Performing Medieval Narrative Today

A Video Showcase

Tain: Opening Tales

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About the scene and clip:
This clip comes from the beginning of The Tain, and tells “How The Tain was found again”; “How Conchobor was begotten, and how he took the kingship of Ulster”; and “The pangs of Ulster.” The performer tells the stories and also impersonates the various characters.

About the work:
The Tain is an 8th-century collection of heroic tales from Ulster which tell (among other stories) of a great cattle raid.

About the genre:
The Tain is in part a collection of stories and in part an epic; as its translator Thomas Kinsella says: “It is Ireland’s nearest approach to a great epic.” The Tain is an epic in its emphasis on battle and heroism; it is a collection of tales primarily by its episodic structure.

The epic is an ancient genre and is found in almost every culture. It is a long heroic narrative which tells of war and great deeds. Epics are generally composed in verse, and sung from memory or improvised in performance by professional performers with instrumental accompaniment. These narratives are created from traditional elements, commonly without recourse to writing, by poets whose names are often unknown to us. Among the famous traditional epics are the Iliad and the Odyssey, attributed to Homer; the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf; and the Old French Song of Roland. Many known poets adopt epic forms and themes for their literary verse (such as Virgil in his Aeneid).

The tale, like the epic, is an ancient genre and one found everywhere in the world. Many tales are firmly rooted in oral tradition and are recited or told by amateur and professional storytellers and performers. Other tales are the work of literarily sophisticated authors and are often intended to be read aloud or silently from written texts. Some tales circulate separately, while others are part of collections which may be set in complex frames (as in the case of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales). There are many sub-groups of tales with specific characteristics; see for example the “lai” and the “fabliau.”

About the edition/translation:
The Tain, trans. Thomas Kinsella, Oxford, Oxford University Press/Dublin, Dolmen Press, 1969, pp. 1-8. Original: Tain Bo Cuailnge in The Book of Leinster, formerly Lebar na Nuachongbala, ed. R.I. Best, Osborn Bergin and M.A. O’Brien, Dublin, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1954-.

About the performer/ensemble:
Gina Guadagnino graduated from New York University in May 2003 with a major in English; she minored in Medieval and Renaissance Studies and Irish Studies.

About the production:
This performance is one of a series done under the direction of Prof. Vitz in spring and fall 2003. This clip comes from a performance that took place in September 2003 at the Maison Française of New York University at an informal gathering of medievalists held under the auspices of the Colloquium for Orality, Writing and Culture, co-convenors Prof. Nancy Freeman Regalado and Prof. Timmie (E.B.) Vitz. The performance was videoed by NYU-TV.