“Celtic” and “twilight” — two such pretty words; and when I found them together in a title by W.B. Yeats I simply had to give it a try. When I began reading The Celtic Twilight I was expecting a collection of faerie tales. It proved to be a collection, alright, but it was more a book of articles or scribbles jotted down as and when Yeats got a hold of a story. These stories were mostly reports on what faerie legends and experiences he had gathered from Irish peasants, for the most part. One gets the sense of pride with which Yeats reports his findings, as he explores the grass roots of Irish tradition and superstition.
There is a lot of the Catholic religion mixed up in the stories of the Sidhe, but the poor Irish folk seem only to deem this natural. Yeats says of the Highlanders who share similar folklore, “You have discovered the faeries to be pagan and wicked. You would like to have them all up before the magistrate. In Ireland warlike mortals have gone amongst them, and helped them in their battles, and they in turn have taught men great skill with herbs, and permitted some few to hear their tunes.”
Almost every chapter in this book is not more than two pages long. Some being only the length of half a page or even a quarter. All of these articles are written like newspaper reports and so there seems to be discrepancies in some stories while others were a bit garbled here and there. The last but one chapter, “By the Roadside” was the only ‘story’ in the book, and to me it sounded like a mixture of well-known fairy tales. I was able to identify tales like “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Jack-the-Giant-Killer”, a male version of “Cinderella” and two or three other tales. Again, I’m not sure whether it was my copy or that, in general, this story could have undergone some good editing, but it was interesting enough.
So, then…what did I think of The Celtic Twilight? It was interesting, rather disturbing in some places — I was a little puzzled at first about Yeats’ view on all this folklore, for at times it looked like he did have religious views about them. But these instances were fleeting and most of the time he seemed to extol the virtues of the simple minded peasants that allowed them to experience the faerie world. He sounded regretful of not being able to experience these for himself. I found it eerie at times, as such stories of the real faerie are wont to do, I think. And the book did manage to create the atmosphere for a “celtic twilight”.
Below is a quote that, I think, expresses Yeats’ feelings about his Irish folklore:
The voices melted into the twilight and were mixed into the trees, and when I thought of the words they too melted away, and were mixed with the generations of men. Now it was a phrase, now it was an attitude of mind, an emotional form, that had carried my memory to older verses, or even to forgotten mythologies. I was carried so far that it was as thougth I came to one of the four rivers, and followed it under the wall of Paradise to the roots of the trees of knowledge ad of life. There is no song or story handed down among the ottages that has not words and thoughts to carry one as far, for though one can know but a little of their ascent, one knows that they ascend like medieval genealogies through unbroken dignities to the beginning of the world. Folk art is, indeed, the oldest f the aristocrats of thought, and because it refuses what is passing and trivial, the merely clever and pretty, as certainly as the vulgar and insincere, and because it has gathered into itself the simplest and most unforgettable thoughts of the generations, it is the soil where all great art is rooted. Wherever it is spoken by the fireside, or sung by the roadside, or carved upon the lintel, appreciation of the arts that a single mind gives unity and design to, spreads quickly when its hour is come.
Have you read The Celtic Twilight or anything to do with Irish folklore? What do you think of their faerie lore?