GAT-TOOTHED ALYSOUN, GAPTOOTHED KATHLEEN: SOVEREIGNTY AND DENTITION
Near the beginning of the conversation in the National Library that constitutes the Scylla and Charybdis episode in James Joyce's Ulysses, John Eglinton's question to the hung-over Stephen Dedalus as to whether he had found "those six brave medicals to write Paradise Lost at your dictation," yields to the speculation that perhaps one more would be needed for Hamlet. Hamlet will later dominate the conversation; now Eglinton justifies his number by its pre-eminence in mystic thought and by a reference to W. B. Yeats and the "shining seven." Stephen makes his typical witty reply but numbers continue to inform his thoughts, dominated by his remorse over his relations with his dead mother. He remembers his colleague Cranly's call for "eleven true Wicklowmen to free their sireland" and then continues "Gaptoothed Kathleen, her four beautiful green fields, the stranger in her house" (U 9.36f.). The sequence of numbers finally reaches "the Tinahely twelve."1
Stephen's musing on Kathleen has been recognised as prompted by the mention of Yeats and his recall of this author's one-act play, Cathleen Ni Houlihan, which had been staged with Maude Gonne in the title role some two years earlier.2 Here an itinerant old woman comes to a cottage in the west of Ireland and her cryptic talk of her four green fields and strangers in her house eventually persuades a young groom to engage in military action to free the four provinces of Ireland from British overlordship. The fields are never explicitly called "beautiful" nor do the dramatist's stage directions describe the old woman in any detail, so that "gaptoothed" is Stephen's complementary detail. Where might this detail have come from and why?
Yeats's title joins a long native Irish tradition in which the land, whether under native or foreign rule, is compared to a woman in a marital union of varying success. Some of Yeats's precedents lay in the figures of Caitlín Ní Houlihan and Roisín Dubh (Dark Rosaleen) as elegiacally called up in James Clarence Mangan's poems, which Joyce is reputed to have preferred to Yeats's short play.3 The remoter, indeed, archaic Irish conception was of a goddess of territorial sovereignty, who selected the best candidate for the kingship, on the basis of either his reputation and known prowess or his successful completion of one or more trials. In this hierogamous union, which in ritual might take the form of the union between the king-elect and a white mare, the ruler was the consort of the goddess, was, literally, the husband of the land. The goddess might appear under a variety of guises. She might come before a king as a beautiful young woman seeking seed-wheat for her land, as in the early Irish tale of The Wooing of Becfhola (Tochmarc Becfhola) or for an hour of dalliance--and a son--as in The Wooing of Étain (Tochmarc Étaine).4 Or she might appear hideous, embodying the land misruled, as in the story of Níall and his half-brothers, whose suitability for the kingship is tested by two trials set by the smith and sorcerer Findchenn. In the second they are sent hunting with new weapons. Thirsty after the meal of grilled fresh meat, they go one at a time to seek for water. Each finds a well guarded by an ugly hag who demands a kiss in exchange for water. In a conventionally organised portrait she is described as follows:
This is how the hag looked: as black as charcoal was her every part and her every joint from the top of her head down to the ground. Like the tail of a wild horse was the bristling grey shock of hair that sprouted from the crown of her head. The acorn-laden live branch of an oak would have been severed by the sickle of green teeth that stretched around her head to her ears. She had smoke-dark eyes and her nose was crooked, with cave-like nostrils. Her body was all sinewy and spotted with festering sores, and her shins were bowed and crooked. Her knees were swollen, her ankles knobby, her green-nailed feet as wide as shovels. The appearance of the hag was truly loathsome.5
Only Níall is brave enough to exchange a kiss and even offers sexual congress.
So then Níall went to look for water and he too came on the same spring. "Water, woman!" said Níall. "I'll give you some," she said, "but give me a kiss." "I'll both give you a kiss and lie with you." Then he throws himself down on her and gives her a kiss. But then, when he looked at her, there was not in the wide world a maiden whose bearing or appearance was more attractive than hers. Like fresh-fallen snow in the rays of the sun was every part of her from crown to sole. Full and regal were her forearms, her fingers long and tapering, her legs straight and fair-skinned. Two square-toed shoes of white metal between her little, soft-white feet and the ground. She wore a rich, deep-purple mantle, with a brooch of polished silver holding the fold. She had bright, lustrous teeth, large and queenly eyes, and lips as red as Parthian leather.
