Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Soul of Honor

My name is and was Matt Collins. Well, my full name is Matthew Edward Collins. My death was a bit of surprise to me. I was pretty darn fit for a 61-year-old man. I jogged five miles four times a week, and didn’t smoke, drink, or eat fatty foods. But still I had a heart attack while playing tennis at the Club, and there I was dead. Dead, dead, dead! It was quite depressing. And then came some more bad news. I got the news that there was a heaven but I didn’t qualify. If you think flunking an exam or being told you didn’t get some job you wanted is bad, just try dying and being told you don’t qualify for heaven. And the rap on me wasn’t so much that I had behaved abominably while on earth, but that I had not, and I quote, “made any commitment to the good.” Well, apparently I wasn’t the only one. I was lined up with thousands of others in the same stewpot I was in. (Of course, I don’t mean an actual stewpot.) Some angelic type of being gave us all the rundown. It was wall-to-wall people, all jockeying for better positions in order to hear the angelic type guy.

“You have not merited heaven or hell. You are in a kind of limbo right now. You can do nothing more for yourselves. You need a champion to fight him.” I looked in front of me and saw an enormous dragon right out of The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad movie.

The angelic type being explained, “Unless a champion comes forth to slay yon dragon, the Dragon of Detached Indifference and Materialism, you will all be sent to hell. Should a champion emerge and defeat the dragon, you will be sent to purgatory, and although you will suffer much there, you will eventually go to heaven. From the time I turn this glass over, you have exactly one hour.”

It was a long hour. I didn’t have a wristwatch, but judging by the amount of sand left in the hourglass I would guess that we were down to our last minute.

Then he appeared, on horseback, saber in hand, and dressed in the garb of a 19th century British soldier. There was no hesitation as he charged the dragon.

The dragon spit fire and knocked our champion off his horse. But that didn’t deter our champion. As the horse took off in the opposite direction, the soldier charged the dragon again. On foot he seemed even less of a match for the dragon than he had on horseback. But the battle, we are told, does not always go to the strongest. The soldier overwhelmed the dragon. He would strike at it with his sword, and before the dragon could retaliate, he would maneuver to another point and strike again. Finally it was the dragon that fell, not the soldier. The champion severed the dragon’s head from its body.

Our champion simply waved and slipped away in the mist as we all found ourselves transported to our own little purgatories. Not very pleasant places these purgatorial dwellings, but we now have great hope for the future, thanks to our champion.

“Who was he?” I asked the angelic being, before being escorted to purgatory. The angelic being smiled.

“Well, he was not the Lone Ranger, nor was he one of our angels. He was the last knight of Europe, and his name is Percival Christopher Wren.”


His actual pen name was P. C. Wren. There is much that could be said against Wren’s novels from a literary standpoint, but I won’t say those things because a writer, like a man, must be taken “for all and all,” And taken for all and all, P. C. Wren stands as a towering figure in world literature because he took the beau ideal of chivalry further than any other author. The description that best suits him is the one he used to describe the hero of his novel, Soldiers of Misfortune: “He loved Chivalry, Truth and Honor, Freedom and Courtesy But Was Head-Strong, Stubborn, Romantical, and Most Unwise.”

The Wren heroes possess a sacred sense of honor. They mix with Muslims, Chinese, and Hindus, and they find men and women with great nobility of soul in these other cultures. But the Wren hero knows the hierarchy: There is one culture and one code that stands above the rest – the culture of the European (especially, of course, that of the Briton) and the code of chivalry. The pagan and the Christian virtues cannot be neatly separated from each other in the human heart, but a man finally belongs, in essence, to either the Christian God-Man or to the pagan gods. Wren, like his heroes, does not preach much about it, but it is Christ and not Apollo who inspires him. The great Wren heroes might admire the Vikings and fight with equal ferocity, but their souls are gentle, and their deaths, like their lives, are Christian.

Wren is often described as a “mere adventure writer,” and therefore is considered to be of little consequence. But the overt adventure in Wren’s novels is only a metaphor for the more intimate adventure of the human soul. Wren is, above all else, a metaphysician. Like Dostoevsky and Shakespeare, it is the human soul that interests him. The military settings that he frequently uses are merely a means to an end, the probing of the human soul. And like Shakespeare, Wren does not probe from an Olympian height. He leads with his heart. Like a fighter who could win with speed and finesse but who chooses instead to stand toe-to-toe and slug it out, Wren suffers with his characters and with us.

Wren is able, in the best of his novels – Beau Geste, Valiant, Dust, The Bubble Reputation, Soldiers of Misfortune, Man of a Ghost, Worth Wile, and The Disappearance of General Jason – to give us a portrait of the truly good man, as distinct from the merely religious man. He does that by starting from within, with that initial intuition about the spiritual life, and working outward.

