Marian McHugh penned this review.
Mythologies is a collection of stories by Yeats, first published as three separate collections, The Celtic Twilight, The Secret Rose and Stories of Red Hanrahan.
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) is best known as one of Ireland’s greatest poets and dramatists, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. What may be unknown to many people is his interest in the supernatural, and in particular the myths, legends and stories of his home country.
Yeats loved to travel the countryside, collecting stories from the people. At the beginning of each of the books, Yeats provides a little background as to where the tales originated. Details such as geography, as well as the names of those who told the stories, are included. He credits Lady Gregory, a central figure in the Irish literary revival and well-known compiler of Irish mythologies and legends, with assisting in the collation of the stories.
I was very excited about being able to review Mythologies, but that excitement leeched away as I started reading. I found the language difficult. Words and sentences just did not flow from one another. The impression I was left with is that Mythologies is a collection of thoughts and memories that have not been polished into a final work, and that the book relies on the author’s “name” rather than his expertise in this area. At times it is difficult to determine what parts are the story, and what parts are Yeats’ comments, as they often run into one another.
My problem with the language could be due to the fact that much of the compilation was completed in the previous century; however, I have read Dickens and Austen without difficulty and with complete comprehension. My impression is that Yeats attempted to produce prose as poetry and, in my opinion, failed.
If you are expecting to find stories from Celtic mythology, as I was, you will be sorely disappointed. Mythologies is a collection of stories from Yeats’ own time. He travelled the countryside, talking to people as he went, collecting the stories that reflected the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
“The Friends of the People of Faery” is a collection of odds and ends about people, some of whom have become friends of the denizens of faery. Then there is Martin Roland, who isn’t really a friend. He finds that he gets no sleep because fairies come in the night to make a ruckus, “crying things at him in Irish, and with playing their pipes.” There is also the story of an old woman who talked to a lady of Faery who had been visiting her family for years.
The collection, “The Stories of Red Hanrahan,” is made up of stories told to Yeats by “Hanrahan, the Hedge school master, a tall, strong, red-haired young man.” The whole collection is about Hanrahan’s journeys around Ireland. The first was to see his sweetheart, Mary Lavelle, after receiving a message from her, but when he arrived at her home she was gone. So Hanrahan continued on with his travelling. People believed that he had been taken by the Sidhe on that first journey and was never quite the same.
There are definitely some gems in this collection. You will come across the likes of “Dust Hath Closed Helen’s Eye”, the story of Mary Hynes, who is said to be one of the most handsome women to ever live. Included is a poem by the Irish poet, Raftery, proclaiming his love for Mary. There are many stories of men dying on their way to visit Mary Hynes. Stories also arose that because of her beauty she might know “the cure for all the evils in the world that the sidhe know.” Mary Hynes is likened to Helen of Troy.
I believe that there is much interesting and useful information presented in Mythologies. However, if you are looking for a light read of mythology, there are many other anthologies available that will provide a much easier read. If your interests lie more in the older myths and legends of Ireland, you may prefer to read Marie Heaney’s Over Nine Waves, which contains modern retellings of the old tales, or Lady Gregory’s stories.