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Literature / Lord of the World

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"Then in the heavenly light, to the crash of drums, above the screaming of the women and the battering of feet, in one thunder-peal of worship ten thousand voices hailed Him Lord and God."

Lord of the World is a 1906 dystopian Catholic novel by Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, a British Catholic priest and convert from Anglicanism. Something like a Catholic Left Behind, it follows two stories. The first is of Father Percy Franklin, a British Catholic priest working in a world that has by-and-large forsaken the Catholic faith in favor of Marxist one-party states. The second follows Oliver and Mabel Brand, a non-religious British couple. Oliver is MP for Croydon, and generally a reliable supporter of said Marxist state. At the start of the novel, the European powers are inches from the possibility of war with the Eastern Empire. A peace delegation from the United States, featuring as a last-minute addition the young Senator Julian Felsenburgh, may be their only hope. But as Felsenburgh begins his meteoric rise in power, the Church senses danger...


Still under construction. Beware of unmarked spoilers.

“Yes, sir,” put in Percy smoothly, “but what of the tropes, if you don’t mind–-”

  • Accomplice by Inaction: Benson understood what many subsequent dystopia authors did not, that the real sign of a dystopian, tyrannical regime is not the atrocities they directly order, but instead the massacres committed by the crowd, which the authorities order law enforcement to stand down for. So naturally, in the book, when anti-Catholic mobs start lynching people for going to Mass or otherwise showing signs of Catholicism, Felsenburgh does not at first order it. He does, however, make sure that none of the perpetrators are arrested, and it's very likely that he encouraged this off the record, like what the Nazis did in the leadup to Kristallnacht.
  • Ambiguously Human: Felsenburgh is very obviously the Antichrist, has the ability to brainwash people into worshiping him, and has no publicly known past, yet it is never made clear whether he is literally Satan in human guise, or a mortal human committed to doing his bidding.
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  • Antagonist Title: The "lord of the world" spoken of in the title, and one of Felsenburgh's speeches, is Felsenburgh himself, and, by extension, Satan. Those familiar with Paul's epistles will know that Felsenburgh isn't talking about God here.
  • The Antichrist: Felsenburgh, though possibly an Unbuilt Trope as far as popular culture depictions. Rather than taking over the world by force, he effortlessly rides the tides of secularism to absolute power, even condemning the anti-Catholic riots for a time, until the Test Act. Notably, he is never actually referred to as "the antichrist," or even as an antichrist, in the narration or by any of the characters, though the book was originally going to be called “Anti-Christ”.
  • Artistic License – Politics: Felsenburgh is introduced as a U.S. Senator, yet becomes both the leader of the European state and the emperor of Asia. This is due to mind control, but at that point he is considered the undisputed leader of the world even though he never became the president of the United States. In America, he is still just a senator. Most likely, Benson assumed that the American system worked just like the British system, in which the Prime Minister is first among equals.
  • Audience Surrogate: Mabel takes this role, listening to Oliver's explanations and reassurances.
  • Blasphemous Boast:
    • Humanism's entire existence is this. Their worship services are directly stolen and rebranded from Catholicism, they build idols of nude, physically perfect men and women (the latter of whom wear Mary's crown of stars from the Book of Revelation), they revere Felsenburgh as Jesus, and their entire cult is based around the worship of "man as God".
    • Oliver makes one early in the book, where while delivering a speech he boasts that the father of Humanism did more for mankind than Jesus and His disciples. His mother, who was raised by Catholics and returns to the faith, is aghast, as is the unnamed Catholic who (non-fatally) shoots him for it.
  • Bookends: It's frequently mentioned that certain stories and locations which were important in the Bible are playing out again or being ironically re-used. Since everything's part of God's plan, the symbolism is likely intentional on His part.
    • Just as Jesus was betrayed by one of His twelve disciples, Pope Silverster III is betrayed by one of his last twelve Cardinals.