"Many a guise, woman," said the lad. "True enough," she said. "Just who are you," he said. "I am Sovereignty," she said.
Here we note that mention of teeth twice figures in the top-down portrait paradigm.
The goddess of territorial sovereignty might also appear as a battle goddess, as we see in the epic Táin bó Cúailnge (The Cattleraid of Cooley), where her enmity is directed against the Ulster hero Cú Chulainn (who unintentionally heals the wounded goddess with three drinks of milk; cf. Mulligan and the milk lady, below),6 or as a goddess of death, when the king has failed in one or more of the spheres of justice, bravery, and generosity. In the tale Togail Bruidne Dá Derga (The Destruction of Dá Derga's Hostel), the king Conaire has been guilty of a partial judgment favouring his kinsmen. His death in battle at the fatal hostel of the title is accompanied by the infraction of a number of tabus or gessa and the appearance of the vengeful goddess in the company of a giant rustic carrying an iron staff and singed, squealing pig. The composite portrait of the goddess from her appearances on the road and at the hostel is as follows:
Behind him came a huge, black, gloomy, big-mouthed, ill-favoured woman; if her snout were thrown against a branch, the branch would support it, while her lower lip extended to her knee. ...
As they [Conaire and his retinue] were there in the hostel, a woman appeared at the entrance, after sunset, and sought to be let in. As long as a weaver's beam, and as black, her two shins. She wore a very fleecy, striped mantle. Her beard reached her knees, and her mouth was on one side of her head. She put one shoulder against the doorpost and cast a baleful eye upon the king and the youths about him ...7
The goddess might also appear as a somewhat less loathsome but still aged and worn crone, as in the Lament of the Old Woman of Beare, who deplores her sorry state when once she had known the company of kings. Beare is the peninsula that extends into the Atlantic from the south-west of Co. Cork. While there are Christian elements in the poem, its pagan origins are clearly evident. At one point, which will be seen to have the greatest relevance to Ulysses, her hair is likened to the cereal crops and grazing land of the now misruled kingdom.
I speak no honeyed words; no wethers are killed at my wedding; my hair is scanty and grey ... I envy no one old, excepting only Feimen [also a toponym]; while I have worn out an old garment, Feimen's crop is still yellow. ... grey is the hair which grows through my skin, the bark of an ancient tree is like this ... I never said 'No' to anyone.8
Both Joyce and Stephen show considerable awareness of this archaic conception of the land as goddess and, indeed, it was a central concept in the ideology of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Irish nationalism, even though the original texts where the goddess is incarnated were known only through the intermediary of none-too-accurate translations or, at the turn of the century, through summaries by Richard Irvine Best serialised in the United Irishman and through his translation of a French work on Irish mythology.9 Best also figures in person as assistant librarian in the scene in the reading room, where we find, in addition to Stephen's allusion to the Yeats play, a quotation from George Russell's Deirdre, in which the heroine may be seen as an attenuated, demythicised reflex of the goddess, and Eglinton's editorship of the journal Dana, where the reference is to a race of early inhabitants of Ireland, the Túatha dé Danann (the peoples of the goddess Dana). This people had been forced to cede the island to the invading Milesians or Sons of Mil. Although not named explicitly, the Milesians are brought into the conversation by Best, when he remarks that fraternal conflict-a conceit proposed by Stephen in his theorising on Shakespeare's family relations-is also found in early Irish myth and other European story.
Best's reference is to the three brothers Éber Dond ('the Dark"), Éber Find ('the Fair"), and Éremon, who lead the invasion. The ruling kings are named Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht, and Mac Greine, which are in the nature of elemental names referencing the hazel, plough (or power), and sun. As the invaders proceed inland they meet in turn three women, whom we may assume to have been the "wives" of the ruling kings, although their true identities as territorial goddesses making overtures to the conquering invaders quickly become evident. Since the action occurs on the mythic plane, marital fidelity cannot be counted a virtue; the earth-goddesses are obliged quickly to secure the best consort available under the circumstances. The women are named Fodla, Banba, and Ériu and each promises the rulership of the island in return for her name being immortalised. Banba did continue in Irish tradition as a poetic name for Ireland and Ériu is preserved in Eire, Erin and Ireland.
