wonder & imagination: chesterton

by Zach Kincaid
Chesterton was a journalist at the turn of the century and a prolific fiction writer. Whereas Heschel, the person discussed in part two, approached wonder and imagination with theology as his profession, Chesterton sees these in a more literary landscape.

Chesterton’s entire persona envokes elfland. Elfland, or fairyland, is the common way Chesterton refers to wonder and imagination - the unseen within the seen; the stuff that matters above and beyond the stuff that we know. He is also referring to those ancient tales that never change – “fairy-tales are as normal as milk or bread. Civilisation changes; but fairy-tales never change… Fiction and modern fantasy and all that wild world… can be described in one phrase. Their philosophy means ordinary things as seen by extraordinary. The fairy-tale means extraordinary things as seen by ordinary people.”

“He is like a visitor from some fairy tale, a legend in the flesh,” Gardner, a contemporary of Chesterton, said. “He is a wayfarer from the ages, stopping at the inn of life, warming himself at the fire and making the rafters sing with his jolly laughter.” Chesterton’s regular wardrobe included a black cape and walking cane, and with his heavy stature he gave the expression of a man living in a magical place, where “trees are giants waving their arms,” where each new day is a fresh discovery.

In Tremendous Trifles, a book of short stories, Chesterton tells the tale of two boys, Peter and Paul. One day, a magical milkman comes by and asks each boy to wish one thing. Paul wishes to become a giant so he can hop around the world and see everything. Peter wishes to become very small so everything would have an adventure. Paul sets out to see the world. He becomes bored at the size of all the things he sees, and eventually a woodsman chops off his head. As for Peter, he finds that each blade of grass possesses a different challenge.

Peter finds the world more enchanted when he begins to understand its overwhelming opportunity in comparison to what he knew before. Paul has the opposite experience when he sees the world in miniature and already conquered. Chesterton says, “The man standing in his own kitchen-garden, with fairyland opening at the gate, is the man with large ideas. His mind creates distance.”

In other words, to see the world the way Peter sees it, we needs a certain method to analyze our experiences. Then, even in our own garden the world becomes enchanted.

Christian theology is supernatural. That’s its definition. And it re-enchants the world because it speaks into it and points outside it. Like Peter who became small, Christian theology rightly positions us in reference to the Creator and the world – small and insignificant in the scope of all its moving parts, its nooks and crannies, its beeps, and buzzes, and whirls. In opposition, like Paul who becomes a tower of a man – a superman, to use George Bernard Shaw’s term –Chesterton believes modern humanity thinks itself in larger fashion than it should, outside the appeal that Christian theology offers.

We need to begin with Orthodoxy.

In 1908, Chesterton writes Orthodoxy. It’s central to his entire corpus. A key chapter is “Ethics of Elfland.” He says that true knowledge exists not in the mind but in fairyland, where the natural world is explained in terms of magic and miracle rather than reason and science. And because of it, even the tree becomes a mystery.

In other words, when the scientific person looks at the leaves on a tree, chlorophyll is discussed, whereas the person from fairyland believes the tree must have decided to produce leaves and not golden candles. Likewise, the rational person might reference the good soil and strong roots that keep the tree standing tall and healthy, while the fairyland believer knows that the ground has received a magic touch from the God who made the whole world.

The ethics of elfland is not what we might think. It’s not foremost rules of conduct, as much as what lies behind those rules. For example, to believe in miracles we need to be open to the idea that we can’t explain everything by reason alone. All of a sudden, the rocks may really cry out or have bellies of water ready to burst in wilderness lands. The trees might exchange limbs for hands and clap in worship. No longer is there a devalue of the stuff inside our world, but rather everything has the touch of divinity – everything is immortal.

The world does not need to change to be enchanted, rather, our perception marks even the mundane as bearing enchantment. It’s gaining a certain satisfaction with the romance and mystery before us – not how we can use a thing to our advantage. Chesterton says that fairytales “make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.” Now, the ordinary river is in every measure as thrilling as if it were to run with wine.

