The Weekly Machen
Arthur Machen opened the month of October 1912 with a review of books, most of which have not survived in the collective memory of the reading public. Therefore, the following article provides a delightful list of books that may well be worth the search. These include a whimsical account of Irish fairy cobblers and a tramp’s philosophical treatise that finds no small measure of sympathy from our reviewer.
For a poetic essay on the virtues of this month, we refer you to Machen’s earlier essay: Good October.
The Library Table:
Interesting Herald of the Autumn Books Season
October 8, 1910
We are having an interesting autumn. I don’t mean in politics, or rumours of wars, or disasters by land and sea, but in that matter which is the topic proper to this column—books.
I don’t mean that I have discovered any supreme genius; I do not dare to prophecy that this or that book on my desk new to-day will still be new in a hundred years time, with the undying youth that belongs to immortality. But before me there are several volumes of very considerable interest, power, and literary merit.
First of all, however, I must mention two very handsome gift-books: the reissue of the ‘‘Rackham” edition of “Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens” (Hodder and Stoughton), and, from the same publishing house, “An Artist in Egypt,” by Walter Tyndale, R.I.
Each of these books is splendid and sumptuous in its way. The “Peter Pan” makes just the subject whereon Mr. Rackham can best exercise his gift of humorous eeriness; Kensington Gardens in these beautifully printed plates are alive with gnomes and fairies and queer elves of all sorts. The bark of the tree trunks that harbour little people among their roots, breaks out into grotesque and grinning faces, and the chrysanthemum that said pointedly ‘‘Hoity toity, what is this?” is seen to be a prim and spectacled old maid.
Mr. Tyndale’s “An Artist in Egypt” is a revelry of gorgeous and glimmering Egyptian. There are twenty-seven coloured plates of the wonders that are still to be seen in Egypt, in spite of the coming of the West upon that land, and most of these pictures look as if they should illustrate “The Arabian Nights.” And the “Sphinx,” the “Return of the Holy Carpet,” with its cliffs of rose and gold, and the “Tombs of the Khalifas” are enchantments in colour.
So much for the books of decorated splendour; now for the books of suggestion in literature. I wish I had a column to spare for “The Crock of Gold” (Macmillan) alone, but I haven’t, and so I can do little more than congratulate the author, Mr. James Stephens, on having written a book of extraordinary beauty, wit, wisdom, and fantasy.
Wisdom and Whimsicality
What sort of book is it? I can’t answer that question, because “The Crock of Gold” is a prose poem, a fairy legend, a series of essays, a theory of the universe, an allegory, and an exercise in humour all at once.
But here are some axioms, gathered at random.
It has occurred to me, brother, that wisdom may not be the end of everything. Goodness and kindliness are, perhaps, beyond wisdom. Is it not possible that the ultimate end is gaiety and music and a dance of joy?
All good people [said Pan] like eating. Every person who is hungry is a good person, and every person who is not hungry is a bad person. It is better to be hungry than rich. Virtue [it is again the Great God Pan who speaks] is the performance of pleasant actions.
A Leprecaun is of more value to the earth than is a Prime Minister or a stockbroker because a Leprecaun dances and makes merry, while a Prime Minister knows nothing of these natural virtues.
What the heart knows to-day the head will understand to-morrow.
There is wisdom as well as whimsicality in these utterances, though I would submit to Mr. Stephens that when his Philosopher asked that question as to wisdom being the end of everything, he meant not wisdom, but knowledge information, the store gathered by the understanding.
I wish I could tell the tale of how the Leprecauns—fairy cobblers—laid an information before the local constabulary, how the beasts talked together, and how the fairy host and all the old gods of Ireland were mustered to set free the Philosopher from the custody of the police-sergeant; but space fails me. I can only say that here is a book enchanting and delightful and wise: go and buy it.
