Tuesday, July 2, 2019
Old King Cole - Edward Shanks
Edward Shanks was a poet, reviewer and essayist associated with J C Squire at the London Mercury and part of the Georgian coterie known as ‘the Squirearchy’. But he was also a novelist, noted for his fantasy of a future Britain after a revolution, The People of the Ruins (1920), and for his long saga of Bohemian life, Queer Street (1933) and a sequel, The Enchanted Village (also 1933). What is less well-known is that he was also the author of an occult thriller.
In his last novel, Old King Cole (1936; The Dark Green Circle in the USA), a young retired Major (a stock figure of many English thrillers of this period) named Laver has a personal aircraft, an auto-gyro, rather like a helicopter. Hovering above the countryside one day, he notices a great green circle marked out in the ground below, and supposes it must be an ancient earthwork. Landing, he finds an enormous recumbent monolith, but the green embankments cannot easily be discerned.
This scene reflects contemporary developments in historical field-work. The archaeologist O G S Crawford, who had carried out reconnaissance in the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War and was now working for the Ordnance Survey, was among the first to realise that aerial photographs taken by the RAF and amateur fliers could reveal previously undiscovered prehistoric, Roman or later remains: and he commissioned further, specialised aerial surveys. Shanks had evidently heard about this new approach.
When Laver investigates further, he finds a seemingly tranquil, idyllic little village, Temple Overroads, nearby, but it has a ‘curious’ atmosphere. It seems watchful, and does not welcome strangers. He learns that the local squire, Cole, claims very ancient descent and is obsessed by the Romans, still regretting the 5th century withdrawal of the legions from Britain.
But he is no quaint antiquarian, for he also admires their rule, and is himself an autocrat: ‘You see, he directs everything and the people are so dependent on him that if his attention were to slacken they would be helpless,’ says the parson, a cousin of his. He is talking about the village sports day, but it is clear a wider application is meant. Later we learn that a 17th century journal describes the village as ‘the one piece of Britain that was never conquered after the Romans went, not by the Angles and the Saxons nor yet by the Normans, so that it is still verily a kingdom itself and its lord admits it to be a part of England only by courtesy . . .’
The village, including the vicarage and church, is rich in images of the classical gods, and there is a mosaic in the garden of the manor house with a sinister sacrificial scene. ‘It is believed,’ says Cole, ‘to represent Agamemnon giving his daughter, Iphigenia, to be offered up as a sacrifice’. And he adds that there is a tradition one of his ancestors did something similar on the great stone on the hill to win victory in battle.
The pilot involves Dr Dyson, an archaeologist acquaintance of his, in looking into the matter. Dyson is excited by the discovery. ‘Bigger than Avebury,’ he proclaims, and posits a buried stone circle beneath the banks. We are bound to recall the Mr Dyson who was Machen’s antiquarian savant in The Three Impostors (1895) and other stories, though Shanks’ character is rather more like Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger, a boisterous, bluff individual. Still, the name may well be a nod to Machen’s fiction, because Shanks’ story indeed soon echoes one of his themes, surviving pagan practices in secretive country.
There are implications of the supernatural in Shanks’ book: premonitions, the baleful hold the squire seems to have over the villagers, and the uncanny atmosphere. But he draws back from following Machen in making these more overt, and he does not have the Welsh author’s lyrical, evocative prose when invoking lonely country. Even so Old King Cole clearly draws on stories of antiquarian horror. Hints suggest that a young woman, effectively a ward of the squire, might soon be involved in a re-enactment of the ritual in the mosaic, to safeguard the village's independence. There is a thrilling Buchan-esque climax when Laver, Dyson and their allies pitch themselves against this.
His novel is also, though, a harbinger of allegories involving autocratic conspiracies in the English landscape that appeared in the next two decades, such as Rex Warner’s The Aerodrome (1941) or Jocelyn Brooke’s The Image of a Drawn Sword (1950). In all three books, there are authority figures who talk about preserving order against an approaching darkness and chaos, and who exercise a sinister influence over their followers: the analogies to the politics of the period are obvious. In Shanks’ book this theme is allied to an ancient but revived cult involving old gods and rites.
It may also be seen as a forerunner of another noted work. A local squire who rules over a secluded community; an interfering stranger who arrives by air; an aversion to outside interference; signs of continuing pagan practices; preparations for a sacrifice. Aspects of Edward Shanks’ Old King Cole seem to presage a well-known 1970s film with a similar plot, though there is no mention that his villagers are accomplished in wicker-work.