Friday, 17 May 2013

Magical Classics: ‘The Crock of Gold’ by James Stephens

This enchanting and also completely lunatic book is by the poet James Stephens, a friend of Yeats and James Joyce - the latter asked for his collaboration in finishing 'Finnegan's Wake', though it never actually happened. 'The Crock of Gold' was published in 1912 and a later edition was  to have been illustrated by Arthur Rackham, but sadly Rackham died before it could come to pass.

The book begins with the tale of two Philosophers who are ‘wiser than anything in the world except the Salmon who lies in the pool of Glyn Cagny into which the nuts of knowledge fall’.  These Philosophers live in the depths of a pine wood and are uncomfortably married to The Grey Woman of Dun Gortin and the Thin Woman of Inis Magrath (both women of the Sidhe), by whom they have two children: one boy, Seumas, and one girl, Brigid.  The Philosophers answer all the questions of anyone who passes by, until one day, one of them decides to die - on the grounds that he now knows everything and ‘it is all bosh’.

So saying, the Philosopher arose and removed all the furniture to the sides of the room so that there was a clear space left in the centre. He then took off his boots and his coat, and standing on his toes he commenced to gyrate with extraordinary rapidity. In a few moments his movement became steady and swift, and a sound came from him like the humming of a swift saw; this sound grew deeper and deeper, and at last continuous, so that the room was filled with a thrilling noise. In a quarter of an hour the movement began to noticeably slacken. In another three minutes he was quite slow. In two more minutes he grew visible as a body, and then he wobbled to and fro, and at last dropped in a heap on the floor. He was quite dead, and on his face was an expression of serene beatitude.

This should give you an idea of the sort of book it is.  The Grey Woman laments her husband: 'Who will gather pine cones now when the fire is going down, or call my name in the empty house, or be angry when the kettle is not boiling?'

Which also gives an idea of the sort of book it is… The Grey Woman follows her husband’s example and spins herself to death, after which the Thin Woman ‘smacked the children and put them to bed, next she buried the two bodies under the hearthstone, and then, with some trouble, detached her husband from his meditations.’

Next day, a neighbour, Meehawl MacMurrachu, comes to ask the remaining Philosopher about the whereabouts of a missing washboard, and – after a surreal conversation on the subject of washing in general (‘Cats are a philosophic and thoughtful race, but they do not admit the efficacy of water or soap… There are exceptions to every rule, and I once knew a cat who lusted after water and bathed daily; he was an unnatural brute and died ultimately of the head staggers’) – is advised to look for it in the hole belonging to the Leprechauns of Gort na Cloca Mora.  Meehawn does so, and finds not a washboard, but a crock of gold.  “‘There’s a power of washboards in that,’ said he.” And he takes it.

Which deeply annoys the Leprechauns, who therefore steal away the children. (‘A community of Leprechauns without a crock of gold is a blighted and merriless community.’) And in the meantime, Meehawl’s beautiful daughter Caitlin runs away with the god Pan…and the Philosopher sets out on a journey to find the god Angus Mac an Óg who may be able to persuade her home – and the Leprechauns lay ‘an anonymous information at the nearest Police Station showing that two dead bodies would be found under the hearthstone in the hut of Coille Doraca, and the inference to be drawn… was that these bodies had been murdered by the Philosopher for reasons very discreditable to him’ – and the Police therefore set out after him, to the general terror– and it’s all utterly wonderful.

If you can read this book aloud in an Irish accent, do so: if not, at least try to imagine one. It’s a bit like an Irish ‘Wind in the Willows’ for grown-ups – that's if you like ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ (as I do) as well as the comic tricks of Toad. There’s wisdom and laughter and pathos and joy, and Stephens doesn’t at all mind going over the top, and all in all you won’t find any other book quite like it. One last quote: a man who’s been sacked and lost everything, describes himself watching a young couple out in the rain:

There was a big puddle of water close to the kerb, and the girl, stepping daintily, went round this, but the young man stood for a moment beyond it. He raised both arms, clenched his fists, swung them, and jumped over the puddle.  Then he and the girl stood looking at the water, apparently measuring the jump.  They were bidding each other goodbye.  The girl put her hand to his neck and settled the collar of his coat, and while her hand rested on him the young man suddenly and violently flung his arms around her and hugged her; then they kissed and moved apart. The man walked to the rain puddle and stood there with his face turned back laughing at her, and then he jumped straight into the middle of the puddle and began to dance up and down in it, the muddy water splashing over his knees.  She ran over to him crying, “Stop, silly!” 