A Tramp’s Philosophy
“Despite Progress and the benefit our prosperity is supposed to be going to derive from it, it is an undisguisable fact that life, the wonderful and strange gift given to the individual perhaps once in an eternity, is being used without profit, without pause, without wonder. We are like people who have lost their memories on their way to a feast, and our steps, in which is only felt the remembrance of a purpose, take us no-whither. We loiter in musty waiting-rooms, are frustrated by mobs, and foiled by an eternal clamour. We have forgotten the feast and occupy ourselves in all manner of foolish and irrelevant ways. Only now and again, struck by the absurdity of our occupations, we grope after our lost consciousness and feel somehow that somewhere out beyond is our real destination, that somewhere out there a feast is proceeding, that a cover is laid for us and dishes served, that though we are absent the Master calls a toast to us and sends messengers to find us.”
Now that strikes me as a singularly noble passage. I would say that true wisdom lies behind those words. And it is not quoted from an antique philosopher, but from the latest of the tramps.
His book is called “A Tramp’s Sketches” (Macmillan), and it tells us of Mr. Graham’s wanderings on the shores of the Black Sea. But, in the author’s own words:—
It is not so much a book about Russia as about the tramp. It is the life of the wanderer and seeker, the walking hermit, the rebel against modern conditions and commercialism, who has gone out into the wilderness.
I have indicated by my first quotation the nature of the thought in the book: here is a brief example of the life that it contains:—
The pilgrim tramp was overtaken by a terrific thunder-storm at night, and he knocked at a peasant’s door.
“May I spend the night here?” I asked.
The man smiled and put out his arms as if to embrace me.
“Yes, of course. Why ask? Come inside.” he replied.
“I thought of sleeping in the open air,” I added, “but the storm coming up I saw I should be drenched.”
“Why sleep outside when man is ready to receive you?” said the peasant. “It is unkind to pass our houses by. Why do you deny your brothers so?”
Such is the frank kindness of the Russian peasant; such his real sense that all men are brothers. And this peasant let it be remembered, is the product—not of “liberal institutions” and advanced thoughts, but of a thousand years of autocracy.
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10 thoughts on “The Library Table”
Ah! Machen liked Stephen Graham’s A Tramp’s Sketches. I have that book but have only read a few pages of it. I liked much more Graham’s books Undiscovered Russia and With the Russian Pilgrims to Jerusalem, and have read also A Vagabond in the Caucasus. I’ve read a book about him, Beyond Holy Russia: The Life and Times of Stephen Graham, by Hughes. It may be read for free:
Graham was a friend of Algernon Blackwood, by the way.
But I’d recommend starting with Graham himself. Some at least of Graham’s work may be read online at archive.org or Project Gutenberg.
Here’s a statement by the filmmaker Werner Herzog. If you like it, especially, the final sentence, you’ll likely appreciate Graham. Herzog said:
“Humans are not made to sit at computer terminals or travel by aeroplane; destiny intended something different for us. For too long now we have been estranged from the essential, which is the nomadic life: travelling on foot. A distinction must be made between hiking and travelling on foot. In today’s society (though it would be ridiculous to advocate travelling on foot for everyone to every possible destination). I personally would rather do the existentially essential things in my life on foot. If you live in England and your girlfriend is in Sicily, and it is clear that you want to marry her, then you should walk to Sicily to propose. For these things travel by car or aeroplane is not the right thing. The volume and depth and intensity of the world is something that only those on foot will ever experience.”
It seems that there are those who find what are sometimes called “the walking bits” in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings tedious. Conversely, there are those who love that aspect of the great story — indeed, for them the element of “walking bits” may be among the greatest attractions of the book, something that brings them back to it for multiple readings. It is likely that, for them, there will be more “enchantment” in Undiscovered Russia than in any number of post-Tolkienian fantasy series — sometimes abussologies — that wallow in “world-building”…
(Abussology is a new word, recently coined by me. It refers to a never-ending sequence of stories or books. The word is from ἄβυσσος, abussos, a Greek adjective meaning bottomless or boundless. If you like it, help it to catch on.)
Arthur Machen had more than a little of the “tramp” in him, whether in Wales or on London streets.
Machen liked Stephens’s The Crock of Gold. I read this about 50 years ago and I know I liked it enough to replace my paperback with a used hardcover edition, but somehow I haven’t read it again, though I intend to. Readers here might be interested in looking up C. S. Lewis’s remarks about it in his essay “Period Criticism” (I have this piece in On Stories). Lewis finds some “dead wood” in it but is mostly positive about it and a few other books by JS.
