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of celtic origins

mkarol's picture


            Serials have become a regular part of most American’s lives, in the form of episodic television programs, such as House MD, Gossip Girl, and Grey’s Anatomy. 




These stories provide an escape from the “real world”, allowing the audience to sit back, relax, and dive into the drama (or comedy, action, etc) of whatever they’re watching. Studies have shown that in recent years the amount of time people spend ‘living’ in another world has risen significantly, but the question is whether or not this fascination with serials, and the enjoyment of observing another person’s life, is a new phenomenon.


Modern day television serials may actually find their origins in ancient mythological tales, “dream-like” stories of people from the past that were told orally and then eventually written down. Every culture has its own legends and customs that have been passed down from one generation to the next, in order to instill values and maintain and explain traditions. One Thousand and One Nights is one of the most popularly recognized pieces of literature from the Middle East, telling a ‘story within a story’; Scheherazade’s plight being the outside tale and her bedtime fables the topic of each ‘episode’.


Similarly, much of Celtic and Gaelic legend is based in a serial and episodic nature, told in “cycles”. These three (or four, depending on your sources) sets of tales divide the history of Ireland into periods: the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster/Uliad Cycle, and the Fenian Cycle. Within each of these parts are stories about heroes and creatures from ancient Ireland, which are meant to record a history of the nation and its culture. The Ulster Cycle (also known as the “Red Branch Cycle” in reference to an order of great warriors who fought under the king of Ulster) in particular focuses largely on the great hero Cú Chulainn, whose life is divided into many different tales and recounted story by story.

Out of all the accounts of events in Cú Chulainn’s life, there are five “episodes” that are considered to be the most important:

  1. His birth and childhood (son of a god)

  2. The changing of his name from Setanta to Cú Chulainn after slaying a vicious hound (his name means "Chulainn's Hound"
  3. His training to be the greatest warrior in Ireland and his marriages
  4. "Táin Bó Cuailnge" (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) when he protected a bull from Queen Maeb's entire army
  5. His death


In the tradition of modern culture and technology, the story of Cú Chulainn has actually been transformed into a (really bootleg) mini-serial, made available online by the BBC (in English and Gaelic!).  The premise of the five-part series is ironically similar to One Thousand and One Nights, as each part begins with two children asking their grandfather to tell them a story (which of course happens to be that of Cú Chulainn) that often relates to the lives of the children themselves, teaching them something. This structure makes the series much like Scheherazade recounting tales to her sister and husband, the king, oftentimes in hopes of teaching a lesson. Even more recently, this classic Celtic legend has made the move into the rapidly growing genre of the web comic, which promotes the story’s serial nature further, by telling the tale week-by-week. 


Celtic culture is firmly based in the passing down of traditions and legends, in order to keep the history of Ireland alive. However, the tales serve another purpose as well, one that ties the tales of years gone by to the form of entertainment that we call serial television series. Both are supposed to be recounted in a way that you can see the development of the lives of the main characters while being told a smaller story in each individual ‘episode’. And maybe today’s television shows do more than just entertain… just as the life of Cú Chulainn speaks about the warrior-like nature of Ireland’s past, our serials may be a record of the everyday lives and drama of 2010.




Anne Dalke's picture

Re-cycling Use Value

This was a "real experiment" we were conducting in class, this past month: trying out the idea that t.v. serials might be thought of as a contemporary version of what you characterize here as "dream-like stories of people from the past, told orally and then eventually written down." So it's a real delight to me to see you working that vein, by turning your attention to the (serial? episodic?) Celtic and Gaelic legend cycles.

So, first question: how do you understand the relation, here, between forms that are serial, those that are episodic and those that are cyclic?

I know very little about this traditional cycle, and nothing whatsoever about the contemporary forms you bring into this conversation, so I also have many more questions. Some of them are about the specificity of these stories. For example: you say that the storyteller in the "really bootleg mini-serial" is the grandfather; who tells the stories in the traditional cycles? How are they structured and organized?

Some of my questions are more about what such traditional and contemporary tales may add to our larger survey of world literature. For instance, you say that "the premise of the five-part series is ironically similar to 1001 Nights." Why do you characterize the similarity as ironic, rather than (say) as an index to cross-cultural storytelling patterns? If we pursued the latter possibility, then of course the teaching function, which you also highlight in the Cú Chulainn tales, would be another commonality they share w/ the stories told by Scherazade.

I also have some questions about how you understand the changing use-value of these tales, as they have shifted from traditional to more contemporary forms. You begin, for example, by characterizing serials as "escape from the 'real world'"; you end, however, by saying that "our serials may be a record of the everyday lives and drama of 2010." Perhaps serials actually offer more "accurate" representations of the "real world" than those provided by bound novels or single films? Because ongoing, and interrupted, and so more like "real life"? But how were the traditional stories conceived, in terms of their relationship to the everyday?

Also of particular interest to me is your report that the current series is offered both in English and Irish language versions. So I wonder what role the series might play as an intervention into contemporary English-Irish politics. I am thinking here of the history of Orientalism, which we traced in reviewing the long backstory of 1001 Nights. These tales served (among other uses) as instructional texts for English empire-builders. So I have a parallel query, regarding the use-value of the
Cú Chulainn tales: do they perhaps assert the particularly value of distinctive Irish traditions, in the context of the long awful history of English-Irish relations?  (The website where I found this image, indymedia ireland, argues, for instance, that "The symbology of Cú Chulainn would be put to better use Saving Tara in Croke Park than selling a brand of stout.")