Most readers of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake know intimately a handful of scholarly works that need to appear on their bookshelves [End Page 479] if not on their desks as they read the Wake itself. Such indispensable works—such as those by Atherton, Bishop, Campbell and Robinson, Glasheen, Hart, McHugh, Norris, Senn, and Tindall—have provided useful strategies for reading the macro- and microcosmic worlds of the Wake. We now have another text that should be read by anyone interested in Joyce's monumental work: George Cinclair Gibson's Wake Rites.
Gibson has one clear objective in his book: to persuade readers that, for "Joyce, the most crucial moment in all of Irish history and the climactic and talismanic point in his own magnum opus are one and the same: the momentous confrontation at Tara between Saint Patrick and the Archdruid of Ireland." This "Teamhur Feis" event comprises an array of diverse Rites of Tara that took place when Saint Patrick usurped the pre-Christian rituals and lit his own Paschal fire on Easter Sunday in the year 433. According to Gibson, the Teamhur Feis is "the secret structure of Finnegans Wake, and Finnegans Wake is James Joyce's deliberate re-creation of the most important and sacred event of Irish paganism." After completing Gibson's book, readers cannot help but feel that not only is Teamhur Feis probably the most important date and event of the Wake, but the correspondences between major figures, structures, and themes of the Teamhur Feis and the Wake have all acquired startling significance—including the demise of the king, the funeral and wake rites, the inauguration of a new king, the etiological myths, the fragmentary episodes, and even the use of a dark language. Instead of viewing parallels between the Sigla group of the Wake (the sigla are symbols Joyce used in the Wake's composition to identify his characters and character groups) and the functionaries who performed the Rites of Tara as another series of allusions in the Wake—as someone might have done without this author's research—Gibson argues for the centrality of the Irish rites to the Wake's appearance and construction.
If critics of Ulysses often teach and read Joyce's work as a revision of Homer's Odyssey, then critics should consider anew teaching and reading Finnegans Wake as Joyce's revision of Irish myth and lore. In this regard, readers should acknowledge Maria Tymoczko's important work on Joyce and Irish myth and culture (such as The Irish Ulysses). However, Gibson does more than build off of Tymoczko's critical trajectory. With full awareness of previously known criticism on Joyce and Irish culture, Gibson places the critical work of R. A. S. Macalister as the primary source for Joyce's knowledge of the Rites at Tara. Because [End Page 480] of Macalister's controversial claims regarding Irish myth (including an orientation for the occult, a penchant for strange correspondences, and a passion for associations), and because of Macalister's own position as an "outcast with visionary abilities," Macalister turns out to be a perfect intellectual companion for Joyce.
The clarity of Gibson's prose also works to his benefit, as does his ability to address the larger structural issues most critics have struggled with for years. However, I must warn readers not to expect a sustained argument that slowly reveals itself over the course of hundreds of pages. Just as readers can pick up Glasheen's work (her Third Census of Finnegans Wake) to look up a particular figure in the Wake, readers can also pick up Gibson's work to look up a specific chapter/topic. Gibson's book need not be read in sequence from first page to last. If the chapters are viewed as "encyclopedia entries" ("The Day of the Wake" or "The Etiological Myths," for example), then readers can reread particular sections when encountering specific structural challenges in the Wake itself.
The ease of access to difficult material comes across in Gibson's...