Be it noted that Machen is writing here during the last few years of the 25-year Golden Age of Fantasy that begins with Rider Haggard’s She (1887) and ends with Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912), with a bunch of still enjoyable and outstanding works coming in that period. I might mention William Morris’s major romances and George MacDonald’s Lilith, the faerie poems of Yeats, the classic scientific romances of H. G. Wells, Chesterton’s Man Who Was Thursday, Hodgson’s House on the Borderland, M. R. James’s first collection of antiquarian ghost stories, and many more.
A striking feature of this article is also a striking – and curious? – feature of that “Golden Age’ – Peter Pan, Pan in The Crock of Gold, to which I immediately add ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908), and Machen’s own ‘Great God Pan’ – and, going to check its date, I encountered the Wikipedia article, “Pan in popular culture”, with quite a list of works, including 12 from that period (not counting visual and musical ones)! Who was it who used the expression, ‘Peter Pantheism’? – going to check that, I found a Holly Ordway article about Lewis’s use of the expression, and about Barrie and Tolkien, adapted from her Tolkien’s Modern Reading – but also a 1925 collection of essays by the prolific Rober Haven Schauffler with that title (but no online copy)!
Meanwhile, thank you for this and all the links to help us meet new or revisit old bookish pleasures ! Somehow my most vivid recollection from the Crock of Gold is the Philosopher’s observation, “I have often fancied that fish are a dirty, sly, and unintelligent people—this is due to their staying so much in the water, and it has been observed that on being removed from this element they at once expire through sheer ecstasy at escaping from their prolonged washing.”
Thank you! I enjoy reading your comments. Dale and you always enrich the conversation.
Consider this, one of many blurbs for Graham’s Vagabond volume, at the back of one of his other books:
“It is the spirit of the open air, the passion of the tramp, the poet’s delight in the simple yet significant little things of forest, mountain, plain that combine to charm. As you read, you picture the days when this ‘old world was yet young,’ and find yourself in a region that has not changed for too many centuries to count, and wherein move stately fighting men and unspoilt shepherds and bearded figures that have stepped clean out of the Bible picture-books of one’s childhood. The beauty of this marvellous land of mountains between the Caspian and the Black Sea is utterly arresting. I myself spent some weeks there last summer, and it calls to me like strong music. To read this vital account of it all is to live over again my own adventures. There are no ‘purple patches.’ The colour is vivid and true. One sees that air of strange clear brilliance; one smells the leagues of azaleas; hears the barking of the savage sheep dogs; and watches the horsemen clad in flowing bourkas careering over the mountain paths like strayed centaurs.”
The author: Algernon Blackwood. Blackwood’s review appeared in a magazine called The Tramp, which must have been a sort of predecessor of Outside, with a lot less (I suppose) about cool gear and a “beautiful nomad” consumerist “lifestyle.”
Of possible interest —
Worth reading are Blackwood’s pieces about canoeing down the Danube or roaming around moose country in Canada.
This – as well as Machen’s sample and your earlier comment – are really appetite-whetting! It makes me think of moving evocative descriptions incidental to say, ‘The Willows’ or maybe even Dracula, coming more fully ‘into their own right’. Looking (without success) for more about The Tramp, I encountered The Footpath Way: An Anthology for Walkers (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1911) with an introduction (and selected and edited?) by Hilaire Belloc. The wonderful linked “Good October” essay by Machen fits in here quite well, too! Also a ‘Golden Age of Walking literature’? Although, I’m just getting acquainted (at long last) with the works of Eric Newby – there’s a more recent seam of ‘walking gold’! (If I recall correctly, one of the books available to him as a POW/escapee was Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides – or was it Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland…?)
David’s comment invites speculation about a readers’ — not an academics’ — canon of beloved literature of walking being something worthwhile to come into existence. It would welcome works as recent as W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995). It would notice C. S. Lewis’s letters that provide extended accounts of his walking tours. I would have to look, but I think Coleridge wrote narratives of his fell-walking, which might take us back about as far as our researches for this purpose would go — no, the books by Johnson and Boswell about Scotland and the Hebrides would be excluded in that case.
