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Green Mansions

William H. Hudson

Critical Essays The Mythical Faculty

Hudson defined his poetic strength and forceful imaginative powers as the mythical faculty. The desire for communication with nature, stimulated by imagination and fantasy, induces an awakening of the soul so that a supernatural presence is felt. This sentiment, however, should not necessarily be associated with dogmatic or orthodox yearnings for God. Hudson rejected formal Christianity, although he tried to reconcile religious feelings and his pessimistic outlook about the tenets of organized religion.

This mythical faculty of Hudson is of course linked in philosophical language to the idea of pantheism or the unity of God and nature. Although Hudson rationalized his feelings as animistic rather than pantheistic, the literary manifestations of the two doctrines are closely associated in Green Mansions. Animism, or the personification of inanimate objects and natural phenomena, follows from the pantheism, but pantheism was denied by Hudson as his philosophy. Abel, enamored of nature as an ideal, sees in Rima the human representation of supernatural forces. Her perfection resides in an inner beauty, enhanced by the love and appreciation of nature, which radiates outward. Life, for example, is contained in the flowers of the "green mansions"; and Abel visualizes Rima's uniqueness mirrored in the Hata flower. Abel comes into daily contact with possibilities of the divine influence since it exists in all things, but he does not always reach that spiritual level because his soul must be prepared for the union of God, humanity, and nature. He requires the stimulus of Rima as the catalyst for the full appreciation of these poetic feelings. Animistic sentiments lead Hudson into lofty flights of sparkling poetic prose, and examples abound in Green Mansions where Abel, though lacking the presence of Rima, can find higher meanings in the primitive environment. For example, one of the poetic and philosophical excursions of Abel occurs when he, alone in the Parahuari village, hears the sound of a bell. Recalling at first the symbol of Christian worship, Abel immediately rejects this interpretation because the sound is too ethereal. This bell sounds in harmony with the supernatural, which is more inspirational then church bells; and Abel is then led into pantheistic and/or animistic paths. The sound of bells is soon understood as the warbling of bellbirds which Abel apotheosizes in a following passage, sensing increasingly the divine presence.

Hudson, then, did not accept religious orthodoxy; and he classified himself in his own phraseology as a "religious atheist." After his serious illness from typhus and rheumatic fever at the age of fifteen and his subsequent reading of Darwin, Hudson turned his back on strict adherence to theological explanations and doctrinal rigidity in his search for answers to life. It is perhaps difficult today to realize the tremendous impact that Darwin's Origin of Species had upon European thought during the second half of the nineteenth century. Darwin's concepts regarding variation of species and the survival of the fittest easily found their way into the structure of Green Mansions. The trees are richly described in the lush and exuberant South American tropical jungles; the foliage brightens all the towering trees with a carpet of variegated colors. Hudson as the naturalist and the student of Darwin blends successfully in the descriptive passages of the romance. But there is a principle behind these performances of nature, or otherwise Hudson would be only a local color artist, a mediocre talent with some writing skill. Hudson has also absorbed the conclusions of Darwin that life evolves and continues by dint of struggle; conflict, hostility, and cruelty are concomitant with the existence of life in nature. Chance and mechanism, also inherent in the Darwinian system, completed the destruction of Hudson's belief in the solutions of Christianity.

Hudson, coming to accept all these consequences of Darwinism, is nevertheless disturbed by the apparent lack of purpose in this whole fight for survival. He cannot at the same time abandon the teachings of orthodoxy despite his own sad experiences as a youth, his scientific observations, and his readings. Indeed, no real originality lies in this dilemma of Hudson because the entire Victorian age was shaken to its supposedly solid foundations in faith by the same problem — years before Hudson faced the issue.

Matthew Arnold and Alfred Tennyson, for example, agonized about this conflict between science and religion; they refer constantly in their poetry to the doubts raised by Darwin's theories.

Hudson, nonetheless, is saddened by his lack of faith, and he asked himself in his writings: "How reconcile these facts with a beneficent Creator who designed it all?" Rima's death comes at the hands of senseless brute force because the Indians, ironically so close to nature, acquire no feelings for the beauty embodied in the young girl. They are ignorant and callous about the beautiful "green mansions," and they only exist in a debased state. More than accidental, Rima's fate stands out as a deliberate manifestation of what nature can do: It can destroy and kill beauty and ugliness alike without cause, explanation, or justification. These Darwinian ideas were grasped by Hudson, a trained naturalist, who saw from his own studies the truth of these conclusions. Hudson could not fathom any purpose in creation which resulted in sudden annihilation, and he certainly could not accept a God as an all-loving maker of the universe who would permit such frightening destinies for his creatures.

By the end of his life, however, Hudson did come to perceive some solution to the terrible prospect of death at the whim of nature. In The Book of a Naturalist (1919), he concluded that the Darwinian vision might lead to a new and deeper spiritual attitude. At first, people cling to the past desperately because it affords them comfort and security, and their beliefs die or change slowly. Finally, they sift the new ideas, radical in their view, for any fragments of faith which will sustain them. They came in Darwin's case to a somewhat optimistic conclusion — or rationalization — that evolutionary theory might, after all, prove that humanity was progressing upward. Although Hudson sympathizes with the logic of this appeal, he primarily finds in these rationalistic endeavors the inspiration to grasp some anchor in the swirling sea of his sorrow about the loss of faith.