‘A Narrow Escape’

This is marvelous story is about a magician who lived underground and who tried to wreck London, because “what he heard of the world above his head was not to its credit.”

“He decided one evening over his evil pipe, down there in his dank chamber, that London had lived long enough, had abused its opportunities, had gone too far, in fine, with its civilisation. And so he decided to wreck it.”

It is hard not have a little sympathy with this sentiment.

The magician is a kind of priest figure, although a priest of a pagan religion. As Dr. Dinan points out, even his servant is referred to as an “acolyte,” another name for a server who assists at Mass. The scene in which his spell is cast on London has a certain sense of sacrifice, of the “fleshy thing” tossed into the cauldron and of London itself.

The “fleshy thing” itself is interesting. It is supposed to be “the heart of the toad that dwelt once in Arabia and by the mountains of Bethany.” “Heart” and “flesh” are Catholic images, even sacramental. Bethany is a Biblical reference, the village in which Jesus visited Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, in which Jesus had dinner with Simon the Leper, and in which he resurrected Lazarus from the dead. It is a place of miraculous healing, the kind of which the magician seems to desire for the rest of the world, London excepted. It is notable that the magician believes that the problems of the modern are to be found in the Middle East, in the Holy Land.

But of course, the spell is a failure, the fault of the faithless acolyte. (Although perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on him, for even the magician himself did not say that the toad actually dwelt in the region, only that it once did.) The promise of the spell is unfulfilled, but the reader is left, hopefully, with the reminder that once men dreamed of something more, of a better London and a better world.


About Joseph Burke

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