MachenThe Shock of the Numinous:
Arthur Machen's "The White People"

commentary by rbadac


In Chapter Three of The London Adventure, Arthur Machen describes his re-examining of an old notebook he used from 1895-98, the period when he was writing "The White People", as well as The Hill of Dreams & Ornaments in Jade:

"...Again I open it; I wonder at the infinite labours of former years; at the efforts renewed again & again which have issued in so little. Here, thick on every page, are the notes of stories which were never even begun. Thus:


Girl who dances in the Maze was afterwards beset by the influence she had in that manner invoked. --after the Hawthorne manner, somewhat: The maze was constructed on a wild, bare hilltop, with innumerable blocks of limestone. It was called "The Way (or Path) to the City."

Then follow several sketches, one or two recognizable, as for instance that which later became the story "The Ceremony" in Ornaments in Jade:

"...There was an old stone in the wood, on which she often found cottage-garden flowers scattered in summertime..."

And a little later, another sketch:

"He turned again to the monograph on Labyrinths: he looked at the plates: the various types of mazes (quote passage as to dancing with reference to mazes).

How does all this bear on the "psychology": what reference to ecstasy: the drama: the lyric of incantation?

It was a book that attracted him in spite of its dry, antiquarian air: he had felt that there was "something there."

Then the question of the pattern. (Compare with the whorl, the spiral, the Maori decoration.) Why was this form common to all primitive art?

MachenThe problem perplexed him. He took it, as was his custom, for a long walk; & in the dreariest, most grey street of a grey, remote suburb, just as the men were coming home from the city, the thought, with a pang of joy, rushed into his mind, that the maze was not only the instrument but the symbol of ecstasy: it was a pictured "inebriation", the sign of some age-old "process" that gave the secret bliss to men, that was symbolised also by dancing, by lyrics with their recurring burdens, & their repeated musical phrases: a maze, a dance, a song: three symbols pointing to one mystery.

Now, in the outline of this strange story -- an ancestor, I fancy, of "The White People" -- there "seems some obscurity..."

It goes on awhile, in essence Machen's "commonplace book" entry for the story, & trails off, followed by Machen remarking how pathetic & puzzling his old notebook seemed to him, & his frustration with the writing process in general.

We know, as he does here despite his pessimism, that "The White People" did indeed finally get written, & although it misses the fire that Machen wanted, it remains nevertheless his strange, shimmering masterpiece.


Little children, keep yourselves from idols.
-First Epistle of John, Chap.5, v. 21

The connections with the earlier story "The Ceremony" (as well as others from Ornaments in Jade, such as "Witchcraft," "The Turanians," "The Rose Garden," & "Midsummer"), & the outline of "Maze Story" are significant: Machen's young girl of peculiar pagan innocence, naive yet amoral, becomes the recipient of Mystery in a compelling & awful manner, while illustrating the concept of Sin discussed by Ambrose & Cotgrave in the Prologue to the story. Ambrose's view of ordinary sinners resembles that expressed by Plato in his Timaeus, whose opinion was that "no one is willingly bad" & that Sin is ignorance & blindness to reality. It is worth noting that Aristotle challenged this view in the seventh book of the Nicomachean Ethics by saying that men do act wickedly in the face of knowledge, that Sin is an act of Will.

But here is where Ambrose sets his own capital S on Sin: as "an effort to gain the ecstasy & the knowledge that pertain alone to angels, & in making this effort man becomes a demon." He also describes it as "the taking of heaven by storm," & says that in doing so the sinner "repeats the Fall."

In further illustration Ambrose cites the use of the word "sorcerers" in the Biblical passage (Rev. 21:8) Cotgrave mentions as the keynote supporting his argument, & contends further the "unconscious" aspect of Sin:

"... it is like holiness & genius in this as in other points; it is a certain rapture or ecstasy of the soul; a transcendent effort to surpass the ordinary bounds. So, surpassing these, it surpasses also the understanding, the faculty that takes note of that which comes before it. No, a man may be infinitely & horribly wicked & never suspect it..."

This then is the human spiritual counterpart, says Ambrose, to inanimate things violating their own natures: the roses in the garden singing, or animals talking, or stones growing, or "if the furniture began to move in procession, as in De Maupassant's tale" ("Who Knows?" or "Qui Sait?," in which De Maupassant anticipates his own plunge into madness).

Cotgrave desires to know more of what specifically Ambrose means by this curious theory, so Ambrose lends him "The Green Book," the diary kept by the young girl who embodies in Ambrose's eyes the example of such an unnatural predilection towards this Unconscious Sin, with the willfulness of Aristotle's definition & the blindness of Plato's.

