Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Laughter, tears, and lots of blood – My first ever Epic Day!

Thanks to the J.J. Reneaux Mentorship Grant, I was able to travel to the West Coast for the first time (I really wandered away from home…) and participate in Epic Day. Cathryn Fairlee, the mother of Epic Day, happens to be my mentor, therefore I was totally obligated to make the trip on the grant money. Totally.
I have always loved epics and other long-form traditional stories, and always hoped to share my enthusiasm with other people. Epic Day is the ideal venue for that. Not only it is all about epics (a different one every year) but it also consists of a group of devoted, bright, and story-savvy people who love epics every bit as much as I do. Some of us traveled farther than others, but everyone was there because they would not have missed it for the world.
This year’s Epic Day featured the Táin bó Cúailnge, the Cattle-Raid of Cooley, Ireland’s national epic mostly known for its main hero, Cú Chulainn. The story was separated into 18 parts and performed by 20 eager participants; without the pee and lunch breaks, it took up a total of 5 hours and 45 minutes.
After Cathryn’s short introduction to the Táin and its world, I had the responsibility and the pleasure to kick off the epic with the tale of Macha. It was one of the shortest episodes, but a very important one, and also the only part of the Táin that I have told before. It features the hands-down best curse in Irish mythology, and a very powerful female character. Once I was done, all I had to do was curl up on the couch, relax, and listen as the epic flowed on.
Hearing the entire story told in one day was an incredible experience. I am not new to storytelling or long stories, but epic-telling and epic-listening is a whole different mindset. You settle into the story with the commitment to follow it all the way through, get invested in the characters, and ride the whole emotional roller coaster from start to finish. It is intense, emotionally exhausting, and absolutely wonderful.
Everyone did something different with their part. Some told in Irish accents; some only used an accent in the dialogues; some did not use an accent at all, or used modern slang when needed. Some told in the first person; some left the poetry in, chanting or singing it, and the sung version of Scathach's prophecy was absolutely haunting. Everyone told according to their own style, and the pieces still fit together perfectly into one continuous story.

So here is what I learned from Epic Day: Hearing an epic told orally is vastly different from reading it on the page. (Duh.) I have read the Táin before, and it has never been one of my favorites; I had no emotional investment in Cú Chulainn (I'm more of a Fionn Mac Cumhaill gal), and I found a lot of the descriptions weird and over-the top. But when the story was told, grotesque turned hilarious, gory turned into satire, and suddenly the entire thing was a lot more enjoyable. Storytellers competing in who can come up with the most ridiculous description of a feat, or who can describe an over-the-top heroic deed in greater detail, gave spice and life to the entire experience. For example, Tim Ereneta somehow managed to deliver the line "I will stand above you like a cat's tail erect!" with a perfectly straight face and a resounding, heroic voice.
 Cú Chulainn's "war spasm" quickly became a running joke that kept returning in various episodes, and storytellers of all styles had great fun with the descriptions (which are usually somewhere between the Hulk and a Transformer). After a while, we started cheering for the "war spasm" scenes. Similarly, the high number of casualties turned into a theme, and I faithfully scored the certified kills on the program card. In the end we had 2169 fallen heroes, two dead bulls, a dead horse, and a dead hound. Cathryn might need a new carpet.

One of the dramatic high points of the epic is the duel between Cú Chulainn and his former foster-brother Ferdia. It is not only full of heroic feats, but it is also emotionally heavy, and culminates in an epic fight scene. Cassie Cushing got that latter part, and she did not only figure out how the fight choreography probably went, but also demonstrated it with great skill in gestures and very grounded stances. She did a brilliant job.
Another fun part of the event was the thunderstorm that rolled around halfway through the epic, exactly in time with Michael's part about Cú Chulainn's first encounter with the invading army. The episode itself is kind of like an ominous set-up for a horror movie, with an unknown enemy leaving threatening clues for the attackers, and it went great with the sudden darkness and the rolling thunder. Brownie points for Michael, he made the most of the opportunity. We also took the chance to get our group picture with a rainbow in the background:

All in all, Epic Day was an incredible experience. We took frequent breaks, not just because of the amount of great coffee Cassie supplied us with, but also to give ourselves time to digest the episodes, talk about them, figure out and compare different parts, and share our feelings about the experience. We bonded over the story, and over many other things, and it did not take an entire day before I felt completely at home as the newest member of the epic family. 
We will do the same story once again in the fall, and I am sure it will be both new and equally awesome. I'm looking forward to it.


  1. That sounds like so much fun. I would be way too shy to do a part but it would be so fun to listen.

  2. This sounds like a wonderful event! So glad you got to participate. I love to hear a story "told" or even read aloud if done well.
    Life & Faith in Caneyhead

  3. Sounds like great fun! I'm not into epics, but I think about how different Shakespeare is when seen in performance (fun) vs. reading it (boring).

  4. This sounds like such a great experience!

    I'm not a storyteller, but I read aloud for an audince with my Tolkien group and I enjoyed the experience very much. It's some sort of physical experience, not just telling something someone else written.
    I can only imagin how Epic Day must have felt like.
    I'm so jelous ;-)