Author: Jessica George (Cardiff University, GB)
Arthur Machen’s 1933 novel, The Green Round, revisits a theme familiar to readers of his earlier work. An educated Londoner visits rural Wales and has an unsettling encounter that continues to haunt him – in this case, quite literally – after his return to the English capital. The novel’s protagonist, Lawrence Hillyer, retreats to a west Wales resort for the sake of his health, and is followed back to London by a malignant, troglodytic figure who invokes the evolutionary anxieties set forth in Machen’s earlier Little People stories, ‘The Shining Pyramid’ and the ‘Novel of the Black Seal’. Certainly, we might read Hillyer’s unsettling double as expressing the projection of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century evolutionary anxieties onto a colonised Other – a startling incursion of imperfectly civilised rural Welshness into the urban heart of England. However, as I argue here, nineteenth-century anxieties about the city as a site of degeneration are still at large in The Green Round, and Hillyer’s story is prefaced with a striking intrusion of the urban into the rural, complete with hints of racialised and class-coded atavism. The city itself becomes transformed into an Edenic paradise whose seductions pose as great a threat to Hillyer’s mental state as does his troglodytic companion, and which may in the end simply offer a more attractive route to degeneration. The appearance of the pre-human rural Other functions to expose the dual, or perhaps multiple, nature of the human city-dweller; its inability to escape its origins; its Other within.
How to Cite: George, J. (2017) “‘The unknown region that lies beyond the Gray’s Inn Road’: Evolutionary Anxiety in the Country and the City in Arthur Machen's The Green Round”, International Journal of Welsh Writing in English. 4(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.16995/wwe.4.3
The preoccupation of the fiction of the long nineteenth century – particularly gothic fiction – with what Virginia Richter terms ‘anthropological anxiety’ has been widely discussed by literary critics.1 In the post-Darwinian period,2 gothic writers engaged with evolutionary theory’s challenge to the Christian creation myth; its emphasis on non-teleological change by means of natural selection and the struggle for existence; its recognition of the probable descent of all ‘races’ of humans from a common, animal progenitor; and the concomitant dethroning of the ‘human’ from its central position in the natural order. These issues were coloured by anxieties around nation and the decline of empire – anxieties also significantly present in fictional representations of the relationship between England and Wales. This essay examines their presentation in Arthur Machen’s 1933 novel, The Green Round. Published late in his career, The Green Round did not rate highly in Machen’s estimation of his own work: he called it a ‘bad little book’.3 Mark Valentine, in his 1995 study of Machen, concurs with this assessment, emphasising the financial imperative that led Machen to finish the novel, and concluding that while ‘ The Green Round cannot be entirely disregarded … as literature it is a failure, with a narrative prolonged by commercial considerations, and a vicarious “horror” element similarly dictated.’4 The ‘“horror” element’ to which Valentine refers is the inclusion of the Little People, more commonly associated with Machen’s earlier stories, and by now (in Valentine’s words) ‘too conventional to strike a chord with the reader’, thrown in for shock value rather than because of any connection to the novel’s major ideas.5 This article suggests that the Little People device in fact hews closely to the Edenic theme that concerns the rest of the novel. Rather than being a patchwork of disconnected notions, The Green Round is pervaded by the same anthropological anxieties that had characterised Machen’s fiction since the end of the nineteenth century. Certainly, Machen is, to an extent, revisiting older ground, though with inflections that suggest a continuity between older themes and the contemporary popularity of related ideas such as the eugenics movement. The degenerative anxieties of nineteenth-century theorists are clearly related to ‘mass’ culture and foreign influence in the novel’s prologue, for example. For the most part, however, The Green Round concerns itself once more with the origins of humanity, and provides one of Machen’s most complex treatments of the theme.
Richter sums up the crisis occasioned by evolutionary theory’s ‘displacement of “Man” from the apex of creation’.6 At the period Darwin was writing, it was
the idea of conjunction – the claim that all living beings, including man, were descended from the same primitive species – that was deeply disturbing. Collectively [Darwin’s contemporaries] recoiled from the theory of evolution by natural selection, mainly for two reasons: first, because man’s singular status as a superior being, lifted above his animal nature by his reason, was fundamentally called into question, since even reason and the other higher faculties were no longer considered the unique, divine gift of man; secondly, because man’s dominant position was not the result of a divine plan or even the necessary outcome of natural laws, but the contingent result of a rather messy trial-and-error procedure.7
