One of the most impressive features of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is the way in which West blends autobiography with history and travel narrative. After the prologue, she explains that in 1898, when she was five, her mother and cousin had stood beside each other reading a newspaper with consternation because Empress Elizabeth of Austria had been assassinated. This early childhood memory—joined five years later on June 11, 1903, by the assassination of Alexander, the king of Serbia, and his wife, Queen Draga—remained more vivid to West than the 1914 murder of Austrian archduke Francis Ferdinand, which touched off World War I. From the earliest age, it seemed to her that human beings were as much in love with death as with life.
West quotes Blaise Pascal’s sentiment that humans are thinking reeds who know they will die and whose consciousness of death is nobler than the universe that would crush them. Pascal’s words, West writes, inspire her to explore the dangers that threaten human existence. She believes that the Balkans will help to explain to her why she feels so personally threatened by her anticipation of another world war.
West also explains her affinity for Yugoslavs, whom she cherishes for their intense polyglot intellectual curiosity. She contrasts her reception to the standoffish, tepid one that visitors receive in England, which does not realize how much it owes to the Slavs who slowed and then stopped the spread of the Turks into the West. The Balkans allow West to see the conflicts of history in the open and not in the blurred and false optimism of the British Empire or the diffuseness of life in modern towns. Urban life actually covers up what people need to know if they are to survive.
West acknowledges a romantic—one might say a Balkan—strain in her blood that tends to intensify every insight, creating as much a fiction of Yugoslavia as a fact. Yet she includes at strategic intervals her husband’s sensible English advice: Dispense with apocalyptic revelations, for if they were to come true, she would not like it. Without Henry Andrews to test her observations, to ask pointed questions, to respond with as much intelligence as emotion, the narrative of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon might not have achieved its balance between thought and feeling, fact and imagination, which is also the equilibrium of West’s marriage.
It is West’s contention that what occurs on the world stage must be connected to the private heart. Indeed, she layers her narrative with complex psychological and philosophical insights while reminding her readers that it is a journey, a very careful recording of what she saw in Yugoslavia but also a sojourn into the mind of Rebecca West. Autobiography, feminist polemic, history, reportage—Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is so many things, not the least of which is an account of how Europe had come to suffer World War II. During the years 1937 to 1941 when she planned, wrote, and published her book, West had to incorporate her reactions to the triumphs of fascism even as her own country and most of Europe remained supine. She wants to know what accounted for this passivity.
In Belgrade, West is astonished to see her hotel doors swing open to admit a peasant holding a black lamb in his arms. It reminds her that the middle class in Yugoslavia is still very close to its peasant origins. Later in Macedonia, in a sheep’s field, she witnesses the sacrifice of a black lamb. Disgusted at the sight of the greasy and blood-drenched rock, reeking with the guts of...
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life, she recognizes a ritual meant to purge people of sin. A little girl is brought to watch a man slit the black lamb’s throat, catching in the spurt of blood enough to make a circle on the child’s forehead. West rejects this shameful ceremony, and the idea that such sacrifice is necessary. She is especially enraged that the little girl will be brought up to believe that such cruelty is required and to associate the very act of childbearing with sin and pain.
Life divides for West at that moment between people who embrace and those who reject this notion of sacrifice, which she links to the great Serbian poem recited to her by Constantine, her Yugoslav companion, about Tsar Lazar. Lazar is visited by Saint Elijah in the form of a grey falcon, who offers him the choice of two kingdoms: heaven or earth. He chooses heaven (eternal salvation) rather than earth and accepts the sacrifice of his soldiers and his kingdom in the battle against the Turks. Lazar’s choice is the desire to be pure, to make a sacrifice of oneself, rather than to be implicated in the evils of the earth. West rejects the thesis of the poem, that Lazar could redeem himself without considering the fate of his people, for his redemption meant five hundred years of domination by the Turks. In her own time, appeasing Adolf Hitler, instead of fighting, means consigning millions of people to miserable slavery and death.
West’s profound personal and intellectual insight is strengthened by her observation of Constantine, a Yugoslav poet, government official, and Jew who shepherds her and Andrews throughout their trip. Constantine has not merely recited the poem of the gray falcon but lived its message as well, marrying a German woman (West’s nemesis for most of her trip) and binding his loving heart to this woman of hate so that he might be defeated and made innocent. Constantine and Gerda, in fact, suggest the alternative to Rebecca and Henry. Whereas the latter couple are complimented many times on their compatibility—they provide pleasure for one party who observes how close they sit together even though they are not young—the former are the very epitome of the forces rending Europe apart. Watching what West calls beautiful Macedonian boys and girls dancing in the open air with clothes as lovely as flowers, Gerda takes out a cigarette and declares that she must smoke to disinfect herself, for she feels contaminated by people she does not consider civilized Europeans. Gerda sees no order or culture but only a mishmash of different and primitive peoples.
For West, England in 1939 resembles the defeated Lazar at Kossovo in 1389, retreating from the superior force of the Turks. A conservative, mediocre England has forgotten what it means to fight for survival. This does not change until Winston Churchill’s leadership emerges, when the country finally decides to reject its defeatist policy and engage the Axis in a fight for freedom.