The goddess figure continues to occupy Stephen's mind, now with an English inflection. First, Russell remarks of Irish peasants, "For them the earth is not an exploitable ground but the living mother" (U 9.106f.). When Stephen begins to expound on the relationship between Ann Hathaway and William Shakespeare, it is the mythic paradigm of the immortal goddess and her young consort that he employs. Here it should be noted that the English name Ann has a reflex in Irish, Áine, another divine name, still known from the topological figure the Paps of Anu in Co. Kerry. Ann is older than Will and it is she who takes the initiative. In fact, Stephen says Ann saw Will into the world and out of it. At one point she is characterised as "the ugliest doxy in all Warwickshire" (9.253) but then, moving to divine stature through analogy, "The greyeyed goddess who bends over the boy Adonis, stooping to conquer, as prologue to the swelling act, is a boldfaced Stratford wench who tumbles in a cornfield a lover younger than herself" (9.258-60). Best amends this to Ryefield, a rye field, but the cereal association is consonant with the remote Irish model. Earlier, Eve and her sin are juxtaposed with the epithet "wheatbellied" (9.541); now Ann's last years see her "a slack dishonoured body that once was comely, once as sweet, as fresh as cinnamon, now her leaves falling, all, bare."10
A fainter reflex is seen in Lear's abandoned daughter, Cordelia, and the Lear story is traced back to its origins in Irish myth and the deity Lir. Stephen prefaces his contention that, since all his corporeal molecules have been replaced, he is not really (or is he?) the person he was five years ago, with the remark "As we, or mother Dana, weave and unweave our bodies" (9.376). Since the goddess name Banba is derived from Old Irish banb 'piglet,' Stephen's judgmental thought "He has the wrong sow by the lug" (9.390) fits into the larger context of allusions to the divine figure. The goddess also took equine form, best known from the Romano-Gaulish Epona and the Welsh tale of Pwyll and Rhiannon but also found in Gerald of Wales's account of northern Irish royal inauguration ritual, so that Stephen's characterisation of Ann as a "bay where all men ride" (9.452f.; cf. "Helen, the wooden mare of Troy in whom a score of heroes slept" 9.622f.; "the holy office an ostler does for the stallion", 9.664) keeps the motif alive in the meandering discussion. Since "King Hamlet" is equated with "King" Will in his ambiguous relationship with Ann, and since the basic plot of Hamlet is about a usurped kingship, Gertrude, like Ann, must be seen as a reflex of the goddess. Even Shakespeare's will, in which Ann is left the secondbest bed (9.710 ff.), is fitted onto the larger pattern of the union of king and goddess. The promiscuity and ambiguous sexuality that we know from myth all enter picture, most explicitly after appearance of Mulligan.
Stephen's characterisation of the Elizabethan era as "an age of exhausted whoredom groping for its god" (9.810, or goddess?), has an antecedent in the apocalyptic vision of the early Irish goddess, now in the guise of the Morrígan, the Great or (Night)Mare Queen, and goddess of battle, at the close of Cath Maige Tuired (The Battle of Mag Tuired):
I shall not see a world which will be dear to me: summer without blossoms, cattle will be without milk, women without modesty, men without valour, conquests without a king, ... woods without mast, sea without produce, ... false judgments of old men, false precedents of lawyers, every man a betrayer, every son a reaver, the son will go to the bed of his father ... an evil time ... 11
This is followed by Stephen's own vision of "incests and bestialities" (9.851-54).12 Mulligan's reference to Bloom's interest in Greek statuary maintain the motif thread of the female divine to the end, as do references to Jove (9.539) and a papal bull (9.548). The final embodiments of goddess in this episode are as Fresh Nelly and Rosalie, the coalquay whore (9.1090). Lastly, Malachi Mulligan's jibing about Yeats and Lady Gregory, who advised the dramatist on a plausible stage version of rural Hiberno-English for Cathleen Ni Houlihan, brings the circle of the goddess in Scylla and Charybdis full round.
