It is difficult to overstate the influence of G.K. Chesterton. Apart from the numerous converts who have come to Christianity, at least in part, because of an encounter with his writings, two of the bestselling books of all time were written, at least in part, under Chesterton’s benign patronage. The Lord of the Rings and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, both of which are in the top ten bestselling books of all time, were written by authors who cited Chesterton as a major influence.
J.R.R. Tolkien grew up, as a young and devout Catholic in Edwardian England, in the shadow of the wings of Chesterton’s flights of fancy. In his celebrated essay “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien cites “Chestertonian Fantasy” as a powerful “means of recovery,” which he defined as a “return and renewal of health” and as a “regaining of a clear view” of reality, of “seeing things as we are…meant to see them.”
C.S. Lewis had first read Chesterton in a field hospital in France during World War One and was surprised by the joy that Chesterton exuded in his essays. In spite of the fact that Lewis was an atheist at the time, he couldn’t help liking Chesterton’s jollity, his sense of humour, and his rumbustious joie de vivre. Chesterton had more common sense than all the moderns put together, the young atheist believed, except of course for his Christianity. A few years later, after reading Chesterton’s classic work, The Everlasting Man, Lewis perceived the whole Christian outline of history laid out before him for the first time in a way that made sense. This revelation proved to be a significant pointer on Lewis’s own path to conversion.
Although it is evident that Tolkien and Lewis were well-versed in Chesterton’s work, the essay of his which was probably most influential on the philosophy of myth that underpinned their own approach to story-telling was “The Ethics of Elfland,” which formed the fourth chapter of Chesterton’s book, Orthodoxy.
For many people, this essay, or chapter, is best remembered for the perceptive and surprising connection that Chesterton makes between tradition and democracy:
I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time….Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death….I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea.
For Chesterton, the traditions of the past, extended through time by the continuum that we call civilization, constitute a powerful voice or presence in the present which ensures their being handed on in trust to future generations. Tradition is, therefore, truly, as Chesterton insists, “an extension of the franchise;” it is an extension of democracy through time, the proxy of the dead and the enfranchisement of the unborn. Such an understanding of tradition as a shared inheritance across the generations is clearly a potent and palpable presence in Middle-earth and Narnia. It has a gravitas that does not weigh heavily on one, like an oppressive force from above, but grants security and therefore freedom from the winds of change by securing one with a healthy rootedness in the soil and soul of the culture which has nurtured and nourished one. It is the freedom that comes with a sense of belonging.
Another facet of Chesterton’s “Ethics of Elfland” which would prove inspirational to Tolkien and Lewis was Chesterton’s insistence that myths and fairy stories were not unbelievable, in the sense that they conveyed untruths, but were the most believable things in the world because they conveyed truths and taught lessons that the world needed to know and learn:
The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales. They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things….Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense. It is not earth that judges heaven, but heaven that judges earth; so for me at least it was not earth that criticised elfland, but elfland that criticised the earth.
In this brief passage, Chesterton reminds us that we should always judge sin from the perspective of virtue, even if, especially if, sin is more common than virtue. The should judges the is. This is the sense in which Tolkien, in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” states that one of the functions of fairy stories was to hold up the mirror of scorn and pity to man. They show us ourselves and are most powerful when they show us what is wrong with ourselves.
This ability of fairy stories to show us ourselves is dependent on our ability to see ourselves in the mirror that they hold up to us. Whereas the sin of pride blinds us so that we cannot see our image in the mirror, humility opens our eyes. Only when our eyes are opened by humility to the sense of wonder in the goodness, truth and beauty of the cosmos can we attain the gratitude at the heart of all true joy:
The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys and sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?
In stark contrast to this sense of wonder that opens and widens the cosmos, the philosophy of materialism seeks to imprison the senses within the confines of mere physical space. The materialist, wrote Chesterton, “like the madman, is in prison” and, what was worse, he was seemingly consoled by the fact that the prison, i.e. the material universe, was very large:
It was like telling the prisoner in Reading gaol that he would be glad to hear that the gaol now covered half the county. The warder would have nothing to show the man except more and more long corridors of stone lit by ghastly lights and empty of all that is human. So these expanders of the universe had nothing to show us except more and more infinite corridors of space lit by ghastly suns and empty of all that is divine.
Evidently inspired by this metaphor of materialism as a prison, Tolkien resurrected it in his own essay “On Fairy Stories” in which he spoke of “Escape” as “one of the main function of fairy-stories”: “Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”
We desire something beyond the prison of time and space because our true home is to be found beyond the prison walls, and the reason that the greatest truths are told in stories is because history itself is a story told by the greatest of all Story-Tellers. History is His Story. As Chesterton put it, “this world of ours has some purpose; and if there is a purpose, there is a person. I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller….I felt in my bones; first, that this world does not explain itself….Second, I came to feel as if magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have some one to mean it. There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art….”
Such a view of the world as being a work of art evokes images of God’s Grandeur as exclaimed by the great Gerard Manley Hopkins:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
It will also remind lovers of Tolkien and Lewis of the Great Music of God’s Creation in The Silmarillion and of Aslan’s singing of Narnia into being. And as for Chesterton’s proclamation that “this world of ours has some purpose” and that “magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have some one to mean it,” it leads us into the words of Gandalf, whose words of encouragement to Frodo will serve as appropriately encouraging words with which to conclude our musings on the magic of Elfland:
[T]here was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.