Oisín In The Land Of Youth
It happened that on a misty summer morning as Finn and Oisín with many companions were hunting on the shores of Loch Lena they saw coming towards them a maiden, beautiful exceedingly, riding on a snow-white steed. She wore the garb of a queen; a crown of gold was on her head, and a dark brown mantle of silk, set with stars of red gold, fell around her and trailed on the ground. Silver shoes were on her horse's hoofs, and a crest of gold nodded on his head. When she came near she said to Finn, "From very far away I have come, and now at last I have found thee, Finn, son of Cumhal."
Then Finn said, "What is thy land and race, maiden, and what dost thou seek from me?"
"My name," she said, "is Niam of the Golden Hair. I am the daughter of the King of the Land of Youth, and that which has brought me here is the love of thy son Oisín." Then she turned to Oisín and she spoke to him in the voice of one who has never asked anything but it was granted to her, "Wilt thou go with me, Oisín, to my father's land?"
And Oisín said, "That will I, and to the world's end"; for the fairy spell had so wrought upon his heart that he cared no more for any earthly thing but to have the love of Niam of the Head of Gold.
Then the maiden spoke of the Land Oversea to which she had summoned her lover, and as she spoke a dreamy stillness fell on all things, nor did a horse shake his bit nor a hound bay, nor the least breath of wind stir in the forest trees till she had made an end. And what she said seemed sweeter and more wonderful as she spoke it than anything they could afterwards remember to have heard, but so far as they could remember it, it was this:—
"Delightful is the land beyond all dreams,
Fairer than aught thine eyes have ever seen.
There all the year the fruit is on the tree,
And all the year the bloom is on the flower.
"There with wild honey drip the forest trees;
The stores of wine and mead shall never fail.
Nor pain nor sickness knows the dweller there,
Death and decay come near him never more.
"The feast shall cloy not, nor the chase shall tire,
Nor music cease for ever through the hall;
The gold and jewels of the Land of Youth
Outshine all splendours ever dreamed by man.
"Thou shalt have horses of the fairy breed,
Thou shalt have hounds that can outrun the wind;
A hundred chiefs shall follow thee in war,
A hundred maidens sing thee to thy sleep.
"A crown of sovranty thy brow shall wear,
And by thy side a magic blade shall hang.
Thou shalt be lord of all the Land of Youth,
And lord of Niam of the Head of Gold."
As the magic song ended, the Fians beheld Oisín mount the fairy steed and hold the maiden in his arms, and ere they could stir or speak she turned her horse's head and shook the ringing bridle and down the forest glade they fled, as a beam of light flies over the land when clouds drive across the sun; and never did the Fianna behold Oisín, son of Finn, on earth again.
Yet what befell him afterwards is known. As his birth was strange so was his end, for he saw the wonders of the Land of Youth with mortal eyes and lived to tell them with mortal lips.
When the white horse with its riders reached the sea it ran lightly over the waves and soon the green woods and headlands of Erinn faded out of sight. And now the sun shone fiercely down, and the riders passed into a golden haze in which Oisín lost all knowledge of where he was or if sea or dry land were beneath his horse's hoofs. But strange sights sometimes appeared to them in the mist, for towers and palace gateways loomed up and disappeared, and once a hornless doe bounded by them chased by a white hound with one red ear, and again they saw a young maid ride by on a brown steed, bearing a golden apple in her hand, and close behind her followed a young horseman on a white steed, a purple cloak floating at his back and a gold-hilted sword in his hand. And Oisín would have asked the princess who and what these apparitions were, but Niam bade him ask nothing nor seem to notice any phantom they might see until they were come to the Land of Youth.
