This paper was presented as part of Bulwer's bicentennial celebration at Knebworth House on 23rd May 2003
Bulwer-Lytton's Harold
(Everything is will)
by John S Moore

From Harold (1848)

Hilda gazed on the hideous form before her; and so had her soul fallen from its arrogant pride of place, that instead of the scorn with which so foul a pretender to the Great Art had before inspired the King-born Prophetess, her veins tingled with credulous awe.

"Art thou a mortal like myself," she said after a pause, "or one of those beings often seen by the shepherd in mist and rain, driving before them their shadowy flocks? one of those of whom no man knoweth whether they are of earth or of Helheim ? whether they have ever known the lot and conditions of flesh, or are but some dismal race between body and spirit, hateful alike to gods and to men ?"

The dreadful hag shook her head, as if refusing to answer the question, and said,

"Sit we down, sit we down by the dead dull pool, and if thou wouldst be wise as I am, wake up all thy wrongs, fill thyself with hate, and let thy thoughts be curses. Nothing is strong on earth but the Will; and hate to the will is as the iron in the hands of the war-man."

"Ha!" answered Hilda, "then thou art indeed one of the loathsome brood whose magic is born, not of the aspiring soul, but of the fiendlike heart. And between us there is no union. I am of the race of those of whom priests and kings reverenced and honoured as the oracles of Heaven; and rather let my lore be dimmed and weakened, in admitting the humanities of hope and love, than be lightened by the glare of the wrath that Lok and Rana bear the children of men."

"What, art thou so base and so doting," said the hag, with fierce contempt", as to know that another has supplanted thine Edith, that all the schemes of thy life are undone, and yet feel no hate for the man who bath wronged her and thee? -the man who had never been king if thou hadst not breathed into him the ambition of rule ? Think, and curse! "

"My curse would wither the heart that is entwined within his," answered Hilda; "and," she added abruptly, as if eager to escape from her own impulses, "didst thou not tell- me, even now, that the wrong would be redressed, and his betrothed yet be his bride on the appointed day?"

" Ha ! home, then!-home! and weave the charmed woof of the banner, broider it with zimmes and with gold worthy the standard of a king; for I tell thee, that where that banner is planted, shall Edith clasp with bridal arms her adored. And the hwata thou hast read by the bautastein, and in the temple of the Briton's revengeful gods, shall be fulfilled."

" Dark daughter of Hela," said the Prophetess, "whether demon or god hath inspired thee, I hear in my spirit a voice, that tells me thou hast pierced to a truth that my lore could not reach. Thou art houseless and poor; I will give wealth "to thine age if thou wilt stand with me by the altar of Thor, .and let thy galdra unriddle the secrets that have baffled mine Own. All foreshown to me hath ever come to pass, but in a sense other than that in which my soul read the rune and the dream, the leaf and the fount, the star and the Scin-laeca. My husband slain in his youth; my daughter maddened with woe; .;her lord murdered on his hearthstone; Sweyn, whom I loved . as my child," -the Vala paused, contending against her own emotions,-" I loved them all," she faltered, clasping her hands, " for them I tasked the future. The future promised fair; I lured them to their doom, and when the doom came, !the promise was kept ! but how? -and now, Edith, the last of my race; Harold, the pride of my pride !-speak, thing of Horror and Night, canst thou disentangle the web in which my soul struggles, weak as the fly in the spider's mesh ? "

. "On the third night from this, will I stand with thee by the altar of Thor, and unriddle the rede of my-masters, unknown and unguest, whom thou hadst duteously served. And ere the sun rise, the greatest mystery earth knows shall be bare to thy soul ! "

- As the witch spoke, a cloud passed over the moon; and before the light broke forth again, the hag had vanished. There was only seen in the dull pool, the water-rat swimming through the rank sedges ; only in the forest, the grey wings of owl, fluttering heavily across the glades ; only in the grass, red eyes of the bloated toad.

 Harold is far from Lytton's best historical novel. I have to qualify that statement by saying that is only my own opinion, because there are some who disagree. To my taste it is nowhere near as good as Rienzi, or The Last of the Barons. As one critic has said Bulwer rationalises away much of the wonder and strangeness of the period. The above eve of battle passage reminds all too obviously of Shakespeare's weird sisters. Nevertheless, it is worth a closer look..

