Science Fiction Studies

#58 = Volume 19, Part 3 = November 1992

Ellen Feehan

Frank Herbert and the Making of Myths: Irish History, Celtic Mythology, and IRA Ideology in The White Plague

Frank Herbert’s The White Plague (1982) has never received the critical attention that it deserves. Though all of Herbert’s works are dense, Plague is difficult in a different way from, for example, the Dune canon, on which most attention focuses. It confronts us with a handful of topics—the ongoing strife between Ireland and England, the dangers of biogenetic engineering, the increasing politicization of science—whose relevance grows as we approach its tenth year of publication, and still Plague remains largely overlooked.

I think this may be partly because Plague followed so closely upon the publication of God Emperor of Dune (1981). It seemed almost irrelevant; we wanted to hear more about the desert planet, and here Herbert was suddenly writing about modern Earth, DNA, and the IRA. But I think the main problem for readers is the profusion of references to Irish mythology, history, and politics for which no background is provided. Even in Dune we were given a glossary. In Plague we stumble over casual comments about, for instance, the "kinship of the rath," and even if you are the sort of reader who goes straight to Webster’s Ninth, you won’t find "rath" there. I imagine most readers focused upon the obvious stuff—the mad scientist, his terrifying plague, the toppling governments—and skimmed over the technical and obscure material. Of course, it is precisely the obscure parts which most often disguise authorial in-jokes, and unless you are in a position to "get" them, those parts aren’t much fun. They are also the elements which reveal how close the author is to his work and they are important on that account alone.

Herbert litters Plague with esoteric motifs, events, and vocabulary which deepen the exotic Gaelic atmosphere. Mythological characters and mythic plots often turn up like old friends in SF. Casey Fredericks writes that "ancient Greek and Biblical myths (from both Old and New Testaments) are the two most popular systems, with the myths of northern Europe a distant but solid third" (170). The Mabinogion influences quite a lot of fantasy. But how many SF readers are as comfortable with the Daghda or CúChulainn as with Zeus and Theseus? In choosing an unfamiliar mythological terrain, one in which, moreover, his protagonist feels at home, which precludes clarification, Herbert manages to alienate us.

I argue that he intended to do so, not just because he placed entertainment ahead of education, but as a sort of complement to the seminar on hero worship he provided in the Dune series. The White Plague is a cautionary tale about the risks of genetic engineering, but also about the power of myth-making and the dangers of militant nationalism. Himself of "a lot of Irish" blood (Touponce 4), Herbert portrays an Ireland whose people cannot let go the inherited symbols of a bitter past.

Herbert illustrates the persistence of these icons and events in modern Irish republican politics in three ways: he includes frequent allusions to Irish military history in dialogue and narrative exposition; he shows the inhabitants of his plague-ravaged Ireland coping with their new world by reviving ancient Gaelic customs; and he comments on the traditional—and in his view, problematic—Celtic perception of time and history as cyclical by referring subtly and overtly to the collections of myths that are known, not incidentally, as the mythological Cycles.

The function of allusion is made quite explicit—the characters sometimes discuss the meaning of their own myth-making, for example—and keeps us aware, even as we enjoy the straightforward disaster story, that Herbert intends us to read the Irish preoccupation with history and myth as a symptom of the psychopathology underlying terrorist ideology and even, more generally, of the political mentality which plagues all humanity. His treatment of these topics rounds out his analysis of "the messianic hunger [which] is an example of a pervasive human need for security and stability" (O’Reilly 4) that saturates the Dune books, Destination: Void (1966), and most of his other novels. An explication of some of the numerous allusions to Celtic culture might serve to rescue Plague from oblivion and reveal how close the troubles of Ireland must have been to Herbert’s heart.

In Plague, John Roe O’Neill is visiting Dublin to research, ironically enough, "the acceptance of the new genetics by a Roman Catholic society, whether such a society had taken a position to cope with the explosive potentials in molecular biology" (12/4). As John stands at a window overlooking Grafton Street, Joseph Herity, a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, is in the building opposite—both are elevated above the crowd—and the latter detonates a bomb that John sees destroy his beloved wife and children in the street below. His grief and rage trigger a psychic split into multiple personalities, among them "The Madman" who demands revenge. Catapulted into genius mode, the Madman uses his knowledge of recombinant DNA techniques to create and unleash a genetic plague that is carried by men and is invaribly fatal to women.

This gender bias—which we could call "un véritable ‘gynécide’," as Marie Noëlle Zeender cleverly suggests (79)—is noteworthy for several reasons. For one thing, it is plausible as deranged logic: if John must lose his woman, her murderers will lose theirs too. Further, it is devastating in Ireland, where women represent the cementation of hearth and commonwealth, of security, morality, and everything that defines culture (cf. Inglis, esp. §8). Herbert here implies the death of the spirit of Ireland, whose personifications include the goddess Danu, Erin, Dark Rosaleen, and Cathleen Ní Hóulihan. Ireland is a land historically matriarchal and matrilineal (Sullivan 146; Ross 358-62; cf. Kearney "Myth and Motherland" 70-78); but Herbert describes the new Ireland throughout his novel as silent and barren.

John returns there to observe his revenge firsthand and is joined by Herity and a priest, Father Michael. They offer to guide him to the research facilities at Killaloe, though their real assignment is to discover whether John, now disguised and calling himself John Garrech O’Donnell, is the Madman.1 Conversational thrusts and parries, feints and counterfeints join adventures in the wild countryside, unfolding against a wider background of global chaos and panic as the plague rages out of control.

Most of the cross-referencing arrows point to and from John, who nevertheless does not reanimate any single hero or epic. Rather, Herbert makes promiscuous use of the whole colorful panorama of Celtic mythology and history. Herity probes, "You’d a grandfather who dreamed Irish dreams, or I miss my guess" (245/274), and he’s right:

"From your father’s people, John Roe O’Neill, you’re descended from the Ui Neill. Ard Ri, High Kings, they were on the Hill of Tara."

The grandfather had begun the genealogical litany the same way every time.

"And from the McCarthys, well now, lad, we were kings once, too. Never you forget it. Castle McCarthy was a mighty place and strong men built it."

John’s young head had been filled with Troubles and Risings and an abiding hatred of the British. He had particularly enjoyed the stories of Hugh O’Neill’s revolt and the rebellion of Owen Roe O’Neill. (41-42/38-39)

His heritage is illustrious indeed. The Uí Néill or O’Neills were a great dynasty, the mightiest power in Ireland for over a thousand years (Richter 33-38). They reigned over huge areas of the island, particularly in the north, and one, Malachy II, rivalled Brian Boru for kingship over all Ireland (Scherman 218). The McCarthys, meanwhile, were kings of Munster in the southwest, ruling much of what are today the Counties Cork and Kerry, the McCarthy stronghold located west of modern Cork city.