"They rode up to a stately palace"
At last the sky gloomed above them, and Niam urged their steed faster. The wind lashed them with pelting rain, thunder roared across the sea and lightning blazed, but they held on their way till at length they came once more into a region of calm and sunshine. And now Oisín saw before him a shore of yellow sand, lapped by the ripples of a summer sea. Inland, there rose before his eye wooded hills amid which he could discern the roofs and towers of a noble city. The white horse bore them swiftly to the shore and Oisín and the maiden lighted down. And Oisín marvelled at everything around him, for never was water so blue or trees so stately as those he saw, and the forest was alive with the hum of bees and the song of birds, and the creatures that are wild in other lands, the deer and the red squirrel and the wood-dove, came, without fear, to be caressed. Soon, as they went forward, the walls of a city came in sight, and folk began to meet them on the road, some riding, some afoot, all of whom were either youths or maidens, all looking as joyous as if the morning of happy life had just begun for them, and no old or feeble person was to be seen. Niam led her companion through a towered gateway built of white and red marble, and there they were met by a glittering company of a hundred riders on black steeds and a hundred on white, and Oisín mounted a black horse and Niam her white, and they rode up to a stately palace where the King of the Land of Youth had his dwelling. And there he received them, saying in a loud voice that all the folk could hear, "Welcome, Oisín, son of Finn. Thou art come to the Land of Youth, where sorrow and weariness and death shall never touch thee. This thou hast won by thy faithfulness and valour and by the songs that thou hast made for the men of Erinn, whereof the fame is come to us, for we have here indeed all things that are delightful and joyous, but poesy alone we had not. But now we have the chief poet of the race of men to live with us, immortal among immortals, and the fair and cloudless life that we lead here shall be praised in verses as fair; even as thou, Oisín, did'st praise and adorn the short and toilsome and chequered life that men live in the world thou hast left forever. And Niam my daughter shall be thy bride, and thou shalt be in all things even as myself in the Land of Youth."
Then the heart of Oisín was filled with glory and joy, and he turned to Niam and saw her eyes burn with love as she gazed upon him. And they were wedded the same day, and the joy they had in each other grew sweeter and deeper with every day that passed. All that Niam had promised in her magic song in the wild wood when first they met, seemed faint beside the splendour and beauty of the life in the Land of Youth. In the great palace they trod on silken carpets and ate off plates of gold; the marble walls and doorways were wrought with carved work, or hung with tapestries, where forest glades, and still lakes, and flying deer were done in colours of unfading glow. Sunshine bathed that palace always, and cool winds wandered through its dim corridors, and in its courts there played fountains of bright water set about with flowers. When Oisín wished to ride, a steed of fiery but gentle temper bore him wherever he would through the pleasant land; when he longed to hear music, there came upon his thought, as though borne on the wind, crystal notes such as no hand ever struck from the strings of any harp on earth.
But Oisín's hand now never touched the harp, and the desire of singing and of making poetry never waked in him, for no one thing seemed so much better than the rest, where all perfection bloomed and glowed around him, as to make him long to praise it and to set it apart.
When seven days had passed, he said to Niam, "I would fain go a-hunting." Niam said, "So be it, dear love; to-morrow we shall take order for that." Oisín lay long awake that night, thinking of the sound of Finn's hunting-horn, and of the smell of green boughs when they kindled them to roast the deer-flesh in Fian ovens in the wildwood.
So next day Oisín and Niam fared forth on horseback, with their company of knights and maidens, and dogs leaping and barking with eagerness for the chase. Anon they came to the forest, and the hunters with the hounds made a wide circuit on this side and on that, till at last the loud clamour of the hounds told that a stag was on foot, and Oisín saw them streaming down an open glen, the stag with its great antlers laid back and flying like the wind. So he shouted the Fian hunting-cry and rode furiously on their track. All day long they chased the stag through the echoing forest, and the fairy steed bore him unfaltering over rough ground and smooth, till at last as darkness began to fall the quarry was pulled down, and Oisín cut its throat with his hunting-knife. Long it seemed to him since he had felt glad and weary as he felt now, and since the woodland air with its odours of pine and mint and wild garlic had tasted so sweet in his mouth; and truly it was longer than he knew. But when he bade make ready the wood-oven for their meal, and build a bothy of boughs for their repose, Niam led him seven steps apart and seven to the left hand, and yet seven back to the place where they had killed the deer, and lo, there rose before him a stately Dún with litten windows and smoke drifting above its roof. When they entered, there was a table spread for a great company, and cooks and serving-men busy about a wide hearth where roast and boiled meats of every sort were being prepared. Casks of Greek wine stood open around the walls, and cups of gold were on the board. So they all ate and drank their sufficiency, and all night Oisín and Niam slept on a bed softer than swans-down in a chamber no less fair than that which they had in the City of the Land of Youth.
Next day, at the first light of dawn, they were on foot; and soon again the forest rang to the baying of hounds and the music of the hunting-horn. Oisín's steed bore him all day, tireless and swift as before, and again the quarry fell at night's approach, and again a palace rose in the wilderness for their night's entertainment, and all things in it even more abundant and more sumptuous than before. And so for seven days they fared in that forest, and seven stags were slain. Then Oisín grew wearied of hunting, and as he plunged his sharp black hunting-knife into the throat of the last stag, he thought of the sword of magic temper that hung idle by his side in the City of Youth, or rested from its golden nail in his bed-chamber, and he said to Niam, "Has thy father never a foe to tame, never a wrong to avenge? Surely the peasant is no man whose hand forgets the plough, nor the warrior whose hand forgets the sword hilt." Niam looked on him strangely for a while and as if she did not understand his words, or sought some meaning in them which yet she feared to find. But at last she said, "If deeds of arms be thy desire, Oisín, thou shalt have thy sufficiency ere long." And so they rode home, and slept that night in the palace of the City of Youth.
