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2018 AGM and Dinner

refocusing the Angels controversy


2018 AGM and Dinner

The FoAM Annual General Meeting for 2018 will be held 3pm on Saturday 3rd March 2018 at the Green Dragon Hotel, Broad Street, Hereford - the town where Machen received his edeucation, at the Cathedral School. All members are free to attend the meeting, and indeed encouraged to do so. Expwect a substantial book-autcion during the afternoon!

The Annual Dinner will also take place at the Green Dragon, in the evening, probably at 7.30pm. If you would like to come to the dinner, you must pay the £23 fee in advance. You can pay through the donations button on the Friends page of this site: if you do this, please let Gwilym Games know you have booked - Alternatively, you can pay by sending a cheque to our Treasurer, Mark Valentine, Stable Cottage, Priest Bank Road, Kildwick, Keighley, Yorkshire, BD20 9BH. Deadline for bookings is 31st January.


Angels of Mons Centennial: Where is the Real Controversy?

It's a century now since the first disastrous clash between British and German armies, at Mons. An enduring folk-legend has it that disaster was prevented from becoming absolute rout of the British Expeditionary Force by supernatural forces coming to their aid. These supernatural forces are most commonly called Angels, but the most usual form they took was as celestial archers from the days of Agincourt, sometimes depicted as gigantic in size, sometimes of normal human dimensions. The genesis of this folkmyth is most often credited to a story written by Arthur Machen, which appeared in the Evening News late in 1914. This leads naturally to the question: how did a mere story come to be taken as fact?

Some Factors to Consider...

The Climate of the Age. A century before the battle, during the Romantic era, whose values still prevailed in 1914, the poet Coleridge proclaimed the idea that Imagination could produce realities. Coleridge's argument was that God had given us humans Imagination so we could know him. The deep Romantic response to nature was the prime example of Imagination leading to spiritual truth, but there were also examples of writers of a mystical persuasion saying, in effect, "It's true because I imagined it." The craze for Spiritualist seances which arose in the mid-nineteenth-century and lingered well into the twentieth, is a testament to how far Imagination could permeate ordinary reality.

The Climate of the Time. The Empire on which the sun never set was not used to defeat, nor to enmity in Europe. It was ninety nine years since Britain had been involved in European conflict: during that bourgeois century, Western Europe had been for Brits a civilised export market and an arena for genteel tourism. The royal families of Britain and Germany, and the peoples themselves were so closely related: how could this war be even happening?

Conditions of Reporting. The War Office took the route of censoring news. Not only were newspaper accounts relentlessly upbeat: soldiers' letters home were also censored. But wounded men were constantly arriving back home, with personal tales which did not bear out the official view. Rumours, such as that of masses of Russian soldiers in transit through British raliway stations, abounded. Truth had become an unstable commodity. Reporters fell back on individual memoirs of battle, many taken from the testimonies of wounded soldiers arriving home. The newspaper-reading public became used to constructing its view of what was going on from the slender basis of individual testimony. This would play into the hands of Machen's piece of fiction, which focuses on just such individual testimony of the battle.

How The Bowmen was published. Machen was employed by The Evening News more as a journalist than a reporter. He dealt with soft news, and was also a big gun brought out when needed for big occasions such as Captain Scott's funeral in 1913. His articles appeared under his own name. He was known to the public as an author of fiction, but until 1914 he had never published fiction in The Evening News. The paper did regularly publish fiction in those days, but this was always clearly headed: Our Short Story. This was never on the front page. "The Bowmen" was published on the front page, under the name of a writer who did not do fiction in the paper, and his piece was not labelled as Our Short Story. To add to the potential confusion, the paper did pubish something labelled Our Short Story, on a later page, as was their custom. Clearly then, by its heading, by its association with a writer of non-fiction, and by its position on the front page, "The Bowmen" could not be fiction.

A Deliberate Fabrication? When Machen insisted his story was just that - fiction - his opponents averred that he had been vouchsafed a vision, but had not recognised it as such - imagination with a capital I. But since so many of the factors which led to the story's misprision arose out of editorial decisions, there are other possibilities. It's possible that confusion arose because newspapers work under pressure, and decisions were taken in haste, their implications unseen. But it's also possible that a news-editor took decisions as to how Machen's piece would be presented with some inkling of how it might be understood by his readers. It's unlikely that the controversy did the paper's circulation any harm; and the putative editor might also have held the view that a belief in supernatural entities fighting for Britain would be a good thing. The real controversy in our media-savvy age today should turn on whether the public were indeed practised upon and, if so, by whom.