John’s descent from Hugh and Owen Roe O’Neill, still considered two of the greatest patriots of Irish history, is also interesting. Hugh, Earl of Tyrone, known as "The O’Neill," was recognized as one of the outstanding soldiers of his day. He was, in fact, the first Irishman to familiarize himself with modern methods of warfare as opposed to the traditional uncomplicated Highland charge, "the tactical offensive—the attack against all reason, against all odds" (Hill 1). Hugh’s war against Elizabethan England aimed as much to advance his own ambitions as to rid Ulster of the British and ended with his defeat at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601. Still, he is remembered as having raised "the most formidable resistance to English authority that had yet occurred" (Canny 130-31). His heroic stature derives less from his military prowess than from his call for a national rising, something the Irish seem congenitally unable to achieve. Historian John O’Beirne Ranelagh describes this event as "a watershed in Irish history: for the first time since Rory O’Connor had attempted to expel the Normans [about 1170], the glimmerings of a national Irish resistance were stirred by O’Neill" (53). The name of his nephew Owen Roe O’Neill, who headed the Confederation of Kilkenny against Charles I, is almost as glamorous; his death in 1649 removed "the only military leader who might have faced Cromwell with any hope of success" (Ranelagh 64).

By introducing John as a scion of military heroes, Herbert develops the theme of obsession with historical precedent. The typical protagonist would be content to pursue the murderer of his loved ones—if necessary, without the help of the police—and let it go at that. Track down the lone killer, bring him to justice: it’s done all the time in the movies. But not by a son of the High Kings of Ireland. John’s reaction, shortly after the bombing, is as political as it is personal:

The officer’s face grew stony. "They’re saying it was the Provos taking the credit."

A chill shot through John. The hard pillow under his neck felt damp and cold. Credit? The murderers were claiming credit?

Later, John would look back on that moment as the beginning of the rage that took over his life. That was the moment he promised:

You will pay. Oh, how you will pay!

And there was no doubt in his mind at all how he would set about making them pay. (23/16)

In fact, in his war against the Provos, John looses his plague not only throughout Ireland but also in England and Libya:

The terrorists who had killed Mary and the twins had been trained and armed in Libya. And there was England’s filthy hand in the whole mess—eight hundred years of cynical oppression—"Ireland, the guilty conscience of the English ruling class." (28-29/23)

His dedication to thoroughness sounds almost comic when described this way, but our lasting impression is how like the "Irregular" soldiers he becomes when he vows not justice but terrible, unforgiving, all-obliterating revenge. By linking John with the militant nationalist tradition and, as we will see, with a variety of symbols of Celtic civilization, Herbert warns of the danger of reactionary doctrines.

The characters frequently discuss key episodes from history. Herbert views our sense of history and culture as powerfully influential on our present actions and beliefs, and recognizes that the old oral tradition of Ireland did not differentiate among mythology, folk tale, and historical fact. For example, the narratives in the Leabhar Gabhála, the Dindshenchas, and the Cóir Anmann, recorded in the 12th century and recited much earlier (MacCana 16; Dillon 52), complacently offer the "history" of places and place-names over thousands of years.

It seems strange that mythology might linger as a tangible and relevant essence of this highly educated society, but consider the ancient and modern Celtic philosophy of space-time. The old world-view described by myth was shaped by an almost Buddhist notion of a cyclical universe. Ward Rutherford cautions us not to think of mythology as merely a system of religious allegory:

The myth stands autonomously. It is not the retelling of events; it is the programme of the events themselves. To understand this we have to understand that the conception of time held by many cultures, of which the Celtic was certainly one, was quite different from our own...there are not one but many "times" of which the "progressive" one known to us, that of irreversible change, is only one version. But in contrast with this one, with events passing in an unending cavalcade, there was that one in which it was the observer himself who passed events, cyclically.... Here events were recoverable or could be "revisited." (109)

Even today, as Oliver MacDonough points out, "the characteristic Irish time-frame inclines Ireland to a repetitive view of history" (Kearney, Transitions 213; also Delaney 83; Kenner 101-04). The Irish perceive an accreting rather than sequential history in space-time, like mixing more and more paint on the same canvas, so that today’s events reenact yesterday’s upon the same stage. Writing about English fantasy, Peter Hunt has noted how this influences literature: wherever people make cultural and historical associations with the locale, the fourth dimension inheres in the fictional setting: "Not only do the complex layers of history embedded (as it were) in the landscape enrich the texture of the stories, but the meanings of the landscape themselves provide a subtext for the journeys: places mean" (Sullivan 99).

The same dynamic operates outside the world of fiction. Herbert repeatedly describes the visceral sense of thereness in the Irish consciousness. A romantic subplot featuring two Irish medical students provides an early example:

Just north of Killaloe, Stephen stopped at a roadside "gypsy stand" for sandwiches, chips and beer, which they ate in the meadow beside the mound where Brian Boru had raised his castle. Their picnic site looked down on Ballyvalle Ford where Patrick Sarsfield and his six hundred troopers had crossed the Shannon on the night of August 10, 1690, during the Siege of Limerick.

Kate, fascinated by her nation’s history and a little awed to be "in this very place," began regaling Stephen with the story of...that "wonderful, futile ride" against the Williamite siege train.... (55/54).

The story evokes powerful resonances for anyone of Irish heritage. When William of Orange invaded England to seize James II’s throne, James went to Ireland for help. The two kings met in battle at the river Boyne on July 12, 1690, where James was defeated. It could be argued that, although the Boyne has become a symbol of indomitable resentment against the English, the battle itself was less significant than its reputation, because the Irish continued to fight William. What is interesting about the Boyne is that it saw Ireland united again for the first time since Hugh O’Neill’s rebellion: the Catholics fought for James because he was Catholic, the Protestants because they were royalists. At any rate, Sarsfield fought on against the Williamite army until forced to surrender in 1691, when, offered amnesty if he swore loyalty to William and Mary, he chose exile. Sarsfield joined the French army’s Irish Brigade, who have come to be known as the "Wild Geese."

The Irish eye sees history everywhere superimposed on landscape.2 On their tramp through the south of Ireland,

Herity said, "This land holds our history in its palm." He pointed. "That notch over there—O’Sullivan Beare and his pitiful leavings of an army went through there."

