And, as we read of their future fate, we are filled with the solitude and mystery, the ruthlessness and beauty of the ocean. Even its gentleness on quiet days enters from the tale into our imagination. Then, too, the mountain-glory and the mountain-gloom are again and again imaginatively described and loved.
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The windings and recesses, the darkness and brightness of the woods and the glades therein, enchant the Fenians even when they are in mortal danger. And the waters of the great lakes, the deep pools of the rivers, the rippling shallows, the green banks, the brown rushing of the torrents, are all alive in the prose and song of Ireland.
How deep was the Irish love of these delightful things is plain from their belief that "the place of the revealing of poetry was always by the margin of water. Lovely were the places whence Art and Knowledge came. Then, as to all good landscape lovers, the beasts, birds, and insects of Nature were dear to these ancient people. One of the things Finn most cared for was not only his hounds, but the "blackbird singing on Letterlee"; and his song, on page , in the praise of May, tells us how keen was his observant eye for animal life and how much it delighted him.
The same minute realisation of natural objects is illustrated in this book when King Iubdan explains to the servant the different characteristics of the trees of the forest, and the mystic elements that abide in them. It was a habit, even of Teutonic poets, to tell of the various trees and their uses in verse, and Spenser and Drayton have both done it in later times.
But few of them have added, as the Irish story does, a spiritual element to their description, and made us think of malign or beneficent elements attached to them. The woodbine, and this is a strange fancy, is the king of the woods. The rowan is the tree of the magicians, and its berries are for poets. The bramble is inimical to man, the alder is full of witchcraft, and the elder is the wood of the horses of the fairies.
Into every tree a spiritual power is infused; and the good lords of the forest are loved of men and birds and bees. Thus the Irish love of nature led them to spiritualise, in another way than mythical, certain things in nature, and afterwards to humanise, up to a certain point, the noble implements wrought by human skill out of natural materials.
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And this is another element in all these stories, as it is in the folk-lore also of other lands. In the tale of the Sons of Turenn, the stones of the wayside tell to Lugh the story of the death of his father Kian, and the boat of Mananan, indwelt by a spirit, flies hither and thither over the seas, obeying the commands, even the thought, of its steersman. The soul of some famed spears is so hot for slaughter that, when it is not being used in battle, its point must stand in a bath of blood or of drowsy herbs, lest it should slay the host.
The swords murmur and hiss and cry out for the battle; the shield of the hero hums louder and louder, vibrating for the encouragement of the warrior. Even the wheels of Cuchulain's chariot roar as they whirl into the fight.
This partial life given to the weapons of war is not specially Celtic. Indeed, it is more common in Teutonic than in Celtic legend, and it seems probable that it was owing to the Norsemen that it was established in the Hero tales of Ireland.
This addition of life, or of some of the powers of life, to tree and well and boulder-stone, to river and lake and hill, and sword and spear, is common to all mythologies, but the special character of each nation or tribe modifies the form of the life-imputing stories. In Ireland the tree, the stream were not dwelt in by a separate living being, as in Grecian story; the half-living powers they had were given to them from without, by the gods, the demons, the fairies; and in the case of the weapons, the powers they had of act or sound arose from the impassioned thoughts and fierce emotions of their forger or their wielder, which, being intense, were magically transferred to them.
The Celtic nature is too fond of reality, too impatient of illusion, to believe in an actual living spirit in inanimate things. At least, that is the case in the stories of the Hero and the Fenian Cycles. What the Irish of the Heroic, and still more of the Fenian Cycle, did make in their imagination was a world, outside of themselves, of living spiritual beings, in whose actuality they fully believed, and in whom a great number of them still believe.
A nation, if I may use this term, dwelt under the sea. Another dwelt in the far island of the ocean, the Isle of the Ever-Young. Another dwelt in the land, in the green hills and by the streams of Ireland; and these were the ancient gods who had now lost their dominion over the country, but lived on, with all their courtiers and warriors and beautiful women in a country underground. As time went on, their powers were dwarfed, and they became small of size, less beautiful, and in our modern times are less inclined to enter into the lives of men and women.
But the Irish peasant still sees them flitting by his path in the evening light, or dancing on the meadow round the grassy mound, singing and playing strange melodies; or mourns for the child they have carried away to live with them and forget her people, or watches with fear his dreaming daughter who has been touched by them, and is never again quite a child of this earth, or quite of the common race of man.
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These were the invisible lands and peoples of the Irish imagination; and they live in and out of many of the stories. Cuchulain is lured into a fairy-land, and lives for more than a year in love with Fand, Mananan's wife. Into another fairy-land, through zones of mist, Cormac, as is told here, was lured by Mananan, who now has left the sea to play on the land.
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Etain, out of the immortal land, is born into an Irish girl and reclaimed and carried back to her native shore by Midir, a prince of the Fairy Host. Ethne, whose story also is here, has lived for all her youth in the court of Angus, deep in the hill beside the rushing of the Boyne. These stories are but a few out of a great number of the loves and wars between the men and women of the human and the fairy races.
Curiously enough, as the stories become less ancient, the relations between men and the fairies are more real, more close, even more affectionate. Finn and the Fianna seem to be almost in daily companionship with the fairy host—much nearer to them than the men of the Heroic Cycle are to the gods. They interchange love and music and battle and adventure with one another. They are, for the most part, excellent friends; and their intercourse suffers from no doubt. It is as real as the intercourse between Welsh and English on the Borderland. There was nothing illusive, nothing merely imaginary, in these fairy worlds for the Irish hero or the Irish people.
