The Centaur by Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Blackwood’s The Centaur (1911) begins in “the year of Halley’s comet” — 1910 — with Terence O’Malley aboard a coastal steamer heading for the Levant and the Black Sea. O’Malley is an outsider, out of joint with his age:

“Not my century! … why, it’s not even my world! And I loathe, loathe the spirit of today with its cheap-jack inventions, and smother of sham universal culture, its murderous superfluities and sordid vulgarity, without enough real sense of beauty left to see that a daisy is nearer heaven than an airship—”

But his outsiderism is not of the dark, existential Colin Wilson kind. O’Malley is an outsider because, as the ship’s medic Dr Stahl tells him, he has “retained an almost unbelievable simplicity of heart—an innocence singularly undefiled—a sort of primal, spontaneous innocence that has kept you clean and open”. O’Malley finds refuge in Nature, and has managed to make a living writing travel articles about his wanderings, but still feels the need for a greater sense of belonging to Nature, both more personal and more spiritual:

“He had always ‘dreamed’ the Earth alive, a mothering organism to humanity; and himself, via his love of Nature, in some sweet close relation to her that other men had forgotten or ignored.”

And on board the ship he finds it, or at least the first hint it’s possible. Two of his fellow passengers, a big, quiet man he thinks of as “the Russian”, and a young boy in the Russian’s charge, attract his attention in an odd way: “They appeared so much bigger than they actually were”, yet when he focuses on them, he can’t see what creates this impression. He realises it’s a mental image of their inner natures, somehow communicating to his eyes (the other passengers mostly ignore them). They seem to feel a kinship with O’Malley, too, and he comes to realise, as he spends time with them, that they are no ordinary people, but “cosmic beings”, “strayed down among men in a form outwardly human”. Not aliens, but:

“…a direct expression of cosmic life. A little bit, a fragment, of the Soul of the World, and in that sense a survival—a survival of her youth.”

Dr Stahl has also noticed something about these two, and notes O’Malley’s interest in them. They are, he tells the Irishman, beings whose nature is similar to O’Malley’s own, “only developed, enormously developed… whose influence acting upon you at close quarters could not fail to arouse the latent mind-storms… always brewing in you just below the horizon.”

Stahl at first encourages O’Malley to interact with them, but almost immediately steps in with warnings about getting too close. O’Malley himself feels the tug of entering these two mysterious beings’ world, and thus losing his worldly self, though he soon realises that the “loss of personality” he instinctively fears would be “merely an extinction of some phantasmal illusion of self into the only true life”. Stahl urges him not to submit to the temptation of letting go of this world entirely, urging O’Malley to remember the watchwords of “Humanity and Civilisation”, not realising how little those words mean to him.

Blackwood wanted his friend Walford Graham Robertson to illustrate the novel. In the end, only this endpaper illustration appeared.

Stahl and the Russian are, in effect, the angel and devil on O’Malley’s shoulders, each urging him in an opposite direction. O’Malley already feels the attraction to the Russian’s world of greater unity with the Soul of the Earth; it’s Stahl who has to use persuasion to make him stay in our world. Stahl wants to study O’Malley, sure he’ll understand something about the man’s strangely innocent power. Stahl serves a second function, too, as one of Blackwood’s theorisers, using the quasi-scientific language of early 20th century spiritualism — “fluid” or “etheric” selves, and so on — as well as his own theories of an “Urmensch” to explain in technical detail the ideas behind this novel:

“Beings,” the doctor corrected him, “not men. The prefix Ur-, moreover, I use in a deeper sense than is usually attached to it as in Urwald, Urwelt, and the like. An Urmensch in the world today must suggest a survival of an almost incredible kind—a kind, too, utterly inadmissible and inexplicable to the materialist perhaps—”

Stahl brings in the philosophy of Gustav Fechner — William James’s lecture on him, later published in A Pluralistic Universe (1909), is explicitly cited — who believed that the Earth had a collective consciousness, a sum total of all her inhabitants’, plus something extra of her own. For eyes, she has our eyes; for ears, she has our ears. And from her come not only life forms such as ourselves, but “the gods and fairies of olden time”, as “emanations of her mighty central soul”. (And Earth in turn is a “Mood in the Consciousness of the Universe, [and] that Universe again was mothered by another vaster one … and the total that included them all was not the gods—but God.”)

