Thursday, October 31, 2019

Remembering T.M. Wright with Two New Books

T.M. Wright died four years ago, on Halloween morning of 2015, at the age of 68.  He was the author of thirty-some books, most of which were novels, some of which were novellas, and one was a grab-all collection of his short stories, poems and art, called Bone Soup (2010).

P.S. Publishing has just released two volumes of Wright's works edited by Steven Savile. One is a collection, The Best of T.M. Wright, and the other is a short novel based on a final project Wright attempted some years before his death, as his health gave way to Parkinson's Disease. This last project was called by Wright The Prison and has now appeared, retitled Mallam Cross, as a posthumous collaboration with Savile. I shall have more to say about it in a future post. Both new volumes are very attractively produced, with cover art by David Gentry.

Bone Soup consisted of some thirteen stories and twenty poems, Wright's fine late novel, Cold House (2003), slightly revised and with the original introduction by Jack Ketchum, plus some fifteen interior illustrations by Wright (one of which also served as the dust-wrapper art). Bone Soup was commissioned by the publisher Cemetery Dance around 2005, and first announced for publication in 2006. A galley was produced in 2007, but the finished book did not come out until October 2010, and then only in an edition limited to 750 signed copies.

The Best of T.M. Wright is basically a kind of revised edition of Bone Soup, but with some notable changes (including what appears to be a random reordering of the materials). First, all of the artwork is dropped. Second, nineteen of the twenty poems from Bone Soup reappear here, but they are inexplicably reformatted as short prose pieces. (Why the poem "I Ask" from Bone Soup was omitted I can't guess.) And the novel Cold House has been removed and replaced with Sally Pinup (2010), a novella originally published as a trade paperback limited to 150 numbered copies. This replacement is unfortunate, for while Cold House deserves a place in a collection entitled The Best of T.M. Wright, Sally Pinup probably does not. This points to the inapplicability  of the use of "Best of" in the title.  For the collection isn't really a "Best of" book--just a compilation of things by Wright that editor Savile seems to have known about.

All thirteen short stories from Bone Soup are reprinted in the new volume, with one welcome addition, a forty-three page story called "Otto's Conundrum," previously unpublished.  This was originally written circa 2006 or 2007 (Savile is not very clear about dates), for a shared-world anthology conceived by Savile that was to be titled Monster Noir, about a place "where all of those monsters we grew up loving were real, and had been hidden away in an enclosure in the Nevada desert, victims of the Monster Alienation Act passed by Nixon" (quoted from Savile's Introduction, p. viii). The anthology never sold, but it's very good to have this story as an addition to Wright's canon.

Savile also claims in his Introduction that "there are no more lost T.M. Wright stories waiting to be discovered. This is it, right here, in this collection, the rarest thing, the last original and previously unpublished T.M. Wright story" (p. viii). This is a bold-faced error. Wright was generous to his friends and family with his manuscripts. I myself know of two early unpublished short novels, The Crows and The Walking Stick, and a long short story "The Collage." Plus there is the original version of what became his first novel, Strange Seed, which was set in the late 1800s and titled Nursery Tale (a title which Wright later used on his third novel, the first sequel to Strange Seed), and additionally there is the screenplay of Strange Seed that Wright wrote in the late 1980s (the attempted revision of which in 2009-2010 was among his final projects). Wright also handmade small booklets of his writings for family members. Who knows what else might be out there?

Savile seems to have known Wright, mostly via email (with Savile living in Sweden and Wright in upstate New York), from around 2005 through 2012, when Wright's illnesses really took over. Savile, in the afterword to Mallam Cross, notes that at this time Wright was "too sick to write, blind now"--but this was not usual blindness but cataract problems.  Wright had each eye fixed, one in late 2012 the other in early 2013, and was able to see again.  But what the Parkinson's was doing to the rest of his body did not bring back the ability to write.

