Jun 9

The Bowmen



I enjoyed this ‘remembrance day’ episode of Elder Sign. The Netherlands is one of few countries in Western Europe that were barely touched directly by WW 1, but of course our land is also affected by this horrific war (though it’s overshadowed by WW 2). Some four musings I want to share about this tale:


First of all, war literature isn’t in the first instance 'my cup of tea', though it is impossible as a serious reader to NOT read it, as most 20th century (European) literature is, as you’ve said, about or influenced by war. And reading for school and university (Dutch language and literature) and my own book club I read some war literature that really affected me, like ‘Im Westen nichts Neues’ and de Bernieres’ ‘Birds without Wings’ (but I’m guilty of not liking Hemingway). Accidentally, I’m reading Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ at this moment for my book club (a great book, I think it is). The subtitle of this book, ‘or The Children's Crusade’ is something that strongly relates to the emotions of WW 1: that soldiers are only innocent children, used as cannon fodder, lured into war by some great tale of adventure and victory.


Second, I read many books of Machen, but only the titles of which S.T. Joshi said ‘[they] are all the Machen fiction that anyone need read.’ And this book of tales wasn’t among them. He only mentions this tale (in ‘The Weird Tale’) to illustrate the journalistic style of Machen in some of his work, which is (to Joshi) a strange amalgam of fiction and non-fiction (coincidentally something which one will see later on in postmodern fiction).


Thirdly, there’s an element in Machen that’s very important when put opposite to Lovecraft. Although Lovecraft worshipped Arthur Machen, Machen was as religious as Lovecraft was atheistic. In The Bowmen, Machen uses his piety, I think, to deepen the patriotic and propagandistic message of the story. Lovecraft was (annoyingly) nationalistic, so I think he wouldn’t mind (in a tale) to send the ghosts of medieval soldiers to the front, but it remains a strange contrast: the religious Machen as an example to Lovecraft. I also found it a strange combination in this tale: the horrible sufferings of the soldiers next to the propagandic and dehumanizing of the enemy (very different than, say, the negation of enmity between the soldiers in ‘Im Westen nichts Neues’).


Finally, The Lord of the Rings was mentioned (because of the ‘not going home anymore’-part), but I also thought about this book when compared to the wave of ghost soldiers from Agincourt. Likewise, in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, the ‘good ones’, when facing total annihilation, are helped (deus ex machina) by the Dead Men of Dunharrow, who in doing that delivered their broken oath. The ghost soldiers from Agincourt, of course, had patriotic reasons, they didn’t have any oath. The Lord of the Rings of course can be (and often is) read as war epic. But, like The Bowmen, there is this strange combination of the realistic horror of war and dehumanizing the enemy (Germans are literally monsters) and the war is between Good and Evil. Unlike Machen, Tolkien did fight in WW 1 and used his experience to write his epic, but it is no ‘im Westen Nichts Neues’, but a tale of Good versus Evil and victory.


Some last aside: when I was about fifteen, I found a little (translated) book with tales of August Derleth in my mother’s book case (a mystery on itself: my mother hates horror and such). Through this book I heard about Lovecraft, and that’s when it all began for me (though I play Lovecraftian board games nowadays, all that came later on). I mention it, because there is a tale in this little book, which I found to be originally titled ‘Death holds the post’, a tale about zombie soldiers, and which intrigued me when I was about fifteen. And now I ask myself: can Derleth himself be recognized as weird tale writer? Or can it only be recognized as Lovecraftian pastiche without the real weird (cosmicistic) feel?

Thank you so much for these great comments. I'm embarrassed that I didn't mention the men of Dunharrow -- that's an awesome observation!


"The Bowmen" is sometimes included with some of Machen's other First World War stories under a different title, so you may have it hidden within something called "Soldiers' Rest." Certainly, it's in the Penguin Classics Machen, which is edited by Joshi.


We've just finished recording Machen's "Out of the Earth" which is yet another of his stories about the First World War, and we found it really fascinating to compare to "The Bowmen." I'll look forward to your thoughts on how they compare.


