by Penelope Fleming
When preparing a folktale for telling, it is extremely beneficial – and marvelously entertaining, moreover – to compare different versions in order to tailor the tale to your liking. St. Patrick’s Day provides the inspiration for a story to illustrate this notion: the humorous clash between two popular Irish heroes, Fin M’Coul and Cuchulain.
The most immediately observable difference, just in reading through the bibliography, is the various spellings for the three main characters’ names: Fin M’Coul (Yeats, Jacobs, de Paola), Finn McCool (Souhami), Finn MacCoul (Byrd), Finn Mac Cool (Riordan), Fionn mac Uail (Stephens) and just Finn (O’Brien); Cucullin (Yeats, Jacobs, de Paola, Riordan, Byrd), Cuhullin (Souhami) and the distinctively Scottish McConigle (O’Brien); Oonagh (Yeats, Jacobs, de Paola, Byrd, O’Brien), Oona (Souhami) and Una (Riordan).
The basic plot in each variant is similar: Cuchulain, the superior giant in size and strength, tracks down Finn M’Coul in order establish this fact once and for all, silencing Finn’s boasts. The anxious Finn makes for his home on Knockmany Hill, seeking his wife’s help in the matter. Oona formulates a plan, which calls for Finn to pretend to be his own infant son (the two have no children at the time). Oona soundly outwits Cuchulain, Finn relieves his opponent of his “finger of strength” by neatly biting it off, and once again the old axiom “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” is proven true.
In most of the tales, Finn also has a magical finger, a “thumb of prophecy.” It is in Byrd’s retelling alone that Finn’s acquisition of this virtuous digit is illuminated; the author gives credit to Stephens in his afterword for this element of his account. Although de Paola’s book makes no mention of Finn possessing a thumb of prophecy, it does claim that Cuchulain’s finger of strength was made of brass; in Byrd’s version, it is made of gold. The other variants seem content to have it be good old flesh and bone. In O’Brien’s tale, Cuchulain’s finger is also one of prophecy rather than strength, and Souhami’s story is the only one that shifts the finger referenced to the position of pinky rather than the middle finger. Perhaps because she is writing specifically for children, she did not want the negative connotations associated with that particular digit to garner disapproval from parents. One final interesting note along these lines: in many of the stories Cuchulain must pull or suck on his finger to gain the benefit of strength or prophecy (Yeats, Jacobs, Riordan, O’Brien); in Souhami’s story, no such machinations are required – he’s just strong.
The same goes for Oona in Souhami’s book. She needs no charms or faery magic because she outsmarts Cuchulain with her wits alone. She need not even consult the sister that appears in other variants (Yeats, O’Brien) or weave a charm for guidance and/or protection (Yeats, Jacobs, O’Brien, de Paola, Byrd). Byrd’s book fleshes out the idea of magic still further by supplying Oona with a sacred harp and a faery cat for a pet.
In every story, Oona offers Cuchulain loaves of bread with iron griddles secretly baked into them, but in some tales, he must perform certain tasks first. Oona requests that he pick up the house, usually to turn it around out of the wind (Yeats, Jacobs, Riordan, O’Brien, Byrd), although in Souhami’s case, it’s so she can dust under it! In most of the tales, Oona then asks Cuchulain to get water from a spring buried under rock (Yeats, Jacobs, Riordan, O’Brien, Souhami). An additional incident that appears in several of the variants is one in which Finn, posing as his own child, squeezes water from a stone (Yeats, Jacobs, O’Brien, de Paola); in actuality, the “stone” is a cheese, so naturally Cuchulain has no hope of duplicating the feat. Byrd has his own unique take on this episode; rather than squeeze water from a stone, Cuchulain is merely asked to crush one and curiously, is unable to do so.
Finally, the stories differ on the exact nature of Cuchulain’s defeat. In the oldest versions, Finn kills his enemy as soon as Cuchulain is rendered weak and powerless (Yeats, Jacobs). In later, slightly less violent variants, Finn merely beats him up (dePaola, O’Brien, Byrd) and Cuchulain wisely never troubles M’Coul again. In the most nonviolent retellings, the twist is that the removal of his finger – when Cuchulain foolishly decides to examine the so-called child’s teeth – causes the poor giant to shrink and flee, never to return.
However you choose to piece together your own retelling of a folktale, rest assured that thorough research is sure to result in a most satisfying story, and one best suited to your individual preferences. Happy investigating!
Yeats, W.B. [Editor], Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry, 1888; “A Legend of Knockmany” by William Carleton.
Jacobs, John [Collector], Celtic Fairy Tales, 1892; “A Legend of Knockmany,” source: William Carleton.
Stephens, James, Irish Fairy Tales, 1920; “The Boyhood of Fionn.”
de Paola, Tomie, Fin M’Coul: The Giant of Knockmany Hill, 1981.
O’Brien, Tales for the Telling: Irish Folk and Fairy Stories, 1986; “Two Giants.”
Riordan, James [Editor], The Kingfisher Treasury of Irish Stories, 1995; “Una and theGiant Cucullin,” retold by the editor.
Byrd, Robert, Finn MacCoul and His Fearless Wife: A Giant of a Tale From Ireland, 1999.
Souhami, Jessica, Mrs. McCool and the Giant Cuhullin: An Irish Tale, 2002.