The Good, the Bad and the Irish: Beowulf & Cuchulainn
by Varda with responses
I have often commented that Tolkien did not seem to take anything from
the great Irish myth cycle, The Tain (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) or its
Last week I had to go down to Ardee, south of the border in the
Republic of Ireland.
I drove through the rolling pastureland of Louth, following the path
that legends tells us the army of Ulster took as it marched South from
Cooley to attack the army of Connaught.
When the two hosts drew up opposite each other at Ardee, it was settled
that the battle would be decided by a fight between the two champions,
Cuchulainn for Ulster and Ferdia for Connaught.
Now Cuchulainn and Ferdia were great friends. They had been reared and
trained together as foster brothers. For three days they fought, with
great skill in arms and ferocity, and each night they camped together
and bound up each other's wounds. On the fourth day Cuchulainn said;
'Let's finish this' But Ferdia replied; 'I can't'; I have sworn
allegiance to Queen Maeve.' Maeve was Queen of Connaught and
Cuchulainn's great enemy.
A coolness fell on the friendship then. The next day they fought with
even greater ferocity, and when Ferdia wounded Cuchulainn in the leg,
the Ulster hero called for his legendary spear, the Gae Bolga. He threw
the spear and killed Ferdia.
At once Cuchulainn suffered terrible remorse; he picked up Ferdia and
carried his body across the river, so that in death he would gain that
bank he strove in vain to win in life.
The name Ardee in Irish is Atha Fhirdia, the Ford of Ferdia. It is
literally a one-street town. After I completed my business I walked
down the street and over the ancient bridge. There is a great castle
there, as Ardee guarded the Pale. In a little park beside the river
there is a bronze statue of Cuchulainn carrying his friend. On his face
is an expression that seems to say 'I got what I wanted and now I don't
When Tolkien came to create his hero Frodo, he did not model him on the
glory-seeking Cuchulainn, who kills his own friend, but on another
ancient hero of saga, Beowulf.
The Cuchulainn myth cycle was written from 700 AD onwards, but refers
to a much older Ireland, the Iron Age of warring pagan chieftains. They
are contemporary with the ancient Greeks, to whom they refer. Beowulf,
however, was written in the 10th century, a time of Saxons and Vikings,
of an ebb and flow of peoples and the arrival of Christianity.
Cuchulainn had only one aim; to attain glory. He tells the men of
'I do not care if I live for but a night and a day so long as my deeds
are known through all the world forever'. Ties of family and friends
can not be allowed to get in the way.
But as Robert Goldberg points out in his essay 'Frodo as Beowulf' in
this August's issue of Mallorn, the ideal of hero that Tolkien chose
was that of the Anglo-Saxon hero;
'Though clearly not Anglo-Saxon, Frodo represents the Anglo-Saxon
heroic ideal portrayed in Beowulf. Tolkien, consciously or not, took
the heroic characteristics of Beowlf and transferred them into the
character of Frodo'.
These characteristics are ; 'courage, generosity and loyalty (which
worked in both directions). '
Although these are quintessentially the qualities of the warrior,
Goldberg shows how Frodo possesses them; 'while Beowulf fearlessly
faces all manner of evil, Frodo shows an all too mortal fear...'
But courage is 'the victory of will, of self-control, over normal or
natural responses' (like the desire to run away!) and Frodo is more
than a standard hero because he confronts 'his own inner demon, the
power of the Ring..'
Frodo is also generous, because he has 'generoisty of spirit and power
of forgiveness' He gives not money, but the gift of life, to Gollum on
several occasions. And to his people he gives survival.
And Frodo is loyal; he celebrates Bilbo's birthday long after his uncle
has left the Shire. He is loyal to his promise to take the Ring to
Mordor. And he inspires loyalty to himself, from his kinsmen, from Sam
and from Aragorn.
The Beowulf hero boasts about his powers. Frodo is very timid and
self-effacing. But in a way he seeks fame too; when he says 'I will
take the Ring' at the council, as Goldberg says;'in the ears of those
at the council particularly Elrond, this boast had as much power and
force behind it as did Beowulf's boast'
In seeking the high opinion of Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel and Aragorn,
too, Frodo is looking for a kind of fame, the high opinion of a few
very special people.
The only quality that Cuchulainn shares with this hero is the desire
for fame. As a boy he hears his trainer, the legendary woman warrior
Scatha, predict that he will gain great glory and die young. Thrilled,
Cuchulainn sets out to attain this dream. But as he hacks his way to
fame, events happen that cause him to wonder at the morality of it all.
The king he serves, Conor, tricks and kills the sons of Uisneach, and
in grief Deirdre kills herself. Cuchulainn is involved and partly to
'All his life he had honoured Conor both as his king and as his foster
father and he had never had any reason to withdraw that respect - until
Naoise and his brothers were tricked into returning. Then they were
waylaid and killed by Conor and his men. Finally Deirdre, mad with
grief, had killed herself.
For a long time after Deirdre's death Cuchulainn felt sullen and
melancholy. He was bitter. How could he have gone through life for so
long and not even have had the slightest sense that these sorts of
difficulties were lying in wait for him? He had been a fool and an
idiot not to foresee them. He hated himself for his stupidity and for
his failure to anticipate. He could only sit and wait and hope that
with the passing of time the power of these dark events would wither.
And until that happened he realised that for the first time in his
short life, he would simply have to accept that he was unhappy.'
(Carlos Gebler; The Bull Raid, Ps.195/6)
Cuchulainn has found out that fame alone, without friendship, loyalty
and community, is a hollow thing.