In this he differs from the more superficial writers such as Waugh, who start from without and give us a highly stylized portrait of what a religious man, based on the external evidence, should be like. In contrast, Wren makes us say, when reading about the struggles of one of his heroes, “The action of my life is like it, which I’ll keep, if but for sympathy.” The type of authors labeled Catholic or Christian generally write from the script, “I think, therefore I am.” Wren has a different code: “I feel, therefore I am.” And it works because it is closer to reality than the Descartesian code. When some theological statement is wrung from a Wren hero, it comes out organically and stands as an irrefutable truth, because it has come out of the fiery furnace of existence, the same furnace faced by Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego.

In Beau Ideal, while they are awaiting execution, a fellow legionnaire, a secularized Jew, tries to get John Geste to explain why he was kind to a man who betrayed him and placed him in the executioner’s block. The Englishman in the following passage is John Geste, brother of the incomparable Beau Geste.

“Tell me,” said Jacob the Jew (or Jacopi Judescu, the Roumanian gipsy). “What was really your reason for the sloppy feeble ‘kindness’ to Ramon Gonzales? ... I am a philosopher and a student of the lowest of the animals called Man… Was it to please your Christian God and to acquire merit? … Or to uphold your insolent British assumption of an inevitable and natural superiority? ... You and your God—the Great Forgivers! ... ‘Injure me—and I’ll forgive you and make you feel so damned uncomfortable that you’ll be more injured than I am.’ … Aren’t you capable of a good decent hate or…”

“Yes, I hate your filthy voice, dear Jacob,” replied the Englishman.

“No. Tell me,” persisted Jacob. “I loathe being puzzled… Besides, don’t’ you see I’m going mad? … Talk, man… These corpses… Why did you behave like that to Ramon Gonzales? … He betrayed you, didn’t he? … I would have strangled him… I would have had his eyes… Didn’t he betray and denounce you after you had found him in the desert and saved his life? … To Sergeant Lebaudy?”

“Yes. He recognized me—and did his, ah—duty,” was the reply.

“For twenty-five pieces of silver! … Recognized you as one of the Zinderneuf men he knew at Sidi, and promptly sold you? … Consigned you to sudden death—or a lingering death—for twenty-five francs and a Sergeant’s favor! … And here the Judas was—wondrously delivered into your hand—and you ‘forgave’ him and comforted him! … Now why? … What was the game, the motive, the reason, the object? Why should a sane man act like that? … What was the game?”

“No game, no motive, no reason,” answered the Englishman. “He acted according to his lights—I to mine.”

“And where do you get your ‘lights’? What flame lit them?”

“Oh—I don’t know… Home… Family… One’s women-folk… School… Upbringing… Traditions… One unconsciously imbibes ideas of doing the decent thing… I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in life… Poor old Ramon wasn’t… one does the decent thing if one is—decent.”

“You don’t go about, then, consciously and definitely forgiving your enemies and heaping coals of fire on them because you’re a Christian.”

“No, of course not… Don’t talk rot…”

“Nor with a view to securing a firm option on a highly eligible and desirable mansion in the sky—suitable for English gentlemen of position—one of the most favorable residential sites on the Golden Street…”

“Not in the least… Don’t be an ass…”

“You disappoint me. I was hoping to find, before I died, one of those rare animals, a
Christian gentleman—who does all these funny things because he is a Christian—and this was positively my last chance… I shall die in here.”

“I expect Christianity was the flame that lit those little ‘lights,’ Jacob… Our home and school and social customs, institutions and ideas are based on the Christian ideal, anyhow… And we owe what’s good in them to that, I believe… We get our beau ideal quite unconsciously, I think, and we follow it quite unconsciously—if we follow it at all…”

“Well, and what is it, my noble Christian martyr?”

“Oh, just to be—decent, and to do the decent thing, y’know.”

“So, indirectly, at any rate, you returned good for evil to Judas Ramon Gonzales because you were a Christian, you think?”

“Yes… Indirectly… I suppose… We aren’t good at hating and vengeance and all that… It’s not done… It isn’t—decent…”

“But you puzzle me. What of Ramon the Judas… Ramon who sold you? He was a great Christian, you know… A staunch patron of your Christian God… Always praying and invoking your Holy Family.”

“There are good and bad in all religions, Jacob… I have the highest admiration for your great people—but I have met rotten specimens… Bad as some of my own…”


“Look here, Christian,” began Jacob the Jew again. “If I summoned up enough strength, and swung this chain with all my might against your right check, would you turn the other also?”

