The Champion’s Portion 6

Chapter Six

That first night, the three heroes were invited to partake of a fine feast but they had to remain alone in the closed partition. As soon as the food and drink were laid out and the slaves withdrew, a monstrous cave cat from the Sídhe mountains suddenly appeared, its malevolent yellow eyes and teeth gleaming wickedly in the fire and candlelight.

With a bound, both Conall and Laoghaire leapt from their benches to the rafters overhead, abandoning both weapons, food and drink in their haste to avoid the furious attack of the great beast.

Cú Chulainn remained calmly seated at the bench and when the beast stalked nearer, preparing to pounce, Cú Chulainn swiftly drew his sword and slashed at the snarling cat. The iron blade clashed harshly as if he had struck stone and the keen blade slid off the beast’s shoulders.  

The cat remained transfixed in a baleful crouch but evinced no further movement.  Cú Chulainn remained seated and watchful but availed himself to the full of the prepared food and drink.

As sunrise penetrated gaps in the shingled roof overhead, the monstrous beast bestirred itself and vanished as abruptly as it had first appeared just as Ailil swept into the room before Laoghaire and Conall could descent from the rafters where they had spent an uncomfortable and hungry night.

‘Well then?’ inquired Ailil, ‘does that not suffice?  Surely you have your champion here?’

‘Not so,’ insisted Laoghaire.  ‘Indeed,’ added Conall, ‘it is not against beasts that we are competing but in the strife of combat and battle that we seek a judgement.’

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On the second night, Ailil directed them to the valley of Ercol where they had to fight the black spirits of the Tuatha Dé Danann which guarded it.  Laoghaire went first but could not withstand their assault and fled, leaving his weapons and his chariot there. Conall was served a similar fate and was driven back, barely managing to hold on to his spear.

At the sight of Cú Chulainn, the dread shapes screamed and hissed as they attacked him, hacking at his shield and cloak until both were dented and rent, and his spear blunted.  The black shapes swarmed around him, thrusting and slashing and Laeg braced himself before screaming out, ‘Cú Chulainn, is that the best you can do, you pathetic little bollix, if you let a few empty cloaks get the better of you.’ 

Spurred on by his servant’s words, Cú Chulainn felt the blood course more violently through his veins, pumping him up so that the hair on his head sparkled with energy and light. He bounded forward with renewed valour at the spirits and slashed and stabbed and thrust and stamped forward until he was alone in a pool of black blood but with the trapping of his friends.

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On the third night, Ercol, lord of the valley, challenged each of them to single combat on horseback.  Laoghaire was first to be unseated and Ercol’s horse killed his mount and he fled from the valley back to Crúachan as soon as the beating he received allowed.

Conall also was forced to retire and his horse killed too.

The Grey of Macha killed Ercol’s horse with its mighty iron shod hooves and Cú Chulainn defeated Ercol and bound him by the neck to the back of his horse and set out for Crúachan.

‘Well,’ said Ailil, knowing full well that whatever he decided, nothing would please all three men in front of him. ‘That’s clear, then, isn’t it?  I mean, from what you told me and from what I can see, I award the Champion Portion to Cú Chulainn.’

‘Hold on there just a moment,’ insisted Laoghaire.  ‘We’re not here to fight against wild beasts or the folk of the Tuatha Dé Danann or the Sídhe for it is well known that Cú Chulainn has connections with that lot.’

‘He’s right,’ rumbled Conall, ‘The Champion’s Portion is about battle valour and we haven’t seen hide nor hair of that yet.’

The Champion’s Portion 5

Chapter Five

‘Did you see that?’ Medb, wife of Ailil, king of Connachta, demanded, as the weapons hanging on the wall shifted imperceptibly as if the wall was vibrating.

She stood up, alarmed now at the noise of thunder despite the fact that the sky was clear.

‘Quick, Findabair, go up to your tower and tell me what you can see.’

Findabair, Medb’s daughter scampered up the steps and peered out over the plain before Crúachan.

‘There are chariots tearing along towards us. Two dappled greys are pulling the first polished wicker chariot with large black wheels, its yoke silver mounted.  The warrior has long, curling, fair hair and a forked beard.  A short red cloak, gold striped, billows from his shoulders.  He holds a bronze shield and a five-pronged javelin and there are feathers in his cap.’

‘If he’s coming in anger we are doomed,’ Medb cried, ‘for that sounds like Laoghaire of the red hands.  He will slice us down like you slice a leek at its base unless we make every effort to appease him.  Who else do you see?’

‘A roan and a bay pull another finely carved wicker and wooden chariot.  Like the other, the yoke is silver mounted but the wheels are bound in bronze.  The warrior has wavy brown hair and his cloak is of blue and red, a heavy wooden shield with bronze bosses, and a mighty spear are in his hand.’

‘That must be Conall and as easily as you cut a fish with a sharp knife, will he disembowel each and every one of us that he finds here if we don’t mollify him.  Is there anyone else?’

‘Two stallions, a grey and a black, pull a chariot with iron bound, yellow wheels. The yoke is silver with bronze mountings.  The warrior is a small, dark man, eyebrows black as soot but his teeth gleam like pearls. A crimson shield hangs from his shoulders and he grips a long iron sword. Javelins and spears jut from the high sides of his chariot.’

‘Those other two are the drops before the shower, for that can only be Cú Chulainn,’ Medb said.  ‘Like a ten spoked mill grinds very fine, so too shall we be if we do not accord with his demands.    Make preparations and prepare to receive these mighty warriors of the Ulaidh and let us hope that they come in peace.  Send out a troop of slave girls, comely in looks, full breasted and bare to the waist, along with their brats as well and get ready to serve strong drink.’

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Medb and Ailil waited on the dais in the central room of the great hall at Crúachan for the arrival of the heroes and warriors, for close behind Cú Chulainn, Conall and Laoghaire had arrived a cohort from Eamhain Macha, led by Conor, Fergus and Sencha, Ailil’s own son.

The bench on which they sat had silver designs chased on its front, framed in bronze and looked down on the main hearth but was screened off from the main section of the hall by a partition of red yew with carved bronze facings to waist height.

Overhead, triple bands of polished bronze, running through the roof beams of oak, caught the light from the hearth and reflected it back down on the royal couple so that they appeared bathed in its warm hue.

As musicians played, the might of the Ulaidh strode into the hall at the far end to where Ailil and Medb sat. A great feast for the noble visitors was proclaimed and at the end of three days of feasting and drinking, Ailil finally ventured to enquire as to the nature of their visit.

‘It’s like this,’ said Conor, leaning forward confidentially, ‘That bollix Bricriu, you know who I mean, the one over there with the long puss on him, well, you know he loves to stir up a bit enmity, just for the sake of it, curse him.’ 

‘I know what you mean,’ Ailil nodded, ‘we have a few like that the same.’

‘Anyway, didn’t the eejit promise the champion’s portion to each of my three lads and now, of course, they are bickering and quarrelling among themselves.’

‘And as if that is not bad enough,’ Fergus added, ‘their women are now involved, the bitches fighting over who has precedence over who at the feasts, if you don’t mind!’

Ailil remained silent for a moment before looking at Conor.

‘And why have you come here to me, then?’ He said quietly.

‘Well, we thought that with the three heroes’ rivalry for the champion’s portion and the ladies rivalry for precedence within Eamhain Macha, we thought you might be the best impartial judge of the matter.’

‘But what has it got to do with Ailil and Connachta?’ Medb demanded.  ‘Why should we earn the enmity of your champions by raising one above all?’

Sencha turned towards his father.

‘You really would be the best judge for all know of your moderation and we need to resolve this issue because the boy troop in the Craobh Ruadh need a model to aspire to.’

‘Well,’ his father considered, ‘I’ll have to think about it for it is not a task lightly undertaken.  I’ll need at least three nights and that’s the best I can do.’

Conor leaned forward and grasped Ailil by the forearm.  ‘This will be a seal of our friendship if you do this thing for us,’ he said quietly.

Standing up, the nobles thanked Ailil and Medb, cursed Bricriu for he had caused the quarrels between the heroes and their women and commended their champions into the hands of a rival king.

The Champion’s Portion 4

Chapter Four

No sooner had they left Dun Rudraige and returned to Eamhain Macha, than the old quarrel over the champion’s portion broke out again so much so that Conor, exasperated by the whole affair, ordered the three foremost heroes, Laoghaire the Triumphant, Conall the Victorious and Cú Chulainn, the Hound of the North, to travel to the far southern kingdom of Da Mumhainn to seek the judgement of Cu Roi mac Dáire at Sliabh Mis.  

‘You can be sure,’ Fergus added, ‘that it is a fair judgement you will get there from him for it is well known that he is just and fair-minded but it will be a brave man who questions him for he is well versed in enchantments and mysteries long forgotten, even by the Tuatha de Danamm, and he can do things that no other man can do.’

‘You should go first to my father, Ailil, king of Connachta for that is on your path,’ Sencha advised, ‘for the way to Da Mumhainn is long and treacherous, for you must go on the wooden plank road over the bogs.’

