By John Bauerschmidt
In 1941 a remarkable book was published, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, the fruit of several years’ intense work on the part of the English novelist and literary critic Rebecca West. This was the professional name taken by Cicily Fairfield, born in 1892 to Charles Fairfield and Isabella McKenzie Fairfield, the third of their three daughters. Fairfield abandoned his family in 1901, for reasons that were never plain to his daughters, and he lived apart until his death a few years later. The children grew up in genteel poverty, with scholarships for school but little else. West left school at age sixteen and did not attend university.
West was a suffragist and a socialist from the beginning; her name reflected a strong-minded feminist in one of Henrik Ibsen’s plays. Before the First World War, West began a relationship with H.G. Wells, as a result of an article lampooning him for his literary style that caught his attention. Wells and West began an affair, the latest of many literary romances for Wells, who was also married; and the first of many for West. In 1914 their son was born. Wells and West ended their affair in 1923, but remained friends.
During this time and after, West continued in her long literary career, publishing many articles, novels, and other works. She covered the post-war trial of William Joyce, the British fascist, and the trials of German war criminals in Nuremberg, with articles that later became books. Time magazine ran a cover story on her in 1948. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, however, was her most ambitious work, the fruit of three trips to Yugoslavia made between 1936 and 1938. The book defied genres, blazing a literary trail for others to follow.
It blended copious historical research with personal anecdotes within a framework constructed from all three journeys. West’s journey was used to comment on human nature and its foibles, as well as substantial social, religious, and political issues. Rather than being a mere travelogue, the book is an entire education. It reminds one of Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson: a well one can draw from at leisure.
Yet it was the long shadow of the Second World War that lay most profoundly over West’s work. West wrote through the lens of Hitler’s rise to power, Great Britain’s policy of appeasement of the fascist states, and the first harbingers of the coming war. In 1941 Yugoslavia itself was invaded by the Germans and their allies. West’s work was an outstanding early attempt to understand the conflagration.
The title Black Lamb and Grey Falcon referred to a scene in the book, where West witnessed the slaughter of a black lamb by peasants who believed that the blood of the lamb would ensure fertility. To West this act was “purely shameful” (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Penguin Books, 1994, 826). “All our Western thought is founded on the repulsive pretense that pain is the proper price of any good thing” (827). West saw the doctrine of the atonement, and the formulations of Paul, Augustine, and Luther combined, as examples of this retrogressive and irrational belief. She did, however, also acknowledge the virtues of all three as thinkers, even while contrasting their work against the insight of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom: “Long ago the Church had declared that its altar required nothing but ‘the reasonable and unbloody sacrifice’ of the bread and wine” (1124).
The second part of the title came from West’s visit to the battlefield of Kosovo, where the armies of Christian Serbia and its allies had suffered defeat in 1389 at the hands of the Turks, leading to the subjugation of the Balkan peoples for centuries. On the battlefield West’s guide and chauffeur recited a Serbian poem about the battle, in which the prophet Elijah in the form of a grey falcon appears to the Serbian emperor and offers him a choice between an earthly kingdom a heavenly one. If an earthly, then his soldiers should prepare for battle; but if a heavenly, then they should build a church, receive the Eucharist, and prepare to be destroyed. “An earthly kingdom lasts only a little time,/ But a heavenly kingdom will last for eternity” (910). The emperor chooses the heavenly kingdom. West sees the poem as expressive of the human death wish, a turning away from this world and rationality, similar to the sacrificial system of the black lamb.
For West, there was line of connection between this desire for destruction and the appeasement policy pursued by the Western powers; between the forces in play at Kosovo and the destruction unleashed in 1939. When war came, she wrote, she felt she had been here before, had stood on the same field as Kosovo. Britain and the other nations had lain down to have their throats cut, driven by the same death wish. Only at the end, when it was almost too late, had Britain come awake and realized what was happening.
West reflected on her experience in writing the book: “This has seemed to me at times an unendurably horrible book to have to write, with its record of pain and violence and bloodshed, carried on for so long by such diverse peoples” (1126).
West’s view is bracing in its realism, but not unremittingly bleak. She saw in art a source of hope. Even in the face of destruction, “Art gives us hope that history may change its spots and man become honourable… It is the re-living of experience.” (1127). Art takes the events of our lives and re-narrates them in a redemptive mode.
West saw an additional source of hope in the unpredictable nature of human life. “And in that word, unpredictably, rings our other cause for hope. History, like the human loins, does not breed true. Honour does not always beget honour, crime and genius spring up where no one looked for them” (1129). The people she had met in Yugoslavia, despite their history, were resilient.
According to West, the seemingly fatalistic Serb poem was in fact an instance of art coming to grips with events in order to transcend them. She repeats again the line from the poem: “An earthly kingdom lasts only a little time,/ But a heavenly kingdom will last for eternity,” now seeing it as a sign of hope, writing:
Goodness is adorable, and it is immortal. When it is trodden down into the earth it springs up again, and human beings scrabble in the dust to find the first green seedling of its return. The stock cannot survive save by the mutual kindness of men and women, of old and young, of state and individual. Hatred comes before love, and gives the hater strange and delicious pleasures, but its works are short-lived… even if the rule of hatred lasts some centuries it occupies no place in real time, it is a hiatus in reality (1146).
West died in 1983, but history since then has continued its unpredictable course. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon captures a moment in history when Nazi victory seemed possible, indeed likely, yet when many men and women of West’s generation faced the future unflinchingly with hope. West interpreted history with all its bumps and bruises through a redemptive lens. Our times are unpredictable, a source of pessimism for many. West offers us a word of hope, in light of history’s uncertainty, from an unorthodox thinker who reflected deeply and without despair.