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English 380: Read-along Questions for the first third of The Táin Bó Cuailnge (pp. 51-137 of the Kinsella translation)
bard, druid, folk epic, etiology, toponyms, warp-spasm
Character Identification: Queen Medb, King Ailill, Fergus mac Roich, Cathbad the Druid, Cúchulainn (Setente), Scathach, Aife, Emer, Connla, King Conchobor, the two pigkeepers, the Morrîgan
Other identifications of places and things: battle-feats, the white and brown bulls, the gae bolga, Teamhair (Tara), Emain Macha
NB: Setanta is the same character as Cúchulainn, it's just his boyhood name rather than his adult nick-name. Don't be confused by this!
- What are some possible remnants of ancient pagan fertility rites that still appear in The Tain?
- Why is the spancel-hoop appropriate as something to leave in the path of the on-coming warriors if you want to indicate they should stop their approach?
- What are some subtle signs of unified Celtic culture across Ireland, Britain, Scotland, and Europe that appear in this poem?
- To what degree does it make sense to read this section of The Táin as being a work focused on gender and the conflict of the sexes?
- Given the work's obsessive interest in spears and swords, with piercing and penetration, men fighting women, to what degree does it make sense to read The Táin as being a Freudian work? To what extent does the violence merely sublimated sex? To what extent is the sex merely sublimated violence?
- The story often pauses to provide etiologies--especially of toponyms. The action often pauses so the narrative voice can tell us how this hill, this town, this stream, or this ford got its name, and how that name connects with the events in the plot. Why do you suppose the poet emphasizes this? How does it connect with larger questions of Irish identity?
- What was Medb's nickname among the people of Connaght? (note the brief allusion to this on page 55).
The Pillow Talk and The Army Encounters Cúchulainn
- Explain how the quarrel erupts between King Ailill and Queen Medb.
- We read that the great White Bull, Finnbennach, was a calf originally in Medb's herd. According to the poet, why did it leave her herd and join the cattle of King Ailill?
- What does Queen Medb seek in order to "one-up" her husband?
- What does Medb promise Mac Roth if he will loan her his great Brown Bull in terms of land holdings? In terms of chariots? What is the final and third bribe she offers?
- Mac Roth is perfectly happy to loan his Bull--so what goes wrong to sour the deal Medb struck with him?
- When Medb sees the armies gathering, she states, "Everyone leaving a lover or a friend today will curse me . . . "This army is gathered for me" (60). How does this characterize Medb? Does she seem a positive or negative character? Do we sympathize with her or not?
- Why does Medb not want the north Leinster armies to accompany her? What does she suggest Ailill do with the Leinsterfolk if he can't take them along but can't leave them behind?
- Why can't the men of Ulster defend themselves from the approaching army? i.e., what supernatural ailment is afflicting them?