A saga retold

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.

Setanta after slaying the hound of Cullen (Victor Ambrus)

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.

The giant Uath at Bricrieu’s Feast (Victor Ambrus)

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.

16 thoughts on “A saga retold

    1. That really was what was magical about her, Lory, her ability to convincingly transport us to another time and place and to let us observe, and smell, and feel, and hear the lives of those long-ago people with all their hopes and fears, successes and failures, warts and all.

      And she did all that despite her physical disadvantages—what an imagination, what vision! Must dig out some of her other works.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I haven’t read this but if it is anything like her retelling of “Beowulf” then it will convey the extraordinary power of the original. I used to love reading “Dragonslayer” with children. And it always provoked powerful creative responses in their art and poetry.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’re correct about the power of the sources being retained, Josie. There’s a plethora of names here (as I’m sure there would’ve been for Dragonslayer) but I was given my copy by a former primary school teacher and he’d marked in selections from chapters to read aloud to classes which worked very well.

      I could have said quite a lot about this retelling’s sensitive nature writing and about its slow crescendo of phrases and passages building towards climaxes, but then I’d be quoting innumerable passage and turning this review into an essay!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I feel it’s time I tried a Rosemary Suttcliffe novel. Somehow, despite her once visiting our school, and firing several of us with a fresh enthusiasm for history, I’ve never read anything written by her. What a long time ago that was! I suppose pocket money failed me, and by the time birthday and Christmas book token’s arrived I’d prioritized other titles.


    1. There are a lot of titles to choose from, Cath, and what you might go for depends on what period you are drawn to. I think The Eagle of the Ninth is her best known title, partly because of the recent-ish film, but if you’re not fussed about period perhaps any one of them is worth starting with.

      The Hound of Ulster was passed on to me and happened to be to hand so I went with that, and don’t regret it one bit! And now I should dig out my Kinsella translation of The Tain, a highly regarded proper translation of the original text of the Cattle Raid…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh this one sounds right up my street!

    I’ve been reading through the Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne recently. It’s a light-hearted, low brow urban fantasy focusing more on the Tuatha Dé Danann (along with Norse and Greek pantheons). I found it good fun but not brilliant. Hearne’s ideas about Irish culture were very American and some of his depictions of Irish people read more as English than Irish. But it was his references to the folklore which kept me interested, that and the druid’s lovable talking wolfhound, Oberon, who is clearly a cutie-pie!

    This has got me wanting to read more on the theme of British and Irish folklore, especially a fictional retelling. What can I say? You’ve done it again with another book for my list!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do hope you get around to it and, especially, enjoy it, Jo! Rather a contrast to the Kevin Hearne though, from the way you describe it — I enjoy the odd lighthearted frivolous read, I must admit, but get queasy when North American writers confound different Celtic cultures with English, a case I’ve found with far too many Arthurian novels!

      As for Irish wolfhounds, they’re the kind of dog my partner leches after so I’m not going to say anything against them. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “[…] but get queasy when North American writers confound different Celtic cultures with English”

        Absolutely – it was really jarring whenever he did that. It gave me the feeling that he learned about Irish culture primarily from US “Irish” style bars and themed attractions.

        “As for Irish wolfhounds, they’re the kind of dog my partner leches after so I’m not going to say anything against them.”

        Quite right! I think she would really enjoy Oberon!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. At least one US novel I’ve read, Molly Cochrane’s The Third Magic, had Arthur’s knights identified as ‘English’ and their opponents as ‘Anglo-Saxon’ (https://wp.me/s2oNj1-3rd magic) — a totally nonsensical concept like having Irish warriors fighting Goidelic (Gaelic) invaders.

          Failing an Irish wolfhound Emily would be happy with a lurcher: she says if I ever pop my clogs she’d get just such a dog… 😁

          Liked by 1 person

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