At daybreak on the following morn Niam roused Oisín, and she buckled on him his golden-hilted sword and his corselet of blue steel inlaid with gold. Then he put on his head a steel and gold helmet with dragon crest, and slung on his back a shield of bronze wrought all over with cunning hammer-work of serpentine lines that swelled and sank upon the surface, and coiled in mazy knots, or flowed in long sweeping curves like waves of the sea when they gather might and volume for their leap upon the sounding shore. In the glimmering dawn, through the empty streets of the fair city, they rode forth alone and took their way through fields of corn and by apple orchards where red fruit hung down to their hands. But by noontide their way began to mount upwards among blue hills that they had marked from the city walls toward the west, and of man's husbandry they saw no more, but tall red-stemmed pine trees bordered the way on either side, and silence and loneliness increased. At length they reached a broad table-land deep in the heart of the mountains, where nothing grew but long coarse grass, drooping by pools of black and motionless water, and where great boulders, bleached white or stained with slimy lichens of livid red, lay scattered far and wide about the plain. Against the sky the mountain line now showed like a threat of bared and angry teeth, and as they rode towards it Oisín perceived a huge fortress lying in the throat of a wide glen or mountain pass. White as death was the stone of which it was built, save where it was streaked with black or green from the foulness of wet mosses that clung to its cornices and battlements, and none seemed stirring about the place nor did any banner blow from its towers.
Then said Niam, "This, O Oisín, is the Dún of the giant Fovor of the Mighty Blows. In it he keeps prisoner a princess of the Fairy Folk whom he would fain make his bride, but he may not do so, nor may she escape, until Fovor has met in battle a champion who will undertake her cause. Approach, then, to the gate, if thou art fain to undertake this adventure, and blow the horn which hangs thereby, and then look to thy weapons, for soon indeed will the battle be broken upon thee."
Then Oisín rode to the gate and thrice he blew on the great horn which hung by it, and the clangour of it groaned drearily back from the cliffs that overhung the glen. Not thus indeed sounded the Dord of Finn as its call blew lust of fighting and scorn of death into the hearts of the Fianna amid the stress of battle. At the third blast the rusty gates opened, grinding on their hinges, and Oisín rode into a wide courtyard where servitors of evil aspect took his horse and Niam's, and led them into the hall of Fovor. Dark it was and low, with mouldering arras on its walls, and foul and withered rushes on the floor, where dogs gnawed the bones thrown to them at the last meal, and spilt ale and hacked fragments of flesh littered the bare oaken table. And here rose languidly to greet them a maiden bound with seven chains, to whom Niam spoke lovingly, saying that her champion was come and that her long captivity should end. And the maiden looked upon Oisín, whose proud bearing and jewelled armour made the mean place seem meaner still, and a light of hope and of joy seemed to glimmer upon her brow. So she gave them refreshment as she could, and afterwards they betook them once more to the courtyard, where the place of battle was set.
Here, at the further side, stood a huge man clad in rusty armour, who when he saw Oisín rushed upon him, silent and furious, and swinging a great battleaxe in his hand. But doubt and langour weighed upon Oisín's heart, and it seemed to him as if he were in an evil dream, which he knew was but a dream, and would be less than nothing when the hour of awakening should come. Yet he raised his shield and gripped the fairy sword, striving to shout the Fian battle-cry as he closed with Fovor. But soon a heavy blow smote him to the ground, and his armour clanged harshly on the stones. Then a cloud seemed to pass from his spirit, and he leaped to his feet quicker than an arrow flies from the string, and thrusting fiercely at the giant his sword-point gashed the under side of Fovor's arm when it was raised to strike, and Oisín saw his enemy's blood. Then the fight raged hither and thither about the wide courtyard, with trampling of feet and clash of steel and ringing of armour and shouts of onset as the heroes closed; Oisín, agile as a wild stag, evading the sweep of the mighty axe and rushing in with flickering blade at every unguarded moment, his whole soul bent on one fierce thought, to drive his point into some gap at shoulder or neck in Fovor's coat of mail. At length, when both were weary and wounded men, with hacked and battered armour, Oisín's blade cut the thong of Fovor's headpiece and it fell clattering to the ground. Another blow laid the giant prostrate, and Oisín leaned, dizzy and panting, upon his sword, while Fovor's serving-men took off their master in a litter, and Niam came to aid her lord. Then Oisín stripped off his armour in the great hall, and Niam tended to his wounds, healing them with magic herbs and murmured incantations, and they saw that one of the seven rusty chains that had bound the princess hung loose from its iron staple in the wall.
