Superhero movies loom very large in the chatter online: witness the excitement over Justice League, with its “extended universe” of warriors gathered from different DC storylines to battle the villainous Steppenwolf. The sheer volume of discussion about Justice League and other superhero movies dwarfs any other fan phenomenon I am aware of. By comparison, the excitement over Benedict Cumberbatch playing Hamlet in London was miniscule, despite its record audiences.
Since the dawn of human awareness, we have been hungry for epics, but it seems to me that these films differ from traditional epic in significant ways. The most important of these is that superheroes never die. Does anyone really think that Superman, who seemed to die in the last Justice League movie, has truly kicked the bucket, shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible, that he is truly no more, has ceased to be, and is in fact an EX-Superman?
In Hollywood, the need for sequels trumps the essence of epic, which is the hero’s encounter with mortality.
58. Parting Song
After the Sídhe women retreated into the mound, Emer’s beloved tried to follow, but the door was closed to him, all rock and earth now. He pressed his forehead against the cool stone, then turned back to her, his face bleak. “I could have been happy there,” he said. “Why did you make me leave, Emer? Why?”
“Is your happiness worth so much more than mine, husband?” Her throat felt tight. At the last minute, she had tried to give him his happiness, to free him, but Fand would not allow it.
“My death is near,” he said, fingering the tiny stone horn at his throat. “I can feel it, now that I am come to the land of Éire again.”
“If I could die in your place, I would,” said Emer.
He still hadn’t touched her, though he stared, his gaze moving over her body and back to her face. What must I look like in his eyes, after that shining Sídhe woman, with her wondrous garments? Emer had been jealous of Fand’s youthfulness, Fand’s beauty, Fand’s gorgeous raiment and jewels, none of which she could match. But most painful was the knowledge that Fand possessed her husband’s love.
He turned his back on her and ran into the woods. She watched him go, and went home to wait. He was gone for weeks, and Cepp divined that he was living in the wilds again, as he had after Connla’s death. In the fifth week, she was summoned to Emain Macha to speak to Conchobar and Cathbad. She arrayed herself in her finest blue robe, and plaited her hair into two thick braids, the ends hanging loose and full. When she arrived at the great dún, Conchobar told her that Medb was mustering her forces for another attack on Ulster.
“She has gathered the fathers and sons and sister-sons and cousins and uncles of the men killed in the cattle raid,” he said grimly. “Three druidesses, the daughters of Calatin, assist her. They wish to avenge themselves on our Hound, who slew Calatin and his twenty-seven sons.”
“Cúchulainn must not fall in this battle,” pronounced Cathbad. “If he dies, the fortunes of Ulster die with him. I have seen it.”
“He is in the woods, I know not where,” she replied. “He pines for his lover Fand.” The name of her rival was bitter on Emer’s lips.
“He will return in seven days,” replied Cathbad. “When he does, you must bring him to Glen na mBodhar. It is warded round with spells, so that no news can come to him from outside. He must not know of the danger, or he will insist on fighting, as champion of Ulster.”
“And he will die.” She scarcely needed Cathbad’s confirmation. Sétanta was past thirty now. His glory resounded throughout Éire, and beyond, in Alba and the lands of the Fair Foreigners. Medb’s cattle raid and the single combats of Cúchulainn were on the lips of every bard. Suddenly, she wished with all her heart that she had allowed him to stay with Fand, in the mounds. How could I have been so cruel towards my only love? I have delivered him up to his death! She began to tremble, but all she said was, “I will bring him.”
Emer went from Conchobar’s hall, and left Emain Macha. She rode back toward Dún Dealgan, but halfway there turned aside to the great mound, the Brug na Bóinde, where her beloved had emerged from the Otherworld. She stood at the door and cried, “Fand! It is I, Emer the daughter of Forgall who calls you! Come forth, and take back the man you love! He is yours. I give him to you, with all my heart! Fand! Fand!” There was no answer. She pounded on the stone until her fists were bruised and bloodied, but no one came. She sank to the ground, defeated. She was alone, except for a crow on a branch nearby, who cocked his head at her, gave a hoarse cry, and flew away. At last she rose, and returned to Dún Dealgan to wait for her beloved.
As Cathbad had predicted, he returned on the seventh day. It was after nightfall. Emer had a tray of food and a jug of mead ready in the bedchamber, in case he was hungry or thirsty. She lay on the bed in her shift, weaving a braid on her handloom by candlelight, holding the warp of the loom rigid by a loop on her big toe. His steps were so quiet that she didn’t hear him until he opened the door and slipped in. His feet were bare. He still wore the simple but rich length of red plaid cloth she remembered from the mound, fastened about him with a fine gold pin. He sat on the bed and watched her weave for a time. Then he said, “Emer, did you ever wish to lie with another man?”
