Analysis of Arthur Machen’s The Bowmen

“The Bowmen” first appeared in the Evening News (London) on September 29, 1914. Set in World War I, this supernatural tale recounts a fictional battle between British and German soldiers. The British forces are on the verge of suffering a crushing defeat. Their numbers have been reduced by half. In a desperate moment, a British soldier appeals to St. George, using a motto he recalls from the plates of a vegetarian restaurant he once frequented: “Adsit Anglis Sanctus Georgius” (“St. George help the English”). The plea conjures up a ghostly army of bowmen from the Battle of Agincourt—King Henry V’s famous English victory over the French, immortalized in Shakespeare’s play Henry V (1599)—and, in a short time, with the help of this heavenly host, the British soldiers defeat a 10,000-strong German army. Because the dead German soldiers have no wounds, the Germans conclude that the British used poisonous gas during the battle. Though inspired by the accounts of the real-life Battle of Mons of August 1914, the supernatural aspects of the story, Arthur Machen insisted, were entirely fictional. The story was a “composite,” he said in the introduction to the tale, of the legendary notion of spiritual intervention in wartime, of Rudyard Kipling’s story of a ghostly regiment (“The Lost Legion”), and of Machen’s interests in medievalism (296). Still, the reportorial style of the narrative convinced many that the story was true. In the year following its publication it attracted wide interest and controversy. Numerous “real-life” accounts corroborating the story began to circulate, including those of military officers, soldiers, and battlefield nurses. Theosophists wrote books and preachers preached sermons on the subject and, within a short time, the story was popularized as the legend of “the Angels of Mons,” a title under which the tale sometimes appears.

In August 1915 “The Bowmen” was issued in book form along with similar tales by Machen in order to capitalize on the interest generated by the legend. Spurred by the ongoing controversy, the book sold 3,000 copies in the first day, 50,000 in three months, and 100,000 in a year and was translated into six languages. Though it was Machen’s most successful work, he reaped no financial benefits from it as the rights to it were owned by the Evening News. The story is slight in itself. Machen said of it that he “had failed in the art of letters” but “succeeded, unwittingly, in the art of deceit” (297). Its importance lies not in its artistic merits but in what it reveals about the mindset of the British nation during World War I. The tale provided consolation and hope to a public terrified at the unexpected toll the war was exacting on its nation. Despite the materialist and industrialist character of the age, the British people were not immune to a belief in the miraculous. Indeed, as Adrian Eckersley has argued, “The Bowmen” reveals “the tensions under which the credulous and incredulous confronted one another in this era of materialism, when scientists were often appalled at the sheer inhuman mechanism of the cosmos they envisioned and religion became a counterweight and comfort against the inhumanity of their vision” (222).

Clarke, David. “Rumours of Angels: A Legend of the First World War,” Folklore (October 2002).
Eckersley, Adrian. “Arthur Machen.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 156, British Short-Fiction Writers, 1880–1914: The Romantic Tradition, edited by William F. Naufftus, 216–224. New York: Gale, 1996.
Machen, Arthur. “The Bowmen.” In The Collected Arthur Machen, edited by Christopher Palmer, 295–302. London: Duckworth, 1988.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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