Sunday, July 31, 2011

Favourite Novelists: GK Chesterton and What He Taught Me

This is a difficult one, because there is so much to learn from GK Chesterton. What about the part in Heretics where he gave a tightly-reasoned argument for the fact that bigots are those without clear beliefs? What about the part in The Napoleon of Notting Hill where he made a strong case for religious wars as the only defensible kind of war there is?
There are just two things I’d like to focus on for now, though. I still vividly remember the first time I read a GK Chesterton novel. It was The Napoleon of Notting Hill, and it began, “The human race, to which so many of my readers belong…”

I had not been expecting that sentence. It caught me completely by surprise. Chesterton took it for granted that the world was bigger and friendlier than the human race. That “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.” A large part of Chesterton’s stylistic genius was this constant prompting that life is both stranger and more wonderful than we think it is. The colours in his writing are always violent and vivid. The gestures and words of his characters have a barely-restrained grandeur. And above all, his stories take place against a backdrop of nature that scarcely conceals the underlying reality of the world—God. Everything his characters do has theological weight. Nothing in creation is taken for granted. A street might stop deciding to go to St Pancras Station and decide to go to Heaven – for justice – instead. An apple-tree at any moment might stop producing apples and start producing tigers. And water flows downhill because it is bewitched. At any moment the spell might break and the precious, fragile order of creation might devolve into chaos. The only thing which prevents this happening is the hand of God holding all things together.
Chesterton’s writing is full of wonder at things we take for granted. It reminds us what a strange world we live in, and how we should give thanks for it; it reminds us how amazing it is that every blade of grass is green, and prompts us into a life of service and obedience as the only way of giving thanks.
The second thing I learned from Chesterton is that it is possible—no, necessary—to believe and hope and fight evil with all our hearts and strength…without ever becoming shrill about it. Chesterton’s heroes fight for what they believe. They believe they are right. They believe the enemy is wicked, so wicked as to destroy the very souls of men. They will die or even kill to defeat the enemy.
Chesterton’s heroes are not limp-wristed and compromising. They fight. But they do it without being shrill or embittered. They face evil with high spirits. With laughter. They are steadfast and deadly serious, but their joy bubbles over all the time. They do not take offense. They do not groan and complain.
The medieval historian Montaigne tells a story of the Hundred Years’ War. Edward the Black Prince had consigned the citizens of a certain city to be slain without mercy. He left, ignoring the screams of the women and aged as they grovelled for mercy. But then as he went on he came across three French knights—still fighting, even though the battle was long over and they were vastly outnumbered. The knights didn’t care about the battle being lost—their aim was to defy the English as long as they still had two legs and a strong right hand, and that’s what they were doing. Moved by their bravery, the Black Prince granted quarter first to them and then to the whole town…what was left of it.
This is the kind of bravery that GK Chesterton’s heroes show. Bravery in the face of overwhelming odds, bravery that even wins the respect of enemies. No complaints—just actions. It’s the medieval ideal of chivalry CS Lewis spoke of in The Last Battle: gentle words or hard knocks as the only language of a true knight.
I know it’s hard when people attack you, to remain both gracious and uncompromising. I know it’s hard when everyone seems to be compromising, when everything seems to be getting worse. And that’s why we all need Chesterton. We need to face evil with fearless laughter, with mockery, with an unshakeable joy; not with groans of distress or shrill cries of paranoia.
I think this is an incredibly important lesson to learn. It’s not good always to be serious and dull. Even less is it good to give in to despair. I know a lot of conservatives whom I respect very much, who are making titanic efforts to combat evil in society. But I wish I could see more joy in their lives. More laughter. More…more swashbuckling, and I mean in outlook not in actually challenging Hugh Hefner to a duel, although that is something I’d give most of my body parts to witness.
It may seem cheeky for me, a very young person, to be saying this. But you know that it’s the joy of the Lord that is our strength. And for what that looks like, GK Chesterton is a great example.


Helen said...

Never read anything by him. Now I'm interested.

Suzannah said...

I highly recommend it, Helen. Chesterton is wonderful.


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