Apr 25: The Final Battle of the Tain

In the final scenes of the Tain, we see the tensions culminate in a final battle, as is the case in most of the other epics we’ve discussed in class. Medb tells Fergus that they have been put to shame, to which Fergus responds, “we have followed the rump of a misguiding woman. It is the usual thing for a herd led by a mare to be strayed and destroyed.” (251). How does this characterize the women of the epic versus the men – and how does this characterize Medb versus Morrigan? Would the epic work as well without them present?

10 thoughts on “Apr 25: The Final Battle of the Tain

  1. I think that quote characterizes the view of Fergus towards a woman who erred in her leadership. Instead of attacking her leadership skills, or lack of them, he attacks her gender to create a double blow to her pride. Medb seems to be a powerful force to be reckoned with in the story. Aillil seems to take a background role, as most of the plotting against Cuchulainn originates from Medb. Morrigan brings tribulation to the hero of Ulster as well, however, the two heal each other after their battle. Both female figures could have been taken out of the story and it would not have affected anything. Aillil could have been portrayed as a greedy and dishonest king who wanted the bull of Ulster all for himself and there would have been a little distinction in the story. Cuchulainn fights so many people in the story that Morrigan’s story is only distinct because she interferes with his battle and takes the shape of many different creatures.

  2. In this quote, Fergus is definitely demonizing Medb and blaming her for the whole thing (which isn’t exactly unfair, but he could have included Ailil in his finger pointing, too). And what he says about failure being typical of “a herd led by a mare” is particularly cutting, seeing as this is the entire reason Medb doesn’t have a bull, which is the entire reason she wants to take the brown bull from Ulster and starts the whole war. To me, though I see some truth in Fergus’ accusation against Medb in particular, the accusations against the entire gender were extremely surprising. Up until that point, I was really impressed with how strong all the women of the Tain were, and how their portrayals deviated significantly from our modern society’s norm. In short, I was really disappointed that Fergus made this comment and especially that it came at the very end of the story, almost posing as its moral or at least filling the role of a primary take away. I’m not sure what to do with or how to feel about Morrigan now, or really any of the women I originally thought I was meant to admire. I guess, though, that Medb is now on the same level as Morrigan–a misguided trickster of sorts, using her powers to mess everything up. This is particularly clear when you contrast Fergus’ comment about Medb with his comments about literally every male warrior/leader that Mac Roth describes before the battle. Basically, super disappointed and confused. The Tain’s portrayal of women was already confusing to me before this, and now I just have no idea what to think. Sorry if this is just a rant, I tried to restrain myself.

  3. I see this exchange as, in a way, the culmination of a theme that’s been developed extensively throughout this story. I stopped counting at some point how many men who didn’t want to throw away their lives by facing Cuchulainn (and wisely so, since his power doesn’t seem to be exaggerated, judging by the story’s events) decided to do so anyway because they were promised Finnabair. So you can see how the idea of men motivated by women being a bad thing is nothing new to the Tain by the time of this post-battle scene.

    I disagree a little with Laurel on the question of whether the story would be affected if Medb were not a part of it. Sure, if you made the changes she describes in her post, then on the level of pure plot summary, you could basically have the same outline of events. But a summary isn’t a story (or isn’t usually much of one), and in terms of moral complexity, character dynamics, and the reader’s ability to have sympathy for an entire side of the war, it would be an immensely different story without Medb. Imagine Fergus fighting against his own people, without his secret-but-not-really relationship with Medb. Imagine Aillil trying to get the brown bull just because he wants it, without the motivation of Medb’s resentment due to the white bull abandoning her unjustly? Or the marital rivalry that led to this whole thing? I find it’s the subtleties and nuances that these details add that really define the story’s overall feel.

