Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Archive: A Woman's Words - Joanne Findon

A Woman's Words: Emer and Female Speech in the Ulster Cycle
Joanne Findon

Straight off the bat I'd have to say that this is another one of those books that will only be of interest to a fairly limited audience. While I realise that not every book written for a feminist audience will interest those who are interested in the subject, this is one of those books that automatically gets lumped into that category - you have to read it because it's about women...

But actually, it's quite a refreshing take on the subject. Anyone who's interested in feminism or women's studies in general will probably find a lot to like about this book, and even those like me who have more of a passing interest than a passion, might enjoy it too. For a start, it's one of the few books (from an admittedly very few number of books that I've read on this subject within the specific context of 'Celtic Studies') that focuses on the subject from a feminist point of view that doesn't go on about Teh Evel pay-tree-arky, or indeed Teh Grayt May-tree-arky.

If you've ever read The Book of the Cailleach you'll probably know what I mean, and if I were to compare the two, I'd say this one is a lot more balanced in terms of approach, and over all, is a lot more readable too, though still appealing to a much narrower audience in terms of CR. It's well written, and by and large it's well edited. A lot of the time, academic books like this are written by academics who have the credentials to talk about the subject, but not necessarily the talent to write about it in an engaging way. Here, Findon manages to write in an engaging and knowledgeable style, without feeling the need to resort to using too many unnecessarily big words and clunky sentences to get the point across that yes, the author's brain is in fact the size of New Mexico. Much like my arse (but that's a little off topic).

In addition to the focus on women's studies, the book also takes a literary approach to the material. Findon argues that all too often the myths - including the Ulster Cycle - are analysed in terms of their mythological context; that many of the women found in the tales are evidence of, or representations of (at some remove), pre-Christian goddesses and are analysed only in terms of their mythological, religious/pseudo-religious role. Medb is held as an example here - that once she was considered nothing more than a wanton whore by those who studied the myths, but once her actions were considered in terms of her role (or possible role) as a sovereignty goddess, her actions were justified as being a symptom of her role as facilitator of male sovereignty. This, Findon argues, detracts from the fact that mythological characters are also literary constructs, and as characters within literature, it's becoming increasingly apparent within academic circles that contemporary women (either specific women of the time, or attitudes to women in general) had a large role to play in the portrayal of these women, and specific characters, in the myths in general. I think Findon has a good point here - although she's perhaps a tad optimistic - and as someone who tends to focus on such mythological interpretations of the literature, the book offered a fairly refreshing perspective to me.

At this point, I should probably give an idea of what the book's actually about...

As the title suggests, Findon focuses on the role of Emer within the Ulster Cycle, and to a lesser extent, select women as a whole within the cycle. Findon demonstrates the remarkable coherence of the portrayal of Emer within the cycle, throughout the many tales in which she appears that were no doubt composed and then written and re-written over several centuries. Of all the women in the Ulster Cycle, including Medb (for whom I have a great soft spot), none have a more prominent role than Emer. No other woman speaks as she does, and certainly not as much as she does.

In a nutshell, Findon focuses on what Emer says in the tales, and how she says it, which is less simple and obvious than it might sound. The tales that are focused on are The Wooing of Emer, Bricriu's Feast, The Death of Aife's Only Son, and The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn and all in all it helps to be familiar with the tales that are discussed (and that of the Táin, the main set of stories within the Ulster Cycle) - if only for the fact that you're unlikely to be so interested in a whole book about the finer details of them if you don't really know what they're about.*

One of the book's stronger points is that it helps to give a variety of literary perspectives on what happens in each tale, and thus a better idea of what early medieval Irish society was really like - and how literature like this could have operated in that society when it was told by the skilled storytellers; the points - sometimes satirical, even - that might have been put across.

Findon clearly outlines specific contexts to each tale, like the legal subtext that can be found in many of the tales, as well as the romantic motifs that can be found in others and so on. While on the one hand some of these points are put across in a fairly repetitive manner, which makes for a mild annoyance if you're reading the book from start to finish, it makes it somewhat easier to dip into the book when looking up certain points of interest, or else pick up and put the book down over time.

Over all I'd say it's better to read the book pretty much from start to finish because there's a lot to take in, and that's best done in a fairly continuous take, but if you're very familiar with the material then it's perhaps not so much a must. And while Findon raises many good and even important points, I still feel that getting a broader idea of the tales, from a variety of perspectives, is a must. While Findon doesn't dispute that, it can become a point that's easily lost in the thrust of her arguments, especially since she argues so eloquently. And given that point, I wouldn't say, particularly for those interested in dipping into CR a little deeper, that this book is really the best place to start - look at Celtic Heritage (Rees and Rees) first, and Proinsias MacCana along with the tales themselves and so on, which have a much broader scope.

As I said, this isn't something that's likely to have a broad appeal. I wouldn't count it as one of those 'must have' CR books, but certainly it's one I'd recommend for anyone wanting to broaden their horizons and gain a deeper understanding of Irish mythology and women's roles therein - the Ulster Cycle in particular, of course. Many of the points that Findon makes can surely apply to other women and even goddesses in the literature, but again, they're only pertinent if you're interested in that sort of thing.

Finally, and also in its favour, it has a positive minefield of good books to look up in the bibliography. For me, this is an extra bonus, but again most of them are probably only of limited appeal and are probably best found through a university library. Findon's book itself was easily obtainable through the usual online sources for me, but some of the books she recommends are considerably more expensive.

*Easily found in Thomas Kinsella's The Táin and Jeffrey Gantz's Early Irish Myths and Sagas, in hard copy for example.

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