The rest of the novel chronicles O’Malley’s journey deeper into union with the collective consciousness of the Earth, and then his return to civilisation, to teach what he has learned, in “a crusade that should preach peace and happiness to every living creature” — though one that is, of course, doomed to failure, as are all such dreamers’ crusades.

Bocklin’s “Centaurs” (1873) is mentioned in the novel

The Centaur was, according to Mike Ashley’s biography Starlight Man, one of Blackwood’s favourite among his own novels, and “closest to his own personal outlook”. It was difficult for Blackwood to finish (he broke off halfway to write another novel, Julius LaVallon), as he wrote to a friend:

“The theme, of course, is far beyond my powers, but it flames in me with such pain that I MUST get it out as best I can.”

Blackwood’s sympathies in The Centaur are clearly with O’Malley and the Russian. While he uses Dr Stahl as a mouthpiece to explain the theory he’s propounding, he also uses him as an externalisation of that part of O’Malley that can’t quite let go of “Humanity and Civilisation”, and so is held back from complete union with that massive-souled collective consciousness, Nature.

The novel reads, in a way, like an expanded version of one of my favourite Blackwood stories, “The Touch of Pan” (1917), whose narrator is led into the woods by the simple-souled nature-loving daughter of rich parents, there to find themselves transformed before Pan. The girl in that story is called an “idiot” by her parents for her refusal to be interested in their social world. In The Centaur, Blackwood at one point mentions “Sally Beauchamp No. 4” among other examples of the mysteries of human consciousness, this being the fourth personality of a multiple-personality patient studied by Morton Prince and detailed in his The Dissociation of Personality (1906). This fourth personality of “Sally Beauchamp” was also termed “the idiot” for her unawareness of details of Sally’s everyday life. Blackwood seems to take this idea of multiple personalities, and other aspects of what would be now thought of as mental illness, as hints of the sort of “Extensions of Human Faculty” that so fascinated him.

In some ways the novel shares something with Machen’s The Hill of Dreams, both being about the inner life of an imaginative and unworldly young man that touches on the supernatural, and who ultimately comes to a sad end — unworldliness crushed by the unrelenting worldliness of the world. Mythical creatures being emanations of a collective consciousness also make me think of the mythagos as emanations of humanity’s collective unconscious in Robert Holdstock’s work. And Blackwood’s novel even has an odd sort of connection with C S Lewis’s Interplanetary Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, etc.), in that both use the idea that (as Blackwood puts it) “if the heavens really are the home of angels, the heavenly bodies must be those very angels…”

The Centaur strays some way either side of the line between the sort of too-explicit occult technicalities that can spoil Blackwood’s stories for me, and the more successful poetic dreaminess of his shorter tales, like “The Dance of Death” or “The Old Man of Visions” (both from The Dance of Death, which also contains “The Touch of Pan”). His novels are not, really, standard weird fiction fare in the way some of his stories are. In his novels, the qualities that set him apart as a writer of the supernatural are much more evident: his belief in “the Extension of Human Faculty”, and the many strange directions it might take you.

The Prisoner

The Prisoner is a sort of Cold War, spy-thriller, 1960s-for-1860s version of Alice in Wonderland. Both Alice and Number 6 (whose name, I suspect, was intended to give him seniority over 007) disappear into another world — Wonderland on one hand and the Village on the other, both of them parodies of a very familiar-seeming England — and there do their best to both defend and discover their identities via a series of eccentric, surreal, threatening and nonsensical encounters. After all, what better way to find out who you really are than to have to defend your individuality against every form of attack 1960s paranoia can come up with, from brainwashing to hallucinogenic drugs, mind-transference to social isolation, even involvement in politics?

