Saturday, January 10, 2015

"Lord of the World" (review)

Some months ago, I read a review of Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson's "The Lord of the World" (1907) which was intriguing enough for me to add the book to my wish list. Chris was trying to save the book to give me for my birthday, but relented and gave it to me last week when I was so sick. The book has been properly devoured and it was so fascinating that I want to recommend it here, in my tiny corner of cyberspace where maybe some people come to visit.

"The Lord of the World" is known as one of the first dystopian novels: a form of science fiction writing in which the author speculates about the future which has taken a terrible turn for the dark side. (Now, don't go read the Wikipedia entry unless you want a spoiler of the entire plot.)

Lord of the World . . . is truly remarkable and deserves to stand beside Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four as a classic of dystopian fiction. In fact, though Huxley's and Orwell's modern masterpieces may merit equal praise as works of literature, they are clearly inferior as works of prophecy. The political dictatorships that gave Orwell's novel-nightmare an ominous potency have had their day. Today, his cautionary fable serves merely as a timely reminder of what has been and what may be again if the warnings of history are not heeded. Benson's novel-nightmare, on the other hand, is coming true before our very eyes. (source)

Benson's novel is set in the late 21st century when "Protestantism is dead. Men do recognize at last that a supernatural Religion involves an absolute authority and that Private Judgment in matters of faith is nothing else than the beginning of disintegration." Catholicism is all but outlawed and Humanitarianism is the new religion of the day, albeit "anti-supernatural": it is Pantheism, developing a ritual under Freemasonry, and has a creed that 'God is Man.' The various countries of the world have combined into three superpowers (far predating consolidations such as the League of Nations in 1914the United Nations in 1942the European Union of the 1990s) and the political leadership is Marxist-Communist. (Personal note: I had no idea how hard it is to find a web reference showing the history of Communism that isn't positive in its portrayal!).

What thrills me about dystopian novels is how accurately the good ones predict what actually happened in the future, both culturally and technologically. For example, Benson foresaw 55 years early a Vatican Council being called which caused "the loss of a great number through the final definitions . . . . the 'Exodus of the Intellectuals' . . . ." (Figures don't lie.) Euthanasia--which had recently entered public debate at time of writing--is a normal, everyday occurrence in the world of our book: mandatory for the "useless" or anyone in the "final agonies" and optional for anyone who desires it. The reader sees a world in which everything from the sunlight to the turf is artificial, the world is perfectly clean, and marriages are often childless. Technologically, this novel reveals that air flight is common (writing four years after Kitty Hawk) and phone communication with multiple lines and caller ID is used (see history of the phone).

When a dystopian author predicts radical changes for the future, how was his book received upon publication? Sure, now we read the book more than 100 years later and remark at its accuracy, but did earlier readers find it so fantastic that they could not suspend their disbelief? I don't know, but I did read that "Lord of the World" has never been out of print.

The crisis of the novel is the appearance of a new world leader, the mysterious Felsenburgh who is hailed as Savior of the World but is, of course, the AntiChrist. Having a sound knowledge of Scripture (and I feel like I have just barely enough) will make reading this book even more chilling: one reads how Scripture is misused and twisted throughout, very similar to what we see in the secular world around us today.

Will everyone be taken in by the AntiChrist? How far reduced can Catholics become in the world? Will everyone left apostasize? Will the line of the papacy remain unbroken till the end of time? Will the gates of Hell prevail against the Church or not?

I read this novel absolutely gripped by the plot, but simultaneously wondering all the time more and more about the author himself. Msgr. Benson was an Anglican priest and son of the Archbishop of Canterbury (as in, the head of the Church of England!), yet converted to Catholicism (1903) and become a Catholic priest (1904)--causing a sensation, indeed! This prolific author published this sophisticated, completely orthodox Catholic novel only four years after becoming Catholic and he died a mere ten years into his priesthood. Benson wrote fifteen highly successful novels--that is so rare for any author, and yet a Catholic priest: how did he have time?

I highly recommend "The Lord of the World" as worthy of a sincere Catholic's time. And now, my appetite whetted, I am off to read one of my favorite dystopian and post-Apocalyptic novels, A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I read about once per year.

Other book reviews of "Lord of the World," better than mine, can be found:

UPDATE: And "Lord of the World" is recommended reading by the pope! See here.


  1. Wow! I mean, it sounds thrilling, but...for lack of better word...creepy. Though I suppose that's the point. Anyway, thanks for the review! Maybe I'll check it a few years ;) -Emiliann W.

  2. Is there anything inappropriate for children?

  3. Speaking here to Emilann (as a young lady) and Sarah Faith (as a mom): No, there isn't anything objectively inappropriate. I do think the subject matter is very dark and anxiety-producing, so I would let a very mature and well-catechized 12-year-old read it and some young folks not till later teen years, when they are (should be) becoming aware of the very real attacks on the faith.

    There is discussion of euthanasia, but nothing at all gruesome. In fact, the language is purposefully very flowery to contrast against the evil being done. When warfare is committed, there is no graphic description of the deaths. There is never an explanation of *why* some marriages are childless, just that they are. There is no romance.

    I think a young reader would have to be mature enough to start to understand the nature of evil, of how adults can appear kind and good but have the blackest of ill intent, how people lie and deceive. The young reader would need to be already aware that even priests and bishops can lose their faith, can perpetrate evil, and have that not be devastatingly new news. A young person reading this should probably naturally be in "the questioning phase."

    If one were to read this with, say, a 12-year-old or teenager, I believe it would be best read alongside with the parent because there is so much to be interpreted, so much meat for discussion, so much comparison to what is happening in the world we live in. I *would* want a child to have read this by the time he is reaching adulthood and leaving the house because he needs to know just what he is facing for real in this world.