New Welsh Review
The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War
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The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War is a compilation of short stories composed by Welsh author and journalist Arthur Machen. The collection was originally published in 1915, during the early years of the First World War, and depicts fictional first-hand accounts of the war effort, combined with Machen’s signature spiritualism. It has since been republished for a modern audience, by Cromen Publications, and is free online for anyone to read. The leading story, ‘The Bowmen’, inspired one of the most prevalent myths surrounding the war, The Angels of Mons. Machen’s stories have maintained deep cultural significance for their contribution to the mythos of the First World War, and anyone wishing to gain a deeper understanding of the origins of the Angels of Mons will find Machen’s collection a worthwhile read.
The volume opens with an introduction from Machen, detailing the response he had received from the original publication of The Bowmen in 1914, and it is a welcome and insightful addition. Machen vehemently denies any basis in fact for his story, “I had told him that it had no foundation in fact of any kind or sort; I forget whether I added that it had no foundation in rumour but I should think not, since to the best of my belief there were no rumours of heavenly interposition in existence at that time.” Machen’s argument is deeply ironic, since he centred ‘The Bowmen’, and the other stories within the collection, around that very idea. War is an extreme time, and people will always search for a sign of hope, making his stories ripe for adding fuel to superstition. Many felt they could not make an impact alone, and it is only natural that the appetite for belief and the supernatural grew.
The four tales all display supernatural influence, with the British in each case receiving the aide of external, mystic forces, and the Germans being subject to spiritual wrath. For example, in ‘The Monstrance’ a German soldier is confronted with the realisation that Heaven is not aligned with the German cause, and undergoes a psychological breakdown: ‘He cried in a terrible voice, “The Glory of the Lord!”’ Machen’s dramatic depiction of the loss of faith on the part of this soldier brings home the psychological impact of the war. The enemy is othered, and the situation is shown to be black and white, with the Germans being distinctly bad. This moment in the text creates an insight into the British psyche surrounding the war, to create hope in every place possible, and to believe that the supernatural was on their side. Perhaps that is why the Angels of Mons has stuck so firmly in war legend? It appears to be a clear example of the forces of Heaven supporting the Allied effort. When the British soldier in ‘The Bowmen’ evokes spiritual power (;Heaven’s knight, aid us’) he is granted with a show of help from St George and his mystical bowmen.
The fourth tale, ‘The Dazzling Light’, is uniquely characterised by a disjointed narrative, with constant interjections from Machen to explain his intended meaning. Is it an example of a lesson he has taken from the impact of ‘The Bowmen’, originally published a year earlier? Perhaps it was intended to quash any assumptions before the story blew out of proportion and forged its own mythos? However, as Machen himself points out, such conflict creates its own mythos, ‘The war is already a fruitful mother of legends.’ War is an example of extreme human behaviour, and as shown by Machen’s later reference to the Homeric epics, it has always been a perfect breeding ground for myth and legend.
While it may not be the best example of Machen’s prose, The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War is still a worthwhile read due to the fact that the text and the myths these stories spawned have lodged themselves in the public imagination.
Issy Rixon is a reviewer-in-residence as part of our project with Aberystwyth University.
The Bowmen and Other Legends is available for free from Cromen .