“No, husband,” she replied, keeping her eyes on her work. “Strange, is it not? For Celthair the Handsome is well named, with his long locks of gold and his fine straight nose, and Cúscraid Mend has a broad pair of shoulders, very pleasing to a woman’s eye. And Conall of the Victories, of course, is tall and fair. When he passes, the women of Ulster titter and cover their mouths with their hands, and caress him with their eyes. Indeed, Lendabair says that Conall’s manly part is very impressive, and—”
“Enough!” said her beloved, laughing. “I take your point. But truly, you did not wish to lie with Celthair, nor Cúscraid, nor Conall? Since they are so richly endowed with beauty, how can this be?”
“It is so, because none of those men is you. Why should I pine for another, when my husband is the comeliest man in Éire? And even if he should lose his beauty, and grow old and grey after many a year,” she said deliberately, “my eyes would see only the young chariot-chief who whirled about in his fine festal array at Luglochta Loga, and wooed me with riddles, and boasted of the great feats he would perform to win my hand.”
She saw in his eyes that he was moved by her words. “But Emer,” he replied, “What if some prince of the Sídhe came a-wooing with his lordly airs, slender and tall as a silver birch, adorned in rich garments and ornaments, his long hair and sweet body perfumed like the fir? What if this fine fellow vowed that he would have none but you? What then?”
“Why, I would send the fellow packing, for he has the look of Fand tricked out in a man’s tunic with a sword at her thigh.” And she laughed at the absurdity of Fand strutting about like a warrior.
“You were not afraid of Fand, for all she is a woman of the Sídhe,” he said proudly. “You would have fought her for love of me. You looked very fierce, Emer, with your wee scían. Perhaps I ought to have let you fly at her.” He took the loom from her hands, and carefully removed the loop from her toe.
“You would have enjoyed that, wouldn’t you? Watching me tear the robe from her shining flesh and yank her long plait of silver hair?” As she spoke, she pulled at his plaid so that the pin fell loose, and entangled a lock of his long black hair in her fingers.
“Aye, that I would,” he agreed, settling one thigh between hers, and stroking the hair at her temple. “Now kiss me, Emer my love, for I am come home.”
The next day, she said to her beloved, “Cathbad and the harpers have arranged a musical festival to be held in Glen na mBodhar. May we go? I should like to hear the harpers sing verses in praise of your mighty feats, my husband.”
“Why not?” said he. “It is long since I have spoken with Cathbad, my instructor in the excellencies of knowledge. I shall tell him how I used ogham signs in the cattle raid.”
So they readied themselves for a stay in the woods, and packed a tent, and a wealth of good things to eat and drink. Emer brought her maidservants and Cepp, and Sétanta brought Loeg with Liath Macha and Black Sanglain. The festivities in the glen were grand, for Cathbad had gathered there harpers and singers of verse, both the learned and the light-hearted, with acrobats and jugglers. There was even a tournament of fidchell, Sétanta’s favorite amusement. He and Loeg played, and drank, and feasted. Then her beloved asked, “But where are my comrades, Celthair the Handsome, and Conall of the Victories? Where is Conchobar? It surprises me that they have not come here to enjoy the music.”
“Conall Cearnach had business in Alba,” replied Cathbad. “And Conchobar occupies himself with matters of law, the burdens of a king. As for the others, I trust they will be here soon.”
More days passed, but her beloved began to grow restless, with no other warriors about. There was no one with whom to practice weapon-feats, except Loeg, who was near his fiftieth year now, and had not the skills nor the rank of a warrior. Cepp came to Emer and said, “The daughters of Calatin are outside the glen. They are working some eerie magic, to pierce the wards placed by Cathbad.”
“Can they be stopped?” asked Emer, looking warily about the perimeter of the glen. She saw nothing out of the ordinary.
“I do not know this magic,” said Cepp. “And I am afraid.”
The next day, her beloved suddenly rose from the fidchell board, where he was playing with Loeg, and ran to the center of the clearing. His eyes were burning, the colors in them swirling green, and gold, and slate blue. “What news is this?” he cried. “Woe to me, for the province is full of fighting men! I hear the war cry!”
“No, it is nothing,” said Cathbad. “Only the call of some bird in the forest. Be at ease.”
Sétanta was turning around and around, tilting his head as though listening. About him floated bits of thistle, and puff-balls, and shreds of dead leaves. “Dún Dealgan is burning!” he cried. “The enemy ravages Conaille, and all the plain of Muirthemne! Loeg, where are you? We must fly at once to battle!”
“This is the enchantment of the daughters of Calatin,” said Cepp to Emer. “The sharp thistles and puff-balls and leaves, they call to him as phantom warriors.” As she spoke, a violent spasm seized Sétanta’s body, and he fell unconscious to the ground.
“Bring him into my tent,” said Cathbad, stroking his long beard over and over. Emer realized with a sinking heart that it was a gesture of uncertainty. The wise druid Cathbad was at a loss.
Copyright 2017 by Linnet Moss
Notes: Cúchulainn knows that he will not live forever: there will be no sequel, and Emer is painfully aware of this too. But I don’t need a sequel; I never get tired of re-reading real epics. I always find something new in them.
Our tale is nearing its conclusion; there are 60 chapters to this novel and we have two more to go. There will be sadness, but I promise some consolation too.