‘So be it,’ Cú Chulainn said, clapping his hands together.  ‘Let us get our horses yoked to the chariots but I would lifer Laoghaire go last as everyone knows his style of driving does not permit others to accompany him both for the clumsiness of his horses and the unsteadyness of his chariot.’

‘You’re right there,’ Conall agreed, ‘and besides, if we let him go first, the ruts his wheels churn up in the turf make tracks not easily followed for more than a season after he has passed that way.’

‘Ah, don’t be jeering out of you at me for that,’ Laoghaire snapped. ‘You both know I am quick enough to cross the fords and watercourses, to storm the shield wall and to outstrip all the warriors of Eamhain Macha, so don’t go comparing me with famed chariot men until I get more practice steering and racing through hard and rocky defiles until I gain the master hand,’

and he leapt unto his chariot and urged Sedlang to lash the horses on their way.  

Not to be out done, Conall followed suit at once but Sétanta dallied where he was, a beaker of wine at his elbow, amused by the chatter of the ladies and amusing them by juggling nine apples above his head never letting the one touch another nor letting one fall to the ground before doing the same with nine feather darts and nine bone handled knives, the iron blades flashing in the morning sun.

Meanwhile, Sedlang urged the grey mares westwards over the slopes of Brega until on a perilous descent from the heights, Laoghaire motioned for the charioteer to slow down as a thick, dank mist enveloped them, making it too risky to proceed.

‘Better stop here,’ Laoghaire ventured, pulling his cloak tighter around him as he surveyed the dismal scene.

Sedlang nodded as he attended to the horse, unyoking them from the chariot and leading them over to some stunted plants in the lee of the cliff.  Startled by his approach, a surly brute emerged from a fissure in the cliff where he had been sleeping. 

Grotesque in both size and deformity, the giant had a patch of coarse black hair growing down in a peek over his forehead which was large and bulbous.  Small close-set eyes glared above a loose, fleshy mouth. Bunched hairy shoulders supported a roughly hewn club while a kilt of crudely tanned skins hung to knees over broad spatulate feet.

‘Whose horse them be?’ He grunted at Sedlang.

Sedlang glanced over his shoulders for Laoghaire, before answering ‘The horses of Laoghaire.

’Ahh, fine fellow he is,’ said the brute, before suddenly swinging his huge cudgel at Sedlang knocking him sideways powerfully.

Laoghaire saw his servant fall from the corner of his eye and he bounded over.

‘What did you do that for?’ He demanded.

The brute eyed Laoghaire furiously.  

‘For the damage ye have done to my property,’ he snarled, before swinging his fearsome club again and laying Laoghaire low.

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Laeg, concerned about the amount of time Cú Chulainn was spending with the ladies, yoked the horses and stacked Cú Chulainn’s weapons in the chariot, before going over to him. 

‘You’re a right eejit, you know, squinting away here at the girls while those other two have gone on ahead of you.  I thought you wanted the champion’s portion.’

‘You’re right,’ Cú Chulainn said, ‘come on, Let’s go.’

Crossing Magh Brega, Laeg gave the horses their head so that they seemed to fly across the whole kingdom of the Ulaidh before beginning their descent in the darkness.

Laeg reined in and eased the Grey and the Dubh into a gentle walk as the dark fog closed in around them. No sooner had he unyoked the horses than a burly figure emerged from the mist. Gross and muscular, the giant held a heavy cudgel over one massive shoulder from which hung a rank kilt barely covering his rump, 

‘Whose horses them be?’ He demanded, nodding at the two stallions

‘They belong to Cú Chulainn,’ Laeg said, leaping back out of range of the giant’s club and calling out for his master. Cú Chulainn was there instantly, standing proudly between his charioteer and the brute.

‘What is it that you want?’

‘Reparation for the damage you have done,’ snarled the giant.

‘Well, take this then,’ smiled Cú Chulainn and in one fluid motion he had plucked the long sword which hung at his side and sliced the giant across the back of his legs, toppling him forward so that he could more conveniently lop the brute’s head off.

Almost instantly, the fog dissipated and Laeg was amazed to find no trace of the giant but in its place, the puzzled looking Laoghaire and Conall as well who appeared to be waking up from a deep sleep, curled beside their patiently waiting horses.

‘What class of enchantment is this?’ Conall demanded, sitting up and rubbing his eyes.  

‘We must have met some of Setanta’s Sídhe friends, I think,’ muttered Laoghaire.

But Laeg could help but notice as the trio rode on towards Crúachan the large bruises they both bore, evidence of the giant’s club.

The Champion’s Portion 3

Chapter Three

Bricriu cursed as he crept back from the edge of the loft from where he had been looking down at the tumult the demand for the Champion’s portion had caused.  The feasting had resumed and the men had made a circle around the fire and strong drink continued to soothe fierce spirits.

‘Bad cess to the lot of them, he swore, if they think that that was the best of my needles between their ribs.  If I can’t get the men to fight, perchance I may fare better with the ladies coming to blows for, as fierce as their men are, the women are as lusty and as savage as their men.’

Just then, he caught sight of Fedelma returning from the privy and he moved quickly to intercept her.

‘All good things be with you, Fedelma of the Bright Heart, wife of Laoghaire.  Truly I see that your name does you justice for your fresh heart can be seen in your open face and fine form.  I would be honoured if you, Fedelma, consort of Laoghaire the Triumphant first enter the hall leading the ladies at your heel when you to join the men. First among all women you shall be on entering so from here on’. Bricriu moved on, leaving the girl staring after him.

Lendabair, daughter of Eoghean mac Durthtacht, wife of Conall Cernach of the Victories was next and Bricriu determined to lay it on thick for Lendabair was already vain of her own standing among the women, having only recently become Conall’s woman.

‘Greeting Lendabair, most favoured of all women for your beauty and attributes. Just as your man, Conall is head and shoulders above all other men, so too are you above all other women of the kingdom and you would do me great honour if you were to lead the ladies of the Ulaidh into the hall later tonight.’

Emer was surprised to find Bricriu standing beside her.

‘Fair Emer, daughter of the shrewd Forgall, wife of the champion foretold in the ancient prophecies, whose name will live on in songs and of praise signifying great acts, you outshine the very stars we look upon this evening.  It is no surprise that might lords and kings, Lugaid and Erc among them, have contested for your hand.  Just as the sun outshines the very stars we see, so too does your beauty outshine all the women of the world for none can compare with your elegance and lustre, your proud name and sagacity.’

At first the ladies, mindful of Bricriu’s words but unaware that he had suggested the same thing to each of them, moved slowly towards the porch of the granian, each keeping a causal eye on the others’ level progress. But as they neared the door way, their steps became shorter but quicker and their elbows raised, they scrambled forward, keeping up with each other only by hoisting their skirts above their thighs in an effort to barge ahead and so be first into the hall where the men were, intent on being foremost to enter and thus be acknowledged as the first lady of the kingdom.

The noise of their bustle, all elegance and grace cast aside in their haste to be the first to enter the hall, was as if a herd of giant elk were crashing through the forest. The warriors within, alarmed at the noise, rose to their feet and sought their weapons.

‘Stand down,’ roared Conor, ‘it is not enemies we need fear here but our very own women, incensed, no doubt, by the poisoned tongue of our host. For the sake of our own lives, shut the door and bar entry to the women if it is peace that we want.’

Even as Scél, the doorkeeper, moved to slam the door shut, Emer, a neck ahead of the other women, slammed her back against the door, just as it was fully closed by the homunculus. 

Calling out to Cú Chulainn, she was quickly joined by Lendabair and Fedelma who joined in their cries for their men to open the doors for them.

‘We’re banjaxed now,’ Fergus said to Conor, as he rose up to strike the silver bell suspended above his seat.

‘Ladies,’ Conor began, ‘you are most welcome but here we are not looking for a bloody strife but if it is a fight you want, then let it be with fair words.’

Soon there was a buzzing in the hall as if a giant hive or bees had been disturbed with each woman praising her own man and by reflection herself so that the men became uneasy and were ready to quarrel amongst themselves.

Fedelma claimed royal privilege, being daughter to Conor, as well as beauty being her key features.  Added to that, her man is Laoghaire, whose red hand has defended the borders of the Ulaidh from all enemies.

Lendabair countered with her beauty and the valour of her man, Conall, who is undefeated in battle and has ceaselessly defended the fords and passes of the kingdom  no-one can doubt his courage or his deeds and so, she should be paramount, of all the ladies, in the Ulaidh.

Emer rebutted the two by claiming that she is the fairest of all and that, if she wished it so, no other woman could retain her man if she set her eyes upon him. Added to that is the fact that her man is Cú Chulainn, and as the prophecies have made clear, his is the name that will endure while stories about him will last until the end of generations.  Let any one who doubt it prove it so by showing the strength of their love now for their woman, formerly barred from the feasting hall.