    • The Catholic Church came into existence on Pentacost, and the last of its leadership dies on Pentacost.
    • After Rome is firebombed, the Catholic Church takes shelter in Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, and it is in Nazareth that He returns and and ushers in the Last Judgment.
  • Broken Pedestal: Mabel, after being pushed past her breaking point by the Humanist regime's toleration, then encouragement, of religious persecution against the remaining Catholics. Unable to embrace the faith due to the deep rooted conditioning of the Humanist dogmas, and unable to continue supporting the regime after it sets out to arrest and execute the remaining Catholics, Mabel resigns herself to suicide in a euthanasia home.
  • Central Theme: The intrinsic human need for worship and a belief in something greater and good. Mabel, Oliver, and other Humanists discuss or dwell on a deep longing for God—but can't let go of their Pride in mankind or disdain for faith, so only end up directing this longing into "an idealized man" and "man becoming God" rather than true divinity. Percy likewise notes that the Humanists, though infuriating with their Catholic blasphemy, are seeking a god "without God" and just picked possibly the worst place to do so—themselves.
  • Christianity Is Catholic: Enforced. Protestantism has died out, and Orthodoxy is never referred to, except perhaps obliquely when Cardinal Franklin suggests abolishing "the Eastern Catholic Churches," which more likely refers to the 23 sui iuris non-Latin Catholic Churches.
  • Les Collaborateurs: John Francis, after leaving the priesthood, helps create and run the new Humanist liturgies.
  • Criminal Doppelgänger: Several characters notice the uncanny resemblance between Franklin and Felsenburgh. Cardinal Steinmann concludes that the two are perfect antitheses.
  • Darkest Hour: The book as a whole is this for Catholicism. Most notable at the end of Part 2, where the entire College of Cardinals is reduced to three, who survive only long enough to elect a new Pope, who then has to rebuild the entire college from nothing.
  • Dark Messiah: Oliver sees Felsenburgh as one, excusing things like bombing Rome and allowing anti-Christian pogroms because people still need to rid themselves of Christianity.
  • Dead Guy on Display: Mabel witnesses the brutalized corpses of children and priests being paraded through the city streets during the first of many anti-Catholic pogroms. The witnessing of the very brutality which she had been taught was below Man now that the Humanist creed had become the status quo sowed the seeds for her losing faith in Felsenburgh and the future he promised to usher in.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Late in the novel, after a Catholic plot to bomb Westminster Abbey is discovered, Felsenburgh orders the volor bombing of Rome, killing the Pope, most Cardinals, the deposed Royalty of Europe, and thousands of civilians. Percy even invokes and lampshades this shortly beforehand, noting that the world hates them and is just waiting for an excuse to pull the trigger.
  • Divine Intervention: In accordance with Catholic eschatology, Felsenburgh's reign ends with the Second Coming of Christ, followed shortly by his destruction, the final judgment, and the end of the world. Notably, none of this is present in the novel itself, it ends right before all this occurs.
  • God-Emperor: While Felsenburgh never explicitly demands worship, he doesn't seem to have a problem with it.
  • Hypocrite: Humanists as a whole (with scarce exceptions like Mabel) show themselves to be this when they instigate world-wide mob violence against Catholics (including children), celebrate the bombing of Rome (home to hundreds of thousands of civilians), and wave away how this spits in their boasts of how Humanism will destroy violence forever.
  • Illegal Religion: Any belief in God is outlawed under penalty of death under the Test Act, but Catholicism is the primary victim, as the Eastern religions have accepted Felsenburgh as like a god.
  • Just Before the End: Things are pretty bad for Catholicism, and it only gets worse from there. The last words of the novel describe the end of time itself.
  • Language Drift: Most likely, the flying machines are called “volors” because in Benson’s time, the word “aeroplane” referred only to the wing, not the whole craft.
  • Leitmotif: Whenever Felsenburgh is about to arrive, everything goes unnaturally quiet.
  • Mr. Exposition:
    • Oliver takes this role fairly frequently, explaining everything from Catholic afterlife doctrine to the political situation to a curious Mabel. Note he's a rather unreliable one, as his understanding of Catholicism is colored by his distaste for the religion and lack of knowledge.
