The Character Of Heroic Literature by George William Russell

Story type: Essay

Lady Gregory, a fairy godmother, has given to Young Ireland the gift of her Cuchulain of Muirthemne, which should be henceforward the book of its dream. I do not doubt but there will be a great change in the next generation, for the character of many children will have grown to maturity brooding over the memories of heroes who were themselves half children, half demigods. Though the hero tales will have their greatest power over the young, no one mind could measure their depth. They seem simple and primitive, yet they draw us strangely aside from life, and the emotions they awaken are not simple but complex. Here are twenty tales, and they are so alike in imaginative character that they seem all to have poured from one mind; and to these twenty we could add a hundred others, all endlessly fertile in difference of incident, but all seeming to own the same imaginative creator. It was so for many centuries, and then the maker of the song seems to have grown weary, and distinct voices not overladen with the tradition of the ages were heard; and today every one wanders in a path of his own, finding or losing the way, the truth, and the life of art in the free play of his desires. There was something more to cause this later period of diverse utterance than the interruption of other races and the claims of the world upon us. Surely the ancient Egyptian met in Memphis or Thebes as many strangers as we did, but he wept on through many dynasties carving the same face of mystery and rarely altering the peculiar forms which were his inheritance from the craftsmen of a thousand years before. It was not the introduction of something new, but the loss of something which finally vexed the calm of the Sphinx and marred the Phidian beauty which in Greece was a long dream for many generations. It was not because the Dane or Norman came and dwelt among us that the signature of the Sidhe was withdrawn from the Gaelic mind. I do not know how to express this loss otherwise than by saying we appear to have fallen away from our archetype. We find in all the early stories the presence of one being who may be the genius of our land if that old idea of race divinities be a true one. A strange similitude unites all the characters. We infer an interior identity. The same spirit flashes out in hostile clans, and then Cuculain kisses Ferdiad. They all confidently appeal to; it in each other. Maeve flying after the great battle can ask a gift from her conqueror and obtains it. Fand and Emer dispute who shall make the last sacrifice of love and give the beloved to a rival. The conflicts seem half in play or in dream, and we do not know when an awakening of love will disarm the foes. In spite of the bloodshed the heroes seem like children who fight steadily through a mock battle, but the night will see these children at peace, and they will dream with arms around each other in the same cot. No literature ever had a more beautiful heart of childhood in it. The bards could hate no one consistently. If they took away the heroic chivalry from Conchobar in one tale they restored it to him in another. They have the confident trust–and expectation of goodness that children have, who may have suffered punishment, but who come later on and smile on the chastiser. It is this quality which gives the tales their extraordinary charm. I know no other literature which has it to the same degree. I do not like to speculate on the absence of this spirit in our later literature, which was written under other influences. It cannot be because there was a less spiritual life in the apostles than in the bards. We cannot compare Cuculain, the most complete ideal of Gaelic chivalry, with that supreme figure whose coming to the world was the effacement of whole pantheons of divinities, and yet it is true that since the thoughts of men were turned from the old ideals our literature has been filled with a less noble life. I think a due may be found in the withdrawal of thought from nature, the great mother who, is the giver of all life, and without whose life ideals become inoperative and listless dwellers in the heart. The eyes of the ancient Gael were fixed in wonder on the rocks and hills, and the waste places of the earth were piled with phantasmal palaces where the Sidhe sat on their thrones. Everywhere there was life, and as they saw so they felt. To conceive of nature in any way, as beautiful and living, as friendly or hostile, is to receive from her in like measure out of her fullness. With whatever face we approach the mirror a similar face approaches ours. “Let him approach it, saying, ‘This is the Mighty,’ he becomes mighty,” says an ancient scripture, teaching us that as our aspiration is so will be our inspiration and power. Out of this comradeship with earth there came a commingling of natures, and we do not know when we read who are the Sidhe and who are human. The great energies are all in the heroes. They bound to themselves, like the Talkend, the strength of the fire, the brightness of the sun, and the swiftness of the wind. They seem truly the earth-born. The waves respond to their deeds; the elemental creatures respond and there are clashing echoes and allies innumerable, and armies in the air continuing their battles illimitably beyond: a proud race, who felt with bursting heart the heavens were watching them, who defied their gods and exiled them to have free play for their own deeds. A very different humanity indeed from those who have come to walk the earth with humility, who are afraid of heaven and its rulers, and whose dread is the greatest of all sins, for in it is a denial of their own divinity. Surely the sight heroes is more welcome to the King, in whose heaven are sworded seraphim, than the bowed knees and the spirits who make themselves as worms in His sight. In the symbolic expression of our spiritual life the eagle has become a dove brooding peace. Oh, that it might rebecome the eagle and take to the upper airs!

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A generosity and greatness of spirit are in the heroes of the Red Branch, and out of their strength grows a bloom of beauty never fully revealed until Lady Gregory compiled these tales. As we read our eyes are dazzled by strange graces of color flowing over the pages: everywhere there is mystery and magnificence. Procession’s pass by in Druid ritual, kings and queens, and harpers who look like kings. When the wind passes over them and stirs their garments a sweetness comes over the teller of the tale, who felt that delight in draperies blown over shapely forms which is the inspiration of the Winged Victory and many Greek marbles. The bards will not have the hands of those proud people touch anything which is not beautiful. “It was a beautiful chessboard they had, all of white bronze, and the chessmen of gold and silver, and a candlestick of precious stones lighting it.” The wasting of time has spared us a few things to show that this rare and intricate metal work was not a myth, and we are forced by an inexorable logic to accept as mainly true the narration of the pride, the beauty, the generosity, and the large lovable character of the ancient heroes. We may come to realize that, losing their Druid vision of a more shining world mingling with this, we have lost the vision of that life into the likeness of which it is the true labor of the spirit to transform this life. For the Tirnanoge is that Garden where, in the mind of the Lord, the flowers and trees blossomed before they grew in the fields, where man lived in the Golden Age before the outer darkness of the earth was built and he was outcast from Paradise. There is no true art or literature which has not some image of the Golden Life lurking within it, and through the archaic rudeness of these legends the light shines as sunlight through the hoary branches of ancient oaks. Lady Gregory has done her work, as compiler with a judgment which could hardly be too much praised, and she has translated the stories into an idiom which is a reflection of the original Gaelic and is full of charm. We are indebted to her for this labor as much as to any of those who sang to sweeten Ireland’s wrong.

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1902

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