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Immediately both Laoghaire and Conall were up on their hind legs, looking around desperately for some way to show their strength of their love for their women. Laoghaire punched his way through the stout timbers of the wall to the side of the hall to create a doorway while Conall kicked a hole in the wall so hard that the roof beams overhead shook with the fierce impact and a fine dust drifted down upon their heads.

Cú Chulainn smiled lazily and without bothering to rise to his feet he stretched out his arm and dug his fingers into the packed floor of the hall and with a massive heave, wrenched the whole wall up to a height where the others at his bench could see the night stars glittering outside in the dark sky.

Slamming the wall down violently so that it sank into the earth a knees length, the loft where Bricriu had been gloating over the success of his plan, tilted and collapsed, sending Bricriu rolling in the midden, among the dogs outside his own hall.  Staggering to his feet, he stared uncomprehendingly at the lop-sided aspect his hall had now assumed, its wall breached in two places, lath and wattle bent and twisted, its oaken beams fractured and cracked.

Furious, he demanded entry and angrily remonstrated with the warriors of Eamhain Macha.

‘Lookit here to me,’ he roared, ‘I prepared a feast for you in good faith and this is how you repay my generosity – you wreck my new hall in wanton acts of destruction to impress your women. But I am not impressed and I lay a geas on all here to restore my hall to the way it was on your arrival before you can be further refreshed with food and drink.’

Shamefaced the men stood and together they began to effect repairs, straightening the pillars and repairing the daub and wattle on the walls but try as they might they could not tug the sunken wall out of the clinging earth so that even a blade of straw could pass between the wall and the ground.

‘No point beating your own back with someone else’s rod,’ remarked Sencha, ‘Ask the one who did the damage to repair it.  After all, none of us can eat or drink or sleep until the damage is repaired.’

Cú Chulainn stood up and stretched languidly before grinning at the others.  He sauntered over to where he had slammed the wall down and crouched, slipping both hands into the dirt, scrabbling to get a purchase of the wall with his fingertips. His muscles bunching on his back, he heaved and tugged but was unable to budge it.

Again he tried with no result until Laeg edged closer and whispered is this the famous hero songs will be sung about hereafter. Your strength must have gone if a little thing like a simple wall can defeat you.  If this is the best you can do, then I should be looking for another hero who has need of my chariot skills.

Grunting, Cú Chulainn spat on his hands and felt his battle wrath surge within his blood.

His body tensed and stretched, his joints unlocking and stretching so that a clenched fist could be placed between each pair of ribs.  His eyes started from their sockets and the veins in his face and neck stood out pulsing visibly as face contorted into an animal snarl of rage, his hair bristling on his scalp, each lock standing erect and, in the light of the central hearth, tinged with fire.

Assumed gigantic stature, he wrenched the whole side of the building up with a forceful tug and laid it carefully and gently down on the ground, smoothed by the stamp of his heavy foot.

The geas removed by their actions the warriors gathered around the central hearth and made way for the women who continued to laud their men until exasperated, Conor demanded a halt. 

‘Your words cut deeper than the sharpest weapon. Do you want to drive the pride of Eamhain Macha into the pride of battle for the vanity of women?  For you alone, of all beings, bring men to do things that would otherwise be left undone’.  

Despite Conor’s words, which only quietened the assembly for a short space of time, the hall soon became a babble of voices as Mugain, Conor’s wife, attempted to reassert control over the ladies but Emer’s voice continued to ring out.

‘If you think it shameful for a woman to praise her man, then it is truly wanton I am for I believe that there is no other man among the heroes of the Craobh Ruadh that can match Cú Chulainn in mind or body, his splendour and grace, his fury and valour in the battleline and it is my duty to proclaim so before all other men and women.’

‘No doubt, my lady you mean well,’ Conall rose to his feet and looked along the bench to where Emer sat beside her man, one slim hand resting on his knee, ‘but if what you say is true, let us hear it affirmed from the mouth of your champion himself so that we may contest it with him.’

‘Ahh, Conall, go on out of that with you.’ Setanta yawned and scratched his stomach. ‘Haven’t we had this feast already interrupted for no good reason and now I would fain satisfy my appetite for good food and strong drink for, in truth, I am sick and tired of this endless bickering and there nothing can be done until our good natures are restored to us by feasting with friends.’

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The Glass Bead Game

I forget which came first for me, the novel, Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse or the band, Steppenwolf and their single Born to be Wild, some of its disjointed words I would bellow out when I was hitch-hiking around Europe during my mid twenties ‘like a true Nature’s child, I was born, born to be wild, Heading out on the highway… ‘ or something like that and so on.

authoriana (2)Nevertheless, I remember enjoying Harry’s dilemma in Steppenwolf so much so that I went on to read Narcissus and Goldmund and then The Glass Bead Game. Recently, I came across an article which I wrote about the latter novel in the mid seventies. I have no recollection of the book now nearly 45 years later, and even less recollection of having written it so I decided to read the novel again, and (maybe change bits here and there) stick out this review and sit back and wait for other opinions. 

For an original counterpoint, see the review on The Glass Bead Game on Good Reads by Robin Tell-Drake.  What is below is my (slightly edited) original dating from April 1976. 

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I am NOT suggesting that this has anything to do with Hesse’s Game

On first reading The Glass Bead Game, I was disappointed, believing it to be a reiteration of Hesse’s philosophy as put forward in his earlier novels like Steppenwolf and Narcissus and Goldmund, a philosophy I believed, not only to be misguided  and mistaken but also totally false in its premise, not on Hesse’s part of course, but the philosophies and mode of thinking of his characters.

Once again in this, his last novel, Hesse seemed to engage in struggles as Stepenwolf’s Harry Haller had within himself as to whether he was wolf or man. In Narcissus, the struggle was between the sensuous and the pious and here, in The Glass Bead Game, the struggle was between the scholarly and contemplative life of Castalia and the rough and real life of the outside world. These attitudes were clearly wrong in that man is a composite being, no more capable of being solely a wolf, as Harry thought he was, than of being an intellectual, pure and simple. Instead, man can be a wolf, and he can also be an intellectual among many other roles. Never just one thing, he is many and all. (cf Dylan’s I contain Multitudes on his recent Album, Rough and Ready Ways). Greedy, passionate, spiteful, noble, petty, benevolent, generous, thoughtful, narrow-minded and much else as Hesse pointed out, and hammered home, in Narcissus. What then was the point, I wondered, in a further reiteration of his philosophy in the Bead Game?authoriana

However, it became clear that this was a much greater and far more detailed philosophical account of man and his possible positions in the world than Hesse had hitherto attempted in the other novels. Here, instead, was a cunningly devised and detailed account of a man, Knecht, who had been brought up and educated in one way of life but had the intelligence to see through its superficiality. While appreciating the greatness and value inherent in it, Knecht realises that the leaf does not make up the tree and man cannot live by intellect alone. Instead, he must be a man in all senses, partake in the roughness of the world, continually moving backwards and forwards among the many roles, while at the same time moving onwards and upwards to attain, in the fullest sense, the experience of life.

Early on in the novel, the ‘biographers’, in the initial section dealing with the history of the game for the uninitiated, give a valuable clue when they say the man can only be great when he is able to combine himself into the hierarchy of being, without, at the same time, losing the freshness and vigour of his individuality.

Throughout Knecht’s life, this is what he tries to do from an early stage, as is seen in his poetry and ‘Lives’ but unfortunately and inevitably, he fails, as do Carlo Ferromonte, Fritz Tegularius, Plinio Designori, all of them, to a far greater degree than Knecht himself, however. In the end it is Plinio’s son who remains the possible exponent of the weighty ideals which is what the novel and its philosophy aims at.

The ‘biographers’ examine Knecht’s growth, physical as well as spiritual and mental. Rising up from literal oblivion – his very name, in German, means serf or labourer, highlighting the ambiguity of his lowly origins while at the same time underlining the value and truth of labouring and serving – to his intellectual peak, not through unbridled ambition but through unpretentious talent, Knecht all along tries to submerge his individuality in the intellectual hierarchy but finds it is impossible for him to do so. The duality then arises of how can a man reach the peak of intellectuality while at the same time knowing that it is only half a life and can only provide partial happiness and satisfaction. 

This inner turmoil that Knecht continually undergoes is counterpointed by the differing lives his friends, Fritz, Carlo, but especially Plinio and Father Jacobus, the old Benedictine, lead. The latter two – and to a lesser degree, the brilliant but erratic Fritz – show Knecht a window into a world where people live and think so differently to the way in which he has been accustomed and trained. However, the life of Plinio has its obvious evils and he is far worse off than Knecht at the end of the novel. Partially trained as a Castalian but intended for a secular life, Plinio, while outwardly successful, is a total failure inwardly. Half Castalian and half worldly, he is totally unable to reconcile his differences which would at first appear to indicate a basic irreconcilability of opposites but this is not the case as further scrutiny shows. Plinio, soon after he leaves the Castilian environment, makes only half-hearted attempts to blend the two ways of life together in that he is embarrassed, partially by his feelings of inferiority and superiority and partially by the attitude of the worldly people who view him with scorn. Lapsing then from his Castalian ideals and bewildered by the deep waters he suddenly finds himself in, it is not surprising that this attempt to bridge the world of Castalia with the outward world fails. However, Plinio stimulates the student Knecht and making him questions the values and assumptions by which he lives. Even before he meets Plinio, Knecht had been feeling doubts about the way of life on which he is about to embark, as when he complains to his music master that everything seems contradictory and that there seems to be no truth or valid doctrines. Plinio, in his debates, with Knecht, drives him hard and forces him to question those values and continue the search for a valid doctrine that a life of the intellect alone cannot provide.

