The heart of James Stephens’ speculative fiction lies in five works, written over a dozen years, during the most turbulent period of Ireland’s history.
Two distinct strands run through them: Irish mythology and folklore in Irish Fairy Tales (1920), Deirdre (1923) and In the Land of Youth (1924) and the interactions of gods and men in The Crock of Gold (1912) and The Demi-Gods (1914).
Stephens, a colossus in his heyday, is almost forgotten today outside of our airports, where The Crock of Gold lurks, waiting to be snapped up by those kinds of tourist who cherish video-footage of their spouses taken at the leprechaun crossing around the back of Torc Mountain.
This encapsulates part of the reason for his fall; the perceived cod-Oirishery of The Crock of Gold, came to be seen, a la Darby O’Gill, as an insult to a would-be modern, forward-looking independent state.
In reality of course, The Crock of Gold is nothing of the sort; it represents a truly magnificent attempt to write the ultimate fantasy tale of the passing of the old order to the new; of the magic going away. Ultimately it fails, just as the faerie instauration fails, because even today people still cannot see beyond the leprechauns. But it is an heroic failure of the highest order.
The Demi-Gods revisits this territory; the eponymous threesome descending to Earth to visit a tinker and his daughter.
On the Irish mythology and folklore side, Stephens was a considerable scholar and it is his total command of his subject that sets works like Deirdre and In the Land of Youth a country mile apart from all the other volumes of “retellings” that every republican mover and shaker around that time felt it necessary to have on his or her CV. Well that and the fact that he was a very fine writer indeed. Here’s an excerpt from Deirdre (the culmination of her fateful encounter with Naoise):-
They stopped perforce, with that feeling of tremendous discouragement wherein passion sinks back upon itself, where desire ceases and nothing is instant but weariness. His hand yet held her, but it gripped no longer: it lay on her arm a dead weight: she had only to move an inch and it would fall away: she had but to turn and he would not follow her even with his eyes; but the energy which had drained from him flooded into her in one whirling stream, and when his hand fell away hers took up the duty it relinquished.
To my mind, it’s the greatest Irish fantasy novel of all time.
As for the rest of the reason for Stephens’ fall, like so many other staunch republican Protestants, Stephens was marginalised and ultimately excluded by the profoundly Catholic character in which Pearse and his supporters clothed the Rising and its aftermath. It is no wonder that in questionable health and with a young family to support, Stephens threw in the towel and decamped to England in 1925. After a decade-long struggle to earn a living lecturing he later compounded his ‘treachery’ by going to work for the BBC at a time when it was still seen as the mouthpiece of the ‘enemy’.
Postscript: Bitches Have Nothing To Do With It, Mr. Gaiman
Before finishing with Stephens, its worth commenting on a parallel with a current fantasy controversy.
When James Joyce was writing Finnegan’s Wake he made a deal with Stephens (Joyce had just read Deirdre and was hugely impressed by it) to complete it for him, if he (Joyce) should die before finishing it. I don’t believe Joyce was thinking about his readers: all he cared about was safeguarding his literary legacy. Of course the readers get a finished book out of it but that’s nothing to do with the reason why Joyce made the arrangement with Stephens in the first place.
Fast forward ninety years or so to George R.R. Martin; the ‘American Tolkien,’ one of Time‘s top 100 persons a couple of years back and the man more than any other who put the gritty realism and grey ambiguity into fantasy. It’s an entirely legitimate question, therefore, to ask one of such stature what he is doing to plan for the completion of A Song of Ice and Fire if he should die first, thereby safeguarding his literary legacy.
The fact that we can’t ask this question to him, is because it is now inextricably linked with the issue of reader gratification, thanks to an ill-thought-out intervention by respected commentator Neil Gaiman.
The question is nothing to do with bitches, Mr. Gaiman; Martin should be planning for this for the same reason Joyce did and no other – to safeguard his literary legacy. That the fans get their fix too is nothing more than happenstance.
 It achieved notoriety more obliquely, being one of the subject panels of Harry Clarke’s Geneva Window, one of Ireland’s greatest works of art, in any medium and of any era, which was notoriously disowned by the State and now resides in a private collection in Florida.
 The late Terry Wogan spoke of receiving the same vilification almost thirty years later.