Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Rediscovered! Three Legends of the War by Arthur Machen

British soldiers pass a Calvary during the Great War. The kind of image which inspired “The Calvary of Azay” a lost story by Arthur Machen.

Earlier this year, three lost stories by Arthur Machen, famed Welsh writer of the fantastic, were republished by the Friends of Arthur Machen, almost a century after they first appeared in a London Newspaper. I discovered the stories while browsing through old copies of The Evening News, a London paper which Machen started working for in 1910. In March 2011, I edited a limited hardback edition of Faunus: The Journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen Volume 23 containing the stories, which was released to subscribers to the society.

It is a unique feeling, discovering virtually unknown fiction by an author you admire and it was great to be able to put them into print. These rediscovered stories, which amount to more than eight thousand words in total, are noteworthy additions to Machen’s known work. Though none of them are the kind of tales of supernatural horror for which Machen is most famous today, and they are certainly not amongst his greatest work, they are certainly of great interest to any Machen admirer.

They are all stories from the First World War, dating from after the publication of the famous tale “The Bowmen”. “The Bowmen,” of course, made Machen a household name, through fostering the myth of The Angels of Mons. These tales, published between 1914-1916, are very much in the tradition which Machen pioneered with “The Bowmen”, being “Legends of the War” - patriotic morale-boosting tales, in which supernatural forces intervene on behalf of the allies.

Machen was famous in his lifetime for his wartime stories and these tales constitute a significant addition to them, shedding important new light on Machen’s work in the war and the after-effects of the Angels of Mons controversy. Machen’s wartime writing and its popularity are fascinating examples of how the war gripped Britain and how, indeed, support for the war developed. For anyone interested in Machen’s wartime work, these stories will be essential reading they are all interesting examples of Great War fiction, told from Machen’s distinctive perspective.

Accompanying the stories is an introduction, which puts the stories in context, and a number of important non-fiction articles by Machen. These include Machen’s firsthand accounts of his encounters with Belgian refugees in Britain, which, as with many other British people, hardened his heart against Germany. Another article, in which Machen reports on the gathering of Kitchener’s New Army, is an important part of the genesis of “The Bowmen”. The stories are described briefly below with some quotes:

“The War Song of the Welsh”

“The sword of the Bards of the Isle of Britain is drawn against wrong and cruelty and oppression, against abomination and defilement, against treachery and abounding wickedness.”

When German forces face a Welsh regiment, little do they realise the powerful forces the Welsh troops are about to unleash by calling upon the ancient saints and legends of Wales. This story from 1914 is reminiscent of “The Bowmen” and is a short precursor to one of Machen’s most enchanting stories from the War, The Great Return, in which the Holy Grail returns to Wales.

“The Calvary of Azay”

“Yet if I disobeyed the order that had been given to me–it was not that I would be shot: that was nothing–my memory would be execrated as that of a traitor to the sacred cause of France.”

Returning to his devastated home village of Azay, Captain Vincendeau, the soldier-priest, is faced by a terrible dilemma, when given new orders. Can he commit blasphemy to help defeat the Germans? This story, told from a French soldier’s perspective, allows Machen, the dedicated Francophile, to explore his love for France, its religion and people in a time of war.

‘The Story of Sergt. Richard Haughton and what happened to him on the Somme’.

“The matter is simply thus. Extraordinary things are being told of the late Sergeant Richard Haughton of the Salford Rangers; of the last few days of his life and of his death. I knew him, as I have said, and I have written all that I knew of him, including certain experiences of his which may have been psychic or physiological; I do not say which, since I do not know.”

The longest and perhaps most personal of the new Legends recounts the strange experiences surrounding Sergeant Richard Haughton, in the run up to the First Day of the Somme. This story, written within two weeks of the beginning of the battle, is perhaps the first fictional attempt by any writer to grapple with the meaning of one of the most famous battles in British history. It is reminiscent of some of Machen’s most important pre-war works like “A Fragment of Life” in which the central character struggles with a mystical destiny. Reading this story makes an extraordinary contrast with the way we think about the Somme today.

Any admirer of Machen’s work will wish to read these stories and, fortunately, the Society still has a limited number of copies available. They are likely to become collectors’ items. To order a copy, contact the Membership secretary Jon Preece. 9 Ridgeway Drive, Newport, South Wales, NP20 5AR email: machenfoam@yahoo.co.uk.

Gwilym Games, Editor of Machenalia

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