Nobody Knows: My Degree Is Unteaching Me

Nobody Knows: My Degree Is Unteaching Me

All pictures in this post are illustrations from the 1912 edition of T.W. Rolleston’s “Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race”.

Hi. Not dead yet. First exam is Monday, it’s the only one I feel even vaguely prepared for and I’m still terrified.

While I was revising Irish Lit earlier I decided to take a shortcut and, rather than reading the translation of the stories that I needed to look over, I thought I’d read the summaries in a wonderful book I have called Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race. These are fairly detailed, but they cut out some of the confusing bits and pieces from the translations, and I thought it would be a quick way of getting a handle on the plot without worrying about navigating complex language.

I was wrong.

This book is one of the sources I’ve used a great deal over the last few years. It’s by T.W.Rolleston and was published in 1912. I bought it in Camden Market in early 2012, and it’s now got a number of notes in the margins like “adapt this!”, or phrases underlined that I thought I could integrate into my stories.

It’s also largely inaccurate.

When it comes to “Celtic myths and legends” the main thing I’ve learned since I came to university is that we don’t know. Everything you may think you know about “ancient Celtic religion” is probably supposition and extrapolation from extremely limited information. Even the details we do have are often fairly uncertain. Like Cernunnos. Oh, a Horned God, that’s a thing, right? Except the name Cernunnos is attested in only one inscription and with a letter missing, and they think possibly it’s related to the antlered figure they see pictured in multiple places. They don’t know. It might be a general term. It may mean nothing.

"Also possibly they worshipped ducks. Lol at those Celts, amirite?"
“Also possibly they worshipped ducks. Them wacky Celts, they’re a right laugh, amirite?” — historians everywhere

So when I say things like “accurate”, the point is that when it comes to the religion of pre-Christian Ireland, we’re really fumbling around in the dark. But when it comes to the literature, I’m a bit more justified in using it.

Most of the stories we have from Medieval Ireland and other Gaelic- and Brittonic-speaking areas don’t survive in their earliest form. Instead, we have manuscripts from far later, some even as late as the sixteenth or seventeenth century. Many of them draw on earlier texts and linguistic analysis allows them to be dated to, say, the eighth century, with a few later modifications.

(This is in itself problematic: some scribes liked to use archaic language to make their stories seem more authentic, making it hard to date them; others updated the language to their own period’s styles, obscuring the original date of the story. But I’m not here to teach you my degree, so let’s move on.)

"What do you mean, we're writing about Celts? I thought I was illustrating the Aeneid!"
“What do you mean, we’re writing about Celts? I thought I was illustrating the Aeneid!”

The point is, there are different versions. Different ‘recensions’, as they’re called. You’ll have one story in the Book of Leinster that’s entirely different from one found in the Book of the Dun Cow, you know? And don’t get me started on the complications of the oral tradition.

What a lot of the retellings from which I was working tend to do is mush all of these different versions into one story and present that as a unified narrative. This is what happened. These are the characters and this is what they do. It is a fact. Okay, it’s fiction, but it’s the fact of the fiction.

They also do weird things like Anglicising all the names (why is Conchobur called Conor now?), re-ordering all the stories, and also changing some major plot points.

I have two versions of one story, where the hero of the Ulster Cycle, Cú Chulainn, fights the warrior princess Aifa. In one version, he rapes her, leaves her to raise the child and then demands that she sends the boy to him at some point in the future, because — I don’t know, probably heroic reasons. (He ends up killing the kid.) In another version, after he wins the fight, “they became not only friends but lovers”.

I’d rather believe that one but, from studying a lot of the texts, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the case. Especially since he only beat her because he tricked her, but whatever. Aifa > Cú Chulainn any day.

The books I’ve been working from for years have been feeding me versions of the story that their writers wanted me to read, and not necessarily the ‘authentic’ version. What is authentic? I’ll be damned if I know; the scribes who wrote them down had their own agendas and their influence can’t be entirely ignored. But since I unfortunately can’t time travel and figure out what people were telling each other at the time, that’s the closest I can get to an ‘original’.

Even those monks didn’t go so far with the Christianisation of the stories as to give Cu Chulainn a halo…

A lot of the stories I wanted to adapt don’t actually exist outside of these narratives presented by Victorian scholars who thought the Celts were the best thing before sliced bread. I can’t blame YA and other fiction authors who draw on Celtic inspiration only to write hugely inaccurate novels if they’re working from these sources — and why wouldn’t they? Most of the stuff that’s vaguely ‘accurate’ is extremely academic, inaccessible, and mostly just tells you that we know nothing for sure.

Oh, and some of it doesn’t exist. There’s probably more criticism available for The Great Gatsby than there is on the whole corpus of medieval Irish literature (not least because A-Level students churn the stuff out every year…).

For years, I thought I was acquiring knowledge and delving deep into this literary tradition, only to get to university and find out that most of what I knew was wrong and actually I knew less than nothing. On some levels, that’s tough to accept. All the stuff I’ve read, all the stuff I’ve written — it’s depressing to think there was nothing in there that came close to what I was trying to reach.

At the same time, it means there’s a lot for me to learn, and seek out for myself. I can read texts and form my own opinions, rather than relying on the Wikipedia page to tell me who characters were. Being here gives me the chance to get at those academic and inaccessible sources in a way that I couldn’t if I didn’t have the university libraries. And I am grateful for that.

Not least because it means I’m not relying on early 20th century publications with little enough sense that they decided to portray Celts as cartoon Romans in illustrations…

Cu Chulainn and Fer Diad, my tragic gay babies.
Cu Chulainn and Fer Diad, my tragic gay babies.

So I guess I’ve learned something from my revision: the fact that I know nothing, and the last few years have been spent reading LIES. Even if it (probably) won’t help me in Monday’s exam… :(

9 thoughts on “Nobody Knows: My Degree Is Unteaching Me

  1. Every time I think I am over it, someone brings up “the people are still reading Gatsby” fiasco. Which just goes to show your point applies to modern literature as well: there are texts that say Gatsby is enjoyable but they are largely inaccurate.

        1. Well, that’s one approach to it. Of the books I had to study for A2, Gatsby wasn’t my least favourite (Tess of the d’Urbervilles gets that dubious honour) but I also wouldn’t put it on my favourites list. It has some nice sentences, so I appreciate that, but after repeated studying I usually end up hating most things.

          1. I prefer Tess to Gatsby (in the same way I prefer being punched in the face once rather than repeatedly): at least with Tess I cared enough to find the events foul.

          2. Tess made me angry, the way it was taught made me angry, my classmates made me angry, and it triggered personal anxiety and stuff as well leading to numerous breakdowns. Sigh. That really wasn’t a fun year, to be honest.

  2. Ahahaha, now I know why the people who talked to me about the “Heroism in the Age of Beowulf” module only made wibbly hand gestures when I asked them how much I could learn for sure from their module. Ah well. At least you know that any advance you make in knowledge isn’t going to have been made before, right?

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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