He was “the only poet in the twentieth century to even come close to the Truth,” according to Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett in Good Omens (1990). Their praise was all the impetus I needed to start reading some of Gilbert Keith’s Chesterton’s writing.
It would take a very dedicated reader to track down and absorb several hundred poems, hundreds of short stories, about 80 books and thousands of essays.
I started with the Father Brown stories – a series of short detective fiction so popular it was regularly published in magazines alongside the work of such masters as Rex Stout and Raymond Chandler.
Chesterton just barely captured that same French “anything can and will happen” sense that makes Louis Feuillade’s cinema series captivating, and yet GKC did it using very English common sense and brick-on-brick story construction.
“The Blue Cross” is awesome but it’s also like a meeting between matter and antimatter. The balance can’t be sustained.
Indeed with the next story, “The Secret Garden,” Chesterton returned to his English roots and remained there for over 50 more stories and 25 years.
Let it be understood that I write this article as one wholly conscious that he has failed to write a detective story. But I have failed a good many times. My authority is therefore practical and scientific, like that of some great statesman or social thinker dealing with Unemployment or the Housing Problem.
The “Ethics of Elfland” chapter from Chesterton’s 1909 book Orthodoxy is enormously popular – it’s posted in so many places on the Web I was bound to stumble over it next, and that’s when I really started getting interested in G. K. Chesterton.
“Elfland” has fun, thought-provoking stuff:
Just as we all like love tales because there is an instinct of sex, we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales — because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him. This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.
However, it also is challenging:
When the business man rebukes the idealism of his office-boy, it is commonly in some such speech as this: “Ah, yes, when one is young, one has these ideals in the abstract and these castles in the air; but in middle age they all break up like clouds, and one comes down to a belief in practical politics, to using the machinery one has and getting on with the world as it is.” Thus, at least, venerable and philanthropic old men now in their honoured graves used to talk to me when I was a boy. But since then I have grown up and have discovered that these philanthropic old men were telling lies. What has really happened is exactly the opposite of what they said would happen. They said that I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the methods of practical politicians. Now, I have not lost my ideals in the least; my faith in fundamentals is exactly what it always was. What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics.
After seeing where GKC went with that, the only thing to do next was to read the entire book, and then some of his essays.
In fact, I am still reading Chesterton’s nonfiction today and can’t comment on it further, because I’m still thinking about it.
That is in itself the ultimate praise.
G. K. Chesterton was not lacking in imagination. Some of his books are so imaginative, they’re quite difficult to follow. If you are new to GKC, I suggest “The Man Who Was Thursday.”
It starts off slowly with a lot of upper class thinkers batting words back and forth in a fashionable meeting place. Hang in there – we will soon meet terrorists (they were called anarchists back in the day) in London and visit their underground arsenals. Conspiracies will be discovered. Good will confront evil. Our hero will be betrayed multiple times, be taken on all sorts of strange rides, and ultimately will find that, yes, he is Thursday.
I can’t sum up the plot any better than that, but it’s overall a really enjoyable read for a philosophical work.
Yes. It’s an action adventure philosophical treatise, as well as a nightmare.
The book is also a huge dig at Buddhism, but I don’t mind, though I am a Buddhist. No one human being can understand more than one great religion, and Chesterton’s expertise was in Christianity.
The Chesterton Society is apparently campaigning to have GKC beatified. I don’t know how far they’re going to get with that – for instance, his writing on religion did convert C. S. Lewis, but that probably couldn’t be called a miracle. I think the real miracle was that Chesterton was able to face the modern world as it took shape around him and describe truthfully and unsparingly everything about it without losing his optimism and hope.
That said, “The God in the Cave” from part 2 of The Everlasting Man makes wonderful Christmas reading, even if you are, like me, outside of that religion, looking in.
Gaiman and Pratchett quote “The Old Song” in Good Omens. My own favorite poem is one of GKC’s Christian poems, “A Child of the Snows”:
There is heard a hymn when the panes are dim,
And never before or again,
When the nights are strong with a darkness long,
And the dark is alive with rain.
Never we know but in sleet and in snow,
The place where the great fires are,
That the midst of the earth is a raging mirth
And the heart of the earth a star.
And at night we win to the ancient inn
Where the child in the frost is furled,
We follow the feet where all souls meet
At the inn at the end of the world.
The gods lie dead where the leaves lie red,
For the flame of the sun is flown,
The gods lie cold where the leaves lie gold,
And a Child comes forth alone
It’s worth noting incidentally that the temperature of Earth’s inner core is indeed as hot as the Sun. Chesterton, of course, had another sort of star in mind.
I wouldn’t make G. K. Chesterton a saint, nor would I lionize him. He was racist and made free with the “N” word, applying it to anyone with dark skin, not just those of African descent.
He could be patronizing and insular, too, as well as capable of politicizing a disaster.
Indeed, G. K. Chesterton had all the sins of his times (and the earlier times he revered) as well as the nicer parts. Unlike most people, though, he also was a true believer, and that made all the difference.
There is an untidy openness about much of Chesterton’s writing that sounds like he is really trying to figure things out, in spite of his own limitations (which he recognizes quite well).
I have read that the floor around a meditating Buddhist would look quite messy if one could see the remains of all the distractions and harmful things that individual has had to conquer in order to reach helpful levels of mindfulness.
Perhaps something similar, with a Christian bent, could be said about the area around G. K. Chesterton’s writing desk over the years.
In any event, when GKC speaks about courage it is from firsthand experience, if only on an internal level.
“Take the case of courage. No quality has ever so much addled the brains and tangled the definitions of merely rational sages. Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice.
He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying.
G. K. Chesterton fought the long fight to stay human…and won. It’s a victory we all share in.
Categories: Thursday Lit