The Works of "Fiona Macleod", Volume V, The Sunset of Old Tales


They asked me if I had seen a white fawn in my dreams, and whether the trees of the secret valley had advised me to love."--CHATEAUBRIAND, Atala.

A friend wrote to me some time ago to say that he had seen a quaint tale in old Scots called "Orpheo and Heurodys." I imagine this to be the reprint in Laing's Remains of Ancient Scottish Poetry. But, also, he asked if I had come upon any Gaelic variant of the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. I had not, nor have I. True, I have heard that a tale of one Heurodys has been told, now here, now there. But I have not met any who has heard it told. That a variant of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice survives, however, seems fairly certain. But one would suspect a modern derivation, if it were too pat and retained too strong a savour of the original. There can be an erring on the other side also, however. The late ferrymaster at Iona once told an English lady who was seeking for folklore (and made a book of her strange gleanings, for she had a singular method of gathering, in that she would tell a tale and then ask if the listener had ever heard of its like) that he had a tale that would interest her; for, he said, though it was not of a king's son in the ancient days who went to hell to seek his love, his story was one of Christina Ross, who believed she was loved by the prince of darkness, and one day, sure enough, she was seen no more. At that, her lover, Rory M'Killop, the piper from Mull, disappeared too. But months on months later he came again, and said he had been in Gehenna; and that he saw Christina and told her to follow his piping and all would be well, but if she stopped to take sup or bite, or called to him that he should once look back, it would be o'er the hills an' far away he would be, and she forlorn for evermore. And the M'Killop had played well, as he himself averred; none ever better. But Kirsty Ross had stopped to pull a fine red apple from a branch, and, forgetting, had called to him, so that he had looked back-and the next moment there was a great gulf between them, he on the edge of the world again, and she there for ever, with a heap o' dust in her hand.

And when I asked him afterwards why he had told such a farrago of nonsense, for I knew he had but given tongue to the moment's whim, he said, "What harm in that now? . . . for sure the lady had her story as she wanted, and as for the truth, well, didn't Rory M'Killop of Heiskir go off with Kirsty Ross, and come back a year later, saying he had been in The Americas, and his wife dead now, God rest her."

But I have wondered often if the ancient Gaelic tale of Oisin and Niamh--the later-life tale of the Son of Fionn and his otherworld love, in the days of his broken years and gathered sorrows--has not in it the heart of the old Greek story. Rather, it may have in it, not an echo, but like the strain of the primitive mythopoeic imagination: as the featherwrack on the rocky shores of Ithaka and that gathered on Ultima Thule are one and the same.

For Oisin, too, went to the otherworld to gather love, and to bring back his youth; but even as Orpheus had to relinquish Eurydice and youth and love, because he looked to take away with him what AidŰneus had already gathered to be his own, so Oisin, the Orpheus of the Gael, had to come away from the place of defeated dreams, and see again the hardness and bitterness of the hitherworld, with age and death as the grey fruit on the tree of life. And if the end of the one is hidden--for some say he was slain by the jealous gods, who love not that any soul should whisper the secret of their mysteries, and some that he was destroyed by the infuriated bacchanals, and some that he wandered lonely till his sorrow came over him like snow, so that he lay down beneath it and slept and was no more seen of men--so too is hidden the end of the other. For Oisin did not dwell evermore in the pleasant land whither his youth had gone and he to seek it, but came back to find the world grown old, and all he had loved below the turf, and the taunts of the monks of Patrick in his ears, and the bell of Christ ringing in the glens and upon the leas. Nor does any know of his death, though the Gaels of the North believe that he looked his last across the grey seas from Drumadoon in Arran, where that Avalon of the Gael lies between the waters of Argyll and the green Atlantic wave.

It may well be that the old Greek tale of Orpheus seeking Eurydice in the kingdom of things ended and gathered, and the old Gaelic tale of Oisin and Niamh, and the mediaeval tale of Ponce da Leon, and the folk-tale (told me again, for in one form or another. I have heard it often, a year-back on green Lismore) of the shepherd of the isles who loved a soulless, smiling woman of the otherworld and followed his fay into the darkness of the earth below a leafless thorn, and was lost to the world for months, till he was seen one May-day walking among the yellow broom crowned with hawthorn and with a rowan branch in his hand, smiling and dumb, and with eyes as cold as blue water--it may well be that these legendary tales are but the ever-changing mortal utterance of what is unchanging, the varying accent of the unvarying desire of the soul, to recapture that which has gone away upon the wind, or to take from the brows of the wind of what is to come the secret coronals of strange blossom wet still with immortal dews. It may well be that each is but an expression of the need for youth, which is the passion of life, and the instinct of the imagination to breathe itself into a passionate moment of emotion, and the impulse of all the emotions and all the passions.