As we have come to expect with Joyce, the multiple references in this episode to the beauty and the hag is both anticipated and complemented elsewhere in the novel. Two examples will suffice. In Proteus, Ireland in her present state is symbolised by the old woman (the sean bhan bhocht, Englished as Shan Van Vocht, of nationalist tradition) who provides milk to the "heroes" of the tower. Despite the reference to "old shrunken paps" there is no mention of her having lost teeth, but she has lost her Irish, as Haines discovers, and the dental motif is alluded to when Mulligan, never quite serious, remarks, "If we could live on good food like that, we wouldn't have the country full of rotten teeth and rotten guts" (1.411f.). When they can meet only two shillings' worth of their weekly milk bill, the old woman ominously remarks of the remaining two pence "Time enough, sir, time enough." We might think the two pence had already been paid to the eyes of Stephen's dead mother ("bronzelidded") or Shakespeare. Stephen's meandering thoughts in Proteus turn to Queen Victoria, "old hag with the yellow teeth" and then to "Maude Gonne, beautiful woman" who played Cathleen. The sean bhan bhocht shows a more vicious side in Nighttown where she, as Old Gummy Granny, a name that echoes the content and alliteration of the other name while also representing total loss of teeth, both laments "stranger in my house" (15.4578-89) and urges Stephen to armed revolt against the British, giving him a dagger to defend himself from Private Carr (15.4736-39).
But it is in Penelope that the references to the teeth of the goddess return in force. Earlier Molly had remembered washing her teeth and the cat's milkwhite teeth (Calypso); now there are references to her cracking nuts with her teeth, the fear of her teeth being all knocked out, a man in Gibraltar with a splendid set of teeth, a man's teeth planted in her nipple, finally the most telling remark "no man could look at my mouth and teeth smiling like that and not think of it" (18.888f.). Here we seem to be edging toward the vagina dentata motif.
Just how far we might pursue the author in such detail as these last-named instances are matters of personal taste--tolerance for speculation or concern for credulity--editorial accommodation, reader tolerance, and so on. One such detail, thus far not fully explored in my opinion, is the pun on the name of Fred Ryan, who had lent Stephen two pieces of silver. Stephen's lexical association, which we read as an overt pun, appears as fraidrine (9.1082-84). This is plausibly a reference to a metallurgical term in Old Irish, findruine, now judged a tin-and-copper alloy and often translated as 'white metal' or 'white silver.' It would have appeared to have ranked just below silver in the hierarchy of early Irish metal worth.13 We have met it earlier in the shoes or shoe fittings of the sovereignty goddess ("two square-toed shoes of white metal between her little, soft-white feet and the ground") but, intra-Joyce, it recalls the outstanding bill with the milk lady, pennies on the eyes of the dead, and the list could doubtless be extended..
We have seen that there are precedents in conventional traditional narrative portraiture in Irish to mention the teeth of a hag or a beauty, but no exact precedent for teeth with one or more gaps. Here, we must recognise that we have two not mutually exclusive possibilities, dentition with gaps between sound teeth, dating to the early maturity of the individual, and gaps that are the result of lost teeth. The second alternative is certainly plausible in the portrait of an elderly woman from an age before insitutionalised dental care. This brief and incomplete review, based as it is on tangents that can be followed from Stephen's allusions and correspondences elsewhere in the novel, also shows how the basic paradigm of the interdependence of goddess of territorial sovereignty and aspiring ruler can be rearticulated, most strikingly when the goddess returns in judgment as goddess of death to remove the deficient king and clear his place for a new consort. As we shall see, not only are the formal dimensions of the paradigm subject to variations but also the ideological content may be modified as changes rung on the theme of sovereignty. A medieval French example with Celtic antecedents will lead the way to two other early examples of the deployment of what we may now identify as the "loathly lady" (puella senex) motif.
