26 September 2021


Paul Robichaud. Pan, the Great God’s Modern Return. Reaktion Books, 2021.

‘The Greek god Pan...cosmic god of All; symbol of bestial lust; demon; protector of forests; cipher for Stuart monarchs; symbol of the latent powers in nature; terrifying god of the abyss; source of occult knowledge; symbol of gay love; guardian of wild animals; Horned God of the witches; ruler of nature spirits; archetype of the unconscious; and many more.’
The multiple identities and reincarnations of Pan are eloquently examined by Paul Robichaud in this fascinating book. Every age has its own version of Pan that echoes his Greek origins. The principal effect he had on most viewers was to encompass the All of creation and ignite awe or panic. For Pan (In spite of the fact, that like God, he was often pronounced as dead) could be an evil or benign force.

The nearer we get to the 20th century Robichaud rightly takes in such influential explorers of Pan as Carl Jung, Kenneth Grahame, Arthur Machen and D.H.Lawrence. Now a more ominous Pan appears with his enveloping dark void of a world. And the occultists and new age practitioners claim him as a mysterious force of nature. Aleister Crowley writes his poem Hymn to Pan, and Robert Ogilvie Crombie (a friend of one of the founders of The Findhorn Community) has visions of fauns and begins to deliver lectures on Pan.

My own artistic encounters with Pan chime with Robichaud’s. Illustrations in children’s stories, where the hairy sexuality, of this half-man and half-goat, was minimised or erased; his cropping up in the verse of the Romantic poets (freshly examined by Robichaud); Saki’s story, 'The Music on the Hill'; the fiction of D.H.Lawrence (especially Pan as part of the character of the gamekeeper in Lady Chatterley’s Lover) and as a satanic image in the Hammer film, The Devil Rides Out.

I was delighted that Robichaud also quoted these examples. In fact I loved how comprehensive Pan, the Great God’s Modern Return is. It takes in philosophy, history, literature, painting, film and music. Only in music did Robichaud miss an important example of Pan. In 1995 Harrison Birtwistle (a composer fascinated by Greek mythology) had his concertante work Panic, a piece for saxophone, jazz drum kit, woodwinds, brass and percussion, premiered at The Last Night of the Proms. Well it worked as Panic cause a panicky response from the audience suitably annoyed and frightened by its dissonance. I urge all buyers of this book to play YouTube concert film of the Birtwistle whilst reading!

This book is probably the most extensive study of Pan attempted. And it’s very well written. Robichaud is not only an academic but a published poet and it shows in the elegance of his sentences - sensitive and careful attention is given to the shades of meaning attached to Pan. Robinchaud is also skilful in his apt choice of quotation that’s not without a sense of humour. Here is what Somerset Maugham said in 1930 about Pan’s place in English life and letters.

‘God went out (oddly enough with cricket and beer) and Pan came in. In a hundred novels his cloven hoof left its imprint on the sward; poets saw him lurking in the twilight on London commons, and literary ladies in Surrey, nymphs of an industrial age, mysteriously surrendered their virginity to his rough embrace. Spiritually, they were never the same again.’

And it’s not just the words but the images that captivate. The book has a generous number of colour illustrations - Goya, Edward Burne-Jones, Arthur Rackham, Rubens etc. I was particularly taken with Franz von Struck’s painting Dissonance where Pan, hands on his ears, is annoyed by a small faun attempting to learn the panpipes.

If you are looking for a pleasurable source book on everything about Pan than Paul Robinchaud’s is it. An important and self-recommending study. I loved it. -- Alan Price.

Harrison Birtwhistle's 'Pan' at the 1995 Proms performance can be seen and heard here:

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