Thursday, June 20, 2024

Tain by Gregory Frost (1986), a review

Welcome to the field, ripe fruits.

What is the meaning of the stones? 
Why do they stand alone?

Put down your roots and grow here,

Wither and enrich our soil.

Spill your seeds in the delirium of battle.

Alone, here stands Ulster

Against all of golden Eriu, allied—

A division to outlast you.

It pleases us, your offer to pour out your blood

While your fundament fails,

Fertilizing your grave,

And we, ravens, pluck the savory, sightless eyes.

--Gregory Frost, Tain

The ancient Irish were badasses (as are some of the moderns, I know of one Murphy who will soon bloody your lip as buy you a Guinness). As Britain’s kingdoms fell one by one to Viking raiders until Alfred stood alone, the Norsemen were never able to break the men of Ulster. See April 23, 1014 and Clontarf.

When your national mythology is built on the likes of Cu Chulainn, warfare is in your blood.

But Ireland was also riven by internal strife. The same clannish fierceness that made the Celts resistant to Viking incursions turned on itself with petty squabbles and bloody feuds. All the way back to great conflicts fought between the legendary Firbolg and the godlike Tuatha De Danann.

To be honest, my knowledge of Irish Celtic mythology suffers next to classical Greek/Roman and Norse (half of it probably derives from AD&D's Deities and Demigods). But in my defense the Celts don’t have the same well-known body of rich literature as The Elder Edda or The Norse Sagas, or The Iliad, The Odyssey or Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Even Bulfinch’s Mythology, which spends most its page count on Greek and Roman stories, opts to cover Anglo-Saxon myths including tales of Old King Arthur, leaving the Irish cupboard bare.

Thank goodness for Gregory Frost’s Tain, which brings the old stories to life in an unforgettable way.

Deuce Richardson sent me a copy of this somewhat obscure 1986 title (Ace Fantasy, I believe just one printing though it’s now an ebook). And damn, I’m glad he did. It was an excellent read.

Frost breathes life into these old—very old--stories. That’s a bit of a clichéd phrase but apt in this instance. Tain is a book not of dry or distant myths but bright blood and lust and vengeance and humor and cutting wit, told with a compelling modern style. 

The women in this book… wow. Certainly three dimensional—lusty, prideful, headstrong, tough, ambitious, ruthless--just like their male counterparts, if not more so. The conflict and subsequent carnage stems from a pissing contest between Maeve, Queen of Connacht, and her husband Ailell. Maeve counts up her possessions against Ailell’s and finds them in balance—save that his herd includes the mystical blood red bull Finnbennach. To rectify this unforgivable sleight she orders a cattle raid on Ulster to steal Finnennach’s equal, the dark bull Donn. The army musters and marches. Standing in their way is the great hero Cu Chulainn, who holds a delaying action until the Ulstermen can get their shit together.

Adding further intrigue and a compelling love triangle is the hero Fergus mac Roich, who is openly sleeping with Maeve (she never turns a warrior away from her bed). Maeve’s advances grow so brazen that Ailell has no choice but to unman Fergus by stealing his legendary sword Leochain (there are many double entendres in this book, a sword is not just a sword, is it?)

Tain dips even further back into Celtic mythology with retellings of the tragedy of the impossibly beautiful Derdriu, the tale of the pigkeepers Friuch and Rucht, and the legend of the Amazon Queen Nessa. Frost connects these disparate stories with an interesting framing sequence: A creature of the faerie folk, Laeg of the Sidhe, emerges from a magic cauldron to show the old stories to the boy Senchan. The two wander through these great events as phantom observers with Laeg providing interpretation and light guidance. This was perhaps a slight weakness of the book but it does the job.

Tain is ripe with atmosphere and brings the Emerald Isle to life. We’re introduced to Cromlechs and sacrifices and torcs and all the cool trappings of the era. The Celtic Triple Goddess of war, fate, and death, the Morrigan--Morrigu, Badb, and Nemain—make a startling appearance on the battlefield. Druids also play a memorable and prominent role, bestowing geases with irresistible effect.

The heart of the book is the cattle raid, which is based on the single surviving example of Irish Celtic epic, the Tain Bo Cuailnge. Cu Chulainn is revealed as one of the great all-time heroes of his or any age, with feats of arms and battle prowess second to none. Codes of combat require that one Connacht hero challenge him at a time, and Cu Chulainn cuts them down like wheat, lopping off heads unnumbered until he encounters his near equal in a shallow river duel… but I won’t spoil it or the wonderous exploits therein. Go read Tain if you can find a copy.


Brian_tB said...

Brian - This looks like something I need to check out, I may have to settle for the eBook as this is probably too obscure to find in a used book shop.

Somehow this post reminded me of another title though, King of the Wood by Karl E Wagner. Every read it? I did a search of your site and didn't get a hit, would like to hear your thoughts.

Ian said...

Irish mythology is definitely underappreciated. It's probably my third favorite mythology after Greek and Norse. I actually own a translation of the Tain Bo Cuailnge and want to read it sometime. I generally prefer reading the original sources over modern retellings. Feels more authentic. I'm certainly not bashing Frost's novel, it's just personal preference.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Brian, I have not read that title… but I’m up for anything KEW so will seek it out.

Ian: I’m generally with you but a good adaptation like this lowers the bar to entry. I’d be curious to know how the original reads.

Revka said...

The gentleman's comment about likely needing to get the ebook because the physical copy will probably be too difficult to find prompted me to share my favorite resource for locating used books for sale online:

I selected the Used tab, entered Frost, Gregory in the author field and Tain in the title. Voila - multiple places to purchase this book. I look forward to reveling in its pages soon.

Thanks for sharing.

Brian Murphy said...

Whoa… the Revka made her way here?

Revka said...

I've been lurking and reading since I found your book and read your author bio that gave the link to this blog. 😂

Deuce said...

Glad you liked it, Brian! I have to say the cover for TAIN is underwhelming and the cover for the sequel, REMSCELA, is worse. Both deserved Maitz or FitzPatrick.

As I keep saying, Irish mythology can be as bloody and doomful as the Norse--with cooler monsters and more Otherworld action.

I have read several translations of the Tain and I still prefer to read Frost's version for pleasure. The Tain stands at the center of the entire Red Branch/Ulster Cycle with numerous prequels and interweavings. Frost handles all of that masterfully.

Senchan Torpeist, the viewpoint character in TAIN, was an actual Irish historical bard from the 7th century, I believe.

Brian Murphy said...

Revka: :) Hope you enjoy my ramblings here as well, decidedly of a different subject matter than LinkedIn.

Deuce: Thanks again for the recommendation man. Yeah, the cover is pretty weak, a swirling melee with Cu Chulainn at the center would have been better.