A Woman's Words: Emer and Female Speech in the Ulster Cycle


211 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-0865-8
DDC 891.6'231




Reviewed by Andrew Taylor

Andrew Taylor is a professor of English specializing in Medieval Studies
at the University of Saskatchewan.


A Woman’s Words is the first detailed analysis of medieval Irish
literature from a feminist perspective. It focuses on the strong and
verbally dexterous queen Emer, the wife of the epic Ulster hero Cu
Chulainn (known to readers of Yeats as Cuchulain). In Findon’s
reading, Emer is more than just an archetype or a residue of earlier
Celtic myths; she is a challenging literary figure who calls into
question the masculine codes of heroism. While Emer is a patriarchal
construct, a literary character written by men and within the norms of
male discourse, Findon shows that a close attention to the texts of the
Ulster cycle allows us to recognize some of the tensions within these
masculine codes, and even to hear echoes of women’s voices.

A Woman’s Words is a serious and engaging study, one that should
bring a wider readership for the Ulster cycle while providing valuable
insights into the depiction of women in medieval literature in general.
The author makes both contemporary feminist literary theory and medieval
Irish literature approachable. She provides a lucid introduction to the
dangers of naively optimistic readings of women characters constructed
by male authors as well as to the complexities of manuscript
transmission, with its multiple layers of artistic intention.

Findon works closely with the original Irish texts. She shows, for
example, that when Emer attempts to prevent Cu Chulainn from attacking
his unrecognized son Connla, the line can be read to imply that (i) Emer
drapes her arm across Cu Chulainn’s neck in a loving gesture, or (ii)
that she seizes him by the gullet in a gesture as desperate as her
prophecy that the father will kill his son. But the book can certainly
be enjoyed by readers who have no Middle Irish, including those who have
encountered Emer in Thomas Kinsella’s fine translation of the Tain and
wish to know more about her.


Findon, Joanne., “A Woman's Words: Emer and Female Speech in the Ulster Cycle,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 16, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/4294.