Even a casual reader may gather that Arthur Machen wrestled with angels. In 1914, our author found himself embroiled in a controversy that remains one of the most curious incidents of the Great War. The miraculous escape of the British Expeditionary Force from destruction by a superior German army became a breeding ground of supernatural claims. Angels, saints and spectral archers were given credit for delivering unhoped-for salvation to the beleaguered British troops. Yet, Machen, inspired by the battle in Belgium, had penned just such a scenario in the pages of the Evening News entitled The Bowmen. Nonplussed by the rapid growth of his idle invention into a broadly-held public belief, Machen attempted to to set the record straight, but instead, heaped upon his own head fury, denial and ridicule. And so, he waged a losing battle. There have even been recent suggestions that some of the published attacks on Machen were orchestrated propaganda efforts by British intelligence. (For more on that curious twist to the story, see Bleiler, Richard J. The Strange Case of “The Angels of Mons”: Arthur Machen’s World War I Story, the Insistent Believers, and His Refutations. [McFarland, 2015].)
A year later, Machen was tasked to write the following article on the traditional Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. The still-raging controversy haunts the fringes, as Machen struggles to reconcile the new prominence of angels against the otherwise rationalist mind-scape of modern war-weary Britain. Combining his gift for self-deprecation whilst remaining defiant, Machen asks his readers to consider the bodiless powers from a different perspective: one hidden, yet glorious.
Special thanks to Adam Trionfo for transcribing this rare article.
September 28, 1915
Once, not so many years ago, there was a violent renewal of an old question, that question of the strife between master and man which is sometimes called the industrial difficulty. All unwilling and unskilled in these high matters, I had been called in, and ordered to give my opinion from my own point of view. Was Bounderby right, or had Slackbridge the better cause?1
With my back to the wall, I said that I thought both Bounderby and Slackbridge quite hopelessly wrong, and that what they both wanted was to seek the Kingdom of God and His Righteousness. Soon after this pronouncement I found myself sitting next to a well-known and accomplished journalist at dinner. He did not exactly edge away from me, but he contrived pretty plainly to let me know his opinion of me—that I was a peculiarly unctuous and noisome hypocrite, compared with whom Chadband and Stiggins2 were upright and straight-dealing characters. I bore his contempt meekly, and now I am afraid that I am going to incur it once more. I must try to bear it again as well as I can.
For to-morrow is the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, and I, all in darkness, am to write about these pure and shining lights, these clear flames of the heavenly fire. I can begin no better than by quoting the Collect of the Day from the English Prayer Book, which is a translation from the Roman Missal.
“O Everlasting God, who hast ordained and constituted the services of Angels and men in a wonderful order: Mercifully grant that as Thy holy Angels always do Thee service in heaven, so by Thy appointment they can succour and defend us on earth: Through…” 3
The Roman Epistle is taken from the first chapter of the Book of Revelation; the English from the twelfth chapter of the same book, beginning with the tremendous words: “There was war in Heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon.” Both the English and the Latin rite have for the gospel that chapter from St. Matthew which contains the words: “Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.” 4
That is the doctrine of angels; and I hope that we are more ready to receive it than we were a few years ago. It is not so long since a supposed “High Church” catechism was denounced by some wretched politician because it taught that at the Sacring of the Mass the church was full of angels.5 Clearly an intolerable state of things, the politician seemed to say, and indeed there is a great gulf set between the chorus of “Yah, yah!” “Order, order,” “Chair, chair,” and the rest of that pestilential Parliamentary gibberish—and the chorus angelorum.
But in these days there seems a more tolerant spirit abroad. I gather that in many quarters quite remote from High Anglicanism there is a disposition to credit angelic intervention and to welcome it. I will not discuss here the tales that have been told of the angels who came to the help of our heroes about Mons; I have debated this matter elsewhere, even to satiety and disgust.6 I simply register the fact that the Angels, formally forbidden the precincts of the altar, are now kindly and popularly allowed to range freely on the battlefield. Anglican bishops, Evangelical Churchmen, Protestant Nonconformists have, as it were, “passed” the Holy Angels: there is no more to be said.
Without entering into that controversy of the Angels of Mons, without affirming or denying any shining apparitions, I would modestly give it as my own opinion that angelic intervention is not customarily after this glorious kind in these later days. I do not think that the age which has followed the false prophet and his gospel of a pound a day for every man is worthy beholding the visiting splendour of the angelic host. I think that these messengers come to these lower, faithless courts in the disguise of mortality, and sometimes the disguise is a very odd one indeed.