Chrétien's de Troyes's romance, Perceval, ou le Conte du Graal, is the first on what would become the immensely popular medieval literary theme of the Holy Grail. To simplify in order to reveal affinities with Irish story and ideology, the naive and ignorant youth Perceval misunderstands his mother's parting advice, when, against her wishes he leaves her and home to find a society peopled by the angel-like knights he has seen in the forest. In one of his first encounters he kisses a beautiful maiden, but this is not a kiss she wishes. Later, over-zealous not to make queries in impolite or impolitic fashion, he fails to ask a question at the castle of the Fisher King that would have restored the injured king to health and his kingdom to the prosperity and fertility that was assured in the Celtic conception by the successful union of the ruler and the goddess. Later Perceval will be faulted by another maiden who comes to Arthur's castle not only for failing to query the retinue of the Fisher King but also for having abandoned his mother and her small holdings. Seen in this perspective, with his mother the reflex of the goddess, Perceval has failed a first test even before he is knighted. The coercive kiss is a further infraction, more symbolic but no less telling. The maiden who comes unannounced before Arthur and his court is described as follows:
The damsel had her hair twisted into two tight black braids and, if the words given in the book are true, there was never a creature so ugly even in the bowels of Hell. You have never seen iron as black as her neck and hands, and this was nothing compared to the rest of her ugliness. Her eyes were two holes, as tiny as a rat's eyes; she had a nose like a monkey's or a cat's, and the lips of an ass or an ox. Her teeth were the colour of egg yolk, flecked with red (Si dant resanblent moël d'uef De colour, si estoient ros), and she had the beard of a goat. She had a hump in the middle of her chest, her backbone was twisted, and her hips and shoulders were well made for dancing; she was humpbacked and had legs twisted like two willow wands: just perfect for leading the dance.14
Her affinities with the hag who comes in judgment on Conaire in The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel are evident, and the detail of repulsive teeth is not omitted. This is, admittedly, not the same maiden that Perceval forced his kiss on, but a sister-in-arms. She continues, after her judgment, to describe a dystopia (like that of the Morrígan or Stephen), to which Perceval has unwittingly contributed.
Thus, in these several Celtic and Celtic-derived examples we have seen the loathly lady both before the recognition of the right royal candidate as in the Níall story and after the king or hero's sins have been made manifest. In parallel, her beautiful guise may appear early or late. The elements of beauty and ugliness, the bold kiss or the kingly sin, the goddess and the candidate, land and lord-these constituents are constant but their interrelationship in the larger context of sovereignty is everywhere renewed.
Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, their Wife of Bath, and the Wife's Tale and its Prologue are sufficiently well known that we may proceed directly to elements of her portrait, before further exploring notions of sovereignty as recast in the 14th century English environment. Chaucer subtly combines visible features with information conveyed to the rather naive pilgrim Geoffrey and the conclusions he draws. Since the portrait is well known, emphasis will be added by selective citation:
A good wif was ther of biside Bath,
But she was somdel deef, and that was scathe. [...]
Boold was her face, and fair, and reed of hewe.
She was a worthy womman al hir lyve:
Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde fyve,
Withouten oother compaignye in youthe- [...]
Gat-toothed was she, soothly for to seye. [...]
Of remedies of love she knew per chaunce,
For she koude of that art the olde daunce.15
Somewhat later in the work, in the prologue to the tale she will tale, the Wife, or Alysoun as we learn she is named, herself refers to the state of her teeth in the context of her last (or latest) marriage:
He was, I trowe, twenty winter oold,
And I was fourty, if I shal seye sooth;
But yet I hadde alwey a coltes tooth.
Gat-tothed I was, and that bicam me weel;
I hadde the prente of seinte Venus seel.
As help me God, I was a lusty oon, [...]
I hadde the beste quoniam myghte be. (III [D] 600-08)
Modern critical comment has seen the spacing of Alysoun's teeth as a natural feature, rather than the result of tooth loss, and this accords well with the generally attractive, if somewhat blowsy, portrait that both she and the author strive to create. Such commentary also claims that teeth set wide apart were associated in medieval treatises on physiognomy with an "envious, irreverent, luxurious, bold, faithless, and suspicious nature."16 While we need not see all these characteristics at play in the wife's life as she recounts it, we already see a considerable number of features in common with the Celtic goddess of territorial sovereignty, not least of which are physical attractiveness, a mind of her own, and willed sexual union with a succession of consorts, in which relations do not always proceed ideally. Given that the "fairy wives" of Celtic and other European tradition have been viewed as attenuated but not fully secularised reflexes of the goddess of territorial sovereignty, in that they are Otherworld beings with an interest in human spouses, can confer blessings after trials met but often impose conditions of secrecy on their husbands, we might think that the Wife of Bath's opening remarks about the dearth of fairies in her own times (III [D] 864-81) is not only the criticism of moralising clerics and ecclesiastical officers that most scholars take it to be but also a comment on the shortage of good women like herself in the penultimate decade of the fourteenth century.
