Richard’s Literary Byways: Arthur Machen and the Angels of Mons

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    On 23 August 1914 the British army fought its first battle of the First World War, a rearguard action at Mons in Belgium. It gave a good account of itself – the British Expeditionary Force was composed entirely of long-serving regulars, and the years of discipline and drill paid off as the Germans were stopped in their tracks by such a withering, rapid barrage of rifle fire that many were convinced they were facing machine-guns – but the British were heavily outnumbered and in danger of being outflanked and surrounded, and were forced to retreat. They retreated for two days and nights without rest before regrouping and staving off the enemy at Le Cateau. It had been a pretty desperate situation, and official censorship couldn’t conceal from the public that the BEF had had to retreat, nor entirely suppress the heavy losses it had sustained. It was the first hint that this war was going to be longer and nastier than anyone had expected.

    Just over a month later, on 29 September, a story called The Bowmen appeared in the London Evening News. The paper printed it without specifying that it was fiction, and it told how a British soldier, one of a small unit about to be overwhelmed by a vastly superior German force, calls in desperation on St George, and is answered by ghostly shouts of ‘St George! St George!’ and the appearance of ‘a long line of shapes, with a shining about them. They were like men who draw the bow, and with another shout their cloud of arrows flew singing and tingling through the air towards the German hosts.’ The Germans die in their thousands without a mark on them, and the day is saved. No one but the soldier sees the bowmen, and the last sentence of the story tells us that he alone knows ‘that St George had brought his Agincourt Bowmen to help the English.’

    The story didn’t actually mention Mons – or any other place for that matter – but its opening line of ‘It was during the Retreat of the Eighty Thousand’ would have been enough to give anyone who’d been following the news a good idea of what it was about. It had been written in faux-documentary style by a member of the paper’s staff, a Welsh writer by the name of Arthur Machen.

    Arthur Llewellyn Jones-Machen (rhymes more or less with ‘bracken’) had been born in 1863 in Caerleon, in what was then, and now is again, called Monmouthshire. These days Caerleon is a moderately genteel suburb of Newport, at least as far as the old town is concerned; in the nineteenth century it was a sleepy and (if I read aright between the lines of Machen’s writings) rather run-down country town. But it is a place resonant with history and legend. In Roman times it was, with York and Chester, one of the three major legionary headquarters in Britain. And both of the earliest known sources of Arthurian legend, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae of 830AD and the medieval Welsh manuscripts collectively known as The Mabinogion, a repository of ancient Celtic legends dating from centuries before they were written, place Arthur’s court at Caerleon and don’t mention Camelot at all.

    Machen came from a long line of Anglican clergymen. His grandfather had been the vicar of Caerleon, and when he was two his father became the vicar of a rural parish about five miles north of the town. A childhood spent in the depths of what was then a remote country district was a formative influence on the young Arthur, who was an only child and went for long solitary explorations through the countryside. Though he decamped as a young man to London in pursuit of his literary ambitions and seems never to have gone back, in a sense he never left. The area recurs again and again as a setting in his fiction, and his love for it shines through.

    ‘I shall always esteem it as the greatest piece of fortune that has fallen to me,’ he wrote in his autobiography, Far Off Things, ‘that I was born in that noble, fallen Caerleon-on-Usk, in the heart of Gwent… For the older I grow the more firmly am I convinced that anything which I may have accomplished in literature is due to the fact that when my eyes were first opened in earliest childhood they had before them the vision of an enchanted land.’

    For Machen had a firm conviction that there is more to this life than the daily round and more to this world than our five senses tell us. He was a close friend of the occultist A E Waite, and had been a fellow member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, along with the likes of Algernon Blackwood, W B Yeats and Aleister Crowley (whom he detested). His fiction reflected that belief, ranging from horror to mysticism, taking in legend, folklore and occultism along the way, and always with a hint – or more than a hint – of unknown things all around us.