“No. I should punch you on the nose,” said the Englishman simply.


“Tell me. Do you kneel down night and morning and pray to your kind Christian God, Englishman? The forgiving God of Love, Who has landed you here?” asked Jacob the Jew.

“I landed myself here,” was the reply. “And—er—no… I don’t pray—in words—much… You won’t mind asking questions for fear of being thought inquisitive, will you, gentle Jacob?”

“Oh, no… Let’s see now… You forgive the very worst of injuries because you are a Christian, but not because you’re a Christian… You do as you would be done by, and not as you’ve been ‘done’ by… You don’t pray in words and hold daily communion with your kind Christian God—you regard Him as a gentleman—an English gentleman, of course—who quite understands, and merely desires that you be—decent, which of course, you naturally would be, whether He wished it or not… And you’ll punch me on the nose if I smite you on the cheek—but you don’t even do that much to any one who betrays you to a dreadful death… And really, in your nice little mind, you loathe talking about your religion, and you are terrified lest you give the impression that you think it is better than other people’s, for fear of hurting their

“Oh, shut up, Jacob. You’d talk the hind leg off a dog.”

“What else is there to do but talk? … And so you are perfectly certain that you are a most superior person, but you strive your very utmost to conceal the awful fact… You’re a puzzling creature… What is your motivating force? What is your philosophy? What are you up to? …”

“Well, at the moment, I’m going to issue the water-ration… Last but one…” said the Englishman.

“I can’t understand you English…” grumbled Jacob.

“A common complaint, I believe,” said the Englishman. The quiet American laughed.
Then later in the same scene, a French legionnaire lies dying:

He desired the services of a priest, that he might “make his soul.” On the other side of him, the Englishman and the American did what they could to soothe his passing, and Jacob the Jew produced his last scrap of biscuit for the nourishment of the sick man… He offered to chew it for him if he were unable to masticate…

“It’s a privilege to die in your society, mes amis,” said the Frenchman suddenly, in a stronger voice. “To die with men of one’s own sort… Officers once, doubtless, and gentlemen still… I am going to add to the burden of debt I owe you… But I am going to give you something in return… My dying assurance that you are going to live… I most clearly see you walking in the sunshine, free and happy… Walking towards you a woman—a truly beautiful woman… She loves you both—but one far more than the other… You fight on her account… your weapons are generosity, unselfishness, sacrifice, self-abnegation, the love of a man for his friend…”
The Frenchman has articulated Wren’s beau ideal and it is a Christian beau ideal. In Soldiers of Misfortune when Otho Belleme takes it upon himself to leave Oxford to care for a girl “in trouble” whom he has not gotten in trouble, and who is not in any way romantically involved with him, the Dean of Students recognizes whom it is that Otho is imitating:

Otho’s interview with the Dean was as peculiar as he had expected, if less painful.

He frankly and fully stated the facts of the necessity for his leaving Oxford, and having done so, he added the truth concerning Victoria, so far as he knew it. The Dean had heard many strange tales in the course of his long and wide experience, and he wondered if this were not the strangest.

“And where are you taking this girl, Mr. Belleme?” he expostulated.

“To my mother, Sir,” replied Otho. “I hope and believe that she’ll sleep under my mother’s roof to-night.”

“Well, well, well,” mused the Dean, his elbow on is desk, his great head resting on his
hand, as he toyed with a pencil and stared unseeingly at the big sheet of blotting-paper spread before him. “I really do not know what to say, or to think, Mr. Belleme. Have you—er—any—er—personal and private interest in this girl—if I may ask the question?”

“None whatever, Sir.”

“You are not what is—er—called—ah—in love with her?”

“Not in the slightest, Sir.”

“Are you quite sure it is just the purest altruism—the highest and most disinterested charity, Mr. Belleme? … And aren’t you undertaking something more serious than you realize it to be—something of which no one can foresee the end—in making yourself responsible for this poor girl?”

The Dean watched him curiously—his fine and powerful face wearing a look of deep interest.

“Do you quite realize what you are doing in making yourself responsible for her?” he
continued. “You know that the world and his wife, —especially his wife, —will think and say and do… They will certainly ‘revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against you—falsely’—falsely, I firmly believe.”

“It may be folly, Sir,” said Otho, “but…”

“It is folly,” interrupted the Dean. “Great folly… nearly as great as the worldly and social folly of some of those who have left all and followed…”
There are white moments in Wren’s novels during which one is taken to that sacred glen where everything is quiet. And in that place, one hears, very faintly but distinctly, the beating of that sacred heart which sustains the world. What more can you ask from a storyteller?

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