Oddly, the "in-between" stance of philosophers such as Plotinus (the originator of Neoplatonism) in which man is seen as a creature fallen from a higher estate & sins because of his nature, but who attains freedom from sin through reuniting with Godhead, seems closer to the actuality of the girl's fate, in a rite of revealing that owes its form to that of the Mystery-religions of antiquity, & its elements to Classical writings, folklore, fairy tales & the symbols of alchemical thought.

Machen was of course informed on these influences, both by inclination & through his work in 1885 as a rare book cataloger, of which books on these & similar subjects formed a major part. His first published work, the juvenile poetic effort Eleusinia (1881), dealt with the Mysteries of Eleusis; his Spagyric Quest of Beroaldus Cosmopolita (1888) was a satire on alchemy. He was always more acutely interested in the ecstatic response to both spirituality & literature over & above the intellectual one. It is the source of the apparent moral disregard in his work, & is reflected in the choice of his personal religion (Anglican, like Ambrose of the story), which suited his love of ritual & worldly pleasures more so than Protestantism. Machen contended that one should be good in order to be Christian, not the reverse.

Questions of good & evil, however, are never once considered by the girl herself, who is swept along toward an epiphany which seems larger than either. From a very early age she is privy to secrets, & the "little white faces" around her cradle. Her nurse is also, & expands upon her education in arcane matters. The girl witnesses her nurse's congress with a tall man, & sees the correspondent "white people" arise from the deep pool in the wood.

When she is nearly 14, she has an adventure of her own in the wilds of the countryside. She sits, enthroned in initiate fashion, on the stone atop the grassy mound, around which the spiral pattern of the other stones revolves; she comes upon the deep well with red sand at the bottom (this is, by the way, an allusion to Athanor, an occult hill mentioned by Philostratus in his Life of Apollonius, where is located a well with its bottom covered with red arsenic-- Athanor is also the name of the alchemical furnace); beyond hills & hollows she perceives the forms of "two great figures of people lying in the grass" which are "Adam & Eve" (or perhaps Gog & Magog, the popular misnomen of the Celtic god Ogmius & his mate; in any case, the Male & Female Principle). Within one of the hollows, in fear of its being inhabited by certain "pale things," she is reminded of a story...

And so it goes, with further tales & legends of Machen's invention being interwoven with the Green Book diary entries as the events of the girl's awakening proceed: her nurse shows her how to fashion dolls of clay that have special powers; she hears or recalls the accounts of the hunter of the white stag that is in reality a fairy queen; the secret gathering place in the wood with its disappearing entrance; the Lady Avelin/Cassap & her "shib-show," the "glame stone" she gains from a knot of snakes, the bees-wax doll lover she cherishes, & the deadly poppets she makes of her other unwanted & unlucky suitors. She speaks of the game of Troy-town, & of poltergeistic spells she learns.

At last she returns to the secret wood, blindfolds herself, & discovers the Mystery. Her communication with the bright & dark nymphs becomes more pronounced, & the short life, having blossomed into apotheosis, ends, perhaps, in tragedy.

Britain is full of shadows. There are literally dozens of varieties of fairy-folk that have called it home; "White ladies" haunt its lakes & wells, standing stones dot its countryside, mounds & images in the turf are numerous. Machen's Wales in particular still bears the signs of Roman occupation, & the mythology both native & imported there. The Roman Fontinalia, the flower-festival in honor of nymphs inhabiting wells & springs, is still celebrated. In the lake of Llyn Cwm Llwch at Brecon Beacons, South Powys, Wales, there is an invisible isle reached by a disappearing door like the one Machen describes, where a select few are allowed sometimes to visit with the fairies, provided they take nothing away when they leave. The Tylwyth Teg, Machen's "Little People," are yet purported to congregate in favored places.

But such meetings are only possible if they are unmolested, & the isolation required is vanishing quickly. So too are sympathetic witnesses. Once helpful, harmful, or indifferent, yet still peripherally dependent upon mortals in co-existence, supernatural beings are withered by a glut of them. Whether spirits of the air or of the dead, they share the fate of ghosts, as mankind draws away from notions of Nature, Beauty, & Awe into its own technological & sociopathic psychosis.

In the face of ridicule the Secret Tradition becomes more secret, the goal of the Alchemists reduced to a mere impossible material quest to turn lead into gold, its real aim forgotten. Paradoxically, modern science moves closer to the manipulation of basic molecular structure & processes like cold fusion largely without benefit of a congruent spiritual transformation. The results, when realized, are almost certainly doomed to either be put into the hands of those unlikely to dispense them with altruistic motive, or else be twisted into horrors & dispensed in genocide.

The truth of the matter is that no revelation can survive barren earth. If you saw a genuine fairy or a ghost or the Philosopher's Stone or a UFO, it would not do you one whit of public good. In fact it would probably ruin your life-- unless you kept your mouth shut.

