Thursday, 20 January 2011

The Crock Of Gold - James Stephens

Published in 1912, this is a glorious book. By turns comical, witty, philosophical, spiritual, and whimsical – sometimes in a single sentence – it tells of the train events set in motion when a philosopher gives advice to a farmer that leads to some Leprecauns losing their crock of gold. This flimsy vehicle is what carries what is, essentially, a celebration of Ireland.

We meet philosophers (Druids) and their wives, free-spirited children who play in the woods, Pan (who is sent packing back to his Mediterranean stomping ground), Leprecauns, the Shee, and many of the old gods of Ireland. We also meet an array of mortal characters and, of course, policeman. No story of this nature about Ireland would be complete without its policeman – a race for whom there was, clearly, some affection if not much respect. In that, it is a natural precursor to the work of Flann O’Brien.

So far, it sounds somewhat light. Yet the story is infused with deep philosophical and spiritual insights, offered up in the form of discussion and illustration. And the closer these get to the realities of the modern world (in which this is set), personified by ‘the city’, the more sombre and disturbing they become.

The book is beautifully written. Lyrical, fluid, and highly assured. Stephens was a poet and novelist whose work is steeped in the folklore and mythology of his native land. Although little known these days, his literary worth was recognised in his lifetime, not just by the public, but his contemporaries in the literary world. Indeed, Joyce asked Stephens to complete Finnegans Wake if Joyce was unable to do so.

Stephens work deserves to be better known and if you ever come across his books (probably in a second hand bookshop) I urge you to give them a try. I bought The Crock of Gold forty years ago and it has given me joy and food for thought over the years (not least that my 1931 hardback edition is beautifully produced and cost 2/-).