“Here, then, is a great task for the writer who has the requisite vision, who is willing to be brave in his recounting of it. Let him think of this as his life’s work, to tell the great dream truthfully, and yet to tell it coherently. The vision, of course, is above all things necessary; the chosen one must above all see the real things, he must be able to gaze on Paradise; and even if the especial gift has been vouchsafed him, he will have much ado to keep his eyes clear, to dispel, to dispel continually, the mists that rise from the rotten fens and dunghills of modern civilisation.”
At this above quote illustrates, Arthur Machen stridently held the position that those who would take up the arduous task of literature should be first and foremost right-oriented to the spiritual reality of story-telling and myth-making. All good tales, those that linger for centuries in the imagination of man, consist of a heavenly origin, a personal journey and divine return point at their conclusions. Universal legends, as opposed to the “modern novel,” speak to the reader in ecstatic language and symbols. As for Machen, again and again, he returned to that singular cycle which he deemed the Hieroglyphs of hieroglyphs: the Holy Grail.
In this essay for the Academy journal (November 30, 1907), Machen begins by reviewing a recent scholarly book, which only serves as a means to express his views on the Grail legends. The subject was fresh on his mind, for it was at this time that Machen began his own studies into the subject. This work which would flower into a series of essays for the same journal. Additionally, he was engaged in the composition of the enigmatic novel, The Secret Glory, a homeric tale centered on the Grail in modern Wales.
Here, the opinions expressed by Machen on the Grail legends in particular, and his thoughts on literature in general, constitute a theoretical underpinning to the fiction he was actively creating. Therefore, we have partial blueprint to some of the author’s most personal and idiosyncratic work.
So much has been written recently in The Academy about the Arthurian Legend, that it would be wearisome to enter into a detailed discussion of the many interesting points raised by Professor Maynadier in the course of his study of the great romances of the Round Table. (1) It may be said, however, that for literary students—as distinct from specialists—who wish to gain a good general view of the rise and flourishing of the Legend the book will be most useful. The writer is evidently ignorant of the valuable assistance rendered by the Welsh Hagiology in estimating the various elements which went to the formation of the wonderful story of the Graal; he makes the mistake of quoting Professor Rhys’s nonsense about “Sun Gods” (2) with some appearance of respect; but, with these deductions, the earlier pages of “The Arthur of the English Poets” gives, as we have said, an excellent account of the growth of the great romance cycle that has Arthur as its central figure. There is curious reading, too, in the latter portion of the book, which deals with the fate of the legend in the dark ages of the eighteenth century; and the chapter on Tennyson’s treatment of Malory is interesting enough, though it is always melancholy to be reminded how a great poet missed a great opportunity. One sighs as one reads that mighty fragment, the “Morte d’Arthur,” thinking of what an epic the Laureate Poet might have given us; one groans over some of the later Idylls, in which the Mystic King is rapidly being transmuted into a variant of John Halifax, Gentleman, (3) in which Vivien appears as an adventuress from town, disturbing the repose of a country vicarage. The opportunity was lost, the poet was conformed to the world, and it is hardly surprising to find that Lord Tennyson considered the Round Table as a symbol of “Liberal Institutions,” which is as much as to say that the central flame of the Universe is in reality a symbol of “The Domestic Gas Stove,” hired, on liberal terms, from the Company. The pages, then, that treat of the Idylls are to be read in the way of warning; and so may increase the usefulness of an excellent book. One may pass over the phrases which demonstrate the selfish, unpractical nature of Galahad’s character, his failure to rise to the heights of “Modern Christianity”:
Nor can Galahad (says Prof. Maynadier) … be called other than fanatical. As he rides round the world singing, “I yearn to breathe the airs of heaven that often meet me here,” he is either not normal and healthy or not honest. . . . Galahad shows himself after all only a knightly brother of the revivalists who manifest their religion nowadays with so much noisy emotion and so little sanity.
This is painful and foolish enough, but it is clear that Professor Maynadier has not heard the command: “Let the dead bury their dead; rise and follow Me.” (4) It is idle to attempt to steer a magic bark in faery seas by the assistance of the quadrant, a chronometer adjusted to the meridian of Greenwich, and the mariner’s compass.
