Geoffrey Russom, Brown University
Some pretty clear examples of the mortal-immortal romance sub-genre (discussed in Patrick Hogan’s “Impossible Love: A Sub-Genre of Romantic Stories”) originate in Old Irish tradition and enter English tradition through Marie de France, the mother of the English romance and the grandmother of the novel.
The immortals involved are the Celtic fairies, in early tales called Tuatha Dé Danann ‘people of the Goddess Danu.’ Like other Celtic goddesses, Danu was a manifestation of a great river, the Danube. Fairies are said to live in island paradises like Tír ‘na n-Óg, “the land of the young,” and in fortresses connected to the underworld. Many of them bear the names of Celtic gods mentioned by Caesar.
“The Debility of the Ulstermen,” an important Old Irish instance of the sub-genre, explains why the Ulstermen were helpless when attacked by Queen Medb of Connaught in Táin Bó Cúalnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), the great Irish epic in Prosimetrum form.
Plot: Crunnchu mac Agnoman isolates himself after the death of his wife. One day a distinguished-looking woman appears in his house and takes charge of the household. His handsome appearance is delightful to her and she sleeps with him. They live together in prosperity for a long while. One day Crunnchu says he will attend a great festival at the court of the Ulster king. She says he should not go because they cannot not be together if he speaks of her in the assembly, as she strongly suspects he will. He goes anyway. The royal chariot wins all the races at the festival and everyone praises the king’s horses. Crunnchu foolishly remarks that his wife can run faster than those horses. He is seized and his wife is summoned to race against the horses despite her protest that she is about to give birth. She declares that her name is Macha (the name of one aspect of the triple goddess Morrígan, a.k.a. Morgan the Fairy). She wins the race and gives birth to a son and a daughter before the king’s chariots finish. She then declares that everyone who has heard her cry out while giving birth will become as helpless as a woman in childbirth when attacked by an enemy, unto the ninth generation. It is worth adding that the Celtic pantheon includes widely-known horse goddesses like Epona.
A later example of the sub-genre is Marie’s Lanval.
Plot: Lanval is one of King Arthur’s knights. His virtues are many but are not appreciated. Wandering in the forest, he encounters a fairy princess in a beautiful pavilion. They become lovers. The princess warns Lanval that they can no longer be together if he tells anyone about her. With the fairy’s supernatural assistance, Lanval becomes wealthy and earns fame for his generosity. One day Arthur’s queen meets Lanval and attempts to seduce him. He refuses. She says he must be more interested in pageboys. Lanval scornfully tells her about his lover and declares that the princess’s servant girls are more beautiful than the queen. The furious queen lies to Arthur that Lanval has tried to seduce her. Lanval is seized. The barons decide that Lanval can be forgiven if he produces his lover and her servant girls to prove that what he has said is true. The fairy princess decides to rescue Lanval despite her earlier statement that they can no longer be together. Her servant girls arrive at the court, strikingly beautiful and splendidly attired. Last comes the fairy princess, who testifies for Lanval. He is forgiven and freed. He stands on a mounting block, and when the princess passes by on her horse, he jumps up behind her. They leave for the island paradise of Avalon.
“The Debility of the Ulstermen.” In Ancient Irish Tales. Ed., Tom Peete Cross and Clark Harris Slover. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1969, 208–10. (Old Irish text, ed. and trans. Ernst Windisch, Königliche Sächsische Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften, Berichte (Philologisch-Historische Klasse), XXXVI (1884): 336–47.)
Marie de France. Lanval. Trans., Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante. In The Lais of Marie de France. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1978, 105–23. (Old French text in Lais de Marie de France. Ed. Karl Warnke. Tübingen, Germany: Max Niemeyer, 1900, 86-112; available at Lais de Marie de France.)