THE STORY OF MIDIR AND ETAIN

The love story of Midir, the proud and handsome son of the Dagda, the father of the ancient gods, and the beautiful Etain, is probably the most famous romance in Irish mythology. There are numerous versions of the tale in which the supernatural intervenes in the affairs of the couple who have subsequently become fairies in the minds of the people--but few more fantastic adaptations than the following one by Sir Shane Leslie (1885-1971....

Once upon a time the Kingdom of Meath was as rocky and stone bound as the fields of Connaught today. Etain the girl fairy lived with Midir the King of the Elf-mounds of Ireland. She was the most beautiful of her kind, for the folk of Ireland judged beauty ever afterward by Etain the beautiful, but she was unstable and fitful. She had a mind and a half-memory, as well as a full memory. It was out of her half-memory that Midir heard her speak in her sleep of other lovers beside him. With brooding on her strangeness he became a stranger to her in his own mind. With that he left her and went riding upon his coal-black horse. A snow-white hound ran for shadow by its side, for no fairy horse can throw a shape upon the ground.

It was a second wife he brought home. She was also of the fey, and her jealousy was more terrible than the jealousy of women born. She dealt secretly with her Druids to ply Etain with spells. They made Etain as a butterfly that eateth flowers. Etain fluttered vainly into Midir's sight, but his eyes were cast elsewhere and the Druids' wind blew Etain like a silken leaf across the moor. Seven years she was carried hither and thither by the king-winds of Ireland until she lighted in the palace of Midir's dear foster-son by the Boyne water. He knew her for a woman under fey and built her a little house with windows instead of doors, and fed her with bog myrtle and rowanberries. At evening she would assume her ancient beauty. For the Druid spell was by the Sun and by the Moon and lost power in the twilight, which is neither of sunshine nor moonlight. Midir's Druids knew she was come by Boyne water and hastened till they found her bower hanging like a swallow's room to the palace walls. Etain was drying her wings in the light. With a magic blast they tossed her again upon the elements, and for seven years she floated like a little satin cloud hither and thither.

A lesser wind dropped her into the court where the people of Ulster sucked sweet hydromel from methers. Etain fell into the cup beside the King's wife. It was a woman's cup and white with milk, so that she swallowed Etain for a white curd. In earthly shape was Etain reborn and then she was called Etain, for her fairy name was not revealed then or thereafter by dream or Druid. With Ulster's princely daughters she was reared till the noon of maidenhead. One day they bathed together in the blue speckled sea. A strange horseman rode by upon a coal-black horse, and a seagull sailed for silvery shadow under its hoofs. All but Etain slipped into the waves, but she stood, caught in her half-mind. The stranger said, so that she heard: 'She was so delicate that a Queen quaffed her unwitting. Her place is not with earth children. For her sake Meath shall be smoother than the sea and the Elf-mounds of Ireland laid in ruin. The men of Ireland shall measure by her name forever.' He said, and slipped behind air and was unseen. Hither and thither the princely maidens of Ulster waded for wonder and for fear of his words. But Etain stood trembling like a winged thing in a draught of fire.

Eochy was King of Ireland and lived in the demesne of Meath. For the man of Meath is the ruler of the men of Ireland. But the rocks of Meath gave to place to his horses and the rushes no milk to his cows. He was wont to ride round Ireland visiting every King and Kingling of his allegiance. His loneliness for one was not healed by the company of the many. He stayed unwedded, not finding mate among the royal women of Ireland. Harpers he has sent upon horses and wizards upon air to find one willing and worthy to queen Ireland. Lastly he rode out with only a favorite harper alone with him. Toward evening they found Etain. A purple mantle stitched with silver hung across her shoulder. With a silver comb she drew her hair into plaits. Her cheeks were red as the sun upon the West, and her arms were whiter than the snow falling at dawn. Her teeth were pearls dashed in the foam of the sea. Her eyebrows were darker than the wing of the bright beetle.

