Lately I have been reading a good deal of Chesterton in my spare time, and so I decided this morning that I would enjoy writing a short summary of why I love and appreciate his writings and worldview to the extent that I do. There is much more I could say on the subject of Chesterton and his writings, and perhaps I will in future posts. However, for now, here is a simple summary of why he has this year become one of my ultimate favorite authors – and also a petition to read his writings for yourself if you have yet to make that worthy plunge.
Introduction to G. K. Chesterton:
Chesterton is an author that is understandably hard for neophytes to get into. Not only do his writings require an extensive amount of thought to fully grasp all of the truth they contain, they also tend to be fairly wordy – sometimes to the extent that they are overly abstruse. However, I would contend that the bounty of beauty and truth that permeates Chesterton’s writings is utterly worth any potential effort on the part of the reader.
G. K. Chesterton wrote widely and originally on a vast array of subjects, and he held opinionated beliefs on politics, philosophy, faith, economics, government, etc. He also wrote a variety of literary genres – from poetry, to literary criticism, to essays, to theology, to history, to comedy, to detective fiction. What is perhaps most remarkable is how Chesterton triumphed in every one of these endeavors – proving that he is not simply a skilled writer in one area, but rather that he is as protean as he is accomplished.
My personal knowledge and understanding of Chesterton and his works still leaves much to be desired. While I have read a myriad of his essays and many of his essential works of fiction and non-fiction multiple times each, his writings are bursting with enough wisdom and wit to keep me learning and studying for many years to come. However, now that I have made known that I am in my own mind far from an expert on Chesterton and his work, I am going to do my best to summarize Chesterton’s writings and briefly touch on what I deem to be a few of the most profound themes and ideas that permeate his life and works:
The Reason and Sense of Fairy-Tales
“I left the fairy tales lying on the floor of the nursery, and I have not found any books so sensible since,” ~ G. K. Chesterton
While I am not going to go into depth on the many reason why I consider fairy-tales to be important and relevant to life (I have already written my treatise on fairy-tales in the form of my undergraduate senior honors thesis – though if you desire the short version, you can simply read the two-part series I wrote for the One Year Adventure Novel blog), I do definitely want to bring up the fact that Chesterton displayed an immense regard for fairy-tales in his writings. Chesterton believed that fairy-tales are intimately real and that viewing the real world as a magical one is the most reasonable perspective possible.
This theme comes up time and time again in Chesterton’s writing – perhaps the most notable being “The Ethics of Elfland”, within his book Orthodoxy. The theme is also directly addressed in several of his essays and more subtly explored in his novels, The Man Who Was Thursday and Manalive.
The Mystery of Creation
“Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland,” ~ G. K. Chesterton
Chesterton viewed life as a great and true mystery. This does not mean that Chesterton believed life to be ambiguous – on the contrary, he believed firmly in absolute truth and the purposeful nature of life, as he was a devout Catholic and follower of Christ.
However, according to Chesterton, we were never meant to be able to rationalize the world – for reality is meant to be mysterious. Everything, in Chesterton’s eyes, is full of mystery – from commonplace events, to the birth of Christ. Life is abounding with magic, and wonder, and mystery – and while we will never fully understand it until the end of time, we can delight in that fact – because in the end, all that is wrong will be made right, and all sorrows will be overcome by the perfect joy of Christ.
Adventure vs. Inconvenience
“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered,” ~ G. K. Chesterton
Chesterton viewed matters that might normally be considered troublesome inconveniences to actually be opportunities for joy and adventure.
One example (drawn from “On Running After One’s Hat), is as follows: The wind blows away my hat. I could choose to see this as an inconvenience, because now I have to go chase after my hat (or conversely, let it fly away); or, I could choose to see this as an adventure – I now get to embark on an exciting quest to retrieve my truant hat. This viewpoint, according to Chesterton is a much more worthy and useful viewpoint than the first – and I am inclined to agree with him.
Here is a additional example – this one as an entire quote (because it is too wonderful not to quote):
“Most of the inconveniences that make men swear or women cry are really sentimental or imaginative inconveniences—things altogether of the mind. For instance, we often hear grown-up people complaining of having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train. Did you ever hear a small boy complain of having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train? No; for to him to be inside a railway station is to be inside a cavern of wonder and a palace of poetical pleasures. Because to him the red light and the green light on the signal are like a new sun and a new moon. Because to him when the wooden arm of the signal falls down suddenly, it is as if a great king had thrown down his staff as a signal and started a shrieking tournament of trains. I myself am of little boys’ habit in this matter,”
~ G. K. Chesterton “On Running After Ones Hat”
“Well, that’s that then – you’ve convinced me!” you may be thinking, “I’ll read Chesterton! But where should I begin?”
I am so delighted you asked. I would highly recommend you begin with The Man Who Was Thursday – a novel that traverses from a political detective story to a tale that deals with the mystery of creation and the very nature of God. It is full of delightful surprises, remarkable descriptions, brilliant wit and humor, and an overlying theme that transcends the novel itself and initiates contemplative thoughts that warrant at least one or two re-reads.
After you finish The Man Who Was Thursday (whether for the first or fifth time), I recommend you make a foray into Chesterton’s non-fiction; his essays are a marvelous place to begin. While my personal favorites in this genre include “On Running After One’s Hat”, “The Advantages of Having One Leg”, “On Lying in Bed”, and “The Dragon’s Grandmother”, every one of his essays deserves at least one reading – and certainly different readers will emerge with different favorites. The entire collections of Tremendous Trifles and In Defense of Sanity are splendid places to start. Finally, I would recommend a reading of what is widely considered Chesterton’s most essential volume – his Christian apologetics book, Orthodoxy. While the previous recommendations are fairly tame (relatively speaking), this volume, if taken in one dose, may render you overwhelmed by its verbal and intellectual complexity – however, when read in smaller increments (a chapter a day may suffice splendidly), it makes for a highly enjoyable and enlightening read.
Hopefully this short summary of G.K. Chesterton and his work has been somewhat helpful and informative – and even more hopefully, perhaps it has inspired you to embark on your own intrepid adventure into his writings. For further study into the life and works of Chesterton (beyond simply reading them), I highly recommend you peruse The American Chesterton Society website, which contains a wealth of information and insight on the subject (http://www.chesterton.org).