One point raised by Professor Maynadier deserves some discussion. It is apart from the special matter of the Arthurian legend, and concerns the whole question, so often debated, of the Celtic Spirit or Celtic Genius. Speaking of the tale of “Kilhwch and Olwen,” (5) the author remarks:
It is not a tale to impress human imagination for centuries, like the legends of Lancelot, Perceval, and Tristram and Iseult, for it is after all best characterised by that adjective which Matthew Arnold applies to Celtic Art in general, “ineffectual.” (6) Celtic Art, he says, so long as it remained purely Celtic, has never profoundly impressed the world like Greek or Roman Art, or the best German, French, English, Spanish, and Italian Art. Now, it was because French Art was able to join reason and significance to the fantastic poetry of such Celtic tales as Kilhwch and Olwen, to give the old charming but “ineffectual” stories substantial meaning, that they have become effectual and permanent contributions to the literature of the world.
And here lies a matter of perennial interest to all lovers of literature. It is, perhaps, idle to insist on the term Celtic; for, as Mr. Yeats has confessed, the spirit that we often call Celtic is, in reality, the spirit that is common to many if not all primitive peoples. It would be difficult to express its qualities in a phrase; it is the spirit of enchantment, of ecstasy, of wonder, of adoration; it is the spirit which protests for ever against all modern materialistic theories; it is the eternal witness, as some of us think, to the existence of that Avalon from which we have been driven, for which we long during the days of our banishment, exules filii Evæ. (7) The existence of the Brook by the way may be deduced from the thirst of the wayfarer; and so Paradise may be inferred by our longing for it. It is this longing, and the expression of this longing, which distinguish, in the last resort, Art from Artifice; without it a book, or a picture, or a statue is nothing but a more or less ingenious contrivance, with the excellence, perhaps, of a beehive or an ant hill, but no true work of art.
And here is the tragedy to which Matthew Arnold made allusion in the adjective “ineffectual.” Take the “Morte d’Arthur” of Malory even; there the material which came from Celtdom—or, let us say, from a primitive race—had been worked over by many hands, both French and English, for more than two hundred years. And yet: compare Malory’s book with the average “clever” modern novel; not with the dregs and drivel of the publishers’ stock, which is, surely, the most offensively pretentious stuff that ever found expression in writing or print or articulate speech, but with the well-made, well-dressed, decently written story of these “educated” days. Well, of course, the modern book is nought, and worse than nought when compared with Malory; it is as the ingenuities of an amiable bee, or of an observant butterfly beside the “Morte”; and yet, how vastly the latter is excelled, in mere artifice, by the former. The modern writer “jines his flats,” he has a story to tell, and he tells it in more or less logical order; the old romancer, not content with the wanderings of his heroes, must wander too; breaking off, turning from the track, indulging in episodes without end, returning to the high road of his story, only to stroll away from it again in the course of a few chapters. In a word: the spirit is undoubtedly present in the romance, but the body which the writer has provided is often deplorably ill-jointed and shapen in strange sort, and sometimes in no sort at all. And, nevertheless, we know that the old romance is a part of the lost paradise; while the new novel is just very entertaining reading. One may call this a tragedy of literature, that the perfect spirit—the one element which makes literature, which transmutes the lead of human things into the pure gold of art—has so often been manifested in very dim and imperfect vessels; while well-chased flagons hold but poor, thin liquor, small wines of a second growth, agreeable enough with one’s dinner, but not apt to serve in the celebration of the Greater Dionysian Mysteries. Of course, there may be people who think the faults of the old tales are beauties, just as there may be persons who think that the bad drawing of early stained-glass and illuminated manuscripts is an added charm; but these are not tenable opinions. A glowing and glorious saint in his dyed robes is the less, not the more beautiful by the obvious dislocation of his neck; and so the wonderful old tale loses, not gains, by its awkward and rambling construction.