Would the Russian Orthodox classic The Way of a Pilgrim belong in the canon? Alas, so far as I know, there is no English translation of Parfeny Aggeev’s Tale of Monk Parfeny’s Journeying (from Russia to Mt. Athos). According to Nicholas Fennell, it is “gripping and easy to read,” “a combination of travel diary, hagiography, and acutely observed character portraits,” “naively enthusiastic, pathetic, and joyful.” I’d love to get my hands on a good translation of this book.
The canon would certainly include Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes. I thought Kinglake’s Eothen would deserve a place, but would “we” need to make a distinction in order to avoid Walking Books being swamped by Travel Books? My counsel would be: let’s start with books in which just walking with all that implies is the focus, while explanations of customs, descriptions of exotic clothes, foods, etc. are less prominent. But then can I bear even temporarily to exclude Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Long Walk trilogy that begins with A Time of Gifts?
My sense is that Teddy Rooseveltian books about “the strenuous life” might also not be what we are looking for.
The “psychogeographers” might have some leads for us. They have adopted Machen into their canon on the strength especially of The London Adventure.
Anthologies of walking such as David mentions could help us get going.
I thought about it some more and decided that, to form a canon of the literature of walking, one might use the criterion that the “walking” should include the use of backpacks OR at least be susceptible to such use. We are not talking about expeditions such as Cherry-Garrard’s Worst Journey in the World, which required far more than packs. On the other hand, do we want to press the “susceptible to packs” idea so as to exclude Machen’s London rambles or Dickens’s “Night Walks”? Thoughts?
Here is a piece from last year that I wrote for the fine little monthly Tolkien newsletter Beyond Bree.
BACKPACKS IN “THE LORD OF THE RINGS”
by Dale Nelson
Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings bear backpacks. Here’s a quick survey of the references to packs.
Frodo and Pippin leave Bag End, and, stopping at the bottom of the Hill, “adjusted the straps of their packs.” Sam meets them there, “trotting quickly and breathing hard; his heavy pack was hoisted high on his shoulders” (Fellowship Book 1, Chapter 3). A bit later in the same chapter, the three hobbits, now walking to meet Merry at the Bucklebury ferry, pause, and Pippin, “unslinging his pack,” insists on a break.
During their perilous expedition through the dark halls of Moria, Aragorn cautions the Fellowship: “’keep your packs on as long as you can’” (Fellowship Book 2, Chapter 5).
Weary months later, in the Orc-tower in the mountains above Mordor’s blighted plains, Sam “unsling[s] his pack and laid it on the floor” (Return Book 6, Chapter 1). Arrived at Mount Doom itself, in desperate plight, Sam “[takes] out all the things in his pack,” keeping only rope, waybread, and water-bottle (Book 6, Chapter 3).
These backpacks are never described in detail. We may infer that they are Shire-made, and well-made.
For the first readers of LotR, backpacks [might] have suggested military accoutrements and gear for mountain journeys, such as Tolkien’s own excursion in the Alps, and walking tours.
George Sayer remembered walking with C. S. Lewis, Lewis’s brother Warren, and Tolkien. Lewis and his brother took turns bearing “the pack, which was their name for the rucksack” (“Reflections of J. R. R. Tolkien” in Tolkien: A Celebration, ed. by Joseph Pearce). “Rucksack” is never used in LotR. The Lewis brothers’ pack, Sayers wrote, was “very ancient looking.” It presumably contained the bread and cheese that were eaten along with the local pub beer that was consumed on the long walk. Perhaps Tolkien had the Lewis brothers’ pack or something very close to it — a rucksack that had survived much use — in mind when he wrote his great tale.
Around the time of the 1965-1969 Hobbit Craze or soon afterwards, backpacks became associated with countercultural young people who thumbed rides, hiked for days in America’s forests and mountains, or set out on the “Hippie Trail” from Europe to the East. The widespread use of inexpensive, simplified backpacks as student accessories for the carrying of books and school supplies seems to date to the early 1970s. These more or less spelled the end of the satchels that youngsters might formerly have carried their homework in. More recently, polyester backpacks became common as premiums and promotional items.
I always delay reading these Machen posts because I want to read the comments which make the article a sort of live conversation. I don’t often have anything to add, but I’d like to thank those who comment on a regular basis to the Weekly Machen posts. You could say I come for the Machen, but I stay for the comments.
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