William Langland ‘The Visions of Piers Plowman – Passus 18’ ctd.

Satan observes, with what struck me as uncharacteristic honesty, that Lucifer cannot say Jesus wants to reclaim the lost souls unfairly, since Lucifer himself got them by tricking Eve into eating the apple. So now there is no helping  and they have to open the gates of Hell to Jesus, who is at the door and repeating more or less the same argument. After they are open, the souls of people who died before Jesus emerge. There are some interesting points in the passage, the first one being Satan’s claim that Jesus’ saved people from sin for thirty-odd years, while the biblical account has Jesus to be active publicly only in the last three years of his life. Satan also claims it was him who tried to scare Pilate’s wife in her dream so that she would persuade her husband not to execute Jesus, and therefore sabotage the whole plan of salvation. Now we are getting into the twisted logic of medieval theology: assuming crucifixion was a Good Thing, because it led to the salvation of humankind, and anybody who stood in its way was a villain (or an unwitting tool of Satan, as in the case of Pilate’s wife), why should Faith earlier on curse all the Jews for demanding Jesus’s execution?

The third point is not so much literary but visual: at some point Jesus describes Lucifer in Eden as “as lizard with a lady’s face”. This is a trope in medieval iconography that actually persisted in some variations even beyond the Middle Ages and you can see some of its elements in Michelangelo’s depiction.

Exile of the Sons of Uisliu – the end

This section consists mostly of Derdriu’s lament. The poem is in unrhymed, irregular lines, although I don’t know whether it reflects the original structure or was just the translator’s choice. Derdriu mourns her husband but also her brothers-in-law. She describes her husband’s beauty, rich dress, singing talent and valour. Seawater Derdriu drank when crossing the sea with Noisiu is sweeter to her than the choicest mead on Conchobar’s table. She also accuses Fergus of losing his honour (as a guarantor of Noisiu’s safety) over a few drinks. After a year of this, Conchobar is fed up and plots his revenge. He asks Derdriu whom she hates the most in the world, and she answers that apart from him, it’s Eogan, Noisiu’s killer (and the king who sealed his truce with Conchobar by doing this). Conchobar then says he is going to give Derdriu to him. At this point Derdriu starts to plan her suicide, because she has sworn that two men alive in the world would never have her. When they are driving together with Eogan, Conchobar makes a disgusting comment, saying that between the two of them Derdriu is like a sheep eyeing two rams. Derdriu throws herself down from the chariot and smashes her head against a rock, “made a mass of fragments of it and died”.

What struck me in the section was the praise of Noisiu’s beauty. In Song of Solomon there are, AFAIR 6 hymns to the beauty of the bride and only one about the bridegroom. I remember reading somewhere (I think it was an observation of a gay writer) that only gay men are truly capable of appreciating male beauty. in Derdriu’s lament Noisiu’s physical appearance is described with great detail and appreciation.

Exile of the Sons of Uisliu ctd.

I have to admit I had to consult Wikipedia today, as the narrative’s elliptical style does not make it easy to understand who killed whom and why. Derdriu slips out of her compound to see Noisiu for himself and after some flirting [“That is a fine heifer going by” – not the most sophisticated pick-up line from Noisiu] she practically forces him to abduct her, by pulling his ears and placing him thus under a bond or geasa, an important motif in Irish folklore. Geasa, is, as far as I could make out, an oath and curse rolled in one. Anyway, Noisiu runs away together with Derdriu, his brothers and a crowd of retainers. They cross the sea to settle in Britain and become hireling warriors to the local king of Alba. Derdriu is kept under lock, in order to avoid any further troubles, but the snooping steward of the king sees her and runs to the king to inform him about this most beautiful woman being so close. The king first tries negotiating for Derdriu’s affections, but despite steward’s daily visits, she never accepts the offer and loyally informs Noisiu about them. The king tries David/Uriah’s trick, by sending Noisiu and his brothers to all the most dangerous battles, but they always win. Finally he decides to adopt a gloves-off tactic and simply kill all of them, but Derdriu somehow knows about it and warns Noisiu and his brothers to leave Alba.

They cross the sea again and land on an island. When the news reach Ulster, Conchobor is shamed into forgiving the sons of Uisliu and accepting them back, because it would be a shame if they “fell in enemy lands by the fault of a bad woman”. [I won’t even start about what exactly Derdriu’s fault is, apart from being beautiful and refusing to marry her abductor.] Conchobor apparently accepts and sends his three warriors, including his own son Cormac as the guarantees of safety. But then he hatches a devious plot: his own three wariors are invited in Ulster to various parties, they can’t refuse the invitations and they are thus kept back. When the sons of Uisliu arrive at Emain, they are attacked by Eogan, the former enemy of Conchobar. He has just made peace with Conchobar and Conchobar decided to use this opportunity and make Eogan confirm his new alliance by fighting Noisiu. During the bloody battle the three warriors arrive, see Conchobar’s treachery and fight bravely on Noisiu’s site. However, Noisiu is killed, Derdriu is taken captive and the three warriors go into exile to other Irish kingdoms, but keep on fighting Conchobar for the next sixteen years. Derdriu meanwhile is in deep depression – she sits for a year with her head between her knees, without smiling, and only little sleep or eating.