Continuing the attack on his ideas is the Benedictine, Father Jacobus who again causes Knecht to examine the ideals by which he lives. However, this time the attack is more subtle and widespread. Jacobus, a highly educated and clever man, goes to the core of Knecht’s intellectual life which he, in fact, shares, by his life devoted to study and to his order. The only difference between the two men is their seperate allegiances to their orders – that of Castalia and the Game and that of the Benedictines and Christianity.  Most importantly of all, Jacobus opens Knecht’s eyes to the myopia of Castalian life. By instilling an interest in history – a subject abhorred by Castalia – in Knecht he shows him that it is not just a brutish struggle for power, wealth, land and raw materials. In fact, as Knecht himself says, his stay in the monastery and his studentship with the monk has taught him a ‘tremendous amount but neither adding to my certainties …. only to my problems.’ 

This attack on his principles and ideals, supported by the earlier assaults Plinio had made, and along with the fact that Fritz found it impossible to live, even for three days, in the monastic environment, ensures a widening of Knecht’s intellectual horizons so that, for the first time, he begins to see the importance of the outside world and to experience the concept that man cannot live just one life alone – an idea earlier expressed, although in a hesitant way in his three ‘Lives”. especially in The Father Confessor and The Indian Life. 

Climbing, or being pushed ever higher, Knecht, for the first time, sees the dangers and the introvertness of the Glass Bead Game of the elite, when, prior to becoming Magister Ludi, he witnesses the failure of the annual festival and the awesome burden the deputy, Bertram, has to carry, which, in fact, kills him. 

Deeply concerned by this and the oncoming post of magister, it is only by intense meditation that Knecht can see himself not as an individual but as totally absorbed into the hierarchy, not as pupil or master, but as both seperate from and part of everything. 

When he realises that this paradoxical nature, of being both master and pupil, wisdom and youth, is the essence of Castalia, leading to a never ending cycle of progression, can he calm himself down and so accept the honour of becoming Magister Ludi.

However, he did so with grave reservations. The feelings and knowledge, the ‘transcendings’ aroused partially by Designori & Jacobus, but which were always latent within him, did not allow him to become complacent in his high office. Rather, he began to peer more closely into the meaning and symbolism of pure intellectuality and realise fully that just as Castalia was born out of turbulence, so too must it eventually end along with its exalted aims. The only thing that can be saved is the mind and this can only be saved, not by sheer intellectuality but by a mingling of the intellect  with the world and all its passions. It is only by being fully at home in both worlds, by taking and giving as much as possible, from and to each world, that man can truly exist.

As a result, Knecht begins to move further and further away from the sublime scholarship that was the mark of the Castlian elite and devote himself to education, especially to that of the young. This was the only way that Knecht saw of maintaining intellectualism and reality, by moulding still young and adaptable minds to both worlds instead, as had been the case with him, to one world only.

Increasingly then, spurred on by the thoughts and words of Jacobus, Knecht began to see the imbalance of the life he was leading and the dangers inherent in it for him and the world.

Knecht is forced, from his childhood by external events, to be the continual defender of the Castalian order, first against the worldly Plinio and then against the astutely intellectual Father Jacobus and the latter’s historical onslaughts. This feeling of the inevitable collapse of the Castalian order was to be further borne out by the actions of his friend, Fritz Tegularius who seemed, possibly even more than Designori and Jacobus, to point out the instability of such an order as Castalia which only lived for the pure cultivation of the intellect and nothing else. 

As Knecht’s ‘biographers’ tell us, he saw in Tegularius two things – an example of the finest flowering to be found within the order but secondly and conversely, a symbol of the demoralisation and decadence of these abilities which made him outstanding. Fritz, like Designori and Knecht himself, was an oddity. Purely Castalian in his intellect, he was more erratic and tempermental in his attitudes as are all men from the external world. Consequently, Knecht saw in him the dangers of two worlds and a thousand attitudes harnessed unfittingly together. 

Summing up then, as his ‘biographers’ do so neatly, Knecht, by the time he has arrived at the position of Magister Ludi, had also arrived at a paradoxical  crossroads in his life. On the one hand was his love for the hierarchy along with his loyalty and service to it while on the other hand was the deep awareness that it could not last, as it only offered, in the long run, a stunting, suffocating and sterile approach to life. Knecht had to move on and we are told that he often felt  a wild, almost animal, craving to experience life as other ordinary people felt it. Fritz reminded Knecht that, while intellectuality is an important and vital part of life, it is just that, only a part and that to live, one must eat other things beside abstractions and concepts. Slowly but surely, Knecht is beginning to approach the true reality, the reality that Jacobus had touched upon and, in a dissimilar manner, the reality the aged music master had also found, through his acceptance of a real divinity other than the idol of the Glass Bead Game.

It is at this crisis point that Plinio Designori makes his reappearance and finally shows Knecht the way to go, while being unable to go that way himself. The product of a semi-Castalian and semi-worldly education, Plinio is a total failure not in the material sense but in the worldly sense instead. Trying to bring a balance between the two, the Castilian and the secular, Plinio failed because he was an oddity, an outsider in the world, looking in.  Being neither purely Castalian nor purely secular, but instead a crude bastardisation of both, he could no longer understand his fellowman. Unable to move freely between worlds, he was unable to go back and undo his life; as a result, he stagnated and seemed to highlight the failures of both Castlaia and the external world.

In a casual conversation between the two men, so different in background but now so similar in desires, Plinio puts his finger on Knecht’s problems by claiming that neither of them are integral human beings and that both their seperate ways of life have been fake and sterile. His in the sense that he failed utterly in his attempt to reconcile the two ways of life and instead only found defeat and unhappiness; Knecht’s in that he deliberately cut himself off from the seamier sides of life, from the passions and desires that contribute to making up a man.

Knecht, while understanding Plinio and his unhappiness can only do so in a partial way, seeing him, as Haller in Steppenwolf saw himself, as equally divided in two parts, Castalian and secular. Instead, as he later realises, the problem is much greater when Plinio explains that he became too proud to submerge himself fully in the Castilian way. Instead, he frittered himself away in a ‘passionate, childlike, crude ungoverned life, vacillating forever between happiness and fear.’It is only then that Knecht realises the full difference between life in Castalia and life in the world; that it is not a clear cut and two-fold division. Gradually, by visiting Plinio in his home outside Castalia, Knecht begins to understand these differences and the immense problems Plinio faced and that which he must face too, soon enough.

Talking to Plinio’s son, Tito, he tells the boy, and clarifies for himself, the dangers of living a single-minded life. Tito, upset that his father had sold the family house, claims that he is determined  to get is back, and is warned by the sombre Knecht that if a man knows no other goal in his life than one, he becomes obsessed and fanatical and becomes unable to grasp the conflict of life which is the vital and stimulating force. Greatness and strength can only come  from those people who serve greater goals than the aims of family or country.

Feeling motivated and spurred by the thought that he can progress no further in the spiritual sense within it, Knecht tends his resignation claiming that all Castalians are doomed by their insightness, for they have no conception about who they really are and their real function, not just in the order but also, and just as important, in the world. Too often man forgets he is a part of history, that man is the product of growth and is condemned to die if he loses the ability for further growth and change. Unfortunately, Castalians lack this awareness and their responsibility to the world as a whole. 

Knecht, however, has this awareness, gained firstly from Jacobus and then, later on, from his own private studies of history. Magister Alexander and the rest of the Board of Magisters reject his resignation in terms of its wilfulness and as an absurd quest for ‘freedom’. It was, in reality, from Knecht’s point of view a continuation of service and obedience, not only to the dictates of his conscience but also to nature, which had, all along, propelled him towards taking these final steps.

So, Knecht’s quest, started so long ago when he asked the Music Magister whether there was no ‘dogma to believe in …isn’t there any truth? Is there no real and valid doctrine?’ Agreeing to help Plinio with the education of his headstrong and wilful son, Tito, Knecht for the first time feels that this is what he wanted to do and is, indeed, what he is meant to do, as his title magister Ludi originally meant schoolmaster. Knowing that the boy is sensitive and acute, with all his father’s brilliance and clearance, it is a joy for him to take on the task of his education.