Here, then, is a great task for the writer who has the requisite vision, who is willing to be brave in his recounting of it. Let him think of this as his life’s work, to tell the great dream truthfully, and yet to tell it coherently. The vision, of course, is above all things necessary; the chosen one must above all see the real things, he must be able to gaze on Paradise; and even if the especial gift has been vouchsafed him, he will have much ado to keep his eyes clear, to dispel, to dispel continually, the mists that rise from the rotten fens and dunghills of modern civilisation. He must purge his mind of cant; especially and principally of that noxious form of cant that caused Professor Maynadier to pen these dolorous pages concerning the selfish, fanatical, and unhealthy nature of Sir Galahad, which made poor Tennyson see in the marvellous imagery of the Round Table simply a pretty way of putting one’s respect for the House of Commons, the County Council, and the School Board. The man who is to clothe the shining spirit with the perfect body must forget all this rubbish, he must forget that it exists, or the vision will be taken from him, as it was taken from the eyes of Tennyson; and Avalon, the isle beyond the glassy floods, will, perhaps, turn into a picture of modern society, or (worse still!) of “modern Christianity.” Nay; he who is to write our great romance must himself be a knight-errant; he, too, must turn his back on the city, on the places where people sit by the cosy fires of social and convenient morality, and do business, and do each other, and deduce obvious moral lessons from everything, and pass Acts of Parliament, and make Religion a sort of shabby Moyen de Parvenir; (8) he must fare forth on the wild ways, by the dark wood, by the bare mountain heights, through fires and storms, over the billows of the great deep. In other words, he must be firmly and utterly convinced that man is here, not that he may be good-natured and kindly (so far as kindness and good-nature are consistent with business principles), but that he may be worthy of the Vision of the Most Blessed Cup of the Sangraal.
Now, this is no easy task. Our corruption is so profound that we have well-nigh lost the measure of all things; we have quite lost the measure of the highest things. Professor Maynadier’s view of Galahad as a selfish and fanatical revivalist is probably quite a representative opinion in these sorry and besotted days; or rather, let us say, it is the representative opinion of the natural, bestial man of all ages. Since man was man the Primæval Pig has dwelt in him, grunting out the Pig Gospel: that the end of all things is Wash, that the Pig whose trough is full is a good, pious, religious and perfect Pig, and that, since one must work for Wash, the Pig who is always “doing business” is highly to be revered. These dogmas, as we have said, are a portion of the early curse, of the doom that was laid on man when he lapsed from Paradise, when, according to William Law, the fluid and glorious universe became a grim and solid and brutal mass and fell upon “Adam,” so that he was crushed beneath its weight. (9) In every age the Bestial Evangel has been preached; Labour, which in the great Mythos of the Garden is denounced as a curse and a punishment, is proclaimed as a blessing, a pious exercise, a reward, in itself a heaven; and though the Christ denounced this vile heresy in no uncertain terms, though He stigmatised the saving of money and business forethought as wicked and senseless follies, though He placed before men the example of the lilies, though St. Paul declares that all actions of practical benevolence even are but dust and ashes if the secret fire, the divine ardours of Love are not present; still, in the Bright Ages there were doubtless many people who thought that the men called monks, who did nothing but pray and worship God, were useless idlers, that building cathedrals was a dreadful waste of money, and that the price of the incense at the Sacrifice would have been much better expended on “the poor”—that is, on themselves, on the hard-headed, practical men who usually keep the bag. If this were so—and it doubtless was so—in the Golden Ages of true faith and true reason and true art, what is now the depth to which we have fallen? Well, it may be said that we have almost reached the limit of utter confusion, of profound denial of all that is true, of firm asseveration of all that is false. The other day a bishop of the Catholic Church had the great opportunity of addressing certain of his flock, of confirming them, one might conjecture, in some dogma of the Faith, of unveiling to them some secret treasure of the Great Mysteries, of instructing them in some of the transcendent morals of the Christian religion. One would have conjectured all awry; for Dr. Diggle (10) talked about the Lusitania’s “record,” and hoped that the proud and swelling, though legitimate, feelings aroused by this great achievement would move the people of Liverpool to a more liberal support of the Seamen’s Orphanage! And it would not be true to say that this virulent nonsense is peculiar to Anglicanism or Protestantism; it is not many months since Father Bernard Vaughan allowed himself to speculate as to the probable conduct of St. Paul if he had edited a daily paper, and as to the likelihood of his appointing St. Timothy as assistant-editor. (11)
Well, it is of all this cochonnerie that the man who would write great romance must clear his mind; he must silence, and silence effectually, the gruntings and squealings of the foul creature who dwells within him; he must pay no heed to the voice of the body of death to which he is chained in the valley of this pilgrimage. Utterly must he dismiss from his soul the thought that “success” means anything, that a man who has made a great deal of money or earned a great deal of praise, is anything but a prima facie suspect; for the dogma of success is one of the chiefest articles in the great Creed of the Stye. It is to those who are able to cleanse themselves of these defilements that the Vision may be vouchsafed, in them the old dream of the Celts may be renewed, and with clearer eyes for the struggle that has been endured they may see the wonder of the world and the wonder of man—the “things that really are” of Plato.