Something in Herity’s tone held John, forcing him to see this land as Herity did—a place where armies marched back and forth and where, not long ago, men who were hunted by the Black-and-Tans had fled through darkness to be hidden in the cottages of the poor. (233/258)

In the aftermath of O’Neill’s rebellion, Donnell O’Sullivan Beare refused to surrender. In 1602, he held out against a besieging force until all but 50 of his 143 men had been killed. Managing to escape, he endured and lost a second siege at Glengariff before setting out with a thousand followers on his famous winter march northward. They withstood freezing weather, snow, hunger, and continual attacks, crossed the Shannon in curraghs constructed on the spot with the hides of their horses, and finally struggled through the Curlew mountains into the safety of Leitrim, a 200-mile journey accomplished in two weeks. Only 35 survived the terrible journey. Giovanni Costigan writes,

Though the name of O’Sullivan Beare is never mentioned in English textbooks, in Ireland his memory is still cherished. Thus during the Black and Tan war in 1920, as his flying column crossed the boggy pass between the mountains separating the counties of Cork and Kerry, Commandant Tom Barry recalled with pride how, more than three hundred years before, O’Sullivan Beare had traversed that identical route. (63)

Like Costigan (and maybe after him?), John makes the leap from O’Sullivan Beare’s troubles to the Black and Tans, who remain a poisonous memory throughout Ireland. The Easter Rising of 1916 was followed by some years of warfare between the IRA and the Royal Irish Constabulary. By 1920, the IRA had caused so much damage to the RIC that 2000 of the 10,000 had resigned (Ranelagh 194), and Prime Minister David Lloyd George decided to reinforce them with English ex-servicemen and officers. While waiting for proper uniforms, they wore a motley of green-black and Army khaki, and folk etymology has it that a local barkeep said they reminded him of his hunting hounds, his "Black and Tans"; the nickname stuck. Their mission against the IRA turned into such a bloodthirsty rampage through the country that their name is still a byword for fear and hatred among the Irish.

"Parnell came to hunt in this valley," Herity said. "He had English manners, he did. His middle name, y’know, was Stuart with the Frenchies’ spelling. Charles Stuart Parnell...the same as Jim Dung. James Dung Stuart!"

John marveled at the way history was preserved here. It was not just the broad sweep of historical events and the dates of battles, but the intimate details. Parnell had hunted in this valley! And when James Stuart abandoned the Irish to their foes [at the Battle of the Boyne], the Irish had renamed him "Jim Dung." That was four hundred years ago and there was still venom in Herity’s voice when he uttered the name. And what of Parnell [the Irish Member of Parliament who labored for Home Rule in the 1870s], whose dreams of reform had been killed by English exposure that a mistress had borne him children? Parnell was reduced to "English ways"!

"Joyce wrote a poem about those hills ahead of us," Herity said. (245/273)

Herity is a complex creature, violent, devious, and treacherous, but also passionate, witty, and intuitive: "Herity had never thought of himself as a super-patriot—only a typical Irishman, bitter over the centuries of British oppression. He felt a tribal loyalty to his people and the land, a kinship of the rath" (200/221).3 He is a persuasive spokesman for the IRA ideology, as on the Penal Laws instituted by William of Orange:

Ireland was warped by the Penal Laws. The English forbade us our religion, forbade us any form of education—then dared to call us uneducated! We could not enter a profession, nor hold public office, nor engage in trade or commerce. We couldn’t live within five miles of a corporate town! We couldn’t own a horse of greater value than five pounds, couldn’t own or lease land, nor vote nor keep arms nor inherit anything from a Protestant! We couldn’t harvest from the rack-rented lands any profit exceeding a third of the rent. The law compelled us to attend Protestant worship and forbade the Mass. We paid double to support the militia that suppressed us. And if a Catholic power did harm to the state, we paid for it! You wonder we still hate the British? (270/301)

The Urises express the enduring bitterness against those times: "The Penal Laws were to last for more than a century, with the Irish peasant now reduced to one of the lowest forms of human life on planet earth" (21).

The lasting relevance of such lore impregnates much of the dialogue, so that it is with wonder not at the violence but at the desecration that Herity says, "In the first days of the plague’s terrible scything, a great maddened mob of men burned Maynooth in County Kildare—the whole place, even St. Patrick’s College where Fitzgerald Castle once stood and it a shrine to the old ways" (248/277). Richard Kearney has discussed the importance of the "old ways" to the IRA, arguing that the Provos are reactionary rather than revolutionary (still less Marxist!). He points to their 1970 publication, Where Sinn Fein Stands, and its declaration that their aims are based on "the native Irish tradition of Comhar na gComharsan...we take our inspiration and experience from the past" (Kearney, Transitions 209-10). Likewise, the IRA Handbook: Notes on Guerrilla Warfare (issued by General Headquarters in 1956) opens with a chapter on "Our Tradition." Frank Herbert seems to have been familiar with the principles of this little book, which includes instructions on organization, tactics, the calculation of how much explosive to use against what size buildings, and the like. Kate, the medical student, refers to the basic guerrilla unit described by the handbook, "the independent detachment—or as we in Ireland named it, the Flying Column" (18), when she wails, "Where’s the flying column can free us from this misery?" (268/300). The flying columns are made up of "sections," which are in turn composed of battle teams "consisting of two men for fire and movement" (Handbook 19); Herity "had been one of the two-man team" that set the bomb (11/3), and a reference on the same page to "the leader of their selection team" may be a misprint. The Handbook counsels that for the guerrilla morale is everything. It is this morale that gives the guerrilla his daring. Once the fight is joined, it must be carried out relentlessly, and to the bitter end. The road may be long, the sacrifices great, but if the guerrilla has this endurance and the will to win, he cannot be defeated. (9)

With this in mind, consider the following scenes:

"Jo, d’you know about the war of infinite duration?" Father Michael asked....

"That’s the Provos," Father Michael said. He returned Herity’s black look with a smile. "Prevent any settlement, kill the ones who’d compromise, terrify the peacemakers, prevent any solution. Give the people only war and violence, death and terror until they’re so sick of it they’ll accept anything in its place, even the godless Marxists." (315-16/354)

In the same conversation, John, still unaware that Herity is a Provo, has a sudden insight of the type the Handbook warns against:

Herity obviously took malicious enjoyment from another’s confusion. Did he enjoy Ireland’s confusion as well? No...that went contrary to Herity’s Cause. The plague had upset the untouchable. Recognizing this, John realized with an abrupt shock of awareness that he had the key to Herity, the thing that would undo the man.

Destroy his belief in his Cause! (315/354)

Herbert suggests that the IRA’s cause and indoctrination are born of the persistence of what Amnesty International founder Sean MacBride calls "the Irish people’s historical memory of British colonial misrule" (Kearney, Transitions 226). Zeender notes that "les Irlandais...sont incapables de créer de nouveaux mythes et se complaisant la reproduction des vieux mythes de mort et de destruction qui les caractérisent.... Ils sont en quelque sorte programmés pour perpétuer les échecs du passé" ["the Irish...are incapable of creating new myths and take pleasure in reproducing the old myths of death and destruction which characterize them.... They are in a sense programmed to perpetuate the failures of the past"] (85). Fintan Doheny, the character who, more than any other, speaks with Herbert’s voice, muses on the danger of clinging too tenaciously to the past:

It had gone on for so long, for so many generations, that the brooding, unquenchable flame had become a full partner in the Irish psyche. It was fixed there by the adhesive of oppression and starvation, kept alive in each new generation by the hearthside stories in the night—of tyrant cruelties and the agonies of ancestors.... The Irish past was a sullen ember, always ready to erupt.... Each new Irishman pledged that a thousand years of cruelty would be avenged. (173/188-89)