Richter goes on to consider the ways in which post-Darwinian texts wrestle with the blurring of boundaries between self and Other – both temporally (through the anxiety of reversion to an ape-like, pre-human state) and geographically (‘the fear of “going native”‘, losing the distinction between ‘European self ‘ and an ‘exotic Other’ identified with the primitive).8 She discusses the relation of these fears to various cultural and literary tropes – the missing link, the ape-like human or human-like ape, the lost world and the possibility of degeneration. The relationship between anthropological anxiety and colonial discourse is made explicit; indeed, the temporal and geographical dimensions mentioned above are often difficult to separate, since ‘in colonial discourse, the temporal axis is projected onto the geographical axis, i.e. contemporary “primitive peoples” are seen as living in the evolutionary past’,9 effectively being considered – as Carole G. Silver has pointed out – as living missing links.10
John Glendening, writing in 2007, emphasises the ‘decentering’ of the human accomplished by evolutionary theory, and its wide-ranging implications, touching as it did ‘upon equally complicated cultural issues – religious, philosophical, economic, and political’.11 Glendening, too, emphasises the imposition of the temporal axis of evolution upon the geographical axis of colonialism: the Victorians, he writes, ‘applied physically distinctive Palaeolithic remains, which were turning up with increasing regularity, to non-Western peoples who thereby could be interpreted as prehistoric humans living in the present’.12 But as knowledge of human ancestors and contact with ‘primitive’ cultures increased, keeping them separate from the self became increasingly difficult. ‘[Both] archaeology and cultural anthropology’, Glendening notes, ‘were showing how quickly supposedly primitive and civilised societies can change into one another’.13 Like Richter, Glendening identifies a new awareness of how permeable the ‘modern/primitive divide’ might be, and sees this as the basis for a new set of anxieties around human development.14
Kelly Hurley has also emphasised the demolition of ‘comfortable anthropocentrism’ accomplished by evolutionary theory, with its assertion that ‘[nature] was ethically neutral and under no compulsion to privilege the human species’.15 Degeneration theory, which ‘reversed the narrative of progress, proposing a negative telos of abhumanness and cultural disarray’, was, Hurley explains, ‘a crucial imaginative and narrative source for the fin-de-siècle Gothic’.16
Machen (1863–1947) was no exception to this preoccupation. The figure of the pre-human survival, in the form of the malign Little People of the ‘Novel of the Black Seal’ (1895, originally published as part of the episodic novel The Three Impostors ), ‘The Shining Pyramid’ (1895) and others, and the spectacle of degeneration through physical dissolution into primordial slime, are recurring themes in Machen’s fiction.17 Kirsti Bohata has discussed the ways in which Machen’s Little People stories draw upon ‘racist colonial discourses’, mapping degenerative fears onto the primitive Little People.18 Such stories may prove ‘problematic for Welsh readers who find themselves excluded from the implied audience’, and can be read as ‘expressive of the fears of a “border” identity, who wants to be “English” (the superior race) but fears he is contaminated by (undesirable) Welshness’.19 This notion of a ‘“border”‘ identity unable to reconcile its opposing sides opens up the possibility of an ambivalence in Machen’s fiction – a space between ‘superior’, highly evolved Englishness and ‘undesirable’, atavistic Welshness in which the seductions of backsliding, the attractions of a Welsh identity seen to be uncontaminated by civilisation, are able to surface.20 Despite a strong attachment to London, Machen considered himself to have been made as a writer by his upbringing in Caerleon, writing in his autobiography:
I shall always esteem it as the greatest piece of fortune that has fallen to me, that I was born in that noble, fallen Caerleon-on-Usk, in the heart of Gwent … [for] the older I grow the more firmly am I convinced that anything I may have accomplished in literature is due to the fact that when my eyes were first opened in earliest childhood they had before them the vision of an enchanted land.21
The juxtaposition here is interesting. Machen’s Welsh home town is ‘fallen’, but partakes of the sublime, an ‘enchanted’ ‘vision’ that enables his literary accomplishments.
Jane Aaron has argued for a degree of ambivalence in Machen’s treatment of Welshness and atavism, writing in her 2013 study Welsh Gothic that ‘while it is certainly the case that the characteristic Machen tale pits Saxon rationality and material progress against primitive forces preserved by the “little people” of the underworld “in the west”, it is not always clear where his allegiances lie’.22 Aaron identifies a number of ‘fundamentally opposed but often unstable perspectives, which can shift within a text’ in Welsh Gothic writing.23 It is true that
[the] history that an imperialist, colonizing culture needs to tell itself often involves representing the indigenous people of a conquered domain as darkly ‘other’ and barbaric in order to rationalize their domination. The colonized can, however, retaliate by themselves making use of the Gothic mode to protest against the barbarities of their subordination. Alternatively, rather than resisting the powerful invading culture they can identify with it, interiorizing its representations and portraying their own people as primitive and demonic. But in a reverse swing, writers of the imperial culture can also rebel against its dominant values and ‘go native’, changing sides ideologically and identifying with the colonized.24
The ‘primitive and demonic’ is certainly often at work within Machen’s Wales, and his Little People tales frequently feature an English protagonist who approaches atavistic Welshness as a subject of study and an object of revulsion. The stability of this perspective is by no means assured, however, and The Green Round dramatises this uncertainty, crossing the borders between England and Wales, country and city, and encountering evolutionary anxieties on both sides.
