Every sentence in ‘Ulysses’ has more than one meaning and sometimes many meanings.Frank Delaney
And a great burden was upon his back.Pilgrim’s Progress (p. 1)
It was early in the reading of Ulysses, barely through the first 10 pages, when I stumbled upon the Fergus’ poem referenced in the last blog. Only three lines from the poem would be included when it was sung by Mulligan descending the Martello stairwell midway through the first chapter. I was hooked. I wanted to know more.
The first bit of help came from Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated. There I learned about the poem’s inclusion in the play the Countess Cathleen, and became acquainted with its actual short length, only two short stanzas in a simple ABC rhythmic progression. I also discovered its author was the legendary Irish poet, and 1923 recipient for the Nobel Prize in Literature, W.B. Yeats.
My journey with Joyce had barely begun and I was on the short end of the knowledge I craved. It would begin by scrambling to figure out who exactly is Fergus? And what is a “brazen car?” And what event or lesson is being referenced for our consideration?
And like the many paths you are lead to follow while reading Ulysses, it’s easy to burn through several afternoons trying to run down all the leads. Allow me save you some time on this one. If you try to google “brazen cars,”on Youtube, you’ll end up with an assortment of videos showing “brazen car thieves” (This one may have been my favorite waste of time).
If you have kids or grandkids, you may recognize the name Fergus, as in Fergus the traction train from the popular Thomas and Friends children’s stories. For those trying to remember, he’s the one who speaks with a persistent cough because of his dusty work upon the rails. These stories have been around a long time, since 1945. Yet, they are at least 50 years too late for my interests. Another dead-end.
But my Youtube search was not totally worthless. I did unearth a few excellent resources on The History of the Celts from Archeologist Barry Cunliffe. Who knew they may have originated from middle Europe, rather than Ireland?
Next, I turned to the online digital library known as JTSOR (I was still able to access it through my old Lexington Theological Library ID card, score!) and found a couple of very interesting articles on Yeats and The Countess Cathleen (I’ve updated the bibliography posted on May 13, 2019).
If you’re curious, I also consulted Wikipedia. But at first, I found some of their material more confusing than straightforward and wondered in the back of my mind if there needed to be a little more confirmation from at least one or two other sources.
I had more luck tracking down Fergus by turning to Irish mythology. Once you wade through the nearly ridiculous and stereotypical renditions from Disney Studios’ production of Brave, you’ll learn how he was a great mythical King with a collection of grand sagas and a host of (what we call today) “complicated” relationships.
But there’s more than one Fergus. Which one was right? Wikipedia helped me identify a spurious series of anywhere from 37 to 45 different Scottish Kings who supposedly linked a Fergus I with a Fergus II, separated by a span of 700 years and ending in the 6th Century. Believed authentic throughout the 12-18th Centuries, this “genealogical myth” proudly boasted the Fergus name.
But, it was all later proved to be counterfeit. Nothing more than a perpetuated lie designed for bragging rights of the supremacy of the Scottish over their English and Irish neighbors.
At this point, the best I can gather is how Yeats was referring to Fergus mac Roich or mac Roig, or mac Rossa, or maybe Mor mac Eirc, son of Erc the legendary king of Dal Riata, linked to the Fergus II from the 6th Century referenced above (yes, it all gets rather confusing).
This Fergus, according to legend, was part of the Ulster cycle of Irish mythology featuring stories of murder, betrayal, family in-fighting, regional wars, greed, brutality, sexual prowess, and other hijinks to rival your favorite episode of Game of Thrones. They are also stories of courage, conquest, daring and honor.
Fergus is tricked out of his kingship by his wife, Ness and her son, Conchobar who was a small child at the time of the deception. In the capable hands of his maneuvering Mother, Conchobar wins the support of the Ulster elite ousting Fergus who eventually forms an alliance (romantic and political) with their rival adversary, the married Queen Madh. The “bad blood” continues when Conchobar, now all grow-up tricks Fergus again and an epic battle ensues involving Fergus against his nephew, the esteemed Cuchulainn, an Irish version of the great Hercules.
But where are the “brazen cars” in this folklore? Again, I don’t know exactly but remember this clue. Fergus took refuge in the woods during the times he was shunned or banished. Looking again at the poem might suggest how he made the best of his situation and took as much authority within the “shadow of the wood” as the mastery he had when in command of his own chariot. The question is sharpened. “Who Goes with Fergus?” Anyone willing to come face to face with their displacement in order to find a deeper sense of purpose and self-identity.
This is the truth that eludes Buck Mulligan, but will direct both Stephen Dedalus, and his eventual friend and surrogate father-figure, Leopold Bloom.
Which leads us around the long way to the true point of describing my search for Fergus. Reading Ulysses, the epic account of the thoughts, experiences and ramblings from one single day, is in itself, an elaborate journey offering multiple layers of perpetual discovery. It’s possible to go off in hundreds of different directions, just from the wealth found on one page, or in this case, from one single line.
In my searching, I did find an incredible online project that was began in 1990, just after the introduction of HTML script. The Joyce Project features every word of Ulysses in an online format. Compiled by a team of 14 different contributors it offers a color-coded guide of the many reference points available on the 750 plus pages within this incredibly dense book. In order to give you a sense of the depth you are invited to dive into and the paths you can travel with Ulysses, here’s a copy of their expansive categories.
Green links (Ireland) refer to Irish history, politics, customs, language, humor, religion, mythology, economics, industry, geography, modes of transportation, flora, fauna, and weather.
Orange links (Literature) signal allusions to published texts including poetry, fiction, drama, critical essays, history, philosophy, scripture, theology, science, biography, hagiography, travelogues, and newspapers.
Brown links (Dublin) point to landforms like the river and bay, the built environment such as streets, canals, buildings, bridges, trams, and statues, cultural ephemera such as money, and civic institutions.
Purple links (Performances) indicate notes about songs, operas, oratorios, stage plays, nursery rhymes, speeches, recitations, advertising pitches, prayers, liturgical rites, performative social gestures, and impromptu clowning.
Red links (The Body) encompass anatomy, sexuality, childbirth, eating, drinking, excretion, clothes, personal accessories, disease, death, medicines, poisons, the physiology of emotion, the vagaries of memory, mental illness, and dreams.
Blue links (The Writer) address narrative styles, techniques, revisions, and effects, as well as textual variants, aesthetic theories, and the shaping of real lives into fictional ones.http://m.joyceproject.com/info/colorcoding.html
Like my journey with Fergus, Joyce’s Ulysses opens up strange, perplexing and occasional directions of clarity and eventual insight. And there are more helps available, like here with images associated from the book and this news of other projects from an article in the New York Times. Again, quoting from the Joyce Project:
Nearly every detail in Ulysses has relevance, not only to details immediately before and after it in the order of the narrative, but also to ones that may lie hundreds of pages off. The notes supply threads to begin navigating the textual labyrinth that Joyce built—whether to find the way toward perfect comprehension, or to become happily lost, or simply to seek the nearest exit, will be up the individual.
Fergus rules the brazen cars? He had better! I obviously have my hands full.