Kearney establishes a connection between this undying historical memory and the mythic pattern underlying the nationalist ideals. He notes that the 1916 Proclamation of the new Irish Republic contains an appeal to the people "not made by the signatories themselves, but only through them by Ireland. Ireland is addressed here as a maternal and mythical personification of the Nation who addresses her children in the name of God and those dead generations who have sacrificed themselves for her nationhood" (Transitions 210-11). The modern IRA identifies itself not only with the heroes of 1916 and with their founding Fenian forebears of the preceding century, but also with former Irish patriots such as [Elizabethan-era Ulster rebel Red Hugh] O’Donnell [another common name in Plague] and O’Neill, and ultimately with the legendary heroes of mythological Erin, i.e. Oisín, CúChulainn, Mannanan, Caitlín Ní Hóulihan and most importantly Fionn MacCúmhaill [Finn MacCool] and his warrior band, the Fianna. (211)

This "most important" symbol may be the key to translating "Finn Sadal," Herbert’s name for the new border patrol of Ireland, the "Beach Boys" as they are popularly called, a militia composed mainly of IRA soldiers. "Finn Sadal" is not Gaelic for "beach boys" and it is hard to be sure what Herbert had in mind when he chose the phrase. He probably decided on his own anglicized version of a word with some other spelling, just as earlier he omitted the silent letters from "ard righ," "high king." "Finn" evokes the Fianna, as in the modern political party Fianna Fáil, "Freedom Fighters," and "sadal" may be derived from saodail, "active; careful" or more probably saighdearail, "military, warlike, brave."

Herbert applies a cynical twist to the mytheme of the Fianna, "an elite fighting group which gained its initial fame, according to the legends, defending Ireland from would-be invaders" (Sullivan 147). The Finn Sadal accept their mission with a bloodthirsty zeal that might have dismayed the great Finn. Grisly implications haunt the unembellished remark, "It was common knowledge how the Beach Boys treated any surviving women off the coffin ships" (169/184). While Katherine Scherman claims that "they had first right to the girls of the tribe, who could not be given in marriage before they had been offered to the Fianna" (39), the Beach Boys’ self-established prerogative is a long way from the days of "the high regard for women that is one of the main features of...the tales of Finn and the Fianna" (Sullivan 148).

The IRA’s warped self-representation as the Fianna is not the only reversion Herbert portrays. The vicious leader of the Beach Boys, Kevin O’Donnell, vows, "There’ll be kings once more in Ireland" (172/188). Proinsias MacCana observes that:

to the Irish mind kingship and the public weal were so intimately related as to be at times almost synonymous, and in the deep misery of the eighteenth century when the poets lamented their country’s servitude to a foreign oppressor and wishfully prophesied the return of the old order, it was always in terms of the restoration of the native kingship that they envisioned the great liberation. (114)

Herbert posits a political motive for keeping the old iconography alive. Doheny consciously recognizes this in his reflections on Kilmainham Jail, which is, as V.S. Pritchett writes, "the most horrible" of all the Irish prisons, "where so many Irish patriots were incarcerated, hanged or shot since the days of the United Irishmen...a monument to all the lies and betrayals of Irish history" (85).

Doheny did not like Kilmainham. Its choice as a central control point for Dublin Command had been a Finn Sadal move "for historic reasons"...[for] the men who had lived—or died—in the miniscule cells that ringed the area: Robert Emmett, Patrick McCann, Charles Parnell.... (168/183)

Why did we choose that place for a seat of government? Doheny wondered. A terrible place, a monument to uncounted griefs. He knew the answer....

Because we had to bring ourselves back together again. Because we needed a symbol. And there’s one thing to be said for Kilmainham: it’s a symbol. (338/380)

This fascination with received symbols arises from the desire for political autonomy as well as for a return to more golden times. Plague shows how the long Irish memory for grievances and the cyclical view of history are inextricably intertwined elements at the root of the "Irish Question"; the Provos are so obsessed with the military losses of the past that they are unable to view England from any perspective other than that of their determination to achieve independence, some day, through a total military victory. Father Michael summarizes the force of what he considers this empty dream in a trademark chapter epigraph: "Holy Ireland was just a name, a myth, a dream that had no connection with any reality. It was our tradition, a part of our reputation, at one with the myth that we have only the honor gained from glorious battle" (20/13). Kearney proposes that the optimism underlying the republicans’ fantasy that a mythic Ireland can be restored in a mythic manner is a result of their pessimism toward Ireland’s actual history:

By virtue of their repeatability, the mythic acts of the founding fathers become timeless; they operate according to ritualistic and circular paradigms which redeem us from the depressing facts of the present; they bring history to a standstill and...make us contemporaries with the "dead generations" of the past. ("Myth and Motherland" 62)

Herbert says as much later in the novel. When international political developments make it impossible for the Irish authorities to allow John, Herity, and Father Michael to continue tramping the countryside and playing guessing-games, they challenge John’s identity and bring him to Dublin, where he is temporarily permitted, as John Garrech O’Donnell, to work with the other scientists until they can verify his fingerprints and dental charts. Doheny, who suspects John is the Madman, outlines his plan to reinvigorate the researchers by replacing "the old myths of death and destruction" with hope:

"We are not defeated [in seeking a cure]," John said.

"And that’s what I’m warning you about, John. Look around you. Defeated people always try to compensate with myths and legends."

"We’re not talking about myths and legends!"

"Oh, but we are. We’re talking about the retrospective curtains that hide unacceptable facts. Not disaster but heroic tales! No people has ever been more accomplished at myth creation than we Irish."

"No more hope," John said, his voice low, remembering Grampa Jack and the magic stories beside the fireplace.

"The devil’s own truth," Doheny said. "Imagine it, John. Everything in our history conspired to strengthen the Irish faculty for the heroic myth to soften defeat."

... "I may be the only mythmaker left to us," Doheny said. "Inspired research, that’s what we need right now."

John shook his head, uncomprehending.

"I’ve been sitting here composing a myth about John Garrech O’Donnell,"

Doheny said. "Garrech." He rolled it out in that velvet voice. "John Garrech O’Donnell, a fine old Irish name. It demands a special myth, it does."

"What in the hell are you talking about?"

"I’m talking about John Garrech O’Donnell, a Yankee descendant of strong Gaelic stock. You’ve brought us a sensational new approach to the plague! You’re a vision of hope, John Garrech O’Donnell! I’ll put it about immediately."

"Are you nuts?"

"People will admire you, John."

"For what?"

"For your vision. The Irish always admire vision." (341/382-83)

Herbert further demonstrates the ease with which the Irish can compose and come utterly to believe in their myths in a set of passages in which several characters see behind the plague an origin more supernatural than one man’s anger. Kevin O’Donnell, the Finn Sadal chief, is the first to alert us to a resurgence of superstition and myth-making:

"Such blather explains nothing, Fin! I know why this curse was laid upon us. It was because we wouldn’t forgive Dermot and the woman he stole from Ternan O’Ruarc."