After an apparently rambling prologue, detailing the sighting by one Smith of Wimbledon of a newly built dancehall near the Welsh seaside town of Porth, and the town clerk’s subsequent denial that the building exists, the novel picks up the story of its protagonist, Lawrence Hillyer. Hillyer, a reclusive scholar engaged in recherché folkloric studies, suffers an unusual mental disturbance in his rooms, finds himself babbling nonsense, and finally sinks into a state of pseudo-paralysis that lasts the rest of the day. His doctor, putting the disturbance down to his solitary lifestyle, advises a holiday, and Hillyer accordingly visits Porth. There has been a murder at a nearby farm, and Hillyer finds himself suspected by his fellow hotel guests of sheltering the killer: they begin to ostracise him, and to ask him in accusatory tones who his ‘friend’ is, though he is not particularly intimate with anybody and is in the habit of taking his daily walks alone.25
Hillyer returns to London feeling that his trip has succeeded in its purpose, despite his bizarre experience. Shortly after his homecoming, he is present or nearby at a series of similarly odd accidents involving the destruction of property; neighbours see mysterious lights coming from the house in which Hillyer lodges, so that his staid landlady finds herself accused of holding gambling and drinking parties; and two bystanders argue as to whether or not Hillyer is accompanied by a dwarf.26 At length, Hillyer finds himself able to see the cause of the accidents. It is the grotesque ‘friend’ described by his fellow guests at the Porth hotel, a ‘dwarfish child’ with a hideous, grinning face who follows him wherever he goes.27
The novel offers no definitive solution as to the identity of Hillyer’s mysterious shadow, or the reason for the strange series of events. There are two points, however, that help elucidate their connection to the Little People of Machen’s earlier fiction, and to the evolutionary anxieties that inform so much of Machen’s work. First, returning to the prologue, we find that the apparently tangential subject matter actually serves as a reminder that Hillyer’s tale takes place in a world where the evolutionary ‘ladder’ and the place that humans occupy upon it are still pressing concerns. Smith of Wimbledon’s experience prompts him to write to a London newspaper bemoaning the ‘spoiling of all the beauties of our lovely country’, and his complaint is the catalyst for an explosion of similar letters.28 Writers bemoan the tearing-down of historic buildings and their replacement with new roads, amusements, and modern buildings and sculptures considered incongruent with the English landscape. One writer expresses disgust at the replacement of an old town hall with ‘a square monstrosity in white concrete, adorned (?) with grotesque sculptures in the manner of Easter Island’.29 Another criticises the demolition of a thirteenth-century chapel to make way for a ‘pier and its cheerful pavilion’.30 A third is horrified by the erecting of a sculpture of ‘prehistoric beastliness’ on a village green, exclaiming, ‘I sometimes think I must be in Nbanga-Nbanga Land, not in Sussex’.31 The new dancehall apparently seen by Smith, meanwhile, boasted a jazz band and a fair attended by a ‘surging mass of people’.32 The fair and the seaside pier both provide entertainment for the ‘masses’; the jazz music and the internationally influenced art and architecture (an artist who writes in defence of the village green sculpture has ‘a curiously exotic name’33 ) are associated with foreign, and more specifically non-white, peoples. This conjunction of the working class, the racial and national Other, the ‘prehistoric’ and the ‘grotesque’, and the fear that all of these together will somehow crowd out what is English, cannot help but call to mind the fears of degeneration expressed by nineteenth-century writers including Max Nordau and Benedict Augustin Morel. Even Darwin had raised the possibility of degeneration in The Descent of Man (1871), referring at some length to ‘the arrested brain-development of microcephalous idiots’, as well as other characteristics thought to resemble those of animals and of ‘the lower types of mankind’ as offering ‘a case of reversion’.34 The same sort of case, Darwin argues, is presented by ‘the worst dispositions, which occasionally without any assignable cause make their appearance in families’; these characters may also be ‘reversions to a savage state, from which we are not removed by very many generations’.35 Richter’s observation about the imposition of the temporal onto the geographical is borne out here, the ‘savage state’ of ‘our’ recent history being attributed to the ‘lower types of mankind’. Max Nordau’s Degeneration, first published in 1892 (translated into English in 1895), casts the degenerate as a baleful influence upon the healthy masses and paints an ominous picture of the spectre of degeneration bearing down upon the civilisations of modern Europe. The very first chapter of Nordau’s book, portentously entitled ‘The Dusk of the Nations’, claims that the ‘ fin-desiècle state of mind is to-day everywhere to be met with’, casting this enervated and ‘curiously confused’ mental state as an unwelcome invader, developing in France and threatening to enter and destroy all ‘civilised’ nations.36 Degeneration, despite all the obvious physical and mental stigmata that accompany it, is for Nordau a social and moral contagion.37 Nordau clearly figures degeneration as an invading threat to the ‘civilised’ nations of Western Europe, tying it intimately to anxieties around national supremacy.
Via its satirical expressions of disgust with mass culture, new buildings and cultural exchange, The Green Round ’s prologue also invokes another, related set of anxieties that had been current since the nineteenth century: those surrounding the city. If humans, like animals, had evolved and progressed in response to a challenging, even hostile, environment, then might not civilisation itself, and the artificial conditions created under it, eventually prove the instrument of our decline? It was thought that evolution had, perhaps, peaked; that urban living exposed humans to pernicious, morally and physically degenerative influences, and that ‘Western civilization, contaminated by the very fruits of its own progress, was sliding into a fatal decline, into senility, dementia, and death’.38 From this perspective, it appeared that civilised societies were becoming enervated, exhausted and prone to vice, and that the degeneration resulting from their indulgences would reduce subsequent generations to atavism. Machen hints at this variety of evolutionary anxiety in an earlier Little People tale, ‘The Red Hand’ (1895), when he has his protagonist, Dyson, mention that certain faces among the London crowds remind him irresistibly of ‘primitive man’.39
In The Green Round, ‘primitive man’ appears in the heart of the city in the form of Hillyer’s bizarre shadow, a creature hinted to be one of the malign, troglodytic Little People who populate Machen’s earlier tales. Carol G. Silver has discussed the ways in which fairies came to be conflated with pre-human ancestors: they ‘lacked the civilized virtues, behaving like children … or like the mob’.40 The threatening Otherness of the fairies is inextricably linked with the fact that fairy beliefs, during the Victorian period, were seen as indicative of a primitive backwardness and low class status. Silver’s account of changeling episodes points out that they ‘usually occurred in rural areas and among poor or working-class Roman Catholic and Celtic rather than Saxon peoples; such groups were expected to believe in elves and exorcism. Not Anglo-Saxons inherently superior to all others in character and morality, they were weak by nature with an innate tendency to selfishness and ignorance’ and that ‘[the] barbarous tests to which members of “inferior” groups subjected children were really proof of how backward and primitive they themselves still were – evidences of their kinship to savage tribes and even to lower primates’.41 Effectively, the fairies and the people who preserved and passed on fairy beliefs became conflated, occupying a similar station somewhere below that of the civilised Anglo-Saxon. A fairly clear example of this can be found in the introduction to W. Y. Evans-Wentz’s The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, where the American anthropologist argues that the reason for the survival of fairy beliefs in rural Celtic areas is as follows:
The Celtic peasant … is … unconventional and natural. He is normally always responsive to psychical influences – as much so as an Australian Arunta or an American Red Man, who also, like him, are fortunate enough to have escaped being corrupted by what we egotistically, to distinguish ourselves from them, call ‘civilisation’. If our Celtic peasant has psychical experiences, or if he sees an apparition which he calls one of the ‘good people’, that is to say a fairy, it is useless to try to persuade him that he is under a delusion: unlike his materialistically-minded lord, he would not attempt nor even desire to make himself believe that what he has seen he has not seen. Not only has he the will to believe, but he has the right to believe; because his belief is not a matter of being educated and reasoning logically, nor a matter of faith and theology – it is a fact of his own individual experiences, as he will tell you. Such peasant seers have frequently argued with me to the effect that ‘One does not have to be educated in order to see fairies’. … Instead of Nature, men in cities (and paradoxically some conventionalised men in the country) have ‘civilisation’ – and ‘culture’.42
For Evans-Wentz, the Celtic ‘peasant’ is credulous and rural, the ‘civilised’ man urban and, by implication, English.
