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Middle Ages without borders: a conversation on medievalism

Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri
Pierre Savy
Lila Yawn

c) “Beastly anachronism.” Nature and politics in T. H. White’s King Arthur Cycle

1) “Dark satanic mills”: the Anthropocene Era in Anglo-Irish fantasy

Dustin Gerraert

Note de l’auteur

Thanks to M. J. Toswell, Justine Breton, Danko Kamčevski, and Usha Vishnuvajjala.

Texte intégral

Here on the banks of the Thames, Los builded Golgonooza,
Outside of the Gates of the Human Heart, beneath Beulah
In the midst of the rocks of the Altars of Albion. In fears
He builded it, in rage & in fury. It is the Spiritual Fourfold
London: continually building & continually decaying desolate!
In eternal labours: loud the Furnaces & loud the Anvils
Of Death thunder incessant.

1In two separate poems entitled Jerusalem (1808 and 1820), William Blake juxtaposes the pre-modern British Isles, a pastoral and blessed epoch, with the “Dark satanic mills” of industrial London. This paper touches on Blake’s legacy in Anglo-Irish fantasy a century later in works by Lord Dunsany (1878-1957), J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973), and T. H. White (1906-1964). These writers, sharing strong conservationist sympathies, continued Blake’s symbolic linking of what Tolkien identified as The Fall, Mortality, and the Machine. A clear example occurs when Tolkien’s Satan-figure Morgoth invents industrial methods in defiance of divine designs. Like Frankenstein and other Faustian figures, Morgoth “plays God” with disastrous results:

Beneath Ered Engrin he made a great tunnel, which issued south of the mountains; and there he made a mighty gate. But above this gate, and behind it even to the mountains, he piled the thunderous towers of Thangorodrim, that were made of the ash and slag of his subterranean furnaces, and the vast refuse of his tunnellings. They were black and desolate and exceedingly lofty; and smoke issued from their tops, dark and foul upon the northern sky. Before the gates of Angband filth and desolation spread southward for many miles.

2Tolkien envisioned industrial production methods applied to populations in service of a militarist agenda, the result being the Orcs, a creation as violent as the Satan-figure Orc in Blake’s mythology. Such attempts to manipulate Nature reveal a corrosive love of power for its own sake and a repudiation of the natural links between life forms in an ecosystem. Tolkien considered The Silmarillion (1977) as not anthropocentric since it depicts humans as only one of a number of “Speaking Peoples,” including the tree-like beings known as ents. Indeed, Morgoth refuses to recognize himself as one among many but instead claims the mantle of Creator for himself, though he can do nothing but corrupt what others have created. His mythical actions echo down the ages and inform the corrupt wizard Saruman’s plan to become a world power through industrialism, provoking the revolt of the ents in The Lord of the RINGS.

3Lord Dunsany envisioned a quieter revolt in “The prayer of the flowers” (1915); as the titular flowers which are whispering their laments over the rise of industrial civilization, the god Pan assures them that this civilization’s lifespan in Nature is brief; and the same god serves as a symbol of Nature in T. H. White’s Gone to ground (1935). Dunsany and White emphasize the continuity of humans and other life forms, by transforming human narrators into other creatures and thus exploring non-human perspectives from within, as it were. In White’s The Sword in the Stone (1938), the young King Arthur’s tutor, Merlyn, transforms him into a fish, a hawk, a goose, and an ant; likewise Dunsany’s novel The Strange Journeys of Colonel Polders (1950) sees the titular officer’s consciousness incarnated into a cat, a goat, an eel, a fox, and others (cf. White’s The Spaniel Earl, 1935, and Dunsany’s The Cut, 1936). Both protagonists thus achieve a meta-species or ecosystem-wide perspective.

4Perhaps the ultimate version of this perspective occurs with homo sapiens present only as observers, as a counsel of animals decides what to do with our troublesome species in Dunsany’s The Use of Man (1937) and White’s The Book of Merlyn (1977). In the former, the dog offers a positive account of humanity, but this is dismissed as a slavish delusion, and the only animal that can find any use for humans is the mosquito. In the latter, Merlyn acknowledges, like Mark Twain in The Damned Human Race (1905), that humans are the most dangerous species and industrialized warfare our most dangerous activity. Blake wrote his heretical yet deeply traditional mythology at the dawn of the Anthropocene era; a century later, the new Romanticism of Anglo-Irish fantasy still sought salvation in Nature, as Dunsany writes:

As one emerges nearer to the edge of London, and nearer to the beautiful influence of the hills, the houses become uglier, the streets viler, the gloom deepens, the errors of civilisation stand bare to the scorn of the fields. Where ugliness reaches the height of its luxuriance, in the dense misery of the place, where one imagines the builder saying, “Here I culminate. Let us give thanks to Satan,” there is a bridge of yellow brick, and through it, as through some gate of filigree silver opening on fairyland, one passes into the country.


5Blake, The Works
Dunsany, The Cut
Dunsany, The Strange
Dunsany, The Use
Dunsany 2000
Tolkien, The Lord
Tolkien, The Silmarillion
Twain, The Damned
White, The Book of Merlyn
White, Gone
White, The Spaniel
White, The Sword


University of Manitoba

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