Chesterton does not view nature as a set of laws, but rather as a set of sentimentalities. He further argues that the modern scientist who says she believes in nature’s laws, really doesn’t. He says that eggs becoming birds a magical occurrence because no connection suggests eggs should take that course. The scientist only connects eggs with birds because of an historic association or sentimentality--eggs have always produced birds. The scientist “feels as if there must be some dreamy, tender connection between the two ideas, whereas there are none.” Nature is a series of “charms” or “spells.” So when the fairytales talk about golden apples it is “only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green.” Likewise, when water is parted open by Moses and Joshua or Elijah and Elisha, and then Jesus comes on the scene and walks out and calms those waters, maybe the nature of water is not tied up in what it is as much as whose it is. The laws are kept by the lawgiver. He is above and outside the laws. As we saw with Heschel, this is what makes the Sabbath holy and enables Jesus to re-enchant that day as he heals and feeds the hungry.

We should talk like the old nurses used to instruct children, not of the grass “but about the fairies that dance on the grass; and the Greeks could not see the trees for the dryads.” Here, on the edge of the miraculous, five does not become six – it doesn’t change the obvious – but if someone has five beans that person may be able to grow a beanstalk that reaches to the sky. That person may be called Jack and there may be a giant who lives in the clouds. At the same time, Chesterton believes that eggs turning to birds have the same miraculous qualities of the mice turning to horses in Cinderella’s story. “We must answer that it is magic,” says Chesterton. “They are not a one-for-one.”

"I am much more disposed now to fancy that an apple-tree in the moonlight is some sort of ghost or grey nymph; or to see the furniture fantastically changing and crawling at twilight, as in some story of Poe or Hawthorne. But when I was a child I had a sort of confident astonishment in contemplating the apple-tree as an apple-tree. I was sure of it, and also sure of the surprise of it… The apples might be as little as I was; but they were solid and so was I."

Chesterton argues that when the world is properly seen, life is at once “precious” and “puzzling.” It’s the “if” or the “veto.” One may stay in the garden if one does not eat of that tree, for example. He says, “The vision always hangs upon a veto. All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend upon one small thing withheld. All the wild and whirling things that are let loose depend upon one thing that is forbidden.” It is discipline that keeps a person a fair distance from the “forbidden,” and it is faith that allows a person to remain content despite what may not be understandable. It is the glass that can break but which also can remain for many years. It is about limits.

"It is plain on the face of the facts that a child is positively in love with limits. He uses his imagination to invent imaginary limits. The nurse and the governess have never told him that it is his moral duty to step on alternate paving-stones. He deliberately deprives this world of half its paving-stones, in order to exult in a challenge that he has offered himself… The charm of Robinson Crusoe is not in the fact that he could find his way to a remote island; but in the fact that he could not find any way of getting away from it… And the eternal interest of the Noah’s Ark, considered as a toy, consists in its complete suggestion of compactness and isolation; of creatures so comically remote and fantastic being all locked up in one box; as if Noah had been told to pack up the sun and moon with his luggage. In other words, it is exactly the same game that I have played myself, by piling all the things I wanted on a sofa, and imagining that the carpet around me was the surrounding sea."

It is also like the sun. Modern thought says when the sun rises each day it is simply working according to the laws of nature. Chesterton says that God must be similar to a child, for each day she may say to the sun and moon, “Do it again.” And, “It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike,” Chesterton suggests. “It may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them.” In other words, modern thought gives no room for the enchanted possibility that sun and moon and all creation continue to act not because of some evolutionary instinct but because of some mysterious, wild desire to begin again each day as if it were an adventure. Take up your cross daily and walk with me, as Jesus says.

I want to take several of his fictional works to provide a quick frame.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill begins in London in 1984, and despite the passing of time, London exists as it did in 1904, 80 years earlier. The cause for this similarity despite the time lapse is a result of a whole city losing faith in the idea of revolution, says Chesterton.

In 1984, on a foggy, dull London street, we are introduced to three government officials, two tall men and a short one. Each day, they walk together to their offices in a “mechanical” fashion. But, on this particular day, the short official comes out of his apartment later than usual and follows behind the other two. He sees something in the coat-tales of the gentlemen in front of him. He imagines the coat-tales turn into dragons, the buttons, eyes, and the slits, mouths. “If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe,” says the narrator, “if you look at it a thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.” The Napoleon of Notting Hill ventures into a London seen afresh that thousandth time. Through this lens everything changes. A no-name person becomes king and sets up laws that are comical until one person, Adam Wayne, take them to heart. Wayne is forced to defend the historic Pump Street he is charged over so the king won’t demolish it for the sake of progress. In a remarkable set of events, Wayne wins and wards off the Royal Army.