The "Story Credits" at the end of the book are unreliable, missing out on a number of first appearances. Savile also missed a number of published stories, so one wonders whether he didn't know about them, or whether he deliberately left them out. These include "After Dunkirk"  (2007), "The Blue-Faced Man" (2008), "Fog Boy" (2010), "The Lost Woman" (1997), "A Moment at the House" (2011), "Murder Victim"  (2007), "The Puzzle Maker" (2007), and "Welded" (a collaboration with Tom Piccirilli that was published in early 2014, though it reads much more like Piccirilli than Wright). Two of the above stories appeared in Postscripts, published by P.S. Publishing, so one would think that Savile would have had access to them.

Another notable omission from the book is Wright's essay "The Stuff of Horror, Or Gray Matter All over the Inside of Your Skull" (American Fantasy, Summer 1987), which is almost a personal manifesto for Wright's own approach to horror. It would have served as a great introduction (or even as an afterword) to balance the collection of his short fiction with Wright's own views on the making of his art.

All in all, it's great to see some of Wright's writings made available again in printed form. But sadly I think this collection could have been better curated. 

Monday, October 28, 2019

Guest Post: Sacrilege: Machen’s Probable Allusion to Josephus in “The Great God Pan” by Dale Nelson

In an earlier article, I seemed to imply that Christian elements don’t appear in Machen’s “Great God Pan” until the second chapter. 

Some readers probably thought that the submission of Dr. Raymond’s virginal ward Mary gains pathos from her bearing the name of the Blessed Virgin and therefore from the way her submission to the scientist’s heartless wishes so tragically and so ironically suggests the Virgin’s gracious “Be it unto me according to thy word” in response to the angelic Annunciation.  Of course this is true.

But even before Mary’s entrance in “The Experiment,” the first chapter of “The Great God Pan,” there appears a passage that, for some of Machen’s early readers, may have sounded a Christian undertone and subtly enhanced their sense of the sacrilege about to occur.

Shortly before Mary steps into Dr. Raymond’s laboratory, his friend Clarke falls asleep.  In the earlier article, I quoted a portion of that dream, which described a dreadful “presence” that confronts the dream-Clarke, and I suggested that Machen is recalling a passage from Ovid about the peril of meeting Pan at noonday. 

Now I give the next sentence:  “And in that moment, the sacrament of body and soul was dissolved, and a voice seemed to cry, ‘Let us go hence,’ and then the darkness of darkness beyond the stars, the darkness of everlasting,” and Clarke awakens.

Well, “sacrament” sounds a Christian note, but it’s that cry of “Let us go hence” that I want to unpack, at least partially, in a moment.  I’m going to refer to an author whose two major books – Antiquities of the Jews and The Jewish War -- were once familiar presences in the homes of many English-speaking people and in church and school libraries.

I’ve asserted that, for the understanding of Machen -- upon whose knowledge of esoteric, rare books some of his admirers like to dwell -- it’s often helpful to consider what were once widely recognized, readily available books (but that now are probably known to few).

I’m certain that William Whiston’s 18th-century translation of the ancient historian Flavius Josephus (AD 37-ca. 100) is one of these now nearly forgotten works that were once common.

For example, Coleridge considered writing an epic poem on the siege and fall of Jerusalem (letter to Hugh Rose, 25 Sept. 1816), the great subject of Josephus’s The Jewish War.  Thomas de Quincey cites Josephus in “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” 

John Buchan mentioned Scott’s aunt alternating her reading of the Bible with Josephus.  Buchan called him “that portentous author from whom few Scottish children in older days escaped” (Sir Walter Scott, 1932, pp. 29-30). 

Overlapping with Machen’s time, G. A. Henty (1832-1902) produced an abundance of popular historical novels for youngsters, which included For the Temple: A Tale of the Fall of Jerusalem (Blackie, 1888). 

The publisher’s advertisement said: “Few boys have failed to find the story of the revolt of the Jews of thrilling interest when once brought to their notice; but there has hitherto been little choice between sending them to books of history and supplying them with insipid fictional transcripts of the story.  Mr. Henty supplies a distinct want in this regard, weaving into the record of Josephus an admirable and attractive plot,” etc.  (This advertisement, which had no need to identify Josephus,  appeared at he back of an 1888 reprint of MacDonald’s The Princess and Curdie.) 

