Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 614

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One of the primary features of the Irish literary renaissance was the discovery, regeneration, and translation of ancient Irish myths into modern forms. Among the great Celtic legends, perhaps the most popular was the tragic love story of Deirdre, The Troubler, and her lover, Naoise. Probably the greatest artistic representations of this fable of fate, love, betrayal, and death are the dramatic versions by William Butler Yeats (Deirdre, 1906) and John Millington Synge (Deirdre of the Sorrows, 1910). However, although James Stephens’s prose interpretation of the myth may lack the austere poetic grandeur of Yeats’s play or the tragic intensity of Synge’s, it has a psychological penetration and lively narrative thrust that makes it not unworthy of mention alongside those great predecessors.

In many ways, Stephens’s version is the most modern one of the Deirdre legend. Although very different from each other, both Yeats and Synge sought to capture the atmosphere of the romantic Irish past of legend and folklore in their plays. Stephens, however, is more interested in a modern psychological analysis of the characters and their actions. At the same time, he does not ignore the flavor of archaic Celtic myth; in developing his story, he takes great pains to present the medieval culture and background as authentically and thoroughly as he could. Deirdre, therefore, contains that mixture of the lyrical and the realistic, the ancient and the modern, and the solemn and the irreverent that characterizes Stephens’s best work in all genres.

Stephens was a brilliant Irish writer of poetry and prose whose best work was grounded in the early literature of his own country. Just as he attempted to bring Irish folklore to life in The Crock of Gold (1912), so he tried to revitalize ancient Gaelic legend in Deirdre. In this novel, he writes of the beautiful and mystical Deirdre, of brave and handsome Naoise, and of strong and willful Conachúr, who is loved by all his people and who is almost great. It is not only the people in the story that are remembered afterward; there are also many memorable scenes. Deirdre is a novel of legend and fantasy with a core of realism.

It has been claimed—with some justice—that Stephens’s emphasis on detailed psychological analysis and explanation slows down the action in the first book and that he fails in the crucial scene—the flight of the lovers—by having it reported secondhand. If the first book is uneven, however, the second is delightful and occasionally powerful. Their personalities and motivations having been carefully delineated in the first book, the characters, and their decisions and actions, are thoroughly believable in the second one. All of the second book is excellent, and several moments—such as the suppressed tragedy evident in the gaiety of Naoise’s younger brothers, Deirdre’s realization of Conachúr’s treachery, and especially Deirdre’s death on the body of her dead lover—approach greatness.

It was not Stephens’s purpose to idolize the old Irish myths but to make them alive and familiar for his own times. In spite of a setting eight centuries in the past, readers of Deirdre have little difficulty in believing in and relating to a gallery of vivid, passionate characters: the gentle, aristocratic King Fergus, too casual and perhaps lazy to avert tragedy; Conachúr, brave yet insecure, whose sense of honor and duty cannot overcome his passionate nature; the sons of Uisneac, united yet individualized, apparently carefree yet serious and heroic; and finally, Deirdre herself, intense, intuitive, innocent yet wise, who passionately and courageously strives for a happiness that she knows from the beginning will never be granted to her.