James Joyce, Ulysses, Proteus

Decoding Dedalus: Pretenders

This is a post in a series called Decoding Dedalus where I take a passage of Ulysses and  break it down line by line.

The passage below comes from “Proteus,” the third episode of Ulysses. It appears on pages 45 in my copy (1990 Vintage International). We’ll be looking at the passage that begins “Pretenders…” and ends “…medieval abstrusiosities.” 

Ulysses is full of people who aren’t what they seem or who don’t know who they are. We’ve already met Haines, an English student who wishes he were Irish, and Mr. Deasy, an Irish headmaster who wishes he were English. Following the rabbit trail of Stephen’s inner monologue, we begin to examine his preoccupation with pretenders, in this case, historical ones.

Pretenders: live their lives. 

All paths lead to Buck Mulligan. The most salient pretender plaguing Stephen’s psyche is Mulligan the usurper – a former friend who took Stephen’s tower home. Stephen has made the decision that he will not return to the tower tonight because he can no longer stomach Mulligan’s crass mockery and selfishness. All the pretenders who follow in Stephen’s thoughts are stand-ins for Mulligan’s usurpation.

Turning the lens to Stephen, I think it’s fair to say that while Stephen knows who he wants to be (a great Artist), he doesn’t know who he is right now on June the sixteenth. He’s totally lost in his own grief and failure and isn’t living the life he pictured when he strode gallantly into the sunset at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen is convinced of his own artistic gifts, but he hasn’t achieved the next step – convincing anyone else. He knows he’s a great bohemian artist, but the only thing he has to show at the moment is his French wardrobe

Stephen expresses these feelings by imagining a parade of pretenders – men attempting to seize power outside the boundaries of their society. Let’s look at each of their stories:

The Bruce’s brother, 

This is a reference to Edward Bruce, or as I’ve taken to calling him, Scotland’s Solange Knowles – someone with plenty of talents in their own right who has been totally overshadowed by a more famous sibling. You’ve likely heard of Robert Bruce, who fought the English for Scottish independence. You’ve also likely never heard of his younger brother Edward, who fought by his side at the Battle of Bannockburn and was tasked with bringing Ireland into the campaign on the side of the Scottish. They hoped to form a sort of pan-Gaelic alliance against a common enemy. Opening a second front in their campaign would surely stretch English resources thin. 

To this end, Edward invaded Ireland in 1315. As it turns out, invading someone’s country is not particularly ingratiating. Despite some early alliances with Irish leaders, Edward’s troops pillaged their way towards Dublin, burning villages and pissing off the Irish in their wake. To their great disadvantage, crop failures and extreme weather had left Ireland (and most of Europe) experiencing desperate starvation. Trying to feed an invading army during one of the worst famines of the era was nearly impossible, so Edward’s soldiers were eager to seize what they could from the Irish countryside. By this point, the Irish saw little difference between the Scottish or English. Tides turned swiftly against Edward’s army as Irish cities, including Dublin, were demolished by their own inhabitants to further starve the Scottish soldiers and impair a potential siege. Though Edward was briefly crowned King of Ireland, his reign was short and tumultuous, ending in his death at the Battle of Faughart outside Dundalk in 1318. 

The first on Stephen’s list of historical pretenders, Edward probably has the best claim to legitimacy of the lot, since he did win some battles early in his campaign. Ultimately, he didn’t win over the people and will likely never be portrayed by a nude Chris Pine in a movie. Ireland was never truly in his control. Even James Joyce remembers him as nothing more than “the Bruce’s brother.”

Thomas Fitzgerald, silken knight, 

Would an examination of Irish history be complete without at least one rebellion story?


Thomas Fitzgerald, 10th Earl of Kildare, c. 1530

Thomas Fitzgerald, the 10th Earl of Kildare, raised a rebellion in 1534 against King Henry VIII. The king had summoned his father, Gerald Fitzgerald, to London, where he was arrested on “charges” and imprisoned in the Tower of London. When news reached Thomas back in Ireland, he heard that his father had been executed and that he and his uncles were next on the chopping block. Thomas did the only sensible thing: he fomented rebellion. 

It wasn’t a completely rash move: the Fitzgeralds’ lands in Kildare contained most of the castles and resources of the Pale around Dublin. Thomas gathered a force of gallowglasses, or foreign soldiers, and traveled to Dublin to renounce his support for King Henry. Thomas and his men wore fringes of silk on their helmets, giving him his nickname Tomás an tSí­oda, or Silken Thomas.

