Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Clark's "The Wind and the Snow of Winter" and Celtic Oisin

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Clark's "The Wind and the Snow of Winter" and Celtic Oisin

Article excerpt

The Wind and the Snow of Winter," published in 1944, earned Walter Van Tilburg Clark a first prize in the O. Henry awards. It's a powerful story and one that I would like to argue plays out a mythic pattern the experiential significance of which is increased when viewed against the ancient Celtic legend of wandering Oisin. Clark was familiar with Celtic mythology, just how familiar is not certain; but since Oisin is a key figure in the Irish/ Celtic Fenian Cycle of legends, Clark obviously knew the story. Also, as discussed below, Clark published a poem in 1935 on Fionn MacCumhaill entitled "The Hounds of Finn." Oisin, in most accounts, is Fionn's son.

"The Wind and the Snow of Winter" traces the movements of an old gold prospector named Mike Braneen who has been prospecting in the Sierra Nevada mountains for 52 years. At the beginning of nearly every winter, Mike Braneen has left the mountains and has traveled with his burro down into the desert town of Gold Rock, where he stays until spring calls him back to the mountains to continue the balancing cycle. As the story opens, Braneen and his burro, Annie, are traveling toward Gold Rock on an old road that dates back to the Comstock days. Nearby, however, at this point in narrative time, is a paved highway for automobiles. The contrast is intended and is sharp: Mike Braneen, from a past time, is now historically displaced. Yet, in spite of the highway and the automobiles, he looks forward to his annual return to Gold Rock, his home, to sit out the winter:

There were only three or four winters out of the fifty-two when he

hadn't gone home to Gold Rock, to his old room at Mrs. Wright's, up on

fourth street, and to his meals in the dining room at the International

House, and to the Lucky Boy, where he could talk to

Tom Connover and his other friends, and play cards, or have a drink to

hold in his hand while he sat and remembered. (355)(1)

This journey, however, is different. Walking through the valleys on his way down, he "hadn't felt quite the same." In fact, he felt "younger . . . more awake," and yet in a strange way also "older . . . suddenly older" (356). Walking so far was hard for him now:

He bad kept thinking about distance. Also the snowy cold had searched

out the regions of his body where old injuries had healed. . . . The

rheumatism in his joints, which was so old a companion that it usually

made him feel no more than tightknit and stiff, and the place where his

leg had been broken and torn . . . ached, and had a pulse he could count.

All this made him believe that he was walking more slowly than usual,

although nothing, probably not even a deliberate attempt, could actually

have changed his pace. Sometimes he even thought, with a moment of

fear, that he was getting tired. (356; emphasis added)

When he arrives at Gold Rock, Mike Braneen finds that time and circumstances have changed; it's a different world: Tom Connover is gone and the Lucky Boy Tavern is boarded up. His friends, "Henry Bray with the gray walrus mustache, and Mark Wilton and Pat Gallagher" are gone (360). Mrs. Wright, who ran the boarding house where he stayed, is dead. "She died quite a while ago," a puzzled man on the street tells him, in response to Mike's query (363).

In his years, Braneen has been a dreamer, a wanderer, whose strong sense of barroom fellowship earned him the loyalty of his band of cronies in Gold Rock. But he now faces the distance he was contemplating as he journeyed down from the mountains, distance that separates him from his old familiar world. At the end of the narrative, he moves off into a mystical light coming from a street lamp where his shadow is "obscured by the innumerable tiny shadows" of the falling white snowflakes. His shadow lengthens in the street light as he walks off into the darkness (363). …

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