Today, a century back, was a big day. A big day, that is, for a project that’s frequently concerned with the entangled influences of literature and history–or, to be more specific, the reciprocal influences of fact on fiction and of fantasy on the perception and arrangement of “fact.”
Here’s why: a short story called “The Bowmen” first appeared in the Evening News of September 29th, 1914. It’s a slight story, a patriotic fable by the journalist and fantasist Arthur Machen, and it’s easily recognizable as fantasy–especially, perhaps to us, in this prolific silver age of fantasy. But even then it was plainly a “tale”–“an openly fictional romantic story,” as Fussell called it–and not a report on month-old action. Read it for yourself–it’s quite short.
And yet to many of its readers it seemed all too real.
“The Bowmen” is set during the retreat from Mons at the end of August. We are among an embattled British unit about to be overwhelmed, and its stout Tommy regulars laugh and joke even as they slaughter the waves of advancing Germans and are themselves shattered by German artillery. Soon, “there was no hope at all,” and so they laugh and sing some more and prepare to die. We are told that these British troops are holding a crucial “salient” of the British left, and that their defeat will mean total German victory. But this is dramatic set-up: there is no pretense of realistic tactics here–no officers ordering a stand or contemplating a withdrawal.
As the last onslaught begins, one of our exhausted and nearly delirious Tommies –a man somewhat learned in Latin–calls upon the aid of St. George. He immediately feels “something between a shudder and an electric shock” and then hears strange voices all about him, shouting war cries in a sort of archaic Anglo-French. Next “he saw before him, beyond the trench, a long line of shapes, with a shining about them.” In another moment great flights of invisible arrows are slicing through the air, striking down the Germans in their hundreds and thousands, but leaving no visible wounds. The battered British remnant is thus saved by the ghostly archers, and the story concludes in proper fantasy/supernatural genre fashion by informing us confidentially that, although the learned soldier knows what he saw, the foolishly rationalist Germans concluded that the British must have used gas shells of an unknown nature.
A nice tale, and for anyone who knows their English history, a clever adaptation of the old Arthur myth to the circumstances of desperate battle in Northern France. Agincourt, site of Henry V’s victory over the French 499 years before, is a triply famous battle: for its tactically significant proof that massed longbowmen could indeed dominate armored knights, for its use by Shakespeare as the sight of the Mother of All Theatrical Battlefield Exhortations, and for John Keegan’s discipline-shifting reconstruction of it in The Face of Battle. True, Waterloo wasn’t far off either, as the ghostly charger gallops, and it would have been pretty cool to have the Duke of Wellington pound out of the mist upon Copenhagen and rally the Tommies into a square. But the Duke had died in 1852, and he and his nasty politics survived in living memory and therefore he had less of magic about him than the bowmen. Besides, Machen loved the Middle Ages, and obviously enjoyed the idea of summoning the once and future bowmen from their graves in a time of Britain’s (or Britons’) dire need.
So why the big fuss about the influence of fantasy on fact?
I’ll get there in just a bit–but first a brief trot down an interesting side track. “The Bowmen” is fiction, but it does have some roots in a military/supernatural legend. Machen later wrote, in an earnest explanation of his process, that four things contributed to the genesis of the story in his imagination: his shock at reading the newspaper accounts of the disastrous retreat; the mystical ambiance at a mass he attended thereafter, while story ideas percolated in his mind; a Kipling story that “got in my head;” and, finally, “the mediævalism that is always there.”
The Kipling story must be “The Lost Legion.” This, too, is fiction, and not in itself fantastic. The story is of a British Indian cavalry unit attempting to arrest some Afghan tribesmen and blundering their attempted ambush. They succeed, however, because they are taken for the ghosts of an Indian cavalry unit massacred by the same tribesman thirty years before. So in Kipling’s story it’s the Afghans who believe in ghosts and the “good guys” who profit by it–and yet Kipling based the story on rumors of an Afghan massacre of a fleeing Indian cavalry unit during the (very much historical) mutiny of 1857, and there is still the sense, in his story, that the not-actually-manifesting “ghosts” of these mutinous cavalrymen have paid their debt by rescuing these loyal troops a generation later.
So legend begot fiction, which in turn begot another fiction upon the fertile mind of Arthur Machen. And today it was published in the Evening News.
And then it took wing: within weeks, stories began circulating about vast angels seen in the skies during the retreat, sheltering and shepherding the BEF. These stories were soon widely believed (with, surely, many different shadings to the sense of “belief”) and it became, as we have seen, difficult to tell any story of the retreat without alluding to the famous angels. Like the coded clotheslines, patterned plowings, and basement-dwelling, telephoning German spies, everybody had heard the stories, so they must be true.
But why angels, from bowmen? Fussell thought that “it was the shining that did it,” and surely angels are more appropriate to a collective delusion/hoax/big magical thought than ghostly bowmen. Instead of a hint of the occult or macabre we have unobjectionable and reassuring religion, and instead of specific plot problems (how did those arrows kill?) we have a vague but sturdy sense of reinforcement for one of the most important flat-footed convictions of wartime, namely that God was on our side.
Were there angels at Mons? “It became unpatriotic, almost treasonable, to doubt it.”
Some enthusiastic angelologists traced the angels back to Machen, and congratulated him on being the first to write of the divine intervention on behalf of England’s cause. Machen was himself something of a mystic and spiritualist, but he was mortified to have his fiction mistaken for religious testimony or real reportage. To borrow one of the great Talmudic parsings of all time, Machen was not offended as a Christian or a mystic or a believer in the occult–he was offended as a fantasist.
