In the spring of 1936, the British Council invited Rebecca West to lecture in Yugoslavia. Thanks to the rise of the Nazis and the ongoing depredations of Stalinism, tensions were rising in the Balkans—as if they had not historically been high enough. West wrote to an official of the Council that the country would inevitably be “overrun either by Germany or, under Russian direction, by communism; which would destroy its character, blot out its inheritance from Byzantium.” Soon she would realize, if she did not already, that that “inheritance from Byzantium” was also a tense and complex thing, since the Byzantium of Christian Orthodoxy was also the Istanbul of the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Here was a land whose past, present, and future placed it always at the intersection of immensely powerful states, empires, and faiths. It was a place, West soon learned, of endlessly fascinating complication, and a place that was gravely endangered.

In the following years she would make two more trips to Yugoslavia, covering every province of the country from Croatia and Dalmatia through Bosnia and Serbia and on to Montenegro. All the time she was writing an account of what she saw, an account that began as an imagined “short book” but gradually transformed itself into one of the largest, most ambitious, and greatest books of the twentieth century. In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon West would combine her three journeys into one, changing names, linking events, and amplifying characters—but also spinning marvelous historical cadenzas. No one has written more compellingly than West about the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand, which sparked what then was called the Great War, or about the tragic failure of the Emperor Stephen Dushan, or about the key moment in Serbian history, the crushing defeat of the Serbian people by the Ottoman Turks on the plain of Kosovo in 1389. (In the Vrdnik monastery in the Frushka Gora of Serbia, West saw, still lying in state, the headless body of Prince Lazar, who led the Serbs in that debacle. She touched his blackened and dessicated hand.)

West’s story is in at least one respect a classic tale of the modern world: the encounter of the liberal mind with something much older than itself, something alien to it—something fully historical. She begins her narrative with frequent expressions of her disdain for the Croats, whom she believes sold their precious birthright for the cold pottage of the money and power offered them by the Catholic Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Croats she met were proud of their links with the West, links that in West’s mind (and especially as German expansionism comes back to terrible life) should have been their greatest shame. Her love is reserved for the Serbs, who remained faithful to their Eastern and Orthodox and Slavic roots; she has a kind of Rousseauian passion for their “primitive” attachment to their own history.

But as she goes deeper into Serbia, she sees more and more clearly a side of this attachment that is dark and inexplicable to her. She thinks of a place called the Sheep’s Field in Macedonia, where these people whose “preference for the agreeable over the disagreeable” she loves meet at an ancient stone to sacrifice animals, in hopes of making women fertile. (“But what they were doing at the rock was abominable.”) She thinks above all of the strange fact that Prince Lazar is the greatest hero in Serbian history, not in spite of but because he lost the battle: the prophet Elijah, in the form of a gray falcon, demands that he choose between an earthly and a heavenly kingdom, and he chooses the latter. To the Serbs this is an act of great courage and piety, since the blood of so many of Lazar’s people will therefore be on his hands; to West, it is an abysmal revelation:

“If this be so,” I said to myself, “if it be a law that those who are born into the world with a preference for the agreeable over the disagreeable are born also with an impulse towards defeat, then the whole world is a vast Kosovo, an abominable blood-logged plain, where people who love go out to fight people who hate, and betray their cause to their enemies, so that loving is persecuted for immense tracts of history, far longer than its little periods of victory.” I began to weep, for the left-wing people among whom I had lived all my life had in their attitude to foreign politics achieved such a betrayal. They were always right, they never imposed their rightness. “If this disposition to be at once Christ and Judas is inborn,” I thought, “we might as well die, and the sooner the better, for the defeat is painful after the lovely promise.”

A few years earlier, West had written an angry and sometimes scornful biography of St. Augustine, but here she comes very close to an Augustinian view of the world. She does not, I believe, understand all that she sees, but she sees with a clarity almost unparalleled in this century.

When she finished her manuscript in early 1941, it was almost half-a-million words long. This was unfortunate, because in the midst of the war paper was being strictly rationed. But West’s publishers, Macmillan of London, seem not to have hesitated: they were utterly compelled by the narrative. As her editor wrote, “Who would not be [compelled] by a book which demonstrated by its argument that the East End of London would not be lying in ruins if the Balkan Christian powers had not been defeated by the Turks in 1389?”

Alan Jacobs is Professor of English at Wheaton College.

Articles by Alan Jacobs

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