This version of the "Combat at the Ford," the best-known episode of the Irish romance or romantic epic, the "War of Cualnge," will hardly be, by Irish scholars, considered to want a reference. It is given in the Book of Leinster, which cannot have been written later than 1150 A.D., and differs in many respects from the version in the fourteenth-century Book of Lecan, which is, for the purposes of this text, at least equal in authority to the Leabbar na h-Uidhri, which must have been written before 1100 A.D. Mr. Alfred Nutt has kindly contributed a note on the comparison of the two versions, which has been placed as a special note at the end of the translation of the "Combat." To this note may be added the remark that the whole of the Leabhar na h-Uidhri version of the "War of Cualnge" seems, to be subject to the same criticisms that have to be passed on the "Sickbed" and the "Courtship of Etain" in the same volume, viz. that it is a compilation from two or three different versions of the same story, and is not a connected and consistent romance, which the version in the Book of Leinster appears to be. As an illustration of this, the appearance of Conall Cernach as on the side of Connaught in the early part of the L.U. version may be mentioned; he is never so represented in other versions of the "War." In the description of the array of Ulster at the end of L.U., he is noted as being expected to be with the Ulster army but as absent (following in this the Book of Leinster, but not a later manuscript which agrees with the Book of Leinster in the main); then at the end of the L.U. version Conall again appears in the Connaught army and saves Conor from Fergus, taking the place of Cormac in the Book of Leinster version. Miss Faraday, in her version of the "War" as given in L.U., notes the change of style at page 82 of her book. Several difficulties similar to that of the position of Conall could be mentioned; and on the whole it seems as if the compiler of the manuscript from which both the Leabhar na h-Uidhri and the Yellow Book of Lecan were copied, combined into one several different descriptions of the "War," one of which is represented by the Book of Leinster version.
This version shows no signs of patchwork, at any rate in the story of the "Combat at the Ford;" which has, ever since it was reintroduced to the world by O'Curry, been renowned for the chivalry of its action. It forms one of the books of Aubrey de Vere's "Foray of Queen Meave," and is there well reproduced, although with several additions; perhaps sufficient attention has not. been paid to the lofty position of the character, as distinguished from the prowess, that this version gives to Cuchulain. The first verse, put in Cuchulain's mouth, strikes a new note, contrasting alike with the muddle-headed bargaining of Ferdia and Maev, and the somewhat fussy anxiety of Fergus. The contrast between the way in which Cuchulain receives Fergus's report of the valour of Ferdia, and that in which Ferdia receives the praises of Cuchulain from his charioteer, is well worked out; Cuchulain, conscious of his own strength, accepts all Fergus's praises of his opponent and adds to them; Ferdia cannot bear to hear of Cuchulain's valour, and charges his servant with taking a bribe from his enemy in order to frighten him. Ferdia boasts loudly of what he will do, Cuchulain apologises for his own confidence in the issue of the combat, and gently banters Fergus, who is a bit of a boaster himself, on the care he had taken to choose the time for the war when king Conor was away, with a modest implication that he himself was a poor substitute for the king. Cuchulain's first two stanzas in the opening dialogue between himself and Ferdia show a spirit quite as truculent as that of his opponent; the reason of this being, as indicated in the first of these stanzas and more explicitly stated in the preceding prose, that his anxiety for his country is outweighing his feeling for his friend; but in the third stanza he resumes the attitude of conscious strength that marks all his answers to Fergus; and this, added to a feeling of pity for his friend's inevitable fate, is maintained up to the end of the tale. In the fourth stanza, which is an answer to a most insulting speech from Ferdia, he makes the first of those appeals to his former friend to abandon his purpose that come from him throughout the first three days of the fight; even in the fatal battle of the fourth day, he will not at first put forward all his strength, and only uses the irresistible Gae-Bulg when driven to it by his foe. The number of Cuchulain's laments after the battle--there are five of these (one in prose), besides his answers to Laeg--has been adversely criticised; and it is just possible that one or more of these come from some other version, and have been incorporated by a later hand than that of the author; but the only one that seems to me not to develop the interest is the "brooch of gold," which it may be noticed is very like the only lament which is preserved in the Book of Lecan text of the L.U. version. Cuchulain's allusion to Aife's only son in the first verse lament is especially noticeable (see note, p. 196).
