The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"Ahez the Pale" (1897)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“Ahèz the Pale” was written by “Fiona Macleod” and first appeared in Barbaric Tales (1897). “Macleod” was the pseudonym of William Sharp (1855-1905), an English novelist. Sharp created “Fiona Macleod” to write Celtic-infused stories, but soon began to insist that (and act like) “Macleod” really existed; “Fiona Macleod is plausibly considered to be a more vital, creative artist than her prim creator.”1
“Ahèz the Pale” begins in Broceliande, the forest in Brittany which plays a large part in the Arthurian legends. A figure stealthily creeps through the woods. The forest is the holy place of the Druids, who carry out their secret rites. And one of the Druids, Arân, is in the middle of chanting a rite to the goddess Astorêt. But as he is worshiping her, the figure stabs him in the back, killing him. The figure then drags him into the forest and swaps clothes with him, taking the druid’s white robes and clothing the druid in his own clothing and armor, keeping only a long dagger. The man slashes the face of the dead man, to prevent his identification, and says, “Lie there, lie there, Jud Mael! At dawn the druids will come, and will find thee here, and will throw thy sacrilegious body on the altar-flame, as a peace-offering to Teutatês. For now I am Arân the Druid, who has departed no man knows where.”2 And Jud Mael walks through the forest, smiling to himself. But as he walks he falls to dreaming, and by noon he has walked in a circle and is within three miles of the altar of Teutatês. Jud Mael rests for several hours and awakes at dusk. He is hungry and goes in search of food. He sees a fire and walks toward it. At the fire is an old man, roasting a hedgehog, and though Jud Mael is tempted to kill the old man he knows that a body might give the druids a clue, so Jud Mael only approaches the old man and strikes up a conversation. The old man greets him as Arân the Chanter, and Jud Mael keeps up the pretense. The old man gives Jud Mael the hedgehog, and Jud Mael questions him about what has been said about Arân. Jud Mael says that the body of a warrior, identified as Jud Mael by his armor and sword, was found earlier and burned by the druids for having gone into the holy forest, and that Arân slew Jud Mael and went into the forest as penance, “as it is an evil thing for a druid to take life.” The old man further relates what he has heard of Jud Mael: that he was a fugitive from Ahèz the Pale, the sister of the king. Jud Mael had romanced Ahèz the Pale and promised marriage to her, but when she told him she was with his child he laughed at her and said he could not wed her, as he already had a wife and children. Ahèz the Pale spoke to the King, and “King Môrgwyn let his riding-whip fall across her shoulder, and bade her begone and not enter his presence again till she rode into the castle-wynd either with Jud Mael by her side as her wedded lord or with Jud Mael’s head as the price of her honour.”3
Jud Mael tells the old man to go to Ahèz and tell her that Jud Mael was killed by Arân the Druid, so that she will know Jud Mael is dead. But the old man does not obey—he sees Ahèz the Pale riding through the forest toward them, carrying an infant. Jud Mael slips into the forest as Ahèz arrives at the fire. She finds out from the man that Jud Mael is dead, killed by Arân the Chanter, who has just gone into the forest. She follows “Arân,” intending to have words with him. As she rides she passes the Well of Wisdom, and since Ahèz has the old wisdom in her blood and knows the wood-speech, she sings to the nain (pool-sprite) of the Well, who tells her, “O Blind One, who followest a dead man that is alive?” The nain then vanishes, and Ahèz immediately knows what the nain meant. Ahèz rides after Jud Mael, who finds that, run as he might, hide as he might, he can’t escape her and her chanting. She catches him, and he admits who he is and what he did. Ahèz gives Jud Mael the baby: “Take this child that is your child. He is no child of mine, though I bore him. I am of the royal line, that never bore a coward, and what could this child be but a coward and a traitor? The boy must die.”4 Jud Mael does not want to kill the boy, but Ahèz commands it, and Jud Mael stabs him:
“Why hast thou made me do this thing, Ahèz¼.?”
“To what end? ¼That thy soul may pass into some evil thing, and die and utterly perish. For now thou hast slain thine own blood. Bring me the child. Alive, it was thine; slain, it is mine.”5
Jud Mael gives Ahèz the body, and as he does so she stabs him in the shoulders and then in the neck. Ahèz then buries the child, cuts off Jud Mael’s head, and returns home.
“Ahèz the Pale” is as good as “The Sin-Eater,” but in different ways. Although “Ahèz the Pale” does not have the rhythm and tone of Irish folklore of Sharp’s “The Sin-Eater,” the setting and content are closer to traditional myth. Correspondingly, “The Sin-Eater” has psychologically-insightful moments that “Ahèz the Pale” does not. “Ahèz the Pale” is told cleanly and straightforwardly and is a superb read. Sharp brilliantly recreates the feel of folklore in “Ahèz” and, with perfect pacing, evocative passages, and well-wrought phrases, tells a bracingly harsh story. The morality of the characters is that of the traditional Celtic culture, rather than that of 1890s middle-class London projected backward in time. Ahèz the Pale is a type of Fatal Woman, but there is no seductive element in her. She is simply a Woman Wronged, and a particularly powerful one, and the vengeance she takes on Jud Mael is merciless. If the reader thinks that it was harsh on the baby, it is because the reader lives in the twenty-first century and not the eighth century B.C.E.
Sharp was a member of the Irish Literary Revival of the late 1880s and 1890s, when a number of Irish writers who would later become important and nationally- or internationally-known, such as William Butler Yeats, began publishing.
It is generally accepted that the Irish revival was in its beginnings what ethologists would call "displacement activity": energy that would have preferred to expend itself in politics expended itself instead in literature after the calamitous downfall of Charles Stewart Parnell in 1890; thwarted political nationalism took the consolatory form of cultural nationalism.6
Sharp was part of the “mystical revivalist”7 wing of the Irish Revival, to the point that, in the company of Yeats, Maud Gonne, MacGregor Mathers, and others, he “planned to found an Order of Celtic Mysteries, a ritual conjunction of the mystical and the native Irish,” in the supposedly more supernatural west of Ireland.8 Toward that end Sharp wrote a variety of mystical and Celtic legend-infused fictions like “Ahèz the Pale.” Later members of the Revival would look down on Sharp and the mystical revivalist writers for their beliefs and writings. But the fiction endures, and makes for fine reading.
Print: Fiona Macleod, Barbaric Tales of Fiona Macleod. Whitefish, MT: Kessenger, 2007.
For Further Research
Elizabeth Amelia Sharp, William Sharp (Fiona Macleod): A Memoir Compiled by his Wife Elizabeth A. Sharp. New York: Palala Press, 2016.
1 John Sutherland, The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989), 569.
2 Fiona Macleod, Barbaric Tales (London: David Nutt, 1903), 95.
3 Macleod, Barbaric Tales, 102.
4 Macleod, Barbaric Tales, 110.
5 Macleod, Barbaric Tales, 111.
6 John Wilson Foster, Fictions of the Irish Literary Revival: A Changeling Art (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1987), 4.
7 Foster, Fictions of the Irish Literary Revival, 73.
8 Foster, Fictions of the Irish Literary Revival, 73.