According to Silver, as the nineteenth century progressed, fairy beliefs became less an indication that the believer was lower on the evolutionary scale than civilised Anglo-Saxons than a piece of evidence to support the supposition that primitive, dwarfish – perhaps pre-human – tribes had really existed in the pre-Celtic period in the British isles.43 In fact, as the above quote from Evans-Wentz in 1911 tells us, the progression was not quite so clear-cut. In his introduction, Evans-Wentz touches on the pros and cons of what he terms the ‘Pygmy Theory’ while maintaining the notion of the pre-civilised Celt.44 The since-discredited ‘Pygmy Theory’, or, as Silver terms it, the ‘Turanian dwarf theory’, remains significant, however, and Silver provides a convincing case for its role in the development of malign literary fairies during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Developed by euhemerist folklorists such as David MacRitchie,45 this theory posited that fairy beliefs were remnants of a folk memory of conquered, mound-dwelling aboriginal peoples who had fled into remote areas when the Celts arrived in Britain. Western encounters with African ‘pygmies’ during the 1880s seemed to provide confirmation of this notion. The ‘pygmies’ were considered missing links, perhaps not even fully human, and certainly ‘among the earliest, hence crudest of the human species’.46 Contemporary accounts of the ‘pygmies’ ascribed to them many of the traits commonly associated with supernatural dwarves and fairies, and it is worth noting that, during this period, individuals suffering from dwarfism were sometimes thought to be representatives of or throwbacks to an extinct race rather than people with a distinct medical condition.47 (The eponymous antagonist of Machen’s late short story, ‘The Bright Boy’ (1936), might be read as a fictional iteration of this idea.) Some anthropological accounts of the period make the comparison explicitly. Sir Harry Johnston, for example, says that the ‘pygmies’ remind him ‘over and over again of the traits attributed to the brownies and goblins of our fairy stories’ while Sidney Hinde calls them ‘gnome-like beings’.48
At the same time, traits associated with ‘lower’ or ‘less evolved’ humans became associated with and ascribed to the fairies of folklore. The fairies became a faceless horde, ‘hunting in packs and skulking in shadows, threatening to destroy or to subvert the ruling race’.49 They lost their individuality, coming to be described in terms more commonly associated with animals, Darwinian human ancestors and supposedly ‘primitive’ groups. As Silver puts it:
the Rumpelstiltskins of the world grew fangs, developed the prognathous jaw, and sprouted body hair. Changing their colours – to red, yellow, brown, or black – they took to murder, rape, and cannibalism. As the distorted image of the Pygmy conjoined with a devalued image of the dwarf, post-Darwinian science and belief raised and played on cultural anxieties, confirmed racial prejudices, and fortified the rhetoric and practices of imperialism.50
That Hillyer’s bizarre experience is the work of one of the Little People is suggested both by the novel’s epilogue and by the subject of Hillyer’s own researches, which touch upon both the existence of fairyland and questions of evil reminiscent of those discussed by Ambrose and Cotgrave in Machen’s earlier Little People story, ‘The White People’ (1904).51 The epilogue, written by an unnamed acquaintance of Hillyer’s to whom he has sent his notebooks upon emigrating, suggests a similarity between Hillyer’s experiences and those of a woman known as J.C.P., whose account of her adventure on Nephin mountain in Ireland the acquaintance has recently read. A member of J.C.P.’s party vanishes and wanders away from the rest of the group. She later describes the sensation of ‘some strange force … pulling her away’ and states that she ‘does not know, cannot possibly imagine, what happened to her’.52 After realising that she is lost, she sees ‘a small person … possibly a child’, but the figure vanishes before she is able to reach it.53 Other members of the party also report seeing disappearing figures.54 Both the story of a walker being led astray without realising it and the presence of a small, vanishing person suggest pixie-leading, as does the pixie-led woman’s feeling ‘as though there were no Time ’ as she is drawn away:55 the unwitting traveller in the power of the fairies frequently finds that time behaves quite differently than that in the human world. After asking a local cottager whether the incident might be the doing of the Little People, J.C.P.
receives only the response, ‘We do not talk about that’.56 The conclusion of the novel again raises the question of the Little People’s existence, though it is left unanswered:
But as to what is, or should be, the main question: what, who are the powers or forces that were manifested on Mount Nephin and in the Green Round? The Little People, the Fairies?
