Emotions in Literature or That Time I Cried at a Book.

Today I want to write an ultimately dissatisfying blog. I want to write about emotions and there is no surer way to elicit the opposite response from an audience than to formally and directly address emotions. Have you ever laughed at a book on the history of comedy? Have you ever cried at an academic discussion of tragedy? Crying at the overwrought writing style doesn’t count. I didn’t think so. When I set out to discuss the importance of our emotional connection with medieval literature, how my own emotional connection to texts from the past has shaped my own work, I’m sure you’ll read it dry-eyed and think I am a sentimental fool.

glass case

As a sentimental fool, I would like to start with an anecdote. The year is 2005. Summer is clinging to the cliffs of October before being thrown by its brother, Winter, into the path of the wildebeest stampede. Young Tom has just started university. One of the first classes on the timetable is medieval Irish literature and in preparation we have been told to read the Táin. As a studious first year, I sit on the edge of my bed in my box room and start reading. I spend all day reading. I’ve not yet got friends to distract me and I know it’s a short book, but I’ve always been a slow reader. After slogging through countless names that I didn’t yet totally know how to pronounce and repetitive episodes – Cú Chulainn kills a guy, 50s of people die, this is a ford and this is its name – I come to the fight with Fer Diad. After all the posturing and the heroic sang-froid, the overwhelming machismo of the preceding hundred and eighty odd pages, the poetry of tragedy and loss brings me up short.

In my mind it was less “early twentieth-century”

I linger over the stanzas and feel, deeply, the unavoidable, painful tragedy of two foster brothers, forced to fight. The conflict needs to happen as much as it brings pain to both fighters. There was no other way out. I feel the injustice of this war. I can’t remember if I cried at the death of Fer Diad, but I was certainly moved in a way that I had not experienced before. I think I was aware, even then, that I would not have been so moved if I had read the poetry on its own. It needed the back drop of the rest of the tale, taken in one go, boredom and joy and all. After pacing the small confines of my room, I remember sitting on my desk, sun on my back, book marked by index finger, and staring into space for a while. This is probably why my recollection of the ending of the Táin is a bit hazy.


What does this mean though? Why am I telling this to you? I think as commentators, as academics, and most importantly as readers, we need to keep these emotional responses alive. That October day has always been at the heart of my writing. It is the justification for what I do, more so than anything I officially write on funding application forms. Our responses to literature, to all art, are all valid and all key. We should hold them close. Should we use these responses as critical tools? No. Just because you have an emotional response to a text, it doesn’t mean that it stands up to critical thought. But it can be used to fuel that critical thought. In the pit of the night writing that essay, dragging yourself to revise and reedit, that emotional response drives you on.


Of course, it’s not all good. When I came to write my undergraduate dissertations, I stayed away from Fer Diad. Maybe I didn’t want to un-weave the magic, to understand why that episode made me feel the way it did. Maybe I didn’t feel qualified to take it on. I certainly didn’t want to do it an injustice. Maybe I felt that I needed to actually work, to work hard, slog away at topics I didn’t feel as close to, as I did this piece of writing. Whatever the reason, I wrote about topics I did not love and wrote some unimpressive work. Now I have almost a whole chapter devoted to Fer Diad and Cú Chulainn. Will it be any better than my other work? I don’t know. Not necessarily. But writing that chapter was much easier than writing about something I didn’t enjoy.

I think we all have a piece that elicits this kind of response. I’d really like to hear about yours. How it moved you, how it has changed (or not) your later reading and writing. For good reasons, we don’t often talk about our personal responses. But we would be fools to totally ignore them.




2 thoughts on “Emotions in Literature or That Time I Cried at a Book.

  1. In my first year we began with the Otherworld. Imram Brain and Echtrae Chonnlai. It was a whole new world of words and ideas, and I was very moved by the concept of traveling to another world and never be able to return. I read the other imrama later, with less fairytale and more human drama. I have the impression Imram Curaig ua Corra tends to be written off as a “moral tale about rowing on Sundays” or somesuch, and that I’m the only one to find it emotional, but…I do. Religion aside, it is a story of people with seriously broken lives who did something brave, adventurous, and slightly extreme to change it. And that felt just wonderful, especially at that particular time when I first read it. When these guys decide to go to sea, they become almost poetic, there they’re looking at the ocean, saying: “Where goes the sun when it goes under the sea?” Up until that moment, it has been such a dark story with death, destruction, and penance, and with that question the story seems to imply something along…”even with all that darkness, there is still light and new things to discover in the world”. And…that got to me.

    (Not ruling out that when the time machine is invented, we’ll find the author rolling his eyes and claiming he only tried to warn against rowing on Sundays…)


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