Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

by Rebecca West

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West introduces the major theme of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: The Record of a Journey Through Yugoslavia in 1937 by describing an evening in October, 1934, in a London nursing home, where she is recovering from an operation to remove a tumor. Restless, she tries to amuse herself by listening to music on the radio, switching from program to program until a wrong turn of the knob brings her the announcement that Alexander I, the king of Yugoslavia, has been assassinated in the streets of Marseilles that morning. Ringing for her nurse, she demands a telephone so that she can call her husband immediately and talk to him about the terrible news. How dreadful, the nurse responds, asking West if she knew the king. When West says that she did not, the nurse wonders why West thinks the assassination so terrible.

That only a person’s private world matters to the nurse reminds West that the word “idiot” is derived from a Greek root meaning private person. West tries to explain to her that assassinations, as in 1914, lead to other dire events—to other wars, to humanity’s apparently willful destruction of itself that this time might very well result in her own death, in the global catastrophe that she knows will sooner or later overtake her generation. It is no use, however, for the nurse cannot grasp her patient’s argument, and West recognizes that “idiocy” is a female fault; they are cut off from the world at large and cannot imagine how great events will engulf them. Yet men are no better: They concentrate on public affairs, but their vision is dimmed by preoccupation with large issues; they do not see the details that make up everyday reality.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is nothing less than West’s effort to comprehend a world out of balance, a world of divergent sexes, a world that can only be saved by a marriage of opposites, of a husband and wife making up between them a whole vision of history. Only by telling her husband about the assassination, only by having him accompany her on her second trip to Yugoslavia, can West get history right. She must explain to herself and the world why what happens in Central Europe affects the core of Western identity. She speaks to her husband in the prologue of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, but she is addressing her readers as well when she remarks that she knows he did not want to travel to Yugoslavia but that once there he will discover the importance of the journey.


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Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is one of the great books of the twentieth century, and it makes a landmark contribution to women’s literature and issues. West puts her personality at the center of her interpretation of history, and she specifically analyzes the feminine and feminist aspects of her point of view. The long dialogues with her husband are crucial to her view of women and men, since the dialogues define differences in political view arising out of gender.

For example, husband and wife argue world politics: West denounces the hypocrisy of empires pretending to be strong but picking on the weak, the most pitiable individuals, and Andrews in defense suggests that sometimes empires are necessary to maintain a peace that individual nations cannot attain, such as the Austrian Empire’s pushing out of the Turks. On the contrary, West counters, no empire was needed by the nineteenth century when the Turks were hopelessly defeated. There was the menace of Russia, Andrews points out, implying that the Austrian Empire...

(This entire section contains 382 words.)

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provided a balance of power. Not much of a menace, West thinks, for Russia was a corrupt state that posed little danger to anyone. Ever equable and warming to the argument, Andrews notes that only in retrospect can one make such pronouncements about the relative strengths and weaknesses of nations and empires. To West, however, this is absurd. She asks what would happen if she acted this way, making friends and enemies with no real knowledge of their strength. The rules for nations, however, are different, Andrews counters. West wonders if she is being as obtuse as the woman in the nursing home, but she adds that her husband may also be blind to the common sense she brings to the discussion. Since this is a marital argument, she cannot resist having the last word.

The extraordinary achievement of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is its ability to reckon with history on so many different levels—from the everyday and personal to the public and global—without ever losing the flavor of one woman’s point of view recorded at a crucial time. No other woman writer has yet equaled this complex achievement of a work that is simultaneously a work of history and an imaginative achievement as rich as any novel.

Historical Context

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The history of the Balkans is long and complex. The Slavs first entered the region in the sixth century, and by the medieval period, the Slavic group known as Serbs had established a formidable kingdom, including the areas now known as Macedonia and Montenegro. But the Turks defeated them in 1389 and the Ottoman Empire then dominated the region. Many Serbs in Bosnia converted to Islam. Most of Croatia (Croats are also Slavs) fell first under the influence of Hungary and then of Austria-Hungary. Most of Croatia remained Roman Catholic; the Serbs were Orthodox Christians.

In the nineteenth century Serbia began to shake off Turkish rule, culminating in the Congress of Berlin in 1878, under which the Serbs gained their independence. But the same congress gave Bosnia and Herzegovina to Austria-Hungary. Macedonia was freed from Turkish rule in 1913, most of it being awarded to Serbia.

