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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Fian Banners

By Ossian and Ossianic Poetry

THE NORLAND KING stood on the height

And scanned the rolling sea;

He proudly eyed his gallant ships

That rode triumphantly.

And then he looked where lay his camp,

Along the rocky coast,

And where were seen the heroes brave

Of Lochlin’s famous host.

Then to the land he turned, and there

A fierce-like hero came;

Above him was a flag of gold,

That waved and shone like flame.

“Sweet bard,” thus spoke the Norland King,

“What banner comes in sight?

The valiant chief that leads the host,

Who is that man of might?”

“That,” said the bard, “is young MacDoon;

His is that banner bright;

When forth the Feinn to battle go,

He’s foremost in the fight.”

“Sweet bard, another comes; I see

A blood-red banner tossed

Above a mighty hero’s head

Who waves it o’er a host.”

“That banner,” quoth the bard, “belongs

To good and valiant Rayne;

Beneath it, feet are bathed in blood

And heads are cleft in twain.”

“Sweet bard, what banner now I see?

A leader fierce and strong

Behind it moves with heroes brave

Who furious round him throng.”

“That is the banner of Great Gaul:

That silken shred of gold

Is first to march and last to turn,

And flight ne’er stained its fold.”

“Sweet bard, another now I see,—

High o’er a host it glows:

Tell whether it has ever shone

O’er fields of slaughtered foes?”

“That gory flag is Cailt’s,” quoth he:

“It proudly peers in sight;

It won its fame on many a field

In fierce and bloody fight.”

“Sweet bard, another still I see;

A host it flutters o’er,

Like bird above the roaring surge

That laves the storm-swept shore.”

“The Broom of Peril,” quoth the bard,

“Young Oscar’s banner, see:

Amidst the conflict of dread chiefs

The proudest name has he.”

The banner of great Finn we raised;

The Sunbeam gleaming far,

With golden spangles of renown

From many a field of war.

The flag was fastened to its staff

With nine strong chains of gold,

With nine times nine chiefs for each chain;

Before it foes oft rolled.

“Redeem your pledge to me,” said Finn:

“Uplift your deeds of might,

To Lochlin as you did before

In many a blood-stained fight!”

Like torrents from the mountain heights,

That roll resistless on,

So down upon the foe we rushed,

And victory won.

“The Lochlins,” or “the people of Lochlin,” was the usual name given to the Norse invaders by the old Gaels. In fact, the name still survives in many current proverbs, as well as in Fian fragments of rhyme and balladry.
The whole history of the Ossianic saga-cycle affords, through all the five stages we have roughly assigned to it, a curious study of primitive tradition enriching itself by constant accretions, and adapting itself to new conditions. The cycle does not even confine itself, in this process, to purely Celtic colors and heroic devices. It carries us on occasion back into the far East, where its mythic first beginnings were, as the late J. F. Campbell pointed out in his ‘Popular Tales of the West Highlands.’ There are suggestions, and very strong ones, not only of Aryan folk-lore but of Arabian romance. It is true, one does not find to the same degree as in the Welsh ‘Mabinogion’ the infusion of the mediæval chivalric sentiment, turned to such delightful account by the Latin races. But there are instances in plenty to be cited of chivalric devices, from the Ossianic sagas, which seem to connect themselves with more southern chivalries.
Some of the customs of the ancient Celtic chivalry bear a curious resemblance to the more finished code of mediæval Europe. If a lady put geasa (obligation) on a knight or chief, he must obey her, no matter what she asked of him. Thus when the great Finn was still in his barbaric youth, and clad in the skins of wild animals, he met one day with a highly romantic adventure. Approaching a stream that ran between steep banks, he descried on one side a party of damsels, and on the other a party of knights. One who was clearly the princess among these maidens was, on Finn’s approach, loudly declaring that he who should desire her hand must first leap the deep, swift stream betwixt them. On the other bank stood the unfortunate lover, clapping his arms, without courage for the deed. Thereat Finn came boldly forward, and asked the lady if her hand should be his on his accomplishing the feat? She answered that he looked a handsome youth, though so marvelously ill clad; and that he might have her if he showed himself man enough for the deed. So Finn took the leap; but then she laid geasa on him that he should do the like every year. Another princess laid geasa upon him that he should leap over a dallan as high as his chin, with another stone of the same size borne upward on the palm of his hand.
Another and tragic instance of the geasa is to be found in the fate of the beautiful but unfortunate Diarmud MacDoon: one of the most unforgetable figures in all Ossianic literature. Diarmud possessed one fatal gift, the ball-seirce,—the power of kindling love in all the women he met. He was said to have the magic “spot of beauty” on his forehead, which drew the hearts of all who looked on him. He was a nephew of Finn, who rejoiced in his bold feats. The beginning of his misfortune was the wedding feast of Finn with Grainne, the daughter of King Cormac. At the feast the bride laid geasa on Diarmud that he should carry her off from her people; and though this was against his own feeling and his oath of chivalry, he was obliged to obey. The well-known beautiful ballad ‘The Lay of Diarmud’ tells the story of this tragic episode, and Diarmud’s death. The story has been told again and again by Gaelic and Anglo-Celtic poets; and in its many different versions affords a key of many wards to the Ossianic entrance-gate. We have references to it in eleventh-century MSS., as well as in nineteenth-century reprints; and in its most recent reincarnation in modern Irish poetry, we have a suggestive instance to compare with the literary method of a very different school of poetry in the eighteenth century,—Macpherson’s, to wit.
Before we turn now, and finally, to the consideration of Macpherson’s Ossiana, as resuming in another form and under other colors the old heroic spirit of the cycle, let us remind the reader that its whole extent, from the old primitive Fionn and Diarmud and Ossian to their mediæval or modern counterpart, is simply immense. We can only pretend here to show the way into this enchanted realm, and to give a clue to the best and most picturesque parts of it. But it must be remembered that there is a great deal of rough ground to get over, and many a thorny thicket to be struggled through, and many a tiring monotonous road to be traversed. These are the risks of the adventure; but such risks did not frighten away Ossian and his fellowship of old, and ought not to frighten the Ossianic student to-day who reads, as they fought, with some spirit and mother-wit.