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

"Theseus . . . . wilt thou speak of the ancient trouble of thy race? "---OEdipus at Kolonos.
"For immaterial things, which are the highest and greatest, are shown only in thought and idea,
and in no other way, and all that we are saying is said for the sake of them."--PLATO, The Statesman.


Mieux que les scènes troublantes du jour, ces musigues et ces voix nocturnes me disaient 1'espirit caché.  E. SCHURÉ, Sanctuaires d'Orient.

The Sunset of Old
Tales

"And some were woven single, and some twofold, and some threefold."

BLAKE: Vala, Night viii.

I do not know if in anything I have a keener pleasure than in the hearing . . . by the hearthside, or looking down into green water, or on the upland road that strings glen upon glen along its white swaying neck . . . of the old tales and poems of beauty and wonder, retold sometimes in an untarnished excellence, sometimes crudely, sometimes so disguised in the savour of the place and hour that not then, and perhaps not for long, are they recognised in accent or discerned in feature. Perhaps this pleasure is the greater because it is the pleasure of the tale-lover, for the tale's sake, rather than of the tale-collector, for the quest's sake. I do not know how many tales and fragments of tales and broken legends I have heard, now here, now there; or what proportion of these was old, or what proportion of them was of the fantasy or dreaming mind of to-day, or how many retained the phrase and accent of the past in taking on the phrase of to-day and the accent of the narrator's mind. It is the light, the lift, the charm, the sigh, the cadence I want. I care less for the hill-tale in a book than told by the firelight, and a song is better in the wash of the running wave than in crowded rooms. Every sad tale and every beautiful tale should have a fit background for its setting; and I have perhaps grown so used to the shaken leaf, or the lifted water, or the peat-glow in small rooms filled with warm shadow and the suspense of dreams, as the background of sgeul and rann and oran, that I am become unwisely impatient of the common conditions. Yet even in these much lies with ourselves. I have a friend who says he can be happy with a gas-jet in a room in a street-house. He opens a window by the edge of an inch, if there is no wind crying in the chimney, so that a thin air may be heard 'rising and falling: and turns his back to the gas-jet: and keeps his eyes on the book before him. But are there many of his kind, who are unhappy, being kept in towns, and yet know how to become masters of illusion? I know a family of distinction in one of our great cities who have never heard tale or song, legend or dream, or any breath of romance, except at entertainments in their own or another's house, or at a concert or at a theatre. I have heard them spoken of as rich people, as having more than they need or could ever use. They are poor people, I fear. In the pity I have for them I admit there is something, too, of dread. Could one fall into that estate? For they live what is called "life." But as they are never alone, and in a sense have always everywhere, a gas-jet, I cannot see that the existence they lead is life, that they live. If it were not for the imaginative solace of fires, those unconquerable allies of dreams and romance, I suppose the deep love for the things of which I speak would die away from the life of towns.

It would be a good thing to be a collector, and to know how to winnow the gathering, and where to range and where to place apart. We owe a debt, indeed, to the few who are truly fit for the task they have set themselves. But there are some minds which care very little to hear about things, when they can have the things themselves. It is not for the service of beauty, but only for the uses of formal knowledge, that one might desire a stuffed cuckoo. But a cuckoo in a case--or a cuckoo in a cage, if one would live barred, which I cannot believe--is not a cuckoo. The bells in the grey cloud when, unseen, the cuckoo swims on the wind . . . that is the cuckoo.

I have good friends who have urged me to collect folklore. In a sense I have done so since I was a child. But I do not care to go pencilling through the Highlands or from isle to isle. The tale or song thus sought loses its charm for me. I like to be taken by surprise when, beyond the hawthorn in bloom, a swallow swoops, and I know that spring is come; or when, in the beech-thicket, the mavis suddenly calls the five long calls of joy, and the thrill of June is felt; or when, above the fern, in a windless moonlit silence, the night-jar throbs the passion of midsummer.

And, too, I should be uneasy if I had to do more than listen. For I remember a friend's telling how a "folklorist" rejoiced a year or two ago over strange tales gathered out of the wilds of Inverness, and builded on them a theory, and gave much delighted perplexity to himself and others, till another specialist broke the enchantment by pointing out that the so-called oriental survivals were no more than a year old, being, in fact, nothing else than Gaelic renderings of parts of The Arabian Nights, translated by an enthusiast, who wished to bring to the Gael something of accepted worth.

I have sometimes given of this sea-drift and wind-drift which has remained with me, as I chanced to remember, or as the theme invited. And I have written, too, of the charm of these old-world legends and romances in their modern survivals or often bewildering changes.

But if ever I yielded to this quest as a possessing eagerness it would be to catch the last reflections of the sunset of old tales. And not the least curious would be those which have lapsed into all but forgetfulness. I take, almost haphazard, six of these, much as I find them in my notes, or as accident has awakened in my memory; and a seventh, "The Wayfarer," I have added partly because it also has, in these old Gaelic lands, the sunset hue of an immortal tale told in supreme beauty so many years ago; and partly because I have not yet had opportunity to include it fittingly since its original appearance some years back in Cosmopolis. These tales, or their like, that in some form have travelled across so many lands and seas, have lived on so many tongues and seen time rise and fall like the punctual tides, and are now fading into forgetfulness with the passing of the last western tongue as ancient as they, are very slight. But they have this to their gain, that they are on the rainbow-side of the sunset, and that few tales of the kind will now be told by the crofter or hill-shepherd or islesman, or by old or young at the ceilidh, or by those who stand back more and more from the ways and the cross-ways.


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