In Araby Orion



A note on In Araby Orion, by Edward Thompson

(London & New York, 1930)



Edward Thompson, born in Bath in 1886, entered the Wesleyan Methodist Ministry in 1909, and became a missionary teacher in India from 1910 to 1923, though this was interrupted during the First World War when he was an Army chaplain in the London Regiment in the Middle East.


Written as fiction but based on a true incident, In Araby Orion tells of an attack by the ‘Brentfords’ on a Turkish position at the end of April 1918, an attack which failed and led to the death of ‘Corporal Henry Bateman’ in a particularly harrowing manner. The story of the difficult march across the desert terrain to the attack is intertwined with poetry and literary allusions arising from the thoughts of, and conversation between, Lieutenant Martin Chapman (a non-conformist Wesleyan preacher) and Henry Bateman, who had been at school together and so have a shared history. Trying to help a wounded companion out of a steep gulley Bateman is shot in the spine, falling back into the ravine, and has to be abandoned there to face death alone, as his companions have to press forward with their attack. The book is dedicated to Lance-Corporal Henry Osborn, ‘Killed in action, East of Jordan, April 30th, 1918.’ It seems fairly safe to assume that Chapman's experiences are based on those of the author, and that Bateman is his friend Osborn.


This book was published in 1930 by Farrar & Rinehart in New York and Ernest Benn in London: HW wrote a review for the New York Herald Tribune in November 1930. He was obviously moved by the story. Two points struck me. First, its overall style, both the text and the striking illustrations, is remarkably like The Patriot’s Progress published earlier that year. Second, remember where HW is and the date – New York, end of 1930 – and the book he had started to write – The Gold Falcon.


Threaded through Thompson’s story are the lines from Frederic Myers’s long poem ‘Saint Paul’ (1867) from which the title derives:


So I have seen in Araby Orion,

Seen without seeing, till he set again –

Known the night-noise and the thunder of the lion,

Silence and sounds of the prodigious plain.


As Corporal Henry Bateman waits for death in his ravine he looks up at the night sky and sees Orion.


He was poor, and lonely, and forsaken; helpless and dying. But in this darkness he grew aware of help coming swiftly towards him, he knew he was going to be lifted from this ground of time that was failing beneath him. He cried out, certain that the night and the wilderness were not empty. In that pit he was sure that eternity had found him, and that its face was full of compassion. That face was bending over him, and in his last delirium all of comfort and love that life had ever brought him took form as one Figure he had often imagined: [. . .] To that Figure he lifted up his hands, and sent his whole life out in a cry of appeal.


Note the similarity there to the death of Manfred at the end of The Gold Falcon. Also, on the title page of In Araby Orion is a small illustration: a head fallen back, surrounded by ripples and gazing up at a star, Orion. An almost identical device appears on the front of the limited edition of The Gold Falcon.


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