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How Cormac Mac Art Went to Faery

CORMAC, son of Art, son of Conn of the Hundred Battles, was high King of Ireland, and held his Court at Tara. One day he saw a youth upon the green having in his hand a glittering fairy branch with nine apples of red. And whensoever the branch was shaken, wounded men and women enfeebled by illness would be lulled to sleep by the sound of the very sweet fairy music which those apples uttered, nor could any one upon earth bear in mind any want, woe, or weariness of soul when that branch was shaken for him.

               "Is that branch thy own?" said Cormac.

               "It is indeed mine."

               "Wouldst thou sell it? and what wouldst thou require for it?"

               "Will you give me what I ask?" said the youth.

               The king promised, and the youth then claimed his wife, his daughter, and his son. Sorrowful of heart was the king, heaviness of heart filled his wife and children when they learned that they must part from him. But Cormac shook the branch amongst them, and when they heard the soft sweet music of the branch they forgot all care and sorrow and went forth to meet the youth, and he and they took their departure and were seen no more. Loud cries of weeping and mourning were made throughout Erin when this was known: but Cormac shook the branch so that there was no longer any grief or heaviness of heart upon any one.

               After a year Cormac said: "It is a year to-day since my wife, my son, and my daughter were taken from me. I will follow them by the same path that they took."

               Cormac went off, and a dark magical mist rose about him, and he chanced to come upon a wonderful marvellous plain. Many horsemen were there, busy thatching a house with the feathers of foreign birds; when one side was thatched they would go and seek more, and when they returned not a feather was on the roof. Cormac gazed at them for a while and then went forward.

               Again, he saw a youth dragging up trees to make a fire; but before he could find a second tree the first one would be burnt, and it seemed to Cormac that his labour would never end.

               Cormac journeyed onwards until he saw three immense wells on the border of the plain, and on each well was a head. From out the mouth of the first head there flowed two streams, into it there flowed one; the second head had a stream flowing out of and another stream into its mouth, whilst three streams were flowing from the mouth of the third head. Great wonder seized Cormac, and he said: "I will stay and gaze upon these wells, for I should find no man to tell me your story." With that he set onwards till he came to a house in the middle of a field. He entered and greeted the inmates. There sat within a tall couple clad in many-hued garments, and they greeted the king, and bade him welcome for the night.

               Then the wife bade her husband seek food, and he arose and returned with a huge wild boar upon his back and a log in his hand. He cast down the swine and the log upon the floor, and said: "There is meat; cook it for yourselves."

               "How can I do that?" said Cormac.

               "I will teach you," said the youth. "Split this great log, make four pieces of it, and make four quarters of the hog; put a log under each quarter; tell a true story, and the meat will be cooked."

               "Tell the first story yourself," said Cormac.

               "Seven pigs I have of the same kind as the one I brought, and I could feed the world with them. For if a pig is killed I have but to put its bones into the stye again, and it will be found alive the next morning."

               The story was true, and a quarter of the pig was cooked.

               Then Cormac begged the woman of the house to tell a story.

               "I have seven white cows, and they fill seven cauldrons with milk every day, and I give my word that they yield as much milk as would satisfy the men of the whole world if they were out on yonder plain drinking it."

               That story was true, and a second quarter of the pig was cooked.

               Cormac was bidden now to tell a story for his quarter, and he told how he was upon a search for his wife, his son and his daughter that had been borne away from him a year before by a youth with a fairy branch.

               "If what thou sayest be true," said the man of the house, "thou art indeed Cormac, son of Art, son of Conn of the Hundred Battles."

               "Truly I am," quoth Cormac.

               That story was true, and a quarter of the pig was cooked.

               "Eat thy meal now," said the man of the house.

               "I never ate before," said Cormac, "having only two people in my company."

               "Wouldst thou eat it with three others?"

               "If they were dear to me, I would," said Cormac.

               Then the door opened, and there entered the wife and children of Cormac: great was his joy and his exultation.

               Then Manannan mac Lir, lord of the fairy Cavalcade, appeared before him in his own true form, and said thus:

               "I it was, Cormac, who bore away these three from thee. I it was who gave thee this branch, all that I might bring thee here. Eat now and drink."

               "I would do so," said Cormac, "could I learn the meaning of the wonders I saw to-day."