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History has made Britain surreal. Its cultural self-image is littered with old, unmoving artefacts and practices — judges in periwigs, soldiers in Busbies, undertakers in top hats, penny-farthing bicycles, grown men in old school ties and old school blazers. Its upper echelons — the slowest to change, so the most surreal and divorced-from-reality — are drenched in weird rituals, silly costumes, nonsensical-but-pompous titles, rules that must be obeyed because they’ve always been obeyed, and ways of doing things that have just always been that way. The only reason Number 6 can’t tell which side it is that runs the Village is that its comically parodic, overly-British version of British life is both ridiculously over-the-top and spot-on accurate at the same time.

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Both The Prisoner and Alice in Wonderland have an uneasy sort of humour: the humour of nonsense, or absurdity, something that can so easily slip into cosmic or Kafkan horror. In a sense, The Prisoner is a sitcom, as sitcom characters are characters who, whatever happens to them in the course of an episode, always return to the same situation, the same personality, by the end. This is true of Number 6, who even manages to escape the Village in ‘Many Happy Returns’, only to insist on parachuting back into it, whereupon he finds himself, of course, in the same situation as when he started. The basic joke in The Prisoner-as-sitcom is that everyone and everything is a calculated deception meant to break Number 6’s sense of himself. Ha ha ha.

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The basic situation of The Prisoner is also similar to many horror stories, where the protagonist finds themself in an isolated village whose inhabitants seem to share a secret, and may be working at making them one of them — as in, for instance, ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’.

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Both The Prisoner and Alice in Wonderland end with a trial — a nonsensical, mock-trial — which both Alice and Number 6 rise above and destroy. (The Prisoner also sees Number 6 made into the new Number 2 and put upon a throne, just as Through the Looking Glass sees Alice made into a queen.)

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Detectives, spies and secret agents were a peculiar sort of 20th century Everyman. I like to think of this collection of character-types as Existential Agents. 1908, the year that saw the publication of the archetypal Occult Detective (Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence) also saw the publication of G K Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, the first Existential Agent I can think of. Whereas Occult Detectives embody the encounter between rationality and the irrational/supernatural, the Existential Agent embodies the quest for identity, against either social or psychological forces. One pops up in Dennis Potter’s superlative The Singing Detective — which, like the final episode of The Prisoner, also features a singalong of ‘Dem Bones’ — questing through his creator’s real and fictional pasts for the clue that will release him from his personal Hell. I suspect Twin Peaks’s Dale Cooper of being at least half an Existential Agent, which immediately throws Fox Mulder under a shadow of doubt, too. (Existential Agents aren’t necessarily secret agents. Secret agents hunt for secrets; Existential Agents have secrets, often from themselves.)

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What does it all mean? Perhaps it’s like Number 6’s explanation of his entry into the Village craft competition (a genuinely escapist piece of art) in ‘The Chimes of Big Ben’:

‘It means what it is!’

Or, from ‘Hammer into Anvil’:

‘It means what it says!’

What both The Prisoner and Alice in Wonderland do is work towards creating a destabilised world, denying any obvious sense of narrative, as well as any obvious sense of rationality, to break up all certainties and create the sort of free-flowing, let-it-all-hang-out, deliquescent reality in which, free of external constraints, Number 6 and Alice can really find themselves. It’s a bit like that strange gloop a caterpillar turns into before forming itself into a butterfly.

But why am I asking what it all means? Remember, “Questions are a burden to others. Answers a prison for oneself.” Or, as they say in ‘Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling’:

‘It is possible that there is no clue to be found… Breaking a code or cipher is a finite problem. But, as I’ve said… we don’t know that there is a problem. And if there is, on what level of reasoning it is set.’

