The So-called “Maxims of the Fianna”, (pt. 1)

Several weeks ago, both sides in one of the many recent polytheistic scuffles tried to make their points using a bit of Irish myth/story called The Maxims of the Fianna.  Once again, my Fionn mac Cumhaill senses started tingling, especially since I didn’t need a thumb of wisdom to be suspicious…  The original source of this material is the 12th-century work known as Acallam na Senórach (“Colloquy of the Ancients”),  the most important text of the Fenian cycle.  Rolleston seems to be drawing from the O’Grady translation of 1892, which is outdated in many ways; he also interpolates the title “Maxims of the Fianna”- this designation isn’t in the O’Grady translation or the adaption by Lady Gregory in Gods and Fighting Men (a much more faithful and readable adaption, IMHO).

Any excuse to go and do some research!  Full disclosure-  I don’t have any appreciable Old or Middle Irish skills.  But it turns out that there is a much more recent translation available- Tales of the Elders of Ireland, by Ann Dooley and Harry Roe, so I snapped that up.  It’s a very good translation- flowing, almost terse, with vivid description that doesn’t founder in the purple prose of its Victorian predecessors.  The poetry is all translated, too (a lot of 19th and early 20th century translations of Irish material omit the poetry), albeit with no attempt to capture the meter and alliteration of the original.

Not that I didn’t have my problems with this edition- the translators chose to translate most of the names and titles out of the original Irish, rather than leave them in; I understand the reason for this but I’d have preferred them to be glossed.  The introduction basically ignores the mythic value of the tales to focus on history and politics, but this ends up being useful in its own way.  You have to strip away several layers of Christianity, Irish Church politics, and contemporary historical context to get at the meat of these tales, and the introduction helps.

And boy, do you need to strip away- there’s just so much Christian triumphalism and sanctimonious Patrick hagiography in it, as well as a fair bit of disrespectful treatment of the Tuatha Dé Danann.  That being said, there are some lovely stories here, and some of the most lovely praises of Fionn in the Fenian material.

Which gets us to the so-called “maxims”.  To make a long story short, Fionn’s grandson, Mac Lugach, is being a jerk to the rest of the Fianna, and they pressure Fionn to get him under control.  So Fionn sits the lad down and gives him some sage advice.  It’s not presented as a series of “maxims” or general rules for the Fianna- it’s personal advice.  Dooley and Roe place it in the “advice to princes” category of medieval Irish literature, and further point out that it’s specifically focused on the proper behavior of a young man in military service in a king’s household.  Thus, it’s not necessarily of relevance to a civilian (and seems a little… hierarchical… to be important to an anarchist activist) or even to a modern day soldier.

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be gained from it.  In my next post on the subject, I’ll cover that.

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: “Respect rather than politics; relationality rather than ethics; interpretation rather than scientific facts.” | The Words Swim, Waiting

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