In the fall of 1914, the Welshman Arthur Machen published a short story titled “The Bowmen,” which ascribes a supernatural cause to the German setback at Mons. Just as the Germans are about to overrun his position, a rifleman serving with the British Expeditionary Force recalls the Latin motto “Adsit Anglis Sanctus Georgius” – “May Saint George be a present help to the English.” He takes to reciting it as he fires his last remaining rounds into “the grey advancing mass,” until:
…he felt something between a shudder and an electric shock pass through his body. The roar of the battle died down in his ears to a gentle murmur; instead of it, he says, he heard a great voice and a shout louder than a thunder-peal crying, “Array, array, array!”
His heart grew hot as a burning coal, it grew cold as ice within him,
as it seemed to him that a tumult of voices answered to his summons.
He heard, or seemed to hear, thousands shouting: “St. George! St.
“Ha! messire; ha! sweet Saint, grant us good deliverance!”
“St. George for merry England!”
“Harow! Harow! Monseigneur St. George, succour us.”
“Ha! St. George! Ha! St. George! a long bow and a strong bow.”
“Heaven’s Knight, aid us!”
The voices belong to “a long line of shapes, with a shining about them,” Machen writes. “They were like men who drew the bow, and with another shout their cloud of arrows flew singing and tingling through the air towards the German hosts.”
When the story first appeared in the Evening News, it was plainly labeled as fiction, but tens of thousands of readers believed it as fact. With its unprecedented horror, the Great War recalled the skeptical masses to religion – or superstition – at its coarsest. When Georges Guynemer, France’s most popular flying ace, went missing in action, the rumor spread that angels had assumed him, SPAD XIII biplane and all, into paradise.
Straight out of Song of Roland, this legend, like the legend of the spectral bowmen, evokes a Christian civilization that takes up arms when threatened from outside. Nicknamed “Huns,” wearing helmets described as “gothic,” and blamed for a long list of atrocities, some of them fabricated, the Germans were widely seen as pagan throwbacks. The people who believed these yarns might have been credulous and easily manipulable, but not necessarily any more so than, say, today’s consumer.
I wonder whether the Paris terrorist attacks will give rise to any such myths or phantoms. If horror alone be the raw material, the 150 dead and 200 wounded should provide more than enough. But something tells me the popular imagination has no interest in putting them to such use.
These days, even Christians concede that Christendom is dead. By the early 20th century, it was already fading fast – it might, in fact, have flatlined with those shots fired in Sarajevo. But all that weird, wishful thinking about a God who smites and angels who succor, proved that people still revered its memory. Like Confucians burning joss sticks at a family shrine, they weren’t above calling on it, from beyond the grave, to lend structure to their hopes in baffling times.
Even after the Armstice and Europe’s free-fall into cynicism, socialism, and rabid nationalism, Christendom’s ghost turned up occasionally to rattle its chains. George Orwell, who despised Chesterton’s fondness for medieval civilization, admitted that a British public-school education – a kind of medieval relic, with its overt class snobbery and emphasis on knightly virtues like physical daring – prepared a man for revolution. Noting the similarities between Sir Henry Newbolt’s “Vitaï Lampada” and John Cornford’s “Before the Storming of Huesca,” he concluded that, repugnant as the “military virtues” may have been to the “boiled rabbits of the Left,” they remained irreplaceable.
“Boiled rabbits” may be a little unfair. From the slaughterhouse of the Western Front arose an image that would lend a Christian tilt to leftist thinking – and, possibly, tilt Christianity itself to the left. That image is of Christ crucified in the common people. Leaving aside the horrific (and probably false) rumor of a Canadian sergeant literally crucified with bayonets by his German captors, comparing enlisted men to paschal lambs was a popular motif in trench poetry. In “The Redeemer,” Siegfried Sassoon wrote, of a soldier:
He faced me, reeling in his weariness,
Shouldering his load of planks so hard to bear.
I say that he was Christ, who wrought to bless
All groping things with freedom, bright as air,
And with his mercy washed and made them fair.
Then the flame sank, and all grew black as pitch,
While we began to struggle along the ditch;
And someone flung his burden in the muck,
Mumbling: “O Christ Almighty, now I’m stuck.”
Employing more pathos and less bathos in “The Parable of the Old Man and the
Young,” Wilfrid Owen used Isaac, Christ’s foreshadow, to represent all the war dead:
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
No, people haunted by images of burnt offerings aren’t necessarily boiled rabbits, and we should be grateful for every peaceful impulse they’ve helped to spread.
When I think of those dead and wounded in this latest round of attacks, I see Christ crucified in them, and in their surviving relatives. But somehow that’s not enough. Something feels missing, namely, a general belief in a God and a host of saints and angels who feel a special responsibility – there’s no delicate way to put this – to kick the brains out of whoever dares raise the sword against them before they decide to do it again. Even at the risk of Othering them.
But that could be the ram of pride talking — one Catholic’s eccentric pride on behalf of a city and nation he hasn’t set foot in since 1986. Operating from their modern, secular worldview, French authorities will suppress the terrorist threat with as much skill and vigor as any of Orwell’s classmates. With or without being asked, God will of course be watching and lend a hand – or not. (His will was unfathomable even in the old days.) If the French people decide that the best way to make their country safe is to push back against Islamic influence or multiculturalism, they’ll do it in the name of something much harsher than Christianity.
The Christian past may well be too dead to cough up visions, but it can still receive homage. When I got home this evening, I uploaded a 15th-century painting of the Maid of Orléans onto Facebook along with the prayer: “Kindly unfuck everything. In Jesus’ name, amen.” It’s not that I expect a Machen-like result, but I do hope that floating the possibility will keep the ghost happy enough to continue its haunting a little while longer.