The Tables of the Law Summary
by William Butler Yeats

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The Tables of the Law Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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After dinner and an evening of conversation, the narrator feels comfortable enough to ask his old friend Owen Aherne a question that has been troubling him for many years: For years Aherne has cared for nothing but theology and mysticism—why has he not followed through on his original vocation for the church? Aherne considers his answer, meditatively holding a glass of red wine in his hand, “its deep red light dyeing his long delicate fingers,” making him look as if he were “holding a flame in his naked hand.” As he waits for Aherne’s answer, the narrator reflects on the character of his friend. When the narrator and Aherne had been students in Paris, they had belonged to a group devoted to “speculations about alchemy and mysticism.” Aherne, it seems to the narrator, has in his beliefs “a fanciful hatred of all life,” and this hatred has ripened into a strange mélange of beliefs, in part self-created, in part borrowed, “that the beautiful arts were sent into the world to overthrow nations, and finally life herself, by sowing everywhere unlimited desires, like torches thrown into a burning city.” It seems to the narrator that Aherne is the sort of person for whom “there is no order, no finality, no contentment in this world.”

As the narrator so reflects, Aherne rises and offers to show the narrator the cause of his seeming loss of interest in the church and of his apparent reserve and indifference of recent years. He leads the narrator down a long corridor to his private chapel, passing engravings and portraits that Aherne has acquired on his travels, pictures depicting “enraptured faces of the angels of Francesca,” “sibyls of Michael Angelo,” seeming to hold an “incertitude, as of souls trembling between the excitement of the spirit and the excitement of the flesh,” and “faces like thin flames,” wrought by the Symbolists and Pre-Raphaelites. As he looks, “that long, grey, dim, empty, echoing passage [has] become to my eyes a vestibule of eternity.”

In the chapel, the narrator is shown the object that has changed Aherne’s life: On the altar is a bronze box that stands before six unlighted candles and an ebony crucifix. The box, decorated with “gods and demons, whose eyes are closed to signify an absorption in the inner light,” holds a secret book, the only surviving copy of a book written by Joachim of Flora, who had been an abbot in Cortale in the twelfth century. The book, Liber inducens in Evangelium aeternum, has been carefully hidden and guarded by generations of the family of Aretino after Pope Alexander IV had the original cast into the flames for its heretical views. Aherne has acquired the book from Giulio Aretano, an artist and a Cabalist. Aherne puts the book in the narrator’s hands, and the narrator turns the “gilded, many-coloured pages.” This book, claims Aherne, has “swept the commandments of the Father away,” and it “goes to the heart.” In it are the names of “great artists who made them graven things . . . and adored them and served them,” as well as “the names of the great wits who took the name of the Lord their God in vain.” It praises the “breakers of the seventh day and wasters of the six days” and tells of “men and women who railed upon their parents.” Those “heavy with love and sleep and many-coloured raiment” and “noble youths who loved the wives of others” fill the pages of this secret book. Murder, the violation of chastity, the bearing of false witness—all such deeds find their place in the book. Persons who had become “stars shaken out of the raiment of God” are its characters.

The narrator then sees that the ivory tables on which the Ten Commandments were written, and which stood in the chapel, are now gone and have been replaced by blank tables, on which Aherne plans to write his “secret law.” Aherne sees himself as the messiah for a new and terrible religion.Yes, I shall send out of this chapel saints, lovers, rebels, and prophets: souls that will surround themselves with peace, as with a nest made with grass; and others over whom I shall weep. The dust shall fall for many years over this little box; and then I shall open it; and the tumults, which are, perhaps, the flames of the last day, shall come from under the lid.

The narrator tries to dissuade Aherne, pointing out the danger of such beliefs, but Aherne is adamant: “How then can the pathway which will lead us into the heart of God be other than dangerous?” he asks. The first part of the story ends at this point, as the narrator expresses his regret and sorrow for not having tried more forcefully to dissuade Aherne.

The second part finds the narrator walking along a quay in Dublin ten years later. Suddenly he sees Aherne, his face a “lifeless mask with dim eyes.” Aherne seems to see the narrator but turns away, hurries down a side street, and disappears. The narrator searches for him for weeks, then again spots him in a narrow street behind the Four Courts and follows him to his house. He seems, to the narrator, like a man “whose inner life had soaked up the outer life.” At first, Aherne tries to keep him away (“I am lost, and must be hidden!”) but finally allows the narrator to come into his house. Again the narrator follows Aherne down the long corridor, now “choked with dust and cobwebs,” the pictures “grey with dust and shrouded with cobwebs.” Dust also covers the “ruby and sapphire of the saints on the window,” making it very dim. Aherne points to the tablets, which are now “covered with small writing.” “You have a right to hear,” Aherne tells the narrator, “for since I have told you the ideas, I should tell you the extreme danger they contain, or rather the boundless wickedness they contain.” The ideas had made him happy at first, he relates. He had felt “a divine ecstasy, an immortal fire in every passion, in every hope, in every desire, in every dream.” He thought that he “was about to touch the Heart of God.” Then everything changed, and he realized that “man can only come to that Heart through the sense of separation from it which we call sin, and I understood that I could not sin, because I had discovered the law of my being.” Because he has learned to see the world from the perspective of the angels, he can no longer sin, for everything he does is in accordance with a self-given law. Thus, because he sees creation in its entirety, he is no longer “among those for whom Christ died.” He has “lost my soul because I have looked out of the eyes of the angels.”

Suddenly, the room darkens. As Aherne sits, listless and dejected, the narrator sees faint purple-robed figures, holding faint torches and sighing “with sorrow for his sorrow.” The narrator, in terror, flees the house as a voice cries, “Why do you fly from our torches that were made out of the trees under which Christ wept in the Garden of Gethsemane?” The narrator realizes that if he turns back, “all that bound me to spiritual and social order, would be burnt up, and my soul left naked and shivering among the winds that blow from beyond this world and from beyond the stars.” He thus leaves the house forever. As for Aherne, the narrator relates that he has been “driven into some distant country by the spirits whose name is legion, and whose throne is in the indefinite abyss, and whom he obeys and cannot see.”