Randy Lee Eickhoff,
The Raid
(Forge, 1997)

Perhaps more than any other version of the Tain I've read, Randy Lee Eickhoff's The Raid has captured the style and tone of an epic. The flow of the story, the sometimes sing-songy phrasing, the repetitions and formal recitations all give this book an unusual feel of authenticity.

The Tain (or, more fully, the Tain Bo Cuailnge) is the greatest epic of the Irish culture. It tells of Connacht's Queen Maeve, whose lust for wealth led a vast army on a raid deep into Ulster for a spectacular brown bull, and the lone hero Cuchulainn, a boy of only 17 although already a proven warrior with many songs and legends about him, who stands ready to stop them.

This is the stuff great legends are made of, and it's packed with enough fighting, blood, sex and mysticism to satisfy most readers. Cuchulainn, through guerrilla warfare, single combat and brazen attacks against large armies, manages to stall the entire Connacht army until the cursed men of Ulster can rally to defend their homeland. It's a vivid, absorbing read.

That's not to say this is my favorite version of the classic Irish tale. Morgan Llywelyn's The Red Branch is still probably one of the best, although there are others on the market (or, unfortunately, off the market) which use modern storytelling techniques to create a historical novel with a smoother flow and greater detail. Eickhoff's rendering is sometimes dry -- some of Cuchulainn's many battles are simply recited as lengthy lists of names and places, which can get tedious -- and there are a few discrepencies in the flow. For instance, Eickhoff mentions that the Connacht army has grown more fearful of the hero after he slays his foster brother in a three-day fight -- but that passage comes many pages before the fight occurs! The duration of both the Ulstermen's curse and the Connacht invasion seems uncertain as well.

But there's no doubt of the heroic deeds being performed on these pages. Like the ancient heroes of Greece and Rome, Scandinavia and elsewhere, Cuchulainn is gifted with extraordinary skills. He wields weapons no one else can handle. He can dance on the point of a spear and stand unsinking on the water. He can survive mighty wounds and fight again on the morrow. He can best great champions in combat and can overwhelm forces many times his number. He can slay -- or, worse yet, humiliate -- one man as easily as he can mow down 200.

Eickhoff's version also has an earthier tone than others I've read. Acknowledging the coarseness of the age, the author has included bits of humanity most authors leave out. Flatulence, for instance, and the places men like to scratch. He also spends a great deal of time expounding on the vastness of Maeve's breasts, her "friendly thighs" and her astonishing sexual appetite. (Her daughter, too, has similar virtues -- hence the name Finnabair of the Anxious Thighs.)

Short of studying the original texts (after mastering the language of course), Eickhoff's The Raid is probably the closest you can come to reading the tale of the great cattle raid and of Cuchulainn's heroic defense of Ulster in the same flavor and style as it was told centuries ago. You should read it, as it was written, with enthusiasm.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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