome countenance, in all the world the best lover of women and maidens.” Grania now prepares a sleepy draught, which she places in a drinking-cup and passes round by her handmaid to the king, to Finn, and to all the company except the chiefs of the Fianna. When the draught has done its work she goes to Oisīn. “Wilt thou receive courtship from me, Oisīn?” she asks. “That will I not,” says Oisīn, “nor from any woman that is betrothed to Finn.” Grania, who knew very well what Oisīn's answer would be, now turns to her real mark, Dermot. He at first refuses to have [pg 298] anything to do with her. “I put thee under bonds [geise], O Dermot, that thou take me out of Tara to-night.” “Evil are these bonds, Grania,” says Dermot; “and wherefore hast thou put them on me before all the kings' sons that feast at this table?” Grania then explains that she has loved Dermot ever since she saw him, years ago, from her sunny bower, take part in and win a great hurling match on the green at Tara. Dermot, still very reluctant, pleads the merits of Finn, and urges also that Finn has the keys of the royal fortress, so that they cannot pass out at night. “There is a secret wicket-gate in my bower,” says Grania. “I am under geise not to pass through any wicket-gate,” replies Dermot, still struggling against his destiny. Grania will have none of these subterfuges—any Fian warrior, she has been told, can leap over a palisade with the aid of his spear as a jumping-pole; and she goes off to make ready for the elopement. Dermot, in great perplexity, appeals to Oisīn, Oscar, Keelta, and the others as to what he should do. They all bid him keep his geise—the bonds that Grania had laid on him to succour her—and he takes leave of them with tears.