Chesterton explains that Notting Hill is a divine place because Wayne is a poet. He says Wayne makes “violet roofs and lemon lamps” items of praise simply because they represent shadow and color. Wayne is a “natural mystic, one of those who live on the border of fairyland.” And because Wayne possesses such childlike beliefs, he realizes the city often encroaches onto fairyland as it did on Pump Street, where its “gas lights thronged and melted into each other like an orchard of fiery trees, the beginning of the woods of elf-land.” He had a certain passion in even the stone streets and railed-in gardens of Pump Street as if they were “things as ancient as the sky.”

After the battle, London returns to some semblance of normalcy for twenty years. Adam Wayne began a revolution and has, as King Quin says, provided romance for the whole world. In a tour through Notting Hill, Quin visits the grocer, Mr. Mead, who says he thought Wayne had odd ideas twenty years ago, but now he feels his own ideas are the odd ones. “I thought nothing of being a grocer then,” says Mr. Mead. “I thought nothing of all the wonderful places that my goods come from, and the wonderful way they are made.” The King responds, “Is this his victory, that he, my incomparable Wayne, is now only one in a world of Waynes? Has he conquered and become by conquest commonplace?”

Thus, London returns to certain normalcy. Yet, it is normalcy more aware of enchantment, for the “idealism of Notting Hill” has infiltrated London to form what Chesterton says is a “new world.” Adam Wayne describes Notting Hill as a new Athens and a new Nazareth, for like them Notting Hill has perpetuated an idea. Wayne explains that neither the popularizing of wearing chlamys or turbans happened as the respective result of Athens’ and Nazareth’s effect on the world. Rather, “the soul of Athens went forth and made men drink hemlock,” Adam Wayne says, “and the soul of Nazareth went forth and made men consent to be crucified. So has the soul of Notting Hill gone forth and made men realise what it is to live in a city.” In other words, the idea of Notting Hill should invigorate us with a renewed enchantment that city and citizenship outweigh the empire of England with its dull, dreary idea that no one believes in any change.

The Man Who Was Thursday begins in Saffron Park, a suburb of London. Here, two men meet: Lucian Gregory, an anarchic poet, and Gabriel Syme, a poet of order, under the auspices of a “strange sunset.” “It looked like the end of the world,” Chesterton says. The action centers on the debate between Gregory and Syme. Gregory says that the railway clerks are always bored because they know where the trains are going. Syme objects. “Man is a magician,” he says, “and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! It is Victoria.”

Syme and Gregory appear harmless enough, just two philosophers discussing their thoughts on the world. But, the story descends into a tale where truths are actually challenged.

It is important to note that The Man Who Was Thursday is autobiographical. Chesterton subtitles the work “a nightmare” because it represents segments of his own nightmare through a barrage of pessimism at a young age before ending up in a similar place to where he began, a place of Christian vision. “It was meant to begin with the picture of the world at its worst, and to work towards the suggestion that the picture was not so black as it was already painted,” says Chesterton in reference to the story. “I was trying vaguely to found a new optimism, not on the maximum but the minimum of good.”

The story turns everything on its head. The anarchical council that is named after the days of the week is really seven detectives in disguise, and the seventh, Sunday, is chief among them. As the story develops the detectives think the entire world has fallen to anarchy and is chasing after them. The mob encircles Syme and his friends, and the ethics he knew at the novel’s start are hardly worth quoting. Syme quotes them anyway as he claims with certainty that the “Christian lantern” will endure and he discovers again that it holds great strength.

Finally, the detectives find Sunday in a garden. Before entering in, someone at the gate asks each of them to put on a costume that reflects each day of Genesis’s account of creation. Chesterton is creating the image of a masquerade “as absurd as Alice and Wonderland, yet as grave and kind as a love story.”

In other words, the seven days have entered again into the Garden of Eden with all its order, enchantment, and mystery. Sunday reveals himself as the detective that inaugurated the Anarchist Council and the entire chase. The detectives still do not understand. They struggle to know Sunday’s identity and understand the reasons for his actions. Sunday is God in some fashion. Syme says his soul and heart are happy but his “reason is still crying out” for answers. Syme realizes that he can have every measure of faith in the Christian vision and have experienced even the extreme nightmare of a nearly collapsed faith, and he will remain an amateur in knowing the ways of Sunday and his person.

In other words, the Christian vision may set certain boundaries on how nature works and how miracle responds to the normal and supernatural realms, but the Christian vision is caught in a paradox: its boundaries follow a God that knows no bounds.
Sunday tells Syme, “Grab in the roots of those trees,” and “Stare at those morning clouds… you will have found out the truth of the last tree and the topmost cloud before the truth about me.”

