The Weekly Machen
In our previous installment, we found Arthur Machen suffering from “the flu” in early May 1913. In mid-June of the same year, his doctor ordered him on a rest cure. It is not known if he still fought the same bout or had caught a second dose of the illness.
Taking the medical advice, Machen headed to his favorite haunt in Pembrokeshire, Wales. In the years to come, this location would inspire his greatest fiction of the decade including Out of the Earth, The Great Return (both 1915) and The Terror (1917). However, in this earlier news article, we may already detect the wonder the place would provide the writer. By incorporating legend and using his unique style and thematic emphasis, Machen wrote one the most beautiful articles we’ve yet published in this series.
Our Lost Paradise is included in Dreamt In Fire: The Dreadful Ecstasy of Arthur Machen, first released at the 2021 Inklings Festival. A few copies remain of this limited edition.
Our Lost Paradise
June 18, 1913
The doctor said, “A fortnight at least,” and added, with some severity of voice and aspect, “when people keep saying that they can’t get away, it usually ends in their having to go way.”
He looked as if he meant what he said and babbled of Brighton; and so, to keep a little of my own way, I came to Pembrokeshire.
And this afternoon I was lying in genial sunlight on a turfy, sheltered ledge, some hundred and fifty feet above softly-booming, deep-swelling sea, and I tried to think of phrases in which to infuriate readers of the Evening News with envy of my fate, in which to drive them to the homes of influenza patients, so that they might catch the disease and come to the shores of Penvro, and be happy.
The sun was warm on the grey rock behind me, and glowed on its golden lichens, and lit up the sea pinks flowering in the crevices; it glittered on the “unnumbered laughter”—the Greek is untranslatable— of the sea. Far away, looking to the west, the limestone headlands fade into shining mist, and mist mingles the blue sea line with the unearthly blue of the sky: it is in the mist, as Mr. Buchan knows well, that we true Celts look for the appearance of the isle called Avalon, that apple-garth beyond the glassy floods, where one day we shall pass in the coracle of the saints and be healed of all our wounds and rest at last.
I thought of these things as the smooth billows surged up the rocks and burst into white blossom, and echoed in the caves beneath. I thought, too, of the deep, ferny lanes and wander inland through an enchanted country, of the rich wildness of their banks, and of the honeysuckle that is now justing coming into flower, of the vale of the Ashgrove that no guidebook knows; a place of deep faerie; mystical, enchanting. And there is the far-reaching marshland, where the irises are all clear gold, and beside it the orchard-spires are blooming in pale and deep purples.
The sweetness of the breath of the sea mingles with the sweetness of the breath of the wood; the little stream breaks from the fountain in the hill, and goes on shining and rejoicing on its way, and the rich note of the blackbird swells and thrills out of the green gloom of the thicket. I thought of these things, and then I remembered that it is only given to high masters and initiates to translate the wonder and mystery of the earth into common speech.
Therefore, I fall back on an ancient legend, which has this Pembrokeshire coast for its most significant scene. The story is the Mabinogion, and concerns a British hero—or demigod rather—called Bendigeid Vran: Bran the Blessed, son of Llyr, and “crowned king of this island.”
Bran, the story goes, was wounded in the foot by a poisoned arrow in a fight with Irish warriors; and he commanded his followers to cut off his head.
In Harlech you will be feasting seven years, the birds of Rhiannon signing unto the while, and all that time the head will be to you as pleasant company as it ever was when on my body. And at Gwales in Penvro you will be fourscore years, and the head with you uncorrupted, until you open the door that looks towards Aber Henvelen, and towards Cornwall.
The heroes heard in Harlech the song of the three magic birds, “and all the songs they had ever heard were unpleasant compares thereto”: and then they came to the great hall in Penvro overlooking the ocean. Two doors were, and the third door, the door that looked on Cornwall, was shut.
