A Prophetic Cry Against Rampant Materialism - R.H. Benson’s Lord of the World
Science fiction is a genre with a reputation for prophesising. The dystopia of George Orwell’s 1984 has returned to popular acclaim in an age of alternative facts and surveillance statism, while Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World seems to have predicted the psychological engineering of the mass media.
The earliest works of science fiction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, by the likes of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, imagined technological advances such as space travel that were surreal and fantastical to their readers.
But there is a lesser known work of science fiction which is as prescient as Orwell and Huxley’s works, but which was written in the same era as Verne and Wells.
Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World (1907) is unique in being endorsed as prophetic, in the literal theological sense, by the world’s highest religious authority - with Pope Francis believing that Benson’s nightmarish vision was divinely inspired.
R.H. Benson was the son of Archbishop of Canterbury E.W Benson and the brother of A.C. and E.F. Benson - themselves prolific writers and novelists. R.H. followed his father into the priesthood, but disillusioned by Anglicanism he converted and was ordained by the Roman Catholic Church, eventually serving a chaplain to Pope Pius X.
As a Catholic traditionalist Tory, Benson was disturbed by the rise of Marxism in his lifetime, and in Lord of the World the path to Armageddon begins in 1917 - as it turned out the year of the Russian Revolution that overthrew tsarism and implanted the Soviet Union.
In Benson’s universe, it marks the election of a Labour Party government in Britain, which upon taking power implements a Marxist and radially atheistic agenda.
It abolishes the monarchy and the Church of England, leaving Christianity contained in a sparsely practicing community of Catholics. Having taken the reins of the British Empire, the Marxists use their political and economic power to dominate Europe, with which it forms a confederation alongside its colonies in Africa.
In the Eastern world a Japanese-controlled Empire spans from Russia to New Zealand, while the United States has taken “manifest destiny” to the extreme and taken over all of the Americas.
By the 21st century, the world stands as three power blocs. The competing European and Eastern empires are on the brink of war, with Eastern troops massing on the borders of European Russia.
But war is adverted thanks to Julian Felsenburgh, a US senator from Vermont who negotiates with the Eastern Empire on behalf the American diplomatic mission. Felsenburgh is a superhuman politician - a spell-binding orator who communicates a message of peace in the auxiliary language Esperanto, and somehow the languages of all nations.
Felsenburgh is heralded as an angelic saviour, but beneath this deception he is actually the Antichrist, the Great Beast as foretold in the Book of Revelation.
Benson’s prose is outstanding, its vividness matched by a grim authority of biblical proportions
Leading a Marxist revolution in the East, Felsenburgh unifies the Eastern and Western empires, is appointed the president of Europe and overtakes the US to form a global totalitarian state - with himself as its Big Brother.
His regime ruthlessly supresses the Abrahamic religions, especially Christianity, and religious services are replaced with occult rituals that supplant God with worship of nature and humanity.
Those who refuse to reject faith and superstition are condemned to death. The elderly and sick are subjected to mass euthanasia in gas chambers, and Felsenburgh coordinates massacres which see Christian men, women and children lynched and crucified in the streets of London.
Felsenburgh employs warplanes, equipped with weapons of mass destruction, to destroy religious buildings and eventually the Vatican itself. Christianity is left as an underground Catholic priesthood held up in Nazareth, praying as Felsenburgh commands a squadron of aircraft to obliterate them.
The novel abruptly ends: "Then this world passed, and the glory of it”, implying the resurrection of Christ incited by the rage of God.
Lord of the World may be thematically biased, but Benson’s prose is outstanding, its vividness matched by a grim authority of biblical proportions. The way Benson uses it to seemingly predict the horrors of the 20th century’s world war, fascism, genocide and atomic weaponry is truly chilling.
If interpreted as a Swiftian satire, then Felsenburgh might not actually be the Antichrist, but could perceive himself as Lord of the World due to the corruptions of absolute power and fanatical thinking - leaving Earth with no glimmer of light in the darkness.
As a literary device, dystopias are informed by the ideological standpoints of their creators. Juxtaposed to Benson’s, there are those that imagine totalitarian dictatorships that espouse Christian fundamentalism, such as in feminist Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and anarchist Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. Soviet dissident Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, written in the 1920s aftermath of the Revolution, envisaged a technocratic police state as a clandestine slight against the communist state which became one under Stalin.
The dystopias of Orwell and Huxley also reflect anti-authoritarian, socialist worldviews. But in the nuance of these universes, the transcendental concept of God is erased, as the mere suggestion of a supreme being is antithetical to the dictatorships reliant on repression of free thought.
in our 21st century the actual existential and moral dilemmas posed to humanity seem as vast as the ones of Benson’s apocalyptic imagination
In a similar vein there is a certain narrative complexity to Lord of the World. At its heart is Benson’s objection to rampant materialism - a warning that an earthly realm that is spiritually disconnected from the heavenly one will fall from grace.
In keeping with Catholic orthodoxy on issues like euthanasia and abortion, Pope Francis views the novel as a tract against the dangers of moral relativism. To Francis, Felsenburgh’s regime embodies secularism’s debasement of humanity.
But Francis is a controversial figure among traditional Catholics of Benson’s ilk for public statements that are considered liberal or even Marxist in character, in keeping with the liberation theology that originated in Latin America. Which is ironic considering how socialism brought Felsenburgh to power, but there are aspects of our 21st century Benson couldn’t have predicted that are unavoidable topics for all religious leaders.
The environmental desecration driving runaway climate change is called sinful by Francis, alongside the unsustainable consumer capitalism “poisoning” humanity. He even suggests that atheists who care about social injustices like global poverty and inequality may be godlier than faithful but apathetic Christians.
Felsenburgh stands as an archetype of the charismatic dictatorships of the 20th century (the most obvious case being Nazi Germany’s). Today we witness a resurgent populist demagoguery that Francis warns is also manipulating crises for its nefarious ends, but all the more effectively in the digital age of “post-truth” politics.
Francis demands the international prohibition of nuclear weapons, which still number in their thousands, calling them abhorrent to God as a threat to all of his creation. (In contrast, American televangelists of the 1980s were enthused by the prospect of nuclear war, as they believed it would invoke the Second Coming).
Francis also deems Western hostility towards refugees fleeing from war-torn countries to be incompatible with Christianity, a hypocrisy forming part of humanity’s moral decay, and one that heightens the sectarianism which empowers extremists like ISIS.
While Lord of the World strangely echoes the most seismic events of the 20th century, in our 21st century the actual existential and moral dilemmas posed to humanity seem as vast as the ones of Benson’s apocalyptic imagination.
A heaven-sent vision or not, the novel stands as another dystopian prophecy that has never been more real.
About the author
Jacob Richardson began his career with Disclaimer and writes on culture, politics and society. Politically he is a democratic socialist and Labour Party supporter. His other interests include cinema, psychoanalysis and professional wrestling.
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