               "Thou shalt learn them," said Manannan. "The horsemen thatching the roof with feathers are a likeness of people who go forth into the world to seek riches and fortune; when they return their houses are bare, and so they go on for ever. The young man dragging up the trees to make a fire is a likeness of those who labour for others: much trouble they have, but they never warm themselves at the fire. The three heads in the wells are three kinds of men. Some there are who give freely when they get freely; some who give freely though they get little; some who get much and give little, and they are the worst of the three, Cormac," said Manannan.

               After that Cormac and his wife and his children sat down, and a table-cloth was spread before them.

               "That is a very precious thing before thee," said Manannan, "there is no food however delicate that shall be asked of it but it shall be had without doubt."

               "That is well," quoth Cormac.

               After that Manannan thrust his hand into his girdle and brought out a goblet and set it upon his palm. "This cup has this virtue," said he, "that when a false story is told before it, it makes four pieces of it, and when a true story is related it is made whole again."

               "Those are very precious things you have, Manannan," said the king.

               "They shall all be thine," said Manannan, "the goblet, the branch and the tablecloth."

               Then they ate their meal, and that meal was good, for they could not think of any meat but they got it upon the table-cloth, nor of any drink but they got it in the cup. Great thanks did they give to Manannan.

               When they had eaten their meal a couch was prepared for them and they laid down to slumber and sweet sleep.

               Where they rose on the morrow morn was in Tara of the kings, and by their side were tablecloth, cup, and branch.

               Thus did Cormac fare at the Court of Manannan, and this is how he got the fairy branch.


                The Ridere of Riddles.


               There was a king once, and he married a great lady, and she departed on the birth of her first son. And a little after this the king married another wife, and she too had a son. The two lads grew up tall and strong. Then it struck the queen that it was not her son who would come into the kingdom; and she set it before her that she would poison the eldest son. And so she sent advice to the cooks that they should put poison in the drink of the heir; but as luck was in it, the youngest brother heard them, and he told his brother not to take the draught, nor to drink it at all; and so he did. But the queen wondered that the lad was not dead; and she thought that there was not enough of poison in the drink, and she asked the cook to put in more on the second night. It was thus they did: and when the cook made up the drink, she said that he would not be long alive after this draught. But his brother heard this also, and told him likewise. The eldest thought he would put the draught into a little bottle, and he said to his brother--"If I stay in this house I have no doubt she will do for me some way or other, and the quicker I leave the house the better. I will take the world for my pillow, and there is no knowing what fortune will be on me." His brother said that he would go with him, and they took themselves off to the stable, and they put saddles on two horses and they took their soles out of that.

               They had not gone very far from the house when the eldest one said--"There is no knowing if poison was in the drink at all, though we went away. Try it in the horse's ear and we shall see." The horse did not go far before he fell. "That was only a rattle-bones of a horse anyway," said the eldest one, and they got up together on the other horse, and so they went forwards. "But," said he, "I can scarce believe that there is any poison in the drink; let's try it on this horse." That he did, and they went not far when the horse fell cold dead. They thought they'd take the hide off him, and that it would keep them warm at night which was close at hand. In the morning when they woke they saw twelve ravens come and light on the carcase of the horse, and they were not long there when they fell down dead.

               They went and lifted the ravens, and they took them with them, and the first town they reached they gave the ravens to a baker, and they asked him to make a dozen pies of the ravens. They took the pies with them, and they went forward on their journey. About the mouth of night, and when they were in a great thick wood, there came four and twenty robbers who bade them to deliver up their purses; but they said that they had no purse, but only a little food which they were carrying with them. "Good is even meat!" said the robbers, and they began to eat it, but had not eaten much when they fell hither and thither, all stone dead. When they saw that the robbers were dead they ransacked their pockets, and got much gold and silver. They went forward till they reached the Knight of Riddles.

               The house of the Knight of Riddles was in the finest place in that country, and if his house was pretty, his daughter was prettier, and she had twelve maidens with her only less fair than she. Her like was not on the surface of the world, altogether so handsome was she; and no one would get her to marry but the man who could put a question to her father that he could not solve. The brothers thought that they would go and try to put a question to him; and the youngest was to stand in place of gillie to the elder brother. They reached the house of the Knight of Riddles and this was the question they put to him--"One killed two, and two killed twelve, and twelve killed four and twenty, and two got out of it"; and they were to be kept in great majesty and high honour till he should solve the riddle.

