Vintage Treasures: The Cú Chulainn Novels of Gregory Frost
Celtic fantasy has always been a popular sub-genre, but it really exploded in the 80s, in the capable hands of writers such as Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, C.J. Cherryh, Katharine Kerr, and R.A. MacAvoy, and with bestsellers like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon.
In 1986 new writer Gregory Frost — whose debut novel Lyrec had been published by Ace two years earlier, and been well received — retold the great Irish epic Tain Bo Cuailnge (“Cattle Raid of Cooley”), the tale of the hero of Ulster, Cú Chulainn, Ireland’s greatest champion, who at the age of 17 single-handedly defended his people against the invading army of the sorceress queen Maeve. This began a two-book cycle retelling many of the tales of Cú Chulainn: Tain, published in 1986, and its sequel Remscela, which appeared in 1988.
Here’s the book description for Tain:
On a Lonely Plain in the North of Ireland…
…stands a ring of giant stones, carved with ogham symbols only the Druids can read. It is an enchanted place, where the wind forever whispers the tales of heroes long gone: of rivalry between King Ailell of Connacht and his beautiful, insatiable Queen; of the boy-king Conchover and his obsessive love for Derdriu of the Sorrows; of Ireland’s greatest champion, Cu Chulainn, who no man could best in battle; of the faery fold, the Sidhe, in their sumptuous halls beneath the ground.
Come stand in the center of the circle, and listen to the greatest tale of ancient Ireland, the Tain Bo Cuailnge, about a simple cattle raid that changed the history of a land…
Obsessed by the Holy Madness of Combat…
Cú Chulainn, dark brooding defender of Ulster, wrestles with fate and bargains with death at the hands of Maeve the Intoxicater — who is but one of many dangers.
There is Sidhe Fand, who bewitches Cú Chulainn and is herself bewitched; Levarcham the Satirist, whose complicity causes the war that splits Ulster in half; Cathbad the Druid, who has no equal in the art of mystery, dream and enchantment; the Emer the Riddler, Cú Chulainn’s beautiful wife, sole entangler of shape-changing spells… and her husbands fate.
Both books were published by Ace. Here are the publishing details:
Tain (386 pages, $3.50, February 1986; cover by Phil Hale)
Remscela (278 pages, $3.50, April 1988; cover by Stephen Lavis)
Neither book was reprinted, and both have been out of print for nearly 30 years.
However, a decade after their original publication, Cascade Mountain Publishing produced an omnibus edition containing both books. It was published in trade paperback in December 1998, under the title Crimson Spear: The Blood of Cú Chulainn, with a cover by Gregory Frost (at right). A digital version of that edition is available online for $9.99.
See all of our recent Vintage Treasures here.
A Cù Chulainn book I quite enjoyed was On Ravens Wing by Morgan Llewellyn. I have unfortunately never encountered the Gregory Frost stories.
Let us not forget Kenneth C. Flint. I gobbled those books in the ’80s. When I visited Tara, shades of Llewellyn’s and Flint’s books flitted through my mind.
And Patricia Finney, A SHADOW OF GULLS and THE CROW GODDESS.
I must check these out.
Well might get some boos and sighs here but my intro to that sort of thing was “Slaine” from imported Brit comics under the “Quality” label. They wanted to do their own “Conan” since when they originally penned it Sword and Sorcery was big and they made theirs based on ancient myths and emerging knowledge about ancient history – notably that during the last ice age Britain and Europe were joined by lots of land now under the sea. (Doggerland its called)
The stories were brutal and clever and mixed together mythology and history. Slaine was largely based on CuChulainn, his main nemesis “The Lord Weird Slough Feg” on the classic horned shaman painting, other refs to Minoans, etc.
Later when the artists got better (Bisley!) and they revisited the story they turned it into a comics epic “Slaine; The Horned God” a lushly painted comic ending essentially where the historical Book of Invasions began. Slaine – the historical one – was the first man to set foot in Ireland I think.
You might check out YouTube – some really, REALLY devoted fan made a trailer for it!
I always liked the Slaine series, especially the artwork – although as an Irishman, a condescending sniff might have been more appropriate!* The series is still running in 2000AD, infact the latest instalment just finished a few weeks ago.
* the accent on the ‘A’ means the name is pronounced ‘Slawn’ – not the creators’ intention.
Or (seeing as how you ‘re right about the character’s historical origins – I never knew) they *thought* it was pronounced ‘Slane’. In fairness to them, the town name was derived from the man. I’m guessing the accent/fada was abandoned to make the name more anglicised: a pretty common occurrance in Ireland.
So…are the two books in question any good? Anybody out there read these yet? I have both on my shelf, but they keep getting bumped by other books that friends of mine reccomend. The only Celtic type fantasy I have read is Keith Taylor’s Bard series-top notch S&S/historical hybrid!
Yes, read the Frost books. He uses a dry, understated wit that really underlines the heroic and tragic parts of the original legends.
I read a translation of the Irish epic (Kinsella’s translation — Google tells me there’s a newer one, but I haven’t red it).
Man, that is one crazy book. The description of Cu Chulainn’s battle rage is something else. I wonder what Gregory Frost does with it.
Thanks for this, Sarah – I didn’t know Kinsella had produced another translation and must check it out. His first translation is great (and probably as close to the spirit of the orginal text as we’re ever likely to get) but only covers a small part of the story. I wonder how much of it he covered this time?
Funnily enough the Slaine series (while only basing the character loosely on Cuchulain) sticks closely to the original text’s description of his battle spasm.
Still have my old black and white Slaine’s from 2000AD Monthly. Loved the story and some of the humour.
Kudos for bringing attention to Gregory Frost! His retelling of the Tain, IMO, is the best ever done (and I’ve read plenty of retellings). I corresponded with him in 2010 and he told me he biked around Ireland for several months to research the novels. He certainly captured the Irish “feel” better than most.
I’m surprised that Keith Taylor wasn’t mentioned. He wrote 8 excellent novels of Celtic fantasy between the early ’80s to early ’90s (the “Bard” and “Danans” series).
The same goes for Diana L. Paxson and her novels of Celtic Irish and British fantasy. Very well-written and authentic.
I’ve always enjoyed Cherryh’s and McAvoy’s Celtic novels. Urban fantasy doesn’t do much for me, so de Lint’s and Bull’s novels never impressed me that much, despite being well-written.
Morgan Llywelyn didn’t write Celtic Fantasy until fairly recently in her career. Instead, in novels like RED BRANCH and FINN MACCOOL, she tried to stay “historical” while retaining magical elements by basically saying the characters were insane. I found that quite distasteful. Her straight historical novels are generally good.
IMO, Kerr and Flint both wrote textbook examples of what the late, great Steve Tompkins called “cheapjack Celticism”.
Regarding Morgan Llewelyn… I should note that she wrote the Irish fantasy ISLES OF THE BLEST in the ’80s, which was enjoyable. However, it doesn’t seem to have sold that well. Her publishers probably told her to keep writing “straight” historicals. Thus, her unfortunate treatments of Finn and Setanta in the ’90s.
I haven’t read any of her recent fantasy. Perhaps I should.
Just wanted to alert any of you who are interested that TAIN and REMSCELA are back in the world as ebooks, currently exclusively through Book View Cafe.
Táin was just this week re-released, and Remscela will be out in December. As per what Tiberius posted last month, I wrote a blog post for BVC about why I wrote the two books, which can be found here: http://bookviewcafe.com/blog/2015/11/19/writing-tain-by-gregory-frost/
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