For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious

Saturday, 8 February 2014

From the Oxus to Baile's Strand

The Persian warrior and hero Rustum got his son upon a noble's daughter: the son Sohrab, brought up in his mountain fastness, has never met his father but searches for him, doing great deeds of war. At last they meet, and tragically they fight a single combat by the banks of the Oxus, each not knowing who the other is - for an ill fate has led Rustum to change the armour that Sohrab has been told to look for by his mother. Though Rustum's heart has misgivings, they fight.

At last, fatally wounded, Sohrab speaks the words that will pierce through Rustum with the dread truth.

I brought this on myself, this is from me,
And Fate has merely handed you the key
To my brief life: not you but heaven’s vault —
Which raised me and then killed me — is at fault.
Love for my father led me here to die.
My mother gave me signs to know him by,
And you could be a fish within the sea,
Or pitch black, lost in night’s obscurity,
Or be a star in heaven’s endless space,
Or vanish from the earth and leave no trace,
But still my father, when he knows I’m dead,
Will bring down condign vengeance on your head.
One from this noble land will take this sign
To Rustam’s hands, and tell him it was mine,
And say I sought him always, far and wide,
And that at last, in seeking him, I died.

There is a very similar story told of Cuchulain, the Hound of Ulster, who had a son called Conlaoch by the warrior queen Aoife whom he overcame in battle, which son was brought up in Scotland and trained as a warrior apart from his father. His mother puts what is called a geasa or taboo upon Conlaoch, never to refuse a challenge, never to give way in a fight, and never to tell his name on demand. Thus he arrives in Ulster, armed for war, and kills several heroes before Cuchulain arrives on the strand.

Cuchulain rose up then and went to where Conlaoch was, and he still handling his arms. And Cuchulain asked him his name and said: "It would be well for you, young hero of unknown name, to loosen yourself from this knot, and not to bring down my hand upon you, for it will be hard for you to escape death." But Conlaoch said: "If I put you down in the fight, the way I put down your comrade, there will be a great name on me; but if I draw back now, there will be mockery on me, and it will be said I was afraid of the fight. I will never give in to any man to tell the name, or to give an account of myself. But if I was not held with a command," he said, "there is no man in the world I would sooner give it to than to yourself, since I saw your face. But do not think, brave champion of Ireland, that I will let you take away the fame I have won, for nothing."
With that they fought together, and it is seldom such a battle was seen, and all wondered that the young lad could stand so well against Cuchulain.
So they fought a long while, neither getting the better of the other, but at last Cuchulain was charged so hotly by the lad that he was forced to give way, and although he had fought so many good fights, and killed so many great champions, and understood the use of arms better than any man living, he was pressed very hard.
And he called for the Gae Bulg, and his anger came on him, and the flames of the hero-light began to shine about his head, and by that sign Conlaoch knew him to be Cuchulain, his father. And just at that time he was aiming his spear at him, and when he knew it was Cuchulain, he threw his spear crooked that it might pass beside him. But Cuchulain threw his spear, the Gae Bulg, at him with all his might, and it struck the lad in the side and went into his body, so that he fell to the ground.
And Cuchulain said: "Now, boy, tell your name and what you are, for it is short your life will be, for you will not live after that wound."
And Conlaoch showed the ring that was on his hand, and he said: "Come here where I am lying on the field, let my men from the east come round me. I am suffering for revenge. I am Conlaoch, son of the Hound, heir of dear Dundealgan; I was bound to this secret in Dun Scathach, the secret in which I have found my grief."

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