The Táin, trs Ciaran Carson

A new translation of the ancient Irish epic of senseless slaughter is a marvel of wit and linguistic velocity
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The Táin, the longest tale in the so-called Ulster Cycle, is, by any criterion, an epic. It is also ancient, although its exact date of composition is unknown. Certainly the world it presents is pre-Christian. As there is no one authoritative text, the translator is obliged to splice, sew, nip and tuck; collation is almost as important as translation. Lady Augusta Gregory published an extremely expurgated version of it at the end of the 19th century, but it was only with the publication of Thomas Kinsella's sensitive and scholarly redaction in 1969 that The Táin began to be seen as a mighty work of art rather than as a decorative fossil. Ciaran Carson's new translation should spur this process on; it's a marvel of wit and linguistic velocity.

This epic of senseless slaughter begins, innocuously enough, with pillow-talk. Queen Medb of Connacht, amused but stung by her husband Aillill's casually sexist assertion that he's done her a favour in marrying her, points out that she is his equal in terms of possessions, and that, if anything, he is a kept man. For one possession of his, however, she has no equivalent: a great white bull of fairy race. So she determines to borrow the famous brown bull of Cualinge in Ulster. The negotiations go well till her messengers drunkenly assert that if the bull had not been lent willingly it would have been taken by force. The brown bull's owner furiously withdraws his offer and Medb musters her men for an assault on Ulster. Because of a curse laid on the men of Ulster by a woman forced to run a race while in labour, the forces of the North are stricken with birth-pangs. Medb's confidence seems soundly rooted.

She has reckoned, however, without the audacious Cú Chulainn, the " Hound of Ulster", Irish literature's most totemic hero, bright-eyed, beautiful, 17 years old, and superhuman in his capacity for slaughter. By guile and prowess, strength and magic, he holds off the armies of the four provinces till the warriors of Ulster, headed by Conchobar their King, are ready for the fray. The much-contested bull is lost to all.

I can think of no epic, not even The Aeneid, that so yanks us into the company of its protagonists. Medb herself, by turns urbane, sexy, generous and treacherous, is a personality. Fergus Mac Roich, head of the Ulster exiles who have allied themselves with Connacht, torn between loyalty to his countrymen and rage at their betrayal, provides a moral conflict lacking in the rest of the work. Cú Chulainn would in other hands have been an innocent or a psychopath: here, he is an earnest, witty adolescent, full of cockiness and angst.

The Táin's earthiness is endlessly funny, and shocking even now: Cú Chullainn shakes and squeezes Larine "til the shit ran out of him" . Then there's the spectacle of cool, savage Medb, at the close of the last battle, being caught short. The monkish authors of The Táin took any opportunity to drive place names from great deeds, and Medb's undignified plight is commemorated in three valleys, apparently known as Fual Medba, "Medb's piss-pot". No, The Táin is not shy. But this bloody world is also full of subtlety and suggestion, one in which the scorn of a bard can rouse a warrior where the taunts of a fellow-warrior fail. There is great delicacy even in the descriptions of battle.

The Táin's freshness, beauty and panache plough through the often monotonous combats, the tedious debates, the deadly back-stories. But you may be forgiven for wondering whether this journey is, as they say, really necessary. Medb and Aillill seem to think so. So what if they've lost the battle and thousands have been slaughtered? At least they've got the bull. Well, for a time, before it kills the

white bull and returns to Ulster to die in its turn. Not the best use of human resources you'd think. It's curious that no one steps to say, " Hang on, it's only a bloody bull!". No one enters a plea for humanity. Though rich in humour, lyricism and horror, and punctuated by episodes of emotional depth, The Táin appears to lack anything we might recognise as moral or spiritual gravitas.

Unless, of course, The Táin was intended as satire of the epic spirit. Is waging war for the sake of a bull really so much sillier than, say, waging war for the sake of an unfaithful wife? The pretensions of pride and of passion could not be more fiercely exposed than in this tale of two rulers who decide to ravage Ireland in the cause of envy. Initially, you wonder whether the pillow talk that opens The Táin is anything more than a trope. Not so. The selfishness of power pervades everything after.

There's a further twist. Beneath the tale of slaughter for the sake of a bull, lies the tale of a war between two of the fairy folk who have taken the shape of bulls, and if the slaughter of men is immaterial to Medb and Aillill, it is less than a gnat's bite to the fairies.

Penguin, £15.99