And there they remained fourscore years, unconscious of ever having spent a time more joyous and mirthful. And they were not more weary than when they first came, neither did they, any of them, know the time they had been there. And it was not more irksome to them having the head with them, than if Bendigied Vran had been with them himself. And because of these fourscore years, it was called “the Entertaining of the Noble Head.”
It is easy to guess the end of the story. One of the heroes opened the forbidden door and they all looked towards Cornwall, and immediately were plunged into misery and desolation; their entertaining was over forever.
It is a strange legend and a very ancient one; I do not think there are any traces in it of mediaeval “infection.” There are faint hints of it in the Graal legend; Bran or Vran is, I believe, the prototype of the maimed “King Fisherman” in whose castle the Holy Vessel is kept; and the Glorious Head that appears with the Graal in one version of the story is surely the Noble Head that entertained the heroes in the hall looking the ocean. And, to my astonishment, I found that a tribe of American Indians has a tale which offers strong resemblances to this Bran mythos.
But the chief interest to me in the legend is its obvious and universal truth. It is as true as the tale of Lost Atlantis, that city of the soul that was overwhelmed by the great deluge, and now lies deep beneath the waves. It is as true as the story of Adam and his lost garden; and, indeed, as I grow older it appears to me that it is only these old tales that are in the proper sense of the term true at all: that it is a pity that some other word cannot be found to express our confidence in the accuracy of the information that the newspapers and our friends give us about the Stock Exchange and the House of Commons, Ethel’s engagement to Bill Smith, and the ruin that the green fly is working on the Wimbledon roses. In a certain restricted sense these items of intelligence are true; in an infinitely larger—indeed, in an eternal—sense the legends of Bran and Atlantis and Adam are the truth.
For we, all of us, were present with Adam in his paradise; we, all of us, have looked down through the deep dim waters, and have seen far below the incredible spires of Lost Atlantis; we have all shared in the Entertaining of the Noble Head.
It is the thought of what we have lost that makes for our sorrow and our regret and our unrest; but it makes also for our greatest joys. For all art is an effort to recall and recreate the delights and wonders of the realms from which we have by some sad fate or error wandered. Music, painting, literature, and architecture: these are the ways in which we try to restore the sights and sounds and marvels of the spiritual palace from which we have been driven.
Previous: In Bed With “The Flu”
Next: The Joy of London II
2 thoughts on “Our Lost Paradise”
One would like to know what Machen would have thought of Kenneth Morris’s retelling of the Bran story as Book of the Three Dragons.
Machen needed a threefold, I think, rather than just a twofold scheme, for this discussion of “truth” and “true.”
There are the events about which we may read in newspapers, whose accounts should be censured when publicists, journalists, and editors falsify those events. There are also the events and persons of myths that may convey truths about our human situation in the world in the form of wonder stories that are not accounts of actual events. Then there are the narratives, possessed of mythic power, that are also records of actual events. No one really did cross Bifrost, the rainbow bridge, but the children of Israel really did cross the Yam Suph, the Sea of Reeds, at the Exodus. Though I’m not sure Machen would have believed that.
A little searching tells me the untranslatable “unnumbered laughter” is from Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, line 90 (spoken by Prometheus), and that “and all the songs they had ever heard were unpleasant compares thereto” is quoted from Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation of the Mabinogion, from “Branwen the Daughter of Llyr” (p. 46 in the copy of the May 1906 reprint of the Everyman edition at the University of Michigan, scanned in the Internet Archive). Do we know if Machen knew David Jones’s In Parenthesis (1937)? The passage beginning “we, all of us, were present with Adam in his paradise” reminds me of the mysterious poetry attributed to Taliesin (see. e.g., pp. 273-74 of that Everyman Mabinogion) with which Charles Williams, David Jones, and Vernon Watkins variously played. The first clause also reminds me of something Williams writes in The Forgiveness of Sins (1942) with respect to the thought that each and all were present and participated personally in the Fall of Man – which I don’t think I had associated with that ‘Taliesinic’ verse until now!