The kind asked her name. 'I am Etain of the Elf-mounds,' she said; for by dreaming she had happed upon the place she came from. He asked if she were betrothed, and she told him that the Kings and noblemen of the Faery came wooing her by all the wells and waterways of Ireland. To forsake all the women of the world the King promised, if she would but come with him to Meath. But for love of the World-under-wave she would not queen Ireland.

Eochy returned to his home. By day he lay him down, and by night he rode and swam. Love of Etain let him not enjoy the life and velour of the world. Druid and harper could not quell the pangs of his pain or the sorrow of his sickness. A leech came, who could tell the disease in the house from the smoke curling on the roof-top. 'No need to lament,' quoth he, approaching the palace, 'this man is undone by one of the two peerless plagues which afflict the men of Ireland. It is envy or it is love.' He saw the King and said: 'It is not envy. It is beyond the dream of Druid and the healing of harpers. The herb of the physician cannot attain thereto.' The King rose and said: 'My disease hath run deeper than my covering of skin. My love is a kingdom of strength and I am held therein. I am wrestling with a specter. I am tossed to Heaven and I am thrown into the sea. I am enamored of an echo.'

'Better seek the rock that gave you the echo,' said the leech, and the King set riding again with his harper. When they approached the dwelling of Etain, the King sent his harper to play in her hearing while he waited the distance of the sound away. Etain saw the King passing and took no notice, for she saw the darkness of his horse's shadow upon the rocks. But of his sweetest the royal harper harped. When he played of the wonders and wooing of Meath, Etain listened and the Boyne river passed from her memory. She rose to reward the harper. Nothing would he take but to tell her his story. He told her of Eochy, High King of Ireland, wasting away for her sake, until she took pity and told him to send the King to tryst at dawn that he might live and not die of her.

At dawn of dawn one drew near to her, and courted her with tales of the beauty and bravery of Meath. She soothed his love and went her way in the twilight. In the true dawn came the King, and when he found her gone he wished to lie down and die. His harper found Etain and persuaded her to tryst with the King at the dawn of the morrow. Once again it was the wraith that came to Etain in the twilight of the dawn, but with the likeness and the voice of Eochy. The wraith told her that the women of Meath had lost all beauty in the night. Etain said: 'It is with Eochy and not with you that I trusted at dawn lest he should come to his death.' The wraith replied: 'It was better that you should court me than the sick King, for I was your lover in the aforetime.'

Ever was Etain remembering, and the wraith spoke to her by the fairy name that lay hin her half-memory, and said: 'I am Midir and by the sorcery of Druids we were driven apart. Again I have found thee as ever of enduring beauty and faithless mind. When I prattled to thee of the Methians thou though test I was their King. King is I only of those who pass under wave and beyond world.' Then Etain was divided between her love for Faery and her anger at the trick which Midir had played against her, and she made pretence that she would marry the man who had Meath for his own. Answered Midir: 'Can I not give thee all the may-meadows and well-waters of Ireland for a bride gift?' Answered Etain: 'Even so would I not exchange the Methians royalty for thy lineage, which is none that men know.' 'True said,' replied Midir, 'for there is no lineage where there is neither birth nor death.' Fiercely he pressed her to return with him to the Elf mounds, saying: 'Thou shall live forever with the primrose-haired. Thou shall be Queen of the tribes who pass all-seeing and unseen through the hills of Ireland. Pleasant are the plains of Ireland, but there is a Plain which is beyond pleasure. Delicious to the minds of men is the sweet hydromel that the women of Ireland brew in vats, but the drink of my country enchanteth every sense together.'

