Background to the author
Fiona MacLeod wrote the play ‘The Immortal Hour’ in 1908, although it would be wrong to refer to MacLeod as a she, for in fact she is a he, a Scottish poet and writer called William Sharp. Sharp was born in Paisley, Scotland in 1855 but throughout his life suffered ill-health. As a child he had a great love of nature and the outdoors which was enhanced by his nurse’s telling of Gaelic folktales and stories. When he was 18 he spent three months living with a company of gypsies. While at university he studied poetry, philosophy, occultism, spiritualism and folklore. In 1876 he voyaged to Australia but came back a year later although thee experience had been powerfully creative. In 1878 he joined the famous Rossetti literary group, a Pre-Raphaelite and aesthetic literary group. In his first book of poetry The Human Inheritance, The New Hope, Motherhood and Other Poems (1882) an important focus is given to Sharp’s early belief in spirit of place (or genus loci), which supports a strong mystical core. These threads of mysticism and spirituality also appeared in many of his later works. Following a trip to Italy in 1891 he entered into a decade of extremely productive and creative writing imbued with all his interests of mysticism, mythology, folklore, spirituality and philosophy. Then in 1892 Sharp published what was to be his greatest and most remarkable work – The Pagan Review – a single issue journal filled with pagan and Celtic historically based works, although all these works were written under the pseudonym of Fiona MacLeod. He also joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and was a central figure in the Edinburgh group, part of the Celtic Twilight or Celtic Revival.
Why the pseudonym Fiona MacLeod? This was not mere vanity on Sharps part but an important part of his literary persona he had created in his early twenties. He wrote to his wife (who happened to be his cousin) “in some things I am more woman than man” and it was a persona he maintained until his death in 1905. In fact, Fiona MacLeod was presented as Sharp’s protégé and his works written under this name evoke a Celtic world combining images of idyllic or harsh highland nature with mystical tales of the brave and beautiful.
Background to The Immortal Hour
The Immortal Hour (written 1908 as Fiona MacLeod) is loosely based on the Irish mythological tale of ‘The Wooing of Etain’ (Tochmarc Étaíne), which appears in the Irish mythological Cycle, partially preserved in the 12th century manuscript The Book of the Dun Cow, and fully preserved in the 15th century Yellow Book of Lecan. It tells of the lives and loves of Etain, a beautiful woman, one of the Tuatha de Danann, who is also equated and associated with the Gaulic Epona, and the Welsh Rhiannon. In both manuscripts she is married to mortal men. However, Midir, son of the Dagda and one of the Tuatha de Danann, falls in love with her. Midir’s wife grows jealous and polymorphs Etain into various things until one day she turns her into a butterfly and as a butterfly she becomes Midir’s constant companion though Midir does not recognise her. Eventually Midir’s wife creates a wind that blows the butterfly away and does not allow it to alight anywhere but the rocks of the sea for seven years.
Eventually it lands on the clothes of Óengus, who recognises it as Étaín, but he is at war with Midir and cannot return her to him. He makes her a little chamber with windows so she can come and go, and carries the chamber with him wherever he goes. But Fúamnach (Midir’s wife) hears of this and creates another wind which blows her away from him for another seven years. Eventually the butterfly falls into a glass of wine. The wine is swallowed (together with the butterfly) by the wife of Étar, an Ulster chieftain, in the time of Conchobar mac Nessa. She becomes pregnant, and Étain is reborn, one thousand and twelve years after her first birth.
Midir then goes to Eochaid Etain’s husband) in his true form and asks to play fidchell, a board game, with him. He offers a stake of fifty horses, loses, and gives Eochaid the horses as promised. Midir challenges him to more games, for higher stakes, and keeps losing. Eochaid, warned by his foster-father that Midir is a being of great power, sets him a series of tasks, including laying a causeway over Móin Lámrige, which he performs reluctantly. He then challenges Eochaid to one final game of fidchell, the stake to be named by the winner. This time, Midir wins, and demands an embrace and a kiss from Étaín. Eochaid agrees that he will have it if he returns in a month’s time. A month later Midir returns. He puts his arms around Étaín, and they turn into swans and fly off.
Eochaid and his men begin digging at the mound of Brí Léith where Midir lives. Midir appears to them and tells Eochaid his wife will be restored to him the following day. The next day fifty women who all look like Étain appear, and an old hag tells Eochaid to choose which one is his wife. He chooses one, but Midir later reveals that Étaín had been pregnant when he had taken her, and the girl he has chosen is her daughter. Eochaid is horrified, because he has slept with his own daughter, who became pregnant with a girl. When the girl is born she is exposed, but she is found and brought up by a herdsman and his wife. She later becomes the mother of the High King Conaire Mor.
One has to remember that the versions of this story differ slightly but the main characters stay the same.
An analysis of The Immortal Hour play
Although The Immortal Hour is based on the Irish mythological tale of the Wooing of Etain, it is steeped in other mythological motifs also. Links can be made to the Greek Eurydice and Orpheus. In fact MacLeod says as much in her introduction to the play. Thus it can be seen as a kind of universal play touching on the love for a man and a woman, the cycle of life and other realities that not only appear in Celtic mythology but in other cultures also. Although the character Dalua does not appear in Irish mythology, MacLeod likens him to the Amadan-Dhu or Dark Fool, who can be equated with our own dark shadow-side, known in the Faerie Tradition as the Dark Fool. Hugh Mynne writes in “The Faerie Way” the encounter with the Dark Goddess is thus an encounter with our own psychic waste material, our own “garbage.” By facing Her we face our own shadow-self, known in the Faerie Tradition as the Dark Fool, and named Dalua.
Dennis Denisoff, The Yellow Nineties Online, 2010
Hugh Mynne, The Faerie Way: A Healing Journey to Other Worlds
Caitlin & John Matthews, Walkers Between the Worlds: The Western Mysteries from Shaman to Magus
Caitlin & John Matthews, The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom