Celtic Storytellers: Weaving Magic With Words
In my novel, Music of Dragons, my protagonist, Siobhan, a teenage faerie, has a blowout fight with her human boyfriend, Ewan. Furious and hurt, she curses him, “Bí sé sin ‘n’tintha ar Dowan Daerg scrioshar tu!” May the fires in the land of the Red Faeries incinerate you! Later, she talks to her aunt about the argument. As she recounts the incident, Siobhan remembers her parting words to Ewan and begins to worry. Seeking reassurance, she confesses to Aunt Keena, “I cursed him. But it shouldn’t have much effect, right?” After all, I’m not a fully-trained Faerie. I’ve only been through Basic School, so my curses won’t have much more power than a Cinn-gan’s [human’s]. Right?” But her aunt’s words are not comforting. Keena tells Siobhan, “Words, even a Cinn-gan’s, whether blessing or curse, always hold power. Your lack of training will not stop them from having consequences.”
The Celts knew—and still know—the power of words, especially the spoken word. That’s the reason the bards, the wielders of the word, held a position in Celtic society second only to that of a king’s. (Click here to find out more about bards). Even though the official bardic order has been eliminated, respect for the word in Celtic culture has not. There is a body of Celtic folklore and mythology which has been preserved, passed down from generation to generation for about 2,000 years. While some of it has now been written down, for most of those two millennia, the lore was kept alive in oral tradition. This, in part, is because of the Celtic appreciation for the skillful and artful use of words but also because, simply, everyone loves a great story!
A person who can talk his or her way in or out of anything or who can flatter, charm, and persuade others through sweet talk is said to have the gift of blarney or to have kissed the blarney stone. This ability is most strongly associated with the Irish. This is reasonable since there actually is a blarney stone. It is located at Blarney Castle in County Cork, Ireland. The official website for the castle, https://blarneycastle.ie/pages/kiss-the-blarney-stone , claims that, if you kiss the stone (which is no easy feat—see the website for details) you will acquire “the gift of eloquence.” I am neither confirming nor denying the veracity of that statement. You can decide for yourself. It is true, however, that there certainly have been Irish people who’ve used words exquisitely. Here are just a few notable Irish storytellers:
Bram Stoker of Dracula fame (Didn’t know he was Irish, did ya? C’mon admit it. You didn’t. Nah, ya didn’t! Well, maybe you did and I apologize.)
Oscar Wilde, the witty and great, if controversial, playwright, (who also wrote novel The Picture of Dorian Gray in addition to his plays, such as “The Importance of Being Earnest”
C. S. Lewis: Hah! Caught you again. Thought he was English, didn’t you? (Well, if you’re a huge fan, you may have known better but most people think of him as an English author.) All right, admittedly he lived in England for most of his life but he was born in Belfast, Ireland. I can hear you saying, “Well then, that makes him British since Northern Ireland is a part of the U. K.” In order to discuss that, we’d have to talk about England’s invasion and occupation of Ireland in the 13th century, the Easter Rising, the War for Independence, Partition, and so forth, and since this blog is not about politics, let’s not. The fact is C. S. Lewis is Irish by birth and, according to https://www.claddaghdesign.com/ireland/great-irish-writers/ , “throughout his life, he retained a strong sense of his Irish identity.” Let’s just leave it there. So, what has he written? I’m surprised by the question but, among other things, he wrote The Chronicles of Narnia. If you are not familiar with the novels, why the heck not? I’m sorry. Let me rephrase: Please read them. You won’t be sorry.
Jonathan Swift, who is probably best known for the four-part satirical Gulliver’s Travels, a great piece of fiction which gave us Lilliputians and Laputians. I have my own favorite, though, which is Swift’s satirical essay, “A Modest Proposal,” in which the narrator suggests that the Irish Problem could be solved if the English simply decreased the Irish population by eating their children (he recommends the age of exactly one year old as the best time for slaughter and consumption). Again, the piece is satirical.
