|The Four Men Map|
At about the middle of his life, Hilaire Belloc wrote an unusual novel called The Four Men. It is unique in comparison to his other works, and is arguably one of the most beautiful minor classics of modern English prose. On reading The Four Men, one immediately feels that it has more in common with a medieval allegory than the popular fiction of Belloc’s time. Though the book is currently out of print (see note at end of article) the fundamental concepts underlying the novel are worth reviewing. The opening lines, with their almost Virgilian strain, give one a sense of the whole:
My country, it has been proved in the life of every man that though his loves are human, and therefore changeable, yet in proportion as he attaches them to things unchangeable, so they mature and broaden. On this account, Dear Sussex, are those women chiefly dear to men who, as the seasons pass, do but continue to be more and more themselves, attain balance, and abandon or forget vicissitude. And on this account, Sussex, does man love an old house, which was his father’s, and on this account does a man come to love with all his heart, that part of earth which nourished his boyhood. For it does not change, or if it changes, it changes very little, and he finds in it the character of enduring things.
On one level, Belloc sought to capture an aspect of southern English rural culture that was fast fading even in his day. On another, deeper, level The Four Men reveals a Christianized pagan melancholy and resignation. As the late Thomist philosopher Frederick Wilhelmsen pointed out, Belloc was instinctively drawn to the natural nobility of classical humanism, while realizing that ultimately we must be sustained by faith in revealed truth. Thus unlike contemporary rural sketches, this tale is no quaint and dusty vignette. The characters are men we all seem to have known, displaying whimsy and melancholy, boisterousness and reflection. They remind us that the common sense championed by the author is not "optional," but truly necessary if our lives are not to be completely intolerable.
Published in 1911, The Four Men was based on an excursion that Belloc made in 1902. But he did not complete the book until nine years later. This was unusual for a man who often dictated entire volumes in the space of a week. Originally, he envisioned it as no more than a counterpart to The Path to Rome, his nonfiction account of a one-man pilgrimage to the Eternal City. In the intervening years, however, the story was slowly and meticulously transformed.
The plot appears simple enough. The narrator, called "Myself," is joined by three other men—Grizzlebeard, Sailor and Poet. Together they journey on foot across their native Sussex, England, in the early 1900s. Beneath this apparently facile plot is a tale of rich, autumnal prose which appropriately reflects the fading sunlight and falling leaves of late October and early November. It is the time of All Saints. The story thus touches on the fundamental fact of life, which is death.
The nicknames the men agree on amongst themselves. As Myself says, "My name is of importance only to those who need to know it; it might be of importance to my masters had I such, but I have none." Each character might be seen as representations of classic archetypes, or even the Four Temperaments. They evince unique strengths and weaknesses, yet all serve to complement one another.
Grizzlebeard, whom Myself first meets at a pub at Robertsbridge, is the man of wisdom and experience, or what traditional societies call the "Ancient" of the clan. Grizzlebeard and Myself next make the acquaintance of Sailor. He is the man of the world, energetic, enterprising, restless yet seeking rest. Sailor’s dream is to put in his ship at a harbor of final rest. Grizzlebeard, in his somewhat pedantic manner, reminds him there is no such fulfillment this side of the grave.
The band is completed when Poet is met "moving along in a manner quite peculiar to men of a sort… who seem to have no purpose, and yet in some way are by the charity of their fellows kept fed and clothed." He is just what his name implies; the artist with a metaphysical bent and a woolgatherer who seems to lack all common sense. Without the help of his comrades, one wonders how he can even find his own feet.
Reading further, one sees aspects of all three of these fellows reflected in Myself which gives us a key to the real meaning of the characters—they are really aspects of Belloc’s own personality. For example, while the sensitive Poet seems the least like the author, his appearance is very curious. Belloc had a high regard for poetry and, above all, desired recognition of his verse rather than his prose works. It may be that the depiction of the Poet reveals a certain embarrassment over the author’s reflective and vulnerable poetic side as opposed to the boisterous bardic side. At the same time there is, as with any study of normal and natural men, an element of paradox. This gives rise to the subtle irony by which Grizzlebeard occasionally plays the fool, the Sailor waxes philosophical and the Poet sometimes appears the most pragmatic of the lot.
Belloc carries off these human portraits successfully because he truly knew himself. As the late Frederick Wilhelmsen explained, he was an "integrated man" as opposed to the "alienated man" of our times who seems not to understand himself at all. Of course, we have taken this alienation to a higher level than the already dysfunctional generations of the past, drowning all thought and genuine self-awareness in incessant noise and distraction. Needless to say that leaves no room for consideration of those things which, nevertheless, continue to haunt us. Our lives become fragmented as we deliberately try to divorce the connected realities of the profane and the sacred. But Belloc, with his feet firmly planted in the soil of Christian culture, could wrestle with the paradox of immortal desires confronting the limits of personal mortality. Wilhelmsen’s study (Hilaire Belloc, No Alienated Man, 1953) is a favorite of Bellocians, and worth quoting at length:
Myself is one with himself in these companions. But all the camaraderie, the good fellowship, the hearty wisdom, and the love exchanged between friends is threatened by what one might call the possibility of classical or human alienation. Man is not his own enemy in Belloc’s farrago; Death is the enemy. The campfire blazes in the woods and the inn is full of decency and laughter, but the universe in the background breathes mutability and is marked for the harvest. The seasons rise and fall. Generation issues into corruption….