"Good God, man!’‘ Doheny shook his head. "That was more than eight hundred years ago!"

"And they are wandering Ireland yet, Fin. The Brefney curse. They’re never to find peace, never be together until one Irishman forgives them. It’s those two in the tank at Killaloe, Dermot and Dervogilla come alive! We must forgive them, Fin." (170/185)

Kate, the medical student, who has managed to survive the plague by holing up in a pressure-decompression tank with her fiancé, and who is ignorant of the imputation laid at her door, echoes the explanation:

"Dervogilla and Diarmuid," Kate said, "the two of them to wander Ireland and never find peace, never to be together until one Irishman forgives them.... I know why this plague was laid upon us. Because we refused to forgive Diarmuid and Dervogilla."

"You heard that somewhere. The old men nattering back at the castle."

"Everyone says it." (395/445)

Herbert is playing an odd game here (and tinkering with the spellings, as well). This event occurred in 1152 and is considered a tragic turning point in Irish history. Dervorgilla, daughter of the High King and an Uí Néill, was unlikely to have eloped with Diarmuid MacMurrough, king of Breifne, for romantic reasons. One account claims that she appealed to him for protection against ill treatment by her husband (Clans of Ireland 138-39) but most point to the political rivalry and personal hatred between Diarmuid and Tiernan ó Rúiarc and see in her abduction a sordid but rather minor piece of treachery (see, for example, ó Corrain 52; Simms 56; Richter 131; Scherman 233; Ranelagh 35). Diarmuid, 62 at the time, was "contentious, cruel and savage to a degree extraordinary even in the far-from-gentle times in which he lived" (Scherman 233) and Dervorgilla soon fled back home (Curtis 31). Tiernan and his allies deposed Diarmuid, who sought help from the English. Henry II sent him to the Norman knight Richard de Clare, known as "Strongbow," who was more than happy to oblige. The upshot was the Norman invasion and the English conquest of Ireland.

Herbert must have taken his fabrication from that other mythographer, William Butler Yeats, who conceived the story as a romance in "The Dreaming of the Bones" (1919):

YOUNG MAN. You speak of Diarmuid and Dervorgilla

Who brought the Norman in?

YOUNG GIRL. Yes, yes, I spoke

Of that most miserable, most accursed pair

Who sold their country into slavery; and yet

They were not wholly miserable and accursed

If somebody of their race at last would say,

"I have forgiven them."

YOUNG MAN. O, never, never,

Shall Diarmuid and Dervorgilla be forgiven. (772-73)

Yeats admitted that "in making the penance of Dermot and Dervorgilla last so many centuries I have done something for which I have no warrant...but warrant there certainly is in the folklore of all countries" (778). Herbert no doubt reckoned the same. Kevin, Kate, and "everyone [who] who says it" have in this way invested a nonmythic event with magical and cautionary power; by further developing the fictionalization, Herbert shows how easily we extract from quotidian materials an enchantment and elucidation of the world.

He suggests, in fact, that mythology is not just one more article in the baggage of culture but a fundamental cognitive category applied in the human drive to define and, more significantly, to remake reality. Plague shows not only a republican obsession with the disappointments of history but also a revival of old customs among the Irish populace, as though these will bring back the gilded days of Celtic sovereignty through some sort of sympathetic magic. We meet for instance an Irish "Croesus of imported farm machinery," who calls himself a Druid, and who reenacts the historic rivalry between Druids and Catholic priests in an amusing argument with Father Michael (272-74/304-06). To Father Michael’s horror, his paganism is permitted for important reasons. As Zeender coyly puts it, Retranché derrière les murs de son château et protégé par un arsenal impressionnant, il veille de manière très personnelle sur la sécurité [Retrenched behind the walls of his fortress and protected by an impressive arsenal, he watches in a very personal manner over the security] of twenty-six girls whom he has managed to save from the plague. Zeender adds:

Adorateur du sorbier, il prône pour sa part les vieux rites gaéliques qui se résument en l’occurrence à féconder les jeunes filles sous le sorbier les soirs de pleine lune.... [A worshipper of the rowan tree, he preaches on its behalf the ancient Gaelic rites, which he revives by impregnating young girls beneath the rowan on the nights of the full moon....] (83)

We also hear of "two Irish abbeys, occupied now by lay brothers who devoted themselves to producing illuminated manuscripts in the ancient fashion, on vellum and magnificent handmade linen paper" (277/309), and we read that

Kevin’s people often killed outsiders driven ashore because of plague contamination. Hunting these "shore birds" was considered sport by the Finn Sadal. Then burning the poor fellows in the old Celtic way—confined in wicker baskets over flames! (169/184)

These revivals mark the resurgence of confidence among the Beach Boys, who see their country for the first time gaining real political clout internationally, as suspicion spreads that the Madman may have gone to Ireland to witness the results of his work. In one episode, the American President is mystified by a demand from the Irish government:

Ireland wanted the Viking plunder returned. All of that priceless accumulation from the museums of Denmark, Norway and Sweden was to be brought back and sent in on the free boats.

"All of the wealth stolen from us by the barbarians will be interred at Armagh," the Irish said.


They spoke of plans for a great ceremony full of pagan overtones. (224/248)

Archeologists have realized the cultural importance of this old tradition from excavations of the fabulous burial tombs at Hochdorf, Hallstatt, and La Tène. The designation of Armagh is noteworthy: as the headquarters of St. Patrick, situated near Emain Macha, the ancient capital of Ireland, and basking in the heart of the Uí Néill realm, "Armagh claimed to hold the leading position at least in the northern half of Ireland...[and] was accredited with divine origin" (Richter 98). The pragmatic uselessness of such a gesture is astonishing to the Americans, but it would be rich with symbolism to the Irish.

When increased international turmoil puts pressure on the Irish to announce whether they have captured the Madman, Herity and O’Donnell take advantage of the local confusion to seize control of Dublin. Kevin reveals his political ambitions in an allusion to more ancient traditions:

"I have in my hand a bit of the roof timber from Cashell [sic]. It is a token that Irish law prevails here." He lowered the wood gently to the table. "We have ridden here on horseback as did the kings of old, it being the mark of a conqueror. The Brehon Law will be restored." (401/451)

Cashel in County Tipperary was the seat of the kings of Munster and "the traditional rival of Tara in the ages-old division of Ireland into a northern and a southern half" (Scherman 94). As the site of St. Patrick’s Rock and "the political and religious center of the province it has played host to an unbroken string of battles, consecrations, and coronations" (Uris 29). The Brehon Laws, meanwhile, are of uncertain but very advanced age, having been revised at least once already before St. Patrick undertook to revise them in the 5th century (Hyde 107). An incredibly copious body of rules, prescriptions, and etiquette, they grew out of tradition and public opinion and "probably embody a large share of primitive Aryan custom" (Hyde 587). The practical advantages of returning to the Brehon code are highly debatable; what would matter to Herity and O’Donnell is that it was pre-Norman and above all native.

