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Gilbert Keith Chesterton was a giant of a man, physically and metaphorically.
He began writing at the outset of the twentieth century, and graced that century with a most abundant output: a hundred or so books (including five novels), plus contributions to a couple of hundred others, hundreds of poems (including the epic Ballad of the White Horse), five plays, two hundred or so short stories (including the renowned Father Brown stories), and over four thousand newspaper essays. (All data from the American Chesterton Society).
Chesterton was a man of strong beliefs whose writings argued for those beliefs with extraordinary vigor and profound intellectual capability. His overarching belief was in Christianity, and that belief powered much of his writing, including his one work clearly in our fields, The Man Who Was Thursday.
(I say “clearly in our fields” because several of his books that are not inescapably fantasy rather read like it, notably The Club of Queer Trades, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (also arguably a science-fiction novel), Tales of the Long Bow, The Poet and the Lunatics, Four Faultless Felons, The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond, and the novels The Return of Don Quixote and Manalive; all of those are, like all of Chesterton, at the very least views of the ordinary from most extraordinary angles—see the text below—which is largely what speculative fiction is about.)
Chesterton is commonly, and rightly, characterized by a term he adopted as almost a motto, which term he acquired from a passage in Charles Dickens: mooreeffoc. Dickens recalled seeing that word as a child and being much puzzled by it until, in a flash, he realized that he was seeing, in a mirror reflecting a shop front, the quite ordinary word coffeeroom. Chesterton specialized all his creative life in depicting the ordinary things of life and the world as uncannily bizarre and inexplicable, but only because they were being seen at a new and unfamiliar angle—backwards, as it were. In this delightful manner, he hoped to give his readers fresh insights into the routine but, to Chesterton, vitally important things of everyday existence. (That might be said to be the basic role of any author, especially of a fantasy or science-fiction author: to give the reader a fresh view of a thing made stale by overfamiliarity through portraying that thing in a new guise.)
Chesterton had all the excellences of a first-rate writer, and this book shows each. His language use alone has impressed the greatest writers of the modern era, and rightly so. I will pass over such manifest gems of description as the opening paragraphs of the novel, which describe the London suburb of Saffron Park, for this (found, as is usual with me, by randomly thumbing the book):
Syme was shabby in those days. He wore an old-fashioned black chimney-pot hat; he was wrapped in a yet more old-fashioned cloak, black and ragged; and the combination gave him the look of the early villains in Dickens and Bulwer Lytton. Also his yellow beard and hair were more unkempt and leonine than when they appeared, long afterwards, cut and pointed, on the lawns of Saffron Park. A long, lean, black cigar, bought in Soho for twopence, stood out from between his tightened teeth, and altogether he looked a very satisfactory specimen of the anarchists upon whom he had vowed a holy war. Perhaps this is why a policeman on the Embankment spoke to him, and said “Good evening.”
Syme, at a crisis of his morbid fears for humanity, seemed stung by the mere stolidity of the automatic official, a mere bulk of blue in the twilight.
“A good evening is it?” he said sharply. “You fellows would call the end of the world a good evening. Look at that bloody red sun and that bloody river! I tell you that if that were literally human blood, spilt and shining, you would still be standing here as solid as ever, looking out for some poor harmless tramp whom you could move on. You policemen are cruel to the poor, but I could forgive you even your cruelty if it were not for your calm.”
“If we are calm,” replied the policeman, “it is the calm of organized resistance.”
“Eh?” said Syme, staring.
I will not insult you by elucidating each of the many excellences of English prose evidenced in that brief passage. Rather, I will say that the passage also evidences the many levels of complexity in the tale, though I will amplify later; for now, consider only how the scene signifies if the policeman is interpreted symbolically as a priest, a member of “God’s constabulary.”
For plot, you must, I fear, just take my word for it—as I try mightily not to “spoil” new readers’ potential enjoyments—that the tale is full of clever twists and turns and surprises, and is indeed one continuing process of revealing boxes within boxes within boxes within….
