Tolkien, Yeats and the Irish Wilderness

My son and I went on a 3 day trip backpacking through the Irish Wilderness and canoeing down the Eleven Point River. Amazing. This is what our country looked like 300 years ago, as the river is one of the “Wild and Scenic” rivers of the United States—protected from development—so that you see nothing but wilderness and a few float camps along its path.

We met some of the good people of Wilderness, MO, and were the beneficiaries of some free rainbow trout when our fishing skills came up with only one sub-legal fish that we released. God is good!

The history of the area is that the Irish settled here in the early 1800’s led by a Catholic priest, John Joseph Hogan, who saw the suffering of the Irish immigrants in St. Louis. They formed a colony down near the Arkansas border and thrived there until the Civil War. At that time both northern and southern armies raided them for supplies, and the people were either killed or driven off. No one knows where they went—and so this area of the Mark Twain National Forest is still called the “Irish Wilderness” to this day.

John Joseph Hogan said of this land that:

[The] quiet solitariness of the place seemed to inspire devotion. Nowhere could the human soul so profoundly worship as in the depths of that leafy forest, beneath the swaying branches of the lofty oaks and pines, where solitude and the heart of man united in praise and wonder of the Great Creator.

As we traveled through this “leafy forest”, I tried to imagine the people that had lived here. What were their stories? What were their joys? What were their sorrows?

Now back and getting settled into home and work again, I read a poem by W.B. Yeats (in the book, A Treasury of Irish Myth, Legend, and Folklore) entitled, “The Stolen Child” that seems to speak of the Irish Wilderness and these people who suffered so long ago:

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water-rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berries
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping
than you can understand.

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim grey sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances,
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And is anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping
than you can understand.

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams; Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping
than you can understand.

Away with us he’s going,
The solemn-eyed:
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal-chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
From a world more full of weeping
than he can understand.

The “waters and the wild” sure fit the Eleven Point River and the Irish Wilderness bordering it. Not that I think we should all go off with a fairy into some other world, but rather that we all suffer and we all have sorrow, and that we all need escape now and then. That is one of the reasons people read fiction—to escape to another world be it ever so briefly. However, people criticize fiction for just that: escapism. Is this criticism valid? I like the article by Douglas Wilson in Credenda Agenda entitled Lord Of The Rings where he speaks to those that criticize godly fantasy fiction:

No virtue (or fault) is ever found in a transitive verb. We do not know if someone is virtuous simply because they “love.” What do they love? Or that they are wicked if they “hate.” What do they hate? When literature like The Lord of the Rings is criticized, it is often attacked for being “escapist.” This means we should ask a question. What is being escaped from? As Tolkien once put it, the people who are so concerned about escapism do have a name—we call them jailers.

That sets us straight. Our goal as Christian authors is to help our readers escape from the banality of the world. To help them escape to a higher purpose and calling in life. To help them find refuge in God himself. Our job is much like the ancient bards, (but Christian), who called their people to ‘do again the brave deeds of old’.

If you ever get a chance, go to southern Missouri and hike the Irish Wilderness and canoe the Eleven Point River—and remember the Irish who escaped to there and suffered long ago.

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