The Crock of Gold (James Stephens)

Posted: October 13, 2014 in fiction
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If ever you see this book in a store, drop whatever else you’re holding and buy it immediately. I realize that this is rather a strong command, perhaps even invasive, but you’ll do me the credit to recognize that I don’t command this strongly very often. Of course, now there are several versions you can buy online, but shopping online steals from one the joy of discovery that is felt when shopping nonvirtually. When I was introduced to this book in 2006, it was out of print and unavailable anywhere except for the rare used bookstore. Looking at the reviews on amazon.com, it seems that someone at a publishing house scanned an old book without correcting the text – the negative reviews are for the product itself, not the story. If you can find one of the rare old copies, snatch it up; let no one part you from this book.

It’s sort of an allegory, sort of a fairy tale, sort of a myth. It’s about the stereotypical conflict between gender stereotypes; it’s about the role of thought in our lives. It’s beautiful and strange, delightful, wistful, earthily magical. There was a flourishing of Irish writers during the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, and Stephens may not be prominent among them, but perhaps he ought to be. James Joyce seems to have a precious jewel that he is proud of possessing, and equally proud of concealing beneath layers and layers of incomprehensibility. W B Yeats is best known for looking to the mythology of other places, sailing off to Byzantium or looking for the second coming of a Hebrew god fused to the Egyptian sphinx. Yeats does write about the Irish myths and legends, but those poems tend to get rather long, and they require a great deal of concentration, more than is consistent with pure joy. Stephens uses simple sentences that a child could understand to discuss abstract concepts that the wisest of adults will take time to ponder.

In the beginning, there are two philosophers and their wives:

In the centre of the pine wood called Coilla Doraca there lived not long ago two Philosophers. They were wiser than anything else in the world except the Salmon who lies in the pool of Glyn Cagny into which the nuts of knowledge fall from the hazel bush on its bank. He, of course, is the most profound of living creatures, but the two Philosophers are next to him in wisdom. Their faces looked as though they were made of parchment, there was ink under their nails, and every difficulty that was submitted to them, even by women, they were able to instantly resolve. The Grey Woman of Dun Gortin and the Thin Woman of Inis Magrath asked them the three questions which nobody had ever been able to answer, and they were able to answer them. That was how they obtained the enmity of these two women which is more valuable than the friendship of angels. The Grey Woman and the Thin Woman were so incensed at being answered that they married the two Philosophers in order to be able to pinch them in bed, but the skins of the Philosophers were so thick that they did not know they were being pinched. They repaid the fury of the women with such tender affection that these vicious creatures almost expired of chagrin, and once, in a very ecstasy of exasperation, after having been kissed by their husbands, they uttered the fourteen hundred maledictions which comprised their wisdom, and these were learned by the Philosophers who thus became even wiser than before.

Then one of the philosophers and his wife decide to die, which simplifies things immensely.

Things start to happen when a cat kills a bird. The animals aren’t important in themselves, but the cat belongs to Meehawl MacMurrachu, and the bird is honored by the Leprecauns of Gort na Cloca Mora. The leprecauns take MacMurrachu’s washboard, and he goes to the philosopher to ask for help in getting it back. The philosopher tells him where to find their pot of gold, which MacMurrachu steals and hides in a place that is protected by all the fairy folk, including the leprecauns, who are now bound by their own laws not to recover their property. Instead, they go after their opponents’ children. They kidnap the children of the Philosopher, and it’s rumored that they’re the ones who sent Pan to ensnare Caitilin ni Murrachu. But you don’t fuck with a woman of the Shee, especially not if she has fourteen hundred curses, so of course they returned the kids to the Thin Woman of Inis Magrath.

Pan is the Greek god, the one who looks a bit like a satyr and nothing like an Irishman. His attitude doesn’t seem to quite match up with my understanding of him from the Greeks, but when you meet a mythical figure in a novel you accept the author’s interpretation. Pan represents foreign influences; he beguiles Caitilin with his music, but his philosophy is that hunger and emptiness are of the utmost importance and should be pursued for their own sakes. This deliberate choosing of unhappiness seems to me more closely allied to the monotheistic religions, but maybe it really is present in the Greeks and I’ve just been ignoring it. He also seems more closely related to the philosopher than to the other characters, since the ancient Greeks have dominated European intellectual thought since the Renaissance.

To counter Pan, the philosopher enlists the aid of Angus Og, one of the old Irish gods. He comes surrounded with joy and fullness, and Caitilin chooses him. In this conflict between two gods, I see the struggle of Ireland for its own cultural traditions. Will they assimilate with the rest of Hellenized Europe, or will they recover their own Celtic beliefs? It’s clear that Stephens prefers Angus Og to Pan, and if they really are as he portrays them, I quite agree. But once the children are all rescued, MacMurrachu still has the pot of gold, and justice must still be attended to.

Justice is the maintaining of equilibrium. The blood of Cain must cry, not from the lips of the Avenger, but from the aggrieved Earth herself who demands that atonement shall be made for a disturbance of her consciousness. All justice is, therefore, readjustment. A thwarted consciousness has every right to clamour for assistance, but not for punishment. […] It will, therefore, be understood that when the Leprecauns of Gort na Cloca Mora acted in the manner about to be recorded, they were not prompted by any lewd passion for revenge, but were merely striving to reconstruct a rhythm which was their very existence, and which must have been of direct importance to the Earth. Revenge is the vilest passion known to life. It has made Law possible, and by doing so it gave to Intellect the first grip at that universal dominion which is its ambition.

