No medals for guessing why I’m choosing this title in this particular week. `The Crock of Gold’ by Irish writer James Stephens was first published in 1912. Paperback copies are available, though some of these reprints are of poor quality. A Kindle edition comes out next week but you can also get `The Crock of Gold’ as a free download via the Gutenberg Project. I now carry `The Crock of Gold’ around on my Ereader to dip into during spare moments. Stephens’ humour and use of language are so delicious that this is a book to savour a few sentences at a time. If you are not careful, you’ll find yourself reading out the best bits to complete strangers. Stephens wrote that `Knowledge becomes lumber in a week; therefore get rid of it’ so I’m passing on my knowledge of this book to you.

Leprecaun alert – if you are definitely allergic to Celtic whimsy, read no further. Like many `English’ people, I am part Celt so I have a high tolerance level for twilight and fairies, and there are plenty of interesting ideas mixed in with the whimsy. If you enjoy getting into philosophical arguments while drinking your beer (or coffee or whatever), this could be the book for you. Stephens drew on a considerable knowledge of Irish folklore and myth and was capable of being hilariously funny and deeply serious about it at the same time. In a foreword to `The Crock of Gold’ the poet Walter de la Mare commented that, `Like half the best books, it is more than a little mad, and crammed full of  life and beauty.’ This short book is certainly stuffed with enough elements for a fantasy epic. There are over-talkative philosophers, bungling policemen, angry fairies, rival gods and talking animals, accusations of murder, disputed gold, and quests for a lost girl and true happiness, and running through it all a grand battle of the sexes. The plot is not easy to describe because `The Crock of Gold’ is more a series of loosely connected scenes and dialogues than a continuous narrative, but here goes…

Two fairy women have married a pair of brothers who are Philosophers `in order to be able to pinch them in bed, but the skins of the Philosophers were so thick, that they did not know that they were being pinched’. Each couple has a child. When the first Philosopher decides that he’s bored because he’s attained all the wisdom he’s capable of understanding, he and his wife up and die, leaving the formidable Thin Woman of Inis Magrath to bring up the two children. The incident which sets the story in motion is a farm cat killing a robin. To avenge the innocent bird, the Leprecauns of Gort na Cloca Mora steal the washing-board of the farmer’s wife. Her husband Meehawl consults the remaining Philosopher who tells Meehawl where to find the Leprecauns’ crock of gold.  Enraged by this, the Leprecauns plot against the Philosopher and Meehawl and their families. Meehawl’s beautiful daughter, Caitlin, who longs for something she can’t yet identify, is lured away by the wild god Pan. The Philosopher thinks that the only way to save her is to fetch Angus Og, the Irish god of love. During his journey to find this god, the Philosopher meets a variety of females who challenge his views on marriage and the place of women. On his return, he’s arrested on a trumped-up charge of  murder. Soon Caitlin has to choose between two divine lovers and the Thin Woman and her children must get past the Three Absolutes to reach the only powers who can save the Philosopher from execution.

Well, that’s the story but the frequent digressions and debates are more important than the plot. There are digressions on such topics as the history of washing, the purposes of sleep and clothes, the anxieties caused by daughters, the Divine Imagination, the limitations of Reason, and why crows have no policemen. Skip them or not as you choose. As for the debates, Stephens will often have you nodding and thinking, `Yes, that’s right’  and then bring on another character who argues the opposite point of view just as convincingly. Some of Stephens’ views may seem out of date, but others are startlingly modern. He proposes that `no living thing can be owned’ and suggests that it is intellectual arrogance to assume that humans are more important than the Earth because `in life there is no greater and no less’.  My own favourite character is the Thin Woman who `could store her anger in those caverns of eternity which open into every soul’. She learns the virtues of forgiving her enemies while her husband the Philosopher comes to believe that `dancing is the first and last duty of man’.  As the Philosopher says of his porridge and life in general, `Nothing is perfect. There are lumps in it.’  If there are lumps in your life, this book may help you to laugh at them. I’m off to Sweden now, so until two weeks time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

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