Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Guest Post: "Arthur Machen: The Railer’s Failure in THE GREAT RETURN" by Dale Nelson

Sir Thomas Malory tells how King Arthur’s Round Table knights set forth to achieve the vision of the Holy Grail.  In the end, only Sirs Bors, Percival, and Galahad fully achieved it, while, conversely, the violent and lustful Sir Gawain became disgusted with the quest, unable to find even the tenth part of the adventures he would have expected to have (Caxton version, XVI: 1), and many other knights died fruitlessly.

In Machen’s 1915 Faith Press novella, the Grail returns to our world, from “the spiritual place” of Sarras, as Malory called it (XVII: 20).  The three glorious men who accompany it might be the three best Grail knights.  Even if the Grail itself isn’t clearly seen, its manifestations bring freely-given blessings to a Welsh coastal town, supernal joy and healings of body and soul, especially the miraculous restoration to radiant health of a consumptive girl at the very point of death.

The story’s London-based narrator has got wind of strange things in Llantrisant,* a town that he has visited before.  Can it be that the rector really has taken to High Church ritualistic practices?  The narrator cannot believe that, so curiosity impels him to visit the seaside town again.  He discovers that far more remarkable things have evidently occurred there.

He eventually learns much -- but it’s at second-hand.  He himself doesn’t see the marvels.  He realizes eventually that, despite his knowledge of languages, history, and obscure lore, “the clue had been offered to me, and I had not taken it, I had not even known that it was there.”  The “right way” to perceive “was outside all my limits of possibility” (Chap. 3).   It isn’t Machen’s intention to make the narrator’s failure the chief thing in the story, and so he cannily reveals it early on, in order that the story may culminate instead in the greatest wonders, before a few bemused concluding lines let us down gently in our familiar world.

The folk who did experience the wonders may have been squabblers and their religion may have been (up till then) a Low Church Anglicanism or Methodism.  But in these and in their legends they retained a living connection with the ancient Celtic Church.  For the story’s narrator, that church has been the object of antiquarian study, but, it seems, not an abiding presence in his life.  But indeed, it is suggested that in the church the sacrament of the altar has not failed throughout the centuries -- however lacking in beauty the celebration may have become, to the exasperation of aesthetical observers.

Where in Malory the failed knights were likely to be rebuked for their sins by holy hermits, this story’s narrator is challenged by the elderly Llantrisant rector: “’I know you are a railer.  You are a railer and a bitter railer; I have read articles that you have written, and I know your contempt and your hatred for those you call Protestants in your derision….You see nothing but the outside and the show.  You are not worthy of this mystery that has been done here.’”  The narrator acknowledges that he has been “rebuked indeed, and justly rebuked” (Chap. 2).  On the Sunday after Olwen Phillips’s healing, the whole town had turned out for the Mass of the Holy Grail (Chap. 7).  And then the Grail was again withdrawn, and the narrator halfheartedly offers rationalistic hypotheses for what he has heard as having happened in Llantrisant.  He has always arrived on the scene too late.  The closest he came (Chap. 5) to the glorious manifestation of the Grail was to catch, in the “typical example of a Welsh parish church,” the lingering scent of the Paradisal incense.

*The name means “Church of Three Saints,” and David Mills’s Dictionary of British Place-Names identifies the three as Dyfodwg, Gwynno, and Illtud (p. 303), but perhaps Machen thought too of Bors, Percival, and Galahad.

© 2016 Dale Nelson


  1. The three saints you footnote relate to Llantrisant in the Rhondda valley but this is not a harbour. In fact, I don't know of a Llantrisant by the sea...

  2. Poetic license on Machen's part, I guess! "I went up and down the ways of Llantrisant wondering, and came to the harbour, which is a little place, with little quays where some small coasting trade still lingers" (Chap. 2), etc.