of celtic origins
Serials have become a regular part of most American’s lives, in the form of episodic television programs, such as House MD, Gossip Girl, and Grey’s Anatomy.
These stories provide an escape from the “real world”, allowing the audience to sit back, relax, and dive into the drama (or comedy, action, etc) of whatever they’re watching. Studies have shown that in recent years the amount of time people spend ‘living’ in another world has risen significantly, but the question is whether or not this fascination with serials, and the enjoyment of observing another person’s life, is a new phenomenon.
Modern day television serials may actually find their origins in ancient mythological tales, “dream-like” stories of people from the past that were told orally and then eventually written down. Every culture has its own legends and customs that have been passed down from one generation to the next, in order to instill values and maintain and explain traditions. One Thousand and One Nights is one of the most popularly recognized pieces of literature from the Middle East, telling a ‘story within a story’; Scheherazade’s plight being the outside tale and her bedtime fables the topic of each ‘episode’.
Similarly, much of Celtic and Gaelic legend is based in a serial and episodic nature, told in “cycles”. These three (or four, depending on your sources) sets of tales divide the history of Ireland into periods: the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster/Uliad Cycle, and the Fenian Cycle. Within each of these parts are stories about heroes and creatures from ancient Ireland, which are meant to record a history of the nation and its culture. The Ulster Cycle (also known as the “Red Branch Cycle” in reference to an order of great warriors who fought under the king of Ulster) in particular focuses largely on the great hero Cú Chulainn, whose life is divided into many different tales and recounted story by story.
Out of all the accounts of events in Cú Chulainn’s life, there are five “episodes” that are considered to be the most important:
His birth and childhood (son of a god)
- The changing of his name from Setanta to Cú Chulainn after slaying a vicious hound (his name means "Chulainn's Hound"
- His training to be the greatest warrior in Ireland and his marriages
- "Táin Bó Cuailnge" (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) when he protected a bull from Queen Maeb's entire army
- His death
In the tradition of modern culture and technology, the story of Cú Chulainn has actually been transformed into a (really bootleg) mini-serial, made available online by the BBC (in English and Gaelic!). The premise of the five-part series is ironically similar to One Thousand and One Nights, as each part begins with two children asking their grandfather to tell them a story (which of course happens to be that of Cú Chulainn) that often relates to the lives of the children themselves, teaching them something. This structure makes the series much like Scheherazade recounting tales to her sister and husband, the king, oftentimes in hopes of teaching a lesson. Even more recently, this classic Celtic legend has made the move into the rapidly growing genre of the web comic, which promotes the story’s serial nature further, by telling the tale week-by-week.
that often relates to the lives of the children themselves, teaching them something. This structure makes the series much like Scheherazade recounting tales to her sister and husband, the king, oftentimes in hopes of teaching a lesson. Even more recently, this classic Celtic legend has made the move into the rapidly growing genre of the web comic, which promotes the story’s serial nature further, by telling the tale week-by-week.
Celtic culture is firmly based in the passing down of traditions and legends, in order to keep the history of Ireland alive. However, the tales serve another purpose as well, one that ties the tales of years gone by to the form of entertainment that we call serial television series. Both are supposed to be recounted in a way that you can see the development of the lives of the main characters while being told a smaller story in each individual ‘episode’. And maybe today’s television shows do more than just entertain… just as the life of Cú Chulainn speaks about the warrior-like nature of Ireland’s past, our serials may be a record of the everyday lives and drama of 2010.