Swords and Pearls

There are far too many Celtic tales to make a list of them all, let alone review them. But I’m going to go over a few that interested me, for now. I’m sure I’ll come back and add more as time goes by.

I hope you like them, too.

This first tale is familiar in some ways because it has all the elements of the hero’s journey. A young prince is handsome and kind, but his younger brother is jealous and cruel. There’s a curse, a transformation of outward appearance, symbolism, and adventure.

     The younger prince of a fine castle goes out walking and comes upon a wizened old man to whom he complains about his life. He claims his older brother stifles his life and is the source of all his woes. The old man then offers him a snake that will curse the older brother with ugliness and isolation.

     The curse works and when the older brother returns from hunting is cast out of the castle because no one recognizes him. Even though he rode up on the his own horse, they believe he must have stolen it.  

     So, the formerly handsome prince goes off and sits to contemplate how his life has turned upside down. He tries to figure out how he became so ugly and unwanted. An old woman carrying a huge bundle of sticks on her back happens by, and because he’s so kind, the prince offers to carry her burden.

     In return she offers to cook him a meal, however, he helps her with that too. She knows there’s something special about the young man and gives him advice about how to restore himself to his former life.

     But he must follow every direction without fail or distraction. For he would only find the treasures she told him to gather in the Otherworld.

     First, he crossed the sea into the Otherworld, tricked a group of warriors guarding the cave of heroes, and claimed the Sword of Light. Then he tricked another set of warriors out of the enchanted pearl of great beauty. His final task in the Otherworld was to come straight home, without stopping for the most beautiful maiden—in all the human or Otherworld.

     When he happened upon the maiden, he was struck in love and considered giving her both the sword and the pearl as gifts. She would gladly take them, she said. But he remembered his mission and sadly bid her adieu.

     At that moment, what the prince hadn’t realized was that he’d been transformed into his true self once more. Tall, strong, and handsome, yet he believed he was still ugly. He had believed the woman had seen past his exterior and wanted to love him despite it.

     Saddened, he made it all the way back home to receive the accolades of his relieved parents and kingdom. For his final task, as explained by the old woman, he went to the battlements at the top of the castle, followed by all his family and court. From there, he threw the sword and pearl into the sea. He was quite sure he saw Orion, the god of the sea, grab each of them and return under the water. The kingdom was shocked at such an action—to throw such valuable treasures away. He proclaimed that he’d gained a greater treasure in wisdom.

     Not long afterward, a carriage of gold and silver arrived and the beauty he’d fallen in love with disembarked. She explained that because he had not settled for treasures in the Otherworld, but love in this one, he had proven that he was worthy of love everywhere.

     She was the princess to the sea god and the prince’s love allowed her to follow her heart back to him because he’d proven that true love has no boundaries.

     The younger brother slipped away during the celebration and was never heard from again.

There’s a fine moral lesson in this story about the value of love and family over material things. The idea of beauty being the judgement of a kind heart is a sticky spot for me, but I loved the symbolism within the characters and the treasures.

Also, the Otherworld was place of drink and debauchery as one might think of a depiction of hell. However, because of the viewpoint of the Celts about how the Fairy* world and the human world are side by side, the young prince only traveled across the sea.

He didn’t have to cross a magical barrier, or pass any tests to get in or out of the Otherworld like I’ve read other interpretations require.

Fun fact: Y Chadree is a Manx name for the plant Anaphilis Margaritacea, known as Pearly Everlasting. Also, it’s fun because it sounds like a great beverage that goes with a little salt and lime. 

*I felt compelled to use the spelling in the story: fairy vs faerie. But I prefer the ae version better. Fairy reminds me of the Disney version of tales, too much.

Here are two of the books I’ve used for this post and my research. You might enjoy them too.