    Fleet Street was a very long way from all this, and Machen didn’t enjoy working as a journalist. He had first come to prominence with his horror novella The Great God Pan, which had caused outrage by its implications (though not actual descriptions) of paganism, sex and depravity when it came out in 1894, with a cover by Aubrey Beardsley. Judgements like ‘a perfectly abominable story’ and ‘too morbid to be the production of a healthy mind’ were bandied about, and while such pronouncements did the sales no harm at all Machen’s reputation as a writer was another matter. The fall from grace of Oscar Wilde the next year sparked a backlash against the decadence fashionable in the arts of the early 1890s (the naughty nineties), and for many years afterwards Machen found it hard to get his writing published. When he did succeed it was not to much effect. After spending several years as an actor in touring repertory companies he had taken the job on the Evening News to keep a roof over his head.

    He didn’t think much of The Bowmen either. He had dashed it off in one afternoon as a morale booster (his own morale as much as anyone else’s) in the face of the discouraging news coming over from France, and he didn’t believe it had any particular merit. He had no inkling of what he had unleashed.

    He began to get some idea a few months later when a parish priest, who had already written to him asking (and getting) permission to reprint The Bowmen in his parish magazine, wrote to him again. The story had proved so popular with his congregation and so uplifting, the priest said, that he’d like to issue it again as a pamphlet. Would Machen write an introduction, he asked, saying what his sources were?

    It wasn’t the first time Machen had been asked that question, and he replied as he had done before, that there were no sources as he had made the whole thing up. On the previous occasions that answer had been accepted, but this time it was not. As Machen put it, the priest told him ‘that I must be mistaken, that the main “facts” of The Bowmen must be true, that my share in the matter must surely have been confined to the elaboration and decoration of a veridical history. It seemed that my light fiction had been accepted by the congregation of this particular church as the solidest of facts; and it was then that it began to dawn on me that if I had failed in the art of letters, I had succeeded, unwittingly, in the art of deceit.’

    That was only the beginning. As 1915 wore on and the war became ever more grim, stories of divine intervention on the battlefield of Mons went viral. The British people had already been assured that God was on their side: now, in the gloom engendered by an apparently endless succession of bad news from the war fronts, the idea that this might extend to practical assistance was appealing. And the tale grew in the telling. Dead German soldiers had been found with arrow wounds. British soldiers at Mons had seen St Michael, an angel, several angels, a whole host of angels appearing to save them. Reports proliferated in newspapers and magazines. Pictures were painted. Songs were written. Sermons were preached.

    No first-hand witnesses to these phenomena were ever found, despite what some of the reported stories claimed. Even the Society for Psychical Research had to conclude after a painstaking investigation that the stories ‘prove on investigation to be founded on mere rumour, and cannot be traced to any authoritative source.’

    Arthur Machen did his best to debunk the spiralling legends, protesting over and over again that his story had been pure fiction, and was vilified for his pains. His claim that The Bowmen had started the whole thing off was egotistic: the visions had been real and nothing to do with it, and he was stirring up controversy to benefit from the publicity. His denial of divine intervention was sacrilegious. He was a traitor to his country for trying to undermine the morale of the British people.

    The legend of the Angels of Mons has been called the first urban myth, and over a century later it is still not quite dead. It is a prime example of people believing what they wish to believe, though they may have had assistance. It has been credibly suggested that British military intelligence had a hand in spreading the stories, for morale and propaganda purposes, though in the nature of such things hard evidence is lacking. But nearly everybody who has investigated the legend seriously has arrived, reluctantly or otherwise, at the same conclusion that Machen came to: that it was sparked by that piece of ‘light fiction.’

    ‘Frankenstein made a monster to his sorrow,’ he wrote sadly in July 1915. ‘I have begun to sympathize with him.’

    He would have been further saddened if he’d known that the episode is what he is most remembered for now. Such reputation as his other writings have these days is mainly among devotees of one genre, horror. The Great God Pan is probably still his most famous work, and has often been called a classic of the genre. Stephen King has said that it is ‘one of the best horror stories ever written. Maybe the best in the English language.’ The underlying premise of this and several others of Machen’s stories, that only thin veils protect us from unseen things all around us which would blast our souls if we were aware of them, found an enthusiastic disciple in H P Lovecraft, and Machen’s influence is is discernable in many of his best-known stories. Many other writers in the genre have expressed a debt to Machen.

