Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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A Forgotten Samhain Classic

It's the Eve of Samhain in the Royal Hall at Cruachan.

The fires burn, the mead flows freely; already people have begun to draw indoors. For this night, of all nights, is indeed dark and full of terrors.

While waiting for the feast to be served, Aillil proposes a feat: Who will dare to tie a withy around the ankle of the corpse that hangs from the gallows on the hill of Cruachan?

One by one the heroes try. One by one, they return in fear and failure.

Then Nera mac Niadhain says: I'll do it.

So begins James Stephen's classic 1924 Celtic Revival novel, In the Land of Youth. Based on the Old Irish epic Echtra Neraí (Nera's Adventure), it tells an exciting tale of love, war, and the Other Side. You'll never forget the burning of Cruachan, seat of kings.

Irish writer James Stephens (1880-1950) is perhaps best-remembered these days for his lyrical novel The Crock of Gold. But In the Land of Youth, while sharing this evocative work's lapidary diction and delicate grace-notes of humor, nonetheless gives Crock a run for its mythic money.

In the Land of Youth reads quickly—you'll really want to find out what happens next—but it's worth slowing down, or even reading aloud, in order to savor the precision and delicacy of Stephens' jewel-like, enameled prose. This is Art Deco Celticism, with all the advantages (and disadvantages) that that phrase implies.

Alas, his description of the inner workings of the world of the Sidhe have not aged well. Too bound to the pop-psychology of his day, they seem dated, precious, and (in this setting) glaringly inauthentic.

But ye gods! His ability to draw character, and to see piercingly into the dark heart of human complexity.

"There's only one thing that a man loves more than he loves a woman," says Maeve.

"And what might that be?" asks Ferdia.

"Another man," says Maeve.

Ferdia thinks immediately of Cuchulain, his beloved heart-friend since boyhood.

But he doesn't say anything.

Maeve's comment is both test and taunt, a dark foreshadowing of what will, and must, be. Eventually, shamed into the act by a scheming, desperate Maeve, Ferdia will meet Cuchulain in hand-to-hand combat, and so die by the hand of the one he loves best in the world.

James Stephens' In the Land of Youth reads like a draught from the Cauldron of Memory. Myself, I read it anew every year at this time.

This Samhain, build a fire, pour some mead, and give In the Land of Youth a read. And better it be if you read it out loud to your friends.

For as A Christmas Carol is to Christmas, so is In the Land of Youth to Samhain.

For the night is dark indeed, and full of terrors.

Above: John Duncan, The Riders of the Sidhe (1911)

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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Haley
    Haley Thursday, 20 October 2016

    Wonderful recommendation, Steven, thank you.

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