I believe there is no answer. We had better say, with the man of the cottage: ‘We do not talk about that’.57
Hillyer’s personal studies, meanwhile, centre upon the experiences of ‘those who find their way to the Queen of Fairyland’, or otherwise find themselves in another world, and upon the morality or otherwise of seeking to do so.58 Although the narrative shies away from confirming that Hillyer’s experiences involve the Little People, no other explanation is offered, and the events of the novel bear a strong resemblance to those of Machen’s earlier works featuring the Little People. Though Valentine has argued that there is no ‘clear correlation between the Little People theme and the otherworld motif ‘, it is the connection of both with the pre-human that serves to organise the novel around a familiar set of anxieties – those surrounding the origins of the ‘civilised’ human subject.59
I have already mentioned the degenerative anxieties introduced by the novel’s prologue. In earlier stories such as the ‘Novel of the Black Seal’, which use the possibility of the Little People as pre-human survivals as a source of horror, encounters with them prompt the revelation of still-extant pre-human traits within the civilised subject. Their primitive features render them grotesque, occasioning instinctual repulsion in humans who encounter them; they are, to use Hurley’s term, abhuman, presenting human features in a state of flux and throwing the potential inhumanness of the human into sharp relief.60 Hillyer’s shadow clearly presents similar traits. When the being is first seen by his fellow guests at the Porth hotel, it is believed to be the ‘Ty Captain murderer’, the killer of a local woman whose body has been found ‘shamefully torn and mutilated’ in the countryside.61 The murder is never solved, and so it is not implausible that the Little People are responsible for the woman’s death. In the light of their actions in earlier stories – the abduction and human sacrifice of Annie Trevor in ‘The Shining Pyramid’;62 the rape of Jervase Cradock’s mother in the ‘Novel of the Black Seal’63 – this begins to seem a likely enough explanation. These Little People kill senselessly; they are brutal and malign, presenting a very real, physical threat to the human subject. The hotel guests who see the being react with automatic revulsion, exclaiming variously: ‘one of the most horrible-looking fellows I’ve ever seen’; ‘made my blood run cold’; ‘something quite ghastly about him’; ‘my notion of a murderer’; ‘a dwarf, you said?’ ‘Yes, but those deformed creatures are often tremendously strong: looked as if murder would be child’s play to him.’64 Hillyer himself, when he gains the ability to see the creature, finds it ‘horrible’, and his nerve specialist remarks, ‘[my] patient hated the sight of him’.65 Both Hillyer and the hotel guests react involuntarily. The hotel guests assume the creature to be the murderer without proof; Hillyer never speaks to or interacts with it, but nonetheless knows it to be ‘evil’.66 The very existence of the creature overthrows the guests’ civilised rationality and throws them back on primitive instinct, illustrating the fragility of the boundary between human and abhuman Other, and the potential danger to progress contained in the knowledge of our origins. The abhumanness of the creature consists in its partial humanness; it embodies the intersection between a recognisable humanity and an atavistic, animalistic pre-humanity. Hillyer repeatedly compares the creature to a child: it is a ‘horrible child’; a ‘very ugly little boy’; a ‘dwarfish child’; and a ‘little horror’.67 The child – as in Haeckel’s theory of recapitulation – was frequently viewed as an imperfectly evolved human being, retaining some of the traits of the pre-human savage.68 The Little People, then, are not only childlike in their size, but in the way that they represent the infancy of humanity, and the possibility that pre-human traits may persist in the species into the present day. Despite his childlike appearance, the creature has an ‘old face’.69 There is something indeterminate about him: his appearance cannot be pinned down, as we see in the passage where two old men sitting on a bench opposite Hillyer, who has paused during one of his morning walks, argue over the presence of his unwanted companion. One of them has seen the creature; the other has not. The latter demands a description, and the former can only reply, ‘I saw him, as I tell you as plain as I see you now. But if you ask me what he was like …’70 He is unable to complete the description. The creature, existing at the boundary of the human, exceeds the capacity of human language. His hybridity echoes the disturbing possibility of abhumanity: that the human has not fully moved past its ancestry and indeed never will; that it will always remain between two states, haunted by the primitive.
This particular iteration of the primitive is, via the titular Green Round, inextricably associated with Wales and its landscape. (Interestingly, The Green Round is one work in which Machen makes the Little People’s home unambiguously Welsh, rather than setting it in a pseudo-Gwent sometimes referred to as being in ‘the West of England’.71 ) Is The Green Round, then, simply an example of a Welsh writer identifying with ‘the powerful invading culture … interiorizing its representations and portraying [his] own people as primitive and demonic’?72 As Aaron has argued is often the case with the Welsh gothic, the novel’s perspective is far from stable. It is not simply the case that Hillyer is a ‘civilised’ metropolitan English subject afflicted by rural, Welsh atavism. Rather, the boundaries between human and pre-human, Welsh and English, urban and rural, Hillyer and the creature that follows him, prove permeable. Atavism refuses both to be contained in Welshness and thereby kept comfortably away from the colonial centre, and to retain the aspect of the grotesque, threatening instead to reveal itself as part of the ‘normal’ Hillyer.
The novel accomplishes this permeability at least partly through its treatment of the London landscape where Hillyer makes his home. Daniel Pick discusses the ways in which fears of the crowd, and of social degeneration, coalesced in the city. English theorists of degeneration figured the city as a site of infection which would eventually spread throughout the national body; they predicted a ‘process of decline in which a relative deterioration in the body of the city population in turn undermined the “imperial race” with ensuing disintegrative effects upon the nation and empire’.73 In the 1860s, Pick tells us, ‘the question of the “degeneration of the race” was entertained in [ The Lancet ] . . . with dark thoughts about the future of the cities and more specifically about the capital as a literal breeding ground of decay’.74 Certainly, The Green Round ’s prologue, with its associations between urban development, ‘mass’ entertainment and artistic degeneracy, suggests that Machen may have had some of these anxieties in mind.
