“A Touch of Pan”

This week’s work of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing has another appearance by Pan.

It’s not surprising, with his mystical interests and reverence for nature, that Blackwood’s Pan story is the closest of any I’ve looked at so far in returning to Pan’s pagan origins. It uses Pan as a metaphor for the joyless, hypocritical nature of the English upper class and contrasts it with pure love and sex and nature. One suspects it expresses something of Blackwood’s views on such matters. 

Review: “A Touch of Pan”, Algernon Blackwood, 1917.

The story starts with our protagonist, Herber, remembering the difference between an idiot and a lunatic. The idiot acts on instinct not reason. The lunatic is “out of relation with his environment”. He contemplates that he has fallen in love with an idiot, one possessed of “a kind of sheer natural joy”. Herber was born into “an artificial social clique”, but he loves nature and not fancy houses. 

His family probably wouldn’t say his love was an idiot, but they probably think “she is not all there”. Heber has only seen the woman in question twice and never spoken to her, but the air of joy she radiates evokes a “sense of awe” in him. The values of civilization are not hers. Her awareness of other people is like that a dog or bird – some people are kind, some aren’t. Heber’s values match hers. Her family, given her oddity, are ashamed of her, make excuses for her, and neglect her. She dresses like she’s 16, but she’s probably 19. Her sister has married well, but her family considers the girl’s marriage prospects doubtful. Mere chorus-girls have a better chance to get married than her given her demeanor and dress.

Her parents throw a house party

of that up-to-date kind prevalent in Heber’s world. Husbands and wives were not asked together. There was a cynical disregard of the decent (not the stupid) conventions that savoured of abandon, perhaps of decadence.

That linking of civilization with decadence will remain throughout the story. Herber hates these parties full of pretentious people who treat their servants badly, and he finds their sexual mores repugnant, but he goes hoping to see the girl.

He goes outside into the night to get away from the party. Significantly, there is a statue of a satyr on the lawn, and by it is Elizabeth. He greets by her name and notes she is out at dusk like a wild animal. Elizabeth is “pure and natural” and apart from her opposites in the house. He finds out that she has actually been waiting ten minutes for him. 

She gestures for him to take her shoes off. She says the people inside don’t want him. She does. 

Then we find out that Herber is actually engaged to a woman inside. He says he only came to the party to see Elizabeth, and Elizabeth says she asked her mother to invite him. With Elizabeth, Herber feels like he’s been swept away from the guests inside. Elizabeth tells him she’s younger than him, but it doesn’t matter. Their ages are close enough.

Herber gets near enough to Elizabeth to see a pool of water and a pine grove reflected in her eyes.  “In the heart of the wood dwell I” says Elizabeth. And she says it again, repeating it like “some delicious runic verse”. Then Herber realizes Elizabeth’s thought is of the wood. They are kindred spirits in their love of nature and disdain for civilization. 

He begs her to take him with her “before we forget to be happy, or remember to be wise again”.  Her scent is of a “young, spendthrift life”. She tells him to meet her in the darkness “when the moon puts a shadow on the statute”. 

The dinner gong goes off, and Herber goes inside. Inside Heber meets his cousin who is helping his fiancé, Hermione, enjoy a “final fling”. Herber regards his cousin, who complains he’s bored with all the millionaires about and isleaving in the morning, as a being without joy and unnatural.

At about midnight, Herber goes to bed, disgusted. 

The abandoned moral attitude, the common rudeness, the contempt of all others but themselves, the ugly jests, the horseplay of tasteless minds that passed for gaiety, above all the shamelessness of the women that behind the cover of fine breeding aped emancipation, afflicted him to a boredom that touched desperation. 

Feeling like an idiot, he goes out to the lawn where Elizabeth is waiting. “Now you are anointed with the Night”, she tells him. “You are forgotten of the world”, and she asks him to kiss her. He says they will play forever “the game that was old when the world was young”. 

Elizabeth is already shoeless and barelegged. They race off into the night, and Herber notices she wears skins of “tawny color”. He notices that, in her hair, are two small horns. He tweaks them, and feels “wild and reckless”. He feels the prodigal, creative power of Spring. He and Elizabeth are free as when “Pan leaped through the roses in the month of June”. 

They come to a spring. Then Elizabeth is whirled off Heber’s shoulders by a dozen arms. She is taken into “the heart of the jolly, careless throng”. In her place, Heber sees another figure, “fairer still” with grapes between her breasts. She embraces him, and he flings her off, and she lands into a group of “bigger figures” who seize and kiss her. They are satyrs, it seems, and she is a nymph. 

