As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, what could be better than a book about Ireland, and what book about Ireland is more delightful than James Stephens’s 1912 classic, “The Crock of Gold”? Listen to its opening sentences:
“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 due course, these two marriages produce two children, born on the same day and in the same hour, a boy named Seamus and a girl named Brigid. “The Philosopher who had the boy was very pleased because, he said, there were too many women in the world, and the Philosopher who had the girl was very pleased also because, he said, you cannot have too much of a good thing.”
Soon one of these couples drops out of the story, leaving only a single philosopher to answer a perplexity posed to him by a farmer named Meehawl MacMurrachu. The farmer’s wife has lost her washboard and she is convinced that it was taken by the fairies or by her neighbor Bessie Hannigan. The correct answer is, of course, the fairies, more exactly the Leprechauns of Gort na Cloca Mora. The Philosopher directs Meehawl to the tree under which they live and there, in a hole, he discovers a little crock of gold.
As it happens, Meehawl MacMurrachu already possesses a treasure far greater than gold, for his daughter is “the most beautiful girl in the whole world. The pity of it was that no one at all knew she was beautiful, and she did not know it herself.” However, one day, while tending the family’s goats, Caitilin hears unsettling flutelike music in the hills. Eventually, a piper draws near and she sees that his legs are “shaggy and hoofed like the legs of a goat,” and his face is irresistibly sad.
Following Caitilin’s inexplicable disappearance, a worried Meehawl again consults the Philosopher, who in his pedantically humorous manner quickly deduces that the great god Pan has wandered into Ireland. “He has power over all grown people so that they either go and get drunk or else they fall in love with every person they meet, and commit assaults and things I wouldn’t like to be telling you about. The only folk who can go near him at all are little children, because he has no power over them until they grow to the sensual age.” Inevitably, little Seamus and Brigid take Pan a message about Caitilin, one stressing that “he isn’t doing the decent thing, and that if he doesn’t let the girl alone and go back to his own country,” he will have to face Angus Og, Ireland’s own god of love, youth and poetry.
Ignoring this threat, Pan — a sybaritic aesthete by his very nature — gently catechizes about hedonism like some goat-footed Oscar Wilde. The beginning of wisdom, he says, lies in “carelessness.” Virtue is simply “the performance of pleasant actions.” And what is vice? “It is vicious,” Pan replies with inflexible logic, “to neglect the performance of pleasant actions.”
Unable to rescue Caitilin by himself, the Philosopher sets forth to discover the abode of Angus Og. During this quest, he hears stories that, beneath their surface whimsicality, describe want, hunger and broken homes, but he also learns that goodness and kindness may be more important than wisdom. Above all, the many characters of these on-the-road chapters allow Stephens to demonstrate his ear for every kind of Irish-inflected English.
Because of his adventures, the Philosopher eventually recognizes that life shouldn’t be complacently “consecutive, but explosive and variable, else it is a shackled and timorous slave.” Alas, he soon finds himself unexpectedly and wrongly arrested — by policemen who cross-talk like Pat-and-Mike vaudeville comedians — and then sentenced to death. Desperate to save her husband, the Thin Woman of Inis Magrath summons the Shee, the immortal fairy folk of Ireland. “The eyes of those who did not hesitate nor compute looked into her eyes, not appraising, not questioning, but mild and unafraid. The voices of free people spoke in her ears.” Stephens’s last pages swell into an ecstatic ode to joy, as the host of the Shee sweeps across the land:
“Come to us, ye lovers of life and happiness. Hold out thy hand — a brother shall seize it from afar. Leave the plough and the cart for a little time: put aside the needle and the awl . . . Come away! For the dance has begun lightly, the wind is sounding over the hill, the sun laughs down into the valley, and the sea leaps upon the shingle, panting for joy, dancing, dancing, dancing for joy.”
So, all you lovers of life and happiness, raise high a glass this weekend, then track down a copy of “The Crock of Gold.” Come away, come away!
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday for The Washington Post.
By James Stephens
Dover. 240 pp. Paperback, $17.95