Mysteries, from the Greek word muein, to shut the mouth, & mustes, an initiate, is a term for what is secret or concealed in a religious context. Devotees in the ancient world were brought into relationship with their gods by means of participation in the rites of Mysteries, of which the Graeco-Roman are the most familiar: those of Demeter & her daughter Kore, or Persephone (Eleusinian), & of Dionysus (Dionysian). Others include those of the Phrygian gods Attis & Cybele, & the Persian god Mithras. They are all characterized by stages of preparation & initiation. Common elements of preparation are vows of secrecy & deterrent formulae, purifications or baptisms, sacrifices, pilgrimages, self-mortification, robing, crowning, & enthroning, etc.

It cannot be too specious to note that Machen's heroine experiences nearly all of these: her nurse swears her to secrecy & threatens her with the reprisal of malign spirits; she travels in pilgrimage through the strange countryside to the holy place; she bathes her feet in the waters of the well; she is torn by thorns & brambles, sits on the center post in the first spiral labyrinth of stones. The most obvious omission at this point is of the sacrifice, & there is evidence that this may not have been neglected after all.

MachenShe sings the songs & dances the dances which she knows instinctively; the story of the most familiar labyrinth, that which enclosed the Minotaur at Knossos who was slain by Theseus, includes its own dance, which Theseus brought back to Delos for the festival of Apollo: the Geranos, or Crane Dance. The complex patterns of it represent the maze at Knossos, the cranelike motions of the first movement simulate the careful following of the thread clue to the solution. Dancing was also an integral part of the Fontinalia & sacred well-dressing ceremonies mentioned earlier, not to mention any given rite of Mystery-religion. Songs are equally important: on the unlimited powers of music, no elaboration is necessary. Sacred incantations & lyric ritual survive to our present era, little changed, cloaked in nursery rhymes, such as "Hey diddle diddle, the cat & the fiddle," with its Egyptian echoes of the cat-goddess Bast playing her systrum, the dog Anubis, & the moon-goddess Nut, frequently represented in cow form; "Rain, rain, go away" & "Lady bug, lady bug, fly away home" as typical banishing spells for inclement weather & vexatious spirits who will only respond to an outright ruse. Relevant to nursery rhymes, the lullaby mentioned in the story which begins "Halsy cumsy Helen musty" could be Machen's having a bit of fun with Latin or Greek, hinted at by the syllables which form the Latin secum, or the Greek word for initiate pointed out earlier, "mustes."

Then there is the story of Jack & Jill, based on the Heavenly Twins of Norse myth, Hjuki & Bil, & their surprising quest for inconveniently located water that they do not drink there but must bring back, all the while essaying a calculatedly difficult-to-climb hill. "Hjuki" was derived from jakka, to assemble or increase, "Bil" from bila, to break up or dissolve, & the alchemical Solve et Coagula is simply Jill & Jack going about the Great Work.

Hills too steep for ordinary climbing, but which must be, are found frequently in folklore & mythology, & are usually the abode of the dead, their difficulty a form of selective admittance.

"...And so I went on & on through the rocks till I came to a round mound in the middle of them. It was higher than a mound, it was nearly as high as our house, & it was like a great basin turned upside down, all smooth & round & green, with one stone, like a post, sticking up at the top. I climbed up the sides, but they were so steep I had to stop or I should have rolled all the way down again... so I lay down flat on my face, & took hold of the grass with my hands, & drew myself up, bit by bit, till I was at the top..."

The game of Troy-town is a real one, & the term not only describes the game as played on paper or on the ground, but also is used to describe any maze. It has been said to derive from the Welsh troi, to turn, rather than the more obvious allusion to the city of Troy, but the game is quite old & is mentioned in the writings of Virgil, so its genesis need not be Welsh. Troy/Hissarlik as excavated by Schliemann in 1873 certainly resembled a maze in its arrangement of streets & its several incarnations stacked one atop the other. Given the conditions we have seen in Machen & in the Minotaur story, one might wonder whether the labyrinth was intended as a path toward a central goal or as a prison intended to keep Something in; true labyrinths as depicted on ancient coins, in caves, on tombs, & in art are not deception mazes with alternate routes-- they have only one path, which traverses all parts of the figure. The spiral is the simplest, and, as Machen observed, the most intoxicating, & is also the basis for sacred dance forms.