Which sounds, as it should, like the purest nonsense.

Wizardry and Wild Romance by Michael Moorcock

I’d like all the writers I like to like each other. But writers, self-centred and individualistic as cats, are often the worst at being objective about other writers. There’s too much stepping on each other’s toes, too much “You don’t want to do it like that!” and “I was going to do that, and do it better!” As a result, I’ve learned to take a cruel joy in finding out that the writers I like in fact hate each other. There’s M R James on Lovecraft (“whose style is of the most offensive. He uses the word cosmic about 24 times”), Machen on Blackwood (“Tennyson said ‘the cedars sigh for Lebanon’, and that is exquisite poetry; but Blackwood believes the cedars really do sigh for Lebanon and that… is damned nonsense”). Both Tolkien and C S Lewis met and liked E R Eddison, but hated his outlook (Tolkien: “I thought that, corrupted by an evil and indeed silly ‘philosophy’, he was coming to admire, more and more, arrogance and cruelty”); while Fritz Leiber wrote of Tolkien, “He’s not interested in women and he’s not really interested in the villains unless they’re just miserable sneaks, bullies and resentful cowards…”

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Wizardry and Wild Romance, Gollancz (1987), cover by Les Edwards

Michael Moorcock’s Wizardry and Wild Romance is subtitled “A Study of Epic Fantasy”, but it’s no academic exercise in objectivity. I’ve read it many times, but reading it used to depress me, and it’s taken a good few years (and re-reads) to understand why. It is, of course, that Moorcock is a practitioner of the form he’s examining, and his “study” is more a cry than a critique. One of the reasons I’ve so often come back to reading it is that I wanted it to be like Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature”: a critical history of a genre by one of its major practitioners. But Lovecraft’s essay is, really, a critical history only by way of being a writer’s manifesto, a definition of what Lovecraft himself was trying to do. Because Moorcock shies away from explicit definitions (though he does offer one: “I am referring specifically to that body of prose fiction distinguished from myth, legend and folktale by its definite authorship and not genuinely purporting to be a true account of historical or religious events”), it leaves a sort of gap, the black hole of a definition which can only be inferred from the penumbra of praise and damnation that makes up the bulk of Wizardry and Wild Romance. And one of the problems is that Moorcock is so much better at damnation:

“…a new school is emerging of would-be Romantics, desperately striving to discover fresh sensibilities in the way repressed products of the middle-classes tried to loosen up with drugs and sentimental egalitarianism in the sixties. These people learned the school rules too well, however, and the main impression given by their fabulations is of red elbows and other miscellaneous bits of anatomy poking out through holes they have, with much effort and personal discomfort, rubbed in the straitjacket.”

And:

“Often the prose is little more than a mindless imitation of the euphonious aspects of the verse which, lacking the substance of the original, takes on the aspect of a mute attempting desperately to sing a Mozart song by mouthing an approximation of the sounds he has heard.”

And, most famously:

The Lord of the Rings is a pernicious confirmation of the values of a morally bankrupt middle-class. The Lord of the Rings is much more deep-rooted in its infantilism than a good many of the more obviously juvenile books it influenced. It is Winnie-the-Pooh posing as an epic.”

Like many an internet commentator, he brings the Nazis into the debate early on (mentioning Rudolph Hess in the Foreword). And he has a particular downer on HP Lovecraft:

“An aggressive, neurotic personality, though not without his loyalties and virtues, Lovecraft came under the influence of Poe, Dunsany and the imaginative writers of the Munsey pulp magazines and produced some of the most powerful infantile pathological imagery and some of the most astonishingly awful prose ever to gain popularity, yet his early work, written primarily in homage to Dunsany, from where he borrowed the idea of an invented pantheon of gods, is lighter in touch and almost completely lacking in the morbid imagery of his more successful horror stories in which death, idealism, lust and terror of sexual intercourse are constantly associated in prose which becomes increasingly confused as the author’s embattled psyche received wound after wound and he regressed into an attitude of permanent defensiveness.”