    But to dismiss him as just a genre writer is to do him an injustice. Leaving aside a tendency in his earlier fiction to lay on the Victorian melodrama with a trowel, he was a master of English prose, and his writing can attain an extraordinary power and intensity. His style is distinctly unfashionable these days, when long descriptive passages and anything that doesn’t move the story forward are considered a waste of time, but if you cast aside these prejudices and let yourself become immersed in his description of a beautiful sunset or the woods and hills he loved so much you are right there with him.

    Likewise, even if you don’t believe in the Holy Grail (and I don’t, so I know whereof I speak), a subject in which Machen took a close interest, when you read his mystic tale of its coming to a small Welsh seaside town, The Great Return, it’s almost impossible not to share some of the uplifting joy of the local people transfigured by its coming.

    And conversely, the last chapter of his early work of horror, The Three Impostors, contains one of the most stomach-churning scenes I have ever read – and that was after the publishers had asked him to tone it down!

    The book that is cited by most critics as Machen’s masterpiece, The Hill of Dreams, isn’t a work of horror. Though I have seen it described as supernatural fiction, it isn’t really that either. Machen himself called it ‘a Robinson Crusoe of the soul; the story of a man who is not lonely because he is on a desert island and has nobody to speak to, but lonely in the midst of millions, because of his mental isolation, because there is a great gulf fixed spiritually between him and all whom he encounters.’

    Heavily based on Machen’s own early life, it tells the story of Lucian Taylor, a sensitive and imaginative young man with high literary ambitions who feels profoundly alienated from the small-minded people of the little country town near where he lives. When still quite young he has a mystical experience in an ancient hilltop fort – the hill of dreams of the title – near his home, an experience that he can never be sure afterwards was real or a dream. After falling in love with a local farmer’s daughter he takes to living more and more in a world of his imagination, and his isolation increases when he receives a legacy and moves to London to devote his life to writing, leaving behind the beautiful countryside he loves to live a solitary life in a dingy bedsittter in a soulless London suburb.

    Machen’s depiction of a mind coming apart at the seams is masterly as, aided by the contents of ‘a little bottle of blue glass,’ Taylor slowly loses contact with reality altogether – though, considering Machen’s views on that subject, perhaps I should rather say ‘the material world’. Eventually his landlady finds him dead at his desk, the papers he has been working on a mass of unintelligible scribbling.

    If your taste is for clever plotting and pacey storytelling, then I would have to say that The Hill of Dreams is not for you: the plot is minimal, most of the action takes place in the protagonist’s head, and the story moves at its own stately pace. But if you’re prepared to take the time to savour poetic, vivid and beautiful writing, then I would say that my earlier comment about the power of Machen’s prose applies in spades to this book. At times the writing has an almost hallucinatory intensity. Though I read a few of his shorter horror stories many years back, it was only a few weeks ago that I got round to The Hill of Dreams; and on one occasion when I had to put it down to go and do something else, I found I’d got so immersed in Lucian Taylor’s world and emotions (which were running particularly high at that point) that returning to my own world was like culture shock, requiring a conscious mental effort, a shifting of gears.

    I think Machen would have liked to hear that. And I can’t remember the last time a book had an effect like that on me.

    Gerry Fenge

    Great stuff. Thoroughly enjoyed this. Must look out for The Hill of Dreams


    Fascinating, as ever, Richard.


    Excellent blog, Richard. I fear my “to be read” list has acquired some new items.


    Not entirely incidentally, there’s a certain resonance for me in all this. Caerleon was where my mother lived for nearly four decades, and so I have a passing, though not intimate, familiarity with the area Arthur Machen loved so much – though I have no doubt that he would be appalled if he could see it today, with the M4 passing within a couple of miles of his ‘noble, fallen Caerleon-on-Usk.’ One of his stories even mentions in passing a place called Croesyceiliog (Croyce-uh-KAY-liog), where my aunt and uncle lived for many years. It was probably a little village then; now it’s part of Cwmbran, the new town that sprang up in the nineteen-sixties, and there is no trace of the old village left.

    The house where Machen was born is still standing, and has a blue plaque.

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