Let me not be misunderstood. I am not in the vein of pious rationalism. I do not mean that good men are, in effect, God’s messengers and ministers. I am somewhat in the position of Elias Ashmole, who said of the Hermetic Mystery that he knew enough to hold his tongue, but not enough to speak.7 But a man I know has told me that on two occasions he was convinced that there had been a heavenly interposition in his affairs. In neither case did he recognize the true character of the “messenger” while he spoke with him, nor were his eyes opened till sometime after the meeting or meetings. In neither case did the messenger bear the faintest imprint of sanctity. 8
But my friend was convinced, though he found it impossible to furnish logical reasons for his conviction. He says the truth of the matter and of the “messengers” dawned on him, and he has no doubt at all. He does not say that those two men were not human beings; he would, I think, rather say that they were persons charged with a message of the highest import, which they themselves did not even begin to comprehend.
Let it be clearly understood that in these cases there was no evidence; certainly no “evidence” of the kind to which we have been lately accustomed. My friend saw neither dark clouds nor light clouds, nor any sudden appearance of shining supernal beauty in the Strand. He did not recognize either of his interlocutors as St. Michael the Archangel from the likeness of the figure before him to the stained glass image in his parish church.9 There was nothing at all of that, or of anything like it. But, I gather, there was a chain of circumstances, each quite ordinary in itself, which taken together made, as it were, a distinct and unmistakable message.
I was once talking to my friend on this business and hesitating a doubt as to the validity of his conclusions. “Look here,” he said, “If you get one of these jig-saw puzzles, and succeed in fitting all the pieces together so that the picture is perfectly reproduced you don’t talk of the reproduction as an accident or a coincidence. The pieces fit, the picture is reproduced; there is no more to be said.”
He knew, or thought he knew that he had entertained angels unawares.
1 Characters from Hard Times (1854), a novel by Charles Dickens, Bounderby and Slackbridge represent opposite sides of the labor issue with the former standing for capital and the latter for trade unionism. Both figures behave less than honestly in pursuing their agendas. In May 1912, Machen penned a series in the Evening News on labor unrest in which he suggested a spiritual remedy to the social conflict. While these articles received a lively response from the public, Machen’s series was, itself a response to articles written by H. G. Wells for the Daily Mail. As a coda to this incident, both men met to discuss their views on labor and other matters which found publication the following month. See A Quiet Talk with Mr. H. G. Wells.
2 Another pair of Dickensian characters, Reverend Chadband (Bleak House, 1853) and Mr. Stiggins (The Pickwick Papers, 1837) are both religious hypocrites. Using the name of the latter, Machen distilled all he disliked about popular Protestantism and the materialist gospel in the form of an “unctuous and noisome” title character of his own. Published in 1906, Dr. Stiggins: His Views and Principles presents a religious satire that is often considered one of Machen’s failures, yet one may argue that it remains misunderstood.
3 Curiously excluded, this collect ends with the following words: “Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
4 Matthew 18:1-10.
5 Being that the Church of England is the established church, its internal affairs have often been put to scrutiny by the secular House of Commons, an institution with many members outside the church and its theology.
6 Machen is not employing hyperbole here, for a glance at his article listing for the Evening News during this period is replete with stories addressing the Angel of Mons controversy. This area of study will receive future attention from Darkly Bright Press.
7 Elias Ashmole (1671-1692) was an English politician and student, though probably not a practitioner, of alchemy. He translated and published several alchemical works in English.
8 Several years before this article, Machen described a similar experience of his own in The Young Man in the Blue Serge Suit (1913). See Brightly Dark: The Dreadful Ecstasy of Arthur Machen, Darkly Bright Press, 2017.
9 During the Angel of Mons controversy, Machen publicly criticized a similar report in which an unnamed witness claimed to see St. George as identified on an English coin. From his Postscript to The Angel of Mons, The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War:
“While this volume was passing through the press, Mr. Ralph Shirley, the Editor of “The Occult Review” called my attention to an article that is appearing in the August issue of his magazine, and was kind enough to let me see the advance proof sheets.
The article is called “The Angelic Leaders.” It is written by Miss Phyllis Campbell. I have read it with great care.
Miss Campbell says that she was in France when the war broke out. She became a nurse, and while she was nursing the wounded she was informed that an English soldier wanted a “holy picture.” She went to the man and found him to be a Lancashire Fusilier. He said that he was a Wesleyan Methodist, and asked “for a picture or medal (he didn’t care which) of St. George… because he had seen him on a white horse, leading the British at Vitry-le-François, when the Allies turned.”
This statement was corroborated by a wounded R.F.A. man who was present. He saw a tall man with yellow hair, in golden armour, on a white horse, holding his sword up, and his mouth open as if he was saying, “Come on, boys! I’ll put the kybosh on the devils.” This figure was bareheaded—as appeared later from the testimony of other soldiers—and the R.F.A. man and the Fusilier knew that he was St. George, because he was exactly like the figure of St. George on the sovereigns. “Hadn’t they seen him with his sword on every ‘quid’ they’d ever had?”