Henty’s preface for his boy readers says, “the narrative of Josephus, an eye-witness of the events which he describes, has come down to us; and it is the storehouse from which all subsequent histories of the events have been drawn.”

I would be surprised if the rectory in which Machen grew up did not contain Josephus’s works.  Whiston’s Josephus was well known when “The Experiment” was published in The Whirlwind in 1890.

Josephus was prized for his detailed account of the Jewish revolt against Rome (AD 66) and the ensuing destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70, prophesied by Christ in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21). 

In The Jewish War, Josephus writes:
in the one and twentieth day of the month Artemisius, a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared: I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it, and were not the events that followed it of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals; for, before sun-setting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armor were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities. Moreover, at that feast which we call Pentecost, as the priests were going by night into the inner [court of the temple,] as their custom was, to perform their sacred ministrations, they said that, in the first place, they felt a quaking, and heard a great noise, and after that they heard a sound as of a great multitude, saying, "Let us remove hence." 
Although Josephus was the son of a Temple priest, he had opposed the doomed Jewish revolt against Rome.  He probably took “Let us remove hence” as one of the supernatural warnings to the Jews to flee from Jerusalem before it was too late. 

That cry might also be taken as having signaled the departure of the divine Presence from the Temple.  That “us” could be an imperative in accordance with the royal second-person grammar.  Moreover, for Christian readers, the plural could suggest the Persons of the Trinity.  That the voice is divine is the interpretation that may have recommended itself to Machen, if his “Let us go hence” is, as I suspect, an echo of Josephus.

Like the weird aerial phenomena recorded by Josephus, Clarke’s dream certainly foreshadows an imminent violation, in this case the violation that Mary will suffer.  Clarke’s dreaming consciousness might be drawing upon his memory of Josephus’s narrative of the destruction of the Second Temple, that is, the “house of the Lord,” as the First Temple, that of Solomon, had been called (1 Kings 5-8).  Dr. Raymond confesses, in the novella’s final sentences, that, for Mary, the “house of life [had been] thrown open.” 

I have more to say about Machen and the Temple, but will conclude for now by asking the reader: if “Let us go hence” does not allude to Josephus’s account of the destruction of the Temple, what does it mean?  Is there any other explanation that so well conveys the sense of the profound violation of a human being made in the image of God (as Machen believed), of the sacrilege, that is about to occur? 

(c) Dale Nelson


The Josephus passage may be accessed here.

De Quincey’s “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” with the Josephus reference, is here.

In 1902, Rider Haggard’s romance Pearl-Maiden: A Tale of the Fall of Jerusalem was published.  On the eve of the destruction of the Temple, the heroine, Miriam, feels that “in the midst of this unnatural quiet Jehovah was withdrawing Himself from the house where His Spirit dwelt,” and then the narrator refers to the Roman general Titus entering even “the Holy of Holies itself … nor, since God had departed His habitation, did any harm come to him” despite his looting of the golden candlesticks (Chapter 18).

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Robert Aickman's Second Novel

Aickman, Robert. Go Back at Once (unpublished novel, 257 pp.)

According to a cataloguing entry of the Robert Aickman Archive at the British Library, this novel was written in 1975. Aickman's first novel, The Late Breakfasters, was written some years before it was published in 1964. Aickman wrote one other lengthy story near the end of his life (he died in 1981). The Model was published posthumously and is often erroneously called a novel, when more accurately it would be called a novella, due to its short length. Thus Go Back at Once occupies a middle place in Aickman's three pieces of extended prose fiction. All three are odd, but in different ways; yet Go Back at Once is perhaps the oddest work of Aickman's entire oeuvre.

It attempts to work as narrative on more than one level, yet any meaning, as well as the details of its time and setting, are rather murkily presented. Taking place some years after the war, it doesn't specify which war. Yet the accumulation of a number of minor details point decisively to about the year 1924. The setting begins in England, but moves on to a kind of autonomous Italian state called Trino. Yet it is not the known Trino that is in northwestern Italy, for this Trino is on the Adriatic Sea, and is reached via Trieste. In fact the fictional Trino is on the eastern side of the Adriatic, somewhere in one of the Balkan countries.