In 1918, after World War I, a new state was formed, officially called the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. It consisted of Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Dalmatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. Within Serbia, Kosovo was created as an autonomous province, because of its largely Muslim population.

From the outset, it was difficult to forge unity amongst such a multiethnic people. There were also differences in religion. Croats and Slovenes were Roman Catholics; Serbs and Montenegrins were Orthodox Christians; and a large proportion of Bosnians were Muslims.

A constitution was created in 1921 that established a constitutional monarchy operating within a centralized system based in Belgrade, the Serbian capital. From 1921 to 1929 the new state functioned as a parliamentary democracy, dominated by Serbia. However, there was continuing hostility between Serbs and Croats and an ongoing debate about the desirability of central control. This is amply reported in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, especially in the early chapters set in Zagreb, Croatia, in which Valetta is the spokesman for an independent Croatia. He regards government from Belgrade as a tyranny. He is opposed by Constantine, who supports the Yugoslavian state.

In 1928 a delegate from Montenegro shot five members of the Croatian Peasant Party. Faced with a severe crisis in the country, King Alexander I abolished the constitution and declared a dictatorship. He also renamed the state Yugoslavia (Yugoslav means ‘‘South Slav’’). Alexander was assassinated in 1934, and, after his death, Yugoslavia was ruled by a three-man regency, since Alexander’s son was only eleven years old.

During the late 1930s, when West made her trips to Yugoslavia, the storm clouds of war were gathering once more over Europe. In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and World War II began. In 1940 Germany asked Yugoslavia to sign the Axis Tripartite Act. This act would have caused Yugoslavia to be enslaved by the Axis powers of Germany and Italy. Yugoslavia’s pro-German government signed the agreement, but two days later the government was overthrown by an army coup that had the support of the Yugoslav people. In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, West gives a vivid account of these events, presenting the Yugoslav people as united in their desire to resist the Nazis: ‘‘The passions of the people blazed up into a steady flame. . . . The whole country demanded that . . . arms must be taken up against the Germans.’’ In April 1941, Germany declared war on Yugoslavia, and eleven days later the Yugoslavs were defeated.

During the war, thousands of Serbs were sent to concentration camps and killed. In Croatia, the Germans put the fascist Ante Pavelic and his Ustasa forces in charge. In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, West describes Pavelic as a terrorist who was responsible for the deaths of many people and who supplied the assassins of King Alexander with weapons. When Pavelic gained power in Croatia, he ruthlessly persecuted the Serbs living in Croatia and Bosnia, as well as gypsies and Jews. Many were sent to their deaths in concentration camps, such as the one at Jasenovac, southeast of Zagreb.

In the meantime, resistance movements against the Germans were formed in Yugoslavia, and they carried on guerrilla campaigns. The most successful of these movements was led by the Partisans, a communist group headed by Josip Broz Tito. In 1944 Partisan and Russian forces took Belgrade. After World War II ended in 1945, Yugoslavia was reestablished as a communist state under the rule of Marshal Tito.

Literary Style

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Symbolism The central symbols in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon are those that supply the book with its title: the black lamb and the grey falcon. The black lamb appears several times. Its first appearance is an innocent one. In a hotel in Belgrade, West watches as a peasant enters the hotel carrying a black lamb in his arms. The lamb twists and writhes, ‘‘its eyes sometimes catching the light as it turned and shining like small luminous plates.’’ The significance of the lamb as a symbol is only made clear later in the narrative, when West attends the fertility rite on a rock in Macedonia and watches a lamb being sacri- ficed. She describes the process in grisly detail and then reveals the symbolic significance she attaches to it: the slaughter of the lamb represents a particular way of thinking, the idea that suffering and cruelty are not only necessary but are the only ways by which good may come forth. West prefers to see the ugliness of the ritual for what she perceives it to be. Those who practice such ‘‘beastly retrogression,’’ claims West, do so because ‘‘they wanted to put their hands on something weaker than themselves . . . to smash what was whole, to puddle in the warm stickiness of their own secretions.’’

In a later incident, after West has visited the ancient site of the battle of Kossovo, an Albanian man joins them to eat, and he is carrying a black lamb. The lamb unexpectedly stretches out its neck and lays its muzzle against West’s forearm. She is startled and cries out. The men laugh, and she is reminded once more, because of the symbolic value she has ascribed to the lamb, of the ‘‘infatuation with sacrifice,’’ and she admits that she herself is not free of it.

