Lord of the World, Robert Hugh Benson
Ave Maria Press: On Sale Feb. 26, 2016
Instant messaging. Weapons of mass destruction. Rapid air travel. Euthanasia. Anti-Christian persecutions. The milieu portrayed by Robert Hugh Benson in his 1907 novel Lord of the World is one that is familiar enough to readers in 2016 that Benson can accurately be said to have possessed a prophetic vision.
I first encountered the book in late 2012 and was captivated by its depiction of a technologically advanced, one-world “humanitarian” government preparing for an apocalyptic battle with a small remnant Church gathered around Pope Sylvester III on the plains of Megiddo.
Several months later, the world looked on in fascination as Pope Francis was elected in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s surprising resignation. It was tempting to look at the events in the Church as signs of unprecedented change and upheaval. In this context, then, I noted with interest an address that the new pontiff gave in November 2013 in which he recommended Lord of the World as a book portraying the dangers of what he called a “globalization of hegemonic uniformity.”
In the wake of this recommendation, and another that the Holy Father made in 2015, interest has once again grown in this early work of dystopian fiction. Ave Maria Press has issued a new edition, which includes three introductory essays discussing the biographical, theological, and literary themes found in the story.
Mark Bosco, S.J.’s Introduction discusses the historical and biographical context in which Fr. Benson wrote Lord of the World, describing it as a variant of the science fiction genre popularized by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and as a predecessor of the dystopian novels of George Orwell (1984) and Aldous Huxley (Brave New World). Fr. Bosco also mentions the context in which we can read the novel now in light of the technological and political landscape of today, as well Pope Francis’s recommendation of the work as a warning against loss of faith through globalization and “ideological colonization.”
Michael Murphy follows Fr. Bosco with a theological reflection on Fr. Benson’s portrayal of “humanitarianism,” a system of belief in which “God is man” and which rejects transcendence and the supernatural. In this humanistic system, Julian Felsenburgh becomes “Lord of the World,” a parody of Jesus in opposition to Fr. Percy Franklin, who becomes Pope Sylvester III, head of the Church opposed to the naturalistic, rationalistic world government. Murphy astutely notes that this humanitarianism is not sufficient to quell human violence; only the sacrifice of the Mass can expiate the sin of the world. In concluding the novel with a Eucharistic procession accompanied by the singing of the Tantum ergo, Fr. Benson shows that true Lordship only comes from the transcendent; Felsenburgh, though he has overwhelming numbers and weapons of mass destruction at his service, does not have power in the face of the Almighty.
Lastly, Martyn Sampson expands upon the biographical background information found in Fr. Bosco’s introduction to discuss at greater length the circumstances behind Robert Hugh Benson’s conversion from Anglican cleric to Catholic priest. He notes that Benson was shaken by a creeping subjectivism in the Anglican Church of his day, a belief that the Church was not infallible in doctrinal matters. Benson saw in the Catholic Church a stability rooted in sound doctrine, reason, and liturgical formalism.
The introductory essays enrich the experience of reading the novel itself, making it a more complete and satisfying experience than can be had in reading other editions without the introductions.
The story itself opens below ground, where the protagonist, Fr. Percy Franklin, is meeting with the elderly Mr. Templeton who recounts how England embraced Socialism and gave up Christianity. With a steady erosion of a supernatural orientation and understanding of things, the people began to embrace Humanitarianism, which is materialistic and views Man as God. This triumph of socialism and loss of belief in the supernatural coincides with the advance of human technology: mass communication, rapid transport, air travel, weapons of mass destruction all loom in the background, albeit with the effect of seemingly increasing the fear and isolation of the world’s inhabitants: “The world, recognising that space is not confined to the surface of the globe, had begun to burrow in earnest,”
War between Europe and the “Eastern Empire” looms as an imminent threat, one that could extinguish the human race through the use of technologically advanced weapons.
Into this world enters the enigmatic and compelling Julian Felsenburgh, a little-known but charismatic American Senator who singlehandedly negotiates a lasting and durable peace between East and West. All Europe breaks out in joyous celebration and wonder at the achievement of this man of mystery and power.
Felsenburgh strongly resembles Franklin: both are young and strong in appearance, yet have striking white hair. The two look-alikes follow converging narrative arcs: Felsenburgh is welcomed by worldwide acclamation as “Lord of the World” while Franklin, subsequent to the violent destruction of the visible Church in Rome, is raised to the See of Peter as Pope Sylvester III, where he reigns in comparative obscurity in the desert in Nazareth in preparation for the final battle.
Though they are doubles of each other, Franklin develops as a personal character while Felsenburgh does not. In Benson’s vision, the spirit of Antichrist comes into the world in the person of Felsenburgh, but it remains diffuse, obscure, and somehow disembodied: Felsenburgh does not act or speak, but rather power is given to him by a world who sees promise in his person. Benson’s subtle vision conveys the truth of evil: Felsenburgh, the Humanist religion, and the secular one-world government can oppose, persecute, and attempt to eliminate the Church, but none have the metaphysical power of Christ and the Church.
The temptation is to look at the upheavals, the persecutions, and the martyrdoms of our own age and that of the fictional world portrayed by Benson with fear and anxiety; this is a natural and rational response to terrifying world events. However, when viewing Benson’s timely and haunting novel and current events alike through the lens of Faith, we can be assured of Christ’s triumph; we can wholeheartedly sing of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, that “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in
Colin O’Brien lives in Hyattsville, MD and works for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. His writings on monasticism and alcoholism recovery have appeared at Aleteia and on his personal blog, Fallen Sparrow (sparrowfallen.blogspot.com).