Some Penguins feel so right when they finally happen that you wonder how you ever got along without them. A perfect example of this would be the 2008 Penguin Classic of Ciaran Carson’s 2007 translation of the great Irish epic The Tain (the mightiest branch of the Ulster Cycle); Carson’s version was pretty much immediately hailed as the best one ever made into English, and its enshrinement in the Penguin Classics series seems so perfect, almost so pre-ordained, that seeing it just makes the reader smile.
It certainly makes this reader smile. The Tain is as odd and complicated and seemingly contradictory as the ancient people it represents, and like most fans of its bloody-minded, sarcastic world, I’ve read a bunch of translations over the decades. Ciaran Carson’s is the only one of them that actually beats Thomas Kinsella’s version for liveliness and readability – no small feat, since Kinsella’s book is also brilliant.
This is of course the story of Queen Medb of Connacht, whose burning desire to steal the fabled Brown Bull of Cuailnge leads to a full-fledged war-party invading Ulster, which is defended by the lone teen-dream hero Cu Chulainn, who regularly protests that he’s a peaceful young man, that he has no wish to kill anybody – and yet who racks up a body-count far surpassing that of Achilles and almost entering Samson-territory. Cu Chulainn has vaguely supernatural strength, and he’s certainly cunning, and when the battle-rage overtakes him, he’s a virtual avatar of destruction:
In that great Massacre on Muirthemne Plain Cu Chulainn slew seven score and ten kings as well as innumerable dogs and horses, women and children, not to mention underlings and rabble; and not one man in three escaped without a staved head, or a broken leg, or a burst eye, or without being scarred for life in some other way. And Cu Chulainn came away from that encounter without so much as a scrape or scratch on himself, or his man, or his horses.
But those are the fun bits – any translator of the Tain must also deal with the, shall we say, Homeric bits of cataloging that you’ll find in virtually all epic literature. Carson bends to this thankless task with unflagging energy, not that even he can make much of stuff like this:
No body-count was made of the common soldiery, so we have no way of knowing how many died in total. Only their leaders were accounted for. These are the names of their chiefs and commanders: two Cruaids, two Calads, two Cirs, two Ciars, two Ecells, three Croms, three Cauraths, three Combirges, four Feochars, four Furachars, four Casses, four Fotas, five other Cauraths, five Cermans, five Cobthachs, six Saxans, six Dachs, six Daires, seven Rochaids, seven Ronans, seven Rurthechs, eight Rochlads, eight Rochtads, nine other Daires, nine Damachs, ten Fiacs, ten Fiachas and ten Fedelmids.
But oh! The joyous volume he makes of the whole thing combined! The Tain is a rapturous, uproarious mixture of prose and fevered poetry, of high, subtle thinking and graphic, staggering violence (Cu Chulainn has a special weapon, for instance, whose effect on its victims would have to wait a thousand years to be matched by poor laggard reality) – it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, in other words. It’s fitting that Penguin Classics should finally serve it up in a beautiful little edition, and it’s a perfect fit that they should find Carson’s translation and give it the immortality it deserves. If you’re interested in trying this particular epic, this is the place to do it.