One of the oddest scenes, rapidly following the Beach Boys’ seizure of power, is the kangaroo-court trial of the Madman, presided over by O’Donnell, Herity, and the head—in a jar of whiskey—of an ex-colleague. Perhaps most Americans will never have heard of the ancient cult of the severed head, and Herbert inserts it without gloss, but John undergoes a profound psychological alteration when he sees it. Already close to losing his precarious grip on reality, from this point on his descent into utter unbalance is irremediable:

John stared at the head in the bottle. It was speaking to him in the voice of O’Neill!

...That head was the true judge in this room. John held this thought close to him, warming himself on it. (401,403/452,454)

The early Celts collected and preserved heads with what can only be called enthusiasm. Excavations have turned up not only art and architecture decorated with the motif but hoards of human skulls (Rutherford 114; Ross 61-126). The head was considered an object of magical power, "bringing luck and strength into a house or increasing the holiness of a sanctuary. A further reason for valuing a severed head might be its association with the practice of divination, suggested by the part played by speaking or singing heads in the Irish tales" (Davidson 72), a tradition which goes a long way in explaining the appearance of the head in this scene and John’s reaction to it.

Taking a head was a sign of machismo, since it could only be done in a one-on-one sword fight. The legends describe warriors galloping home chanting war-songs, their enemies’ heads dripping at their bridles. All the force of this custom is evoked when, during the trial, an angry crowd surrounds the building, demanding the surrender of the Madman.

The coming of the mob ignited a strange new personality in Kevin O’Donnell. Kevin turned first to the jury and told them to find weapons. They no longer were jurymen but "soldiers at Armageddon!" A distant look of dreaming took over Kevin’s face. He gestured broadly with his right hand and took up the jar with Alex Coleman’s head, saying,

"Come watch it, Alex! This is the moment for which I was born." (419/472)

Harking back to the glory of his ancestors, Kevin gains strength from the head as he strides out to challenge the mob.

Raymond Williams once wrote, "This is a characteristic nationalistic emphasis: a self-definition, for contemporary reasons, which draws on any elements, however improbable, that can be made to inhere in a particular land" (269). The twist lies in Herbert’s indisposition to provide us the background necessary to recognize the rich cultural connotations of these elements. Encountering these exotic, sometimes gruesome symbols, we judge Herity and O’Donnell and their reactionary dreams the more harshly because their mythical foundations seem too alien to win our sympathy.

Having superimposed on the physical landscape its history and legends, Herbert plants in this four-dimensional field many allusions to the Celtic mythology. Some have a throwaway quality to them, such as the fact that John reaches Ireland in October, the month of Samhain, the basis of our Hallowe’en; or Stephen’s electrifying realization that the plague pathogen is structured like a Maypole, an heirloom of Celtic fertility rites (Rutherford 26); or the references to animals. Every hero, god, and goddess had a totem species, whose shape might be adopted occasionally and whose appearance usually foretokened some major event. Information that the white plague has mutated and spread to other species (378/427) reminds us of our closeness to the animal kingdom, a matter not forgotten by the ancients in their zoomorphic pantheons. More precisely, for example, crows hover above the Ireland of Plague:

"Isn’t it strange," Father Michael mused, "so many of the ancient lyrics mentioning the blackbirds." He stared at the birds wheeling over the ruin.

John also watched the flock, thinking how those particular birds haunted this landscape, realizing that this must always have been the case. (322-23/363)

A triad of Celtic war-goddesses traditionally appears as crows: "Badb (carrion crown) and Macha (also a crow, whose food was the heads of slain warriors)" (Scherman 53) and their sister the Mórrigan, "the war fury par excellence" (Smyth 109). As symbols of death, their appearance is usually sinister, so much so that the statue of the dying CúChulainn in the Dublin General Post Office is topped by a victorious crow. The story has it that, perishing of his wounds in his last battle, he tied himself to a pillar in order to die on his feet, and it was only when they saw the birds alight that his enemies dared to come close enough to behead him. Their appearance in the passage above should have warned John that his luck has run out; shortly after this conversation he is arrested for interrogation.

Such examples abound. When their picnic at Ballyvalle Ford is cut short by the arrival of flies, Kate surprises her fiancé by saying, "Terrible things were done in that place, Stephen. I can feel it. Could the flies be the souls of the evil men who did those terrible things?" (55/53). This bizarre hypothesis actually has precedent in Celtic mythology, which complemented the notion of cyclical time with the doctrine of the transmigration of souls. In Tochmarc étaíne (The Wooing of étaíne), for example, a spiteful witch transforms the titular heroine into a fly, a shape she bears for many years until, fallen into a cup, she is swallowed by a queen and reborn.

References to cattle recall the great Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley). This is the saga of the feats of CúChulainn, and of the Donn, the noble bull of Ulster, the prize sought by the raiding army of Connacht whose theft CúChulainn prevents. "We are cows," says one of the Team (442/500), meaning valuable but vulnerable scientists in a world ruled by mad politics, and certainly John shares the plight of the Donn: he is the prize sought by every government on earth, as his capture would mean a gift of unmeasurable political power. At the climax of the Táin, the Donn "careered across Ireland in his battle rage...occasioning the creation of a series of well-known placenames" (MacCana 50). As if in reversal of this process, Herbert emphasizes the evacuation of the natural and supernatural life that once flourished there:

"There’s something you never saw in the Irish countryside," Father Michael said, his voice low. "Gates left open." (293/328)

Somewhere over there lay Tara, Herity knew. There where kings had lived, not even cattle grazed now. (322/363)

Once this land might have been enchanted, but now the spirits were gone. It possessed only this emptiness, an absolute vitiation at one with the gnarled willows beneath the elders and the dank bog at the river’s edge. The river spoke to him, a blasphemous echo: "My spirits are gone. I am wasted." (247/276)

John’s coming displaces the gods, whose mantles of power and terror he assumes; he adds his own scrawl to the pervasive bleedthrough of history. Not contradicting this exodus or extinction but rather underscoring it, Herbert portrays an Irish populace that increasingly turns to folklore for religious reasons. Seeking mythic structure (including its happy ending) in everyday life is a universal way of coping with lostness and loss. Tomas ó Cathasaigh writes that, "although the early Irish material includes a valuable wisdom literature the abstract formulation of philosophical and theological theories was not the Irish way. It was in their myths that they explored the nature of men and the gods" (79). The momentum of epistemology is psychological; the Irish characters fall back on mythology to explain what has happened to their world.

For example, Kate waives the scientific approach implied by her medical training in diagnosing her apprehension one night:

"It’s ghosts," she said, her voice hushed. "There’s no women now to lay out the corpses. The faeries are causing the ghosts. Oh, the faeries are getting many souls now." (268/299)

Herity also often invokes the activity of supernatural forces:

"Best be moving along," Father Michael said. "I don’t like the feel of this place."