However, unlike Plinio with only a partial grounding in Castalian education and thus able to survive, even if unhappily in the world, Knecht, with his full and most complete Castalian background, cannot last long out of his rarified atmosphere. Meeting Tito in the mountains, he feels unnaturally tired and assumes that it was the rapid climb in the car to the peaks along with the thin air of the high mountain ranges.

In the final scene, on the side of the lake as the sun rises, Knecht understands what must be done. The Castalian system marred Plinio by not educating him sufficiently to bridge the gap between the worlds and cultures but here, with Tito, Knecht sees an opportunity to repair the damage. More importantly, Tito was the only son of an old and patrician family and undoubtedly he would also be one of the future leaders, one of the social and political shapers of the country and nation, destined to command and be imitated.

Standing there on the edge of the lake, Tito performs his heathen Pan dance to the rising sun and the awakening day. Paying homage to the power of the elements, Knecht realises that this boy is more subtle than he had imagined. His dance is not a rehearsed thing, a daily event preparatory to the sun rising  but a spontaneous outburst of love, of sacrifice, of surrender. Standing there, watching him, Knecht knows that his task will be all the harder but the joys in attaining it all the greater. Plunging into the glacial waters of the lake, however, his body cannot resist the biting cold and, fighting to the last, his heart gives out, leaving the boy, Tito, alone, bathed in sunlight.

So Hesse ends the novel with Tito’s premonition that much more will be expected of him from now on than he had ever expected of himself. Knecht having got so close to the desired peak of truth and validity had, at the last minute, failed to attain it. However, through the boy, his best friend’s son, his spirit and influence will live on, and it is to be hoped that Tito himself will attain those heights for which his father and Joseph Knecht strove in vain.

Throughout the novel, Knecht’s course is clearly laid out. In his posthumous writings, Three Lives, there is a premonition of what will take place. Knecht’s life is mirrored in this remarkable Life, written while he was still a student and long before he attained the honour of becoming Magister Ludi. Both men, Knecht and Dion finally reach their apoogee and come in sight of how far they can go and then die before they can go further.

The Glass Bead Game reaches out and deals with material only lightly touched upon in the previous novels and consequently must be seen as his best and most important novel. Man can, and never should be seen as two, three, ten or a hundred souls. Rather his souls are innumerable but together form one and it is together they must cohere.This then was the mistake of Fritz Tegularius and Plinio Designori who all tried to live their lives devoted to an ideal without attempting to see the overall pattern in which their lives were wrought. Only in Tito is there reason for hope for he has the awesome burden to carry now, unaided except for the memory of the man who could, and did, help him. On Tito’s shoulders rest the continuity, not only of Castalia and her institutions but also of the world with all its mad, pell-mell passions.

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  • In this classic bead game, the centre bead is removed and play takes place when one bead is ‘jumped’ over another and removed. The object is to end up with just one bead in the currently empty hole.

The Champion’s Portion 2

Chapter Two

Laoghaire Buadach, son of Connad mac Iliach was the first to arrive at Bricriu’s new feasting hall at Dun Rudraige.

‘Laoghaire, valiant warrior of the Ulaidh, the fiery thunderbolt of Midé, Welcome to my hall.  Come in and tell me why it is you have never been given the champion’s portion at Eamhain Macha?’

Laoghaire glared at Bricriu before grunting and looking down at his muddy sandals.  ‘Ahh sure, I suppose I could get it any time I want, for there are few warriors of my stature at any table.’

‘Well, I wouldn’t care to be the one trying to stop you from claiming the bounty which should rightfully be yours.’ Bricriu laughed.

‘What do you mean?’ Laoghaire asked, his thin frame hunched as if to attack.

‘Sure don’t you know that the champion’s portion is an amphora of fine wine, enough for a host of champions, a boar, fine fed for seven feis, stuffed and roasted, a bull calf simmered in broth of curds, nuts and wheat since last Imbolc. Add to that five score oat cakes cooked in honey. The champion’s portion proves that you are the champion of Eamhain Macha surely and I know you are worthy of it.  If I were you, I’d just tell my charioteer to serve it to me before anyone else can get up for it.’ Bricriu explained.

‘There will be fresh hot blood if anyone tries to stop me, I tell you,’ Laoghaire scowled, his hand on the blade at his side.

Bricriu laughed and clapped him on the back.

Burly Conall Cernach was the next to arrive at the head of a troop of men in blue and red cloaks, heavy wooden shields with brass bosses and mighty spears in their hands.

‘Conall, may the track rise easy before you,’ Bricriu greeted him effusively. ‘Hero of a five score battles and combats, it is said you have been victorious more than any other man in the Ulaidh, and when you raid into the neighbouring kingdoms, you are a night’s march before the men of the Ulaidh can catch up with you. On the return, you are always in the rear, harrying the enemy.  What stops you, I’d like to know, from being given the champion’s portion of Eamhain Macha to hold forever more?’ Bricriu demanded, laying it on as twice as thickly as he had for Laoghaire. Satisfied that he had piqued Conall’s interest and pride, Bricriu waited impatiently until he could single the last of the vaunted heroes, Sétanta. So-called Hound of the North, named after, as a child, he had strangled the wolf hound of the smith, Cullain guarding the passages to the Ulaidh.

‘Welcome Sétanta, the heart of Eamhain Macha, beloved of the fairest, the ancient prophecies foretell your fame and glory and your name of the Hound is justifiably earned as the Ulaidh is well guarded by you as all men acknowledge that you surpass them all. Why then have you left the champion’s portion for other, lesser men to claim when none can contest it with you?’

‘By the blood of my father Lugh, I swear that any who contested against me would soon be a head shorter.’ Sétanta snorted.

Saying nothing further, Bricriu excused himself and left, waiting impatiently as Conor and his son, Crúscraid the stammerer, led the nobles, Fergus, the once king of the Ulaidh, Uísliu and his three sons, Sencha the draoidh, son of Ailell, King of Connachta, Amergin the poet, Dubhtacht, the beetle browed, Illand, son of Fergus and Cethirn son of Fintain among others to the long trestle table on the dais at the back end of the hall. The heroes of the Craobh Dearg took over the benches closer to the central hearth while the noble women were already in the rearmost bower outside the main hall.

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Female slaves plied the trestle tables with bowls of savoury meats, and the men helped themselves to the jugs and ewers of both wine and ale that littered the long trestles while musicians and gleemen tumbled and cavorted before the king’s raised platform.

Fergus nodded to his son, Illand and he and Cethirn quickly moved to where Bricriu was standing, over seeing the spit-roasts of boar and bull.

‘You remember the conditions?’ Cethirn said grimly, his hand on the hilt of the heavy blade hanging at his side.

Bricriu looked up from what he was doing and scowled at the warriors facing him.  

‘The feast cannot begin until you withdraw.’ Illand reminded him

Bricriu muttered something to one of the boys tending the spitted boar and then, without looking at either of the men, he turned and left the feasting area, going directly to the loft he had planned for himself. At the foot of the ladder, he turned and hailed the assembled company.

‘May you enjoy the largesse which I bestow upon you from the heart but I leave you all to give the champion’s portion to whoever you think is the foremost champion of the Ulaidh,’ he called out before ascending the ladder.

As befitted his status as king of the Ulaidh, his steward served the hind haunch of the boar to Conor and stepped back awkwardly as, at a nod from Laoghaire, Sedlang his charioteer, grasped his knife and moved to sever the remaining haunch.

‘This, the champion’s portion, I take for my master, Laoghaire the triumphant, for he of all the lords of the Craobh Ruadh deserve it so,’ he cried boldly.

Hardly had he finished speaking before both Id and Laeg, the charioteers of Conall and Sétanta, were on their feet, loudly claiming the haunch for their masters. 

‘Give it here to Cú Chulainn,’ shouted Laeg ‘for it is well known by all here that he is the most valiant and heroic among you all.’ 

‘That is not true,’ both Conall and Laoghaire shouted proudly, their voices almost drowned out by long blades rasping half out of metal-lipped sheaths, as warriors pushed back benches and surged to their feet. Both Conor was on his feet at the end of the hall livid with rage at the outbreak of hostility and vaunting pride among the noble warriors. Sétanta stood firm, his arm around the shoulders of his wiry charioteer, Laeg while Sedlang, Id, Conall and Laoghaire pushed their way forward towards the dais.

Conor’s voice rang out, clear and authoritative above the melee, ‘Part yourselves,’ he ordered.

Faced with the wrath of their king and their battle leader, the men stepped back a pace, shame-facedly. At a discrete cough from Sencha, Conor gestured at the draoidh. ‘Listen well, for Sencha will decide this contentious issue, if you do as I say.’

Mumbling, the men nodded their heads, but most eyes remained on the leg of pork remaining on the table.

‘Tonight,’ Sencha boomed, ‘we will all share in this champion’s portion so that no one of us will be deemed inferior, in place among the Craobh Ruadh or in valour and strength in the Craobh Dearg. Later, this matter can be more fully resolved through the wisdom of my father, Ailil mac Mata, king of Connachta. Until then, we eat and drink and act as the band of warriors we are, the heroes of the Ulaidh.’

