The Hound of Ulster
by Rosemary Sutcliff,
illustrated by Victor Ambrus.
Red Fox 1992 (1963)
Cuchulainn is the great hero of the Ulster cycle of hero tales, some dating back to at least the 7th century CE. There has been much discussion about how much they owe to historical events and how much to myth, legend and folklore. In Rosemary Sutcliff’s retelling of the saga she treats the main characters as real humans with real emotions, albeit often with superhuman and even supernatural attributes.
She follows the traditional episodes of many hero cycles across many ancient cultures: conception, birth, childhood feats, weapon training, wooings, then the apogee of a career followed by the inevitable descent towards tragedy.
Throughout her version of the saga she brings her telltale skills as a storyteller — sympathy with her material, a poetic sensibility, a fine sense of pace, and the ability to delineate key personages in a huge cast and imbuing them with distinctive traits and appearances. Despite a preponderance of male warriors, druids and giants, several females make their mark, and not merely to weep for fallen warriors.
This is a novel to enjoy for its evocation of an ancient warrior society, when slights to one’s honour can have tragic consequences, prognostications must be taken seriously, and cattle raiding is a way of life as much as full-scale invasions. While the ancient province of Ulster is the focus of all that happens, the other provinces — Tara, Munster, Leinster and, particularly, Connacht — are also drawn into the orbit of the tales. Into this legendary Ireland is born Setanta, son of a human mother and the Irish God Lugh, who gains his new name of Cu Chulainn, the Hound of Cullen, after he takes the place of the mastiff he’s killed and becomes the guard dog at the gate of Cullen the smith.
Thereafter we learn of his martial training under the Amazonian Skatha, his affair with the Princess Aifa, and his wedding with Emer; then occur the first initimations of tragedies to come with the feast held by the troublemaker Bricrieu, including episodes of a type familiar to students of the Arthurian poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Then we hear of Deirdre who will become the cause of great strife in the household of Connor the Ulster King, with ramifications that, via a cattle raid ordered by Maeve Queen of Connacht, will eventually result in Cuchulain’s dramatic death.
Sutcliff skilfully weaves together episodes of different dates from sagas and folktales that may be inconsistent with or even disagree with each other, and manages form a lucid chronology. She adopts a poetic voice which successfully mimics a timeless oral tradition which — apart from the occasional faux archaism (such as “’twas”) — is fluent and convincing. She doesn’t flinch from the bloodletting but uses it to point up the inevitable tragedy that comes from rash promises, unhealthy passions and the espousal of a rigid code of honour. Especially we learn that if a geise or personal prohibition is ever broken (even if involuntarily) then an individual’s fortunes must take a turn for the worse.
I haven’t read any Sutcliff for half a century and I’d forgotten what her true strengths were: yes, she rarely gives us light touches, her historical and mythical subjects tending more towards conflicts, triumphs and tragedies, but against the serious themes we can relish her wonderful way with words. If I had a criticism it would be concerning the anglicised names of places and people: a bit of mix’n’match where Gaelic and Englished spellings are concerned and not even always consistent — King Conchobar for example appears both as Connor and as Conor.
But this is a minor quibble because the virtue of The Hound of Ulster is to serve as an introduction to this branch of Irish saga. Specialists may baulk at Sutcliff sometimes playing free with the sources, but bearing in mind they don’t always agree with each other she has done a good job with collating what tells a good story. Assisted by atmospheric line drawings from Victor Ambrus this was a good way to reacquaint myself with Sutcliff’s work and her ability to transport the reader to a credible past.
And all Ulster wept for their loss: because of the story of Cuchulain, the Hound of Ulster, there was no more. No more.
Rosemary Sutcliff was born on 14th December 1920, and so it’s appropriate to visit one of her historical novels for this, her centenary. Though I never met her during my time with the Pendragon Society (between 1967 and 2009) she was a great supporter of the group in the sixties when there was great enthusiasm for the historical Arthur, especially while the archaeological excavations were taking place at South Cadbury, supposed site of Camelot.