On the surface level, the novel centers on two young girls, Cressida Hazeborough and Vivien Poins. They are inseparable friends, and having just completed schooling at Riverdale House, they go to London to live with Vivien's aunt Agnes (Lady Luce). Cressida begins to work at a flower shop, while Vivien starts as a receptionist for a psychoanalyst. Their life is interrupted when Aunt Agnes receives a summons from an old acquaintance. And here the novel's oddness begins.

The acquaintance is known as Virgilio Vittore, a great poet, playwright, athlete, soldier, etc., who captured Trino and now governs it according to the laws of music (whatever that means). The two girls travel with Aunt Agnes to Trino, where they find a curious populace and an even stranger society, where everything is free for the taking (the government is funded by a wealthy newspaper magnate, along the lines of a patron of the arts). The second half of the novel takes place over a period of only three days, as the girls explore this new society and become increasingly disillusioned about it. The theatricality of everything is paramount, and the girls are often muttering to themselves quotations from Shakespeare's plays, or those of John Webster, or even Gilbert and Sullivan. Cressida is to work with the theatre, where all the plays performed are by Vittore. At a strange banquet the meal starts with a dish made up of lark's tongues, though the meal is interrupted by a huge number of birds in flight, which are quickly fired upon by the male diners with their small silver pistols, leaving the tables covered with feathers and dead birds. The girls meet a number of unusual people, and aspects of sexuality simmer in the narrative. What the point of all this is is anyone's guess. It doesn't seem to be satire, nor allegory, in any sense. Where it leads, over the three day span, is that Aunt Agnes and the girls are rescued in Adriatic, having left Trino as it collapsed, and they go back to England, and pretty much to the lives they had before their adventure. This is foreshadowed half-way through the book by the woman Cressida works for in Trino who suggests to her that perhaps she might prefer to go back at once, meaning only in that scene to retreat from her prospective employment. Yet in the end this is what the two girls and Aunt Agnes do.

We do not know if Aickman ever offered this novel for publication, but it would have been a hard sell to a publisher. Go Back at Once lacks the cohesiveness of Aickman's first novel, and seems an advance upon it only in terms of conceptual oddness. It also compares unfavorably with Aickman's well known “strange stories,” for the development of the novel is labored to the point of becoming, at times, rather boring.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Guest Post: The Presence in the Wood: Machen’s “Great God Pan” and Ovid’s Festivals by Dale Nelson

sheltering under some blackened tree, I would pass the midday hours too dazed to eat or think, and waited for the flailing sun to cross the meridian.

Grant we meet not the Dryads nor Dian face to face
Nor Faunus, when at noon he walks abroad.

     Thus Ovid, on the “Weirdness of Noonday”, the hush and pause of nature feared by the ancients, and by remote peasants still. Then Pan walks abroad, and the nereids grow harmful. Even the cicadas cease to drill their dry, insistent nothingness. Time stops. The day is held breath.
--Colin Thubron, Journey into Cyprus (1975), p. 245

In some readers’ minds, Arthur Machen is so strongly associated with the rare and the esoteric that the importance, for him, of literature once widely known and readily available, may be missed.

In this and subsequent articles, I’ll show a few examples of how consulting such books may enhance our understanding of the meaning, and the horror, of several of Machen’s most famous stories.

The possible allusions I will point out may have been noticed by readers whose comments I haven’t seen. Much of what I’ll be saying was reported by me in an article published in 1991, in the Spring issue of Avallaunius, the journal of the Arthur Machen Society. I suppose that “Clarke’s Dream in ‘The Great God Pan’: Two Classical Allusions” is almost impossible to come by now, and that my article is unknown to some readers who would be interested in its content.

To proceed.