 A modern reader might not see much beyond the worn cliché of the wicked witch, with an evil philosophy of hatred . "Nothing is strong on earth but will" suggests comic strip Nazis and of a loveless un-christian creed of black magic. Triumph of the Will was the famous Nazi film. However, Bulwer's attitude is very far from a straightforward condemnation of such a view of the will, or mere Christian abhorrence. The witches' statement does not represent an unreservedly villainous attitude to be condemned. Bulwer was himself very interested in magic of a most ambitious kind. His association with the famous French magician Eliphas Levi is well known. Levi praised Bulwer in the highest terms, and his own 'astral light' is thought to have influenced the idea of the vril force in The Coming Race. Bulwer's was no Sunday School piety. The ugly old hag has a valid point, against Hilda, the noble Dane.

 The will theme pervades much nineteenth century literature and philosophy. For Bulwer, the will is especially interesting when it takes a maleficent form, for it is precisely this energy that yields the highest results when sublimated. The fascination with the daemonic will is a vital thread through tales like Zanoni, The Haunted and the Haunters, A Strange Story, and The Coming Race.

 As Bertrand Russell wrote in The History of Western Philosophy, it was Schopenhauer who 'began the emphasis on Will which is characteristic of much nineteenth and twentieth century philosophy'. Schopenhauer identified the will as the Kantian thing-in-itself, so it may truly be said that for him everything is will. Schopenhauer's influence on the art and literature of the later nineteenth century was immense, and so it has been suggested that perhaps Bulwer, familiar as he was with contemporary German literature, may have read his work. He is known to have read Hegel, and that might be thought to show in the dialectical nature of his historical novels.

 However there is apparently no convincing evidence that he had read Schopenhauer. Another suggested source for the will theme is Balzac, who also wrote mystical and occult novels. Louis Lambert, otherworldly hero of the novel of the same name, wrote at the age of 15 A Treatise on the Will, which was discovered and destroyed by his teachers. This passage was said to be autobiographical, a truthful account of something that had happened to Balzac himself. In this book Balzac preaches a strange mystical doctrine of the omnipotence of will and thought, intended as the crowning philosophy of the comedie humaine. Will is so important that facts are a secondary consideration. Doctrines of will go back far into esoteric tradition. Balzac immersed himself in esoteric and magical literature but then so did Bulwer himself. As he wrote to his friend Forster. "I know by experience that those wizard old books are full of holes and pitfalls. I myself once fell into one and remained there 45 days and 3 hours without food, crying for help as loud as I could, but nobody came. You may believe that or not just as you please, but its true".

 Evelyn Underhill in her book on Mysticism first published in 1911, writes in a chapter on magic, which she opposes to mysticism:-

'According to its modern teachers, magic is in essence simply an extension of the theory and practice of volition beyond the usual limits . The will, says the occultist, is king, not only of the house of Life but of the universes outside the gates of sense. It is the key to man limitless, the true ring of Gyges which can control the forces of nature known and unknown.

 Bulwer was such an occultist, and was said to have been the main channel by which occult ideas reached the English. Such ideas have long encountered resistance and disapproval. Underhill goes on to write of Eliphas Levi's system:-

"the doctrine of magic which has here been described shows us the Secret Wisdom at its best and sanest. But even on these levels it is dogged by the defects which so decisively separate the occultist from the mystic. The chief of these is the peculiar temper of mind, the cold intellectual arrogance, the intensely individual point of view which occult studies seem to induce by their conscious quest of exclusive power and knowledge and their implicit neglect of love."

 "Magic even at its best extends rather than escapes the boundaries of the phenomenal world. It stands, where genuine, for that form of transcendentalism which does abnormal things but does not lead anywhere, and we are likely to fall victims to our kind of magic the moment that the declaration 'I want to Know' ousts the declaration 'I want to be' from the chief place in our consciousness".

This was not Bulwer's view of the matter. In a passage in the Haunted and the Haunters, speaking presumably as himself, he disclaims belief in the supernatural. "Now, my theory is that the Supernatural is the Impossible, and that what is called supernatural is only a something in the laws of nature of which we have been hitherto ignorant." But as he wrote to Forster:-" I do believe in the substance of what used to be called Magic, that is I believe that there are persons of a peculiar temperament who can effect very extraordinary things not accounted for satisfactorily by any existent philosophy". The modern habit is to dismiss any talk of magic as tiresome mumbo jumbo. But even without the superstition and supernaturalism, there remains quite an interesting viewpoint.

