The Great Return Series, Part One
Note: The following essay assumes a familiarity with the text. Spoilers abound.
Throughout his novella The Great Return, Arthur Machen goes to some length in describing nature with vibrant terms. Recall the following example from the second chapter:
“A land that seemed to be in a holy, happy dream, a sea that changed all the while from olivine to emerald, from emerald to sapphire, from sapphire to amethyst, that washed in white foam at the bases of the firm, grey rocks, and about the huge crimson bastions that hid the western bays and inlets of the waters; to this land I came…” 1
This is not merely a poetic appreciation of the Welsh countryside, but rather an attempt the decipher from the natural, material world a glimpse into a deeper reality. It can be seen as a conscious attempt on Machen’s part to construct for the reader a spiritual landscape, a transmuted geography oriented toward the paradisaical.
In contrast, we find the war-fatigued capital portrayed in this way:
“In London there was no such weather; it rather seemed as if the horror and fury of the war had mounted to the very skies and were there reigning…The city wore a terrible vesture; within our hearts was dread; without we were clothed in black clouds and angry fire.” 2
Later, Machen returns to highly descriptive language when referring to a different sort of landscape. Note the effects of a hallucinogenic drug upon the experimenting doctor:
“And as he gazed, he would presently become aware that all the stones were living stones, that they were quickening and palpitating, and then that they were glowing jewels, say, emeralds, sapphires, rubies, opals, but of hues that the mortal eye had never seen.”
Next, Machen hones his point:
“That description gives, I think, some faint notion of the nature of the transmuted world into which these people by the sea had entered…” 3
In these passages, the author paints the scenes not with mundane language but with striking terms such as “transmuted” and “living stones.”4 which easily conjures alchemy. Even from his youth, Machen held a lifelong interest in alchemy as a subject, and so, his works are peppered with its language and symbolism. The Great Return is no exception.
Naturally, alchemy refers to magic, not the stagecraft used to deceive an audience into believing an illusion, but the supposed methods used by magicians to manipulate material or immaterial elements to achieve a desired result. Does Machen mean to suggest that the events of the story are results of magic? This can not be supported. In The Great Return, there are no magicianswielding power in order to affect the landscape or turn villagers into beings of light. In fact, no occultist or mystic is even aware of the miraculous events of Llantrisant. When, the narrator brings it to the mind of an occultist friend, the profundity of the tale passes him by! 5
In The Great Return, one may read terms such as transmutation as a cipher or symbol of something greater. Yet, is transmutation an accurate term for the vision Machen is attempting to describe? No, quite imperfect, but Machen would probably agree. Since his use of the symbolism of alchemy is not an end in and of itself, the alchemical references represents another example of Machen employing hieroglyphs to express an inexpressible reality.
So indeed, the world in The Great Return is described as transmuted, but the way in which it is used points toward transfiguration. This is biblical terminology for sure, and it isn’t applied here lightly. 6 Centered on Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, a rich tradition of theological thought has blossomed over the centuries.
From St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359): “Thus, the Light of the Transfiguration of the Lord is not something that comes to be and then vanishes, nor is it subject to the sensory faculties, although it was contemplated by corporeal eyes for a short while upon an inconsequential mountaintop. But the initiates of the Mystery, (the disciples) of the Lord at this time passed beyond mere flesh into spirit through a transformation of their senses, effectualized within them by the Spirit, and in such a way that they beheld what, and to what extent, the Divine Spirit had wrought blessedness in them to behold the Ineffable Light.” 7
Transfiguration can not be magic. The events are brought about by the Uncreated God, in the guise of the Grail and the Celtic Saints (both hieroglyphs). Rather than being changed into something else in the manner of alchemy, the landscape and villagers are revealed as they truly are.
How does transfiguration unfold in the pages of The Great Return?
By the time we reach the first church service in Chapter 6, we discover “eyes that had been growing dim now saw clearly, and saw a world that was like Paradise.” This reformation of the fallen human, even the reformation of his biological fiber, allowed the witness of “the same world, it is true, but a world rectified and glowing, as if an inner flame shone in all things, and behind all things.” 8 Through a transformation of their senses, the villagers are allowed to witness that which is always present, but unseen- the doxified (or glorified) reality of creation. For a time, its true state is revealed.
Machen continues to provide numerous examples of this sort of transmutation-transfiguration. The intervention of the Three Fishermen, or Three Saints, causes the deaf to hear and the ailing to recover. Even a ship’s mast becomes an ineffable joy to touch! This delight of the deeper reality in things and behind things proceeds from this transfigurative process.
Most central to this concept laid out by Machen is the instance of the farmer on the platform which has a precedent in the bright appearance of the rector. It is at this point in the story that we receive the first real jolt. In fact, Machen describes himself as almost frightened at “an illuminated face, glowing with an ineffable joy, and I thought it rather gave light to the platform lamp than received light from it.” 9 And in this exquisite claim, we discover a truth dreadful and awe-inspiring in its connotation, for what it reveals at the fundamentally anthropological level: man is more than material, more than animal. In true reality, man is transfigured and therefore cosmologically significant and exalted. He is not depraved as in Calvinistic terms, nor merely tissue as the materialist would claim. As to the rightful conclusion of this process, Machen offers a suggestion: “A wayside station and a darkening country, and it was as if they [mother and child] were welcomed by shining, immortal gladness—even into paradise.” [Emphasis by Machen in the original text.] 10
Interestingly, this platform episode recalls an earlier event from Machen’s life, where he describes being struck by seeing a family with unengaged demeanors and bored expressions:
“And yet, I said to myself, these two have partaken together of the great mystery, of the great sacrament of nature, of the source of all that is magical in the wide world. But have they discerned the mysteries? Do they know that they have been in that place which is called Syon and Jerusalem?” 11
According to Machen, this incident had inspired the composition of A Fragment of Life, an earlier and perhaps, more brilliant novella. But, it can be also felt here. As opposed to the world-weary family, the young farmer represents the vision of man at his most real, revealed truly in type and illumined by Taboric glory.
Seeing the young man transfigured has a critical impact upon the narrator, drawing him, and his readers, deeper into the mystery and elevating a consuming interest in it from mere curiosity. As it is presented to us before Machen details any other of occurrences of Llantrisant, its profundity has a tendency to overshadow some of the later things we encounter, however miraculous in their own right. In essence, this episode places the reader on a summit, lofty in it own right, but still below the pinnacle of Olwen’s dramatic recovery. From transfiguration, we proceed toward resurrection…
1 The Great Return (Darkly Bright Press, 2017), page 9.
3 Ibid, page 42.
4 Not only an alchemical reference, “living stones” is also found an example of biblical phraseology. Refer to 1 Peter 2:4-5.
5 “And here I would say in parenthesis that on returning to town I sought out a very old friend of mine, a man who has devoted a lifetime to strange and esoteric studies. I thought that I had a tale that would interest him profoundly, but I found that he heard me with a good deal of indifference.”—The Great Return, page 28. It is quite tempting to name the identity of this occultist friend to be that of Arthur Edward Waite (1857-1942). Waite fulfills both conditions by virtue of his esoteric activities and being a lifelong friend of Arthur Machen.
6 All three synoptic Gospels record this event. Refer to Matthew 17:1–8; Mark 9:2–8 and Luke 9:28–36.
7 Homily on the Transfiguration by St. Gregory Palamas.
8 The Great Return, page 39.
9 Ibid, page 18.
10 Ibid, page 19.
11 From Machen’s Introduction to The House of Souls (London; Grant Richards, 1906).