Thomas’ forces attacked Dublin Castle but were defeated. In the ensuing fracas, Thomas was blamed for the execution of an archbishop. He had hoped to gain support amongst the powerful Irish clergy for his rebellion against the king, who had renounced Catholicism by that point. The archbishop’s death had exactly the opposite effect, however. Thomas and his uncles were captured and sent to London in 1535. Thomas got off easy – he was only hanged and beheaded for his disloyalty. His uncles were hanged, beheaded and quartered. 

Perkin Warbeck, York’s false scion, in breeches of silk of whiterose ivory, wonder of a day, and Lambert Simnel, with a tail of nans and sutlers, a scullion crowned. 

The explanation behind this line is just wall-to-wall great stories. 

In 1483, King Edward IV of England died suddenly, leaving the throne to his 12-year-old son, Edward V. Young Edward and his brother Richard, the Duke of York, age 10, were escorted to London by their uncle Richard, the Duke of Gloucester. The boys lodged in the Tower of London while they awaited Edward’s coronation. What happened during the night remains a mystery to this day. The boys disappeared in the night, almost certainly murdered. This paved the way for their uncle to be crowned King Richard III a few months later. Historians generally believe that Richard III is the culprit for the boys’ death, though many questions remain. 

Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 where he lost to Henry Tudor’s army, ending the Wars of the Roses, the Lancasters on the winning side, the Yorks on the losing. The question of the missing princes remained unanswered, though, and paved the way for false claims to the throne of England. 

Lambert Simnel carried on the shoulders of his (barefoot) Irish supporters.

The first such pretender was Lambert Simnel. The Anglo-Irish upper classes in Ireland had supported the Yorkist cause and found themselves on the losing side of the war. No worries, though. Enter Richard Simon, a sort of dodgy priest who brought Lambert to Dublin, claiming that Simon had personally saved him from the Tower and that he was young Richard, the rightful heir to the throne. More importantly, he was a Yorkist. A coronation was held in Dublin, though by that point the adults in the room had decided the 10-year-old Lambert was actually Edward Plantagenet, the Duke of Warwick and legitimate claimant to the English throne. Young King Edward VI and his retinue came ashore in northern England in 1487, though they didn’t get far. King Henry VII’s army defeated them, though the king pardoned Lambert, allowing him to work as a spit-turner for the royal family, amongst other duties. The song The Story of the Scullion King by Steeleye Span covers all of this more succinctly than I have. 

Stephen’s take on Lambert as “a scullion crowned” with a “tail of nans and sutlers” makes sense then. A scullion is a menial kitchen servant, which Simnel became. The nans (serving girls)  and sutlers (army provisioners)  that followed him would be of low status as well. 

Don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten Perkin Warbeck. 

As another young man claiming to be Richard, Duke of York, Warbeck did not enjoy any of Lambert Simnel’s good fortune. Unable to gather support in England for his claim to the throne, Warbeck sought support in various other European courts during the 1490’s. Though Edward VI’s exiled sister Margaret supported his claim, years of civil war and dynastic struggle had left a sour taste in the mouths of even Yorkist supporters in England. James IV of Scotland supported Warbeck’s claim, even providing him men to invade over England’s northern border. Eventually the Scottish tired of Warbeck, too, and he bounced from Scotland to Ireland to Cornwall, where he “invaded” with a force of fewer than 200 men. He was easily defeated by Henry VII’s army. Warbeck was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where, ironically, he had claimed to have escaped murder at age 10. After several foiled escape attempts, Perkin Warbeck was executed in 1499.

Stephen’s description of Warbeck is pretty straightforward then. As the false scion of York, he wore white silken trousers since that was York’s color.

By the way, if you’re thinking that this all sounds like it could be in Game of Thrones, you’re absolutely right. George R. R. Martin was inspired by the Wars of the Roses (substitute Lannisters and Starks for Lancasters and Yorks) while writing A Song of Ice and Fire. Though I think it got left out of the TV version, his novels contain a subplot about a boy pretender to the throne of Westeros who was a supposedly-murdered young prince. 

All kings’ sons. Paradise of pretenders then and now. 

“All kings’ sons” is a call back to something Mr. Deasy said to Stephen back in “Nestor”: “We are all Irish, all kings’ sons.” I’ve heard this line interpreted as meaning everyone in Ireland claiming descent from one king or another (particularly anyone called O’Neill). I think it’s safe to say that Mr. Deasy botched the meaning when he dropped this knowledge bomb on Stephen, meaning instead that all the Irish are king’s subjects. 