The Champion’s Portion 1

Chapter One

(I made a recording of chapter 1 if you care to listen.)

Bricriu thrust open the door of the Craobh Ruadh, so violently that the fire in the central hearth belched a cloud of smoke while the candles on the long table on the dais flickered before he stamped into the hall, slamming  the door shut and glaring around from under heavy black eyebrows before seeing Conor on the dais. The Craobh Ruadh, the Red Branch, was one of the three great halls within Eamhain Macha, the heart of the kingdom of the Ulaidh, and attracted the fighting men and champions who protected the northern kingdom and punished transgressors. These warriors and fighting men in turn were mentored by those former champions, heroes still, veterans like Conall, Ferdia, Fergus, Bricriu and others of their generation and older still, like Sencha the Draoidh. But now it was the time of the new generation of warriors and champions and, despite his age and seniority among the veterans of the Craobh Ruadh, Bricriu knew they called him The Bitter-tongued behind his back and refused to see him for what he believed he was.

Conor Mac Nessa, the once boy-king, looked up from the game of fiduchell he had been playing with Fergus mac Rioch and frowned. ‘Guard yourself,’ he muttered to his companion, ‘and keep a civil tongue in your head for you know full well the bile that man produces’. Fergus glanced over his shoulder and then shifted on his haunch so the his sword lay unimpeded by his side.

Conor knew the noisy arrival of Bricriu would do nothing to ease the ache he already felt in his temples and the top of his head from too much of the unwatered wine he and Fergus had been drinking but hospitality demanded guests must be allowed to eat and drink before stating their business but he guessed what Bricriu would demand.

Sétanta mac Sualtáim, or lately called Cú Chulainn, the Hound of the North, had recently returned from a lengthy foray into Alba and almost immediately on his return, had taken forcibly to wife, Emer, daughter of the wily Forgall Manach and there was much talk for what this would all mean, for Emer was from the southern kingdom of Laigheann.

‘An’ why wouldn’t ye have a feast for yer man?  Sure isn’t he just home here himself with his new woman and how else can we build relationships and keep our brotherhood strong?’ Bricriu demanded, knowing full well the old king’s reluctance to engage in extravagance.

‘It would not be seemly at this time,’ Conor replied.

‘Give Cú Chulainn a chance to settle down,’ Fergus chipped in.  ‘After all, it is a new experience for us as well as for the Hound.’ 

Annoyed by the old fool siding with the man who had usurped him, Bricriu was more than ever determined to go through with the plan he was beginning to hatch to sow discord among the heroes of the Craobh Ruadh, especially now that Fergus continued to belittle him

‘Well, lookit here to me,’ Bricriu said slyly, ‘if you lot won’t have a feast for your man that all will remember, then I will.  I will return on the morrow and you can give me the honour of accepting an invitation to feast with me.’ He pushed his cup of wine away and stood up abruptly. ‘Until tomorrow then.’.

‘What do you think, Fergus?’ Conor asked glancing over at the older man. Fergus the Unwise they called him, and with good reason, Conor reminded himself, after he had ceded this kingdom of the Ulaidh in return for the favour of his widowed mother, Ness. That was more than three decades past and the kingdom under Conor had prospered in that time and Conor had grown used to listening to the older man’s advice.

‘I’ll tell you this much,’ Fergus sat up and spat into the fire, ‘If we go to a feast organised by that venomous tongued pot-stirrer, there will be more of us dead afterwards than there would be to begin with. Mind you,’ he said, shifting painfully on the bench, ‘if he wants to have a feast let him build his own hall in his own grounds and the expense of that might soften his cough.’

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Bricriu feigned delight when Conor agreed to his idea of a feast for Cú Chulainn and his newly claimed woman, Emer of Laigheann.

‘And yes,’ Conor continued, ‘you may organise the feast, Bricriu but you will also bear the expense not just of the food and drink but you must also provide a hall worthy of our Craobh Ruadh and our heroic warriors of the Ulaidh.’

‘Not only that,’ Fergus butted in, ‘You yourself will not be welcomed at that self same feast you organise for if you attend, I know that there will be enmity and malice aplenty.’

Sencha coughed and reminded Conor that he should insist on taking hostages and Bricriu cursed silently at the effort it caused him to hold in his rage at this treatment.

Leaving Eamhain Macha he immediately began preparation for a feasting hall to be built at his lands at Dun Rudraige.  Remembering what Conor had said about the honour of the Craobh Ruadh, he determined to surpass the wonders of that building with his own great hall fit for heroes.  The Craobh Dearg, the second of the great halls within Eamhain Macha, was just a barracks for warriors, a place to store weapons and equipment always to hand, but this, Bricriu determined, his hall would surpass all buildings for heroes in the same way that heroes surpassed all other men. He smiled suddenly, a plan formed for these prancing upstarts, these so smart, so-called heroes, they would be his guests at his hall soon enough and he would see what they were capable of.

The huge pillars of oak had been labouriously brought by teams of six horses and the combined effort of all the slaves was needed to position each of the central pillars into the post holes that the Draoidhs had arranged down the central aisle of the hall while seven strong men were needed to hoist each pole into the rafters overhead so that the roof could be attached.  

The long hall was split in two by a walkway, on either side of which were trestle tables and benches with groups  separated by panels of beaten bronze laced with gold swirls and interlocking circles so that all had a space around the huge central hearth.

Every imaginable aspect, whether it be shape, plan, embellishment, pillars and facades, portals and design, was such that the whole outshone its parts. Artisans had expertly filled the inner wattle walls separating the area, fit for queens, furnished with the cured furs and pillows, the benches draped with quilts and skins, from the feasting hall for the men. A massive platform spanned the forepart of the hall, its facing panel studded with rich stones and the burnished metal of shields and naked swords. On that platform were the seats for Conor mac Nessa, king of the Ulaidh and the leaders of Craobh Ruadh, the Red Branch warriors, before whom all trembled.

All of which Bricriu could easily look down on from the loft off to one side among the rafter beams, which he had built, knowing the men of the Ulaidh would not tolerate him to be at his own feast.

Making sure there was a full supply of food and drink, he set out for EM to deliver the formal invitation.

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Conor was sprawled on his bench, idly looking at the boy troop exercising on the sward outside the Craobh Dearg when Fergus nudged him, alerting him to Bricriu’s approach.

Sencha sat up straighter and looked at the king enquiringly.  They had discussed Bricriu’s impending visit and they all knew that nothing would suit the cantankerous man unless they all immediately responded with enthusiasm to his invitation to a feast at his newly erected feasting hall at Dun Rudraige. It had been more than two hands worth of moons since he had first suggested holding a feast for the Hound of the Ulaidh and all attempts to delay the inevitable had finally stopped but the Ulaidh were still not resigned to going. Bricriu stepped a pace closer and looked at the faces of the men on the dais before looking around him scornfully.

‘I’ll tell you this much and I’ll tell you no more but what with the expense it has put me to, in not only its construction and victualing, but also in its style and grace, I will be hard put out if the brave warriors of the Craobh Ruadh do not deign to honour my hall with their presence.’

‘We will need those nine hostages,’ Fergus reminded him.

Bricriu ignored him and continued, ‘I will cause enmity between lords and men, between heroes and champions if they will not come to my feast.’

‘Listen to him Conor, worse things will happen,’ Fergus pleaded.  ‘If we go with him it will mean mayhem.  But if we must go, we must go on our terms.’

Bricriu shrugged. ‘I will cause enmity between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters and even between the two teats of the women until they are red, raw and bleeding and begin to grow hair and rot,’ he continued.

‘By the gods around us.’ swore Fergus, ‘I will not attend this bitter feast for I tell you now, that our dead will outnumber us if we accept.’  

‘If I may suggest’. Sencha intervened, ‘Perhaps, Fergus, you would reconsider if Bricriu not only withdraws from his very own feast but also permits a nine-man troop of your choosing to guard and protect him at all time.’

Conor nodded sharply at the former king and Fergus grunted ‘I will only attend if you yourself, Bricriu, are not present.’ before slamming his mug down on the table, sloshing some of its contents over his bunched fist. 

Document_2021-07-21_174214 (2) 2Detail from a 9th century Irish manuscript illumination in the Bodleian Library, Oxford [Auct D 2 19, f.52r]

Bricriu’s Feast & The Champion’s Portion

The Champion’s Portion is an extension to the story of Bricriu’s Feast and is thought to have been based on texts from the 9th century which, in turn, were based on texts from 7th century (those texts are no longer extant) but the tale would have been orally transmitted for centuries before eventually being committed to writing. 

Bricriu’s Feast is found in several manuscripts, including The Book of the Dun Cow (Lebor na hUidre) c.1106 so called because the original vellum, upon which it was written, was made from the hide of a brown cow supposedly owned by the abbot of the monastery at Clonmacnoise.