  4. When Fergus responds with that quote, I believe that Fergus isn’t directly attacking her as a person, but rather attacking her gender and recent failures as a woman, such as leading. Throughout the story there were several different strong female characters, and they were described as such. So when Fergus said this I was caught off guard because of how women in the story were described up until this point. Sure, she made a mistake, but to be ridiculed for being a woman rather than making a mistake is depressing. If a male in the story made a mistake it would be just another guy making a mistake, but with the woman, it has to be pointed out that she made a mistake and that she should be replaced by a man (I mean in the context of the story, not my personal beliefs. Poor Wording on my part).

    • I have to disagree that Fergus wasn’t “directly attacking her as a person, but rather attacking her gender and recent failures as a woman, such as leading”. I think he was attacking her for her gender, faulting her as a person because she’s a woman, not despite it. When Medb has her period or gets “her gush of blood”, Fergus is incredibly upset with her about it (250). She’s a woman and she could not help it- but that’s to her detriment as a person and as a leader. If she were a man, she would not have had to worry about her period and thus wouldn’t have left the battle. She’s a bad leader because she’s a woman and thus being a woman affects her in every sense. It’s a personal attack because one cannot separate Medb from her sex.

  5. As others have pointed out, I thought the sudden misogyny at the tail end of our story was a little bit jarring. However, after thinking back, I feel that the Tain has been a war of gender as much as anything. Mebd is consistently portrayed as devious, greedy, and sexually manipulative – using her “own friendly thighs” as a bargaining chip at multiple points. As the leader of her campaign, she sent scores of men to their deaths at the hands of Cuchulain, who is a portrait of masculinity, many of these men she promised her daughter to, which seems to highlight women as the cause of men’s suffering.

    It should be noted that up until nearly the end of the Tain, the entirety of Ulster are debilitated by the curse of a woman, and the Morrigan, despite not being explicitly deadly, is certainly characterized as, at the least, irritating. The Tain strikes a very strange balance between women being behind all the great deeds (or feats) of men (it was a woman who secured Conchobor’s place as king, it was women who trained Cuchulain, etc.) and being the cause of all of their problems.

  6. As we have seen in other instances, such as with Nes obtaining kingship for Conchobor, and with Cuchulain’s many feats, cleverness is an important virtue in this society that is not to be over looked. Of the women, Nes, Medb, and Morrigan portray cunning and cleverness quite well. We already know how Nes proves her cunning, Morrigan creates a plan to play Cuchulainn, and Medb is constantly manipulating people. None of these are meant to be “bad,” (except possible Morrigan, but it isn’t “bad” so much as troublesome for our hero), but rather a symbol of their skill. In this way, women are actually quite worthy and measure up to heroes.

  7. As previously stated, the characterization of women throughout the story has been complex. Women have been depicted as manipulative and devious just as much as they’ve been shown as an aid to the story’s heroes. Fergus’ statements, closing the story, seem to end the story on a bitter note that casts women as the cause of all the devastation that has occurred. Previous depictions of women show their necessity in life so far as childbearing but otherwise seem to always be lesser than their male counterparts. This sentiment is reinforced in Fergus’ statements and it leads readers to see Morrigan and Medb’s previous failures as not an individual fault but an inevitability of their gender.

  8. It is interesting (and a bit anti-climactic) that the defeat seems to be caused by Madb’s period. I had to do a double take because it was so odd, but they even say that the land is named Madb’s foul place. I feel like this says a lot about the characterization of women: while they cam be powerful and do great deeds, they will always be held back by their gender (literally).

    I think this is also what separates The Morrigan from Madb. The Morrigan is supernatural and the only time her gender is brought up is when she is pretending to be someone else. Madb is earthly (at least in this tale), and her gender is mentioned constantly and is even her downfall (a period is especially connected to worldly/natural concepts, though not in a good way here).

  9. The presence of women has been a constant throughout the story, as they are often the catalyst through wich action is created, or the origin point for great heroes such as Cuchulainn. We have also certainly seen these women depicted in different lights, both good and bad, as individuals and women in general. However, I believe no precise judgement about whether women as a whole were “good” or “bad” was made, until perhaps this scene. This statement and sentiment by Fergus feels like the tipping point, casting Medb and Morrigan and the other women in the story as almost more trouble than they are worth.

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