Orpheus loved, and Eurydice was gathered untimely as a flower in its beauty; but are we not all lovers as Orpheus was, loving what is gone from us for ever, and seeking it vainly in the solitudes and wilderness of the mind, and crying to Eurydice to come again ? And are we not all foolish as Orpheus was, hoping by the agony of love and the ecstasy of will to win back Eurydice; and do we not all fail, as Orpheus failed, because we forsake the way of the otherworld for the way of this world?

Many of us, do we not love Niamh, and come again from enchantment, and find all things grown old, the apples of Avalon become sere without and full of dust within? Many of us, do we not follow a fay who has stolen our joy, to go crowned a brief while with illusions, or to hold in nerveless hands the disenchanted wand of the imagination? Many of us, are we not continually adventuring upon a quest as futile as that of Ponce da Leon, who, for the sake of a dream, was blind to the other founts of youth that were within his reach, and so forsook all that he might cross the world to find what was in his own mind?

Whether the story of Oisin, the Gaelic Orpheus, be a wanderer from archaic mythology, or arose clanless among the Gaelic hills--from moonseed, as is said of the tufted canna that floats its fairy snow-beards on the moorland air--matters little. The tale, at least, has a beauty that is certainly its own. Oisin, also, was the son of one who loved a woman of the deathless folk; for as the Thracian king OEagrus loved Calliope, of the divine race, so Fionn, the Agamemnon of the Gael, loved one of the Hidden People--a daughter of the people of the mounds, as we would say, of the Sidhe. Each became the arch-poet of his race: both were taught and inspired by divine genius, the Thracian by Apollo, the Gael by Angus of the Sunlocks--Angus Og, the Balder of the west.

The dwellers in the underworld and all the great kings and lords in Hades knew the enchantment of the lute of Orpheus; and when Oisin went to the otherworld with Niamh, the sleeping kings and the spellbound heroes and all the secret clans of Midir were thrilled with wonder, and rejoiced with proud laughter. The one went out with the Argonauts, and crossed the foam of the Symplegades, and beheld war as a pageant: the other went with the clans of the Fianna, and crossed the wild waters of the Moyle, and at Moytura saw great tides of spears and swords flashing upon a sea of red, and beheld nations meet and dwindle and perish, so that when the sun set it was as though it dragged away the land in great cloths of crimson, dripping like a veil over the untraversed sea and all the battleworn shores of the west.

Both loved with great, unforgetting love, and in the end knew weariness and death: and the one, it is said, died in a Thracian valley, calling upon his lost love in the underworld; and the other it is said, died by Drumadoon in the isle of Arran of Argyll, old and blind, with his hand in the hand of Malveen, but on his lips this sigh to his long lost, forbidden love . . . . O Niamh, thy kisses were sweet as the blue joyous wine of the wave to the Sea-wind.

Some of the oral legends have it that the mother of Oisin was a mortal, bewitched by a woman of the Sidhe: others, that she was herself Fionn's leannan-shee, or fairy-love . . . and I have heard her called Niamh, Mošn, Liban, and other sweet perilous names.

But the common legend* is that Fionn, wearied of his white love, and wedded a daughter of a great lord of the Ultonians. Then "the other" put the spell of the Fathfith on her, so that she was changed to a hind of the hill.


*So well summarized, in particular, by Mr. Alasdair Carmichael--and an idea of how difficult a summary sometimes is may be gained from the fact that the late Mr. Campbell of Tiree had gathered and sent to Mr. Carmichael no fewer than fourteen variants of the First Song of Oisin, the Song to his Hind-Mother.


When her hour was come, she swam the deep water of Loch-nan-'ceall that is near Arisaig in West Argyll, to the little isle in it that is called Sanndraigh.

And there her child and Fionn's child was born. When the swoon of the birthing was past, she forgot, and that of her which was a hind licked the brow of her young. Then she remembered, and licked no more; but, looking, saw that though the enchantment lay upon her still, the spell was broken for her little son. But hair like a fawn's hair grew upon the brow she had licked: and that is why the youngest and fairest of Fionn's sons was given the name of Oisin, the Fawn.

The child was taken to his father's DŻn, and the hind leapt away through the bracken, and swam the loch, and took to the hills--for the fear of Bran and Luath and Breacleit, Fionn's great hounds, was upon her.

Oisin and his mother did not meet again for years upon years. One day, when passing from boyhood to youth, he went with the hunters to the hill of the mountain-deer, but because of a mist he strayed and found himself at last alone and in a solitary place, a green glen set among leaning blue hills, with water running from a place of high piled rocks. He saw a hind pasturing there, more graceful and beautiful than any deer he had ever seen: so great was its beauty that he looked at it as a girl who had never seen an image in water might look at her mirrored face in a pool. Then the spirit of the huntsman stirred within him, and he lifted his spear. The hind looked at him, with sad wistful eyes, brown as hill-water, and slowly he lowered the spear.

"Thrust me not with thy spear, Oisin,"said the hind, "for I am thy mother that bore thee on the isle Sanndraigh in Loch-nan-'ceall. Alone I see thee, and hungry and weary. Come back with me now to my home, fawn of my heart."