               They were thus a while with the Ridere, and try as he might he could not guess the riddle. On a day of days came one of the maidens who were with the knight's daughter to the gillie, and asked him to tell her the question. He took her plaid from her and let her go, but he told her nothing. The same thing happened to the twelve maidens, day after day, and the gillie said to the last one that no creature had the answer to the riddle but his master down below. One day after this came the knight's daughter to the eldest brother, and looking her finest and handsomest, and she asked him to tell her the question. And now there was no refusing her, and he told her, but he kept her plaid. The Knight of Riddles sent for him, and he gave him the answer of the riddle. And the knight said that he had two choices: to lose his head, or to be set adrift in a crazy boat without food or drink, without oar or scoop. The elder brother spoke, and he said--"I have another riddle to put to thee before all these things happen." "Say on," said the knight. "Myself and my gillie were one day in the forest shooting. My gillie fired at a hare, and she fell, and he took her skin off, and let her go; and so he did to twelve, he took their skins off and let them go. And at last came a great fine hare, and I myself fired at her, and I took her skin off, and I let her go." "Indeed thy riddle is not hard to solve, my lad," said the knight, and he knew the lad knew he had not really guessed the riddle, but had been told the answer. So he gave him his daughter to wife, to make him hold his peace, and they made a great hearty wedding that lasted a day and a year. The youngest one went home now that his brother had got so well on his way, and the eldest brother gave him every right over the kingdom that was at home.

               Now there were near the march of the kingdom of the Knight of Riddles three giants, and they were always murdering and slaying some of the knight's people, and taking spoil from them. On a day of days the Knight of Riddles said to his son-in-law, that if the spirit of a man were in him, he would go to kill the giants, as they were always bringing such losses on the country. Well, so it was, he went and he met the giants, and he came home with the three giants' heads, and he threw them at the knight's feet. "Thou art an able lad doubtless, and thy name hereafter is the Hero of the White Shield." The name of the Hero of the White Shield went far and near.

               Meanwhile the brother of the Hero of the White Shield had wandered afar in many countries, and after long years had come to the land of the giants where the Hero of the White Shield was now dwelling, and the knight's daughter with him. His brother came and he asked to make a covrag or fight as a bull with him. The men began at each other, and they took to wrestling from morning till evening. At last and at length, when they were tired, weak, and spent, the Hero of the White Shield jumped over a great rampart, and he asked the stranger to meet him in the morning. This leap put the other to shame, and he said to him, "Well may it be that thou wilt not be so supple about this time to-morrow." The young brother now went to a poor little bothy that was near to the house of the Hero of the White Shield, tired and drowsy, and in the morning they dared the fight again. And the Hero of the White Shield began to go back, till he went backwards into a river. "There must be some of my blood in thee before that was done to me." "Of what blood art thou?" said the youngest. "'Tis I am son of Ardan, great King of the Albann." "'Tis I am thy brother." It was now they knew each other. They gave luck and welcome to each other, and the Hero of the White Shield now took him into the palace, and she it was that was pleased to see him--the knight's daughter. He stayed a while with them, and after that he thought that he would go home to his own kingdom; and when he was going past a great palace that was there he saw twelve men playing at shinny over against the palace. He thought he would go for a while and play shinny with them; but they were not long playing shinny when they fell out, and the weakest of them caught him and shook him as he would a child. He thought it was no use for him to lift a hand amongst these twelve worthies, and he asked them to whom they were sons. They said they were children of the one father, the brother of the Hero of the White Shield, who had not been heard of for many years. "I am your father," said he; and he asked them if their mother was alive. They said that she was. He went with them till he found the mother, and he took her home with him and the twelve sons; and I don't know but that his seed are kings on Alba till this very day.


SOURCE: Kindly condensed by Mr. Alfred Nutt from an English version by Mr. S. H. O'Grady in Ossianic Society's Publications, vol. iii. The oldest known version has been printed from fourteenth century MSS., by Mr. Whitley Stokes, Irische Texte, iii. I. The story existed in some form in the early eleventh century, as it is cited in the epic catalogue contained in the Book of Leinster.

PARALLELS: Mr. Nutt in his Studies on the Legend of the Holy Grail, p. 193, connects this visit of Cormac to the Otherworld with the bespelled Castle incident in the Grail Legend, and gives other instances of visits to the Brug of Manannan. Manannan Mac Lir is the Celtic sea-god.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: How Cormac Mac Art Went to Faery
Tale Author/Editor: Jacobs, Joseph
Book Title: More Celtic Fairy Tales
Book Author/Editor: Jacobs, Joseph
Publisher: David Nutt
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1894
Country of Origin: Ireland
Classification: unclassified

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