The grey falcon, which appears in the Serbs’ epic poem about their 1389 defeat, represents the same ideal of sacrifice. It symbolizes Tsar Lazar’s willingness to sacrifice himself and his army in exchange for a heavenly kingdom. On the battle- field at Kossovo, West remarks, the grey falcon and the black lamb worked together.

West even extends the symbolism of the lamb and the falcon to apply to the relationship between Constantine and Gerda. Constantine is the lamb. He loves Gerda innocently, wanting to serve her, even though she treats him cruelly. He has absorbed the myth of sacrifice, that it is better to be pure and loving (even if this means a personal defeat) than to involve himself in the unsavory tactics of the aggressor.

In the epilogue, West returns to the image of the grey falcon, but this time she interprets it differently. She applies it to the heroic resistance of the Yugoslavs against the Nazis in World War II, even in the face of certain defeat. The Yugoslavs, fully conscious of their great poem about Kossovo, fought on this time not because they were in love with sacrifice and death, but, on the contrary, because of their ‘‘love of life’’; because they knew that, ultimately, a state based on justice would outlast one based on evil.

Digressions The book does not have a clearly delineated structure. Passages describing West’s travels—which include delightful nature descriptions, scenes in restaurants and cafes, and visits to churches and monuments—jostle alongside long and colorful accounts of the troubled history of the Balkans. At any point, triggered by some observation of the scene or a conversation, West is likely to digress about one of her many pet topics. Often she sees deep signifi- cance in small details, and a particular incident may prompt her to make sweeping generalizations about life.

For example, when a doctor at a sanatorium in Croatia tells her that the sanatorium sends patients home heavier than when they came in (because they feed them well), West makes a generalization that is also a comparison between Slavs and Westerners: ‘‘These people hold that the way to make life better is to add good things to it, whereas in the West we hold that the way to make life better is to take bad things away from it.’’ This type of statement is known as an aphorism: a concise statement of a principle. There are many more aphorisms in the book. ‘‘It is not comfortable to be an inhabitant of this globe,’’ West says as she contemplates Croatian history. Few would argue with this statement, but sometimes West’s aphorisms are more idiosyncratic: ‘‘All women believe that some day something supremely agreeable will happen, and that afterwards the whole of life will be agreeable.’’

Sometimes West’s observations lead her to an epiphany. The term epiphany is used by literary critics to refer to a revelation of some profound truth or vision that is prompted by an ordinary object or scene. William Wordsworth’s poem, The Prelude (1850), for example, is full of epiphanies, and there are several in West’s book. The most striking is when, in Montenegro, West encounters an old peasant woman walking on a mountain road. The woman tells West that she (the woman) is not going anywhere; she walks about only to seek understanding of her tragic life, of why it took the form it did. West admires her because she does not simply accept her fate; she attempts to understand what West calls ‘‘the mystery of process,’’ which is the sole justifi- cation of all art and science. The woman inspires West to believe that at some point in the future ‘‘we will read the riddle of our universe. We shall discover what work we have been called to do, and why we cannot do it.’’ Only then, West says, will we be able to face our destiny.

Compare and Contrast

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1930s: The independent state of Yugoslavia includes Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Dalmatia.

Today: Following the breakup of Yugoslavia after the fall of communism, and a series of wars in the 1990s, Yugoslavia consists of Serbia and Montenegro only. Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Slovenia are independent nations. Kosovo, although still officially part of Serbia, is under the jurisdiction of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) following the conflict between Serbia and NATO in 1999.

1930s: The Nazi party under Adolf Hitler takes power in Germany. Hitler bans all other political parties and brings economic and cultural life under the control of the central government. The persecution of non-Aryans begins. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 deprive Jews of their German citizenship and forbid marriage between Jews and Aryans. More anti-Semitic laws are passed over the next few years. Hitler’s rearmament of Germany and his aggressive, expansionist foreign policies lead to World War II.

Today: Germany, divided into East Germany and West Germany after World War II, is reunited (since 1990), and is a democratic nation that is a member of the European Union and NATO.

1930s: The world is dominated by competing political ideologies of socialism, fascism, and communism. In much of Europe, this is an age of totalitarianism, in which the state has power over many aspects of individual life. Totalitarianism is on the rise because, with the coming of the Great Depression in the United States, capitalism appears to be a failed system. Many in Europe are attracted to new systems that seem to hold out a promise of full employment and greater social equality.

