“The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold…”
‘The Destruction of Sennacherib’
George Gordon, Lord Byron
“Here and there they were scattered, nearly fifty altogether, in that great gulf they had made, overtaken by a death that must have seemed to them as incomprehensible as any death could be. To me also at that time this death was incomprehensible. All I knew was that these things that had been alive and so terrible to men were dead. For a moment I believed that the destruction of Sennacherib had been repeated, that God had repented, that the Angel of Death had slain them in the night.”
‘The War of the Worlds’
If H.G. Wells had died right after writing ‘The War of the Worlds’, his fame as a science-fiction writer and a writer of serious literature would have been secure. He wouldn’t have had to write anything else, not even ‘The Time Machine’, though that would have been an added feather in his cap. ‘The Destruction of Sennacherib’ is one of my favorite poems, not just because it rhymes and actually has a sense of rhythm, but because it is spare, short and to the point with an ending line that gives me goosebumps whenever I read it. ‘The War of the Worlds’ is similar in tone and thrust, i.e. a story about implacable strength stymied and eventually upended by the Invisible.
Wells boasted to a friend once that he had an idea for a story that would allow him to play hob with his neighbors, killing them off in various nefarious ways. Maybe he didn’t like his neighbors. Whatever the case, he crafted a narrative that was more like a short story than a novel, since every single word played a necessary role. The power of the book’s description can be traced in part to the narrator himself, a writer of speculative philosophy who seemed to be endowed with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the English countryside, especially around London. You always know where you are as the Martian advance is chronicled, not to mention the dozens of tiny details that an acute observer would notice. The descriptions are to the point without being merely telegraphic. In much the same way, George Gordon, Lord Byron could describe the Assyrian’s advance in the same fashion, comparing ‘the sheen of their spears’ to the multitude of stars.
‘The Destruction of Sennacherib’ consists of only six stanzas and Byron spends most of his time describing the reaction of the Assyrian army when the ‘Angel of Death spreads his wings on the blast’. The results are not good. Wells’ task was somewhat more difficult as he detailed the dawning awareness of an invasion that would bring so much misery and death to England and to Wells’ neighbors. What’s amazing is his sense of balance, in being able to maintain a tone of malaise like the creep of a slow poison through the bloodstream. Indeed, he likened the impact of the first cylinder on the Woking commons to a poison dart, first numbing the area around it and eventually causing a liquification and wholesale destruction of the body politic. Still, even in the midst of the worst aspects of the Martian invasion, the onslaught of the Heat-Ray, the creep of the Black Smoke and the more sinister interests of the Martians in mankind, Well could still turn even the most horrific scenes into something approaching poetry. His descriptions of the Panic in London when the population is urged to instant flight are horrendous, even if the presence of horse-drawn carriages might seem dated nowadays. It doesn’t really matter. Whether you’re in a Phaeton or a Ford, panic and the sense of fear are vividly described, to the point that I’m always tempted to skip over certain sections.
Wells’ story doesn’t use an omniscient point of view which means that sometimes there’s a sense of mystery imparted. You don’t know exactly what’s happening. A portion of the book describes the trials of the narrator’s brother, trapped in the midst of the Panic. After a series of adventures, the young man is able to escape by sea and witnesses the duel between the torpedo ram Thunder Child and a trio of Martian fighting machines who’ve waded into the ocean. The Thunder Child is destroyed, but not before managing to dispatch a couple of the Martians. All of this takes place in the glare of the setting sun and just before it disappears, the young man sees something:
“It was deep twilight when the captain cried out and pointed. My brother strained his eyes. Something rushed up into the sky out of the greyness–rushed slantingly upward and very swiftly into the luminous clearness above the clouds in the western sky; something flat and broad, and very large, that swept round in a vast curve, grew smaller, sank slowly, and vanished again into the grey mystery of the night. And as it flew it rained down darkness upon the land.”
Beautiful and chilling at the same time. What is it that the young man saw with his fellows? Most likely the flying machine that the Martians were experimenting with and revealed in the second book. Still, a first time reader wouldn’t know that. What is imparted is a sense of mystery, the idea that powers have been released that threaten to dethrone mankind, powers that regard him as nothing more than a kingdom of the ants. It is telling that this particular passage ends the first book with Book 2 entitled ‘The Earth Under the Martians’.
C.S. Lewis once complained that H.G. Wells did a disservice to his readers since ‘he basically filled the universe with bogeys’. The Martians are indeed horrible, especially when the narrator discovers that they regard human beings as food, their blood being a source of nourishment. The true horror lies in the fact that the Martians are essentially us, the end result of a process of evolution that has seen the abandonment of every bodily organ except the Brain. Sex is a thing of the past, procreation occurring much like the tiny hydra with child budding off of the parent. The narrator describes them as merely heads, swapping various machines as a man might change his clothes. The change is deeper and more sinister when one learns that Mars is dying.
“The immediate pressure of necessity has brightened their intellects, enlarged their powers, and hardened their hearts.”
The Martians have lost something in the ensuing years, something that goes beyond the organic. They have become implacable, aggressive, willing to do anything in order to survive. The irony lies in the similarity of the Martians with humankind, warring against the weak, whoever they might be.
In the end, the narrator stands upon the lip of the great pit in the center of London and discovers that the Martians have been overthrown. It is not surprising that he draws a comparison to Byron’s poem. The irresistible enemy is dead, slain by what reason he doesn’t know. Wells gives a more naturalistic explanation to the Martians’ destruction, the influence of putrefactive bacteria that they either knew nothing of, or ignored. Some scholars have suggested that the Assyrian army that besieged Jerusalem was decimated by the plague, killing enough of them that Sennacherib decided to cut his losses and head back to Assyria. The presence of a disease wreaking havoc on a powerful foe is a germ that might have infected the mind of H.G. Wells resulting in his impressive book. We’ll never know. One way or the other, the powerful are vanquished.
‘And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!’