Just before Dr. Raymond operates on his ward, Mary, in the first chapter (“The Experiment”) of “The Great God Pan,” his friend Clarke dozes off and dreams of a hot day and walking on a path in a Mediterranean wood:
suddenly, in place of the hum and murmur of the summer, an infinite silence seemed to fall on all things, and the wood was hushed, and for a moment of time he stood face to face there with a presence, that was neither man nor beast, neither the living nor the dead, but all things mingled, the form of all things but devoid of all form.
The dream-Clarke has come into the presence of Pan. Perhaps Clarke had studied Ovid in school or at university, and read the following passage from the famous Latin poet, specifically from the Fasti, which concerns itself with the Roman festivals. From Book IV, lines 761-762:
nec Dryadas nec nos videamus labra Dianae,
nec Faunum, medio cum premit arva die
which Frazer, in the 1931 Loeb Classical Library edition, translates as “May we not see the Dryads, nor Diana’s baths, nor Faunus, when he lies in the fields at noon” (pp. 244-245). Frazer’s note adds, “It was dangerous to disturb Pan (Faunus) at midday.” The passage quoted is from a prayer to be offered to Pales, a deity of shepherds whose festival was in April, the subject of Ovid’s fourth book.

Machen’s reader will have understood that Clarke encountered Pan, whether or not the Ovid passage came to mind, but it seems likely that Machen expected his better-educated readers to perceive an allusion that underscores the heat, the breathlessness, and the dreadful peril of such a moment.

The passage is a prayer, a prudent supplication not to see that contrasts with the eagerness of the scientist that his hapless ward will “‘see the god Pan.’” Raymond lacks a proper fear of Pan and also lacks a due reverence for a human being; he regards Mary as his to do with as he pleases since he rescued her from the “gutter.” All the terrible things that happen after the “experiment” result from his unrestrained curiosity, ambition, and, above all, impiety.

“The Experiment” implies that one cannot derive ethics from the scientific method. This is true. One can only bring ethics to the laboratory – or not, as with Imperial Japan’s Unit 731.

The second chapter of “The Great God Pan,” called “Mr. Clarke’s Memoirs,” introduces Clarke’s private notebook. He calls it “Memoirs to prove the existence of the Devil.”

Machen thus introduces a specifically Christian element into the story, to which he returns at the end of the chapter. Having heard and recorded Phillips’s account of the tragic fates of two children who knew the fatal Helen Vaughan, Clarke added a Latin inscription that is an obvious parody of part of the Nicene Creed. It means, “And the devil was made flesh, and was made man.”

Depicting the devil as Pan isn’t biblical; in the Bible, the devil is associated with a serpent, a dragon, and a falling star, and is said to be able to appear as an “angel of light.”

But the “iconographic influence of Pan upon the Devil is enormous,” says Jeffrey Burton Russell. Early evidence for this seems, from his book, to date to several centuries after the writing of the New Testament documents. Russell reproduces a Coptic ivory carving, 6th century. The iconographies “of Pan and the Devil here coalesce: cloven hooves, goat’s legs, horns, beast’s ears, saturnine face, and goatee” (The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity, pp. 125-126).

Machen worked with both in this novella. The novella might not cohere thematically.

“The Great God Pan” didn’t come to Machen as one whole. “The Experiment” was published by itself in The Whirlwind in 1890. Years later, in an introduction to the 1916 Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co. edition of The Great God Pan, Machen confessed that “I had no notion that there would be anything to follow this first chapter.”

“The Experiment” recalls the brooding stories of Hawthorne, with his cold-hearted observers of humanity and the women who are their victims.* Poor Mary is a sacrificial victim shattered by a vision of sublimity. In Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, Psyche erred in listening to her sisters’ urgings to disobey the god and shine a candle on his divine beauty. Mary agreed to the “experiment” permitting her to see what her “father” could not see for himself, and her sufferings were worse, though briefer, than those of Psyche, and cost her her life.

With the rest of the novella, we leave myth for a melodrama about amateur detectives and the villainess Helen Vaughan, who arrives in London, drinks coffee, has one foot in the underworld and one in respectable society, finagles money and spends it, and leads several Londoners of good name into activities of which they feel so ashamed that they choose painful methods of suicide. At last Clarke, Villiers, and Dr. Matheson sternly give her a choice: either the police will be called (with the implication of inevitable public exposure), or she can kill herself with the rope they have brought. She chooses the latter. When Machen described the revolting metamorphosis of her body, he may have been trying to return to the more mythic level of the first pages. I don’t quite find it artistically convincing.

