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 hero, Cuchulainn.

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 want it'

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 Ulster;
'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 blame.

'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'
(3150-5)

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 Twilight'.

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.

Response by Beruthiel:

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
Gandalf/ eagles
Theoden/ ents
Eowyn/Merry
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 out.

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 courageous too.


Response from sarahstitcher:

It just occurred to me also, that Cuchulainn assumed that his route to the foretold fame was via killing others. Seems a narrow sort of assumption, somehow.


Response from Orangeblossom Took:

I do love your musings, Varda. I do have a hard 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.

Response from Primula:

To my thought, Beowulf and Frodo don't have 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?