Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

McCarthy, Mac Airt and Mythology: Suttree and the Irish High King

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

McCarthy, Mac Airt and Mythology: Suttree and the Irish High King

Article excerpt

IN THE RICHLY ALLUSIVE NOVEL SUTTREE, CORMAC MCCARTHY BORROWS structural devices from Irish tales of the high kings to give shape and meaning to Buddy Suttree's wanderings. Some of the allusions in Suttree extend back through The Waste Land to Odysseus, to the Fisher King, to Arthurian legends and to the attendant mythology of the good king who restores the land, as Robert Jarrett (vii, 35, 47), Edwin T. Arnold (59) and others have noted. I would suggest that this reference probably extends also to Cormac Mac Airt, the "good king" of Irish legend, whose kingdom suffered when he was away from the throne. Suttree's withdrawal is symptomatic of a psychic crisis, and McCarthy uses the subtle references to myth to heighten the mystery of Suttree's environment, to make his confusion appear more intense. Throughout the novel, Suttree tries to persuade himself that the events of his life do not intimate his participation in some supernatural narrative, but he cannot resolve whether a man is more narcissistic to believe that the universe cares for him or to think that he is free from unseen powers. McCarthy uses the myth and the resulting mystery to underscore his concerns with whether and how mythology binds--or orders--human thought.

That McCarthy has some awareness of the Mac Airt legend seems almost certain: biographers note Cormac McCarthy's name change (from Charles) and its resulting resemblance to the Irish high king of legend whose name is spelled, among other varieties, Cormac Macarthaigh, Mac Airt, or McCarthy (Arnold "Intro" 2, Brickman 123). Furthermore, there are at least some biographical similarities between the author, the king, and the title character: Suttree's irresponsibility recalls McCarthy's own failed marriages, his abortive academic career, and his wanderings in Knoxville; Suttree's abandonment of his family for the MacAnally Flats slums is perhaps intentionally paralleled with the Irish king's habit of wandering as his kingdom declined. Moreover, since McCarthy was at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville shortly after Vernam Hull's 1949 article on King Cormac was published in PMLA, he could easily have found it on the library's periodical shelves.

Others have proposed Irish myth's influence upon McCarthy's themes, even connecting McCarthy's Southern fiction with the legends of the Irish kings. Barbara Jane Brickman, citing the Irish Ulster cycle of mythology, argues that McCarthy's The Orchard Keeper refers to an Irish tradition wherein uncles train their young nephews for manhood. She compares Uncle Ather to the druids and explores his and Sylder's influences on the boy. Some of her connections to the Ulster cycle seem frail, but Brickman makes her insight plausible by tying these fragile allusions and an elusive confluence of setting and dialect that seems to have Celtic echoes to a more complete network of plotting and purposes. McCarthy's thorough knowledge of Irish literary tradition, and enough similarities between the social structures she compares and between settings and characters, argue that she is making a legitimate connection; likewise, given that McCarthy's concern with fatherless sons throughout his fiction is so conspicuous, and since he almost surely had some awareness of Irish myth--as one who takes the name of a legendary Irish king could be expected to--her claim for the allusion seems even stronger.

Much of the incongruous dialogue and intrusive commentary establishes Suttree's setting in a double world, both in 1950s Knoxville and in a medieval world where magic is a factor. Many of the novel's key scenes coincide at the border of this world and an "otherworld" where an "othersuttree" or "Antisuttree" roams (287, 28). When Suttree retreats to the mountain forests, running from the conjure woman, the narrator intones: "Give over, Graymalkin; there are horsemen on the roads tonight with withy roods and horns of fire" (282). When Suttree reaches the mountain, the narrative suggests that in his mind, he is now surrounded by the spirits suggested to him by "old distaff Celt's blood": elves, gnomes, "troops of ghost cavalry" and phantom horses armored with "pauldrons shelled with rot" (287). …

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