Today: As political systems, communism and socialism are on the wane throughout the world. Only a few countries still have communist governments, including North Korea, Cuba, and China. Because capitalism and parliamentary democracy have had greater success in providing economic prosperity and political freedom, these systems are being adopted by an increasing number of nations. International terrorism presents a greater threat to world stability than conventional war between nation-states.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Fadiman, Clifton, ‘‘Review,’’ in the New Yorker, October 25, 1941.

Orel, Harold, The Literary Achievement of Rebecca West, Macmillan, 1986, pp. 164–207.

Rollyson, Carl, The Literary Legacy of Rebecca West, International Scholars Publications, 1998, pp. 127–67.

———, Rebecca West: A Life, Scribner, 1986.

Wolfe, Peter, Rebecca West, Artist and Thinker, Southern Illinois University Press, 1971, pp. 130–48.

Woods, Katherine, ‘‘Review,’’ in the New York Times, October 26, 1941, p. 4.

Further Reading Deakin, Motley, Rebecca West, Twayne, 1980. This is a concise survey of West’s work in all genres. Deakin considers West to be a ‘‘voice of sanity’’ during the turbulent events of the twentieth century.

Hall, Brian, ‘‘Rebecca West’s War,’’ in the New Yorker, April 15, 1996, pp. 74–80, 82–83. Hall notes that, because the Balkans are once more in turmoil, interest in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon has increased. He gives a very insightful analysis of the main elements of the book.

Scott, Bonnie Kime, ed., Selected Letters of Rebecca West, Yale University Press, 2000. West was a prolific letter writer, and this volume contains hundreds of her letters, all annotated by the editor.

Tillinghast, Richard, ‘‘Rebecca West and the Tragedy of Yugoslavia,’’ in New Criterion, Vol. 10, No. 10, June 1992, pp. 12–22. This is a discussion of West’s book in the light of the disintegration of modern Yugoslavia.

Weldon, Fay, Rebecca West, Viking, 1985. Weldon is a novelist, and this is an imaginative biography of West that examines her love affair with H. G. Wells. Weldon admits she invented a lot of material.


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Further Reading

Deakin, Motley. Rebecca West. Boston: Twayne, 1980. A useful introduction to West’s work. Addresses her roles as feminist, critic, journalist, historian, and novelist. Includes a selected bibliography, an index, and a chronology of West’s life and career.

Glendinning, Victoria. Rebecca West: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1987. Contains several pages on the sources and critical reception of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, defending West’s approach against the charges of her critics. Explores West’s politics and provides a helpful discussion of her interpretation of Yugoslav history and the aftermath of World War II.

Lesinska, Zofia P. “Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia.” In Perspectives of Four Women Writers on the Second World War: Gertrude Stein, Janet Flanner, Kay Boyle, and Rebecca West. New York: Peter Lang, 2002. Examines West’s depictions of imperialism and ethnocentrism, as well as other elements of the book. Describes how she and the other three women presented a more feminist interpretation of World War II, without the emphasis on military battles and diplomacy that dominates the work of male historians.

Orel, Harold. The Literary Achievement of Rebecca West. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. Offers chapters on West’s life and works, such as her literary criticism, political and philosophical works, novels, and Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Contains useful notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Rollyson, Carl. The Literary Legacy of Rebecca West. New York: iUniverse, 2007. The first chronological treatment of West’s literary career, treating Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and an integral work in a developing body of work rather than just as a stand-alone masterpiece.

_______. Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl. New York: iUniverse, 2009. Rollyson explores the sources of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, providing a new, comprehensive interpretation, surveying previous criticism and treating the book as a “self-correcting masterpiece.”

_______. Rebecca West and the God That Failed: Essays. New York: iUniverse, 2005. Contains additional essays on Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and on West’s politics in the light of the Balkan wars and other events since West’s death in 1983.

Schweizer, Bernard. “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Modern Female Epic.” In Rebecca West: Heroism, Rebellion, and the Female Epic. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. Assesses West’s travel writings and novels, focusing on their reinvention of epic heroism from a feminist perspective. Discusses her spiritual and philosophical ideas.

West, Rebecca. Rebecca West: A Celebration. New York: Viking Press, 1977. A compilation of selections from West’s major works. Samuel Hynes’s introduction to this collection has proved to be one of the most influential pieces of criticism on West.

Wolfe, Peter. Rebecca West: Artist and Thinker. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971. Treats Black Lamb and Grey Falcon as West’s most important work. Pays special attention to the book’s style and structure and to how the influence of Saint Augustine colors much of West’s writing.


Critical Essays


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