Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1161
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 various fianna took their names from their leaders. From their roving life, adventures, and exploits, the various fianna and their chiefs naturally evolved into the early subjects of storytelling. Many such stories and ballads probably were lost.
In later times, the word “fianna” came to be used exclusively for the war band headed by Finn, or Mac Cumhal, as he came to be called, for the development of this legend overshadowed all the others. Even as late as the tenth century, however, Finn and his fianna were only one among several well-known similar bands. In popular imagination, the figure of Finn overpowered other heroes and attracted to itself, from century to century, exploits originally attributed to others. The Finn Cycle absorbed much of the legendary lore of the older cycles, until all of Ireland held up Finn as the supreme heroic leader.
The popular imagination blended the tales and made them into the kind of legend the people needed and wanted. People were close to the earth and nature, and this is reflected in the tales of Finn, which refer to a time when wild woods were giving way to pasture and tillage and people no longer had reason to consider every wild cry of the night, to ponder each call of the birds and beasts. For Finn, the battles were only interruptions in the life of hunting. The ballads speak of his delight in the cackling of ducks, the bellowing of the oxen, and the whistle of the eagle. Many metaphors and allusions in the tales draw upon nature and animals, as when the women, sorrowing, feel sympathy for the wild birds and beasts that are like themselves.
Finn himself seems to transcend the world of which he is a part; certainly he is larger than his moment in history. When the Fianna broke up at last, after hundreds of years of hunting and fighting, it hardly seems that he dies. More likely, he comes back repeatedly in different shapes, and his son, Oisin, is made king over a divine country. In these tales, Finn is not so much an individual man as he is a force of nature, a part of the universe like the clouds or the gods that shape and reshape the clouds. Seer and poet, king and druid, Finn was a mortal who became immortal. He was a better fighter and hunter and infinitely wiser than any other mortal. Quiet in peace, the ballads say, but angry in battle, Finn was the perfect leader.
The men in the stories are warriors, men of action rather than thought. Their existence is devoted to love and companionship, and they can imagine no higher consideration. There is none of the philosophical worrying of Arthur and Merlin in these ballads. The men here do not speculate on eternity; they are sure of their simple values and fight to defend them. The brotherhood of the warrior is all. It is based on their hard and vigorous way of life and on their few necessary belongings. Running through the ballads is a strong sense of material possession, of the things that people use to live. A feeling of the matter-of-factness of life colors the ballads and the attitudes of the characters.
The structure of the Finn Cycle is loose and rambling, and it lacks the tightly woven pattern of the great epics. The many incidents that compose the cycle are a succession of detached episodes rather than a continuing story, such as that of the Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) or the legends of King Arthur. The people who imagined the cycle did not comprehend a large, encompassing design. Their stories wander without aim, each adventure independent of the previous one and the one that will follow. Cumulatively, however, the ballads of the cycle tell vividly of the heroic life, of the strength necessary to survive in a young and hard world, and of the codes of honor and companionship that make survival worthwhile.