*I’m thinking of “The Birthmark” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter.”

(c) Dale Nelson

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Harold Bloom and A Voyage to Arcturus

The well-known literary critic Harold Bloom passed away yesterday at the age of 89. I will leave it to others to comment on the breadth of his career and on his qualities (or at times the lack thereof) as a critic, save to note that David Bratman has written about Bloom's failure to understand Tolkien in this post.  Here I'd like to explore Bloom's curious relation with David Lindsay's novel, A Voyage to Arcturus (1920).

In Bloom's Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism (1982), there is a chapter on "Clinamen: Towards a Theory of Fantasy," in which Bloom  makes a number of surprising comments about Lindsay's book. In fact the whole chapter centers on Bloom's view of A Voyage to Arcturus, an eccentric view nonetheless.  Here are a few of Bloom's early comments (before he waxes into his main argument):
David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus, first published in 1920 in England, is a very unevenly written book, varying in tone from preternatural eloquence to quite tedious bathos. Yet I will assert for it a greatness that few contemporary critics might grant, and part of that greatness is the book's near-perfection in a particular kind of romance invention, as once it would have been called--the kind we have agreed to call fantasy. (p. 200)
The deepest affinities of Lindsay's mad sport of a book are with Lewis Carroll's apocalyptic release of fantastic energies and desires, though what emerges as purified wonder in Carroll manifests itself as horror and torment in Lindsay.  Try to imagine Through the Looking Glass as it might have been written by Thomas Carlyle. and you will not be far from the verbal cosmos of David Lindsay. (p. 201)
But Bloom's most revealing comment comes several pages later:
In regard to Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus, I have experienced a relationship marked by a wild fondness and an endless ambivalence, itself productive of my own first attempt at literary fantasy, published in 1979 as The Flight to Lucifer, a book very much in the Arcturan shadow. (p. 207)
The Flight to Lucifer was Bloom's only novel, and I believe his only published work of fiction. Indeed it was written very much in the shadow of A Voyage to Arcturus, for it is basically a dull and lifeless re-write (even to its title) of Lindsay's book along even more expressly and didactical Gnostic lines. After its 1979 hardcover publication and the subsequent 1980 trade paperback, the book has never been reprinted. Soon after this Bloom disavowed the book.  In an interview in 2015 he noted "I had to pay the publisher not to have a second printing of the paperback. If I could go around and get rid of all the surviving copies, I would."

Is the book as dire as all that suggests?  Sadly, it is. 

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Guest Post: The High History of the Holy Graal, Arthur Machen, and the Inklings, by Dale Nelson

In Arthur Machen’s 1915 wonder-tale “The Great Return” we hear of marvelous lights, odors, bell-sounds, Welsh saints, the Rich Fisherman, and healings, as the Holy Graal is manifest, briefly, in Wales in the 20th century. The story needs no detection of “sources” to be reasonably well understood and enjoyed. However, our enjoyment of it may be enhanced if we see it – or recognize it – as a “sequel” to one of the great medieval Arthurian works.

That work is the Old French prose romance Perlesvaus, from the early 13 century, which Machen knew in Sebastian Evans’s 1898 translation as The High History of the Holy Graal. The Perlesvaus is a century and a half or more older than Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. Readers of Machen’s Hieroglyphics may remember the Morte as belonging to a dozen or so literary works cited as examples of “fine literature,” works of the highest literary art, capable of conveying “ecstasy,” wonder, beauty, the longing for the unknown.

Machen also appreciated Evans’s High History. In his controversial essay “The Secret of the Sangraal,” Machen referred to Sebastian Evans as “the accomplished and admirable, if somewhat archaistic translator of one of the Romances, to which he gave the title The High History of the Holy Graal.” Machen’s friend A. E. Waite wrote, similarly, of the Perlesvaus as having been “translated into English of an archaic kind, beautiful and stately, by Dr. Sebastian Evans, a gorgeous chronicle, full of richly painted pictures and pageants” (in The Hidden Church of the Holy Graal from 1910, page 11).

