Much of the novel is concerned with the disconnection between the 20th-century London of DCS Hawksmoor and its past, with Dyer's churches being both banal and mysterious to Hawksmoor. Wren's rationalism has succeeded in Hawksmoor's world, but we see Dyer's mysticism reassert itself in the form of murder and mystery. One critic has argued that Dyer's churches come to stand for the persistence of popular history and culture, in opposition to Wren's devotion to a rational progress driven by power and money.[7]


Nicholas Dyer believes in a syncretistic religion based on an utterly pessimistic view of man and world, represented by London: "In keeping with his Biblical belief that 'it was Cain who built the first City', Dyer leads us through the 'monstrous Pile of London' – 'Nest of Death and Contagion', 'Capital City of the World of Affliction', 'Hive of Noise and Ignorance'."[8]

Mirabilis, Nicholas Dyer's spiritual teacher, is the leader of an underground sect known as "Enthusiasticks". Mirabilis preaches that "Christ was the Serpent who deceiv'd Eve, and in the form of a Serpent entered the Virgin's womb" and that "Sathan is the God of this World and fit to be worshipp'd." Among the sources he merges for his religion are the Ammonites, the Carthaginians, "the Straw Man of our Druides," the Syrian Beel-Zebub, the Assyrians, the Jews, the Cabbala, Joseph of Arimathea, the Cathedral of Bath, the Temple of Moloch, Westminster and Anubis. The sect "sacrificed Boys since it was their Opinion that Humane life, either in desperate sicknesse or in danger of Warre, could not be secured unless a vyrgyn Boy suffered in stead." A four-liner expresses the syncretist nature of Mirabilis's sect:

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Pluto, Jehova, Satan, Dagon, Love,

Moloch, the Virgin, Thetis, Devil, Jove, Pan, Jahweh, Vulcan, he with th'awfull Rod, Jesus, the wondrous Straw Man, all one God."[9]

Dyer develops his own belief in a reference between the pattern his churches form and the realm of evil and otherworldly. The pattern of his churches mirrors the "Proportion of the Seven Orders", i.e. Dyer literally tries to reproduce the pattern of the seven fixed stars that control the planetary spheres, thus hoping to submit to his will the seven planetary demons who control them. The exotic names Ackroyd gives to these demons bring to mind the seven maskim of Babylonian occultism. Due to the principles of sympathetic magic, Dyer reproduces with his churches the pattern of the seven planetary orders, and ensures that the pattern will be effective by concentrating within the septilateral figure the same kind of evil powers the seven fixed stars cast. "In other words, Dyer devises his churches as a huge talisman. This is why he builds them near ancient cemeteries and buries a sacrificial victim under their foundations, for, in his words: "when there are many Persons dead, only being buryed and laid in the Earth, there is an Assembling of Powers"."[10]

Dyer believes that the ancients had an understanding of the "laws of harmonious proportions" used by the Universal Architect in the creation of the cosmos. Therefore, he studies ancient treatises on architecture. He builds his seven churches according to these principles and arranges them in a pattern imitating the Pleiades. In the end he disappears in his last church, like Hermes Trismegistus in his pyramid to begin his transmigration from body to body. Dyer undergoes a series of reincarnations both as victim and as murderer: each time he is reborn as a child or tramp, the new reincarnation is subsequently murdered by his "shadow" or dark emanation. In his last, 20th-century reincarnation, Dyer's evil emanation is embodied by the tramp called "The Architect", his good or rational side, by Nicholas Hawksmoor. The text expresses their final unification in the last paragraph of the novel when only one person speaks: What is said is separated by a wide blank on the page, indicating change of narrative level. The duality expressed in the change of narrative voices in the successive chapters is overcome by a first-person narration by somebody who is neither "The Architect" nor Hawksmoor.[11]

Enlightenment vs. occultism

Central to Hawksmoor is an ongoing debate between those who believe in enlightenment and rationalism and those who believe in occultism. The main protagonists of both sides are Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Dyer. "While Dyer argues that man cannot avoid the rage of evil spirits except by participating in evil, Wren and his fellow members of the Royal Society argue that man's reason will one day vanquish 'those wilde inhabitants of False worlds'. Dyer's is the voice of the most despairing (and exulting) anti-intellectualism, a throwback to medieval notions of the necessary primacy of the irrational; Wren's is the civilized voice in which we should like to believe."[12] Detective Hawksmoor begins as a member of the rationalist movement before resembling more and more Nicholas Dyer.

The nature of time

Hawksmoor transports an idea of time that is detrimental to the idea of time as a linearly progressing direction in time. "Ackroyd's aim is [...] to expose the linear character of time [...] for the fabrication that it is, and to propel his readers into a zone of full temporal simultaneity."[13] This is achieved by parallelling numerous events happening in 18th-century and 1980s London thus indicating that Dyer and Hawksmoor experience more than only their own time. A symbol for this idea of a simultaneity of different layers of time is the uroborus:

Truly Time is a vast Denful of Horrour, round about which a Serpent winds and in the winding bites itself by the Tail. Now, now is the Flour, every Hour, every part of an Flour, every Moment, which in its end does begin again and never ceases to end: a beginning continuing, always ending.[14]

This feature of Ackroyd's novel has been seen in scholarly research as distinctive postmodern: "One of the features of postmodern novels is to organise narrative time in non-linear fashion and to present the story line as fragmented and disrupted." This problematises reality by questioning scientific laws that governing time as well as social and cultural ideas of time that help to construct the western concept of reality. "There are no rational explanations for the time slips that occur between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries and, in some respects, the novel is a problematisation of that rational thinking that seeks causality and linearity." The reader has to accept Ackroyd's treatment of time in order to understand the novel.[15]

Ackroyd himself called his concept of time in Hawksmoor "the perpetual present of the past" which "reemerges in the most unlikely ways."[16]

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