Etain would have laid away her pretence then and gone with Midir, but Eochy drew near with his harper, and the earthly harper drowned the dream of the Faery. For a year and a moon and a night Etain lived with Eochy in the Kingdom of Meath, and theirs were all the boundaries of all Ireland. Whoever is Lord of Meath and kingeth every bound of Ireland. 'The Setting is with the Jewel,' as the Brehons have said. Their allotted time passed and they chanced to sit in the hall of the banquet. The inner gates were closed. The armed men were withdrawn from the ramparts, for it was against the chivalry of Ireland to make attack after nightfall. The porter stood alone in the court. A warrior was seen passing within the gates. The porter knew neither his face nor his accoutrements and still-stood with fright. His knees kissed and his heels fled from each other. Eochy heard the clinking of his knees and cried aloud to the porter: 'Who knocks?'

'Midir of the Elf-mounds’ was the reply, 'and I am come to play against the royal harpers for a fee.'

The King of Ireland consented, both for his love of harmony and for his love of the hazard. Now the best harpers in Ireland are they who have learnt their tunes from the herdsmen who listen at the holes of the Elf-mounds, and Midir made sure that no harper of Eochy would play other than echoes of his own music. Very cunningly he played the music of challenge, and sang of the youth and beauty of the world that is ever so young, until the old wine the casks stored under the roof became fresh wine of the grape and poured down the walls. When he had finished, the very warriors and poets of Eochy cried: 'Victory indeed!'

Then the King called his favorite harper, who had been stolen out of his cradle by a water-wench, and had heard better music under wave than ever upon earth. Long he played and all listened, Midir most of all. It was not music of Elf-land or echo of the elfin tune, but the music of the cities which have been drowned in the Western sea. The night winds carried the music into the trees outside the royal wrath of the King and, though it was winter, they burst into bloom. When he had ended, all present cried: 'Victory over Victory!' Midir asked the fee he should pay to the royal harper of Ireland. 'Clear the plains of Meath smooth of stone!' said the harper, who knew whence Midir came. Midir went as he came.

At dawn the royal steward went out and found the fields as smooth as the face of the clouds, and a great host with fairy oxen carrying away every stone except the magic stones of the Druids, and sinking them into the bogs and waterholes of Ireland.

But Midir was unsatisfied and came to the King the next night, passing porter and portals into the room of banquet. The King asked his need, and he said: 'A game of royal chess.' The board was set of gold and silver squares, and the King slew half of Midir's chessmen. Midir pretended anger, and bade the King chose whatever stake he would. 'Rid the fields of Meath of every rush,' said the King. At dawn the royal steward went out and reported that a multitude of small folk were hewing down the last rushes as men destroy a forest.

The next night Midir came again and asked another game. The King gladly consented to show his skill. Midir played with the wisdom of his own people, and he left no piece but his own standing upon the board and the King's king piece. The King inquired to his stake. 'To hold Etain the beautiful in my arms for a moment of time,' said Midir. The King was troubled and bade him return after the month.

At the end of the month Eochy filled his halls with chosen warriors and trim swordsmen, and send men riding to and fro upon the ramparts. Midir passed through them all. 'A debt is due to me,' he said. 'I have not considered yet,' said the King. 'Etain the beautiful thou hast promised me.' 'But only for a moment of time,' said Eochy. Fear came upon Etain, for the year of her forgetfulness was passing from her. To the King she clung, saying: 'Until thou resign me I will not go from thee.' 'I will not resign thee,' said Eochy, 'but he may take thee in his arms for a moment of time as thou art, and in the midst of my warriors, and while my horsemen gallop the battlements.' 'Well said,' quoth Midir, 'for a moment of love time is longer than all time.' To Etain then he whispered her fairy name.

She withdrew not from his arms, but passed away with him as she had come, through the lattice of the roof. Eochy the King rose and cried aloud as a sheep shouted to an eagle bearing away her lamb. When the warriors in the court heard the cry of the King, they leaped against each other with their swords in their hands and shame in their eyes. And the riding men spurred to and fro upon the ramparts. Yet no one was seen to pass, and though the King of Ireland rode into the night with his harper and his Druid he never came by Etain the beautiful. But the fields of Royal Meath to this day are smooth of stone and rid of rush."