This essay was first published in the Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century British and American War Literature, ed. Adam Piette and Mark Rawlinson (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), pp. 516-23.
After the bombing of Guernica in April 1937, many novelists of the Left in Europe turned away from avant garde experiment and took to realism, shocked into reengaging with the material conditions that underpin mid-twentieth century culture – the ‘objective reality’ of the Marxist philosopher-critic Lukacs – by the casual obliteration of the Basque capital by a fleet of Nazi bombers.1 But this event seems also to have led to an explosion of fantastic narratives of unprecedented inventiveness and complexity, written by novelists of many political shades united only in their opposition to fascism. By ‘fantasy’ and the ‘fantastic’ here I mean literary texts that deal in the impossible, foregrounding their own violation of social, physical and technological codes or laws: a loose ragbag of fictions which embraces what we now call Utopias, Dystopias, works of science fiction, alternate histories, secondary world fantasies and magic realism. With the exception of the first, these categories had not yet been formally defined in the 1930s, nor had the distinctions between them yet taken on ‘overtones of that bitter opposition between high and mass culture crucial to the self-definition of high modernism’, as Fredric Jameson puts it.2 Perhaps as a result, writers of all backgrounds showed themselves willing to experiment freely with one or more of these genres or modes as a means of articulating the dreadful irruption of fantasy into the material world that was Nazism.
The notion of Nazism as realized fantasy – the embodiment of a patriarchal, militaristic nightmare – is directly expressed in Katharine Burdekin’s celebrated novel of 1937, Swastika Night.3 Set in a future Europe which has endured Nazi rule for 700 years, the novel describes a chance meeting between an Englishman called Alfred and a free-thinking German Knight, whose family has secretly preserved a heretical history book for many generations. The book demonstrates that the Nazi version of history is no more than an elaborate lie designed to bolster the related myths of Aryan racial supremacy, of martial prowess as the highest human value, and of the natural ascendancy of men over women. The Knight’s presentation of this book to Alfred both reverses and reinforces the Englishman’s entire world view. Alfred has long imagined himself to be intellectually equal or even ‘superior’ to many Germans he knows – a genetic impossibility according to Nazi doctrine – while dismissing his imaginings as puerile daydreams with no possible basis in fact. Now he realizes that this dismissive attitude to his own self-assessment is the product of conditioning: ‘Everything’s fantastic if it is out of the lines you’re brought up on’ (Burdekin 1940, p. 98). The Knight’s book reveals to him the validity of his own fantasies, the bankruptcy of the Nazi intellectual tradition, and the patent absurdity of the Nazi version of history, and this tallies with Alfred’s reading of the material evidence provided by archaeological remains he has found back home in England. The ruling elite are exposed as constructors of elaborate castles in the air, the lone fantasist as an impeccable logician.
Burdekin’s imagined future – which is itself an impossible vision of how history could unfold, according to the preface to the second edition of the novel (published by the Left Book Club in 1940), since the contradictions of Nazism could never last so long (Burdekin 1940, p. 4) – shares with other fantastic novels of the 30s and 40s an unnerving willingness to acknowledge the complicity of its author’s gender and nation in the rise of Nazism. According to the Knight – whose name is von Hess – envy of the military might of the British Empire served as ‘one of the motive forces of German imperialism’ (Burdekin 1940, p. 78). And both British and German women acquiesced with enthusiasm in their own subjugation. They shaved their heads, the Knight claims, and made themselves ugly so as to bolster the case for Nazi misogyny, in the belief that catering to these anti-feminist fantasies will somehow strengthen their status as objects of male approval and desire. Of course, the opposite has happened, and by the time we meet Alfred and von Hess all male desire for women has long been eradicated, to be replaced by a form of homoerotic desire between men which is merely the corollary to their disgust with the female of the species. What convinces Alfred to accept the Knight’s heretical version of history is a photograph that reawakens the possibility of mutual desire between men and women: the image of a small, dark, paunchy Hitler (as opposed to the blond giant of myth) standing beside a tall, square-jawed figure which Alfred takes at first for a lovely boy, until the Knight tells him it is a girl, a being inconceivably far removed from the cowering shaven gnomes of Alfred’s experience. This restoration of women to desirability makes possible a future for them; Alfred ends the book with the vision of a world where his daughter can hope to exist as something better than a breeding animal whose sole function is the fabrication of boy soldiers for some always-deferred future war in Asia. For Burdekin, a Lesbian who felt unable to write freely about gender politics except under a male pseudonym (she published novels as Murray Constantine), imagining a better future for women may have seemed almost as revolutionary in 1930s Britain as it would have done in a Nazi Britain 700 years later.