The key word is community. Beowulf wants glory, but his deeds of arms
are tied into serving his people, as Cuchulainn's are not. Similarly,
Frodo sets out to destroy the Ring in order to save the Shire. But
Cuchulainn only wants glory; if Ulster benefits from his feats of arms,
that is a more or less unintended bonus.
In Beowulf, at the hero's funeral an old woman wails because with
Beowulf gone their community has been left without its defender;
'She sorely dreaded for herself evil days
Many slaughters, terror of warriors
Humilation and captivity'
One suspects that when Cuchulainn was killed the old women - and the
young ones too - heaved a sigh of relief.
Perhaps however Cuchulainn is closer to the truth about fame. You can't
single-mindedly pursue fame without trampling over your friends, family
and community. Beowulf might have been more noble, but he was also
doomed. As the poem says, there is no-one to replace him; no-one like
him. After his death, his people, the Geats, are 'troubled in mind,
bereft of gold, treading foreign lands'
That is, they are dispirited, broke, and in exile. After Cuchulainn's
death, Ulster goes on the same, and other heroes arise. Because he is
all in all to his people Beowulf in some strange way takes them with
him to his doom.
In another essay in August's Mallorn (it was a particularly good one
wink ) 'I Have Looked The Last On That Which Is Fairest; Elegy in
Beowulf and Tolkien's Lothlorien' Leigh Smith says;
' Beowulf... is suffused with wistfulness'. This is the last hero of a
people about to disappear from history, in a language about to also
disappear. It is what Leigh calls 'heroic-elegiac', just as The Lord of
The Rings is.
'Like the kingdom of the Geats, Tolkien's whole marvellous, intricate
structure has been reared to be destroyed, that we may regret it...'
Cuchulainn and his story cycle, on the other hand, has proved
remarkably indestructible. Unlike Anglo-Saxon its language, Irish, is
spoken still, and the stories inspire many re-tellings. Cuchulainn
himself is claimed as a national symbol by Eire and by both sides of
the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland today. Although less noble, he
has proven more popular. Maybe not a role model for Tolkien, Cuchulainn
inspired other literary figures like Yeats and gave rise to the 'Celtic
As the Geatish woman's lament shows, after Beowulf dies, there will
never be another such hero, and his people are in danger of being
overwhelmed. But at the end of The Lord of The Rings, although tinged
with a great sense of loss, of the Elves and of the Fellowship of the
Ring, yet the community is intact; the Shire is saved.
Frodo does indeed go away, not into death but into a mysterious
destination in the West, but he leaves his country to flourish. In that
he IS like Cuchulainn, who leaves his country intact and safe when he
dies. Both Frodo and Cuchulainn leave a legacy of bravery and a
terrific story of great deeds, to encourage and inspire their peoples.
Thankyou for sharing your impressions of
Cuchulainn with us.
My feeling of the LOTR was that it was an Age of Men tale with the
Prologue :" Even in the ancient days they were,as a rule,shy of the
'Big Folk', as they call us,
and now they avoid us
with dismay and are becoming hard to find." PJ makes it start with an
elf voice so the Grey Havens ending gives it a different flavour.
I think the heroes in the story all share their strength and victories:
Frodo/Gollum destroy the ring
Aragorn/Frodo in the battles
There isn't an individual who stands supreme as in Beowulf.
Even though Frodo and the elves leave, there has been a 'return of
the king' and the land is in stable hands not left to be over-run by
hordes.With the prologue completing the ring leading back to the 'us'
who don't sound threatened but secure to tell a story of our ancestors.
Merry Christmas Varda, I'm just being brave here and sticking my neck
Reply from Varda:
Many thanks, Beruthiel, and I do
appreciate you responding! and sticking your neck out, but I do agree
with what you say.
The only thing is, I do believe that there is something special about
Frodo. He is just that bit different, he has some heroic quality that
is not just like the heroism of Aragorn or Eomer. They, after all, are
great big hunks. But Frodo is a little guy with huge courage, so I
think he is really in a class of his own....but the others are
It just occurred to me also, that
assumed that his route to the foretold fame was via killing others.
Seems a narrow sort of assumption, somehow.
I do love your musings, Varda. I do have
time thinking of a Saxon warrior as being similar to a Hobbit but I
actually wrote an essay about Beowulf in an undergrad English class
and, like you say, he certainly knew how to be polite and respectful
and wasn't a boaster like Cu and Beowulf put the good of his community
above that of himself or any desire for fame.
Tolkien certainly took a lot from the Norse myths, too! Check out this
decription of Baldur...
The second son of Odin is Baldr, and
good things are to be said of him. He is best, and all praise him; he
is so fair of feature, and so bright, that light shines from him. A
certain herb is so white that it is likened to Baldr's brow; of all
grasses it is whitest, and by it thou mayest judge his fairness, both
in hair and in body. He is the wisest of the Æsir, and the
fairest-spoken and most gracious; and that quality attends him, that
none may gainsay his judgments. He dwells in the place called
Breidablik, which is in heaven; in that place may nothing unclean be[.]
- Brodeur's translation
A white herb! A place where nothing unclean can be! Also, Frodo is
decribed as "Fair" by Tolkien. I always thought that meant fair of face
but it probably means more than that, too.
To my thought, Beowulf and Frodo don't
much in common at all... but that is not what caught my attention here,
rather it was 'I got what I wanted
and now I don't want it'.
It sounds to me that the fate of Cuchulainn was not that different from
that of Saruman, or perhaps even Grima to a lesser degree - there have
been many of these throughout history, both real and mythical; those
who strove for power and fame and were willing to kill to get it,
ending up with nothing and less than nothing, unmourned by those they
hoped to be worshipped by. Saruman lost so much, in his fall. When his
spirit rose up and turned to the west before dissolving away with a
sigh, was it only then that the magnitude of his fall was realized?