Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Rabbit's Prayer (or the art of Elegy)

"My heart has joined the thousand, for my friend stopped running today" - Richard Adams
Simple yet profound, and probably my favourite "prayer" from any work of fiction; I also don't seem to be alone, a quick Google returns around 173 million hits. For those unfamiliar with the novel the quote comes from, Watership Down, which contains some marvelous mythology and folklore, some explanation may be required. I believe the prayer is straightforward, with the exception of "the thousand". The progenitor of all rabbits, according to their own folklore, is named El-ahrairah, whose name translates to "Prince with a thousand enemies". He garnered this name by ignoring his god's (Frith) warning that his children were multiplying too fast, devastating the land and the other creatures. El-ahrirah ignored Frith, and so as punishment, Frith endowed the other creatures with a ravenous hunger for the children of El-ahrirah. "The thousand" then, refers to all of the creatures in the world who seek to do harm to the rabbits. In the context of the prayer, then, the rabbits essentially "die" a little bit at the loss of their friend; the rabbits are heart broken. The simple eloquence of equating death with the image of a still lying rabbit (the antithesis of what a rabbit ought to do, according to their own folklore), is very powerful, even profound. The very palpable loss is expressed in terms even a child could understand, but is in no way talking down to the reader, or diminishing the grief felt by the characters.

El-hrairah, Prince of the Rabbits
Structurally, the prayer is very personal, "My Heart... My Friend", yet can be spoken by a larger group; again, as rabbits are by their nature, social animals. The established folklore surrounding "the thousand" is understood, but there is no mention of any sort of "persistence of personality" found within the prayer. What remains is a strong sense of loss, very appropriate for a lamentation or elegy. Perhaps it is this, that the sense of loss is so central to the prayer that it does remind me of many examples of "Celtic" elegiac poetry, and "Celtic" death narratives (or generally oitte). These texts are, again generally, not happy affairs (very much at odds with the frivolity associated with the tradition of wakes). There is no joy or happiness in them, jut the ever present companionship of grief. Consider the following poem "The Unquiet Grave":
"I am stretched on your grave, and you'll find me there always; if I had the bounty of your arms I should never leave you. Little apple, my beloved, it is time for me to lie with you; there is the cold smell of the clay on me, the tan of the sun and the wind.
 There's a lock on my heart, which is filled with love for you, and melancholy beneath it as black as the sloes. If anything happens to me, and death overthrows me, I shall become a fairy wind-gust down on the meadows before you
When my family thinks I am in my bed, it is on your grave I am stretched from night till morning, telling my distress and lamenting bitterly for my quiet lovely girl who was betrothed to me as a child.
Do you remember the night when you and I were under the blackthorn tree, and the night freezing? A hundred praises to Jesus hat we did nothing harmful, and that your crown of maidenhood is a tree of light before you!
The priests and the monks every day are angry with me for being in love with you, young girl, when you are dead. I would be a shelter from the wind for you and protection from the rain for you; and oh, keen sorrow to my heart that you are under the earth!" - Traditional Irish folk-song. 260-1
This is downright depressing; the grief and despair leaps off the page. There are countless examples, but some from the myths. Brigid, upon learning that her son Rudhan had been killed, screams. A primal, visceral reaction to her loss (especially that of her child), the consequence of which was the establishment of the caoineadh or keening, as a practice which would be continued in Ireland until the early 20th century*. Personal experience, leads me to believe that while not keening per se, that screaming (especially from females) is still rather common when confronted with the loss of a loved one, across a considerably diverse swath of cultures. There is a very moving text in which Emer laments for Cúchulain upon learning of his death:
"... Then Cenn Berraide arose and brought the head to Dún Delgan, and gave into Eimher's hand; and she had it washed and put on its own body, and Eimher took it to her, and she clutched it to her breast and her bosom after that, and began to bewail and lament over him, and began to kiss his lips and drink his blood, and she put a silken shroud about him.
Cú Chulainn.'
And she took his hand in her hand, and began to tell forth his fame and renown, and she said: 'Sad is this,' said Eimher, 'many of the kings and princes and champions of the world were sent to death and dreadful doom by the swift blows of this hand, and many of the birds and witless creatures of the earth fell by you, and much of the riches and wealth of the earth was scattered and given away by this hand to the poets and sages of the world.'...
Again we read of the grief at loss and the retelling of what was great and good about the deceased, which unfortunately makes the gravity of the loss all the heavier to bare. There is another text, which also recounts Emer's reaction to learn of Cú's death. Essentially, once Lugaid returns with the recently liberated head of Cúchulain, to be reunited with his body, Emer dies of a broken heart on the spot. It is both a tragic, but terribly romantic sentiment, and something I have always loved about Gaelic literature. People are sometime so overcome with emotion, so overwhelmed with their grief, that their hearts literally break. There is just something I find so genuine and touching in this sentiment; however impractical or romantic. This idea relates to an earlier post I wrote: Men can cry too..., albeit in a slightly different light.