Burdekin is of course not alone among fantasy writers of the 30s and 40s in taking British complicity with fascism as her subject. She is also not alone in identifying the particular social group she belonged to (in this case, European women in general) as being specially implicated in this complicity. Before Guernica, the Permanent Secretary for the Irish Department of Education, Joseph O’Neill, wrote a novel about fascism in Britain called Land Under England (1935); and although his recognition of the British capacity to absorb totalitarian ideologies was informed by the experience of British imperialism in Ireland, his particular focus in painting a totalitarian state is his own specialist area, the education of the young.4 A young man retraces the steps of his long-lost father by descending into a hole near Hadrian’s Wall. He finds himself in an underground landscape lit by luminous fungi and infested by monsters – grotesque embodiments of the horrors that lurk in the human mind (O’Neill was a passionate Freudian). Further down, he discovers a race of human beings descended from the Roman soldiers who built the Wall. These people are still recognizably Roman in costume and technology, still locked into a militaristic ideology, but utterly removed from their ancestors in one remarkable way: they have raised the skill of mind-control to an astonishing new level. Every citizen has his or her mind telepathically shaped in childhood to the precise specifications of some designated occupation. Soldiers, labourers and craftspeople are trained up to be incapable of independent thought, while all the mental powers of the ruling elite are directed towards monitoring the psychological state of their slavish subjects. What drove these descendants of Romans to adopt this mental dictatorship was fear: an ungovernable fear of the monster-infested darkness, which drove many of their number to suicide before the techniques of mind control were brought to perfection. The novel’s narrator too experiences this fear, and finds himself on the verge of giving up his mind to the rulers of the underworld as his father has done before him, surrendering his individual will to the requirements of a collective war against the flesh-devouring beasts of the underworld, until the memory of his strong-minded mother and the sunlit world she inhabits provokes him to resist. In O’Neill’s novel, then, as in Burdekin’s, the idea of empowered women stimulates resistance to fascism, which is represented in both cases as a peculiarly aggressive manifestation of patriarchy – the next evolutionary phase, perhaps, of mid-twentieth century phallocentrism.
The underground Romans of Land Under England are clearly fascists – the fasces being a symbol of the ancient Roman republic, adapted for their purpose by the followers of Mussolini. But the Roman model also underlay the British Empire, a link enshrined in the centrality of Latin to the British private school system. For the Irishman O’Neill, the narrator’s father with his obsession with Rome stands for a pernicious obsession with ancient bloodlines among the British aristocracy; his family name is Julian and he traces his descent from the governors of Roman Britain. This obsession is kept in check by his bond with the narrator’s mother, whose Northern English family stands for technological innovation and industrial labour. But as soon as the conjugal bond is broken by the father’s departure to fight in the First World War – which he sees as a war in defence of Roman civilization against the forces of barbarism – the delicate balance between the father’s fantasies and the mother’s practicality is destroyed, so that it later seems natural for the father to throw in his lot with the subterranean warriors. At the end of the novel, the narrator’s now homicidal progenitor must be killed before the young man can return to the surface. As though assisting at a grotesque symbolic re-enactment of Ireland’s emancipation from its paternalistic British oppressors, the young man watches as his father flings himself into a crowd of toadlike carnivores, which ritualistically cut his throat. In the process, the older man’s veneration for imperial Rome is reduced to a suicidal commitment to violence, to patriarchy, to the assertion of his own physical and mental supremacy over all potential rivals. The father once dead, the young man is free to determine his own future, liberated from the nightmare of history – though conscious still of the lurking menace of an army of Roman automata beneath the wholesome English soil, ready to burst out and overwhelm the island if it can find a convenient exit.
