The great G.K. Chesterton had a huge impact on my embrace of Christian orthodoxy. It would, in fact, be no exaggeration to say that his was the greatest single influence, under grace, on my conversion. I was, therefore, highly gratified to discover, during the research for my book Literary Converts, that Chesterton also had a significant influence on the conversions of many others, including writers such as Maurice Baring, Ronald Knox, and Graham Greene, as well as the actor Sir Alec Guinness. He was also a defining influence on C. S. Lewis, who had discovered Chesterton during World War One whilst recovering in a field hospital in France. A little later, it was Chesterton’s seminal work, The Everlasting Man, which had enabled Lewis to see the Christian outline of history laid out before him in a way that made sense, an epiphany which was a major milestone on Lewis’s journey to Christian conversion. It was, however, the famous “long night talk” between Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson in September 1931 which proved decisive to Lewis’s acceptance of Christianity. The topic of that “night talk” was what I call Tolkien’s philosophy of myth, an understanding of the priceless truth to be discovered in myths and fairy stories. It was this underlying philosophy which would inform the works of both Lewis and Tolkien in the years ahead, thereby blessing civilization with literary gems, such as The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. Although this “night talk” is rightly celebrated for sowing the seeds of such beautiful literary fruits, it is not widely known that Tolkien’s “philosophy of myth” is itself a fruit of the seeds planted by Chesterton in his work Orthodoxy, published in 1908, when Tolkien was sixteen-years-old.
As a young man, Tolkien was an avid reader of Chesterton. He would have known Orthodoxy well. It is, therefore, not surprising that many of Tolkien’s own beliefs on the philosophy of myth, as outlined in his important published lecture “On Fairy Stories,” are to be found in the chapter of Orthodoxy entitled “The Ethics of Elfland.” Take, for instance, Tolkien’s assertion in his lecture that fairy-stories “were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability,” and compare it with these lines from “The Ethics of Elfland”:
The things I believed most then [when he was a child], 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 criticized elfland, but elfland that criticized the earth.
Tolkien’s assertion that myths or fairy-stories are primarily concerned with desirability dovetails with Chesterton’s assertion that elfland dovetails with heaven, in the sense that elfland is the realm of moral rectitude, the kingdom of goodness, truth and beauty that every good man desires. It is heaven (the place of permanent perfection) that judges the earth (the place of transient imperfection). It is the good that judges the evil (and it is good that it does so). It is the true that judges the false; it is the beautiful that judges the ugly. This true order of things, which heaven and elfland share alike, is the way things should be, it is getting our moral bearings right, getting things the right way round, or the right side up. If this noble order of things is reversed so that the evil sits in judgment on the good and the false judges the true, we are in the presence of the chaos that the dragon brings, or the evil spell of the witch. Dragons and witches take many forms, in our world as well as in the world of fairyland. As Tolkien declares, the true order of things to be found in fairy-stories is a thing to be desired, especially in a world such as ours, which is full of dragons and in dire need of dragon-slayers. This desirability of fairy-stories does not merely dovetail with the things of heaven it can be said to be dove-winged, to borrow a phrase from Hopkins, insofar as it is a seed of desire planted by the Holy Spirit to lead us to Him. In this sense, those who turn their back on fairy-stories are turning their back on heaven.
There is, however, a sense in which those who turn their back on fairy-stories are also turning their back on the very world in which we live because, as Chesterton insists, we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds but the best of all impossible worlds. If we have the eyes of humility, the eyes of wonder, we will realize that we are living in a fairy-story, and not only any old fairy-story but the best of all fairy-stories. In “The Ethics of Elfland,” Chesterton seeks to remind us that “life was as precious as it was puzzling”: “It was an ecstasy because it was an adventure; it was an adventure because it was an opportunity.” It didn’t matter whether we considered ourselves pessimists or optimists. The important thing was that we were in the story of life and should be grateful for it:
The goodness of the fairy tale was not affected by the fact that there might be more dragons than princesses; it was good to be in a fairy tale. 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 or 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?
To rephrase Chesterton’s lucidly beautiful prose into the language of the philosopher or the theologian, we can say that gratitude is the fruit of humility and that it opens the eyes to the marvelous gift of wonder. It is only once our eyes are open in this way that we can truly see and appreciate the wonderful fairy-story in which we find ourselves. This crucial reality, which is at the heart of the true realism to be found in fairy tales, was emphasized equally strongly be Tolkien in his published lecture. Discussing the gift of what he calls “recovery” in fairy tales, Tolkien’s words are an accurate reflection of Chesterton’s:
Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. … This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them.
This singular blindness, which Tolkien would satirize to great effect in his own great fairy-story, The Hobbit, dubbing it the dragon sickness, is the same blindness to the wonders of life of which Chesterton writes. Those who lack the humility to see with the eyes of wonder are not only blind to the gifts of toys or sweets, or cigars and slippers, but even to “the gift of two miraculous legs” with which they walk, or to the wonderful “birthday present of birth” with which they’ve been blessed.
Considering the congruence between Chesterton’s sense of gratitude and wonder and Tolkien’s discussion of “recovery” and the re-gaining of a clear view, it should come as no surprise that Tolkien continues his own discussion by paying tribute to “Chestertonian Fantasy” which “was used by Chesterton to denote the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are suddenly seen from a new angle.” There is little doubt that Chesterton had enabled the young Tolkien to see reality from a new and startling angle when the latter had first read Orthodoxy. Its influence would inspire the future author of The Lord of the Rings to formulate his own vision of “the ethics of elfland,” expressed in the lecture “On Fairy Stories” and in his own wonderful stories. There is no doubt that the great G. K. Chesterton cast a spell on the great J. R. R. Tolkien for which all lovers of Middle-earth should be inestimably grateful.
Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.