Even in cases where the loss is not one of love (or is perhaps agape as opposed to eros), but of ones friends or comrades, the loss is no less severe. Cáilte mac Rónáin, in the narrative of Acallam na Senórach, spends just as much time retelling of the deeds and adventures of Fionn and the Fianna, as he does quietly weeping. This ties back to something I mentioned above, that the weight of the death is often equated with the worth of the individual. In Cáilte's case, he laments for his friends and family, to be sure, but he also laments that such a generation will never again be seen on this side of the veil. This motif is something which echoes across the centuries, and can be found in what is my favourite of all of the works of W.B. Yates, "The Municipal Gallery Revisited", a poem about Yates solemnly touring the aforementioned gallery, and recounting the luminaries he had the honour of calling comrades, I think the spirit is best summed up in the closing stanza.
Think where man's glory most begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends.
Grief, at least in the Gaelic tradition, is personal, but also has a very social or communal element to it. This best expressed in the tradition of "Waking the dead", which I could go on about for quite a while (but that is another matter). Suffice to say that the juxtaposition found in Elagic literature and poetry is also found in the wake. The blending of the joy at a life well lived and the significance of the loss, the frantic frivolity of the guests and the manic wailing of the bereaved combine to provide a catharsis of sorts. The notion that one would be hard pressed to find a more ripping party than an Irish funeral, is of course a bit hyperbolic. While we have innumerable examples of wake games, dancing, drinking and some even less savory activities (and they say folklorists never get to have any fun), it should be noted that the immediate family would seldom participate in the merriment, if at all. In fact, there is a telling line in a traditional song from Newfoundland entitled, "The Night that Paddy Murphy Died", which states this rather emphatically; "As Mrs. Murphy sat in the corner, pouring out her grief...". The song is, itself, considerably ribald, but maintains that the guests in all their raucousness are honouring the deceased in the appropriate way.

It was expected that family members would be despondent, but the wake provided a way to release not only their own grief, but the communities as a whole, and what better way than surrounded by friends and family. The frivolity was understood to be, in no way, an act to diminish the family (or the guests) own grief, but that letting it go was easier during the frenzy of a party. Here again, I suspect the centrality of liminal states comes back. The period between a death and burial, the point between the grief of loss, and the joy of a well lived life, and the very mixed emotions which can build to an explosive, unexpected result. Some have commented on the fact that a lot of Gaelic literature can be terribly depressing, but so to is it equally compelling and joyful. Perhaps that is the point (or a point, at least), that grief and joy are both our constant companions and seldom far apart from one another.

Loss and separation are sad events, and it is perfectly natural, not to mention reasonable, to be saddened by a death. What is important though, is that we recognize the loss and acknowledge it; be it the complex process of a wake, or a simple rabbits prayer.

* A relatively recent, albeit fictionalized, example of a keening can be seen early on during the appropriately depressing film, "The Wind That Shakes the Barley".

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