Sunday, September 30, 2012

Apocalypse and Alternate History: the novels of Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson

Now that so many people are reading books on electronic devices, more and more books are being made available in digital format. Since I became a Kindle owner a couple of years ago, I have really enjoyed dipping into the many old, out-of-copyright books that available to be downloaded at no cost. Project Gutenberg, which claims to be "the first producer of free electronic books (ebooks)," has for some years provided digitized versions of books in many formats, including those used on the Kindle and the Nook and other devices. Even more convenient for Kindle owners like myself is the fact that every time Project Gutenberg releases a "new" old (public domain) book, Amazon immediately publishes it for the Kindle at no cost. This provides an extra convenience for Kindle owners, since we can have it downloaded to our device automatically (cutting out a step, compared to acquiring it directly from Project Gutenberg) and we can keep the title in our library "cloud" when we don't need or want to have it taking up space on our Kindles.

Robert Hugh Benson
Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson,
former Anglican, bestselling Catholic author
One of my favorite out-of-copyright authors whose books are available from Project Gutenberg is Robert Hugh Benson. On the PG site, you'll find a number of his Catholic novels, written in the early years of the twentieth century. Google Books also has free downloads of his novels and short stories, as well as a fair number of his catechetical, apologetic, and homiletic works; both Project Gutenberg and Google Books also offer biographies of Benson (the Google one is in two volumes).

Perhaps you've never heard of Msgr. Benson, who was almost as popular in the early 1900s as Fulton Sheen would be fifty years later. Benson was the son of an (Anglican) Archbishop of Canterbury, and himself was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1895. Within a few years, however, he became a Catholic priest and a very popular writer for both Catholic and Anglican audiences, producing many works of Catholic apologetics as well as novels in various genres -- historical, speculative, and contemporary fiction, all with religious themes.

http://www.booksshouldbefree.com/book/Lord-of-the-World-Robert-Hugh-Benson
Benson has been enjoying a sort of literary comeback in recent years, with a number of small publishers bringing some of his better known works back to print, and a number of web sites are devoted to Benson & his works. I have read a few of his novels, having begun with his most famous one, Lord of the World (one of his few works still available in print editions). This novel has been described variously as being "dystopic," "science fiction," "speculative fiction," "prophetic," and "apocalyptic." The latter is probably the most apt, because Benson presents a vision of the world as it may when the end times arrive, as described in the final book of the Bible ("The Revelation to St. John," known traditionally to Catholics as "The Book of the Apocalypse"). Benson, writing in the early years of the twentieth century (Lord of the World was first published in 1907), was alarmed at the social trajectory of the modern, Western world, and wrote this novel, at least in part, as a warning of where things seemed to be headed. Projecting his story forward in time less than a century, he foresaw a world that had become radically secularized, a culture of death in which euthanasia has become so common that euthanasia squads, not ambulances, are sent to accident sites and euthanasia parlors have replaced nursing homes. Marriages are sterile, churches are empty, and a demagogue rules over an all-encompassing socialist world government. Most churches have become Masonic temples, and the few churches that remain are all Catholic. I won't give away the ending, but if you've read the Book of Revelation, you probably know where it's headed.

