The Story of Deirdre: A Portrayal of Aristotelian Tragedy

DISCLAIMER:  In giving this another read several times over, I realize that I definitely have some things to correct and tweak…but, I wanted to get another post out for possible viewing pleasure!  Enjoy–and again, feedback is welcome and appreciated!

The Irish fairytale “The Story of Deirdre” is a tragic story of violence, bloodshed, love, and loss during a time when Kings and mighty warriors dominated the countryside of Ireland.  This tale moves beyond aspects of Biblical tragedy and evolves into a more organized, formulaic calamity as idealized by Aristotle.  “The Story of Deirdre” illustrates this by establishing organization to the narrative—a clear, linear pattern that demonstrates a beginning, middle, and end, characters of significance (who aren’t necessarily good or evil), a plot that is fueled by action of high magnitude throughout the story, the writer’s usage of eloquent language in the tale, the tragic flaw within the story’s main character, and a cathartic resolution that moves from suffering to relief.  This paper will focus on these components and how they are exemplified through the images described in “The Story of Deirdre”, as well as the character of Deirdre, herself.

First, Aristotelian tragedies must show organization, and this Irish fairytale clearly demonstrates a crafted pattern in which the story’s characters and action follow.  In fact, it is established very quickly at the beginning of the story, in which Cathub, a druid, predicts the course of Deirdre’s life and the destruction that is brought about as a result of her existence:  “. . . and her name will be Derdriu, and there will be trouble on her account” (translated by Gantz, 1616).  After Deirdre’s birth, the visionary lays out the pattern of events further.  An example of this is found in the following passages as translated by Jeffrey Gantz:

Because of you, woman of fate,

Fergus will be exiled from Ulaid,

and—a deed that will cause much weeping—

Conchubur’s son Fiachnae will be slain.

Because of you, woman of fate,

Gerrce son of Illadan will be slain,

and—a crime no less awful–

Eogan son of Durthacht will be destroyed.

You will do a frightful fierce deed

out of anger at Ulaid’s high king;

your grave will be everywhere—

yours will be a famous tale, Derdriu.  (1617)

And, true to form, the sequence of events unfolds just as the druid predicted they would. Deirdre is born and raised in the court of Conchubur, the King of Ulaid and his wife Lebarcham; a battle erupts in which all of the warriors mentioned above (including her lover Noisiu) are either killed or exiled; and finally, Deirdre fulfills the druid’s prophecy of doing “a frightful fierce deed” (Gantz 1617) by committing suicide in reaction to the loss of her love, Noisiu.  The pattern of events in “The Story of Deirdre” is clearly linear, as the action begins with Deirdre’s birth and rearing, moves to the middle of the plot, focusing on the emotion of battle, bloodshed, and forbidden love, to ending in resolution, with the woman’s suicide.  In addition, the pattern is presented in a continuous way, where there are no gaps in time and no narration to slow down the fast-paced action of the story.

A second requirement of an Aristotelian tragedy is that the tale’s characters must not be ordinary in any way.  Instead, they must be of significance in their status in society to provide the audience with a true sense of their tragedy by the end of the story.  For example, Deirdre was an extraordinarily beautiful woman, whose affections were sought after by Noisiu and the King of Ulaid.  This was predicted by Cathub while the girl was in her mother’s womb.  As translated by Gantz, the wise man explains,

. . . a woman with twisted yellow hair

and beautiful grey green eyes,

Foxglove her purple pink cheeks,

the colour of snow her flawless teeth,

brilliant her Parthian-red lips.

. . . a tall, beautiful, long-haired woman

whom champions will contest,

whom high kings will woo;

. . . Parthian-red lips will frame

those flawless teeth;

high queens will envy her

her matchless, faultless form.  (1616-17)

Deirdre’s beauty alone was of great magnitude, enough for a king–the most important member of society—to be attracted to.  Also, not only is her beauty significant, but her fateful life from birth to death is so huge, so tragic, that her story will be told for years to come:  “. . . yours will be a famous tale, Derdriu” (Gantz 1617).  If Deirdre had been an ordinary woman, the effect of her tragic tale would not have been so great, and the audience would not be able to sympathize with her as much.  The same could be said if she were simply an evil human being.  Her story would be very un-tragic and it would be too difficult to feel any kind of pity for her.

