#58 = Volume 19, Part 3 = November 1992
Frank Herbert and the Making of Myths: Irish History,
Celtic Mythology, and IRA Ideology in The White
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
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.
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"
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
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
"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
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
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
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,
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....
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
"And that’s what I’m warning you about, John. Look
around you. Defeated people always try to compensate with myths and
"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
"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
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 your vision. The Irish always admire vision."
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
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....]
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
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
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
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
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
"How did these cottages escape [destruction]?"
"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
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
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.
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
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
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).
Canny, Nicholas. "Early Modern Ireland, c.
1500-1700." The Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland. Ed. R.F.
Foster. Oxford, 1989. 104-60.
The Cattle Raid of Cooley (Táin bó Cúailnge): An Old Irish
Prose-Epic. Trans. L. Winifred Faraday. London, 1904.
The Clans of Ireland. Dublin, n.d.
Costigan, Giovanni. A History of Modern Ireland With a
Sketch of Earlier Times. Indianapolis, 1969.
Curtis, Edmund. A History of Medieval Ireland from 1086 to
1513. NY, 1968.
Davidson, Hilda Roderick Ellis. Myths and Symbols in Pagan
Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions. NY, 1988.
Delaney, Frank. The Celts. Boston, 1986.
Dillon, Myles. Early Irish Literature. Chicago, 1948.
Fredericks, Casey. The Future of Eternity: Mythologies of
Science Fiction and Fantasy. Bloomington, IN, 1982.
Herbert, Frank. The White Plague. NY: Putnam, 1982; NY:
Berkley Books (paper back), 1983. Since there are no chapter-numbers, I have
provided page references to both the first hardback and the first paperback
edition. The in-text page/page references are to Putnam/Berkley.
Hill, James Michael. Celtic Warfare, 1595-1763.
Hyde, Douglas. A Literary History of Ireland from Earliest
Times to the Present Day. London, 1899.
Inglis, Tom. Moral Monopoly: The Catholic Church in Modern
Irish Society. Dublin, 1897.
Irish Republican Army Handbook: Notes on Guerrilla Warfare.
Cornville, AZ, 1981.
Kearney, Richard. "Myth and Motherland." Ireland’s
Field Day. Ed. Field Day Theatre Co. Notre Dame, IN, 1986. 61-80.
—————. Transitions: Narratives in Modern Irish
Culture. Manchester, UK, 1988.
Kenner, Hugh. A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers.
Harmondsworth, UK, 1984.
MacCana, Proinsias. Celtic Mythology. NY, 1985.
ó’Cathasaigh, Tomas. "The Concept of the Hero in Irish
Mythology." The Irish Mind: Exploring Intellectual Traditions. Ed.
Richard Kearney. Dublin, 1985. 79-90.
ó’Corrain, Donnchadh. "Prehistoric and Early Christian
Ireland." The Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland. Oxford, 1989.
ó hógain, Daithi. Myth, Legend & Romance: An
Encyclopedia of the Irish Folk Tradition. NY, 1991.
O’Reilly, Timothy. Frank Herbert. NY, 1981.
Pritchett, V.S. Dublin, a Portrait. NY, 1967.
Ranelagh, John O’Beirne. A Short History of Ireland.
Cambridge, UK, 1983.
Richter, Michael. Medieval Ireland. NY, 1988.
Riggs, Don. "Future and ‘Progress’ in Foundation
and Dune." Spectrum of the Fantastic: Essays from the Sixth
International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Ed. Donald Palumbo.
NY, 1988. 113-17.
Ross, Anne. Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography
and Tradition. London, 1967.
Rutherford, Ward. The Druids and Their Heritage.
Scherman, Katharine. The Flowering of Ireland: Saints,
Scholars and Kings. Boston, 1981.
Simms, Katharine. "The Norman Invasion and the Gaelic
Recovery." The Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland. Ed. R.F.
Foster. Oxford, 1989. 53-103.
Smyth, Daragh. A Guide to Irish Mythology. Dublin,
Sullivan, Charles W. Welsh Celtic Myth in Modern Fantasy. NY,
Touponce, William F. Frank Herbert. Boston, 1988.
Uris, Jill and Leon. Ireland: A Terrible Beauty.
Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. NY, 1975.
Yeats, William Butler. The Variorum Edition of the Plays of
W.B. Yeats. Ed. Russell K. Alspach. London, 1966.
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,
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
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.