World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “Through the Furnace”

“Through the Furnace”, R. Thurston Hopkins, 1916.

Like his “The De Gamelyn Traditions“, this story concludes with the presence of the Divine successfully rallying British troops on the battlefield.

The story begins with Hilaire O’Hagan, “an incorrigible rascal”, having a mystical vision of a monk who chides him for his immorality after stealing a woman’s briefcase. That night he dreams of the same monk and wakes to save his earlier victim from a house fire.

We next see O’Hagan in the trenches, where, after six months of fighting, he is starting to suffer battle fatigue.

He was no longer master of himself. He was afraid. Every man has the instinct that prompts fear, for upon that instinct the whole foundation of life-preservation is founded. But over and above this instinct, common to all of us, O’Hagan had imagination—the graphic, vivid imagination that always lurks in Irish blood. Is not the entire history of the Celt a rejection of the things of this world for the Shadow and the dream? Upon this basis of fear and imagination O’Hagan started to build, building and building until he had created a grand structure of blind terror which yielded a most exquisite torture to his mind.

Yet he goes over the top for yet another attack.

The stalled offensive, the artillery fire get to him. He runs away and takes refuge in a “little wrecked church”. There he encounters the monk of his vision who shows him a coffin where lies another Hilaire O’Hagan who died in 1696.

The monk is sympathetic, knows how tired O’Hagan is. But O’Hagan still has a remaining duty:

“Brother,” he said, in a moved voice. “You must go back and help your comrades. There is no peace for you yet. Yes, brother, I know it is written that we shall rest from our labours—but the beginning of our rest is not yet. We must go and help them in the firing line yonder——”

“No, no, holy man!” O’Hagan pleaded. “I have had enough…. There is hell over there.”

“They are calling us, don’t you hear them—the living and the dead——”

As with “The De Gamelyn Traditions”, Hopkins story cites duty to not only comrades but the past as a reason to continue the struggle.

The “deserter O’Hagan” shows up while the Germans are assaulting the British lines, seemingly at the Second Battle of Ypres.

A tall man in a priest’s cassock, wielding a flaming sword, appears on the battlefield. Beside him is O’Hagan “holding a massive brass altar cross above his head”. O’Hagan hacks and stabs with the cross, drives the Germans back. It is the Angel of Mons vision all over again:

Men who watched him said he ran amok. His great voice rose high above the chattering machine guns in a beautiful Franciscan chant and the voice of the priest joined in. What O’Hagan, bearing his mighty cross, must have looked like in the eerie dawn mist, Heaven knows. But seeing such an apparition and hearing the strange chant, it is possible the Huns thought the devil had joined in the fight. Then a man in the rear trench pointed to the west, where a great image of the cross was shining against a blood red sky, and a voice cried “Forward.” It passed from man to man, and the regiment advanced, howling, with O’Hagan. They drove the Germans before them like chaff before a fan, and fell back, in triumph, to their lost trenches.

The story ends with O’Hagan seemingly buried beside the coffin of his ancestor, the monk of the vision blessing his grave.

The story has the tone of sincere devout Christianity and not just the use of Christian imagery and ideas in its plot. It reminds us how much religious motivations shored up many of the Great War’s soldiers.

World War One Content

  • Living Memory: Yes.
  • On-Stage War: Yes.
  • Belligerent Area: Yes.
  • Home Front: Yes.
  • Veteran: Yes — probably.

More World War One in Fantastic Fiction.

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