Thursday, March 5, 2015

Lord of the World, XIV: Ordinary Heroes


Believe it or not, there are people today who think that Robert Hugh Benson’s The Dawn of All is Benson’s blueprint for an ideal society — which Benson explicitly denied.  Just in case you’re tempted to think so, despite what the author thought was obviously a satiric parody, here’s a brief summary of the book:

Appalling ordinariness?
In The Dawn of All, the Catholic Church is virtually the only religious body left on earth. The only holdouts are a few Lutheran pockets in Germany, and the socialists. During the course of the novel, the German Kaiser “comes over” and converts, bringing the rest of the Reich (the Second Reich, of course), with him.

Unfortunately, the socialists — portrayed as extreme reactionaries — see this as a capitulation to the tyranny of Rome.  They begin murdering emissaries sent by the Vatican. To stop the bloodshed, the pope travels to Germany and confronts the socialists in person, even though the socialists have threatened to kill him on sight.

When men were gods.
The most striking thing about The Dawn of All is the almost appalling ordinariness of the characters. We have become accustomed in our science fiction and fantasy to men and women of super-heroic stature doing incredible deeds against impossible odds. This violates one of the basic tenets of storytelling, which is to have either heroic individuals in ordinary situations (very effective for satire and comedy), or ordinary individuals in extraordinary circumstances.

When gods were men.
Much of today’s science fiction and fantasy suffers from a lack of identification with the story by the average reader. As a result, science fiction and fantasy (despite periodic announcements to the contrary) have moved from the mainstream to the purview of a relatively small and self-consciously select reading public. The stereotype of the geeky science fiction fan who secretly views himself as Conan the Barbarian may not be far off the mark.

This was not always the case. Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, George Griffith, R. W. Chambers, Louis Tracy . . . these were not “science fiction writers,” but writers who happened to write science fiction. The first two were popular — extremely popular — with the general public, a status virtually unheard-of for even the best of today’s science fiction writers. The last two in particular wrote novels of adventure, romance, science fiction, fantasy — you name it, anything to keep the pot boiling.

Chambers wrote the horror classic, The King in Yellow, but was most famous during his lifetime as the author of “shop girl romances.”  Interestingly, although the “protagonist” of The King in Yellow is clearly insane (which is the point of the story), some people have taken it as an anti-Semitic screed due to the main character’s spewing rage against “the Jews.”  They fail to see the irony of a hateful, insane character engaging in hateful behavior being taken as advocacy of that behavior by the author.

Louis Tracy
Tracy wrote the stunning “future war” novel, The Final War (“military science fiction” is not a new sub-genre), but made his name (and a very good living) writing adventure, “Graustarkian” romances, and mysteries. By and large, the pioneers of modern science fiction and fantasy refused to be categorized or labeled. They were fearless about exploring new ideas, but also, by and large, maintained a sound traditional philosophical and moral orientation in their work.

Returning to Benson, the characters in The Dawn of All seem at first glance to be both uninteresting and dull. They don’t have the usual problems that beset the customary science fiction or fantasy hero. There is no heroic nerd (usually the author, thinly disguised) or sniveling hulk wandering about constantly lamenting his self-doubt or promoting some politically correct anti-morality.



Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company?
No, except for a genius or two who seem at first to be thrown in for local color, the people inhabiting The Dawn of All are plain and ordinary. People are virtuous, and, face it — virtue is “boring.” Il Paradiso is the least popular section of the Divine Comedy. No wonder the jaded quip that “virtue is its own punishment.” The extremes of virtue simply do not appeal to an age in which the “extreme, in sports and everything else, has become a “virtue” itself — whatever it takes to hold adrenaline addicts in thrall. The subtle horror of The King in Yellow is lost on readers of Stephen King.



The dullness of the people portrayed in The Dawn of All is almost too much. In some measure it may actually detract from the point Benson was making. The most fascinating character in The Dawn of All is an unrepentant heretic who is eventually executed for the civil crime of heresy. In my opinion, Benson deliberately set out to make him the most interesting and sympathetic character, and succeeded. It is only when the situation with the socialists heats up that the pope, whom Benson painted as the most ordinary of men, becomes heroic — as did the “ordinary” Benedict XV who followed St. Pius X in Benson’s lifetime and was then confronted with World War I. Even then, it’s clear that it is not the individual who is the hero —

"Galilean, Thou hast conquered."
“This then was the new type of man who had at last conquered the world. It was not superman that had been waited for so long, not a demigod armed with powers of light; not man raising himself above his stature, building towers on earthly foundations that should reach to heaven; but just man, utterly true to himself and his instincts, walking humbly before his God; looking for a city that has no foundations coming down to him out of heaven. It was supernature, not superman; grace and truth transfiguring nature; not nature wrenching itself vainly towards the stature of grace. It was man who could suffer, who could reign; since he only who knows his weakness, dares to be strong. . . . Vicisti Galilaee.”

That is the basic message of The Dawn of All. It is not that the world will be perfect when the Catholic Church is triumphant, nor even that restructuring the social order will automatically result in the creation of good men within a good society. Benson reiterates the ancient dictum that “all will be well” when man becomes most truly himself. From a Catholic perspective, of course, this will be when he conforms himself and the structures of society to the Law of the Gospels. Ordinary human beings become extraordinary while remaining themselves in the fullest sense.

#30#

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