The importance of the city as a site of corruption in Welsh gothic writing is noted by Aaron, who describes the ways in which Welsh novelists opposed to English colonialism ‘present their Welsh heroes and heroines as vulnerable innocents whose native virtue and integrity are threatened … by their enforced residence across the border in the “devil’s parlour”, that is, London’.75 While Machen’s earlier works, including The Great God Pan (1894), The Three Impostors, ‘The Shining Pyramid’ and The Hill of Dreams (1907), all ‘contrast Caermaen [Caerleon] scenes with London ones’, in these stories:
Caermaen is perceived and presented to the reader from the point of view of the Londoners whose gaze rests disparagingly on wild Wales. From the perspective of the upper-class dilettante English men of letters or dabblers in science who act as the narrators of these tales, [Wales] is indeed vile and poisonous.76
London fares little better, however. Inhabited by ‘torturing demons’ – the titular criminal gang of The Three Impostors – as well as by threatening primitives in ‘The Red Hand’ and corrupt gentry in The Great God Pan, the English capital appears as ‘much more of a hell on earth … than Caermaen and its past and present inhabitants’.77 Reading Machen, we never lose sight of the city as a degenerative site, and the Welsh countryside with its atavistic underground inhabitants may not appear quite so threatening – or threatening in quite so specifically Welsh a manner – by comparison.
By invoking in its prologue incursions of the foreign into the British, which are also incursions of the urban into the rural – monstrous urban developments that connote ‘Nbanga-Nbanga Land’ – the novel immediately problematises any simple dichotomy between a backward, rural Wales and a civilised, urban England.78 Disentangling the ‘beauties of our lovely country’ from the modern, urban aspect of degeneration becomes difficult; and the city-dwelling English scholar becomes similarly inextricable from his primitive Welsh shadow. On Hillyer’s return to London, the novel further breaks down the opposition between rural Wales and urban England. In a reversal of the situation described in the prologue, the rural begins to make incursions into the heart of the city, but these irruptions occur in a register quite different from that which characterises the appearances of Hillyer’s shadow. Kimberley Jackson has suggested that Machen sometimes ‘challenges a scientific notion of degeneration as a negative occurrence in favor of a view in which such descents are sublime’.79 Aaron also notes this shift in Machen’s later fiction, where ‘[a] culture previously presented as primitive and barbaric now [features] as a source of transcendent light’.80 The Green Round presents us with an uneasy coexistence of these two perspectives, contrasting the malicious acts of vandalism perpetrated by Hillyer’s shadow with a transformation of the city into a gateway to pre-human experience and a quite literal ‘source of transcendent light’. Darryl Jones, writing on the occult in Welsh and Irish horror, notes that the kinds of occult transformations that occur in The Green Round are part and parcel of a Celticism ‘internalised’ by Welsh and Irish writers, one that simultaneously romanticises and ‘monster[s]’ their countries of origin.81 For Jones, the rural Welsh milieu may be attractive or grotesque, but its pre-human leanings mean it is always firmly Other. In The Green Round, however, the pre-human is revealed to be embedded deeply within the ostensibly human: the Edenic realm of fairyland in the modern city. The presence of mysterious pockets of existence where all may not be as it seems within London is hinted at early in the novel. Hillyer, ‘finding out by instinct quiet places fit for his strange meditations’, takes lodgings in ‘the unknown region that lies beyond the Gray’s Inn Road: a world where only the unknown live, which never gets into the papers, which is never traversed by steps familiar with Piccadilly and Kensington’.82 This neighbourhood is already out of step with modernity: ‘[nothing] has been altered in this quarter for eighty or ninety years’.83 Hillyer himself, through his ‘instinct’ for such places, is also implicitly associated with the past – and, through his ‘[strange] dreams’, with the primitive irrational.84 It is via Hillyer’s own researches that the transformation of the urban environment is revealed to the reader. Hillyer concerns himself with a moral conundrum similar to that posed by Ambrose in the much earlier ‘The White People’. Ambrose defines evil as ‘the taking of Heaven by storm’, the attempt to penetrate into a sphere other than that ordained to human beings.85 As evidence for his argument, he presents the ‘Green Book’ narrative, the diary of a young girl who has journeyed into the Edenic realm of the titular White People or fairies. In The Green Round, we find a similar implication that a return to the prehistoric state of being represented by the fairies and their realm constitutes a return to Eden. The following passage provides a clear illustration:
[It] is to be enquired whether it be lawful to regain or to attempt to regain the Earthly Paradise; to pass, as it were, under the guard of the flaming swords; to recover a state which is represented as definitely ended, so far as bodily existence is concerned. In the Mabinogion story [of the Assembly of the Noble Head], it may be noted, there is a marked analogy with the Eden story of Genesis.86
The analogy between the story from the Second Branch of the Mabinogi and that from Genesis is easily made. For the eighty years spanned by the Assembly of the Noble Head, the companions of Bendigeidfran, along with his severed-but-still-speaking head, feast in a castle at Gwales without ageing. There is a closed door in the castle that they must not open. When a member of the company inevitably does so, their idyll comes to an end, and the consciousness of mortality falls heavily upon them.87 By comparing the Assembly both to the story of Eden and to that of a stay in fairyland, Hillyer sets up the fairies as the origin of humanity. Via the evolutionary anxieties already invested in the figure of the fairy, a slippage between the mythic and scientific accounts of human origins is allowed to take place. A passage following shortly after the one above expands upon this idea:
Of course it may he [ sic ] said that the Fairy Queen tales are to be taken in the same sense, and as referring to the same mysterious loss as the Genesis story and the Welsh story; they may all be understood to refer to the Parens Protoplastus, to Adam, the archetypal or Platonic man88
