Friday, 24 April 2009

The Watch-tower

In the summer 1916 the war was not going well for Britain and her allies. The early spring had seen the French caught between the hammer of von Falkenhayn and the anvil of Verdun and on 1st June the British army began the Battle of the Somme, an offensive that would scar the folk-memory of the nation for a century to come. August of that year found Dunsany recovering from a wound at Ebrington Barracks, Londonderry, where his regiment, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, was garrisoned during a furlough in their duties on the Western Front and in this respite from the fighting he would find time to write a short introduction to his newest book. In the preface to Tales of Wonder Dunsany reflects the mood of despair and grief that must have echoed around war-torn Europe. He speaks of living in days in which life is cheap, days in which the civilization of Europe has almost ceased but Dunsany, tired and war-weary as he is, does not sorrow for the dimming of the lamps. Rather he lifts his voice in grim embrace of the naturalness of war, of the justness of sacrifice so that songs may return and dreams bloom again after “this terrible ploughing”. Dunsany, a patrician of the ancien regime for whom sacrifice and duty were the signifiers of his caste does not flinch from the knowledge that if others are to have the joys of Athens then he and his comrades must first run the gauntlets of Sparta. There is a school of thought, marginalized and faintly heard, that sees World War II in it’s European theatre not as the titanic Good Vs Evil struggle portrayed by a thousands films and TV sitcoms but as a decades-long civil war that raged to consume the whole continent. Not a war of nations but a war that saw men of all nations turn on themselves and others in the name of ideas. A similar revision of the Great War could be applied – a war in which forces of tradition fought against forces of modernity regardless of flags and kings and this secret war, waged as much on paper as in trenches, would see figures such as Dunsany, Junger, Evola and D’Annunzio call for a halt to the headlong rush away from the ancient, organic communities that had sustained Europe for so long. Men born into an order that was blasted away by the war would perhaps find on returning to their homes that they had more in common with their former enemies than they did with the new world that would rise from the mud of 1918. Such ideas are of themselves dangerous and incendiary, that an Anglo-Irish peer could see in a German aristocrat and an Italian Baron a kinship and community of thought that could not be found within their own society, because they strip away the certainties of belonging that are found in the shams of nationality and ask us to look into the uncertain and changing depths of our hearts. Make no mistake, I am not suggesting that Lord Dunsany could have had any sympathy for the totalitarianisms that arose out of the wreckage of Europe but then, ultimately, neither did Junger or Evola. Hitler and Mussolini were as coldly modern and cynically futuristic as any Henry Ford or Lord Rothschild and in draping themselves in the robes of Tradition Both National Socialism and Fascism simply hastened the destruction of the orders and traditions that they claimed to uphold. For Dunsany in that bleak summer of 1916 it must have seemed that the world he knew and loved was fast fading from memory. He would continue to believe in the return of those “joyous free things” that delighted his soul but amongst the stories contained in Tales Of Wonder are also tales of caution. In the warnings of the spirit of a Provencal watch-tower we can see the enemies of old Europe massing again beyond the walls, manifestations of immemorial fear but does the threat foretold by the spirit still come from the Saracens of the Al-Andalus or has the torch of destruction been passed to newer, more insidious barbarisms? The Watch-tower I sat one April in Provence on a small hill above an ancient town that Goth and Vandal as yet have forborne to "bring up to date." On the hill were an old worn castle with a watch-tower, and a well with narrow steps and water in it still. The watch-tower, staring South with neglected windows, faced a broad valley full of the pleasant twilight and the hum of evening things: it saw the fires of wanderers blink from the hills, beyond them the long forest black with pines, one star appearing, and darkness settling slowly down on Var. Sitting there listening to the green frogs croaking, hearing far voices clearly but all transmuted by evening, watching the windows in the little town glimmering one by one, and seeing the gloaming dwindle solemnly into night, a great many things fell from mind that seem important by day, and evening in their place planted strange fancies. Little winds had arisen and were whispering to and fro, it grew cold, and I was about to descend the hill, when I heard a voice behind me saying, "Beware, beware." So much the voice appeared a part of the evening that I did not turn round at first; it was like voices that one hears in sleep and thinks to be of one's dream. And the word was monotonously repeated, in French. When I turned round I saw an old man with a horn. He had a white beard marvelously long, and still went on saying slowly, "Beware, beware." He had clearly just come from the tower by which he stood, though I had heard no footfall. Had a man come stealthily upon me at such an hour and in so lonesome a place I had certainly felt surprised; but I saw almost at once that he was a spirit, and he seemed with his uncouth horn and his long white beard and that noiseless step of his to be so native to that time and place that I spoke to him as one does to some fellow-traveller who asks you if you mind having the window up. I asked him what there was to beware of. "Of what should a town beware," he said, "but the Saracens?" "Saracens?" I said. "Yes, Saracens, Saracens," he answered and brandished his horn. "And who are you?" I said. "I, I am the spirit of the tower," he said. When I asked him how he came by so human an aspect and was so unlike the material tower beside him he told me that the lives of all the watchers who had ever held the horn in the tower there had gone to make the spirit of the tower. "It takes a hundred lives," he said. "None hold the horn of late and men neglect the tower. When the walls are in ill repair the Saracens come: it was ever so." "The Saracens don't come nowadays," I said. But he was gazing past me watching, and did not seem to heed me. "They will run down those hills," he said, pointing away to the South, "out of the woods about nightfall, and I shall blow my horn. The people will all come up from the town to the tower again; but the loopholes are in very ill repair." "We never hear of the Saracens now," I said. "Hear of the Saracens!" the old spirit said. "Hear of the Saracens! They slip one evening out of that forest, in the long white robes that they wear, and I blow my horn. That is the first that anyone ever hears of the Saracens." "I mean," I said, "that they never come at all. They cannot come and men fear other things." For I thought the old spirit might rest if he knew that the Saracens can never come again. But he said, "There is nothing in the world to fear but the Saracens. Nothing else matters. How can men fear other things?" Then I explained, so that he might have rest, and told him how all Europe, and in particular France, had terrible engines of war, both on land and sea; and how the Saracens had not these terrible engines either on sea or land, and so could by no means cross the Mediterranean or escape destruction on shore even though they should come there. I alluded to the European railways that could move armies night and day faster than horses could gallop. And when as well as I could I had explained all, he answered, "In time all these things pass away and then there will still be the Saracens." And then I said, "There has not been a Saracen either in France or Spain for over four hundred years." And he said, "The Saracens! You do not know their cunning. That was ever the way of the Saracens. They do not come for a while, no not they, for a long while, and then one day they come." And peering southwards, but not seeing clearly because of the rising mist, he silently moved to his tower and up its broken steps.

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