In describing his fantastic underground society, the educator O’Neill dwells on the agonizing educational processes of the underworld, as teachers ‘root up and destroy the deepest sources of those torrents of vitality’ in young children – curiosity and wakening intelligence – in order to mould them into components of an efficient military machine (132). The Welsh journalist and broadcaster Howell Davies, by contrast, writing under the unlikely pseudonym of ‘Andrew Marvell’, places his own trade of journalism at the centre of his novel of fascist Britain, Minimum Man (1938).5 This ‘story of the counter-revolution of nineteen seventy’ (Davies 1953, p. 5) tells of a reporter’s accidental discovery of a new phase in human evolution: a breed of men and women no more than a foot in height, naked and covered with fur, whose astonishing powers of mind and body enable them to initiate a coup that overthrows the fascist dictator of Britain and installs one of their number in his place. The reporter, a man called Swan, uses his professional skills and contacts first to ferret out information about the origins of this new species (they turn out to have been spontaneously conceived by a rural Welshwoman) and later to help coordinate their anti-fascist coup. But even as he does so he worries that he is merely replacing one dictatorship with another. The phrase ‘Minimum Man’ refers not just to the size of the new species but also to their willingness to strip down every question of morality and social organization to its most basic components – their freedom, that is, from the trammels of history. Uncooperative members of their breed are mercilessly slaughtered for the collective good. Human beings who threaten their safety are casually disposed of. Love is as unknown among them as monogamy. Unencumbered by taboos, they are both capable of imagining better ways to organize society – a miniature woman speculates at one point about the benefits of matriarchy (Davies 1953, p. 95) – and disconcertingly comfortable with their status as harbingers of the end of the human species. Although they throw in their lot with the anti-fascists, their confidence in their own superiority makes them sound fascistic. At the end of the novel the future under their regime is uncertain; but as one human woman puts it – an old partisan who has fought against the Nazis and the Franco regime – if they turn out to be as bad or worse than the dictator they have toppled, ‘I shall fight them… I will not be a slave’ (Davies 1953, p. 214).
Howell Davies conceives, then, of a future quasi-fascistic dictatorship which is like him spawned in Wales, whose cause is aided and abetted by his own journalistic profession, and whose paramilitary coup is staged in the part of London where he lived, Highgate Hill, only yards from the cemetery where Marx is buried. Minimum Man sprang fully-fledged from Davies’s head, and is entwined with Davies’s cultural and intellectual environment, so that his complicity with its imagined conquest of Britain is both profound and complicated. But unlike their knowing creator, his miniature assassin-dictators have a disarming innocence about them: a bluntness of speech and a refusal to countenance the wickedness of human adults which suggest another explanation for his decision to make them the size of newborn infants. They are shocked and disgusted by the perverse social arrangements of the ancient world in which they find themselves; and their insistence on improving it makes them attractive as well as horrifying. This notion of a disturbing innocence in the adherents of fascism crops up quite often in the fantasies of the 30s and 40s. One of Burdekin’s main characters is Hermann, whose unquestioning acceptance of Nazi doctrine comes second only to his passionate love of the Englishman Alfred, and who is described by the Knight von Hess as ‘an innocent man’ despite the fact that he kills a young boy in the early pages of the novel (Burdekin 1940, p. 127). As it happens, his love for Alfred turns Hermann in the end into a passionate defender of Alfred’s one-man anti-fascist insurrection. But in Winifred Ashton’s anti-fascist fantasy The Arrogant History of White Ben (1939) – written under her penname Clemence Dane – the paradoxical innocence of the bloodstained protagonist undergoes no such redemptory volte-face.
White Ben is an ordinary scarecrow – accidentally brought to life by a little girl holding a mandrake – who goes on to become the fascist dictator of England. If this sounds an implausible premise, it is made convincing by the sheer intensity of Ashton’s descriptions of Ben and the countryside that makes him. Ben springs from the fertile English soil, and a litany of flower-names and tree-terms accompanies him on his road to power: morning-glory, mayweed, briony, horse chestnut, campion. He is constructed, too, from the old garments that clothe him: ‘a priest’s vestment, a soldier’s gauntlets and civilian mackintosh, a gentleman’s pleasure-hat’, and the operating-coat of a surgeon killed in the disastrous war of the nineteen-fifties (Ashton 1939, p. 20). ‘Men’s memories’, in fact, are ‘buttoned about him’. And as he marches towards London, gathering followers on the way from among the human debris left behind by the recent conflict, he accumulates a stock of phrases and attitudes from men and women of all classes, so that when he is in London perpetrating his atrocities both the aristocratic Lady Pont and the working-class butler Trelawney recognize their own language spilling from his turnip lips in justification of his crimes against humanity (Ashton 1939, pp. 348-9).