They believed the lands to be as real as their own, and the indwellers of fairyland to have like passions with themselves. Finn is not a bit surprised when Vivionn the giantess sits beside him on the hill, or Fergus when King Iubdan stands on his hand; or St Patrick when Ethne, out of fairyland, dies on his breast, or when he sees, at his spell, Cuchulain, dead some nine hundred years, come forth out of the dark gates of Sheol, high in his chariot, grasping his deadly spear, driven as of old by his well-loved charioteer, drawn by the immortal steeds through the mist, and finally talking of his deeds and claiming a place in the Christian heaven—a place that Patrick yields to him.
The invisible worlds lived, loved, and thought around this visible world, and were, it seems, closer and more real to the Celtic than to other races. But it was not only these agreeable and lovely folk in pleasant habitations whom the Irish made, but also spirits of another sort, of lesser powers and those chiefly malignant, having no fixed dwelling-place, homeless in the air and drifting with it, embodying the venomous and deadly elements of the earth and the angers and cruelty of the sea, and the hypocrisy of them all—demons, some of whom, like the stepmother of the children of Lir, have been changed from men or women because of wicked doings, but the most part born of the evil in Nature herself.
They do what harm they can to innocent folk; they enter into, support, and direct—like Macbeth's witches—the evil thoughts of men; they rejoice in the battle, in the wounds and pain and death of men; they shriek and scream and laugh around the head of the hero when he goes forth, like Cuchulain, to an unwearied slaughter of men.
They make the blight, the deadly mist, the cruel tempest. To deceive is their pleasure; to discourage, to baffle, to ruin the hero is their happiness.
Some of them are monsters of terrific aspect who abide in lakes or in desolate rocks, as the terrible tri-formed horse whom Fergus mac Leda conquered and by whom he died. Naturally, as a link between these supernatural worlds and the natural world, there arose a body of men and women in Irish legend who, by years of study, gained a knowledge of, and power over, the supernatural beings, and used these powers for hurt to the enemies of their kingdom, or for help to their own people.
Some were wise, learned, and statesmanlike, and used their powers for good. These were the high Druids, and every king had a band of them at his court and in his wars. They practiced what the Middle Ages called white magic. Others were wizards, magicians, witches, who, like the children of Cailitin, the foes of Cuchulain, or the three mutilated women whom Maev educated in evil craft to do evil to her foes, or the dread band that deceived Cuchulain into his last ride of death, practised black magic—evil, and the ministers of evil.
Magic, and the doing of it, runs through the whole of Irish story-telling, and not only into pagan but also into Christian legend; for it was easy to change the old gods into devils, to keep the demonic creatures as demons, to replace the wise Druids by the priests and saints, and the wizards by the heretics who gave themselves to sorcery.
Thus the ancient supernaturalism of the Irish has continued, with modern modifications, to the present day. The body of thought is much the same as it was in the days of Conor and Finn; the clothing is a bit different. Another characteristic of the stories, especially in the mythological period, is the barbaric brutality which appears in them.
Curiously mingled with this, in direct contrast, is their tenderness. These extreme contrasts are common in the Celtic nature. A Gael, whether of Ireland or the Western Isles, will pass in a short time from the wildest spirits, dancing and singing and drinking, into deep and grim depression—the child of the present, whether in love or war; and in the tales of Ireland there is a similar contrast between their brutality and their tenderness. The sudden fierce jealousy and the pitiless cruelty of their stepmother to the children of Lir is set over against the exquisite tenderness of Fionnuala, which pervades the story like an air from heaven.
The noble tenderness of Deirdre, of Naisi and his brothers, in life and death, to one another, is lovelier in contrast with the savage and treacherous revenge of Conor. The great pitifulness of Cuchulain's fight with his dear friend Ferdia, whom he is compelled to slay; the crowning tenderness of Emer's recollective love in song before she dies on Cuchulain's dead body, are in full contrast with the savage hard-heartedness and cruelties of Maev, and with the ruthless slaughters Cuchulain made of his foes, out of which he seems often to pass, as it were, in a moment, into tenderness and gracious speech.
Even Finn, false for once to his constant courtesy, revenges himself on Dermot so pitilessly that both his son and grandson cry shame upon him. Of course this barbaric cruelty is common to all early periods in every nation; and, whenever fierce passion is aroused, to civilised nations also. What is remarkable in the Irish tales is the contemporary tenderness. The Vikings were as savage as the Irish, but the savagery is not mingled with the Irish tenderness. At last, when we pass from the Hero Cycle into the Cycle of Finn, there is scarcely any of the ancient brutality to be found in the host of romantic stories which gather round the chivalry of the Fenians.
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There are other characteristics of these old tales on which I must dwell. The first is the extra-ordinary love of colour. This is not a characteristic of the early German, English or Scandinavian poems and tales. Its remarkable presence in Scottish poetry, at a time when it is scarcely to be found in English literature, I have traced elsewhere to the large admixture of Celtic blood in the Lowlands of Scotland.
In early Irish work it is to be found everywhere. In descriptions of Nature, which chiefly appear in the Fenian Cycle and in Christian times, colour is not as much dwelt on as we should expect, for nowhere that I have seen is it more delicate and varied than under the Irish atmosphere.
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Yet, again and again, the amber colour of the streams as they come from the boglands, and the crimson and gold of the sunsetting, and the changing green of the trees, and the blue as it varies and settles down on the mountains when they go to their rest, and the green crystal of the sea in calm and the dark purple of it in storm, and the white foam of the waves when they grow black in the squall, and the brown of the moors, and the yellow and rose and crimson of the flowers, and many another interchanging of colour, are seen and spoken of as if it were a common thing always to dwell on colour.