James Stephens’ ‘The Crock of Gold’

First posted December 21, 2011

A truly unique novel, The Crock of Gold (1912) is a mixture of philosophy, Irish folklore and the never-ending battle of the sexes, written with charm, humour and good grace. It achieved enduring popularity, and was frequently reprinted throughout the author’s lifetime.

NB: A beautiful book! There’s a free copy available online. Read the first page:

IN the centre of the pine wood called Coilla Doraca there lived not long ago two Philosophers. They were wiser than anything else in the world except the Salmon who lies in the pool of Glyn Cagny into which the nuts of knowledge fall from the hazel bush on its bank. He, of course, is the most profound of living creatures, but the two Philosophers are next to him in wisdom. Their faces looked as though they were made of parchment, there was ink under their nails, and every difficulty that was submitted to them, even by women, they were able to instantly resolve. The Grey Woman of Dun Gortin and the Thin Woman of Inis Magrath asked them the three questions which nobody had ever been able to answer, and they were able to answer them. That was how they obtained the enmity of these two women which is more valuable than the friendship of angels.

The Grey Woman and the Thin Woman were so incensed at being answered that they married the two 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 they were being pinched. They repaid the fury of the women with such tender affection that these vicious creatures almost expired of chagrin, and once, in a very ecstasy of exasperation, after having been kissed by their husbands, they uttered the fourteen hundred maledictions which comprised their wisdom, and these were learned by the Philosophers who thus became even wiser than before. In due process of time two children were born of these marriages.

They were born on the same day and in the same hour, and they were only different in this, that one of them was a boy and the other one was a girl. Nobody was able to tell how this had happened, and, for the first time in their lives, the Philosophers were forced to admire an event which they had been unable to prognosticate; but having proved by many different methods that the children were really children, that what must be must be, that a fact cannot be controverted, and that what has happened once may happen twice, they described the occurrence as extraordinary but not unnatural, and submitted peacefully to a Providence even wiser than they were…

Download a free pdf copy 

Published in 1912, this is a glorious book. By turns comical, witty, philosophical, spiritual, and whimsical – sometimes in a single sentence – it tells of the train events set in motion when a philosopher gives advice to a farmer that leads to some Leprecauns losing their crock of gold. This flimsy vehicle is what carries what is, essentially, a celebration of Ireland. We meet philosophers (Druids) and their wives, free-spirited children who play in the woods, Pan (who is sent packing back to his Mediterranean stomping ground), Leprecauns, the Shee, and many of the old gods of Ireland. We also meet an array of mortal characters and, of course, policeman. No story of this nature about Ireland would be complete without its policeman – a race for whom there was, clearly, some affection if not much respect. In that, it is a natural precursor to the work of Flann O’Brien.

So far, it sounds somewhat light. Yet the story is infused with deep philosophical and spiritual insights, offered up in the form of discussion and illustration. And the closer these get to the realities of the modern world (in which this is set), personified by ‘the city’, the more sombre and disturbing they become. The book is beautifully written. Lyrical, fluid, and highly assured. Stephens was a poet and novelist whose work is steeped in the folklore and mythology of his native land. Although little known these days, his literary worth was recognised in his lifetime, not just by the public, but his contemporaries in the literary world. Indeed, Joyce asked Stephens to complete 
 Finnegans Wake if Joyce was unable to do so.. 

From a review by Graeme Talboys