The connection between fairyland and a kind of pre-civilised Eden, the potentially seductive nature of reversion, is emphasised elsewhere, and brought definitely into the urban environment. In the course of his researches, Hillyer discovers and becomes fascinated by a curious book by a Reverend Thomas Hampole. The book is titled A London Walk: Meditations in the Streets of the Metropolis, and begins by describing the enchanted appearance of the city at dawn. The fairies – as pointed out by Silver – appear most frequently in liminal locations and at liminal times, on the borders between night and day, life and death, water and shore, underground and surface.89 In the passage Hillyer reads, London takes on the aspect of such a locus, becoming touched by ‘magic powers’, losing its ‘familiar appearance’ and undergoing ‘a mysterious change, into something rich and strange’.90 The ordinary buildings become ‘magical habitations’, and, Hampole asserts, ‘if the boughs of a tree chance to extend over a garden wall, you are ready to vow that its roots must flourish in the soil of Paradise’.91 The potential for a rupture in the border between binary oppositions, a rupture that could send humanity tumbling back to its earliest beginnings, is suggested here – but its aspect is beguiling rather than repulsive. In a later excerpt, after speculating that the alchemists of the Dark Ages aimed not at ‘the transmutation of metals, but … the transmutation of the entire Universe’, Hampole explicitly links alchemy to the search for Eden:
This method, or art, or science, or whatever we choose to call it (supposing that it really exists) is simply concerned to restore the delights of the primal Paradise, to enable men, if they will to inhabit a world of joy and of splendour. I have no authority either to affirm or to deny that there is such an experiment, and that some have made it. I therefore abandon the matter to the consideration and the enquiry of men of equal and ingenious mind.92
Again, a return to the dawn of humanity seems rather a pleasant prospect. Hampole’s reticence in confirming the existence of such a science, however, alongside his use of the word ‘experiment’ and his emphasis on the necessity that it be investigated by ‘equal and ingenious’ minds, are reminiscent of the warning given by Ambrose at the conclusion of ‘The White People’, where he talks of the danger to unwary or ill-qualified investigators posed by the fairies and their practices. ‘I am afraid’, Ambrose says to his friend Cotgrave, ‘you have neglected the study of alchemy? It is a pity, for … if you were acquainted with certain books on the subject, I could recall to your mind phrases which might explain a good deal in the manuscript that you have been reading.’93 He goes on, however, to warn that ‘it is no doubt better for the great mass of people to dismiss it all as a dream’, and to lay out in no uncertain terms the peril that may await unwary delvers into the unknown, saying:
Powerful and sovereign medicines, which are, of necessity, virulent poisons also, are kept in a locked cabinet. The child may find the key by chance, and drink herself dead; but in most cases the search is educational, and the phials contain precious elixirs for him who has patiently fashioned the key for himself.94
This realm of pre-human experience, Ambrose argues, is paradoxically best accessed via civilised learning. Certainly, there is an implication here that only the civilised, urban, male and likely English, scholar is capable of encountering this realm without accident – without, we may infer, undergoing dangerous reversions. In another sense, however, the gateway to fairyland, or Eden, or primitive existence, is here embedded at the heart of civilised endeavour. It becomes the ultimate destination of study.
In a 1995 essay on Machen’s city scenes, Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke discusses the urban transmutations that appear in Machen’s writings, both fictional and autobiographical, dating them back to the 1880s. In order to reconcile himself to sometimes dismal surroundings, Machen developed the ability to view ‘higher realities and mysteries beyond the apparently humdrum terraces and corner shops’.95 Although Goodrick-Clarke does not make the Edenic aspect of these visions explicit, they are clearly of the same order as those that we find in The Green Round. For Goodrick-Clarke, it is the enduring vision of Gwent that allows Machen to ‘open a door’ from his everyday urban surroundings upon ‘the eternal verities of the soul’;96 it is the congruity of London with his enchanted homeland that allows it to be transformed. Machen’s love for the Welsh countryside does not ‘ultimately lead to his negation of the [English] town: the vision of an enchanted land could finally transform even Notting Hill and Shepherd’s Bush into wondrous places’.97 That transformations of the urban in Machen strain towards the human past is made explicit by Alex Warwick, who argues for the importance of the ‘archaeological imagination’ in reading Machen, and in Victorian culture more generally.98 Both geological strata and the human-built ruins that lay beneath the modern city were evidence of the ‘natural sequence’ of human evolution.99 The fairy influences at work in The Green Round may partake of the transcendent, but they never cease to be concerned with the material origins of humanity.
Apparently also due to fairy influence are the disconcerting dreams, at first apparently congruent with real life, that Hillyer experiences. On one occasion, he dreams of a visit from his friend Hawkins, with whom he discusses Thomas Hampole’s book. Hawkins relates what he knows of Hampole’s biography, and of the usual value of the book to a collector. So far, so mundane – but while Hillyer is noting down these facts, he looks up at Hawkins and is ‘struck at once by something strange and unfamiliar in his expression’.100 Terrified, he is convinced that his friend has gone mad, but finds himself unable to move or call for help. At last, he says, ‘[the] figure opposite me seemed to change into a dreadful and unspeakable and most detestable shape, and then everything was black darkness’.101 Here, as in earlier tales, we see the human form transmuted into something repulsive and unstable, and the human mind apparently deprived of its reasoning capacity. The influence upon Hillyer’s mind is not one he can understand or control, and here it furnishes his mind’s eye with a dark reflection of Hampole’s heavenly transformations, a sinister image of reversion.