Ferdia's character, although everywhere inferior to that of his victor, is also a heroic one; he is represented at the commencement of the episode as undertaking the fight for fear of disgrace if he refused; and this does appear to be represented throughout as the true reason; his early boasts and taunts are obviously intended to conquer a secret uneasiness, and the motif of a passion for Finnabar with which Cuchulain charges him hardly appears outside Cuchulain's speeches, and has not the importance given to it in the Leabhar na h-Uidhri version. The motif of resentment against Cuchulain for a fancied insult, invented by Maev, which is given in the L.U. version as the determining cause, does not appear in the Leinster version at all; and that of race enmity of the Firbolg against the Celt, given to him by Aubrey de Vere, is quite a modern idea and is in none of the old versions. His dialogue with Maev suggests that, as stated in the text, he was then slightly intoxicated; his savage language to his servant gives the idea of a man who feels himself in the wrong and makes himself out to be worse than he is by attributing to himself the worst motives, the hope of pay; but as the battle proceeds he shows himself equal to Cuchulain in generosity, and in the dialogue at the beginning of the third day's fight his higher character comes out, for while his old boastfulness appears in one passage of it, and is immediately repressed, the language of both heroes in this dialogue is noticeable for a true spirit of chivalry. The mutual compliments, "thy kingly might," "fair graceful Hound" "gently ruling Hound" recall the French "Beausire"; it may be also noted that these compliments are paid even when Ferdia is protesting against Cuchulain's reproaches; similar language is used elsewhere, as "much thine arms excel" (page 122), and "Cuchulain for beautiful feats renowned" (page 134). It may be considered that these passages are an indication that the episode is late, but it should be noticed that the very latest date that can possibly be assigned to it, the eleventh century, precedes that of all other known romances of chivalry by at least a hundred years. To this later attitude of Ferdia, and to that maintained by Cuchulain throughout the whole episode, nothing in French or Welsh romance of approximately so early a date can be compared. Is it not possible that the chivalric tone of the later Welsh romances, like the "Lady of the Fountain," which is generally supposed to have come from France, really came from an Irish model? and that this tone, together with the Arthurian Saga, passed to the Continent?
A great contrast to both the two heroes is afforded by the introduction of Laeg with his cries of exultation, which come between the dying groans of Ferdia and the fine prose lament of Cuchulain, increasing the effect of both. Laeg seems quite unable to see his master's point of view, and he serves as a foil for Ferdia, just as the latter's inferiority increases the character of Cuchulain. The consistency of the whole, and the way in which our sympathy is awakened for Ferdia contrast with the somewhat disconnected character of the L.U. version, which as it stands gives a poor idea of the defeated champion; although, as Mr. Nutt suggests, the lost part may have improved this idea, and the version has beauties of its own.
For the convenience of those readers who may be unacquainted with the story of the war, the following short introduction is given:--
At a time given by the oldest Irish annalists as A.D. 29, the War of Cualnge was undertaken by Maev, queen of Connaught, against the kingdom or province of Ulster. Gathering together men from all the other four provinces of Ireland, Maev marched against Ulster, the leaders of her army being herself, her husband Ailill, and Fergus the son of Rog, an exile from Ulster, and formerly, according to one account, king of that province. Not only had Maev great superiority in force, but the time she Ed chosen for the war was when Conor, king of Ulster, and with him nearly all his principal warriors, were on their sick-bed in accordance with a curse that had fallen on them in return for a cruel deed that he and his people had done. One hero however, Cuchulain, the greatest of the Ulster heroes, was unaffected by this curse; and he, with only a few followers, but with supernatural aid from demi-gods of whose race he came, had caused much loss to the queen and her army, so that Maev finally made this compact: she was each day to provide a champion to oppose Cuchulain, and was to be permitted to advance so long as that combat lasted; if her champion was killed, she was to halt her army until the next morning. Before the Combat at the Ford between Cuchulain and Ferdia, Cuchulain had killed many of Maev's champions in duel, and the epic romance of the "War of Cualnge" gives the full story of these combats and of the end of the war. The episode given in the following pages commences at the camp of Queen Maev, where her chiefs are discussing who is to be their champion against Cuchulain on the following day.