James Stephens was a largely self-educated author associated with the Irish literary revival at the end of the nineteenth century. He produced dozens of volumes of fiction, poetry, and fairy tales in his prolific career. The Crock of Gold is his most famous work and is one that is almost impossible to define.
The novel is first of all an allegory, a fable in which nearly every character represents some abstract quality. Man is equated with thought, woman with intuition, Pan with sensuality, and so on. Unfortunately for the modern reader, many of Stephens’ allegorical figures are drawn from Celtic (Irish) history. Even without a knowledge of Irish mythology, however, readers still can grasp the major import of this delightful fable.
In both plot lines, the protagonists are freed from the constraints of human society and led to a life of greater freedom. The Philosopher starts the novel full of long-winded platitudes, but when he returns to his wife after his adventures on his quest to Angus Og, he has been released from his former selfishness and filled with love. Likewise, the beautiful Caitlin, in her adventures with Pan and Angus, learns that “the duty of life is the sacrifice of self.” Throughout the novel, the habits of philosophy or thought are opposed by the forces of instinct, sexual love, and imagination. The end of life, as the Philosopher discovers, may be “gaiety and music and a dance of joy.”
The Crock of Gold is no simple allegory. Fused to the fable are other strands, including a strong satirical element. There is a clear structural opposition in the novel between the forces of nature (fairy innocence, pastoral idyll) and those of civilization (materialism and greed). The two criminals who relate their stories are both former clerks, for example. In the apocalyptic ending, the gods clean out the institutional prisons of urban society, including those of the church, the courts, education, and medicine.
No account of The Crock of Gold would be complete without mention of two other strands in its fairylike fable: its humor and its poetry. The comedy is often childlike: The two women marry the Philosophers “in order to be able to pinch them in bed.” The language of the novel is lyrical and shows the clear influence of the British Romantic poet William Blake.