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"Treating the Literary Literally:" The Reflexive Structure of Flann O’Brien’s ... - page 24 / 50





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fulfill on the morrow, and he never promised in the day what he would not fulfill at night, and he never forsook his right-hand friend. And if he was quiet in peace he was angry in battle. (Gregory 170)

Finn also manages to acquire great knowledge through the ingestion of a magical fish and the water from a famous well (Gregory 162-7). Finn represents the oral tradition of Irish literature; he is a direct link to an artistic history. He recites tales of folklore in the manner of an ancient bard. The narrator, following his theory, appropriates Finn for his own use. Finn’s attributes will be widely recognized by the narrator’s hoped-for readership, and this facilitates Finn’s use as a supporter of the narrator’s literary theory as well as the narrator’s comments on the state of Ireland’s literary tradition.

Deciding which narrative plane to place Finn in is a deceptively difficult task. Inside At Swim-Two-Birds, Finn acts as a character in the narrator’s novel, as well as a story-teller. The narrator borrows Finn from Irish mythology, and he exists inside of Trellis’ novel, the narrator’s manuscript, the narrator’s fictionalized Dublin and the real world of O’Brien. Besides these troublesome overlaps, Finn is also appropriated by a character who is created by Trellis for a new narrative in the lowest level of the narrative structure. Finn exists on every narrative plane present in At Swim-Two-Birds. To add another confusing element to this stack, Finn is fictional on every level, including O’Brien’s. Finn may at one point in history have been based on a real person, but his status as a giant and a magical hero, which changes from tale to tale, is obviously impossible.

While reading At Swim-Two-Birds, one realizes that the sections involving Finn actually take over the narrative in places, regardless of which narrative plane Finn is situated in at the time. Finn seems to be difficult to control; Trellis has even less power over Finn than he does over his other rebellious characters, whom I will discuss in detail later. One can see that the narrator has very little control over Finn as well, as Finn tells many stories within the narrator’s manuscript that have nothing to do with the narrator’s literary theory, and therefore appear as digressions of the narrator. Finn’s oral propensity causes him to gab. On an even larger scale, O’Brien himself has little control over this mythological character. The narrator includes what many readers will consider far too much of Finn’s tales, but O’Brien must be remembered as the grand control of the novel as a whole. Niall Sheridan’s editing work, mentioned in chapter one in order to explain the unconventional method of At Swim-Two-Birds’ composition, focused mainly on Finn’s narrative. Sheridan felt that O’Brien was "carried away" by the fun that he was having using these Irish legends in his novel. Sheridan states in a 1973 remembrance of O’Brien that "I told him [At Swim-Two-Birds] was too long. He had got such fun out of sending up the Fenian cycle that he over-indulged himself and the weight of this material seriously unbalanced the latter half of the book" (quoted in Cohen 209).

Finn’s importance to the structure of the novel is possibly greatest on this second level with O’Brien. While O’Brien has structured the novel to include Finn at a lower level than the narrator, Finn’s status in the real world allows him more freedom within At Swim-Two-Birds than O’Brien’s narrator. Noting O’Brien’s attachment to Finn’s narrative line and its excess within the novel, one can see Finn as transcending and subverting the narrator’s position as protagonist in the novel. Finn does not serve the same purpose as the narrator at any point of the novel, but this subversion occurs because Finn’s traditional oral techniques are treated by O’Brien just as Finn claims they should be. They are greater than the written word, according to Finn, and O’Brien is carried away by them.

Finn’s status in the novel is as a transcendent character that can appear in any narrative plane. Finn is also a famous story-teller who is capable of moving upwards in the layout of the


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