On its publication in 1912, The Crock of Gold placed James Stephens in the vanguard of writers guiding the Irish Literary Revival of that period. Led by the poet William Butler Yeats, among others, this movement sought to revitalize Irish culture with inspiration derived from ancient Irish myths and legends. The movement placed a strong emphasis on the Irish language and had a mystic reverence for the customs and folklore of poor people, particularly those living off the land. Yeats saw The Crock of Gold as an indication that Dublin, the capital of Ireland, was living a deeper spiritual life because the city had nurtured its author, Stephens.
The extravagant praise heaped on The Crock of Gold on its publication was matched by its popularity with the reading public. It became a best seller immediately and remains Stephens’s most popular work. As a novel, it is impossible to categorize. Part fairy tale, part philosophy, part mythology, part social history with a conscience, it is very comic, tremendously imaginative, and always extravagant in its celebration of language and life.
Stephens’s influences in writing the book are marked and in many cases easily traceable. The huge upsurge in writing with native themes and pastoral settings in Ireland in the 1890’s and early 1900’s gave Stephens the inspiration for much of the plot. Stephens’s mentor and one of the leaders of the Irish Literary Revival, Æ (George Russell), believed literally in the existence of spirits, fairies, and gods, and he prophesied their materialization in the Irish countryside and cities. The verbose Philosopher in the novel seems to be at least partly based on Æ, who had a comic tendency to pontificate. On a deeper level Stephens owes a huge and acknowledged debt to the English poet William Blake. Blake saw life as warring extremes—good and evil, intellect and emotion, spirit and matter—that spark the fires of progress. Blake often vilified authority, organized religion, materialism, and the horrors of industrialized society. Stephens touches on all these themes in The Crock of Gold, if sometimes in a muted form.
Chief among the protagonists are the Philosopher and Caitilin, the former representing intellectual nature, the latter emotional nature. At the beginning readers see the Philosopher as a rather pedantic, joyless creature with a huge store of information but little knowledge of life’s essentials and no capacity for love. His journey to meet the ancient Irish god, Angus Og, transforms him. First the Philosopher meets Pan, representing animal nature, and, despite the Philosopher’s anger, he notices that he feels more alive than he did for years after his contact with a pure physicality. Traveling on, he perceives the sadness of some people he meets and their unsureness of how to conduct their affairs. His rendezvous with Angus Og brings him to ecstasy, marrying his intellect with his spirit and awakening a dormant love for his fellow human beings.
Caitilin, whose name suggests she represents the personification of Ireland (Caitilín Ní Houlaháin), also has encounters with these two gods. Meeting Pan entices her sensual nature to blossom and, in imitation of him, she discards her clothes to better express this side of herself. The Philosopher, in this scene representing the repressed domesticated member of civilization, is horrified by this and rails against her and Pan to no avail. Subsequently, Angus Og comes to seek her out and, in a crucial scene of the plot, gets her to leave Pan and come with him. This episode may be interpreted in many ways but probably can best be...
(The entire section is 900 words.)