“Darkness and the shadow of death” is a very familiar phrase to many people; and one wonders to how many of these people the slightest gleam of the true meaning of these words has been given. As a matter of fact, one conjectures that ninety-nine out of a hundred, asked to explain the phrase, would reply that a thief, a pickpocket, an adulterer, a murderer might be described as being in this condition. The reply would, very likely, be true—in a sense; in the sense in which scarlet fever might be defined as an appearance of spots, or a great statue as a block of limestone, or a great picture as a collection of coloured earths, combined with oil, and applied to wood or canvas. But, essentially, such a reply would be imbecile; it is highly probable that the people who have never broken a single commandment are in a deeper darkness, in a more profound shadow of mortality than the criminals whom they scorn, or hate, or pity. The shadow of death and darkness, in reality, describes well enough the utter error and confusion of all men, “good” and “bad” alike, their ignorance as to what they are, and why they are, and what their end should be. The baser sort reply that they are here to make money, the better sort that they are here to do good, or even to be good; who answers that he is here to enjoy happiness, that he may enjoy a more perfect happiness in the life of the world to come? The people whom “the good” and “the respectable” call wastrels, Bohemians, vagabonds, have a sort of dim vision of this truth; they realise that happiness is man’s true end; their mistake is in a confusion as to the means. Still, with all their error, they are infinitely nearer to the truth than the Scribes and the Pharisees, than the “practical men,” the apostles of “plain common-sense,” the vermin who infest church and chapel and the very altar itself. And it was no doubt because of this clearer vision that the Christ loved those whom the world called disreputable, while He hated all the representatives of respectability.
The hero of the Great Romance must, therefore, set his face continually to Syon; his ardours must consume him ever: through the wild and waste lands he must still wander, seeking Corbenic and the Blessed Vision of the Sangraal. “Liberal institutions,” “modern Christianity,” “practical philanthropy”—all the Nine Hundred and Ninety-Nine Articles of the Great Pig Philosophy have for ever vanished from his eyes. His are the delights that are almost unendurable, the wonders that are almost incredible—that are, indeed, quite incredible to the world; his the eternal joys that the deadly flesh cannot comprehend; his the secret that renews the earth, restoring Paradise, rolling the heavy stone of the material universe from the grave whence he arises.
Of such matters will the High History treat—that High Romance which is yet to be written.
1 Prolific researcher and literary scholar, Howard Maynadier (1866-1960) wrote on the works of Dafoe, Fielding and Smollett. Additionally, he further explored the Holy Grail legends with Merlin and Ambrosius (1913).
2 A Celticist, Sir John Rhys (1840-1915) wrote and taught on Celtic languages and philology. Likely, Machen is referring to Rhys’s Studies in the Arthurian Legend (1891). Though Machen did not deny some pagan influence regarding the Grail legends, he rejected what he saw as an overemphasis upon such sources to the detriment of the central role Celtic Christianity had played in the traditions.
3 John Halifax, Gentleman (1856) is a novel by Dinah Craik (1826-1887). It has been seen as a crystallization of middle class ideals found in Victorian Britain. The namesake character is concerned with gaining success in business and romance, succeeding in both by the novel’s conclusion. Machen clearly believes this sort of temporal and materialistic goal has no place in interpretation or understanding of the adventurous and mystical legends.
4 This quote is perhaps a combination of the biblical verses Luke 9:60 and Matthew 4:19.
5 A segment from the Mabinogion, a cycle of Welsh legends, “Kilhwch and Olwen,” tells of Arthur assisting a young man in the rescue of the maid Olwen, which means “white, holy or blessed footprint.” In The Great Return, Machen uses this name for a character brought back from the gates of death by the Holy Grail.
6 Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) was an influential social critic and poet of the Victorian era.
8 Published in 1617, Moyen de Parvenir is a chaotic and sometimes obscene parody written by François Béroalde de Verville (1556–1626). Machen loosely, and delicately, translated the book into English under the title, The Way to Attain(1889).
9 William Law (1686-1761) was an author and Anglican priest who wrote on various religious topics, including mysticism. This concept of Law’s, as elucidated by Machen in this essay, returns as a major theme in the excellent short story, N (1936).
10 Machen may be referring to John William Diggle (1847-1920), who served as the Bishop of Carlisle in the Church of England from 1905 to his death.
11 Father Bernard Vaughan (1847-1922) was a Roman Catholic priest known for working among the poor of Manchester.