They went slowly, side by side, across the green grass to a great rock that in slope was the height of nine men, and was smooth as the blade of a sword. The wife of Fionn breathed upon it, and a hollow was come, and when they had gone in there was no hollow but only a great rock with a slope that was in size the height of nine men and was as smooth as the blade of a sword.

Then, to his exceeding joy, Oisin saw that his mother was spellbound no more, but was a woman, and lovely and young. When they had kissed long with great love, shegave him food to eat and sweet heather-ale to drink, and then sang songs of a music sweeter than any he had ever heard.

For three days it was thus with them, with the sleep of peace at night, where was no night, and the waking of joy at morn, where was no morn, but where Time lay asleep, as the murmur of the unresting sea in the curved hollows of a shell.

Then Oisin remembered Fionn and the hunters, and said he would go out to see them, and set their sorrow at rest. But before he went out of that spellbound place he made a song for his mother, the first of the songs of Oisin, that would be a sian to guard her from the hounds and spears of Fionn and his hunters. Then once more the hollow opened in the smooth cliff of the great rock, and he was in the glen again among the blue hills, and saw a kestrel flying at a great height as though scorning the spread greenness of the land and the spread greyness of the wrinkled sea. And when Oisin was come again to the DŻn of Fionn, there was great wonder as well as great joy, for it was not three hours as it seemed, nor yet three days, as he thought, but three years, that he had been in the secret place of the rocks, and known the food and drink and music of enchantment.

In truth, this tale, as the tale of the other Orpheus, is but an ancient and familiar strain which is the burthen or refrain of unnumbered songs of the spirit, in every race, in every age: as in every literature, in every age, one may hear the same sigh as in the old Scots song:

"For I'm wearied wi'hunting, An' fain would lie doon."

These old myth-covering tales--whether we call them Greek or Aryan or what else--are as the grass that will grow in any land: and the grass of the Vale of Tempe or on the slope of Helicon does not differ from the grass in green Aghadoe or that on the scarps of Hecla by the Hebrid seas. It was but the other day I told an eager listener a tale of one Faruane (Fear-uaine, a "green man") who lived, "in the old ancient days" in a great oak, and had so lived for generationsfor a honeycomb of ages, as the phrase runs and did nothing but watch the clouds sail above the branches and the shadows glide between the tree-boles, and live on sunlight and dew. Then one day, as he was walking lightly on the moss, he saw another world come into the old untroubled wood, and that "world" was a woman. She was young as Niamh the undying, and beautiful as Emer the fair, and bewitching as Liban of the spells; and Faruane grew weary of his calm immortal dream, and longed unwittingly for sorrow and death, for he did not know these companions of the soul, nor even that he longed, nor could he know that a soul was other than a perishable thing of the earth as he himself was. So he moved softly in the sun-warmed dusk of the branches, and came upon the girl (whose name was Mošn) among the fern where she stood like a fawn with wide eyes. He was too beautiful for her to fear, and too beautiful for her not to love, and though Mošn knew that to give herself in love to a wood-spirit was to live three years in a dream and then die in body and to go away in soul, she put from her all desire of the things she knew and let Faruane kiss her on the lips and take her hand and lead her into the green glades, to be forgotten, beyond the murmuring forest, save in a song that lived like a breath of remembered passion in the gloamings of a thousand years.

But for three years Faruane and Mošn knew the Spring rapture and the Summer joy and the Autumn peace and the Winter sleep of the children of earth. She remembered nothing, for her soul was filled with beauty; and she desired nothing, for her mind was hushed with dreams and honied with content.

But when she died, which was as a child falling asleep in a shadowy place of moss and rustling leaves, Faruane faded from the light, and his death was as a sunbeam passing from a green branch; for he had seen her soul stoop and kiss him and go away to its own place, where he could not follow. But they had daughters, and these lived to the fulness of the green hour, which is calm and unaging through many generations of our fevered mortal day. They in turn bore children to other sons of the greenness, the semblance of Mošn but in all else of the seed of Faruane; so that they are like the offspring of the clan of men, but fear them and love them not, and may not dwell with them nor near them, nor wed with them. But they love the shadows of leaves, and the sun ripens them as fruit, And they are forgotten, and have no dreams but the dream that is their life.

And what, then, is this fantasy of a dreaming mind in the west but kin to the sweet fantasy of a dreaming mind in Hellas of old--though the island poet, or singer of Arcady with a silver flute, making beauty in the hot noon by a plane-shadowed fount, as a child makes a coronal of daisies and wild thyme, called Mošn MÍropÍ, and sang of her woodlover as Dryas? For both knew of the shy green god of the oak, and had seen the offspring of him and the mortal woman of his love, the fawn-eyed, withdrawing Dryads of the haunted trees.

It is in this sense that the things of the .imagination do not die, but change with the changing hours--as the wild parsley and the hyacinth come into the woods at the first flute-notes of April, and were as young last year, or will be under the yet unfallen dews, as they were a thousand years ago, in Arcadian valleys or in the glens of the Gael.

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