Being a scarecrow, the chief lessons Ben learns from his friends are lessons of fear and hatred, and his career, which begins as a crusade against crows, quickly becomes a massacre of people, since everyone thinks he uses the word ‘crows’ metaphorically. The hatreds of his friends become his hatreds; but unlike them he was assembled with the sole purpose of acting on his dislikes, and he has an uncanny gift for provoking his allies, too, to aggression: especially those acts of mutual self-destruction that are so often deployed by nascent military regimes, pitting friends against friends to consolidate their power. As a result, the love and hero-worship Ben excites in their hearts turn to bitterness and loathing, and he quickly finds himself isolated, a living tool that has been used by England’s new military governors and can now be dispensed with. But when he disappears at the story’s end, worn out by the weight of hatred and expectation that has been laid on his flimsy shoulders, his story is retold as myth. Monuments are erected to his memory, and the tale of his journey from birth to power is retold again and again by those who knew him, with a solemnity that belies the appalling preposterousness of its turnip-headed hero. He becomes once again a figurehead of militarism, the fantastic nature of his existence as a living scarecrow underscoring the vein of fantasy that feeds the fascistic rule of force.
Winifred Ashton was a playwright and screenwriter, and as one reads the Arrogant History it becomes clear that Ben’s career is made up of a series of performances. His awakening is described with the visual precision of a set of cinematic storyboards. The central section of the novel takes place in a country house, and the dialogue in it resembles that of a black comedy, something by Ashton’s good friend Noel Coward, directed in this case to the appalling ends of overthrowing a legitimate government and restarting a recently abandoned war. Ben is forever making speeches, and the fact that his words are not his own (he has picked up every phrase, crow-like, from scraps of other people’s conversation) reinforces his association with Ashton’s professional life among playhouses and film studios. We keep hearing his story in retrospect as having been performed in theatres and music halls – a device that both places a Brechtian distance between reader and narrative and brings the narrative closer to the world of Winifred Ashton. One can imagine her exclaiming when the scarecrow has grown bloodthirsty and bewildered, as Lady Pont exclaims at one point, ‘Oh Ben, Ben, don’t put it upon me!’ (Ashton 1939, p. 315). It’s as if Ashton wishes to feel in her bones, as it were, the truth of the book’s last sentence: that Ben is ‘no more than the wish fulfilment of a backward people, and that he personifies in their folk-lore the natural human instinct to maltreat the harmless and destroy the happy’ (Ashton 1939, p. 420). What was ‘natural’ for her was a sense of theatricality, and she had the courage to see how her own performer’s instinct could translate itself into the instrument of violent oppression.
These four now little-known fantasies demonstrate the extent to which anti-fascist writers of the Western Archipelago were prepared to figure fascism as emerging from the dark recesses of their own brains. Complicity with fascism among certain elements of British and Irish society in the 1930s is of course an attested fact; but there is something startling and, on reflection, impressive about these writers’ readiness to suggest that they cannot so easily exonerate themselves from some degree of participation in the circumstances that gave rise to the fascistic state of mind. Ashton refers several times in the Arrogant History to the psychologically and economically crippling terms imposed on Germany by its enemies at the end of the Great War; terms which planted and cultivated the seeds of resentment that sprang up as Nazism. O’Neill reminds us that every mind contains its monsters – the sources of reasonable or unreasoning terror – and that acquiescence in dictatorship can be a form of self-defence against those monsters. For Burdekin, fear of the other sex can dominate the unconscious of either gender, and Nazism is one means by which patriarchy may choose to express its gynophobic paranoia. And Davies, like O’Neill and Burdekin, sees fascism as springing from the desire to engineer a Darwinian evolution away from a condition of subservience to all these fears and paranoias. Once one has noticed this theme of complicity running through the obscurer fantastic novels of the 30s and 40s, one begins to see it everywhere in the work of better-known fantasy writers of the period. For a while, novels, novelists and Nazism were woven together in a horrible symbiotic knot, and it seems as if fantasy was a form or mode particularly well suited to undertake the controversial task of addressing this symbiosis.