 An artist's personal beliefs may be sometimes be seen as irrelevant to his work. On the other hand he may well be the proponent of some kind of philosophy. Where an artist is inspired by a doctrine of the omnipresence and supremacy of will, it can be expected to have an effect on his attitude towards his art. A work of art can serve to express a zeitgeist, that can be its significance, and Schopenhauerian aesthetics have been employed to this end. But it can alternatively be used in an effort to create or control the zeitgeist. Such an artist is a form of shaman. Seeing himself thus, he may think of himself as purveying wisdom to his audience. Such was Bulwer , who hinted at Rosicrucian initiation.

 Though he often writes about a malevolent form of will, this represents energy which may be turned to the good. Bulwer gave a far more positive valuation of the will than did Schopenhauer. In this he was in harmony with other exponents of the occult tradition. Aleister Crowley the twentieth century magus, whose word was Thelema, the Greek for will, and whose motto the Rabelaisian "Do what Thou Wilt shall be the whole of the Law", recommended two of Lytton's novels in the comprehensive reading list he provided in his Magick in Theory and Practice, Zanoni and A Strange Story.

 For Schopenhauer, as for a Schopenhauerian like Thomas Hardy, the will itself was intrinsically evil, and the highest aim of life was ascetic renunciation. Such thoughts pervaded late romanticism, and all the art of the decadent movement, though they could easily slide over into their opposite. The most famous reversal of the negative valuation was of course the life affirmation of Nietzsche. When Nietzsche began to be discovered in England people looked for precursors in English literature, and one of those hit upon was Bulwer. One who pointed out the similarities was Alfred Orage, Nietzschean editor of the influential periodical The New Age. I quote from David Thatcher's Nietzsche in England.

 "for Alfred Richard Orage Nietzsche was above all a mystic whose affinities with the mystical tradition were beyond all question. Nietzsche's superman, he believed, had a forebear in M-Mejnour, the occult superman of Bulwer-Lytton's Zanoni (!842): 'Mejnour is justifying his sacrifice of thousands of aspirants for the sake of a single success. He is inspired in this, he says, by "the hope to form a mighty and numerous race… that may proceed in their deathless destinies from stage to stage of celestial glory, and rank at last among the nearest ministrants and angels gathered round the Throne of Thrones.".. such an ideal can be paralleled perhaps in the work of a real man, singularly like Mejnour in his apparent chilly isolation, and singularly like him too in his passionate devotion to humanity - Frederic [sic] Nietzsche and the parallel is almost complete when one finds Mejnour saying of himself "my art is to make man above mankind"

Orage was to end his career as a follower of Gurdjieff.

Here is another Nietzschean thought from Zanoni:-

"A nation that aspires to equality is unfit for freedom. Throughout all creation, from the archangel to the worm, from Olympus to the pebble from the radiant and completed planet to the nebula that hardens through ages of mist and slime into the habitable world, the first law of nature is inequality."

Though Bulwer's philosophy of will was not exactly Schopenhauerian, there were parallels and connections. One of those influenced by Schopenhauer was Richard Wagner, who was also, as we know, inspired by Bulwer himself. Wagner, too, took will philosophy in the direction of magic, while following Schopenhauer closely. In his Autobiography Wagner writes of enthusiastically reading Bulwer-Lytton's novels while living in Riga in the late 1830s. Apparently these were a significant influence upon him. Arguably he would try to do in his own way the same kind of thing Bulwer did in novels like Harold.

 In Harold Bulwer is engaged in the sort of mythmaking that Wagner practised, like others after him. He exercises his own will upon the material of history. Harold himself is presented as the embodiment of nationality, of the English race.

 The novel, has considerable interest, whatever its shortcomings as literature. As with all Bulwer's works it is rich in intellectual ideas. Presented as a romance, it may appear to transcend the genre. Macaulay actually described it as closer to history than romance. (This comment may say a lot about Macaulay's own attitude to his subject). Taken as history Harold reveals clearly the selective nature of historical interpretation. The subject matter is so vast that much has to be forgotten. But Bulwer does more than omit. He modifies his sources to give King Harold an altogether more heroic character. For the historian Sir Francis Palgrave, for example, Harold was a perjurer and sinner, virtually a usurper, in a decadent and fragmented country. Bulwer's themes of freedom, nationality and race were very powerful ones at the time. In exploring and developing them he enters a field in which epic poetry may be as effective as history proper, if not more so. Harold is in some respects like an epic poem. Indeed Bulwer says in the introduction that the Norman Conquest was our own Trojan War.

