The Hosts of Faery
translated by Kuno Meyer
White shields they carry in their hands,
With emblems of pale silver;
With glittering blue swords,
With mighty stout horns.
In well-devised battle array,
Ahead of their fair chieftain
They march amid blue spears,
Pale-visaged, curly-headed bands.
They scatter the battalions of the foe,
They ravage every land they attack,
Splendidly they march to combat,
A swift, distinguished, avenging host!
No wonder though their strength be great:
Sons of queens and kings are one and all;
On their heads are
Beautiful golden-yellow manes.
With smooth comely bodies,
With bright blue-starred eyes,
With pure crystal teeth,
With thin red lips.
Good they are at man-slaying,
Melodious in the ale-house,
Masterly at making songs,
Skilled at playing fidchell.1
The Wordstapas are reading Irish mythology this semester. We are beginning with The High Deeds of Finn MacCool, by Rosemary Sutcliff and will end with some Irish poetry. “The Hosts of Faery” is an ancient Irish poem that I read aloud in our first meeting. It presents a vivid, yet fleeting, picture of the Irish faery folk—the Tuatha de Danann—before they were diminished into the pixies and sprites popular culture is familiar with now. The vision presented in this poem reminds me strongly of a similarly fleeting, yet powerful, description of elven folk in Smith of Wootton Major, by J.R.R. Tolkien. The main character, Smith, is journeying through Faery and comes to the Sea of Windless Storm where a ship lands on the shore and elven folk disembark. Smith perceives, “The elven mariners were tall and terrible; their swords shone and their spears glinted and a piercing light was in their eyes.”2 In Irish mythology, too, the faery-folk retain their wild, splendid, and frightening aspect.
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1“A game like draughs or chess.” Selections from Ancient Irish Poetry, translated by Kuno Meyer
2J.R.R. Tolkien, Smith of Wootton Major