The “archaic” style to which Machen and Waite refer should pose no difficulties for readers who can enjoy William Morris’s prose romances, such as The Well at the World’s End and The Water of the Wondrous Isles. Perhaps the main thing that takes a little adjusting to is the use of “and” where modern English uses “if.” The Pre-Raphaelite quality is signaled before the story’s text commences by Edward Burne-Jones’s frontispieces.

The High History’s imagined era is the first Christian century (so that a mule that had belonged to one of Pilate’s soldiers is still alive when Lancelot and Perceval meet). The Graal is mostly in the background, and there is no official setting-out of the Round Table knights in quest of it. At the long book’s end, Perceval lays down his arms and devotes himself, with his widowed mother and his sister, to the religious life, and we learn that the Graal will be seen no more.

Before this happens, though, we have read of the “rich King Fisherman” and King Arthur has learned that it is God’s will that chalices for the Mass be of the pattern he is shown and that churches be provided with bells.

But Perceval’s mother and sister die, and the moment comes for Perceval’s departure.

Perceval heard one day a bell sound loud and high without the manor toward the sea. He came to the window of the hall and saw the ship come with the white sail and the Red Cross thereon, and within were the fairest folk that ever he might behold, and they were all robed in such a manner as though they should sing mass.” This sight is accompanied by a fragrance of supernal excellence; “no savour in the world smelleth so sweet.”

Perceval enters the boat and “never thereafter did no earthly man know what became of him.” In the years that follow, the chapel wherein he had resided falls into decay. However, one day, two young Welsh knights investigate the chapel; and they remain there for a long time as hermits. They have holy deaths and the people “of that land called them saints”; but they are not named.

Machen may well have found in such details a number of the germs of his story “The Great Return.” To them he added his devotion to the idea of the ancient Celtic Church.

By the way, Sebastian Evans’s book was there for the three famous Inklings, too.

Charles Williams, like Machen an associate of Waite, discusses it in his unfinished work The Figure of Arthur: “[Perlesvaus] was translated into English [prose] in the nineteenth century by Sebastian Evans. He was a poet of a certain power, though his medievalism is of the usual mannered and slightly picturesque kind common to that period; if not pre-Raphaelite it is at least kindred to that manner.”

Tolkien had a copy in his personal library, as we learn in Oronzo Cilli’s 2019 book.

And C. S. Lewis loved it for years. When he discovered it in his teens, he wrote to his best friend, “It is absolute heaven: it is more mystic & eerie than [Malory’s] ‘Morte’ & has [a] more connected plot.” Almost 30 years later, he wrote to a friend of E. R. Eddison that The High History of the Holy Grail [sic] was among his favorites, in company with Malory’s Morte, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and William Morris’s romances. It’s likely that his weird poem “Launcelot” is derived from the High History rather than Malory.

The High History is episodic and repetitive, and perhaps not a book I will read twice in its entirety, but it was exciting to read a little-known book that mattered to four of my favorite authors. And I wouldn’t have wanted to miss certain details. One is a passing reference to the castle of Joseus, the son of King Pelles. Joseus “‘slew his mother there. Never sithence hath the castle ceased of burning, and I tell you that of this castle and one other will be kindled the fire that shall burn up the world and put it to an end.’”


Machen’s essay “The Sangraal” is quoted here from The Glorious Mystery (US edition, 1924). The essay appears in the British volume The Shining Pyramid (1924) under the title "The Secret of the Sangraal."

Nigel Bryant translated the Perlesvaus for 1978 publication as The High Book of the Grail. A little spot-checking shows differences in some word-meanings, perhaps due to use of different texts. Evans’s style seemed to me to fit the matter better than Bryant’s relaxed, contemporary fashion – and I wanted to read the book known to Machen, Williams, Tolkien, and Lewis.

(c) 2019 Dale Nelson