Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race
Page: 91In the epic, as given in the Book of Leinster, and other ancient sources, a long interlude now takes place in which Fergus explains to Maev who it is—viz., “my little pupil Setanta”—who is thus harrying the host, and his boyish deeds, some of which have been already told in this narrative, are recounted.
The Charioteer of Orlam
The host proceeded on its way next day, and the next encounter with Cuchulain shows the hero in a kindlier mood. He hears a noise of timber being cut, and going into a wood he finds there a charioteer belonging to a son of Ailell and Maev cutting down chariot-poles of holly, “For,” says he, “we have damaged our chariots sadly in chasing that famous deer, Cuchulain.” Cuchulain—who, it must be remembered, was at ordinary times a slight and unimposing figure, though in battle he dilated in size and underwent a fearful distortion, symbolic of Berserker fury—helps the driver in his work. “Shall I,” he asks, “cut the poles or trim them for thee?” “Do thou the trimming,” says the driver. Cuchulain takes the poles by the tops and draws them against the set of the branches through his toes, and then runs his fingers down them the same way, and gives them over as smooth and [pg 209] polished as if they were planed by a carpenter. The driver stares at him. “I doubt this work I set thee to is not thy proper work,” he says. “Who art thou then at all?” “I am that Cuchulain of whom thou spakest but now.” “Surely I am but a dead man,” says the driver. “Nay,” replies Cuchulain, “I slay not drivers nor messengers nor men unarmed. But run, tell thy master Orlam that Cuchulain is about to visit him.” The driver runs off, but Cuchulain outstrips him, meets Orlam first, and strikes off his head. For a moment the host of Maev see him as he shakes this bloody trophy before them; then he disappears from sight—it is the first glimpse they have caught of their persecutor.
The Battle-Frenzy of Cuchulain
A number of scattered episodes now follow. The host of Maev spreads out and devastates the territories of Bregia and of Murthemney, but they cannot advance further into Ulster. Cuchulain hovers about them continually, slaying them by twos and threes, and no man knows where he will swoop next. Maev herself is awed when, by the bullets of an unseen slinger, a squirrel and a pet bird are killed as they sit upon her shoulders. Afterwards, as Cuchulain's wrath grows fiercer, he descends with supernatural might upon whole companies of the Connacht host, and hundreds fall at his onset. The characteristic distortion or riastradh which seized him in his battle-frenzy is then described. He became a fearsome and multiform creature such as never was known before. Every particle of him quivered like a bulrush in a running stream. His calves and heels and hams shifted to the front, and his feet and knees to the back, and the muscles of his neck stood out like the head of a young child. One [pg 210] eye was engulfed deep in his head, the other protruded, his mouth met his ears, foam poured from his jaws like the fleece of a three-year-old wether. The beats of his heart sounded like the roars of a lion as he rushes on his prey. A light blazed above his head, and “his hair became tangled about as it had been the branches of a red thorn-bush stuffed into the gap of a fence.... Taller, thicker, more rigid, longer than the mast of a great ship was the perpendicular jet of dusky blood which out of his scalp's very central point shot upwards and was there scattered to the four cardinal points, whereby was formed a magic mist of gloom resembling the smoky pall that drapes a regal dwelling, what time a king at nightfall of a winter's day draws near to it.”148