Elsewhere, however, Hillyer’s dreams are attractive. In a transformation of the everyday akin to that described by Hampole, he finds himself in the street on which he lives, standing before his home – but the quiet house in which dwell Mrs Jolly and her staid lodgers is now ‘blazing with light; shining out radiant into the night, and resonant with music’.102 Inside the house, meanwhile, he finds the ‘modest’ rooms to which he is accustomed replaced by a ‘gorgeous palace’.103 He is aware that some great change has taken place, but feels unsurprised by it. In the dream, the transformation appears to be something Hillyer has been expecting for a long time: there is a familiarity to it, and the transformation seems not to be a bizarre alteration to the natural course of events, but a revelation of a secret to which he has long been party. It is, in both senses of the Freudian term, heimlich, with all the attendant connotations – pleasant familiarity or homeliness; the sense of something that ought not to be revealed; and the inescapable evocation of its uncanny opposite.104 Hillyer finds that ‘the palace of golden and glorious light in which [he] stood was utterly rational and acceptable’, and knows himself to be ‘sharing in a great festival of ineffable joy’, the ‘cause and reason’ of which he understands intimately.105 The cause of this joy is, however, ‘very largely negative in its nature’.106 He explains further:
I believe that most of us regard happiness, or joy, or well-being, or what you will, as a positive thing, based on what a man has gained, or received, or possessed himself of in one way or another it is an affair of having. But in the dream my delight – and it was greater than words can utter – was founded not on what I had gained, but on what I had lost. What I had lost was all the burden of life.107
In itself, this relief from worldly cares is suggestive of a return to Eden; and when, at the end of the dream, Hillyer wakes ‘into misery, as one who has been for the second time put out of Paradise’, the suggestion is made explicit.108
Earlier on in the novel, discussing the distinction between dream and reality, Hillyer suggests that daily life is in itself a dream, and that ‘those who find their way to the Queen of Fairyland are liberated from these dreams and monsters and delusions, and behold with a rapture of delight the real world’.109 Visiting fairyland here represents a return to reality from dream; the implication is that the real origins of humanity lie in fairyland, and not in the everyday. Hillyer’s visitors to fairyland, though, are no more capable of remaining there than he himself is of retaining his dreamed contentment. They ‘are forced to return, and the fairy gold is dust and ashes in the morning’.110 The repetition of this motif – the sleeper or visitor to fairyland awaking or returning to a disappointing everyday world – might be interpreted in two ways. First of all, as an affirmation of Ambrose’s warning in ‘The White People’; an admonition against probing too deeply into humanity’s origins, lest we find ourselves seduced by them, revert, and become unable to function within civilised society. Secondly, however, we might read it as an idealisation of humanity’s origins, a suggestion that reversion offers access to some authentic manner of experiencing the world that is unavailable to modern, ‘civilised’ humans.
Here again, then, human origins occupy an ambiguous position in the narrative. The sinister is certainly present, and for Hillyer, the Little People represent a threat – to his reputation and personal safety, as well as to his ‘human’ capacity for reason. The Little People and their world, however, also appear to represent an opportunity for authentic experience unavailable to inhabitants of the mundane world, here represented by the everyday bustle of London, which Hillyer’s doctors encourage him to experience, and by the society of the Porth hotel guests by whom he finds himself ostracised. More important, however, is the familiar theme of Otherness within. The Little People are able to influence Hillyer and Smith of Wimbledon due to perceived weaknesses in their health, but other accounts of encounters with them – like that given by J.C.P. – give no such reason. They are, perhaps, able to influence humans due to some susceptibility inherent in the human, though it may be brought closer to the surface by ill-health. The doubling between Hillyer and his ‘friend’, too, suggests that this entity represents or embodies a hidden sinister, ‘primitive’ side within the human, illustrating how close our pre-human origins may in fact be, and how precarious our supremacy on the planet – bolstered by ‘civilisation’ and ‘reason’, both of which are destabilised by the presence of the Little People – actually is. As in earlier Machen texts, the real threat that the Little People pose is not that of altering the ‘human’, but that of revealing what is already there. The ‘real world’ experienced by Hillyer’s visitors to fairyland may be threatening or seductive; but in either case, its existence reveals the human as something Other, and something far less different from our primitive origins than we may wish to believe.
Hillyer’s tale ends with a statement from the nerve specialist he visited after beginning to see the creature, believing himself to be suffering from a delusion. The doctor affirms Hillyer to have been quite sane, and in actuality suffering from harassment by some unknown force, rather than any kind of hallucination. He has recovered, we learn, by moving abroad, and was last heard of in Aleppo, ‘doing very fairly well’.111 This ending speaks, perhaps, to the tension between the seductive and the horrific portrayals of reversion that coexist so uneasily in The Green Round, and to the breakdown of borders between English and Welsh, modern and primitive, urban and rural, that they accomplish. Hillyer is no longer able simply to believe the story told by the ‘imperialist, colonizing culture’, one in which Wales and Welshness appear as ‘darkly “other” and barbaric’.112 Nor is he able to fully ‘go native’, haunted as he is by the violent, grotesque aspect of his atavistic shadow. He can resolve the tension only by removing himself entirely. His trip to Porth may initially have functioned as a vacation from his life in the capital, but he ends up permanently exiled from it, having encountered the primitive and found himself unable to continue to project it onto a colonised ‘other’. Having become conscious of how intimately the pre-human – in both its Edenic and horrific guises – is embedded in his urban English existence, he is no longer able to return to it. In The Green Round, then, rural Wales does not function simply as a ‘primitive and demonic’ ‘other’ to urban, civilised England, but as a realm of transformative experience that makes visible the common origin of both.
Jessica George received her PhD from Cardiff University in 2014. Her doctoral thesis focused on evolutionary theory in the fiction of Arthur Machen and H. P. Lovecraft, and she has previously published on the theme of identity in Machen and on Lovecraftian fiction. Her subsequent research focuses on gothic constructions of authorship and audience. She is also a published creative writer currently completing her first novel under the Literature Wales mentoring scheme.
The University of Wales Press wishes to acknowledge the funding received from the Open Library of Humanities towards the cost of producing this open access journal.