Myself finds his soul in these companions, who part from him after Grizzlebeard warns Myself, Man, to meditate Death. Then "the mist received them and they had disappeared." Myself, troubled in spirit, faces the dilemma Everyman faces. Must this humanity, found and achieved in these four, be swallowed up in the mists? Must alienation, "the saddest thing in the world," claim the soul in the end? Why discover ourselves and then come realize that we have found an illusion? We cannot come to be ourselves finally unless Death itself die in the end. The Night of the Dead has always been the night of their return, and Belloc implies throughout his closing chapter that this prefigures eventual immortality.
Belloc’s writing at it’s best is like poetry. It achieves the utmost artistic economy with a few lines of remarkable imagery. Like other great authors, he can present the known and commonplace as if it were new, and give voice and definition to fundamental experiences. In one scene the four travelers have found an overnight lodging in a forester’s hut. Myself says:
I woke the next morning to the noise, the pleasant noise, of water boiling in a kettle. May God bless that noise and grant it to be the most sacred noise in the world. For it is the noise that babies hear at birth and that old men hear as they die in their beds, and it is the noise of households all our long lives long; and throughout the world, wherever men have hearths, that purring and that singing, and that humming and that talking to itself of warm companionable water to our great ally, the fire, is home.
A similar passage can be found in Belloc’s introduction to The Old Road, a study of the ancient pilgrimage route from
There are primal things which move us. Fire has the character of a free companion that has traveled with us from the first exile; only to see a fire, whether he need it or no, comforts every man. Again, to hear two voices outside at night after a silence, even in crowded cities, transforms the mind. A Roof also, large and mothering, satisfies us here in the north much more than modern necessity can explain; so we built in the beginning: the only way to carry off our rains and to bear the weight of our winter snows. A Tower far off arrests a man’s eye always: it is more than a break in the sky-line; it is an enemy’s watch or the rallying of a defence to whose aid we are summoned. Nor are these emotions a memory or a reversion only as one crude theory might pretend; we craved these things—the camp, the refuge, the sentinels in the dark, the hearth—before we made them; they are a part of our human manner, and when this civilisation has perished they will reappear.
One may fairly state that in the realm of fiction, Belloc was less at home than in any other genre, though with his irrepressible energy he managed to produce eighteen novels. Most of these were satires on political and social mores of the day, or light-hearted moral tales. Few have fared well with the passage time, though farces like The Green Overcoat and The Postmaster General are quite entertaining while The Mercy of Allah remains a savagely brilliant satire of Western capitalism.
Viewed in relation to these and other books, The Four Men represents a transitional stage in the author’s life as well as his writing. The earlier Path to Rome is referred to as "the story of youth." It is ebullient and even precocious; a realm of bracing mountain air and sunshine in which life’s challenges are met with a confident gaze and lusty song. By the time that The Four Men was finished Belloc had turned forty and the mood is more pensive. If one has the opportunity to read the book at a relatively young age and re-read it a decade or so later, many of these aspects appear in greater relief. It is a sign of real craftsmanship that the story matures with the reader.
The contrast between The Four Men and Belloc’s earlier writing was no doubt due, in part, to the disillusionment of a brief parliamentary career (1906-10). Such experiences were a rude awakening to his earlier idealism. Belloc was looking back with mixed emotions upon his rejection of what could have been a promising political career, and, on the other hand the refusal, at the hand of the anti-Catholic dons of Oxford, of a history fellowship, despite his outstanding academic record. Such events threw him out upon the world as an erudite vagabond who had to earn his keep by unstinted output of prose. Yet he was a man of strong convictions who devoted a great part of his life to writing on the most acrimonious topics of the day, even as he confessed to his friend Fr. Vincent McNabb how much it wearied him at times.
Contrary to the notion some people have of Belloc, as no more than a literary pugilist with a chip on his Catholic shoulder, he would have much rather "tended his rightful garden," composing verse and gems of prose like The Four Men. It is therefore fitting to close with the lines of the drinking songs that grace his tale, in this instance recounting St. Germanus’ victory over the Pelagians:
Exceedingly bold indeed;
And the masses of doubt that are floating about
Would smother a mortal creed.
But we that sit in a sturdy youth,
And still can drink strong ale,
Oh—let us put it away to infallible truth,
Which always shall prevail!
For the temporal sword,
And howling heretics too; And whatever good things
Our Christendom brings,
But especially barley brew!