Machen was easily persuaded, then, to write an introduction for a book version of the tale–rolled together with four other stories of his on similar themes–in late 1915. (So I suppose, technically, that I’m getting us ahead of ourselves, but this feels too central to be vague about for months on end.) The little volume was sold as The Bowmen, and Other Legends of the War, and this title, along with a very appropriate illustration, is all that appears on the cover. Yet, tellingly, a pre-title page, and a superscription on the title page, and the title at the top of every left-hand page all shout “The Angels of Mons” (see here)=for a scan of the book, minus the cover).
So goes marketing, in those times as in ours–the original tale is now repackaged and sold as the companion volume to the major motion picture, or, er, delusion. But Machen is at great pains, in the 1915 introduction, to set the record straight:
This affair of “The Bowmen” has been such an odd one from first to last, so many queer complications have entered into it, there have been so many and so divers currents and cross-currents of rumour and speculation concerning it, that I honestly do not know where to begin. I propose, then, to solve the difficulty by apologizing for beginning at all…
…though the story itself is nothing, it has yet had such odd and unforeseen consequences and adventures that the tale of them may possess some interest. And then, again, there are certain psychological morals to be drawn from the whole matter of the tale and its sequel of rumours and discussions that are not, I think, devoid of consequence.
Now it has been murmured and hinted and suggested and whispered in all sorts of quarters that before I wrote the tale I had heard something. The most decorative of these legends is also the most precise: “I know for a fact that the whole thing was given him in typescript by a lady-in-waiting.” This was not the case; and all vaguer reports to the effect that I had heard some rumours or hints of rumours are equally void of any trace of truth. Again I apologize for entering so pompously into the minutia of my bit of a story, as if it were the lost poems of Sappho…
Going back to the beginning, Machen explains that, only a few days hence, a century back, he received two inquiries from magazine editors. One of these was the editor of The Occult Review–a harbinger, this, of what will be a surging interest in the occult among former rationalists devastated by the war’s mounting losses–eager to hear more about the bowmen. Machen politely but firmly asserted the fictionality of his tale, and assumed the matter was settled.
But in only a few months the “rumours” will return, and with greater force–this time as semi-tragic farce instead of wry British comedy. Now it is the first of several parish priests who will write to ask about the sources for his true history of the bowmen/angels. Machen cordially gives leave to reprint his tale but reminds him that it is “pure invention.”
The priest wrote again, suggesting — to my amazement — 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 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… and the snowball of rumour that was then set rolling has been rolling ever since, growing bigger and bigger, till it is now swollen to a monstrous size.
It was at about this period that variants of my tale began to be told as authentic histories…
Machen’s tone throughout this introduction is sincere and apologetic, but he does allow himself some bemusement when the tale is retold with actual arrow-shafts protruding from the German bodies, an idea he had considered
over-precipitous even for a mere fantasy. I was therefore entertained when I found that what I had refused as too fantastical for fantasy was accepted in certain occult circles as hard fact.
Machen then traces the appearance of the “angel” myths in late 1914 and early 1915 from out of the “bowmen” tale and, in a postscript to his little book of fantasy stories, refutes, with touching regret, a series of published demonstrations of the reality of the Angels of Mons. Alas, the arguments rest on no evidence whatsoever–much unsubstantiated hearsay is marshaled, but no names, no dates–and Machen concludes with a rueful “it may be so, but–“
Roland Leighton wrote to Vera Brittain today with some significant news. He is persisting–despite his very poor eyesight–in trying to obtain a commission. So there may be no going up together to Oxford. Writing directly to Vera (Edward, Vera’s brother and Roland’s best friend, often serves as their intermediary) Roland pays Vera the compliment of trying to explain himself. Frankly. Man to… ah yes, right–woman. So there will be more than a little blundering bravado.
Lowestoft, 29 September 1914
October 9th is getting very near, but I can no longer say confidently that I am coming up to Oxford. I have been, you know, very envious of Edward and Ellinger and Richardson and all those who will have the opportunity of doing something of what now alone really counts; and I think that at last I too may have the same. I stand a good chance of a commission in the 4th Norfolks and shall know definitely in about a week’s time. Anyhow I don’t think in the circumstances I could easily bring myself to endure a secluded life of scholastic vegetation. It would seem a somewhat cowardly shirking of my obvious duty. In fact if I do not get to Oxford at all, as seems possible, I shall not much regret it,–except perhaps in that I shall miss the incidental pleasure of seeing you there. Of course, all being well, I could go up after everything is over. I feel, however, that I am meant to take some active part in this war. It is to me a very fascinating thing–something, if often horrible, yet very ennobling and very beautiful, something whose elemental reality raises it above the reach of all cold theorising. You will call me a militarist. You may be right.
The “incidental” must have hurt, but it was probably not meant to. The foolishness of Roland’s conviction that war must be “ennobling” and “beautiful” seems a little uncharacteristic, but then again being scholarly and serious does not necessarily exempt you from the reigning manias. He’s probably aware that he is admitting an illogical, emotional belief–a fascination–and backing it up with faulty logic, namely the idea that an “elemental reality” he knows nothing about is “beyond the reach” of “cold theorising.” Galling, indeed, since mutual “theorising” has been a significant part of their quickening relationship. Vera must know she is getting a weak excuse from a young man who is going to run off to war, if only he can… but then again her grounds for hoping he would avoid military service were pretty silly as well.
There will be a good deal more on Vera and Roland in the coming days…