The Crock of Gold
Originally published in 1912, this classic of modern Irish literature was written by an Irish poet and mystic, James Stephens. The story is a fairy tale about leprecauns, a beautiful maiden, a Celtic god, a distressed and displaced Pan, a philosopher, and others. Stephans has written a unique sort of tale. I shall not try to describe the story to you (which you can read for yourself), but I'd like instead to discuss a really unusual aspect of this book.
Most fiction can be read in either of two ways - either analytically as "literature" or just for fun, following the story without deeper thought. While this book can, with a little concentration, be read either of those ways, it is very difficult to avoid reading it in yet a third way. Stephans, like many Irishmen, has a musical sense of language. He uses his sense of rhythm and other poetical skills to induce an altered state of consciousness in the reader.
Into this altered state, he introduces philosophical concepts and archetypal images so thick and fast that the conscious mind (which hasn't realized that Stephans is really not talking to it) bounces blithely along having fun with the story, thinking about some of the ideas, and laughing at the humor. Meanwhile, the unconscious is thoroughly stirred and stimulated. He speaks to these deeper levels of consciousness of compassion, love, loneliness, sorrow, pity, godhood, joy, temptation, fate and free will, life, death, magic, courage, and the mystical experience.
In fact, reading this book is the closest thing that I know to an induced mystical experience. The after effects are much the same - one feels profoundly affected and is unable to articulate exactly how or why one feels that way, one sees the world as it is more vividly, one sees the essential magic of this world even in its most mundane aspects, and one is left with a feeling of compassion, of joy, and of the marvel and richness of life. Unless, of course, one doesn't like the book.
I have purchased many copies of this book and given many of them away. Some of them have been given back to me - not always politely. Many of us resist (for any of several reasons) sliding into the altered state of consciousness in which we can experience Stephen's world. Some of us even get angry with the author for trying to seduce us into this particular reality, and we probably do not even know why we are angry. But some of us love the book with all our hearts. I know of no way to tell how a person will respond (and I'm supposed to be psychic) until he tries it. An interesting litmus test for one's friends - if only I knew for certain what it tested!
If I had to choose one and only one book to take to a desert isle, this is the one - simply because of the way it stimulates me. Everytime I read it new thoughts and insights come burbling up out of my unconscious mind, fizzing and sparkling, lighting up my dreams and my waking thoughts.
The Crock of Gold is often available in nicely illustrated editions in secondhand bookstores (at a price). It was, last I knew, also published in paperback by Collier Books, a division of Macmillan.
Reviewed by Jesa Macbeth, who would love to hear from you, especially if you too have enjoyed this book.
This review is copyright by Jessica Macbeth.
© All rights reserved, 1983.
It first appeared in Crann Beathadh, August, 1983, the journal of the OAS.
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