The brilliant Irish humorist Brian O’Nolan, for example – better known as Flann O’Brien – wrote a novel in 1940 in which the two qualities for which he was most celebrated, wit and knowledge, find themselves fused into the components of a kind of Irish atom bomb, always on the verge of detonation.6 The unnamed protagonist of The Third Policeman murders an old man in order to fund his learned commentary on the mad philosopher de Selby. He then finds his way to a mysterious police station filled with mind-troubling inventions, where he is summarily convicted of the crime he has just committed, despite the total absence of any evidence against him. While awaiting execution he is shown around an underground facility which seems in some obscure way to control the fantastic world he has strayed into; his policemen friends must constantly fine-tune its arcane mechanisms to prevent the whole shebang from exploding and wiping out humanity. All this is told in scintillating comic prose like a more elaborate version of the anecdotes O’Nolan unfolded in his famous column for the Irish Times, the Cruiskeen Lawn. Europe, it would seem on the evidence of this novel, has got itself enmeshed in an appalling practical joke, which will not release its victims until its inexorable logic has been worked out – at the expense of their lives or their collective sanity.
Another Irishman, the scholar C. S. Lewis, wrote a trio of science fiction novels between 1938 and 1945 as ‘propaganda’ for Christianity – competing with, yet also likening itself to, the other forms of indoctrination that occupied the printing press and airwaves at the time of writing. In a fragment of a fourth novel, The Dark Tower, composed between 1938 and 1940 but not printed till the 1970s, he imagines a parallel world of ‘Othertime’ which is rapidly approaching his own time and place: a world where horned dictators, served by a goose-stepping, brainwashed militia, occupy a tower which is a precise replica of the new library building at the University of Cambridge.7 This tower contains a library, like its English counterpart; but it is a library of atrocities, whose books record knowledge obtained through the torture and death of children. The threat that drives the book’s plot is that the tower and the Cambridge Library will converge, and that when they do their environments will combine, and England be enslaved by the horned dictators. Lewis had read Land Under England, and reacted to its horrible yet potent premise by transposing O’Neill’s fascistic automata into the heart of the community he loved most, that of the British intellectual elite.
T. H. White, who spent the war years in Ireland as a conscientious objector, wrote most of his Arthurian fantasy sequence The Once and Future King (1958) in the 1930s and early 40s, reconfiguring the global conflict as a civil war in his heart’s homeland, medieval Britain.8 Mervyn Peake began the first of his Gormenghast books, Titus Groan (1946), while vainly seeking employment as a war artist, and made its protagonist a young man who is half-heroic and wholly power-hungry, a would-be dictator who poses in succession as artist, actor, clown, adventurer and ladykiller – very much like Peake himself.9 Finally, when Lewis’s friend J. R. R. Tolkien assembled the most influential work of modern fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, between 1938 and 1949, he began and ended it in a fictional Shire that closely resembles the country round his home town of Oxford.10 As the final volume of the sequence draws to a close its hobbit heroes return home to find that the Shire has been taken over by a quasi-fascistic government run by the former wizard Saruman. The hobbits’ journey through the war-torn lands of Middle Earth has, among its other purposes, that of preparing them for this eventuality and teaching them the appropriate response to it: namely, the extirpation of profiteering invaders, the naming and shaming of collaborators, and the demolition of the industrial architecture that has fouled their beloved rural environment. The particular journey of Tolkien’s principal hobbit, Frodo, had as its end the destruction of a Ring that conferred invisibility; and it is only when Frodo finds himself confronted with Saruman on his own doorstep that this invisibility stands exposed as (in part) a metaphor for the secret workings of complicity that can transform even the neighbourly Shire, in Frodo’s absence, into productive ground for totalitarianism.
