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


"Empires become drifted sand, and the queens of great loveliness are dust. They shall not come again, towered cities of the sands, palaces built upon the sea, roses of beauty that blossomed for an hour on the wind that is for ever silently and swiftly moving out of darkness and turning a sunlit wing and then silently moving into the darkness again. But the wind is changeless in that divine continual advent, and the sunlit wing is that immortal we call Beauty, the mirage hung upon the brows of life."--The Ancient Beauty.

There is a Gaelic saying--both in legendary lore and folk-song--of the beauty of the "Woman of Greece," of  "the Greek woman," na mna Greuig.

It is, of course, Helen of Troy who is meant. I do not know if that story of love and death and beauty has survived in some measure intact--that is, perfect in episode if fragmentary in sequence-or if it exist only in a few luminous words, or merely in allusion. Something of the old romance of Hellas, something of the complex Roman mythus, have come down on the Gaelic tide, little altered, or altered only in the loss of the temporal and accidental. But they are sometimes hard to trace, and often are as lost in the old Gaelic legendary lore as the fragrance of moor-rose or orchis in the savour of wildhoney.

"Who were the three most beautiful women of old? " I asked a man, a native of the Gairloch of Ross, one day last summer. We were old friends, for we had often been out on the sea together in rough weather and calm, and I had ever found him somewhat like the sea in this, that he could be silent all day and yet never be other than companionable, and had mysterious depths, and sudden revelations. So I was always glad to sail with him when the chance came.

On this day-it was between Gometra and Ulva, where the fierce tides of the Atlantic sometimes cast up cones from the pine-woods of Maine, or driftwood of old wreckage from the Labrador headlands-we were in a bŕtada-chroinn, or wherry, and spun before the wind as though swept along by the resistless hand of Manan himself. The sea was a jubilation of blue and white, with green in the shaken tents of the loud-murmuring nomad host of billows. The sky was cloudless in the zenith, and a deep blue; of a pale blue in the north and east; but in the south a mountainous range of saffron and salmon-pink cloud rose solidly above the horizon-cutting isles. A swirl of long-winged terns hung above a shoal of mackerel fry, screaming as they splashed continually into the moving dazzle. Far in the blue depths overhead I saw two gannets, like flecks; of foam that the wind had lifted. And that was all: not another bird, not a boat, no trailed smoke down. by Iona or over by Tiree, not a single sail, suspended on the horizon like the wing of the fabled condor that moves but does not stir.

"Who were the three most beautiful women of old?"

He took a time to answer. He stared down into the green water slipping past, as though seeking there some floating image of a dim, beautiful face, as though listening for some sigh, some cadence, from the old lost world, from Tir-fo-Tuinne, the Land-underwave, the drowned sleeping world with the moving walls of green and the moving roof of blue.

"I do not know," he said at last. "I do not remember. There are many songs, many tales. But I've heard this: that there will be seven lovelinesses of beauty in a woman's beauty . . . the beauty of Malveen, the daughter of Oisin; the beauty of Deirathray, the love of Finn; the beauty of Yssul of the North; the beauty of Emer, the wife of Cuchulain; the beauty of GwannolE, the Queen of the Saxons; the beauty of the Greek woman, for whom all men strove and died; the beauty of the woman who came out of the south." And after he had spoken I thought that in the first of these is the beauty of sorrowful things; and in the second, the beauty of great love; and in the third, the beauty of wildness; and in the fourth, the beauty of faith; and in the fifth, the beauty lit at the torches of death; and in the sixth, the beauty that fires men to take up spears and die for a name; and in the seventh, the beauty of the poets that take up harp and sorrow and the wandering road.

Once before, elsewhere, I had asked this question, and had a different answer, though it held three names of those names now said. "Well, now," said my informant, an old woman of Arisaig, "and who, they, but the Sweet Love of the Sons of Usneach (Usna), and the wife of the Hero of Madness, and the fair Woman of Greece." She knew all about Deirdre, or Dearshul or Darshool, the beloved of Finn, and the bride of the eldest of the Sons of Usna; and all about Emer, the wife of Cuchulain, the hero of the Gael; and of how the white beauty and great love of these women live for ever in song and story, and in the passion of women's hearts and in the shaken minds of men. But she knew nothing of "the fair woman of Greece," nor of that land itself, thinking indeed it was "a great and glorious town, a shining and prosperous and kingly town, in the southlands of IspAn (Spain)."