"The faeries have been at it for sure," Herity said. (186/204)

"How did these cottages escape [destruction]?" John asked....

"In the tumult of these times ’tis a miracle," Herity said, his voice low. "But I do not think it was a Church miracle. It may be that nothing was ever broken in Gannon’s house. The faeries are liking that. There are strange things in this land, let them say what they will." (214/238)

The reader is surprised by all this talk of faeries, the other characters are surprised by it, Herity’s defensive tone in his last clause shows he himself is surprised by it, but when the official definition of reality does not satisfy, we choose our own alternatives. The reinstatement of tutelary spirits is all one with the popular belief that the plague is caused by an 800-year-old "Brefney curse." It is curious and poignant that the Irish characters cannot take the Madman’s revenge at face value. To admit that one man could be the author of so much death and grief would be to implicate Ireland’s responsibility and their own. The appeal to the metaphysical allows displacement of the guilt to the play of invisible forces somewhere "out there." Possibly for the same reasons, John also came to think of himself as Nemesis revived. This Nemesis came out of Ireland’s bloody past, out of the betrayals and murders, and even carried with it a retaliation against the Celtic extermination of the First People, the Danaans, who had been in Ireland before the waves of invaders from Britain and the Continent. (28/22)

This allusion is to the Tuatha Dé Danaan, the People of the Goddess Danu, Herity’s "faeries," who are told of in the Leabhar Gabhála, the Book of Invasions (to which should be added O’Neill’s plague). The Leabhar chronicles the six immigrations of the inhabitants of Ireland, among them the Tuatha, whom the Celts defeated in battle. Afterwards the land was divided in two, the upper half going to the Gaels and the lower half, plus assorted síde (the "shee" in "banshee") or fairy-mounds, to the Tuatha. "The world of the síde was distinct from that of men, but contact between the two was frequent, and especially at Samhain (November 1) when the síde were believed to be open...beliefs which have persisted down to modern times" (ó’Cathasaigh 81-82).

John encourages a similar characterization of himself in a letter notifying world leaders of his plague:

"And finally I tell the Irish to remember the Banshee of Dalcais Aibell, the Banshee warning Brian Boru that he would die at Clontarf. Listen for the Banshee, Ireland, for I will have my revenge on all of you. No more can you evade personal responsibility for what you did to me and mine. I am the ultimate gombeen man [rural loan shark] come to make you pay—not just during the hard months but forevermore." (251/280)

Some reference to Brian Boru is practically obligatory, though his banshee is less well-known and though this passage contains what looks like a misapprehension on Herbert’s part. The Book of Leinster, a manuscript from about 1150 which includes a description of the Battle of Clontarf (April 23, 1014), quotes Brian: "Aoíbheall of Craig Liath came to me last night..." (Hyde 438), "Aoíbheall" (pronounced "eevil") being the name of the family banshee of the royal house of Dál Cais, or North Munster. Though the lack of a comma between "Dalcais" and "Aibell" suggests some error, Herbert’s spelling is an acceptable anglicization for one unaware that "bh" is equivalent to "v"; this is why Irish writers such as Yeats, Lady Gregory, and Douglas Hyde will render "Medhbh," the name of the famous fairy queen, as "Maeve" or some variant thereof, while the English, such as Jonson, Tennyson, and Shakespeare, spell it "Mab." Such vocabularly is meant to make John sound knowledgeable and very "inside," while distancing those of us unconversant with the allusions.

Herbert links John with yet another figure from the legends, the legendarily insane King Suíbhne or Sweeney, who they say was cursed by St. Ronan for his irreverence toward the church and who went mad after witnessing the atrocities of the battle of Mag Rath (AD 637) (see ó hógain 394-95). As is described in the Buile Suíbhne (translated by Seamus Heaney as Sweeney Astray), he raced shrieking into the wilderness: "a bitter madman in the glen / bereft of sense and reason... / sad forever is my cry" (Smyth 138), the curse driving him to wander almost without rest throughout Ireland until his death. Not realizing how aptly this characterization will fit John in the end, Herity says, "We can be Sweeneys together, tramping over the land, seeing the sorry sights of our poor Ireland" (164/179).

When the courtroom is surrounded by a mob, Doheny and Father Michael manage to get John away. But his sanity is rapidly disintegrating and, as they take shelter in a woodsman’s hut, his protective layers of personalities melt away and he regresses before their eyes to the pre-Madman John Roe O’Neill.

Before anyone could prevent it, John was outside, running and screaming, crashing through the trees.

... They listened to the sounds from the darkness—the wailing screams, the thrashing of underbrush. It went on for a long time, fading away at last into the distance, at one with the wind in the trees. (428/483)

Besides identifying himself as a supernatural instrument of retribution, John becomes subsumed into Irish myth more profoundly than anyone could have foreseen. Like any myth hero, he comes to occupy a special place in his new society—set apart, even otherworldly, but a role that can be codified and fitted into the mythical cycles. It is significant that he is located there by the people and not by his own choice.

Was O’Neill still wandering insane in Ireland? It was possible. A form of that primitive respect for madness had come over the Irish. They were perfectly capable of harboring him, feeding and protecting him. The stories coming out of Ireland could not be discounted—rumors, myths. Cottagers were putting out dishes of food the way they had done for the Little Folk. (443-44/501)

Herbert’s unsystematic use of the canon of Celtic mythology suggests that he was not trying to structure Plague on a mythic framework—to retell a paricular story in the way that, for example, Dune recalls the house of Atreus and its attendant tragedies. Rather, his bringing myths, folk-tales, and real or imagined history to the fore requires us to consider how these elements combine to form a civilization as it exists today—and to examine our own premises and assumptions.

One section epigraph reads, "The past is dead. —Arab proverb" (145/ 157). Herbert’s conclusion is that, for most of us, the past is still very much alive. But for him the human genius for abstracting everyday matters into their larger allegorical counterparts is a double-edged blade. As we have seen, he offers two explanations for the persistence of mythology and for the desire for a mythic ontology, one political and the other psychological.

Doheny, O’Donnell, and Herity are portrayed as conscious of the relationship between their political ideals and the symbols they employ to demonstrate their patriotism, symbols whose pragmatic applicability was exhausted long ago. Myths provide a potent cultural wellspring from which we draw as we seek to define our selves and our allegiance to our community; they are also useful for erecting barriers between "Us" and "Them." While his characters harp on the enduring significance of history and legend, declaring them as immanent in the physical landscape as in the mental,

Herbert suggests that this way of seeing is artificial. Equating the soil with the blood spilt upon it is a political gesture.

