The Curmudgeon


Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Blessing of Pan

The main theme of Lord Dunsany's 1928 novel The Blessing of Pan is a conflict between Christianity and paganism - a theme also explored in the author's 1933 masterpiece The Curse of the Wise Woman. In the later book, the character most affected by the conflict is the Irish peasant Marlin, who worries that his involuntary longings for the pagan paradise will get him blackballed from the Christian Heaven. In The Blessing of Pan, the population of an entire English village is seduced away from the Christian church by the hypnotic piping of a pudding-faced seventeen-year-old, and the conflict takes place mainly in the mind and heart of the Reverend Elderick Anwrel, the mild-mannered village parson.

Aside from a handful of chapters depicting the villagers' surrender to the pipes - first the girls, then the young men, then almost everybody else - the story is told entirely from Anwrel's point of view. Although, as in The Curse of the Wise Woman, Dunsany is clearly on the side of the pagans (at least when choosing between them and the Christians), his depiction of Anwrel is touching and sympathetic: the vicar is neither a fool nor a bigot, but a gentle and honest man whose agony over what is happening to his flock gives the book an emotional power which the scenes of pagan liberation, effective and joyous as they are, would probably not have attained on their own.

Anwrel is first seen writing to his bishop asking what he should do about the effect of the pipes' music on the village; at this point he has little concrete evidence on which to base his suspicions, and the bishop simply tells him to take a bit of a holiday. Later, when Anwrel sees the bishop in person, the great man takes a moment from his busy schedule - something to do with making the National Anthem more anodyne - for a friendly chat about hobbies. The bishop's assistant advises Anwrel to stem the tide of heresy by getting the village boys interested in cricket; as does the locum vicar who takes over during Anwrel's break, a Greek scholar who is as deaf to the call of the spirit as he is to the music from the pipes.

It is not entirely clear why Pan, king of the Arcadian slopes, should have chosen this particular village for his recrudescence. Dunsany tackles the question at one point with a disquisition on the disappearance of the English countryside - the march of industrial civilisation has left very few such villages in existence, he avers, so this one was as likely as any other. There are hints that Anwrel's predecessor, the Reverend Arthur Davidson, was some sort of avatar of Pan, but Anwrel is not a very determined investigator and not much is made of them. If these are flaws in the book, they are small ones; on the positive side, The Blessing of Pan has all the Dunsanian virtues of limpid prose, compact story-telling, and apt but unobtrusive symbolism; and the satiric portrayal of a toothless, complacent, inward-looking Anglican church, much concerned with trivial worldly matters and utterly inadequate for a fight, has obvious resonance still.

When, after much indecision, Anwrel eventually uses his pulpit to try and lead the villagers back to their old faith, he realises even as he speaks that his appeals to tradition are double-edged. If the Church is ancient, even older are the sacrificial stones on the hill where the villagers are lured by the pipes. Even the local saint seems to have lost her powers of healing, and Anwrel discovers that, thanks to his hobby of collecting eolithic flints, he himself is irrevocably tied to the pre-Christian past. In the end, it is not the church that helps Anwrel, but a self-proclaimed seeker after "illusions" - a nihilistic touch that recalls the philosophical pessimism of Dunsany's early fantasy tales.


  • At 10:05 pm , Anonymous Matthew Timmins said...

    I love "The Blessing of Pan" (and all of Lord Dunsany). Your review is spot on -- well done. Have you read "Lud-in-the-Mist" by Hope Mirrless?

  • At 12:05 am , Blogger Philip said...

    Thanks. I'm not all that well read in high fantasy and hadn't even heard of Mirrlees, but the Wikipedia entry on Lud-in-the-Mist does make it look interesting.


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