 Writing epic to create national identity was a common enough activity at a time when some nations were in still in the process of being invented. Harold was published in 1848, the year of nationalist revolutions. Whatever there is to be said for enjoying a secure sense of national identity, for the magician there is something more exciting about exercising the power to invent one. His object is not to embrace a myth, but to control and direct it.

 In Harold Bulwer discusses English ideas of freedom. He writes of  Hildebrand's campaign to reform Christendom, and the papal sanctioning of the Norman invasion which made it a proto-crusade. We are told that this gave rise to a lasting sense of resentment against the papacy. Bulwer's view of history is clearly Protestant. He finds the roots of English ideas of freedom in anti-French feeling, and the constant need to resist France. He maintains that it was only the liberty among the Norman barons that permitted its eventual restoration among the English. 'Nothing is strong of earth but will' may also be taken as an allusion to the eventual consequences of the invasion.

Three years after the publication of Harold, appeared Sir Edward Creasy's Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World 1851. Here is his judgment on the effects of the Battle of Hastings:-

 "It may sound paradoxical, but it is in reality no exaggeration to say, with
 Guizot, that England owes her liberties to her having been conquered by the Normans. It is true that the Saxon institutions were the primitive cradle of English liberty, but by their own intrinsic force they could never have founded the enduring free English constitution. It was the Conquest that infused into them a new virtue; and the political liberties of England arose from the situation in which the Anglo-Saxon and the Anglo-Norman populations and laws found themselves placed relatively to each other in this island.
The state of England under her last Anglo- Saxon kings closely resembled the state
of France under the last Carlovingian, and the first Capetian princes. The crown
was feeble, the great nobles were strong and turbulent. And although there was
more national unity in Saxon England than in France; although the English local free
institutions had more reality and energy than was the case with anything analogous
to them on the Continent in the eleventh century, still the probability is that the
Saxon system of polity, if left to itself, would have fallen into utter confusion, out of
which would have arisen first an aristocratic hierarchy like that which arose in
France, next an absolute monarchy, and finally a series of anarchical revolutions,
such as we now behold around, but not among us. [See Guizot, UT SUPRA.]

 The latest conquerors of this island were also the bravest and the best. I do
 not except even the Romans. And, in spite of our sympathies with Harold and
 Hereward, and our abhorrence of the founder of the New Forest, and the desolator
 of Yorkshire, we must confess the superiority of the Normans to the Anglo-Saxons
 and Anglo-Danes, whom they met here in 1066, as well as to the degenerate Frank
 noblesse and the crushed and servile Romanesque provincials, from whom, in 912,
 they had wrested the district in the north of Gaul which still bears the name of

 It was not merely by extreme valour and ready subordination or military
 discipline, that the Normans were pre-eminent among all the conquering races of the
 Gothic stock, but also by their instinctive faculty of appreciating and adopting the
 superior civilizations which they encountered. Thus Duke Rollo and his
 Scandinavian warriors readily embraced the creed, the language, the laws, and the
 arts which France, in those troubled and evil times with which the Capetian dynasty
 commenced, still inherited from imperial Rome and imperial Charlemagne. They
 adopted the customs, the duties, the obedience that the capitularies of emperors and
 kings had established; but that which they brought to the application of those laws,
 was the spirit of life, the spirit of liberty--the habits also of military subordination,
 and the aptness for a state politic, which could reconcile the security of all with the
 independence of each. [Sismondi, Histoire des Francais, vol. iii. p. 174.] So also in
 all chivalric feelings, in enthusiastic religious zeal, in almost idolatrous respect to
females of gentle birth, in generous fondness for the nascent poetry of the time, in a
 keen intellectual relish for subtle thought and disputation, in a taste for architectural
 magnificence, and all courtly refinement and pageantry, the Normans were the
 Paladins of the world. Their brilliant qualities were sullied by many darker traits of
 pride, of merciless cruelty, and of brutal contempt for the industry, the rights, and
 the feelings of all whom they considered the lower classes of mankind.