When she came into the house, I bolted my door and I gave no answer to her knock.

Picture credits: James Mackenzie, from the 1928 Macmillan edition, which can be viewed and read online here:


  1. Thanks for writing about this. I had no idea anyone else knew about this book, let alone remembered it with fondness. An enjoyable if deeply flawed work.

    I own a much mangled paperback edition, which seems to have donated the better part of its binding to build homes for a mouse.

  2. I'm glad you know it! In what way do you feel it's flawed? It mixes up everything in one steaming magical cauldron,of course, but for me that's all part of the charm!

  3. It's been a few years since I read it to be honest, and your post definitely persuaded me to pull it down and read it again. I'd forgotten most of the good bits, which is never a good sign. It definitely has its moments of brilliance.

    I don't mind the mish-mash at all--that's the best part of the book, I thought! I guess my complaint is akin to Tolkien's criticism of Lang--too much winking over the heads of the audience to the grown-ups who know better. Or putting it another way, I think Stephens has a Joycean tendency to be too aware of his own cleverness; he seems to be writing to hear the sound of his own voice and admire his own opinions.

    The result is that a story one can sit and admire, but not fall into. If that makes sense. And I thought the sequence with Pan didn't work on any level.

    So, IIRC, the book is glittering and lovely, but ultimately flat and hollow--fairy gold indeed, turning back to tears in the morning.

    But you've convinced me to reread it, so that's a good thing!

  4. It is a lunatic book, but then it's based on Celtic myth and folk-tale, which often makes you wonder what they were on.
    For a book a bit like it, try Flann O Brien's 'The Third Policeman', 'The Dalkey Archive' or 'The Poor Mouth' - all of which solemnly and exactly narrate pure madness.
    I've always loved O'Brien's description of a man returning to his lodgings late at night and wishing to creep upstairs in his socks - 'He removed his shoes with a swift crouching upon either foot.'

  5. Interesting that you felt that - we must agree to disagree on this one. It's certainly not flawless, but for me, the exuberant delight of the book excuses most of its faults.

  6. Like Mr Pond I always thought I was one of the few who not only knew this book, but loved it too. I own an old paperback with an introdution by Walter De La Mare. I agree with you Katherine,waht make sit such a delight is mix of knowingness, magic, comedy and myth. I usually re-read it every five years or so and your review has prompted me to do so again.
    I have recommended a few friends to read it, but all have returned it saying that " they could'nt get into it". In my opinion that don't know what they are missing, one of my personal all time favourites

  7. I was called away in the midst of writing my comment and having just looked back on it, must apologise for the dreadful spelling and mistakes in my third sentence.

  8. Don't worry, we all do it! I'm very pleased to find your comment and to meet another Crock of Gold enthusiast! I'd love to read that introduction by de la Mare.

  9. My mother, Clare Turlay Newberry, wrote 18 children's books. She and her editor, Ursula Nordstrom, appreciated the deep impact of a good fairy tale in the evolving minds of children--and adults.

    So this is my all-time favorite fairy tale, although I am writing about quite a few written at that time. There was a movement among these authors--like C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald,and others to embed real mystical thinking into books for children at that time.

    If folks want to follow my next book, my mother's group page on FB is CLARE TURLAY NEWBERRY. Her site keeps getting 'affected' by the host, but it is listed below.

  10. PS Forgot to mention this is the best write up and provision of the illustrations that I've ever found! Am sending it to all my friends and posting on FB. Thank whoever the wonderful person was who did this.

  11. Another person here who thought she was the only one to know this mad and lovely book :)

  12. Splendid! There must be quite a few of us!