Whew.

That word, “aggressive”, occurs quite often in Moorcock’s little critiques, whether it’s of Lovecraft, John Norman, Tolkien or C S Lewis. But its use does itself come across as, well, quite aggressive:

“One should perhaps feel some sympathy for the nervousness occasionally revealed beneath their thick layers of stuffy self-satisfaction, typical of the second-rate schoolmaster, but sympathy is hard to sustain in the teeth of their hidden aggression which is so often accompanied by a deep-rooted hypocrisy.”

The thing I always failed to notice in my early readings and re-readings of Moorcock’s book (which usually left me feeling how much he must hate the genre, and wondering why he bothered to write a book about it) was his evident passion for it. He swipes so eloquently against the writers he hates precisely because he feels so strongly about what they’re doing — or, to his mind, mis-doing. He does praise writers, some not unequivocally — Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E Howard — others highly — Fritz Leiber, M John Harrison, Robert Holdstock, Mervyn Peake — though never, sadly, as eloquently as his criticisms. But he also presents, if you can spot it amidst the fusillade, evidence of having not only read a great deal of it, but a good deal about it.

Rodney Matthews cover

Rodney Matthews cover

And, of course, he has written a lot of it himself. But here, Moorcock doesn’t discuss his own work, which may account for the key gap I find in Wizardry and Wild Romance (whose title I always assumed was a quote from a genuine poem, till I tried to track it down, and found that the “Wheldrake” it’s attributed to is a Swinburne pseudonym (used, appropriately, to write bad reviews of his own work) as well as, later, a Moorcock character).

Wizardry and Wild Romance was the first book about fantasy I read, and it certainly taught me a lot:

“An intrinsic part of the epic fantasy is exotic landscape…. and no matter how well drawn their characters or good their language writers will appeal to the dedicated reader of romance according to the skill by which they evoke settings…”

And:

“Melodrama and irony work very well together; the best fantasies contain both elements, which maintain tonal equilibrium…”

Moorcock may bash the “morally bankrupt” middle-classes, and he may sometimes present a rather defensive maturismo somewhat reminiscent of Jackie Wullschläger’s in Inventing Wonderland, but you have to admit he does it with style. And if you can stand back far enough not to be splashed by the acid he spits, there’s a good deal of enjoyment to be had from the sheer wit of the book, even if you disagree with the points being made:

“If the bulk of American sf could be said to be written by robots, about robots, for robots, then the bulk of English fantasy seems to be written by rabbits, about rabbits and for rabbits.”

And, perhaps the most revealing statement about Moorcock’s own tastes in fiction:

“If we must be given stories about talking animals, let them at least be sceptical, sardonic and world-weary talking animals.”

While to me, it’s to find recourse from scepticism, cynicism and world-weariness that I turn to fantasy in the first place — that, to me, is what literary magic is all about, what Tolkien called “re-enchantment” — but that, of course, is my own bias.

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John Picacio cover

Although it was updated in 2004 for the Monkeybrain Books edition, Wizardry and Wild Romance is, really, a product of its time, and is best read that way. It came from a writer witnessing the commercialisation of what had been, to him and the writers he admired, a deeply individualistic, often revolutionary art form — but that’s a battle that has long been lost, the commercial element of heroic fantasy being here to stay. The updates to the book, to me, feel a bit tagged on and less part of the central, anguished cry that spawned the kernel essay, “Epic Pooh”, back in — when was it? According to the Foreword, parts of Wizardry and Wild Romance were published as early as 1963, and that’s over fifty years ago!

Wizardry and Wild Romance is a book I will come back to and re-read, as I have come back to it many times in the twenty seven years since I first read it. But it’s been a process of learning how to read it: not as objective criticism, more as the expression of a passion, and of an ideal, that Moorcock never clearly states, but certainly defends — in style.