The Táin Bó Cúailnge, a.k.a. The Cattle Raid of Cooley, is an ancient Irish story from the Ulster Cycle of Celtic Mythology. The oldest surviving manuscripts date to the 12th century, but there are allusions to it in poems of the 7th century, and elements of it are strikingly similar to things the Greeks and Romans used to say of the Celts.Queen Medb of Connacht commands the soldiers of Ireland to invade the kingdom of Ulster and steal its prized bull, Donn Cúailgne, the Brown Bull of Cooley, at any cost. Though Ulster stands defenseless before her army, she is opposed only by sixteen-year-old hero Cú Chulainn. Some magic, and a few gods make appearances.A graphic novel based on the epic can be found here. Irish Celtic-rock band Horslips made a concept album based on the story in 1973. The Decemberists' EP The Tain is a setting of Colin Meloy's interpretation/abridgment of the epic to Epic Rocking.
Tropes in Táin Bó Cúailnge:
The Ace: Cú Chulainn. He shows shades of being a Broken Ace from time to time, though.
Action Girl: Medb. Though she is the irresponsible, greedy bitch that starts all this off, she gets down and dirty with a spear in the thick of the fighting at several points.
Anything That Moves: Cú Chulainn, despite his intimate friendship with Fer Diad, has a wife, and allows the invasion to take Ulster unawares because he's off getting his end away with the wife of the King of Tara (or her handmaid, according to a monkish emendation to the text), and has numerous other female conquests in other stories.
Badass Boast: EVERYONE does this at one point or another. At one point, Medb claims (through simple multiplication) that her army alone numbers some 40 billion-strong.
Do Not Taunt Cthulhu: When Fergus goes to negotiate with Cú Chulainn, Medb's son Etarcomol insists on coming along, which Fergus allows only if Etarcomol can keep his mouth shut and not insult the unstoppable demigod that's been decimating their army. Etarcomol then proceeds to insult the unstoppable demigod. Then he challenges the unstoppable demigod to a duel. Then he insists on continuing after the unstoppable demigod quickly kicks his ass and tells him to scram.
Friendly Enemy: Fergus MacRoach. The one-time king of Ulster and leader of the Ulster Exiles who fight for Medb. He's also Cú Chulainn's foster father, and is the only person in Medb's ranks whom he never raises arms against.
Game Face: Cú Chulainn's ríastrad, variously described to English as the 'warp-spasm' or 'the Torque'.
And, "We were heart companions, We were forest comrades, We were men of one bed..." If they were friends, they were very weird friends.
Historical Fantasy: Possibly. Though set in the pre-Christian Iron Age, it was first written down by Christians in the early Middle Ages. It's anyone's guess how much of it was actual oral history and how much was added by the people who committed it to manuscript.
I Am X, Son of Y: Near the start of the story this line pops up: "the High King of Erin himself was my sire, Eocho Fedlech ('the Enduring') son of Finn, by name, who was son of Findoman, son of Finden, son of Findguin, son of Rogen Ruad ('the Red'), son of Rigen, son of Blathacht, son of Beothacht, son of Enna Agnech, son of Oengus Turbech."
I Can Still Fight: Cú Chulainn insists on fighting even while heavily injured and going months without sleep. Lugh himself has to show up and knock him out for three days to give him a chance to heal.
Improvised Weapon: Cú Chulainn kills Cur MacDalath by throwing an apple hard enough to go straight through his head
It's All My Fault: Upon hearing of the slaughter of the youths of Ulster, Cú Chulainn blames himself, as he thinks he could have saved him if he wasn't recuperating from his wounds at the time, and insists upon avenging them immediately.
I Want Grandkids: Medb and Ailill use this as an excuse when they start offering their daughter Finnabhair to ANYONE who's able to kill Cú Chulainn for them. Cú Chulainn ensures she dies a virgin.
Just a Kid: Medb's reaction upon first hearing of Cú Chulainn.
My Girl Is a Slut: Ailill is well aware of Medb's (often politically motivated) promiscuity and has no problem with it - Medb made it clear from day one that she's "never had one man without another waiting in his shadow," after all.
Nonchalant Dodge: Cú Chulainn spends most of his first encounter with Nadcranntail completely ignoring him in favor of catching birds. When Nadcranntail throws nine spears at him, Cú Chulainn just uses them as Stepping Stones in the Sky to continue chasing the birds Nadcranntail had just scared off.
Older Than Feudalism: The events told are supposed to have taken place in Iron Age Ireland, roughly 2000 years ago.
One-Man Army: Why did Medb agree to a daily Combat by Champion between her forces and Cú Chulainn when she has a massive advantage in numbers? Because otherwise he'd be killing a hundred of her men a day.
Pyrrhic Villainy: Medb technically wins. Despite Cú Chulainn's valiant efforts to delay her, not only does her army capture Donn Cuailgne and bring him back to Connacht, she also lays waste to much of Ulster (which she considers a personal bonus). Everything unravels for her in the end, however, when Donn Cuailgne and Finnbennach are placed in the same pen and they they kill one another—meaning the whole táin was all for nothing in the end.
Remember the New Guy: Fer Diad has never been mentioned before he's introduced as Cú Chulainn's best friend from way back.
The Rival: Fer Diad to Cú Chulainn. Medb and Ailill hire him to face Cú Chulainn because he's said to be Cú Chulainn's only equal. Cú Chulainn kills him.
Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Medb starts the war because her husband Ailill has a magic bull (Finnbennach), and she doesn't. She practically burns Ulster to the ground and loses hundreds (possibly thousands) of her own soldiers trying to get her hands on Donn Cuailgne, only for Donn Cuailgne and Finnbennach to kill one another, thus rendering Medb and Ailill equal—in their lack of a magic bull.
We Can Rule Together: After enduring Cú Chulainn's guerrilla-style assault on her men for quite some time, Medb offers to pay for all the ruin she's caused to Ulster, give him all the booze and women he could wish for, and pay him ridiculously well if he simply quits this whole thing and enters service under her. This only pisses Cú Chulainn off more.
Whole Episode Flashback: The action stops for some time as Fergus and the other exiles tell their Connacht allies stories of Cú Chulainn's childhood adventures.
Would Hit a Girl: Cú Chulainn, with added Gorn. As he's resting, two female bards sing to him that the battle is lost, giving him a Heroic BSOD. When he learns the truth, he grabs them and hits their heads together so hard that their brains spill on the ground. Charming.