    • Mr Templeton is an exaggerated example, whose only scene in the story consists of him explaining the past century of political developments.
  • Meaningful Rename: Franklin takes the name Silvester III as Pope, possibly in tribute to Rome being destroyed on St Silvester's Day (New Year's Eve).
  • Mystical White Hair: Both Franklin and Felsenburgh. Felsenburgh's doubles as White Hair, Black Heart.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: The antichrist of this novel is without a doubt named after the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate.
  • Natural Disaster Cascade: During the eight days Mabel spends waiting for her euthanasia, she hears news of widespread natural disasters: an unexpected heatwave in her area, earthquakes of astonishing violence, ripple effects destroying twenty-five towns in America, and the complete disappearance (possibly sinking) of a few islands. The origins of these disasters baffle all of mankind, which she notes detachedly is humiliating for those who pride themselves on mastering the world, hinting that they're Signs of the End Times.
  • Near-Villain Victory: Twice. First, the firebombing of Rome wipes out the Pope and almost all of the College of Cardinals, thereby nearly cutting off the whole Papal line. Then, after Silvester rebuilds the College, Felsenburgh discovers his hiding place and prepares to blow the town up. Only the end of the world stops him.
  • New Era Speech: Felsenburgh makes a few. The narration does not relate his actual words but instead merely shows the reaction.
  • Not So Above It All: The Humanist regime prides itself on being humane, enlightened, progressive, and rational, whilst simultaneously asserting that religion is responsible for inhibiting these societal qualities. As the book carries on, it proceeds to violate every principle it claims to uphold.note 
  • Offstage Villainy: For much of the novel, Felsenburgh only appears on-page for speeches and rallies, and recedes into the background for large parts of the book. Even when he personally appears before Parliament to request volors for the bombing of Nazareth, his secretary does the vast majority of the speaking, with Felsenburgh only having one line at the end. Subverted when Felsenburgh flies at the head of the volor squadron, and planned to drop the bomb eliminating the Pope and Cardinals personally, as a symbolic gesture.
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: The book shows three perspectives on this. Mabel is in the middle between Oliver, who wholeheartedly embraces secular Marxism, and Franklin, who despises it.
  • Spell My Name with an "S": It's Pope Silvester, not Sylvester.
  • Turbulent Priest: Father Franklin is one. Taken Up to Eleven in part 3, when he is elected Pope and single-handedly rebuilds the College of Cardinals, then leads it from hiding in Nazareth.
  • Vigilante Execution: The news of the plot to bomb Westminster Abbey during the feast of Maternity triggers anti-Christian pogroms. Cardinal Steinmann falls victim to one after the election of Pope Silvester III.
  • Villain Protagonist: Oliver Brand is one of the viewpoint characters and enforces Felsenburg's persecution of the Catholics. His personality is also rather unpleasant, being snobbish, condescending, hypocritical, and mildly sexist.
  • Visionary Villain: Felsenburgh to a tee. The Freemasons and Marxists to a degree, as well.
  • We Will Have Euthanasia in the Future: Conspicuously juxtaposed with the Humanist cult's life worship. While simultaneously extolling the glory of the great font of life from which all men come and which unites all of them into the immanent divine Man, the regime's medical professionals forego actual medical treatment on those injured in accidents in favor of instant euthanasia, and consent is a mere formality that is done away with when convenient. They also have euthanasia homes where one can prepare for suicide if they so wish which Mabel takes full advantage of after Oliver signed the Test Act.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: After Cardinal Dolgorovski tells Felsenburgh the Pope's location, the President has him executed to prevent him from reviving the Catholic Church.
  • Zeerust: As befits a book written in 1906. Despite the 100-year gap, it still feels very much like the Edwardian era, with typewriters, telegraphs, and the like. Justified insofar as Benson was only interested in the social aspects of the future, not the technological.
  • Zeppelins from Another World: They're called "volors" in-universe, but are the common method of international transport. They are also used to bomb Rome and Nazareth.

Then this page passed, and the glory of it.


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