In twenty-first century parlance, the word fantasy is often used to mean a form of wish-fulfilment, the conscious or unconscious fashioning of simulacra of the sometimes forbidden things we most desire. British and Irish fantasists of the mid-century showed their readers that what they most desired sometimes bore a disturbing resemblance to what they most loathed: innocently murderous scarecrows, sadistic rulers with poisonous phallic horns in the middle of their foreheads, paternalistic instructors with total control over the minds of their pupils, brilliant, athletic, handsome miniature replacements for the bloated and obsolescent human species. They tell a version of the history of the mind in the 1930s and 40s which could not have been told in any other way. It is time we paid attention to this version.
- For Lukacs on ‘objective reality’ see his History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Boston, Mass.: MIT Press, 1972). He applies the concept to literature in The Historical Novel (London: Merlin Press, 1989). For the view that modernist experiment peaks in the 1920s and tails off in the 1930s ‘largely because of the dogmatic influence of the Soviet enforcement of socialist realism’, see Jane Goldman, Modernism, 1910-1945: Image to Apocalypse (Basingstoke and Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp. 28ff. and 214ff.
- Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London and New York: Verso, 2005), p. 5; but see the whole of chapter 5, ‘The Great Schism’, for a discussion of the relationship between Science Fiction, Utopia and fantasy. On definitions of fantasy see Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London and New York: Routledge, 1981), chapter 2.
- For Burdekin’s reaction to fascism, and especially the impact on her of the bombing of Guernica, see Daphne Patai’s Afterword to Burdekin’s The End of This Day’s Business (New York: The Feminist Press, 1989). For introducing me to the works of Burdekin and Winifred Ashton I am grateful to my mother, Elizabeth Maslen, who discusses them in her important book Political and Social Issues in British Women’s Fiction, 1928-1968 (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave, 2001).
- For O’Neill’s life and works see M. Kelly Lynch’s fine introduction to his last novel, The Black Shore, ed. Lynch (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2000).
- For Davies’ life and work see Adrian Dannatt’s Foreword to Davies’s novel Congratulate the Devil, Library of Wales (Cardigan: Parthian, 2008).
- For O’Brien’s imagined complicity with the bombings of the 30s and 40s see R. W. Maslen, ‘Flann O’Brien’s Bombshells: At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman’, New Hibernia Review, vol. 10, no. 4 (Winter 2006), 84-104.
- For a detailed analysis of The Dark Tower and its relationship with O’Neill’s Land Under England see Robert W. Maslen, ‘Towards an Iconography of the Future: C. S. Lewis and the Scientific Humanists’, Inklings Jahrbuch für Literatur und Asthetik, Band 18 (2000), 222-249.
- For a fuller account of Peake’s anxieties about complicity, see Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), ed. R. W. Maslen, introduction; and R. W. Maslen, ‘Fantasies of War in Peake’s Uncollected Verse’, Peake Studies, Vol. 10, No. 4 (April 2008), 5-23.
Constantine, Murray [Katharine Burdekin], Swastika Night, Left Book Club Edition (London: Victor Gollancz, 1940).
Dane, Clemence [Winifred Ashton], The Arrogant History of White Ben (London and Toronto: William Heinemann, 1939).
Lewis, C. S., The Dark Tower and Other Stories (London: Fount Paperbacks, 1987).
Marvell, Andrew [Howell Davies], Minimum Man (Worcester and London: The Science Fiction Book Club, 1953).
O’Brien, Flann [Brian O’Nolan], The Third Policeman (London: Flamingo, 1993).
O’Neill, Joseph, Land under England (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1987).
Peake, Mervyn, Titus Groan (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1946).
Tolkien, J. R. R., The Fellowship of the Ring (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1954).
Tolkien, J. R. R., The Two Towers (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1954).
Tolkien, J. R. R., The Return of the King (London: George Allen and Unwin,1955).
White, T. H., The Once and Future King (London: Collins, 1958).
White, T. H., The Sword in the Stone (London: Collins, 1938).
White, T. H., The Witch in the Wood (London: Collins, 1939).
White, T. H., The Ill-Made Knight (London: Collins, 1940).
White, T. H., The Book of Merlyn (Austin, TS and London: University of Texas Press, 1977).