Robert Burns: As I write, I can feel my paternal grandparents, who were from Scotland (God rest their souls), nudging me to get a Scottish Celt onto this list of artists of the word. And who better than the National Bard of Scotland, Robbie Burns? You know his work. He’s the guy who wrote “Auld Lang Syne” (among many other poems) and he is so loved in Scotland that they even have a national holiday for him on January 25th. Talk about the power of words!
While there are so many others who could go on this list, I will finish it with my three idols, all Irish: James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, and Seamus Heaney. I’ve left them for last because I want to end with the best and because I want to give examples of their word magic.
James Joyce: author of “The Dead,” Odysseus, and Finnegan’s Wake, among other works. I have mixed feelings about Joyce because while his brilliance is undeniable, in his final two masterpieces, Odysseus and Finnegan’s Wake, his tendency to show off his skill and genius in a way which is obviously aimed at literary scholars gets in the way of his storytelling. (I encourage you to argue with me in the comments.) If you are new to Joyce, I strongly recommend introducing yourself to his work by reading his short story “The Dead.” It is a sad story and a glorious piece of writing. Its plot can be followed easily but it also has a depth of meaning achieved through abundant metaphor, symbolism, and excellent characterization. The writing is so accessible, in fact, that the richness of it can be missed if it is given only a superficial skim through. Take, for example, the story’s closing paragraph in which Gabriel, the protagonist, is sitting in his hotel room, gazing out the window at the snow falling outside:
It had begun to snow again. He watched the silver flakes, sleepy and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward…snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, falling softly into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
As you read the paragraph, I’m sure you noticed the poetry of it. Now read it again but this time out loud. Do you hear its music? Part of the power of the spoken word, as the Celts knew, is its sound, its rhythm, which weaves a spell and enchants its listeners.
William Butler Yeats was a folklorist but he was a mystic and a poet as well. His words stir my soul in a way I cannot articulate. Although I am a scholar of writing and literature, reading his poetry is not an academic activity; it is an artistic experience like listening to a piece by J. S. Bach or Mozart. Here is the second verse of his poem “A Prayer for My Daughter”:
I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream;
Imagining in excited reverie
That the future years had come,
Dancing to a frenzied drum,
Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.
Here is a link where you can read the poem in its entirety: https://poets.org/poem/prayer-my-daughter
Finally, Seamus Heaney, a poet who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. The Poetry Foundation’s website says he won "’for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past’" (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/seamus-heaney ). His “Honeymoon Flight” is among my favorite poems. It appears on the surface to be nothing more than a description of the journey of a nervous plane traveler, but on closer reading, an argument can be made that it is an extended metaphor which compares marriage to a sometimes turbulent plane flight during which, at times, travelers “can only trust.” But the poem which almost always makes me cry is Heaney’s “The Strand at Lough Beg” which he wrote in response to the death of his second cousin from sectarian violence. He dedicated the poem to his cousin, whose ghost comes back to haunt years later in Heaney’s poem “Station Island.” In that poem, the figure of his cousin’s ghost accuses Heaney of writing a poem about his death that is too lovely. To paraphrase, the cousin asks, “I got murdered and you wrote a pretty little poem about it? Yeah, a lot of good that did.” The words and images of the first poem are quite powerful though. Here is the final verse:
…we work our way through squeaking sedge
Drowning in dew. Like a dull blade with its edge
Honed bright, Lough Beg half shines under the haze.
I turn because the sweeping of your feet
Has stopped behind me, to find you on your knees
With blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes,
Then kneel in front of you in brimming grass
And gather up cold handfuls of the dew
To wash you, cousin. I dab you clean with moss
Fine as drizzle out of a low cloud.
I lift you under the arms and lay you flat.
With rushes that shoot green again, I plait
Green scapulars to wear over your shroud.
You can read the whole poem here: https://www.magyarulbabelben.net/works/en/Heaney,_Seamus-1939/The_Strand_at_Lough_Beg?interfaceLang=en
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