The Road From Colonus by E. M. Forster, 1942

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by E. M. Forster, 1942

In his introduction to his Collected Tales (1947), E. M. Forster was careful to identify the contents as "fantasies." The title makes it clear that he thought of the tales as exercises in marking the defining moment—the sense of something beyond the real that promised an epiphany, a new life. Forster saw nature as an agent of that newness, but, as he wrote in his unpublished diary, "There is no hope of writing down Nature: we can write down man. We employ similes for Nature, which the imagination revivifies. But to describe their source is hopeless. The imagination won't wake." The aspirant must settle for a symbol, a metaphor, some transcendental state of mind. Forster even tried to fall into a trance by repeating a name, but without success. The pull of reality was too strong.

At rare intervals, however, the creative imagination comes wide awake and gets close enough to nature to inscribe something magical upon the senses. "The Road from Colonus" is the product of such a moment from the author's visit to Greece in 1903, and it is about such a moment in the life of an elderly man. "The whole of The Road from Colonus hung ready for me in a hollow tree near Olympia," Forster wrote. He combined his acute observations of the English as tourists abroad with motifs from his classical studies. He placed the bored and elderly Mr. Lucas, his tiresome daughter Ethel, and two other companions—Mrs. Forman and a younger Mr. Graham—at Colonus, the village near Athens that was Oedipus's birthplace.

Unlike Oedipus on his return from Thebes, Mr. Lucas is not physically blind, but age and social conventions have smothered him. His companions are merely "doing" Greece, but Mr. Lucas has realized a lifelong dream. "Forty years ago he had caught the fever of Hellenism, and all his life he had felt that could he but visit that land, he would not have lived in vain." He is a version of G. M. Trevelyan's composite character, "poor Muggleton," who drudged his way through the classics at school and university, hating the manner of teaching but loving the subject matter, and finally achieving intellectual and emotional apotheosis when at last he visits Greece. Mr. Lucas is a version also of Oedipus, complete with daughter and a wish not to be rushed away from Colonus. Oedipus gets his wish, but Mr. Lucas does not. He has reckoned without Ethel, who equals Antigone in determination but is uninterested in martyrdom. Mr. Lucas tries to "settle down to the role of Oedipus, which seemed the only one that public opinion allowed him."

Modern Greece has fallen short of Mr. Lucas's romantic expectations: "Yet Greece had done something for him, though he did not know it. It had made him discontented…. Something great was wrong, and he was pitted against no mediocre or accidental enemy." Old age is the enemy, and Greece makes him want to put up a fight, to "die fighting." His companions aid and abet that enemy, and Forster develops them with stinging touches to which his victims would have been oblivious. Mr. Lucas eludes them long enough to discover something magical: a hollow tree beside a tiny khan, or inn, inside which are votive offerings. He adds his own offering, a little figure of a man. When the others catch up with him Mrs. Forman calls it "all very Greek" and babbles about "a place in a thousand!" She could "live and die there"—if she were not expected back in Athens. She does not mean a word of it. But Mr. Lucas is serious about wanting to stay overnight at that inn. The others, however, do not take him seriously and have "to turn away to hide their smiles."

Ethel has never taken her father seriously, which is perhaps her unconscious retort to the family's assumption that he is her responsibility in his old age. When she finds him inside the hollow tree that seems to him so magical, she treats him like a child: "Why, here's papa, playing at being Merlin." She degrades him further by fussing over his wet feet and burbles insincerely about staying overnight: "You mean a week papa! It would be sacrilege to put in less." He takes her at her word, and "his heart was leaping with joy." At once she professes incredulity that he could have believed her. To pacify him she pretends to inspect the inn's bedrooms while the muleteer, astonished but delighted, starts to lead Mr. Lucas's mule toward the stable.

Then young Mr. Graham, who is "always polite to his elders," shows his true colors. "'Drop it, you brigand!' shouted Graham, who always declared that foreigners could understand English if they chose. He was right, for the man obeyed." Ethel pronounces the bedroom unacceptable, but her father clings to his vision of a defining moment. They "became every minute more meaningless and absurd. Soon they would be tired and go chattering away into the sun, leaving him to the cool grove and the moonlight and the destiny he foresaw"—some "supreme event … which would transfigure the face of the world." Even Ethel is no match for this vision until she calls up Mr. Graham as reinforcement. Literally and metaphorically the polite young man pulls the rug from under Mr. Lucas, picks him up, and plants him firmly on the mule that has been sneaked up behind him. The Greek children say farewell by shying stones at them. "That's the modern Greek all over," says Graham. They wanted only Mr. Lucas's money. Had he been brutal? "No indeed. I admire strength," says Ethel.

There is an epilogue. Mr. Lucas is at home in foggy London, querulous and complaining, obsessed with neighborhood annoyances, particularly water running in the pipes. He has forgotten the enchanted spring in the hollow tree. Ethel is about to be married—one assumes, to Mr. Graham—and her father is being bundled over to the care of an unattached aunt. The morning post brings a parcel of asphodel bulbs from Greece wrapped in a Greek newspaper. It imparts the news that a great tree had blown over on the inn and killed its inhabitants—on the very night that Mr. Lucas had wished to stay there. Ethel thinks of providence. Mr. Lucas thinks only of his letter of complaints to the landlord. His defining moment at Colonus might as well never have happened. Dying at the inn could have been the "supreme event" that transfigured, but if he lived on for years and years such a moment would never come again. To miss the defining moment, says Forster, even if it is one's last, is the great tragedy of life.

—Mary Lago