All night long Oisín lay in deep and healing slumber, and next day he arose, whole and strong, and hot to renew the fray. And the giant was likewise healed and his might and fierceness returned to him. So they fought till they were breathless and weary, and then to it again, and again, till in the end Oisín drove his sword to the hilt in the giant's shoulder where it joins the collar bone, and he fell aswoon, and was borne away as before. And another chain of the seven fell from the girdle of the captive maiden.
Thus for seven days went on the combat, and Oisín had seven nights of healing and rest, with the tenderness and beauty of Niam about his couch; and on the seventh day the maiden was free, and her folk brought her away, rejoicing, with banners and with music that made a brightness for a while in that forlorn and evil place.
But Oisín's heart was high with pride and victory, and a longing uprose in his heart with a rush like a springtide for the days when some great deed had been done among the Fianna, and the victors were hailed and lauded by the home-folk in the Dún of Allen, men and women leaving their toil or their pleasure to crowd round the heroes, and to question again and again, and to learn each thing that had passed; and the bards noting all to weave it into a glorious tale for after days; and more than all the smile and the look of Finn as he learned how his children had borne themselves in the face of death. And so Oisín said to Niam, "Let me, for a short while, return to the land of Erinn, that I may see there my friends and kin and tell them of the glory and joy that are mine in the Land of Youth." But Niam wept and laid her white arms about his neck, entreating him to think no more of the sad world where all men live and move under a canopy of death, and where summer is slain by winter, and youth by old age, and where love itself, if it die not by falsehood and wrong, perishes many a time of too complete a joy. But Oisín said, "The world of men compared with thy world is like this dreary waste compared with the city of thy father; yet in that city, Niam, none is better or worse than another, and I hunger to tell my tale to ignorant and feeble folk that my words can move, as words of mine have done of old, to wonder and delight. Then I shall return to thee, Niam, and to thy fair and blissful land; and having brought over to mortal men a tale that never man has told before, I shall be happy and at peace for ever in the Land of Youth."
So they fared back to the golden city, and next day Niam brought to Oisín the white steed that had borne them from Erinn, and bade him farewell. "This our steed," she said, "will carry thee across the sea to the land where I found thee, and whithersoever thou wilt, and what folk are there thou shalt see, and what tale thou hast to tell can be told. But never for even a moment must thou alight from his back, for if thy foot once touch again the soil of earth, thou shalt never win to me and to the Land of Youth again. And sorely do I fear some evil chance. Was not the love of Niam of the Head of Gold enough to fill a mortal's heart? But if thou must go, then go, and blessing and victory be thine."
Then Oisín held her long in his arms and kissed her, and vowed to make no long stay and never to alight from the fairy steed. And then he shook the golden reins and the horse threw its head aloft and snorted and bore him away in a pace like that of flowing water for speed and smoothness. Anon they came to the margin of the blue sea, and still the white steed galloped on, brushing the crests of the waves into glittering spray. The sun glared upon the sea and Oisín's head swam with the heat and motion, and in mist and dreams he rode where no day was, nor night, nor any thought of time, till at last his horse's hoofs ploughed through wet, yellow sands, and he saw black rocks rising up at each side of a little bay, and inland were fields green or brown, and white cottages thatched with reeds, and men and women, toil-worn and clad in earth-coloured garments, went to and fro about their tasks or stopped gazing at the rider in his crimson cloak and at the golden trappings of his horse. But among the cottages was a small house of stone such as Oisín had never seen in the land of Erinn; stone was its roof as well as the walls, very steep and high, and near-by from a rude frame of timber there hung a bell of bronze. Into this house there passed one whom from his shaven crown Oisín guessed to be a druid, and behind him two lads in white apparel. The druid having seen the horseman turned his eyes again to the ground and passed on, regarding him not, and the lads did likewise. And Oisín rode on, eager to reach the Dún upon the Hill of Allen and to see the faces of his kin and his friends.
"The white steed had vanished from their eyes like a wreath of mist"
At length, coming from the forest path into the great clearing where the Hill of Allen was wont to rise broad and green, with its rampart enclosing many white-walled dwellings, and the great hall towering high in the midst, he saw but grassy mounds overgrown with rank weeds and whin bushes, and among them pastured a peasant's kine.
