Open main menu

Page:Folk-lore - A Quarterly Review. Volume 4, 1893.djvu/388

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
Celtic Myth and Saga.

mediæval Irishman as a joke, and would he have considered the trick as ungentlemanly? I doubt it exceedingly, but what I chiefly doubt is that an Irish story-teller would have woven these jokes into historic and hagiological tales which were obviously meant to be taken au sérieux, if not to edify. Yet such is the case with nearly all the tales that exercise Mr. O'Grady. I submit that it is far simpler to treat these stories as evidences of the fact, in itself most probable, that the early Irish saints were just tribal medicine-men with a Christian instead of a pagan bag of tricks, and to regard them as surviving by force of tradition, than to imagine that several generations of Irish story-tellers, after centuries of Christianity, went out of their way to vilify their national saints by harking back to archaic and pre-Christian modes of thought and act.

What makes it still more unlikely that these stories, in which no trace of humorous intent is perceptible, were meant by way of caricature, is the existence of a mediaeval Irish tale conceived in the truest and broadest vein of caricature. I allude to the Vision of Mac Conglinne. The parodist spares neither heroic saga, nor saint's legend, nor even the gospel narrative, and his work, precious as testifying to the existence in serious literature of the incidents and modes of expression which he caricatures, is still more precious as affording conclusive proof that the mediæval Irishman's appreciation and expression of grotesque humour were essentially the same as our own.

Hitherto we have been considering collections of new material, and have had little to discuss in way of contributions to a constructive criticism of the mythic literature of the Irish. But Professor Zimmer, in the important work on Nennius[1] which he has just published, amongst many valuable hints towards the proper understanding of the Irish literary records in the pre-mediæval and mediæval periods, makes two suggestions the effect of which upon

  1. Fully summarised by me in The Academy, Aug. 12th and 19th, 1893.