Sunday continues: “Since the beginning of the world all men have hunted me like a wolf – kings and sages, and poets and lawgivers, all the churches, and all the philosophers. But I have never been caught yet.” Sunday says he was the man in the darkroom who made Syme and his friends detectives. They discover he produced the nightmarish adventure to help define anew the Christian vision, one that is born out of struggle, angst, wonder. And the struggle tosses Syme out on pier with no other security besides his belief in God. Here, Syme is forced to have “the glory and isolation of the anarchist,” the “tears and torture,” so he can say he has suffered and, “You lie.” In other words, the anarchist and the modern skeptic both carry out the same lie. The lie demands a universe with the absence of God’s laws; the lie suggests a world without law would possess more freedom. But Sunday rebuts this brings Syme and the detectives to a place of knowing that God is involved, but not knowing all the answers or even the questions.

At the end of the novel when Sunday asks Syme, “Can ye drink the cup that I drink of?” The question is riddled with mystery and supported by only a tinge of hope. Why did Sunday lead him down this journey and why by his own hands would he also relieve him? Can Sunday be trusted? The nightmare concludes with a fuller faith not a fuller understanding.

G. K. Chesterton wrote “Magic” in 1913 at the urging of his friend, the playwright George Bernard Shaw. “Magic” was the only play produced while Chesterton was alive.

The play opened in London with great success. It ran for more than 100 performances. In all, Chesterton wrote only a handful of plays. “Magic” was his first play, and “The Surprise” marked his last. Although “The Surprise” was written in 1932, it was not published until 1952, 16 years after Chesterton died and after his long-time secretary Masie Ward found it among some other papers.

Like The Napoleon of Notting Hill and The Man Who Was Thursday, “Magic” works out a renewed wonder and an invitation to imagination.

“Magic” is about belief: the Conjurer who performs believable tricks, a girl who believes in fairyland, a doctor who doesn’t believe in churches, a preacher who doesn’t believe in miracles, a man newly back from America who believes in progress, and an aristocrat who compromises to the point of believing nothing.

The play opens with Patricia in her garden encountering a stranger who she thinks is a wizard. He turns out later to be the hired entertainment - a conjurer - for the evening to celebrate the return of Patricia’s brother Morris from America. Inside the house, a doctor and preacher are joined by an aristocrat and Morris. It’s the natural up against the concrete lines of modernity.

And when Patricia comes inside, she announces she has met a wizard who has told her “very many true things” and talked “the language of the elves.” What does the Doctor say?

"We old buffers won’t be too strict with you if your view of things sometimes gets a bit-–mixed up, shall we say? If the stars get loose about the grass by mistake; or if, once or twice, the sunset gets into the east. We should only say “Dream as much as you like . . . But don’t forget the difference . . . between the things that are beautiful and the things that are there. That red lamp over my door isn’t beautiful; but it’s there."

Essentially, the doctor says that If you believes in magic, you’re cautioned that beliefs are, in the end, superstitions. In contrast, physical objects like lampposts are facts. You can’t dismiss them.

The conjuror starts his routine. He does a few tricks - slights-of-hand, easily explainable tricks. Morris says, "I guess I wish we had all the old apparatus of all the old Priests and Prophets since the beginning of the world. I guess most of the old miracles and that were a matter of just panels and wires... I just want that old apparatus that turned rods into snakes. I want those smart appliances, sir, that brought water out of a rock when old man Moses chose to hit it... I guess it’s a pity we’ve lost the machinery." Then the conjurer does something that no one expects. He changes the red light to a blue one with no strings attached. In the end, the conjurer has to lie to Morris in an effort to keep him sane. The preacher says rightly, “The child who doubts about Santa Claus has insomnia. The child who believes has a good night’s rest.”

“Magic” begins with the contrast between those who believe in the supernatural and those who do not. The contrast, as it develops through the play, demonstrates the failing of modern thought because it does not believe in the supernatural, an issue of boundary’s legitimacy. When the light changes color with no natural explanation, Chesterton has forced the reader to make a decision to accept the supernatural element or develop logical reasons for the light to suddenly change. This point of decision is one that centers on the main point of this thesis, whether Christian theology will inform the reader’s perception of the light or whether it will be ignored for something less mysterious. As with Patricia and the Conjurer, if the reader chooses Christian theology, true imagination begins.

(January 2008 | Part 3 of 3)