All of the pretenders that flash through Stephen’s mind have some sort of Ireland connection. It seems that Ireland’s role in the various power plays against the English crown was merely as a staging area, the land where powerful usurpers went to gather supporters for their petty insurrections. All of the examples Stephen lists are not men fighting some larger injustice or working to elevate the Irish out of their lowly status. Instead, these men were hoping to exploit weaknesses in the English monarchy for personal enrichment. The Irish seemed to be willing pawns in each of the stories, even if only temporarily. 

There is a Protean connection here, as well. Proteus was a master of disguise, a shape shifter. The pretenders are all attempted shapeshifters as well – playing at being a king when they have no legitimate claim. 

He saved men from drowning and you shake at a cur’s yelping. 

James Joyce Ulysses Buck Mulligan
Stephen Dedalus and Haines listen as Buck Mulligan recites a bawdy poem.

Back to Buck Mulligan, the gay betrayer. Stephen is never more than five minutes from ruminating over Mulligan’s mockery. As easy as it is to point to Mulligan as a pretender and usurper, his heroism is readily provable. Mulligan, like the other pretenders, is at least a man of action. This feels like Stephen debunking his own attempt to color Mulligan as a fake. Stephen is the real pretender, startled by a mere dog’s bark, his anger at Mulligan a shadow projection. Any scorn tossed at Mulligan ends up staining Stephen as well. 

But the courtiers who mocked Guido in Or san Michele were in their own house. House of… 

Stephen tries to bolster his confidence and defend himself against his roiling bitterness. He does so through an obscure reference, natürlich. 

“Guido” is Guido Cavalcanti, poet, friend of Dante Aligheri, and character in the 14th century literary work The Decameron. In the story, Cavalcanti, a noted atheist, is walking from the church Orsanmichele through a graveyard when he is accosted by a group of courtiers who ask him, “When you have proved that there is no God, what will you have accomplished?” Cavalcanti deftly replies, “Gentlemen, you may say anything you wish to me in your own home.” Then, placing his hand on a tomb, he vaults away, leaving the courtiers waiting for the burn unit to show up. Get it? The graveyard is their home. BUUUURN!

At its heart, this is a story of someone who thought of the exact right thing to say to put his detractors in their place. Don’t we all wish we could be so clever? Stephen imagines his mockers to be like Cavalcanti’s – at home only in a graveyard. Their idle mockery and lack of intellect renders them no better than a mouldering corpse. This story calls to mind the boys teasing Stephen on the seashore in Portrait, as well. Stephen knows his own intellectual gifts and imagines himself in this clever wit’s shoes. He stops short at, “House of …” The next word should be “death,” but Stephen, grieving as he is, can’t bring him to think that word. 

We don’t want any of your medieval abstrusiosities. 

This is Mulligan’s imagined mocking retort to Stephen’s self-defense, not allowing Stephen even a hypothetical upper hand.

Don’t worry, Stephen, I’m here for your medieval abstrusiosities. 


Further Reading and Listening:

Atura, A. & Dionne, L. Proteus – Modernism Lab. Retrieved from https://modernism.coursepress.yale.edu/proteus/ 

Carroll, R. (2018, Nov. 2). Gone and long forgotten: Robert the Bruce’s overlooked brother Edward. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/02/gone-long-forgotten-robert-the-bruce-brother-edward-chris-pine-outlaw-king 

Delaney, F. (2012, Dec 18). Episode 132: Barking at Boccaccio. Re:Joyce. [Audio podcast].

Gifford, D., & Seidman, R. J. (1988). Ulysses annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

Gilbert, S. (1955). James Joyce’s Ulysses: a study. New York: Vintage Books.

Joyce, P.W. (1910). A Concise History of Ireland. Retrieved from https://www.libraryireland.com/JoyceHistory/Contents.php 

Schama, S. (2011, Feb. 17). Invasions of Ireland from 1170 – 1320. The BBC. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/middle_ages/ireland_invasion_01.shtml#top  

Stolze, D. (2017, Jun. 8). Cold case chronicles: The unsolved mystery of the princes in the tower. Forensic Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.forensicmag.com/article/2017/06/cold-case-chronicles-unsolved-mystery-princes-tower

Webb, A. (1878). A Compendium of Irish Biography. Retrieved from https://www.libraryireland.com/biography/index.php 


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