Books: Then and Now

Category: Then

Review: The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen 

“Every branch of human knowledge, if traced up to its source and final principles, vanishes into mystery.”       Arthur Machen

I first read The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen years ago mainly out of morbid curiosity and, truth be told, perhaps as an act of defiance (I was told that it wasn’t really suitable for an additional-reading credit on a nineteenth-century literature course).

And comparisons can be invidious, these days often generated by algorithms and therefore highly suspect. But in the realm of the macabre I’ll put this particular work (and other Machen stories) up there with the creations of Poe, Lovecraft, Stevenson, Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker for its lasting influence on authors who followed and built paved roads upon the paths that those early trailblazers carved out.

 The Great God Pan, his first major literary success, was published in 1894 when he was thirty-one years old.

Arthur Machen (1863-1947) was a Welsh author (among other accomplishments); born Arthur Llewelyn Jones in Caerleon, Monmouthshire, and later, after his father hyphenated the family name (Jones-Machen) took the abbreviated Machen (his mother’s maiden name) as his pen name.

He moved to London and struggled in poverty during his early years as a writer, working first as a clerk, a children’s tutor and a journalist while writing in the evenings. As he began to establish himself in the literary community he then worked as a magazine editor and translator while continuing to write fiction. The Great God Pan, his first major literary success, was published in 1894 when he was thirty-one years old. This achievement (as also happens now) was, at least in some part, owed to scandal.

…propelled by the combustible gas of moral apoplexy, the books flew off the shelves into the hands of eager readers.

Although they didn’t have Twitter in 1894, the orthodoxy then was not unlike the bien pensant establishment of today in its tender sensibilities, prone to instant outrage. That it was fiction notwithstanding, Arthur Machen’s novella, with its theme of Mengelian (not yet coined as a word then) experimentation and latent sexuality (tame by today’s standards), immediately offended polite society. So, (not unlike today) propelled by the combustible gas of moral apoplexy, the books flew off the shelves into the hands of eager readers.

A year later, when the malicious tittle-tattle surrounding Oscar Wilde again gave the Victorian public the vapours, Arthur Machen’s work suffered by association because of its perceived decadent and lurid subject matter and he had difficulty finding a publisher. His equilibrium as an author was not fully restored until more than a decade later. After 1907, his fiction met with approval again but he still continued to work as a journalist to earn a living. Although his literary stock continued to ever rise, his finances ebbed and flowed in alternating waves of scarcity and plenty, until his death in 1947.

Machen had the ability to figuratively capture, and build the book’s foundation from, the very essence of humanity.

In my estimation, the enduring appeal of The Great God Pan lies in how the story, on almost every page, keeps the reader so very aware of the fragility of his or her own Qi and how, so often, the fate of an innocent hangs on the actions of another person.  Machen had the ability to figuratively capture, and build the book’s foundation from, the very essence of humanity.  As with much in real life, the central character’s destiny is precipitated by a deliberate and heedless act and you begin to sense this causal malevolence at work, by the fifth or sixth paragraph of page one.

‘ “Mary,” he said. “the time has come. You are quite free. Are you willing to trust yourself to me entirely?” ‘

The narrator, Clarke, describes the horrifying life-changing act perpetrated by Doctor Raymond that carries the story forward. Arthur Machen set the scene down in simple prose, but its impact on the reader is visceral.

‘But at last the door opened, and the doctor returned, and behind him came a girl of about seventeen, dressed all in white.’

Clarke watches, as if in a dream, as the doctor prepares and reassures the girl, the innocent Mary, for the operation.

‘ “Mary,” he said. “the time has come. You are quite free. Are you willing to trust yourself to me entirely?” ‘

‘ “Yes dear.” ‘

‘ “Do you hear that, Clarke? You are my witness. Here is the chair, Mary. It is quite easy. Just sit in it and lean back. Are you ready?” ‘

The doctor applies the anesthetic as Clarke continues to watch.

‘And then she lay all white and still, and the doctor turned up one of her eyelids. She was quite unconscious. Raymond pressed hard on one of the levers and the chair instantly sank back. Clarke saw him cutting away a circle, like a tonsure, from her hair, and the lamp was moved nearer. Raymond took a small glittering instrument from a little case, and Clarke turned away shudderingly. When he looked again the doctor was binding up the wound he had made.’

‘ “She will awake in five minutes.” Raymond was still perfectly cool. “There is nothing more to be done; we can only wait.” ’

Of course, it all goes wrong from there.

The Great God Pan is yet another sound testament to a universal truth; accrued fortunes often wither and disappear over time, but truly great creative works will always endure.

Arthur Machen had the ability as a writer, in a truly exceptional way, to seamlessly meld the ordinary with the mystical; to link the outer world, the world of nature, with the landscape of the human mind. That quality alone makes this book a standout.

The Great God Pan is yet another sound testament to a universal truth; accrued fortunes often wither and disappear over time, but truly great creative works will always endure.

The book is available as a free e-book from Project Gutenberg and in print form from several small presses that have recently republished it. The trade paperback copy I have—The Great God Pan and The Hill of Dreams (The Hill of Dreams is another of Machen’s masterpieces)— is available from Seven Treasures Publications. So many books; so little time. But definitely put this one on your reading list.    REG

Links for additional information:

The Great God Pan

Arthur Machen