The Finn Cycle, also known as the Fenian Cycle, is a series of ballad tales celebrating the deeds of Finn, a third century Irish hero, and his band of warriors. Their organization, known as the Fianna Erinn, fought and hunted under service to the king of Ireland, and the warriors enjoyed privilege and wealth. The tone of these ballad stories is romantic, and the stories show a delight in sensuous details and a deep feeling for the Irish countryside and glen. Finn himself stands out as a strong, courageous leader who inspires devotion in his men, but he is not without a touch of cunning and treachery. In many respects, he is like Robin Hood and King Arthur—a bold hero, capable leader, and tender lover. Like them, he witnesses the passing of his strength, the dissolution of his band, and the waning of a heroic era.
The audience for whom the Finn Cycle was composed was naïve, socially young, and intellectually credulous, although it had a definite protocol and a certain dignified etiquette. This audience demanded stirring words as well as a stimulating imagination from the storyteller. Although these tales were very popular in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the stories of Finn, Oisin, and the others existed among the people for many centuries. A note of nostalgia for a past glory and a longing for a heroic period exist in the stories. There is perhaps a contrast between the old hierarchical society of the legends and the society telling them, a society facing a rapidly changing and hostile world. The old ballad system was breaking down by this time, and these tales were the beginnings of a new, popular literature in Ireland and Scotland. As the literature passed into the hands of the people, the versification became easier and the meters drastically simplified.
Most, although not all, of the ballads and prose of this period are concerned with Finn, the hero, and his war band, or fian (hence, the word “Fenian”). The original meaning of the word “fian” was “a driving, pursuing, hunting,” but eventually it came to mean a band of warriors on the warpath. In a stricter sense, fian meant a band of roving warriors who had joined together for the purpose of making war. They were not, however, mere robbers or marauders. They were often men who were expelled from their clan, landless men, the sons of kings who quarreled with their fathers, or men who seized this way of avenging some private wrong. They were the only professional soldiers in Ireland in the old times, apart from mercenaries, who were often foreigners. For this reason the word fian was often used, especially in poetry, to refer to any war band. The various fianna were held together by discipline and had their own organization and customs; as is shown in the Finn Cycle, men who wished to join the ranks had to pass a test of skill or bravery. The...
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