The Weekly Machen
Many a child across generations have discovered wonder and entertainment by flipping through the pages of a color-coded fairy book—each a treasure trove curated by the great Andrew Lang. (Only a few months ago, I gave a copy of the “pink” one to my young Goddaughter.) I will not go into the virtues of the great author or discuss the impressive gamut of his interests and successes, for Arthur Machen has already accomplished those tasks magnificently in the article below. I will only say, though it need not be said: read and re-read both Arthur Machen and Andrew Lang.
Unfortunately, the review which Machen references in this article has proven elusive.
Andrew of the Brindled Hair
July 22, 1912
Andrew Lang is dead; and English literature has sustained a loss which it will be difficult, perhaps impossible, to repair.
Last night, after his death but before the news of it had reached me, I was reviewing his latest book.
Perhaps it will turn out to be his last book—the “History of English Literature” (Longmans).
I had read it carefully; every page has something of interest to the lover of our noble English speech, the most admirable literary instrument in the world, and I was much struck by one feature in the work, that to me appeared, and still appears, highly curious and significant.
Looking over the article, I find the point in question stated thus:
“It may sound simple enough to know the date of Bunyan’s birth and the Christian name of Shakespeare’s grandfather, and yet preserve a sense of humour, but the evidence of most existing text books shows that this combination is, in fact, a rare one.”
And in this circumstance, in the capacity for uniting exact, accurate, and well-founded scholarship with the easy manner of a good after-dinner causeur, lay, I think, the reason of Andrew Lang’s popular success.
The Translator of Homer
For think of the interests of this wonderful man of letters; many of them were far from popular. He was an authority on Homer and the Homeric age, he was an excellent translator of Homer into rhythmical English prose; and Homer is scarcely a name to put in large type on a newspaper poster with the view of catching the man in the street.
Take other subjects: Totems, primitive custom generally, early magic, the link between the ways of the Blackfellow in the deserts of Australia and the stately ceremonies of classic Athens.
All these things were of the deepest interest to Lang: he knew them through and through. He shattered the tiresome and ridiculous “Sun Myth” and “decay of language” theories of Max Muller; he showed that the “mystic winnowing fan of Iacchus,” carried in the Greek mysteries was really a bull-roarer; he dived deep into the back of beyond of human thought and fantasy and custom; and yet his books were “good sellers”; the man in the street, somewhat, one imagines, to his own astonishment, found that the funeral customs of Boorioboolah Gha and the Laurel Procession at Athens were “live topics” – when Lang handled them.
Then consider ghosts. Lost of people like a ghost story done with the proper regard for magazine conventions. There is a market for more recondite super-normal experiences, if these be linked up with a love story of the usual pattern: witness the success of “Called Back.” And if the dealer in the supernatural is willing to be a solemn and complete quack and follow in the steps of the late Madame Blavatsky and Mr. W. Q. Judge he may succeed in founding a new religion.
Psychical Research Minus Quackery
But Andrew Lang studied his ghosts, his crystal gazings, his water divinings – he himself was a skilled “dowser” – without sentimentality and without quackery of any kind.
He came to these difficult and perplexed and dubious subjects in what I must call the perfect attitude of mind. On the one hand, he had a soul purged of the “scientific” absurdity – the supernatural does not exist. And, on the other hand, he was utterly remote from the gaping credulity which takes every tale the medium tells as ascertained truth and believes everything if only it is marvellous enough.
Andrew Lang was a leader in psychical research: he was always prepared to compare yesterday’s queer tale of a spook in the Edgware-road with the pre-historic tradition, a story from the classics, and an experience in the South Seas Islands: and yet he was a popular writer.
The secret of it was the way in which it was done. He had a literary temperament in perfection; that is, he was interested in everything, and, therefore, he could make everything interesting to others. Lang saw humanity and the thought of humanity as a whole, and he always saw it as highly significant. Life might be a puzzle; it certainly was a puzzle made up of a vast succession of enigmas great and small, and the dead writer set himself to solve as many of the minor riddles as possible, and he collected materials towards the solution of the great and universal problem.
His Human Outlook
Hence, I think the interest that he commanded; his mind was firm in the right attitude, the human attitude, and thus fortified he could do what he liked with his readers. The manners of some rude tribe – rude in every sense – even if it could be truly said of the race, “manners they have none, and their customs are disgusting,” became entrancing when Lang handled them, because he viewed them and reviewed them with reference to the whole sphere of human thought and the human spirit; he saw that serpent worshippers are as truly men as stockbrokers, and that the customs of the black swamp are as truly human as the customs of Surbiton.
In the article which I wrote last night I had pointed out in all good humour and pleasantry that this learned man was not absolutely infallible. I showed that he had done less than justice to Mr. Pickwick as a runner – no less than five sprints are set down to the credit of that great man. Mr. Lang had fallen into error in the grave matter of Sam Weller and Sterne’s dead donkey; and, worse than all, he spoke of Stareleigh. J., as “Mr. Justice Stareleigh.” It is soothing to one who does know a thousandth part of what Andrew Lang knew to find that he is better informed on a few trivialities than the encyclopædic Lang.
Andrew Lang carried one secret, at all events, to the grave with him: he and he alone knew all about the murder in “Kidnapped.”
Who murdered the red Campbell? Breck knew, but to him the crime was a matter of small consequence; as he put it, he had never noticed any scarcity of Campbells, and so one Campbell less was a trifling misfortune, if a misfortune at all.
And Andrew Lang, who discusses the case in his “Historical Mysteries,” knew also, but he did not tell.
Has he left us in his papers the key to the mystery?
Previous: The Life Worth Living
Next: The Night Sky of London