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"Treating the Literary Literally:" The Reflexive Structure of Flann O’Brien’s ... - page 26 / 50





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Sweeney. In this early stage of At Swim-Two-Birds, Finn only mentions the artificiality of the tale and exposes its origin:

Who could put a terrible madness on the head of Sweeney for the slaughter of a single Lent-gaunt cleric, to make him live in tree-tops and roost in the middle of a yew, not a wattle to the shielding of his mad head in the middle of the wet winter, perished to the marrow without company of women or strains of harp-pluck, with no feeding but stag- food and the branches? Who but a story-teller? Indeed, it is true that there has been ill- usage to the men of Erin from the book-poets of the world and dishonour to Finn, with no knowing the nearness of disgrace or the sorrow of death, or the hour when they may swim for swans or trot for ponies or bell for stags or croak for frogs or fester for the wounds on a man’s back. (25)

Finn makes a powerful case for the characters of any narrative. An author does not feel the results of his or her characters’ actions, and there is no consideration for the pain inflicted or the embarrassment caused to the character. Finn’s rallying speech can be seen as a parallel to the narrator’s literary theory. Finn opposes his and his fellow mythological characters’ misuse in past narratives, shouting down the state of popular fiction. It is because of the Christian masses that his ancient contemporaries have been treated with so little respect.

The narrator’s concern for the dangers of "self-administered" novels comes up in Finn’s speech. Poets of the oral tradition tell their tales in what the narrator considers the wholesome public sphere; bards are not mentioned in Finn’s rant, only the "book-poets." While "story-teller" is used, there is the specific mention of the "story-teller’s book-web," obviously referring to written works, and separating Finn’s narrative style from what he claims to be harmful. Finn’s speech is in line with the narrator’s theory, but for different reasons; he is directly affected by the whims of authors. Finn believes that all tale-tellers, whether they are authors or composers of oral poetry, should be held responsible for their characters. This includes both physical harm and defamation of their characters. Finn mentions that Sweeney is punished horribly for a deed he was forced by a story-teller to do. Sweeney’s blasphemous act should not even matter to the heroes of Ireland, as they pre-date Christian clerics. Sweeney’s punishment is unavoidable, however, as his controlling author is a devout Christian bent on making an example of him.

At Swim-Two-Birds’ second layer of narrative is yet another layer with more boundary- setting than action. Like the frame narrative, the second layer necessarily builds up certain structural rules, only this time these are the narrator’s rules rather than O’Brien’s. The second layer is very much a bizarre version of the frame narrative, including an author-character, Trellis, instead of a narrator and a physical representation of the manuscript, the Red Swan hotel, instead of a literary theory. Trellis displays many of the uncle’s and narrator’s attributes, making him a reflexive character, but not nearly as complex as the narrator is in the frame narrative. A character who is very complex, however, is Trellis’ neighbour in the Red Swan, Finn McCool. Because this second narrative level is governed by the narrator’s literary theory, all the characters have a history and are knowledgeable about that history. Finn is the most historical of the bunch, and his status as a bard is problematic for Trellis. The narrator can not house him in the bowels of the Red Swan because he is equal, if not superior, in status to any Irish author. Finn can actually move upwards through the narrative levels of At Swim-Two-Birds, a unique quality. O’Brien himself is the only other persona of whom traces can be found on all layers. Finn breaks down, or at least confuses, the new set of boundaries that arise in the second narrative level, and their representation, the Red Swan. The next lower level sets off a multitude of narrative lines in


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