As I'm working through my translation of Táin Bó Cúailnge Recension 1, a few
things have occurred to me. I've read in several places the idea that the
Táin is the original story of the Ulster Cycle - it came first, and the rest
of the cycle grew around it. I'm not sure I entirely agree with that. I
suspect there was an earlier cycle of tales centred on Ulster under
Conchobar, with Conall Cernach as the main hero, but I think the Táin is the
point where Cú Chulainn took over the cycle and came to dominate it. Conall
is Kay to Cú Chulainn's Gawain. In the early Welsh Arthurian tales, Cei is
the hero. When Gawain is introduced, the best way to make him seem
impressive is to have him make Kay look like an idiot. So Kay becomes the
man who looks like an idiot next to Gawain. I think the same thing happened
with Conall and Cú Chulainn.
I suspect that Cú Chulainn was originally a fairly minor character, the hero
of the "original" Táin Bó Cúailnge in which a surprise attack is thwarted by
a lone young warrior who holds up the army by demanding single combat,
surviving long enough to allow his king to raise an army. His ordeal
probably lasted only a few days, at the end of which he was probably killed.
There are verses in Cath Ruis na Ríg referring to a warrior being killed on
the Táin, once of the reasons Conchobar wants revenge on Ailill and Medb.
Also, there is a passage in the Táin where his enemies send a satirist to
try to shame Cú Chulainn into giving up his spear, only for Cú Chulainn to
kill him with it. The same thing happens three times in Aided Con Culainn,
which makes me think that Cú Chulainn's death tale was elaborated from an
episode in the original Táin. The Morrígan's appearance before the fight
with Lóch also seems to signify an imminent death.
Cú Chulainn was not originally the son of Lug. His name was Cú Chulaind mac
Sualtaim, but his father was not a significant character - in the surviving
stories, whenever he is mentioned his name is given in the nominative as
Sualtaim or Sualdaim, identical to the genitive in Cú Chulainn's patronymic.
This indicates that the original nominative was forgotten, the character was
a back-formation from the patronymic, and that the patronymic was
well-known. In the early version of Compert Con Culainn, which is agreed to
date from the 8th century, earlier than the existing Recension 1, his
begetting by Lug is vague, tentative and not quite coherent, and revised in
later versions, suggesting the story was perhaps new and not quite worked
out at this point. The passage of the Táin where Lug appears and heals Cú
Chulainn is universally agreed to be linguistically late (andn I believe a
deliberate Christian allusion: Cú Chulainn's three day helplessness, healing
by a divine father, and spectacular return to the fray are an allusion to
the death and resurrection of Christ, an advertisement for Christianity
inserted into a popular story).
The story and it's hero became popular, and Cú Chulainn was given a divine
father, a miraculous childhood and a prophesy of early death. Storyellers
gradually expanded the sequence of single combats, telling new stories of
how a local boy joined Ailill and Medb's army and ended up fighting and
being killed Cú Chulainn. So Medb's army was expanded to include contingents
from all over Ireland, the story went from taking place over a few days to
lasting six months, and the cess noinden, a rather ill-developed idea, was
invented to explain why Conchobar took so long to gather his army. Then Cú
Chulainn is allowed to buy off the Morrígan and survive, sitting out the
final battle wounded, and finally taking the field to save the day. A new
death-tale, based on the original Táin, followed, as did further adventures.
Another thought that occurred to me is about Cú Chulainn's name. The story
of him gaining his name by killing the watchdog of Culann the smith seems
like a folk etymology to me. Alan Bruford ("Why an Ulster Cycle" in Ulidia:
Proceedings of the First International Conference on the Ulster Cycle of
Tales) suggests he was originally a local hero, "the hound of Collon"
(Collon is a village near Monasterboice in County Louth, in the general area
he first encounters the invaders). I would point out that the very first
place he appears is called Irard Cuilend (identified by a gloss as Crossa
Cáil, Crossakiel near Kells in County Meath).
That's my impression of how the Táin and the Ulster Cycle developed, based
on working with the text of TBC Recension 1. Anyone have any thoughts/notice