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Literature / The Wooing of Étaín

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"Follow me now to the Hill of Allen" by Stephen Reid

"A Bé Fhind, in ragha lium,
a tír n-ingnadh i fil rind"
(Dear Bé Fhind, come with me,
to a land where there is always music)
Midir's Song

The Wooing of Étaín is a mythological romance of Irish Mythology, set after the time when the mortal Gaels conquered Ireland, and the immortal Tuatha Dé Danann retired into their subterranean palaces, becoming the Aes Sídhe, the people of the fairy mounds.

Midir of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Lord of Brí Léith, takes to wife Étaín, daughter of Ailill, regarded to be the most beautiful woman in Ireland. But his first wife Fuamnach does not approve of the marriage, and makes two attempts to separate them - first by turning Étaín into a fly, then by summoning a storm that blows her far away.

Many tribulations later, the fly ends its odyssey in the drinking cup of a Gaelic woman, wife to Etar, a Lord of Ulster, and is accidentally swallowed. The lady gets pregnant and gives birth to Étaín, the daughter of Etar (or so everybody thinks). As Étaín II grows up, word is she is the most beautiful woman in Ireland. And so it is no wonder the young High King of Ireland, Eochaid, sues for her hand, which she graciously grants.

But Midir has never stopped looking for Étaín, and eventually finds out what happened, recognizing his own wife in the queen of Ireland. But Étaín has forgotten her former life among the Aes Sídhe and is scrupulous to leave her new husband, forcing Midir to resort to cunning and magic to wrest her from Eochaid.

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Provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Bling of War: Midir is positively dripped out when he embarks on his quest to rescue Étaín; wielding a golden five-pronged trident in one hand and a silver shield in the other, as well as a golden circlet and a huge golden brooch which is said to reach to both of his shoulders.
  • Decoy Protagonist: The first quarter or so of the story focuses on Óengus, Midir's foster son. He reappears later on to rescue Étaín and kill Fuamnach.
  • Forced Transformation: Étaín's transformation into a fly (likely a bluebottle, though some versions say she's a butterfly) by the jealous Fuamnach.
  • Ludicrous Gibs: Fuamnach strikes Étaín with a wooden rod, reducing her to a puddle on the floor (only for her to emerge from it in the form of a maggot).
  • Morphic Resonance: Étaín is described as remaining incredibly beautiful even when in the form of a fly.
  • Really 700 Years Old: Étaín was reborn 1002 years after her first birth and spent 14 years as a fly, so she must have been 988 years old when she was transformed.
  • Reincarnation Romance: Only one of the lovers is reborn. Midir seems to love her no less even though she does not remember him, and she's not too unwilling since he's a fairy and remains young and handsome for centuries.
  • Spontaneous Generation: After Étaín is reduced to a pool of water, the heat of the sun causes a maggot to be born from it (which later moults into a fly).
  • Surprise Incest: Eochaid is tricked into sleeping with and impregnating his own daughter. Overcome with shame, he orders the child of their union to be fed to wild beasts, although luckily it is rescued by a herdsman.
  • Two Guys and a Girl: Midir and Eochaid compete for Étaín.
  • World's Most Beautiful Woman: Étaín is only Ireland's most beautiful woman, but close enough.
  • Your Size May Vary: Étaín's fly form varies from "as large as a man's head" to small enough for someone to swallow without noticing, and is at one point described as wearing clothes. In some versions, they describe her as a butterfly.