Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 900
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 seen as a suggestion by Stephens that Ireland should gravitate toward what is her own (Pan is a Greek god) and, in Caitilin’s terms, foster a union with her spiritual roots that will bear offspring to revitalize Ireland.
Intertwined with these and other journeys (such as the one undertaken by the Thin Woman of Magrath) are Stephens’s philosophical discourses, some pages long. Though he seems serious, his manner of dealing with them smacks of whimsicality if not irreverence. Everything is turned upside down in this novel; the momentous and the commonplace exchange places and importance on most every page.
Stephens’s theme is straightforward: Imagination, love, joy, and dance need their proper place in modern life. In Ireland, these things should spring from Ireland’s own culture. Modern society places too much reliance on reason and the intellect. The result is loneliness and lack of fulfillment. The philosopher’s experience in prison, held by uncomprehending policemen obeying the mindless dictates of law, shows Stephens at his most serious. Two fellow prisoners tell wretched stories of society’s lack of charity to the old and the sick. At the end, when the Thin Woman asks Angus Og to free her husband, all the gods and spirits of old join him in setting the people free from their bondage, literal and mental.
The Crock of Gold survives as literature because it is funny, profound, elusive, and charming. One could argue that the parts are greater than the whole. Some of the philosophizing, for instance seems half digested, as if Stephens read ideas elsewhere and did not quite make them his own. What works best are the less-deliberate moments: insects talking to cows, children playing with Leprechauns, offhand humor, encounters with peasants. With the beautiful and poetic language, they make this story a classic of fantasy writing.
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