The "glame stone" (from the fairy "glamour") which the Lady Avelin/Cassap obtains from serpents writhing about her body, is of course the Druidic Serpent's Egg described by Pliny in his Natural History:

"...there is also another kind of egg, of much renown in the Gallic provinces, but ignored by the Greeks. In the summer, numberless snakes entwine themselves into a ball, held together by a secretion from their bodies & by the spittle. This is called anguinum. The Druids say that hissing serpents throw this up into the air, & that it must be caught in a cloak & not allowed to touch the ground... I myself, however, have seen one of these eggs; it was round, & about as large as a smallish apple; the shell was cartilaginous, & pocked like the arms of a polypus. The Druids esteem it highly..."

This also has alchemical significance, though more in the sense of Carl Jung's intriguing linkage of alchemy with his own theory of the Collective Unconscious, & the manner in which certain thought processes relate to alchemical ones. At the time of writing "The White People" Machen would have been unacquainted with Jung's work in this area, which dates from the Twenties, but both are drawing water from the same well.

The "shib-show" at which the Lady Avelin is also proficient is another element of Mystery-religion. It is the shibboleth, the mystical object displayed as the Ultimate Revelation in the Eleusinian Mysteries. Current life & life to come, symbolised as food & seed, was embodied in "an ear of corn reaped in silence," again with its counterpart in alchemy & the quality of potential in all matter for transformation. Shibboleth was also used as a password in the Bible in Judges XII, 1-6, by which the men of Gilead regulated the crossing of the Jordan against the Ephraimites, whose linguistical lisp prevented them from being able to pronounce the word correctly. The Aklo letters, the Chian language, the Mao games, & other terms Machen made up, while not specific actual entities themselves, do allude to others that are (Ogham lettering, Dr John Dee's Enochian alphabet, & speaking in tongues come to mind); Machen's use of his own apocryphal terms naturally adds to the sense of forbidden knowledge which is the story's subject.

MachenThe blindfolded approach of the girl in the epiphanic visit to the image in the wood parallels that of the hooded initiate in the Dionysian Mysteries, the mapless alchemical quest, & any number of notions of taboo. Faun-faced, priapic herms existed at every important crossroads in the Graeco-Roman world; Roman brides sometimes deflowered themselves on similar images, but it is unlikely that Machen meant to be as specific as all that. Rather, the concept of sympathia with the Deity is what is meant here, underscored by the story Ambrose tells of the mother whose fingers are wounded in stigmatic response to her child's injury. He hastens to say that there was "not a word to be said against her in the ordinary sense." But the sympathetic effect amounts to the same thing.

It is difficult, however, to embrace the explanation that the girl "poisoned herself-- in time"; it doesn't tally with what we are told in her own words, & seems more to be Ambrose's (or Machen's) prim summation of an event that would not have passed the scrutiny of the age. Machen mentions, in a letter to John Lane Publishers regarding their suggestions to "cut" portions of "The Great God Pan" (Arthur Machen: Selected Letters, Aquarian Press, 1988, p. 218), his defense of Chapter One, "The Experiment," which Lane wanted to excise, as being essential to the story. Which of course it is, involving as it does its own sympathia with the Deity of the title, its own "chymical wedding." More than this consideration, however, seems to be the implication of the girl's self-poisoning as a deliberate act of sacrifice--if she had felt the need to go back to the wood, secreting poison toward some soul-saving eventuality like a spy with a cyanide pill, it is unlikely that she would have gone back at all. The "moral escape" has no motivational foundation in what we have been given to know of her.

"There is one thing," says Machen in Things Near & Far (Knopf; NY, 1923, p. 201) "that I hope I may be spared, that is the comment of the Oriental Occult Ass...," speaking of the self-righteous observations of typical esoteric know-it-alls in reference to "The Great Return" (1915); this hope could equally extend to any of his stories, certainly "The White People."

"...I can bear better I think the (more or less) Occidental Idiot, who will speak of Shin-- the letter of the Hebrew Alphabet, not the delicate portion of our anatomy-- attribute it to the Tarot Trump called the Fool, & just throw in a reference to Salt, Sulphur, & Mercury..."

And from there he continues:

" for me, I make no deductions, I infer nothing, I refrain from saying "therefore". Like Sancho Panza, "I come from my own vineyard; I know nothing." Perhaps I may venture to say that I have seen a lousy, lazy tramp drinking from a roadside stream that drips cold & pure from the rock in burning weather. Then the wastrel passes on his ill way, refreshed indeed, but as lousy & lazy as ever..."

Such is the aim of fiction. Though it refrain from being a catalog of doctrines, it nevertheless gains from its affinity to such ones as forward its purpose or give it an atmosphere of felicitous depth; Machen's story speaks for itself in the end, most of all in the carefully-modulated voice of its diarist, which lends more real Awe to the proceedings than any subliminal occultism. If we are thus transported, we are well-refreshed, and, once in awhile at least, perhaps even transmuted.

copyright 2000 by rbadac, all rights reserved


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