I like to daydream as I dander and while walking home this evening I got to thinking about an old Irish story that I recently reread.
I have a deep love of mythology and folklore, from all over the world. Naturally, having grown up with the stuff, the Irish legends are my particular favourite. The Ulster Cycle, for example, which is not only one of the oldest pieces of vernacular literature in Europe, but it’s like a fantasy book set right in the area I’m from and about people who are supposedly my ancestors. And its influence is pervasive. From Tolkien to religious tradition, I’ve noticed the themes and characters of the sagas popping up all over the place.
It wasn’t until after a conversation in the pub with an English friend that I realised I’d missed a connection- Deirdre of the Sorrows and Snow White.
Isn’t Snow White an old German fairytale, collected by the Brothers Grimm, brought to the masses by Disney? Well, yes, it is. But you know the way these things work. Germany isn’t so far away from Ireland that there wouldn’t have been cultural exchange, and sure weren’t the Celts not German.
Anyway, I’m not going to recount the whole saga of poor Deirdre and her star-crossed lover here (if you want you can read a brief and reasonably accurate summary at this site). The tale is, in fact, usually compared to that of Helen of Troy. Both recount how the beauty of one woman, and the will of a brutish king, resulted in the deaths of many men. I’ve never heard of anyone likening it to Snow White, though, which I now find surprising. Here’s why:
At the start of the story the beauty of the new-born Deirdre is foretold, though by the king’s druid not the queen’s mirror. This puts her life in danger, not from the wicked stepmother, but from The Red Branch Knights who are afraid by the prediction her beauty will cause bloodshed. For safety she is sent away to live in the forest.
She lives in the forest until she comes of age and it is here the story lends itself the most to that of the fairest-of-the-fair. Indeed at this point Deirdre was the most beautiful woman in all of Ireland, but it was the one she was to fall in love with that was the real Snow White. One day in winter while watching a dead calf being devoured by a raven she declared, "My beloved would be a man who would have hair as black as the raven, cheeks as red as the blood, and skin as white as the snow."
As Fate would have it there was indeed a man who matched her criteria and when Naoise, a knight from a powerful family, happened to wonder into her part of the woods while out hunting, he fell for the damsel in distress.
Deirdre escapes her verdant dungeon with her shining knight, but there’s no happy ending as the aged king whom she had been betrothed to marry at birth sets out in pursuit. The ensuing shenanigans are gory and harrowing, with implications for great heroes and events that followed, but that’s a story for another day.
Sorry this post has turned out to be one long ramble but I’m in a waffling sort of mood tonight. I’m a trained journalist and sometimes I think I use this blog to write in all the ways I wouldn’t while working. Ying and yang and all that