Of some of those of whom my boatman spoke, he knew little. Of Malveen (Malmhin) he knew only that her name sang like a shell in the cadence of an old iorram, or boat-song, of the Middle Isles; and he had heard the story of Oisin and Malvina in Dr. Clerk's Gaelic variant of Ossian, told often at this or that ceilidh by the winter-fire. Darshul, or Deirdre, he called Darathray; the only occasion on which I have heard the name of that fair torch of beauty so given. Her story he knew well. "The best of all the tales that are told," he said. Of Yssul he knew nothing, but that she was the love of a king's son, and that she and Drostan lie below the foam of a wild sea. Gwannolę, the queen of the Saxons, he knew to be Arthur's queen, and he had heard of Mordred, king of the Picts, though not of Lancelot. He knew Helen's name, and had a confused memory of the names of those who loved and died for her, and of the fate of Troy: all got from his mother, who was the daughter of a minister of Inverness. He knew nothing of "the woman who came out of the south." When pressed, he said with a smile, "Her name will be Ashlyenn " (Aisling, a Dream), "I'm thinking." But later he spoke suddenly. It was when my thoughts had wandered elsewhere, and when I was watching the cloudspray circling over the Treshnish Isles, with two winds meeting: and for a moment I could not recover the clue to what lay in his words.

"Perhaps the woman out of the south would be the woman of the woods, that Merlyn loved, and who put him under spells of silence and sleep. She had the wild beauty, they say. She was not a woman of a man and a woman, but the deathless one of the nameless folk and a woodwoman. She is in songs and tales. It may be that woman that had the loveliness, for no man will ever have seen her but will always sing of her."

I think, however, that this last legendary beauty is older, and more native to the western Gael. I think, though it is only a surmise, that if not Niamh, Oisin's beautiful love of the other world, it must be of one to whose surpassing beauty there is allusion in the most ancient Gaelic chronicles, and of whom, doubtless, the wandering bards of Eirę and Alba long sang as of the Rose of Beauty. "But the fairest of the women who came into Erin with the sons of Milidh was Feale, the wife of Luaidh, son of that Ith who had been slain by the Tuath de Danann, and who had lived alone in the western regions of Espân, in an inland valley, until she was wooed by Luaidh, the son of Ith, surnamed Laidceann, for his love of poetry: and men said concerning Feale that she was too beautiful to live."

In a verse rescued from oblivion by Alasdair Carmichael of Uist, these and other names of beauty, pagan and mythological and Christian, are strangely blended.

Is tu gleus na Mnatha Sithe,
Is tu beus na Bride bithe,
Is tu creud na Moire mine,
Is tu gniomh na mnatha Greuig,
Is tu sgeimh na h'Eimir aluinn,
Is tu mein na Dearshul agha,
Is tu meann na Meabha laidir,
Is tu taladh Binnebheul.

[Thine is the skill of the Fairy Woman, and the virtue of St. Briget, and the faith of Mary the Mild, and the gracious way of the Greek woman, and the beauty of lovely Emer, and the tenderness of heartsweet Deirdre, and the courage of Maev the Great Queen (lit., the strong), and the charm of Mouth o' Music.]

The names stir. What a great thing in beauty is this, that after kingdoms are fallen and nations are drifted away like scattered leaves, and even heroic names are gone upon the wind, a memory of loveliness endures, as a light that time cannot touch, as a fragrance that death cannot reach. This is the immortality of the poet's dream. It is a great destiny to raise thrones and win dominions and build kingly cities. But cities can be ground into dust, and dominions can be as palaces built upon the sea, and the highest throne can become as the last yellow leaf shaken in the winds of autumn. But great beauty . . . that is a memory for ever. When one of the queens of a troubling loveliness dies, it is only as it were a mortal hour of beauty that is gathered back into the night: all of what is immortal passes into the dreams of men, is the beauty beyond beauty in the perfect song, the ineffable suspense in music. It endures, that immortal memory, that immortal dream. It is whispered and told and communicated in every Spring. It is on every wind of the west.

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