The action-filled plot in “The Story of Deirdre” is another feature in the Aristotelian tragedy.  Though the story’s quieter moments roll along, it is the aggression, suffering, and bloodshed of the battles that have the greatest impact in the tale.  This is clear in the brutal image of Noisiu’s and his brothers’ murder as described in the text:  “Eogan, however, greeted Noisiu with the point of his spear and broke his back . . .The sons of Uisliu were then hunted from one end of the green to the other, and no one escaped save by point of spear and edge of sword” (Gantz 1619).  The killing does not stop there.  The action continues on:  “Dubthack killed Conchubur’s son Man and dispatched Fiachnae, the son of Conchubur’s daughter, Fedelm, with a single blow; Fergus killed Traigthren son of Traiglethan and his brother.  Conchubur was outraged, and a battle ensued:  in one day, three hundred Ulaid fell, and Dubthach slew the young women of the province. . .” (Gantz 1619).  True to Aristotelian form, the plot not only focuses on Deirdre, but also on all of the players in the story, from the King of Ulaid, to Noifsiu, to tribal warriors—and they are all affected by it in some way.

Aristotelian tragedy also makes use of eloquent and embellished language in its stories, and “The Story of Deirdre” is filled with examples of how it is used.  For instance, the characters’ profound monologues are found from the beginning to the end of the story.  Cathub’s prophecy about Deirdre is spoken through a grand speech to the girl’s mother and father; and, while lamenting her lover’s death, Deirdre recites a long, sorrowful speech to Conchubur.  This kind of language provides a dramatic effect and gives the tragedy more magnitude.  In addition, the use of metaphors is present in the story.  An example of this is occurs when Deirdre is describing what her ideal man would look like:  “.Derris saw a raven drinking the blood on the snow, and she said to Lebarcham ‘I could love a man with those three colours:  hair like a raven, cheeks like blood and body like snow’” (Gantz 1617).  Again, this helps to give more magnitude to the plot, or action in the story.

The concept of Hamartia, otherwise known as the “tragic flaw”, is another important aspect of Aristotelian tragedy that is present in “The Story of Deirdre”.   The character of Deirdre is a clear example of having the tragic flaw within herself.  She is aware of the prophecy that had been made before her birth, but yet, still continues to make the decisions she makes.  There is something deep within her that she cannot help, because it is by design that the death and suffering take place.  This idea is expressed in the story, in which Deirdre and Noisiu encounter each other for the first time near the barricade of the stronghold of Emuin:

When Noisiu was outside alone, then, Derdriu stole out to him and made as if to

go past, and he did not recognize her.  ‘A fine heifer that that is going by’, he

said.  ‘The heifers are bound to be fine where there are no bulls,’ she answered.

‘You have the bull of the province:  the king of Ulaid,’ Noisiu said.  ‘Between the             two of you, I would choose a young bull like yourself,’ Derdriu replied.  ‘No!

there is Cathub’s prophecy,’ said Noisiu.  . . . ‘Two ears of shame and mockery

these unless you take me with you!’ (Gantz 1618)

Perhaps through Deirdre’s own arrogance in knowing her position in the prophecy, she defies Noisiu’s pleas and sets off to be with him—making that tragic error in judgment that eventually leads to death, exile, and suffering.

Finally, no Aristotelian tragedy would be complete without a cathartic resolution.  Deirdre’s tragic flaw sets into motion the eventual murder of Noisiu, and for a year after his death (in the company of Conchubur), she spends her time overcome with grief and despair, professing her eternal love to him.  It is Deirdre’s turn to suffer now, as she experiences the “recognition” of her role in her lover’s killing.  She laments, “Noisiu’s grave has now been made, and the accompaniment was mournful.  For him I poured out—hero of heroes—the deadly drink that killed him” (Gantz 1620).  Deirdre finally realizes the extent of her responsibility in the prophecy, and it is killing her.  She cries, “I do not sleep but lie awake half the night; my thoughts flee from these hosts, I neither eat nor smile” (Gantz 1621).  No amount of punishment that is given to her would be worse than the inward hell Deirdre is living through now. She understands that the only release from her suffering is to go and be with her beloved Noisiu—and she proceeds to do just that.  As described at the end of the story, “there was a great boulder before Derdriu.  She let her head be driven against it, and the boulder made fragments of her head, and she died” (Gantz 1622).  Deirdre is finally relieved of her suffering, free to be with the one she loves.

In conclusion, “The Story of Deirdre” clearly demonstrates elements of the Aristotelian tragedy though the components and examples provided above.  Its ingredients combine to make a perfect and organized recipe for calamity of epic proportions.

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