“A mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone.” – Tyrion Lannister
“They got little baby legs that stand so low, you got to pick em up just to say hello.” – Randy Newman
A few weeks ago, a student of mine suggested that my St. Patrick's Day post should be dedicated to leprechauns. So here it:
Eloquence is a sort of magic, isn't it? At the heart of magic is the idea that invisible powers controlled by mere words can somehow manifest changes in the physical world. Everyday we use magical words to get what we want – sometimes we get what we want by by speaking into small, shamanistic, expensive, electronic devices that hurl our words at the speed of light to people many miles away and within half an hour, they bring us a pizza.
What's that you say? Cellphones are not magical? I disagree. Cellphones are magical; cellphones employ the wizardry of contemporary technology to send our ideas, our desires, our pains, and our insights into a world of silence. Then, magically, what we send out comes back to us – reshaped, refined, and disguised as response that emerges from a collective intelligence that somehow has heard our intangible words and was moved by them. You do not need to understand the physics of frequencies to speak with someone on the other side of the world; you do not need to speak the magical tongue of binary code to send a text. Do you need to understand the mechanics of eloquence to make its magic work on your behalf to get you what you want? No, of course, not. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but magic rolls off the tongue.
Here, then, lies the paradox of leprechauns. What is the source of the leprechaun's magic and how do we explain its limitations? If the leprechaun's magic is powerful enough to produce pots of gold, then why isn't the magic powerful enough to defend the leprechaun from occasionally falling into the clutches of mere humans who can exploit his magic for their own personal gain? The rules seem simple enough: catch the leprechaun and hold him tightly in the grip of your fingers, and he will be obligated to grant you three wishes (or at the very least, a sugar-coated breakfast cereal packed with marshmallow shaped like stars and moons). Don't look away, the folklore warns, for if the leprechaun catches you looking away, even for a brief moment, he's sanctioned to blink away and leave you holding smoke. Three wishes – no wishing for extra wishes – three as in the Christian Godhead, the bones of your elbow, the states of time, and parts of an atom – three, that's all you get, three. There are stories that can explain where the leprechaun's gold comes from (I'll tell you below) and there are psychological explications for his diminutive size (yeah, I'll give you that too), but how do we explain how such a powerfully magical being is incapable of living other than as a fugitive? Leprechauns are always on the run; where are they running to? Where are they running from?
Some anthropological historians tie the stories of leprechauns to the Tuatha Dé Danann, a group from Irish mythology who were driven into hiding in underground dwellings to escape the bloody swords of Gallic invaders. Over the course of many centuries, as group after group of violent invaders arrived to plunder and kill the local population (no wonder there's so many people with a temper living in “ire”land), the Tuatha Dé Danann, or "peoples of the goddess Danu,” became literally smaller in the imaginations of the people who stayed to live on top of the ground as they envisioned the nearly forgotten ancestors who had vanished when they went underground. As for the “pots of gold” – throughout the many dark centuries when the constant threat of invasion hovered overhead like dark and menacing storm clouds, people who were able to accumulate a little wealth often buried their money in pots to keep it safe from being plundered by violent outsiders. When the original owners of these pots either died (from war, disease, accident, or malnutrition) or they simply forgot the right location for their buried treasure, then the “forgotten” riches became the windfall of the forgotten people who came to be known as the luchorpán, the Old Irish term that literally meant “small body.” After all, being an underground people gave them a valid claim to anything found beneath the soil.
And here, I'll give you some speculation. Why are the “pots of gold” to be found at the end of rainbows? My guess is that even without the Biblical influence of Genesis – in which God offers “the rainbow” as a gesture of His promise that He would henceforth eschew genocide to resolve any future disappoints He may be having with the human race – the rainbow is an archetype for peace because we see them so often after the violence of storms have passed. Once the violent invaders have left, it's safe to go dig up your pots; once the storm has passed, the rainbow will show you where you buried your wealth. It's almost as though the gold itself would be shedding its light to the sky instead of the other way around.
Leprechauns, of course, in our current popular imagination, are always wearing green outfits – which makes sense if you are small, secretly rich, and you need as much camouflage as you can to keep strangers from manhandling you. The Irish country is lush with its green flora. Oddly enough, however, the elfin mascot of Irish kitsch that we think of is inevitably clad in green is more a product of 20th century marketing than medieval folklore. Up until the late 19th century, the most common depiction of leprechaun in poetry and prose was in red, and even this was highly dependent upon the location in Ireland where the leprechaun was believed to be living; in some locations, he was just as apt to be clad in plain brown leather.
Here in the US, the most famous leprechaun is Lucky, the mascot for Lucky Charms. Lucky seems not to give a hoot for gold, but he's got a meth addict's mania for oddly-shaped marshmallows. Lucky Charms was the brainchild of a guy named John Holahan who in 1962 first came up with the idea of throwing marshmallows into breakfast cereal. In the history of “Great Food Ideas,” Holahan stands shoulder to shoulder with John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, who came up with the idea of sticking meat and cheese between bread so he could eat and play cards at the same time. Holahan's first idea for Lucky Charms is the marshmallows were supposed to represent the tiny icons that could be added to charm bracelets (which were in vogue in the early 1960s), but that idea eventually became crushed under the pagan mysticism of Lucky's occult affiliation with the Tuatha Dé Danann. According to the secret lore of General Mills, the different shapes of the marshmallows invoked a wide variety of shamanistic abilities: Shooting Stars gave consumers the power to fly, Horseshoes conveyed the power to speed things up, and Blue Moons could invoke the power of invisibility. Click here if you think I'm making this up.
Does God exist? Of course He does. How else can we explain that Lucky Charms is no longer available in Ireland. General Mills stopped selling their Lucky Charms in Ireland (and the rest of Great Britain for that matter) sometime in the mid 1990s. There are still some diehard fans in Ireland who pay roughly $12 a box online to have it shipped to them across the wide Atlantic ocean. General Mills most likely stopped selling the cereal in the United Kingdom because Lucky the Leprechaun became too politically incorrect to defend, and it was only a matter of time before someone called the cereal company out for using a twee character to hock their sugar. General Mills, of course, never felt obligated to explain why they decided to pull the plug on their overseas shipments. You say you don't believe in magic? Let me introduce you to the great wizard Amazon.com.
Keep thinking, rhetorically or otherwise, and I'll be back next week. And may you know nothing but happiness from this day forward; Happy St. Patrick's Day.