Your point about religion is excellent. Blackwood and James, too, have a religiosity that is lacking in Lovecraft and other interwar writers. This is definitely a thread we should be keeping track of as we read.


We haven't forgotten about Derleth! When I was a teenager, all we had were his editions of Lovecraft which often had his own stories included in them ... but with his own name left off so that we thought they were Lovecraft stories, too. He's not nearly as good, but some of them are interesting in their own right, so we will get to them some day.

I've read the tale in the book 'The Angels of Mons / The Bowmen and Other Legends of War' (epub from Gutenberg), with an introduction by Machen himself and an essay at the end, both about the forming of the 'urban legend' through his tale. I only looked in Joshi's 'The Weird Tale' - in that book he doesn't say much about The Bowmen, but he is a connoisseur of Machen of course, so it doesn't surprise me he has edited an edition of it (one day I will purchase such an edition) and wrote more about his work.


I'm indeed looking forward to reading 'Out of the Earth'.


Yes, I wonder how religiosity interacts with the 'weird' element, because religion accepts wonders, where empirical minds don't. You would expect that strange things are more of a shock to emperical minds than to religious ones.


Derleth always will be two-sided: the one who complicated the legacy of Lovecraft, but also who kept it alive. I'm looking forward to read some more of his own writings, which can be then compared with the works of other 'old school' weird-writers.


I'm really excited to read some Derleth, actually. I know I'm going to regret saying it, but still.

Jun 15

I'm really enjoying the Elder Sign podcasts. By the way, I understand that Machen pronounced his name (which was a pseudonym, after all) so as to rhyme with "Blacken", not the more commonly used pronunciation that rhymes with "Walkin'". Derleth lived an interesting, very physically active and socially outgoing life, and was in other ways as well nearly the polar opposite of Lovecraft in personal characteristics. Given Lovecraft's materialistic atheism, it's interesting that Derleth was a practicing Catholic and wrote biographies of the saints and various Catholic figures. He's buried in St. Aloysius Cemetery in Wisconsin, named after the same saint that Lafferty was.

Yes, there's an entire academic book to be written right there and that excites me. Do either of you have a particular Derleth story you'd like to hear us talk about?


You are absolutely right about the pronunciation and I'm entirely the problem. Machen is a common German verb and I read more German than Arthur Machen and so I just can't stop pronouncing it like it's German ... and I've infected Brandon with this, too. But we're going to set up some electro-shock therapy next time.

Jun 16

I wonder if Machen changed the pronunciation of his pen name over time, as the more Germanic pronunciation seems natural to Anglo-Saxon ears. After the beginning of WWI, there was a nationwide revulsion to things Germanic in the United Kingdom and America, and he may have changed the pronunciation. (I was unaware of the extent of the anti-German movement after WWI until I watched Ken Burns' documentary series on Prohibition recently. The teaching of German was banned in many American schools, German textbooks were publicly burned, and in one particularly horrifying detail, dachshunds were chased and stoned to death in the streets by anti-German mobs.

Yes, this is something that Vonnegut writes about, at least obliquely, in a few of his works. It's been too long, but I think it's a part of Slaugtherhouse Five where he is wrestling with identity and the problem of nationalism and war.


I do wonder that, too, about the pronunciation. Certainly when he took that as his pen-name it was cool to be a Germanophile in the UK.

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"But we're going to set up some electro-shock therapy next time." ai... :-D


My favorite Machen is his essay 'Hieroglyphics' (quote: "Let us never forget that the essence of the book is its splendid celebration of ecstasy."), but I'm hesitating to say what my favorite tale is; in my mind all his tales are a bit mixed up (there was one with much walking and a sinister house, but I forgot what tale it was). Of course there is "The Great God Pan" (I liked that one), and in my notebook in which I keep quotes when reading, I wrote down some of the lines of 'The Secet Glory', among which one that in some way or the other keeps haunting me, also in my own tales: "every day of our lives we see the Graal carries before us in a wonderful order, and every day we leave the question unasked, the Mystery despised and neglected." (I like to read this from a existentialistic point of view, not from a Catholic one).

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