There is an inherent facetiousness to reviews that begin with the platitude "if you're like me, then you know" (as well as some grammatical ignorance, but that's another story), and the facetiousness lies in an attempt to win over the reader. Not the ideal reader who remains the target of every writer of talent and ambition, but as many readers as possible. Whatever one may think of art, it is certainly not a popularity contest. Art is an understanding of the beauty and justice of the world – often conveyed in hideously damning portrayals of their opposites – through moral values. If that doesn't make sense to you step back and consider what you think about when you think of art. Is art a gangster movie in which everyone betrays everyone else, four simple words cannot be strung together without an obscenity, and the only things that matter are money and power? A political allegory with animals being slain and people exchanging sly looks over superficial chit-chat about second-rate philosophers? A schmaltzy love affair of two hearts separated by choices but destined to find each other so subtly spun that we can almost hear the maudlin soundtrack that is supposed to steer our emotions like a rose-covered leash? If you answered in the affirmative to any or all of these questions, I'm sure cyberspace has more hospitable places for you than these pages. But if you're like I am – ahem, if the same look of utter disgust wandered across your face upon reading those three capsule summaries, I would recommend perusing the collection of these forgotten authors, and in particular this tale.
The setting is the early period of Christianity when it was still known as "the new faith" and held by many with the same contempt that is directed to other movements in our day. Unlike some of these waggish variants on an old theme, this was the age of a true watershed for mankind – or, at least, that is the impression one might have given the context of the story. Paullinus is our hero and he bears resemblance to the Everlasting Man he worships:
He was a young man, a very faithful Christian, and with a love of adventure and travel which stood him in good stead. He carried a little money, but he had seldom need to use it, for the people were simple and hospitable; he did not try to hold assemblies, for he believed that the Gospel must spread like leaven from quiet heart to quiet heart.
Were you to ask me for the definition a true Christian, I would use this last phrase. Unlike today's pantomiming pulpiteers that try to convince that "God wants you to be rich" in the same breath as they condemn anyone who disagrees with them or does not plate their sterile excuse of a church with gold, the passing of true faith has little to do with power or persuasion. Like parenting, friendship and romantic love, faith is a slow revelation of a hidden truth that when hidden seems unattainable and when revealed seems the most obvious fact of our existence – but I digress. Paullinus meets villagers and scattered folk alike and in due time – this is, after all, a tale of horror – an old man gives him the warning we know he will not heed:
'Of one thing I must advise you,' he said. 'There is, in the wood, some way off the track, a place to which I would not have you go – it is a temple of one of our gods, a dark place. Be certain, dear sir, to pass it by. No one would go there willingly, save that we are sometimes compelled .... It is called the Temple of the Grey Death, and there are rites done there of which I may not speak. I would it were otherwise, but the gods are strong – and the priest is a hard and evil man who won his office in a terrible way and shall lose it no less terribly. Oh, go not there, dear stranger,' and he laid his hand upon his arm.
There are two types of warnings in life: those we give for the benefit of others and those we give for the benefit of ourselves; which one this may be is not immediately evident. Paullinus bids farewell and finds himself intractably drawn to these very woods. Admittedly, there is said to be a village in the woods that serves as a sanctuary to travelers, and there is where Paullinus convinces himself he can reach with a little bit of divine providence. He wanders his way through as night falls and comes across a lone man, "of middle age, very strong and muscular," yet "undoubtedly he had an evil face," and pauses to think where he might have seen him before; but what he doesn't realize is that there is something about his grim savagery that reminds Paullinus of a portion of his own soul. This is explained by the simple yet magnificent phrase upon discovering a fork in the road: "he felt a certain misgiving which he could not explain." There is another fork, all around "a strange snarling cry some way off," and Paullinus's only wish is to clamber up a tree and let night and its minions forget all about him. Yet that is precisely what it does not do.
Of course, Paullinus will not find the village but something else far less comforting. The forest, as we know from this work, has many allegorical aspects, not the least of which are man's inferiority and susceptibility to the feral creatures that lurk therein. As with its more tropical counterpart the jungle, forests are the epicenters of activity outside human law. It is both the site of the most abominable devilry and a perfect representation of what may lie in the heart of many of us who fall prey to dark suggestion. Someone or something had to put these trees, in their brutal denseness, on the earth, and a person whom Paullinus encounters understands this event as not the work of a Christian deity:
'The god who made these great lonely woods, and who dwells in them, is very different.' – he rose and made a strange obeisance as he talked. 'He loves death and darkness, and the cries of strong and furious beasts. There is little peace here, for all that the woods are still – and as for love, it is of a brutish sort. Nay, stranger, the gods of these lands are very different; and they demand very different sacrifices. They delight in sharp woes and agonies, in grinding pains, in dripping blood and death-sweats and cries of despair. If these woods were all cut down, and the land ploughed up, and peaceful folk lived here in quiet fields and farms, then perhaps your simple, easy-going God might come and dwell with them – but now, if he came, he would flee in terror.'
Whether the "new faith" accepts this challenge may depend on the reasons why there is always one priest at the Temple and why, occasionally, he must be replaced. And that story may remind you of yet another, much older one about a brother and his keeper.