The Problem of Diarmuid and Grainne

As a devotee of Fionn MacCumhaill, I’m always happy to find books dealing with his legends (and those of the Fianna in general).  So I was very happy the other day when Monster Alice pointed out a lovely book to me in a used book store:  Dermot of the Bright Weapons.  It’s about Diarmuid Ua Duibhne, one of the most famous of Fionn’s Fianna.  The illustrations were just beautiful, and it was in decent shape for something published over 75 years ago, so I snapped it up.

Half the book is devoted to possibly the most famous story of Diarmuid, Tóraigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne (“The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne”).  In short, it goes like this:  Gráinne is betrothed to Fionn.  She doesn’t want to marry a man old enough to be her grandfather, so puts Diarmuid under geasa to elope with her.  Fionn pursues them, although the sentiments of the Fianna are more inclined to the eloped couple.  Lots of adventures happen, then Aenghus Og (Diarmuid’s foster father) intercedes and makes peace.  But some years later, Fionn and Diarmuid are on a boar hunt, and when the boar gores Diarmuid, Fionn refuses to heal him and lets him die.

I’ve never been happy with this story.  It casts Fionn as the villain- he acts completely inconsistently with his character in other stories.  I have to remind myself that I’m looking at these stories as myth- and in myths, gods and heroes and other Powers often act in ways that aren’t right by human standards.  Myths aren’t about us, they’re about the Powers, so our values don’t necessarily apply.

A lot of the literary use of this story frustrates me, though.  It got sentimentalized  by a number of the “Celtic Twilight” authors;  the retellings of the story have a tendency to focus on the romantic love aspects, an anachronism at least, and make Fionn out to be some sort of vengeful ogre.   Gráinne tends to come out looking pretty bad, too. But if you remember some other aspects of Diarmuid’s background, the bones of the story become a spare, harsh, but beautifully complete tragedy:

  1. Diarmuid is under a divine curse that he will be killed by a magical boar.
  2. He has a “love spot” which makes him irresistible to women who see it.
  3. Gráinne is fine with being betrothed to Fionn (a grandfather back then wouldn’t necessarily be all that old… and remember what Kissinger said about power).
  4. But she sees Diarmuid’s love spot and falls for him.
  5. She puts him under geasa to elope with her.
  6. Fionn quite justifiably pursues them.
  7. Aonghus Og makes peace, but Fionn still bears a grudge (understandable).
  8. Fionn tries to keep Diarmuid from going on the boar hunt by telling him about the divine curse.
  9. Diarmuid ignores the warning (hubris, a classic tragic flaw) and is gored by the magical boar.
  10. Fionn’s grudge and the curse combine and Diarmuid dies.
  11. In some versions of the story, Gráinne forgives Fionn and ends up back with him.  If she was under an enchantment (from the “love spot”) all along, this makes a lot more sense.

Stripped of all the nonsense, this is a compelling and heartrending story, and works much better as a myth.  It’s not a happy story, but that’s not what myths are for.

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