A figure dancing past says they have arrived in the “valley of delight”. It salutes “Life! Abundant life!”.  The figure grabs three nymphs to himself. An orgy ensues, but Heber thinks, that despite the “untamed riot”, there is a strange innocence and purity about it. 

Heber catches up to Elizabeth again. She tells him “He is coming!”. They hear a footfall.

 . . .  He came with blessing. With the stupendous Presence there was joy, the joy of abundant, natural life, pure as the sunlight and the wind. He passed among them. There was great movement—as of a forest shaking, as of deep water falling, as of a cornfield swaying to the wind, yet gentle as of a harebell shedding its burden of dew that it has held too long because of love. He passed among them, touching every head. The great hand swept with tenderness each face, lingered a moment on each beating heart. There was sweetness, peace, and loveliness; but above all, there was—life. He sanctioned every natural joy in them and blessed each passion with his power of creation. . . . Yet each one saw him differently: some as a wife or maiden desired with fire, some as a youth or stalwart husband, others as a figure veiled with stars or cloaked in luminous mist, hardly attainable; others, again the fewest these, not more than two or three—as that mysterious wonder which tempts the heart away from known familiar sweetness into a wilderness of undecipherable magic without flesh and blood. . . .  

Pan touches them both, and now they both have horns. 

Elizabeth suggests she and Heber look in on what’s going on in the house “where life hangs like a prison”, where it’s ugly and unnatural, where there’s only guilt and shame. 

Through the windows, Heber sees what the civilized breed of women are. 

“He watched them manoeuvring with the men; heard dark sentences; caught gestures half delivered whose meaning should just convey that glimpse of guilt they deemed to increase pleasure. The women were calculating, but nowhere glad; the men experienced, but nowhere joyous. Pretended innocence lay cloaked with a veil of something that whispered secretly, clandestine, ashamed, yet with a brazen air that laid mockery instead of sunshine in their smiles. Vice masqueraded in the ugly shape of pleasure; beauty was degraded into calculated tricks.”

This is what generation after generation of “careful breeding” has wrought. They see various couples pair off. Elizabeth remarks that the women don’t even know how to be undressed properly. 

They decide to follow a couple who go outside. They are Hermione and Heber’s cousin.

“Oh, Pan”, says Elizabeth, “We will follow them. We will put natural life into their little veins!”.  “Or panic terror”, replies Heber.

Imbued with some supernatural power, they can’t be seen by the couple, but their presence can be felt. 

We get a long conversation as the cousin expresses his love for the woman and regret she is to be married. Clearly, he wants to have sex with her in the woods. Hermione. “knowing the moves in the game”. says the cousin doesn’t love her but she does feel safer with him. But she also says that she will be freer after she marries, implying that she expects little attention or sex from Heber. 

But the felt presence of Heber and Elizabeth makes her more uneasy. She wants to go to a room in the house.  The cousin gets cross after all this reluctance, says Hermione gives him the creeps.  He seems to be feeling uneasy but misattributing the source. Eventually, they go inside, “afraid, ashamed”. 

A rushing sound is heard in the woods. It sweeps

out the artificial scent and trace of shame, and brought back again the song, the laughter, and the happy revels. 

The story concludes: 

The trees stood motionless again, guarding their secret in the clean, sweet moonlight that held the world in dream until the dawn stole up and sunshine took the earth with joy. 

Significantly, we don’t know if Elizabeth and Heber will be hornless when the sun comes up. Are the horns real or a metaphor for their possession by the spirit of Pan?  Will they become joyful lovers in our world or somehow remain in Pan’s realm.

 Blackwood, of all the authors I’ve read recently with Pan stories (E. M. Forester’s “A Story of a Panic”, Saki’s “The Music on the Hill”, and E. F. Benson’s “The Man Who Went Too Far”), most emphasizes the sheer abandon Pan represents and the purely pagan celebration of nature and rejection of civilization. Forester’s Pan may reveal nature’s secrets, but the abandon of worshipping Pan is muted in that story compared to Blackwood’s. Saki has the pagan worship of Pan but mostly emphasizes the perils of interfering in it sacrifices to a fertility god, but Blackwood goes into the details of it and its nature worship and the orgies of nymph and satyr.  Benson’s story centers on the pursuit of joy, but Blackwood’s is more detailed in the ecstasy of joy. 

And Blackwood most explicitly links Pan with sex and is the only Pan story of that group to involve lovers.

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