The Book of the Dun Cow was written in the 11th century and is the oldest surviving miscellaneous manuscript in Irish literature but is badly damaged: only 67 leaves remain and many of the texts are incomplete.

Dun Cow
Lebor na hUidre (Book of the Dun Cow) Royal Irish Academy

The manuscript is thought to be the work of three scribes, identified with the letters A, M and H.

A and M were contemporary. A began the manuscript and several of the texts, which were continued by M, identified as Máel Muire, murdered by Vikings at Clonmacnoise in 1106.

Based on orthography and an English loanword, H (so named for his fondness of inserting homilies into the texts) was apparently writing in the late 12th or early 13th century and added a number of new texts and passages, sometimes over erased portions of the original, sometimes on new leaves. Vellum, made of lamb, calf, or goat skin, was expensive, so a page was often re-used by scribes for another document after the original text had been scraped or washed off.

Bricriu’s Feast is also found in The Book of Leinster, a medieval Irish literary compendium of stories, poetry, and history, and it appears, from annals included in it, that it was written between 1151 and 1201, although largely completed by 1160 and now kept in Trinity College, Dublin. 

The manuscript is a composite work and more than one hand appears to have been responsible for its production. The principal compiler and scribe was probably Áed Ua Crimthainn who was abbot of the monastery of Tír-Dá-Glas on the Shannon.

Book_of_Leinster,_folio_53
The Book of Lenister Trinity College, Dublin

In the story, Bricriu promises the Champion’s Portion of his feast to three different heroes. A violent dispute over precedence ensues, which leads to a series of contests. One night a giant carrying an ax challenges the warriors of the Ulaidh to behead him in exchange for a chance to behead them in turn. On successive nights two of the heroes behead the giant, who, each time, replaces his head and leaves but comes back to take his turn only to find that the warriors have departed.Finally, the undisputed hero, Cú Chulainn, beheads the giant and, when the giant returns, places his own head on the block, true to his word. The giant, really a wizard in disguise, proclaims Cú Chulainn the first hero of the Ulaidh. 

This is considered the source for the beheading game used in Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight, a late 14th century tale in Middle English while Bricriu’s Feast was the definitive source for W.B.Yeats’s play The Green Helmet. Not bad for an old Irish tale!

Bricriu’s Feast was the first old world saga or story I ever read that made me laugh out loud. The story teller was fully aware of the comic aspects of the heroic tale.

There are, however, so many repetitions and duplications, which may well have sounded better in the telling, but the structure of the manuscripts leaves something to be desired. Errors in transcription and transmission and the insertions of the different Christian scribes do not make for easy reading.

Sticking closely to the original translations*, this is my version of the story broken into digestible (I hope) and coherent chunks.

I will post Chapter One soon.

*Translations

Early Irish Myths and Sagas, Translated and with an introduction and notes by Jeffrey Gantz. Penguin Classics 1981

Fled Bricrend (The Feast of Bricriu), translated by George Henderson,

Medieval Irish Series, Cambridge Ontario 1999

Lady Gregory’s Complete Irish Mythology

Originally published as separate volumes by John Murray Publishers, London 

Gods and Fighting Men (1904) and Cuchullain of Muirthemne (1902)

Clean Money

Cleanliness might be the last thing that comes to mind when thinking about money. While a trillion microbial bacteria live all over us and, no doubt, on our money too, most of us probably never give its purity a thought.

At the same time, unconsciously, we associate money with dirt – filthy lucre, money requiring laundering, filthy rich (as opposed to dirt poor), and so on, all spring to (my) mind automatically – but only recently I became aware of the concept of clean money, not the freshly laundered staff, and how it earns that epithet through the use to which it is put. Simply put, clean money is money that doesn’t harm people or the planet but is used for the benefit of all.

Recently a Royal Banking Commission here in Australia has slammed all four of the major banks for greedy and unscrupulous behaviour towards their customers. Fees charged to the accounts of deceased people, or charged for advice never given were some of the proven charges while more than sixty million dollars were loaned to dirty fossil fuel projects in the last ten years.

While many of us (or at least some) try to lead meaningful lives – donating to charities, sorting our domestic garbage, eating organic, even going vegan – increasingly people want to know whether their money is used beneficially, morally and for the sake of the planet and future generations and how the products made with our money may be damaging people and the planet.

Clean money thinks through where materials came from, who assembled them and whether the process was fair or unfair, empowering or disabling. Does it matter? Do we understand where our money goes, for what and for whom?

Along with clean food and clean energy, clean money is emerging, blended by both the massive ‘green’ movement worldwide and the colossal transfer of wealth from the well-heeled Boomers on to Gen X and the Millenials*.

41OVY7BWCgLWe all (mostly) place our money into banks nowadays but I certainly have never questioned – much less thought – about what the bank does with my, and other people’s, money. The simple question prompted by Joel Solomon* in his recent book, The Clean Money Revolution – Do you really know what your money is doing? – struck me like a hammer blow. What if, God forbid, my bank is investing my money in chemical or biological weapons programs or in strip mining the ocean floor or cutting down the Amazon jungle or…? You get the picture.

So, where do our banks invest our money and how do we find out and what is my personal bottom line? Perhaps because of the scandals unearthed by the banking commission here, there have been a lot of attention paid to responsible banking with smaller banks and credit unions that proclaim their aversion to investing in such things as fossil fuels, intensive animal farming, gambling, arms and the tobacco industries to name but a few while still returning a prosperous return.

Responsible banking means using the customers’ deposits to loan to people, to community organisations and to businesses in order to have a positive economic, social, environmental and cultural impact on the world.

Responsible banks are owned by their customers, not the shareholders, with profits returned to customers through better rates and fees while investing in such areas as community housing suited to people with special care needs, lending responsibly to individual customers an amount they can afford to repay, sustainable, affordable and community-focused land developments and renewable energy projects and not for profit community organisations, all aimed to create positive social and environmental change.

Perhaps antecedent to this ‘new’ banking morality was the earlier focus on Fair Trade products as society moved from the Baby Boomer generation in the middle of last century to that of the (possibly more) socially aware Generation X and the Millenials who followed them, born towards the last quarter of the previous century.

Right now, the Millenials are on the edge of the largest transfer of inter-generational money ever experienced in human history. Baby Boomers here in Australia probably make up less than a quarter of the population while hanging onto to more than half the wealth of the country. During the next twenty years, at least three trillion dollars are expected to change hands from one generation to another, the Millenials. Worldwide the figure must be huge.

Unfortunately, much of this money the Millenials will inherit is, by its very nature, dirty money, earned from non-ethical investments in such things as arms, fossil fuels and tobacco to name but a few. No blame, of course, can be attributed to generations who, in their turn, profited from such things as slavery and the opium trade for example. No doubt, just like us, people trusted the banks to do the right thing with their money. However, unlike the present generation which has grown up with the Internet and widespread knowledge, our parents were probably unaware of where the banks were investing their money.

This generation does not have that luxury of ignorance. Now there is no excuse, we can join the growing number of clean banks that support such things as divesting from fossil fuels into renewable energy, organic foods or other ethical possibilities, like cleaner manufacturing or preventive health or waste reduction.

No matter how much or how little we have in some bank or other, there is one thing we can all do and that is check if our banks make their money in a way that aligns with our personal values, If not …?

Personally, I am looking forward to closing down my account with the subsidiary of one of the four major (dirty) banks here in Australia and opening up with a clean one.

By aligning money with values everybody can benefit from what their money is doing right at this moment somewhere in this shared world without sacrificing our planet.

That will certainly be easier for me than going vegan!

 

  • A rough definition of some of the terms used here –

Baby-Boomers refers to the generation born in the two decades, more or less, after the WWII, so from 1946 – 1964

Gen(eration) X covers the following period 1965 – 1979, and

Gen(eration) Y – also known as Millenials – takes in 1980 – 1994, while

Gen(eration) Z deals with those born between 1995 – 2015

Gen Who Knows? – 2016 – 2038?

  • Solomon, Joel. The Clean Money Revolution . New Society Publishers. Kindle Edition.

 

An Old Celtic of Love and Death – Part 7

A Ewe between Two Rams

Smoke lay heavy in the night air as the burning thatch on the Craobh Ruadh spread down from the rafters, the flames licking hungrily at the seasoned, dry wooden walls of the old building. Eoghean had stamped away to bury his clansmen and to drown his anger in the vat of Ol nguala leaving Conor to curse at the flight of the brothers with his woman.

“You have to help me here, Cathbad,” Conor pleaded. “Who better than yourself to remember the prophecy when it was you, yourself, that made it? Help me now before this goes any further. Lookit, haven’t I already lost a fine son? What more do you want me to lose?” he went on, the sullen rage he felt at Crúscraid’s impotent attack and Conall Cernach’s desertion welling up inside him.

“I tried to warn you with that prophecy but you refused to listen, Conor. You were a fool then and you are a fool now, bringing doom on all of us,” Cathbad thundered, his staff thumping the stone flagged floor of the great hall.