Zeender’s essay on Plague concludes that "la fable de Frank Herbert est une puissante charge contre les fanatismes, et celui de l’I.R.A. provisoire en particulier. Les idéalistes qu’il dépeint sont grotesquement dévorés par leurs obsessions personnelles" ["Herbert’s fable is a powerful charge against all fanaticisms, and that of the provisional IRA in particular. The idealists he depicts are grotesquely devoured by their personal obsessions"] (87). Certainly Herbert warns here, as in many other novels, against the power idealists can attain by consciously manipulating mythic symbols as a valorization and precedent for contemporary political agendas.4 He portrays the mythification of John O’Neill and Diarmuid and Dervorgilla to expose ideologues who pick and choose among historical figures and events for the same sort of gilding. Herity’s belief in his Cause is bolstered by a map of symbols, from Kilmainham to the Boyne, whose physical counterparts are guilty only by association.

But Herbert also understands the psychology underlying the political maneuver, "a hidden mythic dimension," as Kearney calls it, "which has played a formative role in what might be described as the ‘ideological unconscious’" of the IRA:

myth is revealed as a highly ordered strategy which "transforms the determinist world in which we live into a magical world." Of course, strictly speaking, what myth transforms is not the world itself...but the manner in which we intend the world. By altering our attitude to the world, myth provides imaginary solutions to real conflicts. Hence the enormous appeal of mythological paradigms of belief for the consciousness of an oppressed or colonized people. (Transitions 223; Kearney’s emphasis)

Myth endures because it totalizes, it explains, it reassures. Herbert’s "genetic theory of history" (O’Reilly 49) may even postulate the architecture of myth as an innate latticework on which human thinking is built. The juxtaposition of genetic disease and the role of myth certainly smells of metaphor, and Zeender’s conclusion is that

l’originalité de Herbert, c’est de faire de ces "Sardaukar" irlandais des créatures programmés sur le plan génétique.... les Irlandais sont à la fois les héritiers et le jouet d’un gène qui les pousse à la vengeance et à la destruction, un "gène égoïste" qui...suffirait à déterminer un comportement donné.... Une telle interprétation du "rêve irlandais" relève de la sociobiologie et elle révèle un certain fatalisme à l’égard d’un conflit qui se résume depuis trop longtemps à une vendetta sans merci échappant à toute logique. [Herbert’s originality lies in creating these Irish "Sardaukars" as creatures programmed by a genetic plan.... the Irish are at the same time the heirs and the pawn of a gene that incites them to vengeance and destruction, a "selfish gene"...which suffices to determine a given behavior.... Such an interpretation of the "Irish dream" stems from sociobiology and reveals a certain fatalism with regard to a conflict which has boiled down to and persisted far too long as a merciless vendetta, against all logic.] (87)

It is important to remember that Herbert’s progressive attitude led him to distrust any movement whose philosophy did not embrace or at least prepare for the future. Don Riggs has pointed out that futuristic novels can be prophetic in intent, or can treat the future as a metaphor for the present by depicting the probable future that a continuation of current trends would create; and he argues that "Herbert’s futures are of this last variety" (116). Hence Herbert’s warnings about addiction to the past. He once said, "I ask myself, ‘What is the society avoiding?’" (O’Reilly 14), and in this case it is society’s realization that "all the factors that go into the creation of a myth are means by which humans reassure themselves that they are in control of their universe" (O’Reilly 50). Rather than our seeking such assurances, Herbert wanted us to remain adaptable, ready for any possible future.

Yet Frankenstein scenarios such as Plague’s were not Herbert’s greatest fear. Though he believed that "the function of science fiction is not always to predict the future but sometimes to prevent it" (O’Reilly 14), he was more concerned with our psychological approach to the future. If we fail to resist the reactionary impulse, we face Herbert’s most damning indictment: "‘It’s the curse of Ireland,’ Doheny said. ‘We are doomed to repeat ourselves endlessly’" (383/433).


1. Zeender mistakenly believes that John recognizes Herity as the bomber: "Il ignore à ce moment-là [when they meet him] qu’il se trouve en présence de celui par qui le malheur est arrivé. Une curieuse fascination le pousse à accepter de se laisser guider par lui à travers la région. Peut-être la présence de père Michael n’est-elle pas étrangère à cette décision." [He is unaware at that moment that he is in the presence of the one who caused the disaster. A strange fascination impels him to accept being guided across the region by this individual. Perhaps the presence of Father Michael is not unconnected with this decision.] (83). In fact, John doesn’t learn of Herity’s guilt until the end of the novel.

2. As Zeender notes, "Le Fou a d’ailleurs conscience de l’étroite dépendance qui s’établit entre l’Irlande et ses habitants.... Mais comme la terre elle-même est imprégnée d’histoire et de mythologie, sa mémoire—un peu à la manière de celle d’un schizophrène—se manifeste sans aucun souci de logique, ni de chronologie. Ainsi tous les sites historiques mentionnés dans le roman sont prétextes à l’évocation d’événements ou de fantômes surgis du fond des âges.... Il semble émaner du sol des bouffées d’un passé plus ou moins lointain." [The Madman is moreover conscious of this strict dependence which is established between Ireland and her inhabitants.... But just as the earth itself is pregnant with its history and mythology, his memory—a little in the manner of a schizophrenic—shows itself to be without any logic or chronology. Thus all the historical sites mentioned in the novel are pretexts for the evocation of events or ghosts surging up from ages gone by.... The presence of a more or less distant past seems to emanate from the soil.] (85)

3. A rath was a ring-fort, which came by synechdoche to mean the home of the clan as well.

4. Timothy O’Reilly discusses at length how Herbert "explored the nature of charismatic myths and the possibility for manipulation of the unconscious in all of us" (48).


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Zeender, Marie-Noëlle. "Le ‘Rêve Irlandais’ dans The White Plague de Frank Herbert: Une Illustration Sociobiologique du Fanatisme de la Mort et de la Destruction." études Irlandaises. 14:77-88, Dec. 1989.


Abstract.—The White Plague is usually regarded, especially in the critical arena, as one of the least significant of Frank Herbert’s novels. This is an undeserved fate, given the quality of this superbly crafted thriller of revenge and genetic warfare. It may be that the novel has been overlooked because so much of its subtextual material is unfamiliar to many readers. I argue here that Herbert inserted numerous allusions to Irish history and Celtic mythology so as to distance readers from the Ireland he portrays, and particularly from the reactionary ideology of the IRA.

Herbert demonstrates the persistence of archaic icons and events in Irish nationalist politics in three ways: he makes frequent allusions to Irish military history; he shows his characters coping with their new world by reviving ancient Gaelic customs; and he comments on the traditional Celtic perception of time and history as cyclical through subtle covert and overt references to the collections of myths known as the Cycles. In choosing a mythological system unfamiliar to most readers, Herbert alienates us from the motives and ideals of the characters whose moral and cultural codes are founded upon it. Furthermore, by stressing the powerful influence of inherited myths upon personal and national psyches, and by demonstrating the unthinking ease with which human beings translate daily situations into events of mythic import. he warns us that ongoing political conflicts will not be resolved so long as the ideologues involved expect a mythical or magical climax to their struggles. (EF)

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