Then a strange horror fell upon him, and he thought some enchantment from the land of Faery held his eyes and mocked him with false visions. He threw his arms abroad and shouted the names of Finn and Oscar, but none replied, and he thought that perchance the hounds might hear him, and he cried upon Bran and Sceolaun, and strained his ears if they might catch the faintest rustle or whisper of the world from the sight of which his eyes were holden, but he heard only the sigh of the wind in the whins. Then he rode in terror from that place, setting his face towards the eastern sea, for he meant to traverse Ireland from side to side and end to end in the search of some escape from his enchantment. But when he came near to the eastern sea and was now in the place which is called the Valley of the Thrushes, he saw in a field upon the hillside a crowd of men striving to roll aside a great boulder from their tilled land, and an overseer directing them. Towards them he rode, meaning to ask them concerning Finn and the Fianna. As he came near, they all stopped their work to gaze upon him, for to them he appeared like a messenger of the Fairy Folk or an angel from heaven. Taller and mightier he was than the men-folk they knew, with sword-blue eyes and brown ruddy cheeks; in his mouth, as it were, a shower of pearls, and bright hair clustered beneath the rim of his helmet. And as Oisín looked upon their puny forms, marred by toil and care, and at the stone which they feebly strove to heave from its bed, he was filled with pity, and thought to himself, "not such were even the churls of Erinn when I left them for the Land of Youth," and he stooped from his saddle to help them. His hand he set to the boulder, and with a mighty heave he lifted it from where it lay and set it rolling down the hill. And the men raised a shout of wonder and applause, but their shouting changed in a moment into cries of terror and dismay, and they fled, jostling and overthrowing each other to escape from the place of fear; for a marvel horrible to see had taken place. For Oisín's saddle-girth had burst as he heaved the stone, and he fell headlong to the ground. In an instant the white steed had vanished from their eyes like a wreath of mist, and that which rose, feeble and staggering, from the ground was no youthful warrior but a man stricken with extreme old age, white-bearded and withered, who stretched out groping hands and moaned with feeble and bitter cries. And his crimson cloak and yellow silken tunic were now but coarse homespun stuff tied with a hempen girdle, and the gold-hilted sword was a rough oaken staff such as a beggar carries who wanders the roads from farmer's house to house.
When the people saw that the doom that had been wrought was not for them they returned, and found the old man prone on the ground with his face hidden in his arms. So they lifted him up and asked who he was and what had befallen him. Oisín gazed round on them with dim eyes, and at last he said, "I was Oisín the son of Finn, and I pray ye tell me where he now dwells, for his Dún on the Hill of Allen is now a desolation, and I have neither seen him nor heard his hunting horn from the Western to the Eastern Sea." Then the men gazed strangely on each other and on Oisín, and the overseer asked, "Of what Finn dost thou speak, for there be many of that name in Erinn?" Oisín said, "Surely of Finn mac Cumhal mac Trenmor, captain of the Fianna of Erinn." Then the overseer said, "Thou art daft, old man, and thou hast made us daft to take thee for a youth as we did a while agone. But we at least have now our wits again, and we know that Finn son of Cumhal and all his generation have been dead these three hundred years. At the battle of Gowra fell Oscar, son of Oisín, and Finn at the battle of Brea, as the historians tell us; and the lays of Oisín, whose death no man knows the manner of, are sung by our harpers at great men's feasts. But now the Talkenn, Patrick, has come into Ireland and has preached to us the One God and Christ His Son, by whose might these old days and ways are done away with, and Finn and his Fianna, with their feasting and hunting and songs of war and of love, have no such reverence among us as the monks and virgins of holy Patrick, and the psalms and prayers that go up daily to cleanse us from sin and to save us from the fire of judgment." But Oisín replied, half hearing and still less comprehending what was said to him, "If thy God have slain Finn and Oscar, I would say that God is a strong man." Then they all cried out upon him, and some picked up stones, but the overseer bade them let him be until the Talkenn had spoken with him, and till he should order what was to be done.
So they brought him to Patrick, who entreated him gently and hospitably, and to Patrick he told the story of all that had befallen him. But Patrick bade his scribes write all carefully down, that the memory of the heroes whom Oisín had known, and of the joyous and free life they had led in the woods and glens and wild places of Erinn, should never be forgotten among men. And Oisín, during the short span of life that yet remained to him, told to Patrick many tales of the Fianna and their deeds, but of the three hundred years that he had spent with Niam in the Land of Youth he rarely spoke, for they seemed to him but as a vision or a dream of the night, set between a sunny and a rainy day.