The Weekly Machen

Typically a critic of education in the Great Britain of his time, Arthur Machen is quite sympathetic to the aims of the educators in the following article. Though he complains of the use of jargon, he thoroughly approves of the direction that is taken… towards Fairyland. As a result, we find an inspired Machen at his best, that is, finding wonder in the ordinary and reorienting his readers to the mysterious reality surrounding them.

Though the identity of this particular “Lady Campbell” has proven elusive, Marie Shedlock (1854-1935) was an influential promoter of oral storytelling and wrote The Art of the Story-Teller. Inspired by Charlotte Mason, the Parents’ National Educational Union was founded in 1887 to assist homeschooling students and parents.

Parents at School in Fairyland
Arthur Machen
May 7, 1912

Yesterday for those who journeyed towards a certain ancient and illustrious town of England, there were strange and significant sights to be seen.

The sights began at Waterloo Station. Waterloo is of all stations the place of confusion. But yesterday there was a sure guide through its mazes.

I do not know whether he had protectors or tutors who were not obvious to my eyes, but he seemed gravely to thread the labyrinth of the great and intricate terminus with perfect assurance. He moved amongst the whirl with glowing and perfect assurance, a splendid figure, scarcely three feet high.

It was a little boy, clad from head to foot in a blazing suit of rough and tufted scarlet cloth, holding in his hand a golden trumpet; and he moved in all the humour of state to the train which was taking the London children down to Winchester.

Lilliput was in full pilgrimage; the Flaming Trumpeter held his head high amongst peers. Gaily they piled into the carriages, small, bullet-headed boys, pretty little girls with manes of loose hair, dark or golden: “then they departed—when the guard whistled—and came to Camelot, that is called in English, Winchester.” That is a quotation from the General Programme of the Children’s Gathering at the Guildhall, Winchester; and it is also a quotation from Malory.

Parents Back at School

The gathering has been organised by the Parents’ National Educational Union, and to quote Lady Campbell’s speech at the opening meeting, the business of the Union and the business of the Gathering is to form and exhibit a “school for training parents.” On such high matters was intent and bent the six-year-old herald in the flaming vestment, holding the glittering trumpet. His face was turned to Camelot; to the undying city of old romance.

Now, there are things much too deep for me in the Philosophy of the Parents’ Educational Union.

Their synopsis instructs me that

     The mind is not a receptacle into which ideas may be dropped, each idea adding to an “apperception mass” of its like, the theory on which rests the Herbertian doctrine of interest.

      We hold, on the contrary, that the child’s mind is no mere sack to hold ideas, but it is rather (if the figure may be allowed) a spiritual organism with an appetite for all knowledge.

I daresay this may be so, but personally I don’t know what it is all about, and my dislike of such phrases as “apperception mass” grows with years, as Panurge’s dread of drinking bad wine. I hate all jargon, especially scientific jargon.

Yet I feel sure that the union in the gathering are in the right way. I am convinced of this by what I read, by what I heard, and by what I saw.

The last first. In the Winchester Guildhall there is a little quaint exhibition of the small scholars’ work. All sorts of crafts and doings and writings are contained in it; there are toys, and models, and scout books, and pictures which beat the Post-Impressionists at their own game. What what won my heart, as a citizen of Caerleon-on-Usk, was the insistence of King Arthur, lord of Caerleon and Camelot. And in honour of this mystic and mighty sovereign one little scholar had made the image of his funeral barge, that bore the king to Avalon, “the isle beyond the glassy waterfloods.”

All black was the pasteboard hull, black was the calico sail, and in black raiment were the Three Queens with crowns of gold who awaited the king of faerie, to sustain him in his voyage to the happy isle of the undying.

The Reality of Romance

And then, as I have here said, I saw the motto of the programme was, “Then they departed and came to Camelot.”

And, lastly, at the Guildhall meeting, Lady Campbell spoke of Winchester’s “strange spell,” the sense of great adventure “with which we find ourselves in Camelot.”

Marie Shedlock

And if I could have stayed a little longer I should have heard Miss Marie Shedlock tell “Fairy Tales and Arthurian Legends.”

Clearly the Parents’ Educational Union has lifted its eyes unto the hills, it has set its face towards Syon. Though it may murmur with its lips of “apperception masses” and “Herbertian doctrines,” its spirit is rightly directed; it clearly recognises that the only reality is to be found in the art of romance.

King Arthur’s Table was, we know, an image of the mighty world; and so parents and children are being instructed this week at Winchester that if they would understand the universe, they must first of all imagine Fairyland.

Geography is all very well, and follows in its proper order; but it is above all things necessary to be instructed in the navigation and traversing of perilous seas and faery lands forlorn. Manchester must be mastered; but first of all let us be established in positions of Camelot and Caerleon and Joyous Garde, and, above all, of Avalon.

Or, in Lady Campbell’s words: “Religion is the basis of our work”; which is to say that if anyone would know earth he must first of all know heaven.

With the Immortals

And so up and down the steep, ancient street of Winchester marched the troops of sturdy round-headed boys and little long-locked girls, and their elder sisters and their fathers and mothers. In the old Georgian inns, with red brick fronts and grave bow-windows, rice pudding was at a premium; it vanished as “right Nantz” must have vanished in the Low Countries when our armies fell upon a town and captured it.

I turned aside from the main street and went under the fresh, sweet leaves of the limes to the cathedral, to the entrance of that ancient place, grey and holy and tremendous, storied with all the precious and wonderful work of the Middle Ages: the mystery of mysteries exhibited in stone.

And there, as it happened, before the solemn carven portal, was a little boy, fancifully dressed in pale blue, with flowered embroideries.

He stood before the mystery of the world, he paused before the entrance to the secrets of the angels; and so, all young life, as Lady Campbell insisted, must be based on this sense of wonder and worship. New green leaf, old grey stone, and a little child between; here, indeed, is an image of the world.

The Weekly

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Introduction and supplementary material – Copyright 2022 by Christopher Tompkins. All rights reserved.

One thought on “Parents at School in Fairyland

  1. While Britain and various parts of Europe have an advantage where “old grey stone” is concerned, I suspect all sorts of Gothic, Romanesque, and Byzantine Revival buildings around the world have contributed to fostering wonder, as well as all sorts of (re)tellings of Fairy Tales and Arthurian (and other Chivalric) Legends. Machen notes both that “the motto of the programme was, ‘Then they departed and came to Camelot'” and that “all young life, as Lady Campbell insisted, must be based on this sense of wonder and worship”. Checking (with the aid of Project Gutenberg and the ease of searching its texts) Malory, I find that the motto is from the beginning of Chapter X of Book XII, and refers to Lancelot, Percivale, and Ector – appropriately, in the context of the Quest for the Holy Grail.

    (Machen’s other quotations elude me – I could not find “the isle beyond the glassy waterfloods” in Tennyson’s Idylls, or the various Swinburne collections I tried… Nor could I find “right Nantz” in Rabelais – but suspect it refers to Muscadet (about which, Wikipedia tells us, “In the 17th century, Dutch wine merchants laid the foundation for the Muscadet style by encouraging the villagers of Nantes to plant the early ripening Melon de Bourgogne grape to use in the production of their brandewijn—distilled wine with brandy added to it”! ).)

    The Parents’ National Educational Union intriguingly led me to its secretary, Henrietta Franklin, and her connection with Edith Ayrton who was, among other things, the wife of Israel Zangwill (whose work I’ve enjoyed and want to read more of – not least his Big Bow Mystery ).


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