So the leprecauns give the police an anonymous tip about the dead philosopher and the Grey Woman buried under the philosopher’s house. The thought life of Ireland had its first obstacle with foreign influences, and now it is challenged by modernity. The leprecauns fight to free the philosopher from the police, but he just turns himself in the next day. Then, randomly, his children find the pot of gold and return it to the leprecauns.

How could they thank the children whose father and protector they had delivered to the unilluminated justice of humanity? that justice which demands not atonement but punishment; which is learned in the Book of Enmity but not in the Book of Friendship; which calls hatred Nature, and Love a conspiracy; whose law is an iron chain and whose mercy is debility and chagrin; the blind fiend who would impose his own blindness; that unfruitful loin which curses fertility; that stony heart which would petrify the generations of man; before whom life withers away appalled and death would shudder again to its tomb.

There’s a similar feeling of justice in The Scarlet Letter; people punish in order to make offenders suffer, but the punishments tend to drive the offenders further from society instead of reintegrating them into it. Hawthorne ascribes reconciliatory justice to God; Stephens to the Earth and the fairy folk. As an American, I have a troubled feeling about human justice. We have more people in prison than any other nation on earth. We have more people in prison than some countries have people. One third of the African-American men in my age group are in prison, right now. While other countries are closing empty prisons, ours are full to bursting. Part of this is a problem with the justice system, which tends to convict rather a lot of people (particularly nonwhite males) for fairly minor offenses. Part of this is a problem with the laws, which require imprisonment for something as small as having marijuana in the house. Part of the problem is that we can’t seem to think of any other method of punishment but to lock offenders away with other offenders, so that whatever diseases of thought that lead to crime grow and become even stronger. Part of the problem is that the prison industry sees tons of money changing hands, so lawmakers have no incentive to change a system that is actively harming the people it is supposed to be helping. Part of the problem is that American culture is strongly motivated by revenge, so most of the people I meet don’t see a problem with giving those punks exactly what they deserve. If they didn’t want to go to jail, they shouldn’t have gotten caught. American culture also tends to valorize criminal activity; most styles of popular music celebrate some form of crime, and films and television tend to make law enforcement look ineffective or corrupt. The prison problem seems the natural result of a society based on the idea, “Fuck society!” The leprecauns have their pot of gold again, the natural order has been restored, so let’s free the philosopher! How un-American is that?

The Thin Woman goes on a journey to Angus Og, just as her husband did before, but she takes a different route and meets different people along the way. Well, one person is the same, but their encounters with her are vastly different. The Thin Woman and Angus Og call all the clans of the fairies to their aid. All the old gods (except the Sleepers, of course), all the leprecauns and cluricauns and Shee and anything else, all march together to break the philosopher out of jail. But there are no weapons or hatred or thirst for revenge – this section of the book is called The Happy March. They come singing and dancing, smiling and loving and joyful.

Down to the city they went dancing and singing; among the streets and the shops telling their sunny tale; not heeding the malignant eyes and the cold brows as the sons of Balor looked sidewards. And they took the Philosopher from his prison, even the Intellect of Man they took from the hands of the doctors and lawyers, from the sly priests, from the professors whose mouths are gorged with sawdust, and the merchants who sell blades of grass – the awful people of the Fomor . . . and then they returned again, dancing and singing, to the country of the gods. . . .

I’d like to return to the country of the gods. I’ve never been to Ireland, but I’m willing to believe that might be it.

I find it difficult to explain precisely what about this book I love so much. It touches my heart in a place that is deeper than words, deeper than conscious thought. Maybe there are some genetic memories at play, these thought patterns echoing in the subconscious bequeathed to me. My face may proclaim the Dutch part of my heritage, but I have a whole clan of redheaded Irishmen behind me as well. I believe that this is why the Celtic myths resonate more strongly with me than the Judeo-Christian ones. I suppressed this feeling for a long time, but Christianity just feels weird and wrong to me. There’s an inexplicable rightness to books like The Crock of Gold, or Byatt’s Ragnarok, that I don’t feel in monotheism. I’m not saying that I’m becoming Druid, or Wiccan, or any of the earth religions, but the belief in one god seems as limiting as believing in none at all.

The primary lesson seems to be one of balance. Thought balanced with belief, struggle balanced with happiness, scarcity balanced with generosity. There are some of the misogynistic stereotypes to be expected from a story a hundred years old, but they’re balanced by equally reductive/destructive stereotypes of men. One of the things that I admire about Norse mythology is that everyone has a ‘heim,’ a home. There is a place where everyone belongs. Celtic myths seem to have this same inclusiveness. I’ve spent most of my life feeling like an outcast, so an inclusive ethic appeals to me. Christianity tells its followers to put ‘the family of faith’ first; there’s an us/them, believers/damned binary opposition that runs through the center of it. Nature doesn’t have any binaries. There are always exceptions, slippages, creatures in the middle ground. Therefore, I trust faith systems that don’t rely on artificial binaries – God/Devil, good/evil, heaven/hell. Life is more complex and beautiful than that.

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