Just as gap-toothedness is twice referenced, in the portrait of the general prologue and in the Wife's self-description in her prologue, thus emphasising the nexus of corporal associations, so a related ideological point will be made both in her prologue and in the tale. The Wife's wandering, emphatic, source-distorting, self-authenticating prologue is sufficiently well known that we may bring a quick focus to the conclusion of her altercation with her fifth husband Jankyn. In the renegotiated marital arrangement with her husband, which includes a blow instead of a kiss, she is granted "al the bridel in myn hond, To han the governance of hous and lond," in short, "al the soveraynetee" (III [D] 814-18). From one perspective, the whole prologue has been building toward this assertion, in past life and in the narrative present, of autonomy, woman's autonomy. Similarly, the same word is the answer to the question that the rapist knight is sent questing to have answered in the Wife's tale: what do women want? The knight finds the answer is mouth of a crone, a loathly lady, and her recompense for the communication of this essential wisdom is that he marry her. But first the knight reports back to Arthur's queen and gives his answer to the question.
"Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee
As wel over hir housbond as hir love,
And for to been in maistrie hym above.
This is youre mooste desir, thogh you me kille.
Dooth as yow list; I am heer at youre wille." (III [D] 1037-42)
As for the marriage, when he overcomes his distaste, he learns that he has a further option: to have his bride embody ugliness and fidelity on the one hand or beauty and infidelity on the other. But the knight has learned his lesson, and even in this defers to his bride-to-be, who asks that he now kiss her and promises that she will be both fair and faithful.17
Joyce is known to have owned a copy of the works of Chaucer in the 1915 reprint of Skeat's Oxford edition. More precisely we know him to have been reading The Canterbury Tales while revising Ulysses.18 Thus, the way was open to borrow and insert a telling detail here and there. The larger questions are, of course, what stimulus Chaucer may have provided to the evolution of Joyce's narrative art and, on a narrower but still important issue, what Chaucer's implication may have been in nationalist themes as handed down by native Irish tradition, recast by the Celtic Revival, and personalised by Joyce. It would be hazardous to hang a theory of "Joyce on sovereignty" from the single detail of gaps in the teeth of Alysoun of Bath and Caitlín Ní Houlihan (equated with sexiness or senility), toothless Old Gummy Granny, or the inviting, toothy smile of Molly of Eccles Street, or attempt to determine on so narrow a base what progression might have occurred in Joyce's thoughts since he had Stephen, in the Portrait, dismiss the "broken lights of Irish myth."19
But with the inclusion of the detail from Chaucer, a fairly obvious clue when all is said and done, Joyce certainly intended to open a wider perspective, one onto more than simply the Irish question. It has been suggested that Molly abed represents Ireland's loss of morale or that Joyce saw no avenue to the recover of national sovereignty through the Irish nationalist movement, because he never stages, even symbolically, the elderly or even mature woman's return to the beauty of her youth. But Joyce's concern is first and foremost the individual, and then the nation as constituted of individuals, so that the issue of sovereignty concerns the life of individuals as much as the life of nations. Neither loathly lady-however we may feel about being drawn into the life of Molly's body-nor any longer a compliant nubile girl, Molly like Alysoun is a mature woman. Her first concern is not to select the best candidate to rule the land but one who rules himself and in so doing allows (significant) others to exercise a similar autonomy. Taking his cue from Chaucer, perhaps, but more importantly wedding the desultory discussion of Irish letters to the work and life of Shakespeare, not least in his relation to Ann Hathaway, Joyce has brought Britain into Irish affairs as more than a simple exploitative occupier (a stranger in the house)20 and, in these references and allusions as elsewhere, has explored autonomy, self-definition, and self-realisation on the level of the individual and, precociously we now recognise, of sovereign women.
© William Sayers, 2005
|volume 6, issue 1, 2005|