“The Happy Children”

No, I haven’t yet returned to my coverage of Arthur Machen. But I did nominate this story for discussion as a pairing with Alfred Noyes’ “The Lusitania Waits”.

Cover by Mathew Jaffe

Review: “The Happy Children”, Arthur Machen, 1920.

This story starts out similarly to Machen’s The Terror

The narrator is a journalist, as Machen was during World War One, who has been sent up to the northeastern part of England to investigate rumors of a German dugout there — which, of course, he doesn’t find. 

The first page of the story is taken up with noting how vague the rumors are in regard to its location. Machen discusses assorted rumors and myths of the war: Russian soldiers in England and, of course, the legend he inadvertently created, the Angel of Mons

Returning from his investigations, he decides to visit the scenic port of Banwick which Machen evocatively describes. 

Walking around at night, he is delighted to hear the sounds of children playing, perhaps hundreds, outside. Remarking on this to an innkeeper, he is told that the children run wild and their mothers can’t make them obey and their fathers are at the front. 

He goes out later on and actually sees the children. They are all dressed in white. Some have wounds reminiscent of stigmata. One is holding a baby. Many have seaweed dripping from their heads, and all are singing. The white robes he takes to be part of a re-enactment of a mystery play. 

Then he realizes it’s the Eve of the Holy Innocents. Soon, at midnight Childermass will start. It is celebrated on December 28th and marks Herod’s slaughter of children. 

Machen ends the tale with a quote from an old book about how Childermass was celebrated in Banwick’s past:  

“I had seen the White Order of the Innocents. I had seen those who came singing from the deep waters that are about the Lusitania. I had seen the innocent martyrs of the fields of Flanders and France rejoicing as they went up to her their Mass in the spiritual place.” 

I’m not sure why the “martyrs of the fields of Flanders and France” would be there in a celebration of children. Perhaps, Machen means innocents as a general term for the sacrifice of British soldiers in the war and nothing age specific though many teens from Britain were fighting in the war.

Ninety-four of 129 children aboard were killed in the sinking of the Lusitania. I will note that most of them probably drowned, not a death that would obviously cause the wounds in Machen’s story.

Still, it’s an interesting and atmospheric story that works even if you don’t share Machen’s Christian mysticism.

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