Strangely enough, Benson's loyal readers were dismayed by this novel, complaining that it was too gloomy. Despite his insistence that it described the way the Bible assures us the world really will end, his fans urged him to write another end-of-times novel, with a happy ending and, very reluctantly, he did. The result was a novel called Dawn of All. In its introduction, Benson writes:
In a former book, called "Lord of the World," I attempted to sketch the kind of developments a hundred years hence which, I thought, might reasonably be expected if the present lines of what is called "modern thought" were only prolonged far enough; and I was informed repeatedly that the effect of the book was exceedingly depressing and discouraging to optimistic Christians. In the present book I am attempting -- also in parable form -- not in the least to withdraw anything that I said in the former, but to follow up the other lines instead, and to sketch -- again in parable -- the kind of developments, about sixty years hence which, I think, may reasonably be expected should the opposite process begin, and ancient thought (which has stood the test of centuries, and is, in a very remarkable manner, being "rediscovered" by persons even more modern than modernists) be prolonged instead. We are told occasionally by moralists that we live in very critical times, by which they mean that they are not sure whether their own side will win or not. In that sense no times can ever be critical to Catholics, since Catholics are never in any kind of doubt as to whether or no their side will win. But from another point of view every period is a critical period, since every period has within itself the conflict of two irreconcilable forces. It has been for the sake of tracing out the kind of effects that, it seemed to me, each side would experience in turn, should the other, at any rate for a while, become dominant, that I have written these two books.
Benson also says that he found Dawn of All very tedious to write, because he knew it described a world that would never exist. To convey the idea that we shouldn't ever expect to live in the world described, he has a priest from our real world find himself transported in a dream to an alternate reality, a world which, having found that socialism doesn't work and the promises of modern philosophy are empty, has gradually been won back to the Catholic faith and public life has been put back under the influence of the Church. Protestantism has been reconciled to Rome, Ireland is one big religious retreat center (all the laity having been evacuated to America or somewhere), and the Inquisition once again keeps the world safe from heretics. In fact, the novel basically presents an idealized version of medieval Christendom, a world in which trade guilds (not labor unions) are prominent, and people are required in public to wear attire legally prescribed for their state in life and occupation. It's an odd work of speculative fiction, and best read after Lord of the World.

NuEvan Press, Dawn of All, Robert Hugh Benson
Speaking of odd, NuEvanPress.com offers ebook versions of both these novels that, the publishers say, have been "gently edited" to make the books more palatable to modern readers. A cursory look at the samples available on Amazon doesn't reveal any obvious updates, so I'm guessing the "gentle editing" was intended to help the edition conform to the Amazon rule that anyone desiring to publish a title in the public domain must provide "added value," in order to make their edition distinct from the free ebooks that Amazon publishes. In addition to the "gentle editing,"  NuEvan Press also includes helpful subtitles ("A Catholic Novel of the End Times" and "A Visionary Novel of the Catholic Church Victorious"), as well as an appendix in each book, relevant to the content of the novel. The appendix to Lord of the World contains a selection of readings from the Church Fathers on the Antichrist; in Dawn of All, it's the Fathers on "the preeminence of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church."

I recommend any of Benson's books, particularly the two mentioned here. Lord of the World provides the "Catholic answer" to the Left Behind novels, and Dawn of All presents a nice little fantasy that may provide a tonic in these days of the culture wars and the marginalization of religion. One caveat: the language will sound a bit formal or even old-fashioned, perhaps irritatingly so for some readers, so if that might be you, go ahead and plunk down $2.99 for the NuEvan Press e-editions; otherwise, just go for the freebies.

If you've already read these or other books by Robert Hugh Benson, please click the comment link, and let me know what you think!

2 comments:

  1. I just read Lord of the World and wrote a review of it on my blog, for which I lifted your image of what I take to be the cover. I did give you credit and provide a link here. Interesting view of Lord of the World--and Dawn of All sounds interesting for the fact that it exists, even if it isn't such a great novel. Thanks.

    My review.

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    Replies
    1. I like your review. I agree that one of the things important things that Msgr. Benson failed to foresee (not surprisingly) was the ways two world wars (and, I would add, a largely successful campaign of cultural Marxism in the West) radically re-shaped the modern personality. I would also agree that the novel is more interesting for its ideas than its artistry. Despite its flaws, though, I think it did a good job of projecting the logical ends of modern philosophical trends (the death of religion in general, the casual acceptance of euthanasia).

      By the way, if you have not read Dawn of All, I heartily recommend it -- reading the two novels together really helps highlight the differences between the Christian (specifically, Catholic) worldview, and the atheistic, scientific secular worldview, as Benson perceived them.

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