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200 CHAPTER NINE Satire Tricia A. McElroy and Nicole Meier Idealistic and discontented, the satirist produces art that sets up for exposure and ridicule the foibles and sins of society. The strategies of satire are various: irony, sarcasm, mockery, hyperbole, understatement, parody, distortion, word play, humour, wit, and sometimes invective and direct attack. The tone can range from gentle mocking to bitter scorn, and the result can be immensely entertaining but can also cut in unexpected directions, always at risk of being misinterpreted and causing offence. While the satirist’s impulse to criticise may arise from personal indignation, it usually stems also from an earnest desire to reform human behaviour, whether the target is an individual, a group of people, or a social institution. Speaking of satire’s strategy and purpose, Horace claimed that satire aims to laugh men out of their follies. Yet critics have always been divided about the extent to which satire is efficacious: can it really bring about change, or does it operate more as a safety valve for the satirist to let off steam? Moreover, satire is notoriously difficult to define. As one critic puts it, ‘no omnibus definition can ever pigeonhole all types of satire’.1 It is not a genre itself, so much as a parasitic mode of writing, bursting to life through a variety of literary forms. In the Middle Ages, for example, satire appears ‘episodically’ in ‘works such as romances, fables, sermons, visions, songs, or other medieval genres’;2 it attacks the familiar evils of human society – vanity, hypocrisy, corruption, greed, perversity, exploitation of the poor – and often specifically targets women, the clergy, the church or state. At the heart of any satire – certainly the Scottish examples surveyed below – lies both a commitment to art and a belief in the power of words. The former manifests itself in the often-complex rhetorical structures and fictions through which the satirist presents his critique3 – beast fable, for instance, flyting competition, or dream-vision. So essential is this aspect of the satirist’s craft, in fact, that Ruben Quintero argues, 201 satire ‘Though some form of attack or ridicule is necessary for something to be satiric, without intentional art there is no satire’.4 And the power of words – to bless, to curse, to change – seems rooted in something more deeply mystical, whether biblical prophecy or the eulogistic or shaming power of the Gaelic poets. Gaelic satire, especially in early texts, had strong associations with magic,5 and was a means of wielding or exerting power. The term ‘áer’ could refer to incantational satire (spell and enchantment), as well as to satire without the aid of magic (lampoon, personal attack, or curse).6 Satirists were feared and respected in Celtic society: ‘the words of a satire were believed to be capable of inflicting both physical and social damage’7 – hence, the metaphors of satire as a weapon, with its effects of lacerating, cutting, blemishing, and dishonouring.8 The sagas of Early Gaelic literature contain numerous references to satire’s unpleasant effects, which could cause facial blemishes and blisters, and in extreme cases, even death. In ‘Talland Etair’(‘The Siege of Howth’), for example, the poet Aithirne, refused by Luaine, makes a satire on the latter, which causes three blisters to appear on Luaine’s face.9 The same is reported of Néde, who makes a satire on his uncle Caiér. In ‘Cath Maige Tuired’ (‘The [Second] Battle of Moytura’), the satire of poet Cairbre mac Étaíne causes Bres mac Elathan, king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, to lose his health and position as king.10 In a society where reputation and honour were paramount, facing desocialisation by means of satire constituted a powerful threat. The tradition of earlier Gaelic satire strongly influenced the Gaelic literature of the Middle Ages. The Gaelic satirical literature composed during the Stewart Kingdom falls within the Classical Early Modern period, when it is not linguistically possible to distinguish between Irish and Scottish Gaelic texts.11 This body of poetry was written by poets trained in the bardic schools as they existed in Ireland and parts of Scotland.12 The ‘file’ was a professional poet, attached to noble families and patrons, and a highly esteemed member of Gaelic society whose ‘principal function was to uphold and protect his chief’s good name and fame’.13 The bardic poets were renowned for two kinds of poetry: eulogies for their chieftain and satires on their enemies. However, the corpus...


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