Tailing the ‘Hawk’

Described by the late historian Sam Moskowitz as the “forgotten ‘Hawk’ of science fiction”, George Griffith’s now relative obscurity nicely represents the often ephemeral popularity of speculative, fantastic literature.  Stringently tied to Britain’s pre-war zeitgeist of transience and her cautious relationship with encroaching modernity, the First World War arguably opened an epistemological chasm, whereby the immediate past began to appear impossibly remote.   As the late-Victorian and Edwardian ages became untimely anachronous, the scientific predictions and socio-political concerns of pre-war authors regularly lost their important contextual basis.  While true classics such as War of the Worlds were successfully committed to posterity, much fiction became at best quaint, and at worst irrelevant.  These works, and by extension their authors, were the victims of a fin de siècle void, in which British society waited, as Samuel Hynes asserts, “for the death of the old world and the birth of the new”.[1]

Such a line of thinking is, undoubtedly, both simplistic and heavily romanticised.  Yet when considering figures such as Griffith, their lives and literary output often appear oddly confined to their immediate period, and make less sense outside of it.  Born in 1857 in Plymouth, George Chetwynd Griffith-Jones was schooled in Southport, before matriculating in his own words “from the greatest of all universities – the world”.[2]  Reputed to have circumnavigated the globe in a record-breaking sixty-four days, he was able to boast such achievements as having “shot to death a Chinese vagrant”, in addition to turning down “the offer of a Polynesian king to marry one of his daughters.”[3]  Returning to England shortly after turning twenty, Griffith spent a short period as a school teacher before moving into the inconsistent employment of journalism.  After a period of mixed success he secured a commission with Pearson’s Weekly to write a future war novel.  Serialised over the course of 1893, The Angel of the Revolution achieved significant success, propelling Griffith briefly into the position of Britain’s most celebrated writer of what was to become science fiction, or as H G Wells later suggested, “’pseudo’ scientific extravaganza”.  

Unlike Wells, however, Griffith’s fiction has not stood the test of time.  Though of historical importance as an early producer of science fiction, he was a poor writer, and was in ideology, as Bleiler argues, “the embodiment of what was wrong with the British Victorian Weltanschauung.”[4]  Though perhaps a rather harsh assessment, The Angel of the Revolution is thematically complex, combining an adventurous socialist idealism with jingoism, chauvinism, and stark racism.  The novel begins in the London workshop of Richard Arnold, an inventor fallen on hard times in his effort to crack the secrets of aerial navigation.  Succeeding in this effort only to realise his limited capital could not possibly finance his groundbreaking discoveries, Arnold is brought into the inner circle of ‘The Terrorists’, a nihilist-socialist[5] revolutionary brotherhood responsible for the recent assassination of several European dignitaries.  With the continent on the brink of war, the group intended, with the help of Arnold’s technological expertise, to “fire the shot that will set the world in a blaze”, forcing the collapse of society. [6]  For as Arnold asserted, he had seen “enough of the seamy side of this much-boasted civilisation of ours to know that it is the most awful mockery that man ever insulted his maker with.”[7]

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Yet what begins as broad, anti-society rhetoric has transformed by the end of the work into a defence of western democracy against the threat of Russian despotism.  Having commissioned Arnold to build a fleet of unprecedented aerial ships, ‘The Terrorists’ remain aloof from the initial stages of war, before successfully forging an alliance between America, Germany and Britain in declaring an Anglo-Saxon Federation.  Pledging to save civilisation from the “all-devouring wave of barbarism” sweeping through Europe from the east, Britain is saved from invasion by American reinforcements, crushing the Russian offensive and arresting the commanding officer, Tsar Alexander himself.  Judged by the secretive head of the Terrorist brotherhood Natas to be “the heir of a usurping murderess”, the Tsar is sentenced, like so many before him, to exile and hard labour in Siberia, thus ending the despotism of the Romanov dynasty.[8]

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The drifting political sentiments of The Angel of the Revolution are difficult to effectively assess.  Rather than accurately representing the currents of late-Victorian political thought, they instead seem the product of Griffith’s sporadic efforts to spin a good yarn.[9]  One negative article of 1894 in The Saturday Review suggests that the work was not universally appreciated:

“We are sick of reading about blood – and still more sick of Mr. George Griffith…When an author puts supreme power into the hands of a few men, and is so devoid of imagination as to suppose we shall believe him when he tells us that they will use it only for the spread of virtue and happiness…neither the critic nor the moralist need concern himself overmuch with him.”[10]

Setting aside this dispute over the realities of personal power, Griffith’s work is fundamentally tied to the age within which it was written.  Fears of Nihilist assassins, Russian despotism, and “yellow barbarism” were already dated by the mid-Edwardian period, after treaties with both Russia and Japan and the ascendancy of organised socialism.  Moreover, Griffith’s efforts at technological speculation were particularly crude.  While his aerial ships are just that, sea-going vessels transported to the air, his description of massive hydro-electricity systems, and of a brutal war between “the Moslems and Buddhists” on the banks of the Bosphorous appear as especially ill-conceived.  Whether unfairly overlooked or rightly forgotten as a writer, in comparison with his contemporary Wells, Griffith’s improbable future was the victim of the inordinately heavy influence of his present.


[1] S. Hynes, The Edwardian Turn of Mind, p14.

[2] S. Moskowitz, ‘George Griffith: Forgotten ‘Hawk’ of Science Fiction’, introduction to G. Griffith, The Angel of the Revolution, (Westport, 1974).

[3] Ibid.

[4] E. Bleiler, Science Fiction: The Early Years, (London, 1990), p303.

[5] Griffith, The Angel of the Revolution, p32.  Griffith’s flexible use of such terms is seemingly deliberate.  As one member of the Inner Circle explains during Arnold’s welcoming meeting, ‘The Terror’ is “an international secret society underlying and directing the operations of the various bodies known as Nihilists, Anarchists, Socialists – in fact, all those organisations which have for their object the reform or destruction, by peaceful or violent means, of society as it is at present constituted.” P32.

[6] Ibid., p33.

[7] Ibid., p13.

[8] Ibid., p360.

[9] According to Moskowitz, Griffith wrote each chapter as it was required, chopping and changing the plot so as not to conform to its initially published synopsis.

[10] ‘What Necessity Knows’, Saturday review of politics, literature, science and art, (Feb 10, 1894), p151.

Images both taken from the quoted edition of The Angel of the Revolution, pages 352 and 358 respectively.

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