James Stephens: Overview

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Author: Gary Westfahl
Editor: David Pringle
Date: 1996
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 1,155 words

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Although James Stephens can be read and appreciated as a fantasy writer in the modern sense, there are three alternative contexts which may better account for some aspects of his work. First, Stephens is one distinguished practitioner in the briefly flourishing sub-genre known as the adult fairy tale; this explains the jarring combination of childlike innocence and mature realism sometimes found in his stories. Second, Stephens was part of the extraordinary Irish Literary Renaissance of the early 20th century, when a number of writers struggled in various ways to escape the domination of English and European culture to forge a uniquely Irish literary tradition; this explains Stephens's frequent recourse to Irish mythology and folklore. Finally, Stephens always thought of himself primarily as a poet; this explains why his novels may read like anthologies of poems, with bright moments of beauty and wisdom but little sense of the unity and logical connectedness associated with novels.

In Stephens's first and most famous novel, The Crock of Gold, one subplot shows a young Irish maiden, Caitilin, who is first seduced by the Greek god Pan, but later abandons him to be the paramour of the Irish god Angus Og—a clear allegory about the Irish people, first awakened to a new maturity by foreign influences but ultimately obliged and destined to return to their own native traditions. Other aspects of this haunting and elusive novel, however, resist easy interpretation. The protagonists are two Philosophers—whose speeches are an apparently aimless jumble of observations that abruptly veer into relevant insights—and their wives, who live in an isolated collage. When a man takes away a leprechaun's pot of gold and hides it where they cannot retrieve it, the leprechauns kidnap two children in retaliation, until...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420007707