 Their gradual blending with the Saxons softened these harsh and evil points of
 their national character, and in return they fired the duller Saxon mass with a new
 spirit of animation and power. As Campbell boldly expressed it, "THEY
 HIGH-METTLED THE BLOOD OF OUR VEINS." Small had been the figure
 which England made in the world before the coming over of the Normans; and
 without them she never would have emerged from insignificance. The authority of
 Gibbon may be taken as decisive when he pronounces that, "Assuredly England
 was a gainer by the Conquest." and we may proudly adopt the comment of the
 Frenchman Rapin, who, writing of the battle of Hastings more than a century ago,
 speaks of the revolution effected by it, as "the first step by which England has
 arrived to that height of grandeur and glory we behold it in at present." [Rapin, Hist.
 England, p. 164. See also Sharon Turner, vol. iv. p. 72; and, above all, Palgrave's
 Normandy and England.]

This seems not far from Bulwer's own view.

As well as the theme of the conquered conquering the conquerors, the survival of Norse paganism among the Danish part of the population gave scope for something like a Gotterdamerung theme, the Twilight of the gods, the Ragnarok, the tragic spirit from the Norse sagas. Bulwer could not resist inventing the figure of Hilda the Danish Vala, the pagan prophetess. This offers another parallel with Wagner. It dovetails nicely with another, more Christian sub-plot, the tragedy of the unconsummated love between Harold and Edith Swan-neck, Hilda's ward. Bulwer purified the original legend of Harold and his mistress in an effort of conscious and deliberate mythmaking. He sanitises it and brings the lovers to a spiritual consummation in a manner that was, he claims, more appropriate to the eleventh century than it would have been to the nineteenth.

Here he was wielding the blue pencil. Harold was intended as book that could safely fall into the hands of children. In this respect Bulwer was a man of his time, in full accord with the spirit of Thomas Bowdler. However there was another very different side to his character, which perhaps shows in some of the recently restored architectural features of Knebworth. We see that he was very far from a prude  when we look more closely into the nature of his  esoteric beliefs.

Allegedly the word vril derives from virile, the Latin for male virility. In this connection see Schopenhauer:- World as Will and Idea §60

"The genitals are the real focus of will and are therefore the opposite pole to the brain, the representative of knowledge….  The genitals are the life-preserving principle assuring to time endless life. In this capacity they were worshipped by the Greeks as the phallus and by the Hindus as the lingam, which are therefore the symbol of the affirmation of the will".

Similar thoughts circulated among some English scholars, where they took on an unmistakably blasphemous character. There exists a letter from Bulwer to Hargrave Jennings dated 1870 acknowledging receipt of a copy of Jennings' book on the Rosicrucians. He praises it highly, telling  him that " better book upon such a theme has been written, or indeed could be written unless a member of the Fraternity were to break the vow which enjoins him to secrecy..."

 It is most revealing that Bulwer should endorse such a work. Jennings' book on esoteric religion, art and literature, was attacked by contemporary, and some modern, critics,  for what one called its 'unwholesome current' of indecent innuendo. It gives a view of religion that is quite remote from orthodox Christianity, however attuned to certain aspects of Hinduism. Christian tradition is interpreted in a most subversive way, as full of sexual symbolism. This is taken so far as to give the cross itself an essentially phallic significance, corresponding to the lingam of the Indian Saivites. Nineteenth century English Rosicrucianism was, from a respectable point of view, quite scandalously heterodox.

 Madame Blavatsky wrote a pamphlet against phallicism, which she saw as an attempt to undermine theosophy. She herself was said to owe her inspiration first to The Last Days of Pompeii, and later Zanoni. In turn she was to inspire some of the greatest modern artists. Gauguin, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Klee, Pollock, and Max Beckmann, were all at various times disciples of her theosophy. .

In all this talk of will and creativity, it should not be overlooked that a book like Harold might perform a very different, more melancholy, function, that of consolation in defeat. The mystically inclined Emperor Napoleon III was to get to know both Bulwer and Hargrave Jennings while living in exile in England following the catastrophe of the Franco-Prussian war. He told Bulwer that he had read Harold on the night before surrendering his sword to William, King of Prussia, on 2nd September 1870, and that he kept it on his bedside table for several days afterwards. One year later William was to be proclaimed Kaiser of the new German Empire at Versailles.


Bulwer Lytton by John S Moore

return to home page