…He went to come out of theater then. “Do not come out, said Ailill, “till you bring me a branch of that mountain-ash on the bank of the river. Beautiful I think its berries.” He went away then and broke a spray from the tree, and carried it on his back through the water. And this was what Findabhair used to say afterwards of any beautiful thing which she saw, that she thought it more beautiful to see Froech across the dark pool; the body so white and the hair so lovely, the face so shapely , the eye so blue, and he a tender youth without fault or blemish, with face narrow below and broad above, and he straight and spotless, and the branch with the red berries between the throat and the white face…
-Froech in the Dark Pool, from A Celtic Miscellany, p.249
What is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen? Some might thing the answer to this question must be something bordering on the abstract and ethereal, like a lovely sunset or a bright starry sky. Some might think of the sexiest man or woman they can remember, perhaps from the cover of a magazine. Someone steeped in scripture and closing their eyes might consider the adoration of Christ enthroned in heaven, though that is, of course, is yet to be revealed. Others may think of a perfectly built machine – it’s gears interlocking with great precision. A young child, filled with wonder and smiling, can be incredibly beautiful.
In the passage above, what does Ailill say, for the rest of her life, was the most beautiful thing she ever saw? Some dude wading through the water holding a stick. That would probably not be your first guess, but context is immensely important. The young man is at the height of physical beauty and courting her. He brings her a gift – a token that reminds her of one of her favorite things and places from nature. It’s highly subjective.
We are always told that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, and to the degree that this is used to acknowledge that what is considered beautiful highly effected by the formation of the viewer and the context, this is true. But when this phrase is used to brush aside the possibility of absolutes and to make ugliness and evil equal with good and light, then it does the devil’s work – quite literally.