“The Walking Dead” and the “Bridegroom to the Goddess” in Works by John Millington Synge and Seamus Heaney Essay

October 5, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Dec 13th, 2018

The Irish literature is characterized by discussing a lot of social and psychological issues and depicting many mythical images. The Irish writers’ approach to presenting the common theme can be extremely different with references to using irony and satire or mild and pessimistic tone. The play The Playboy of the Western World by John Millington Synge and the poem “The Tollund Man” by Seamus Heaney have few similar features, but the authors discuss the theme of death, accentuating the violent death, in their works.

Although Synge and Heaney use rather opposite approaches to presenting the controversial theme of death in their works where Synge concentrates on satire to depict the social and psychological issues and Heaney pays attention to the spiritual context of the question, the authors provide their vision of the violent death from the social perspective and with references to the persons’ inner world.

In his play The Playboy of the Western World, Synge emphasizes the fact of murdering as the starting point to develop the play’s plot. Thus, the idea of murder is used to represent the problems and conflicts typical for the Irish society of the 1900s along with accentuating the personal attitude to the question as the reflection of the society’s sickness.

Christy Mahon, the main character of the play, is inclined to attract the public’s attention in the tavern with stating that he has murdered his father. Thus, Mahon depicts his action saying, “I just riz the loy and let fall the edge of it on the ridge of his skull, and he went down at my feet like an empty sack, and never let a grunt or groan from him at all” (Synge 113).

The irony of Mahon’s actions is presented with references to the specific language used by the author (Brazeau 160). The unemotional language based on the simple enumeration of the stages of murdering a person helps present the character’s experience and emphasize the irony of the audience’s interpreting the fact of killing.

Synge stresses the satiric inappropriateness of interpreting Mahon’s actions as heroic with the help of remarks. For instance, Michael reacts to Mahon’s words about murdering with the great respect and states, “That was a hanging crime, mister honey.

You should have had good reason for doing the like of that”, and Mahon answers in a reasonable tone, “He was a dirty man, God forgive him, and he getting old and crusty, the way I couldn’t put up with him at all” (Synge 106-107). From this point, the fact of murdering a person makes Mahon be a hero in this small community of a tavern. The reasons to explain the phenomenon can be found with references to analyzing the figures of the listeners.

The community of County Mayo needs sensations to discuss, and the personality of Mahon becomes the most interesting theme for talking about. Thus, Synge focuses on the double moral standards typical for the society (Levitt 19). On the one hand, Mahon breaks the moral taboos, and he is discussed as a hero after committing a patricide. On the other hand, Mahon should be hanged after attempting to kill his father for the second time.

The fact of the violent death is presented in Synge’s play as a chance to make the monotonous life more diverse and vivid. The author exaggerates the public’s indifference to the moral and ethical aspects of murdering a person and provides the satirical descriptions of people’s interpreting the problems of death and murder (Levitas; Regan). The villagers are inclined to discuss the person of Mahon as the hero and “the walking Playboy of the Western World” (Synge 190).

It seems that the situation of murdering a father is typical and ordinary. Mahon uses it to create the reputation, and he tries to preserve his heroic reputation while killing the father for the second time. It is rather difficult to state why the villagers want to hang Mahon after the second attempt to murder the father. They can avoid becoming accessories as well as reveal their morality.

The general representation of the topic of death in the play is characterized by depicting some satirical stories. Thus, Mahon is afraid of “the walking dead”, and Pegeen tells the frightening story about the dead man putting “in a narrow grave” (Synge 85, 185).

The situation of Mahon’s mentioning “the walking dead” is rather ironic because his father becomes the real “walking dead” who frightens Mahon and makes him act. Thus, in spite of the villagers’ indifferent attitude to the fact of murder from the perspective of morality, they are inclined to feel fear associated with the theme of death.

Although the theme of death is also vividly discussed in Heaney’s poem “The Tollund Man”, the author’s approach to presenting the topic differs much from Synge’s accentuating the satire of tragic moments in his play. Heaney represents the concept of death from many perspectives in his poem, emphasizing the religious, spiritual, and mythical aspects along with stressing the social problems associated with the theme of the violent death.

In the first stanza, the author depicts his sacred devotion to the Tollund Man who could be sacrificed in order to please the goddess, “Bridegroom to the goddess, / She tightened her torc on him / And opened her fen, / Those dark juices working / Him to a saint’s kept body” (Heaney 12-16).

The death of the Tollund Man is violent, but it is sacred as well as the author’s interpretation of the man’s death as the act connected with the problem of spirituality (Liu). Moreover, the Tollund Man is preserved that is why it is possible to speak about the Tollund Man as similar to the Christian saints. Thus, the Tollund Man can be discussed as an idol for the character as well as the reflection of the Christian traditions.

Moreover, the character states, “I could risk blasphemy, / Consecrate the cauldron bog / Our holy ground and pray / Him to make germinate” (Heaney 21-24). The fact of worshipping the deity should not be discussed with references to the character, but it can be analyzed with accentuating his attitude to the death as the sacred act.

The author provides the analogies and parallels in relation to the violent death of the Tollund Man and the problematic social situations in Ireland and Denmark. The ritual of sacrifice in Denmark is associated with the deaths of many people in the Northern Ireland, and the territory is not significant in this case.

The symbols of death are presented in the author’s pessimistic descriptions of the actual facts of murders based on the religious background, “The scattered, ambushed / Flesh of labourers, / Stockinged corpses / Laid out in the farmyards” (Heaney 25-28). The death is presented not only as the sacred notion but also as the real situation which is familiar for many unfortunate people who are the victims of the social orders and conflicts.

The large social context provided by the author makes the problem actual for many people. The death of the Tollund Man as the part of a sacrifice accentuates the unjust character of many deaths of those people who became the victims of “sad freedom” (Heaney 33).

The character stresses that having explored the Tollund Man, he feels lost “unhappy and at home” (Heaney 44). The author observes many features which support the idea that the sacrifice in the Ancient Denmark can be correlated with a lot of murders in the Northern Ireland, his “home”. Therefore, the theme of death is presented through the significant religious and social context.

To conclude, it is important to pay attention to the fact that although John Millington Synge and Seamus Heaney discuss the topic of the violent death in their works, the authors’ approaches to presenting and explaining the aspects of the problem are different.

Synge is inclined to accentuate the people’s attitude to the question with the help of irony and satirical interpretations, and Heaney’s tone is rather pessimistic. Synge refers to the understatement of the role of death in the person’s life, especially the violent death. Heaney is inclined to exaggerating the problem of the violent death and its victims with the help of stressing the religious symbolism.

Works Cited

Brazeau, Robert. “But We’re Only Talking, Maybe: Language, Desire, and the Arrival of the Present in Synge’s Playboy of the Western World”. Irish Studies Review 17.2 (2009): 153-166. Print.

Heaney, Seamus. “The Tollund Man”. Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996. Ed. Seamus Heaney. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. 124-125. Print.

Levitas, Ben. “The Playboy of the Western World”. Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama. Ed. John Harrington. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009. 468-472. Print.

Levitt, Paul Michael. “Fathers and Sons in Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World”. Explicator 66.1 (2007): 18-21. Print.

Liu, Jiong. “Catholic Predilections in the Poetics of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Seamus Heaney”. Religion and the Arts 14.3 (2010): 267-296. Print.

Regan, Stephen. Irish Writing: An Anthology of Irish Literature in English 1789-1939. London: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print.

Synge, John Millington. “Playboy of the Western World”. Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama. Ed. John Harrington. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2009. 68-112. Print.

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