“Offer them terms of peace, yes, … peace and friendship, I swear it,” Conor insisted. “Tell them that they need not fear us but swear fealty to us and all will be forgotten, for who would refuse the services of the mighty lords of Uísliu.” Conor cursed deeply inside himself and continued to press the draoidh for a solution to make the brothers put down their arms.

***

Cathbad guessed all three had been wounded to some degree in their frantic flight and would be unable to travel far. There was only one place in the vicinity where they might feel safe, he guessed, the most likely place such a group would flee to. And yet, there was just a chance that the prophecy could still be averted if he could find the brothers and talk to them. He did not fear for his safety at their hands for he was a draoidh and although no one went willingly into the dark woods at night for fear of the little men and the Sídhe that roamed the woodlands, Cathbad encountered nothing except a large white owl which swooped silently down from the trees on his left as he approached the standing stones on the crest of the low hill to the south of Eamhain Macha.

The stones, the height of a tall man, formed a crude circle fifteen paces across. One of the stones had fallen and Cathbad caught the glimmer of a small fire inside the circle from where he stood.

There was a sliver of a moon, now, cold and high and the night was bitterly cold and Naoise, fearing they would perish without a fire, had built one carefully in the lee of the fallen stone in a small dip in the ground.

“You need not fear me,” Cathbad said softly as he stepped out from behind one of the taller stones and watched the girl jerk her head up from where she had been lying, curled up beside the small fire.

“Cathbad? Is that you?” Naoise stood up from where he had been sitting on a small rock beside the woman, his sword extended.

“I come with a message from the king,” the draoidh said solemnly, stretching out his arms so that his robe clung to him, outlining his spare figure. “An offer of peace with terms of friendship. Wrongs have been done on both sides but enough blood has been spilt. This madness must stop now for the sake of the kingdom. Lay down your arms now and swear fealty again to Conor. This time he means it, I am sure,” the draoidh continued, seeing the hunger and the need on the tired faces of the men. Deirdre was pale and, except for the crust of dried blood on her arm from a jagged cut, she seemed unhurt. “Don’t listen to him,” she begged. “Don’t you see? It is another trap. Conor will never stop, I’m telling you.”

The draoidh moved over to where the girl crouched and gently examined the gash on her arm before opening a small vial and smearing honey on the wound and binding it tightly with a scrap of linen he took from within his robe.

“Beauty can stir feelings of hate as well as desire in some men’s breasts,” Cathbad continued, staring into the girl’s frightened eyes, “But Conor now seeks peace with you if you will only swear fealty to him and to the kingdom. “ It’s the only way,” he went on and leaning forward, from his closed fist, he threw a handful of herbs and aromatic twigs on the fire around which they all sat. There was silence then as the colour of the fire changed and sparkled brightly before a thick and pungent smoke filled the air around them. Cathbad waited a few moments before slipping easily to his feet, and watched as talk around the fire died out and the woman remained silent.

***

“You fool,” Cathbad hissed, “don’t you see what you have done? You told me that you needed their strength to repel Medb of Connachta’s schemes and that there would be peace between you and them if they would only lay down their arms and swear allegiance to you.”

“I’m the fool, am I?” Conor snarled. “You think I would let my honour, my laws, my very rules be flouted by upstarts like those bastards. I treated them with honour and grace until they wounded a loyal retainer of my guest. Blood calls for blood, you know that but my hands are clean.” He laughed cruelly, switching mood suddenly. “My good friends from the far Dá Mumhainn will be more than happy to exact vengeance for me, seeing as that bastard brood destroyed many of their clansmen,” he nodded his head in the direction of the doors.

“Come,” he declared, walking outside the hall to where dawn was approaching and a thin streak of grey edged the blackness of the night. The three young men and the girl were kneeling, their arms securely tied behind their backs, on the pounded earth beside the white path. Conor’s force had surprised the somnolent group who had put up little resistance when they had burst out of the darkness and they had been led back, yoked at the neck and with their arms tied behind their backs, to the inner circle inside Eamhain Macha where Conor waited, gloatingly, for them. Beside him stood the black bearded giant, the king of Fermagh, Eoghean Mac Murthacht who glowered at the captives. The faint grey light blended into a pale salmon pink along the horizon as the sun hovered behind the trees to the east.

“With your permission, my lord, these outlaws have wounded my own nephew, slaughtered my unarmed men, insulted my house and honour and only blood can wipe clean the measure between us.”

Conor paused and looked at the object of his envy, hate and fear. Any king, he reminded himself, would be loath to take back such traitorous, oath-breaking bastards as these black-hearted warriors for soon enough, he knew, they could turn their schemes on him and his kingship. He motioned with his head and a retainer pulled the woman away from the three kneeling men.

“It is I, your grateful ally, that should beg favours of you, my noble lord,” Conor said, gravely nodding his head, exulting within as Eoghean Mac Murthacht drew his sword and stepped forward towards Naoise.

Eoghean paused a moment, as if feeling the weight of sword in his hand, before his shoulder muscles bunched as he rose the heavy blade to chop down towards Naoise’s exposed neck when Illand, lying unnoticed on the path beside Naoise, his life blood trickling away from the gaping holes in his back and belly, gathered his draining strength and surged to his feet in front of the kneeling Naoise. The sword hissed down, cutting deep into the corner of the youth’s neck and shoulder. Eoghean cursed and used his booted foot to push Illand off the blade before swinging it again and burying it deeply in the other side of his neck, almost severing the head. He jerked the sword free and prepared to strike anew at Naoise when Ainle called out, squinting up at Eoghean. “Hold your hand there, and a request, if it pleases you. Kill me first, I implore you for I am the youngest of my brothers and would not wish to see those whom I love more than life itself, be killed.”

“Listen not to him,” Ardan cried. “I would not have it so. Being the youngest, Ainle should live yet the longest of us three. Kill me first, I beg you.”

“Do neither such thing,” Naoise called out “for here at my side I had the sword that Manannan, the son of Lir, once gave to our clan and for a while I carried it as befitted the leader of our clan and the stroke of it cleaves cleanly through all; so strike the three of us together, and we will all die together at the one time as we have lived all our lives together.”

Mac Murthacht looked around for the sword and called out for it but the sword no longer hung by Naoise’s side. A bondsman came running out from the hall nearby where the sons of Uísliu’s arms had been heaped inside the door.

“A fine blade,” he said admiringly, throwing aside the tooled leather scabbard and extending the blade towards the captives. He sighted along the dull sheen of the dark iron blade, the thin groove along the top inside of the blade for the blood to run, making it easier to pull the weapon out of the clinging flesh.

“Lay down your heads, then lads and let it be known that I, Eoghean Mac Murthacht, king of the Fermagh, do so treat the traitorous scum of my proud ally, the king of the Ulaidh.” And he slashed down hard and expertly so that the three heads of the young men bounced together on the hard ground as the blood spouted and pooled around them and one bound body twitched a last time.

A roar of thunder sounded and the noise rolled over Eamhain Macha for a count of three as Conor looked up from the blood-splattered Mac Murthacht to the darkening eastern sky where thick clouds blotted out the sun. Lightning flickered within ripe, plum-coloured clouds.

Deirdre shrugged away the restraining hand of a tall man with a ragged fringe of hair, his drooping eye, bloodshot and fearful gaping at the scene around them and rose to her feet, crying pitifully, whipping her long fair hair from side to side as she violently swung her head backwards and forwards. Throwing herself forward, she fell across the headless torso of Naoise and tenderly kissed his chest three times before allowing herself to be pulled up like one who had lost her wits.

“Come now to my house, my queen,” Conor said, stepping forward and cutting the thongs that bound her hands behind her back. “There is no need to be fearful, or to feel hatred or jealousy or sadness for together we will make a new future for the Ulaidh and the kingship.”

Seeing Deirdre glance bewilderedly at Eoghean and himself, Conor smirked and winked at the blood-streaked ruffian beside him.

“Come now, Deirdre, you have the cute look of a ewe caught between two rams. I am a fair man and I’ll give you a choice – a night with my good self or a year with my friend here,” and he nodded towards Eoghean standing over Naoise’s headless body before pulling her close to him, his arms encircling her slim figure.

Deirdre raised her arms around Conor’s middle and her small hand touched the bone handled knife he had used to cut her bonds and she seized it quickly, pushing Conor away and holding the knife to her throat.

“May your bones grow hair and rot, Conor Mac Nessa, false king of Eamhain Macha and treacherous dog that you are, for that is no choice at all. Know this, false king Conor, for you have brought destruction on yourself and on your clan for no one in the Ulaidh will profit from your actions this day. Gone from this world are the sons of Uísliu and with them the spirit of nobility, the courage of the truly brave, for they dared all for a woman’s love and know that I gave it freely to them that set me free from the bonds of your rapacious desires.” Deirdre thrust the dagger up under the soft part of her throat and remained proudly standing for a moment before her legs gave way and she slid gracefully to the ground, her blood mingling with the pool surrounding the sons of Uísliu.

The End