Robert Hugh Benson is best known for historical fiction. In novels such as The King’s Achievement, By What Authority? and Come Rack! Come Rope! he takes the reader into the dark and deadly heart of the Tudor Terror during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I in the sixteenth century. In The History of Richard Raynal, Solitary, the reader is taken a century further back in time to the happier, merrier England of the early fifteenth century to meet the colorful character of “Master Richard,” a holy hermit on a God-given mission.
Such was Benson’s genius, however, that he was not constrained by any one literary genre. Aside from his historical romances, he was equally adept at novels with a contemporary setting, such as The Necromancers, a cautionary tale about the dangers of spiritualism, or with dystopic futuristic fantasies, such as Lord of the World, which warrants a place beside Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as a classic of dystopian fiction and as a work of prophecy.
Each of these cautionary tales set in an imaginary future has a prophetic element which remains as relevant as ever. Huxley warns of the corrupting influence of the pursuit of comfort, showing a society that somnambulates toward luxurious slavery; Orwell shows the sheer horror of totalitarian control over the lives of individuals; Benson shows how atheism, in the guise of secular humanism, emerges as a rival religion to Christianity, intent on global domination.
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The principal characters of Lord of the World are realistically and sympathetically depicted, even those who advocate the new atheism. Such a balanced and genuinely humane approach to the dignity of the human person is a characteristic of all of Benson’s novels. He never falls into the trap of reducing his characters to two-dimensional caricatures. There are no devilishly wicked or psychopathic villains, and there are no angelic, sin-free, sugar-coated saints. Such realism saves his work from the preachiness which is the death of so much Christian fiction. (Indeed, Benson’s work should be studied diligently by all those who wish to write Christian fiction well.)
The two priests at the center of Lord of the World are Fr. Percy Franklin and Fr. John Francis. The former is devout, though troubled with doubt; the latter is an apostate who becomes a high-profile practitioner of the new secular humanist “religion.” The other primary characters are Oliver and Mabel Brand, a socialist politician and his wife. They are both likable, insofar as they are genuinely idealistic and fully believe in the creed of secular humanism, and insofar as they genuinely love each other as husband and wife, each desiring the good of the other.
Such is Benson’s skill and finesse as a storyteller that we almost believe that the new “progressive” humanism can really be beneficial to humanity, replacing the antiquated “other-worldly” religions of the world with practical plans for changing this world for the better. It all seems so plausible, especially when advocated by Julian Felsenburgh, the elusive yet pervasive “Lord of the World” himself, who travels the globe preaching peace. Such are his charismatic and rhetorical gifts that he does not merely preach peace but he makes peace, persuading the global superpowers to pull back from the brink of impending war.
Felsenburgh’s political and diplomatic success, bringing harmony in the name of humanity, make him a global celebrity whose name is on everyone’s lips. Devotion to his personality and the policies he advocates takes on a pseudo-religious fervor. He soon becomes the most powerful force in world politics. National governments prostrate themselves at his feet, giving him absolute control of world affairs.
The only global opposition to this globalist dominion is to be found in the Catholic Church, the other Christian denominations having been seduced by modernism and subsumed within the secularist spirit of the age. The non-Christian religions have succumbed to Felsenburgh’s charms and have reached an accommodation with his plans for the world.
As the true spirit of the “Lord of the World” becomes clear in the increasingly brutal persecution of the Church, the fortitude of the heroic Fr. Franklin is tested to the limit, as is the idealism of Oliver and Mabel Brand which is put to the test in it its encounter with the inhumane policies of Felsenburgh’s humanitarian regime.
Considering that Lord of the World was published in 1907, twenty-five years before the publication of Huxley’s novel and forty-two years earlier than Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, it can claim preeminence in terms of its prophetic power. Huxley and Orwell were both writing after the Bolshevik Revolution and Mussolini’s March on Rome and were able to see the consequences of communist and fascist totalitarianism with the wisdom of hindsight.
Benson, on the other hand, was writing ten years before the Russian Revolution and fifteen years before the rise of fascism in Italy. Lord of the World actually predicts a revolution in 1917, though it occurs in Britain, not in Russia, and results in a one-party totalitarian socialist state. The novel also foresees the use of flying machines to bomb civilian populations in cities—thirty years before the Nazi and fascist bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War and the so-called blitzkrieg unleashed on the cities of England in 1940. The novel even appears to predict the dropping of bombs that are so powerful that whole cities can be wiped out, prefiguring the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Lord of the World also foresees with astonishing prescience the rise of the cult of personality (incarnated in the novel by the idolization of Julian Felsenburgh), long before the rise of Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler. When Orwell presents us with Big Brother in the late 1940s, he reminds us of totalitarian tyrants who had already disgraced and disfigured history; Benson’s “Lord of the World” is ahead of his time and is much more subtle, believable, and likable than Orwell’s brutalist “Big Brother,” as well as being ultimately demonic—not merely monstrous—and therefore much creepier.
Above all, Benson’s classic of dystopian fiction foresees and foreshadows the rise of globalism and the secular humanist atheism as a new godless religion. His cautionary vision of the future is becoming the present in which we find ourselves.
The world depicted in Lord of the World is one where creeping secularism and godless humanism have triumphed over traditional morality. It is a world where philosophical relativism has triumphed over objectivity; a world where, in the name of tolerance, religious doctrine is not tolerated. It is a world where euthanasia is practiced widely and religion hardly practiced at all. The lord of this nightmare world is a benign-looking politician intent on power in the name of “peace” and intent on the destruction of religion in the name of “truth.” In such a world, only a small and shrinking Church stands resolutely against the demonic “Lord of the World.”
As for the novel’s perennial relevance, it was evident in 1992, when Cardinal Ratzinger cited it as a means of criticizing a recent speech in which President George H.W. Bush had called for “a New World Order.” The future pope sought to remind the U.S. President that Benson’s novel had already described “a similar unified civilization and its power to destroy the spirit. The anti-Christ is represented as the great carrier of peace in a similar new world order.” Cardinal Ratzinger then quoted from Pope Benedict XV’s 1920 encyclical Bonum sane:
The coming of a world state is longed for, by all the worst and most distorted elements. This state, based on the principles of absolute equality of men and a community of possessions, would banish all national loyalties. In it no acknowledgement would be made of the authority of a father over his children, or of God over human society. If these ideas are put into practice, there will inevitably follow a reign of unheard-of terror.
Such a state is foreseen in Lord of the World, which is why it should be on the reading list of all lovers of authentic human freedom.
Editor’s Note: This is the thirty-sixth in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”