Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Four Feathers

The Four Feathers
By A. E. W. Mason (Grosset & Dunlap: New York, 1901)

I would be hard pressed to come up with a major author who does not, in some aspect of his work, deal with a military theme. This is quite understandable. Human souls, when placed in the extremities of combat, are often more fully revealed than they are in less intense situations. And it is an author’s business to lay bare the soul of man.

But many books with a military theme and setting fail to give us any kind of spiritual revelation. They are often boring, documentary-style books, giving us mere facts about the military; or they are propaganda books designed to show us either an unrealistically horrible or an unrealistically glorious view of the military.

The Four Feathers fits none of these categories, and it contains the best depiction of the military experience outside of Shakespeare that I have ever read.

There are men who fight and fight courageously in this book who are nevertheless moral cowards. And there are men who fight reluctantly and with great fear and trepidation who rise to heroic heights. What A. E. W. Mason really has done, through his protagonist, Harry Feversham, is to show us the moral dimension of heroism. Without that moral dimension, heroism is mere guts, which is pagan, not Christian.

One might admire the pagan hero’s courage, but it is the Christian hero who gives us a glimpse of the living God. It is the difference between Robert E. Lee and G. Gordon Liddy. Or in film, it’s the big difference between the heroes depicted by Gary Cooper and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and the heroes depicted by Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwartzenegger. The former are Christian heroes, the latter are merely pagan ones.

I love Harry Feversham. He strikes a blow for every armchair warrior and poet who believes that the warrior bard will ultimately prevail against the foreign Turk and the brutish homegrown bore.

A work like Mason’s The Four Feathers could not be written today because our Western culture has been eradicated by the dialectic. Masculinity means only one thing now – aggressiveness, and it is permitted and admired only when it appears in the female. And femininity means only one thing now – passivity, and it is permitted only when it appears in the male.

In contrast to the modern, obscene, dialectic depiction of human beings, Mason paints a portrait of human beings with souls, working out their eternal destinies in a world that has not yet surrendered to the dialectic.

There is a passage of incredible poignancy in the book which I must quote. Feversham, in disguise, has gotten himself thrown into an Arab prison in order to rescue a fellow countryman. His countryman, Colonel Trench, is about to strike Feversham because he fears that he will be knocked to the floor and trampled if he doesn’t hold his own in the crowded prison.
“Back!” he cried violently, “back, or I strike!” and, as he wrestled to lift his arm above his head that he might strike the better, he heard the man who had been flung against him incoherently babbling English.

“Don’t fall,” cried Trench, and he caught his fellow-captive by the arm. “Ibrahim, help! God, if he were to fall!” and while the crowd swayed again and the shrill cries and curses rose again, deafening the ears, piercing the brain, Trench supported his
companion, and bending down his head caught again after so many months the accent of his own tongue. And the sound of it civilized him like the friendship of a woman.
Ah, how could a modern appreciate that passage? The modern does not believe that there are differences in cultures. How could the sound of a language associated with Christian things hearten and humanize a man? And stranger still to the modern – how could the friendship of a woman civilize a man? The modern knows only viragos and hard-eyed business women. “Surely, Mason must be from Mars.” No, not Mars, but Christian Europe, which to the modern is more remote than Mars.