Of the four basic elements of pleasing in a tale, setting is perhaps the least important in Chesterton, because the setting is always, by design, the world of the familiar—indeed, of what has become too familiar—and hence requires little but evocation. It is thus a debatable point whether Chesterton’s fine evocations fall under the rubric of “setting” or of language use:
The stranger who looked for the first time at the quaint red houses could only think how very oddly shaped the people must be who could fit into them. Nor when he met the people was he disappointed in this respect.
In characterization, Chesterton is a curious combination of strengths and weaknesses. The weaknesses all flow from his tales’ being, in effect, protracted parables, meaning that the characters inhabiting them must, to some not negligible degree, be conditioned to be what the parable requires to proceed. The strengths proceed from Chesterton’s apparently innate inability to scamp reality and naturalness: he simply cannot do a flat, cardboard character. So, within the constraints of the requirements on them, we find Chesterton’s people, however odd (and most are very odd), surprisingly and refreshingly real. On occasion, one or another will make a speechified declamation on Chesterton’s behalf, but not so very often and, when found, not so very hard to take. (Actually, the greatest weakness of such declamations is that, in our day, their oratorical tone is hard to accept—I suspect that in Chesterton’s time, it was less so.)
But, however fascinating, engaging, and entertaining Chesterton’s tales are as tales, we must recognize them as being, at bottom, polemics. (Chesterton thus becomes a one-word answer to the question of whether or not a fundamentally polemic work can be literature of quality.) Chesterton’s main purpose is to stimulate our mental processes; he takes care to give us delights along the way because giving delight is innate in the man.
Without facilities beyond me I cannot know for sure, but I strongly suspect that most experienced readers of speculative fiction, told that a tale contains a confrontational debate between a poet and a member of the secret police, would routinely assume that—would be most unlikely to assume anything but that—the poet is the sympathetic character. Not in Chesterton, and by such initially puzzling but ultimately logical juxtapositions of expectation and rationality he delivers his message. That very debate, in the very book we are considering, is far too long for quotation here, which is a shame because it is a gem of rationality. Here is but a taste:
“An artist is identical with an anarchist,” he cried. “You might transpose the words anywhere. The man who throws a bomb is an artist, because he prefers a great moment to everything. He sees how much more valuable is one burst of blazing light, one peal of perfect thunder, than the mere common bodies of a few shapeless policemen. An artist disregards all governments, abolishes all conventions. The poet delights in disorder only. If it were not so, the most poetical thing in the world would be the Underground Railway.”
“So it is,” said Mr. Syme.
“Nonsense!” said Gregory, who was very rational when anyone else attempted paradox.
The one tale of Chesterton’s I list here as indubitably in our province has never been out of print since its first appearance in 1908. It is a literally wonderful tale from a man whom some call the greatest thinker and the greatest writer of the twentieth century. That may be a bit of idolatry, but that many reasonable persons can so believe ought, in and of itself, to be a persuasion to enjoy this delightful tale (and, one thinks, much else of this writer).
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The lead jumping-off site for Chesterton on the internet is the site of The American Chesterton Society. Another Chesterton-related publication comes from The Chesterton Institute, which quarterly puts out The Chesterton Review.
The always reliable Authors’ Calendar has a useful Chesterton article. And there is Martin Ward’s Chesterton Resources page. There is also a Chesterton entry of some length at James Kiefer’s “Christian Biographies” site.
Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker’s “Critic at Large”, has an essay on Chesterton in its July 7, 2008 issue entitled “The Back of the World: The Troubling Genius of G. K. Chesterton”. In the essay, Gopnik—like many others before him—suggests that Chesterton may have been anti-Semitic; a response from the Ignatius Insight blog, addresses Chesterton’s supposed anti-Semitism.
There is tons more, but those seem to be the cream, and certainly enough to be going along with.
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Rather than present a list myself, I will point you at the American Chesterton Society’s list of books about Chesterton.
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This page was last modified on Tuesday, 13 October 2020, at 5:40 pm Pacific Time.