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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Lord of the World, IX: The Novel

“I have an idea for a book so vast and tremendous that I daren’t think about it. Have you ever heard of Saint Simon? Well, mix up Saint Simon, Russia breaking loose, Napoleon, Evan Roberts, the Pope, and Antichrist; and see if any idea suggests itself. But I’m afraid it is too big. I should like to form a syndicate on it, but that it is an idea, I have no doubt at all.”  (Robert Hugh Benson, letter to his mother, December 16, 1905.)

An Apocalyptic Satire
So was born the germ of the idea that grew into Lord of the World, Robert Hugh Benson’s brilliant satire on the secularism of Edwardian England, and (even though recommended reading by Pope Francis) his most popular — and most misunderstood — novel. Lord of the World takes all the secular assumptions of the science-obsessed masses of the early twentieth century and carries them to their logical conclusion. All that the so-called “secular humanist” considers as good and desirable for human society inevitably engenders an inhuman nightmare.

In this series we’ve been talking about what Lord of the World is, how it came to be, about the author, and just about everything else except what it’s about.  We’ll do that now.

Thomas More, Misunderstood Satirist
A great literary tragedy that occurs much too often is the ease with which heavy-handed satires have been interpreted as straightforward opinion or even prophecy. Saint Thomas More’s Utopia, for example, satirizes the evils of Tudor England (especially the virtual abolition of small holdings of private property) — yet many otherwise intelligent people mistake the tale for the blueprint of an ideal society — just as they mistake his earlier, uncompleted satire, a supposed "history" of Richard III Plantagenet (that actually applies to Henry VII Tudor) as straight history, despite its obvious exaggerations and silly details.

Unfortunately, Benson’s satires, often gentle yet always pointed, have either been ignored by our modern age in search of literary pabulum and blood-spattered thrills, or taken as something far different from what they were intended. A case in point is this “apocalyptic” masterpiece, Lord of the World, first published in 1907 and reprinted frequently since. It is credited as the prototype of apocalyptic novels that have proliferated in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Armored Railway: Nineteenth Century Future War Technology
Many commentaries on Lord of the World have focused on the presumed originality of the work, and how Benson “predicted” such events as World War I, the creation of the atomic bomb, the overthrow of the European monarchies, and the triumph of secular humanism. Unfortunately, these analyses start with a series of faulty assumptions, beginning with the idea that the author’s “predictions” somehow originated with him.

Sir George Chesney
Benson was an avid reader, and was familiar with a sub-genre of science fiction that was extremely popular in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth. This was the “future war” novel, launched in 1871 with the publication of The Battle of Dorking by Sir George Tomkyns Chesny (1830-1895). Dorking is actually an extended short story, a “novella,” not a novel proper.

The future war stories had a number of common elements. A super-explosive of some kind was almost inevitable, as was a flying machine. With few exceptions, most writers put the war as taking place between 1910 and 1920, with most, ironically, putting the start of the war in 1914.

H.G. Wells
Benson loved science fiction, especially the “scientific romances” of Herbert George Wells (1866-1946) — although he was adamant that he had no sympathy for Wells’s philosophical or theological thought. He just liked the adventure and the sense of wonder such stories generated.  Clearly he was strongly influenced by the flood of “future war” fiction available during his youth and that apparently had a profound effect on his entire generation. When Benson set out to write science fiction, he chose a popular form, and one with which he and countless others were already familiar.

Benson thereby employed classic storytelling technique. The author draws in his readers by using a familiar premise or form. A fairy tale inevitably begins, “Once upon a time,” and the setting — an ordinary peasant’s hut or the castle of the local king — is one familiar to the intended audience. (It’s only the passage of time and space that makes such things unfamiliar or exotic to us.) Every episode of The Twilight Zone opened with Rod Serling’s voiceover assuring the viewer that the scene is perfectly normal.

The Invincible Armada, July 1588
Thus it was with Benson. A reader in Edwardian England might purchase Benson’s latest work on the assumption that it was nothing more than a very popular author’s entry into an equally popular sub-genre of science fiction. Benson was already known for his satire. This had usually appeared as little asides or comments in his historical romances, all the more startling for their casual presentation. Describing the aftermath of the Spanish Armada in his immense (almost a quarter of a million words) By What Authority?, Benson laconically stated that “everywhere half drowned or half starved Spaniards, piteously entreating, were stripped and put to the sword either by the Irish savages or the English gentlemen.”

That’s not what Lord of the World is about, however, as we will see in tomorrow’s posting.

Sources for Benson’s novels and related material: