Tag Archives: G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

Review: The Queen of Seven Swords

Rating: ★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Overview:

Despite its humble length (50 pages), this book was an admittedly difficult read for theological reasons, focusing as it does on adoration to Mary. (Other reviews mentioned this, but most lack enough detail to deter a serious, though Protestant, Chestertonian, such as myself.) The poetry itself was beautiful; much of it has the same lilting meter found in Myers’ famous Saint Paul. In its prosody, it follows the same sort of patterns seen in Chesterton’s general collections like The Wild Knight and Other Poems. But unlike the others, it lacks variety of subject matter.

Most readers will either love or hate this book, depending solely on whether they allow for prayer to Mary. For my part, I have always found prayer to the departed saints (including Mary) to have no biblical backing whatsoever; the practice stems from culture and custom, not from wholesome spirituality. The New Testament authors ring with one accord the glorious news that we have become “a kingdom of priests,” fully entitled to “boldly approach the throne” on our own behalf but not on our merits, needing no other surety than the blood of the Lamb.

The eponymous cycle of poems turns on a metaphor of Mary having seven swords in her (see Luke 2:35), which are the swords of seven saints (which he admits are purely fanciful, not reflecting a historical reality).

Favorites were “St. George of England,” and “A Little Litany.” Other than these, there is almost nothing in the book that doesn’t relate directly to the honor of Mary. There are romantic, medieval-sounding themes and Robin Hood and King Arthur receive prominent mention, but mainly as adorers of Mary, whom the author calls by various honorifics, such as “Our Lady,” “Our Mother,” “the Queen of Angels” and “the Mother of the Maker”—an unbiblical falsehood that has been the constant stumbling block of millions of Muslims, who are told in the Quran that we believe God and Mary literally begot Jesus together.

Of the hymns to Mary, “The Black Virgin” was probably the most interesting for theological reasons, dealing with cultural expression of religion.

Overall, I don’t recommend this book at all to Protestant readers. Let not its rarity make it seem a jewel to you; not all rarities are precious.

Review: The Innocence of Father Brown

Rating: ★★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Series: The “Father Brown” series of short stories was collected into five books:

  1. The Innocence of Father Brown (1911)
  2. The Wisdom of Father Brown (1914)
  3. The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926)
  4. The Secret of Father Brown (1927)
  5. The Scandal of Father Brown (1935)

One additional story, “The Mask of Midas” (1936), was not included. (The author died in 1936.)

Overview:

Father Brown epitomizes one key of Chestertonian thought: the triumph of common sense over intellect. While Sherlock Holmes—especially in modern interpretations—glorifies uncommon intellect, Father Brown glorifies the common man. Here is how he is introduced in “The Blue Cross”:

The little priest had a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling; he had eyes as empty as the North Sea; he had several brown paper parcels, which he was quite incapable of collecting.

He is no Sherlock Holmes. In many places in the stories, he summarizes his method of solving crimes, and it is inductive rather than deductive. He solves crimes mainly by his intuitive, priestly knowledge of people, not a knowledge of facts.

“‘How do you know all this?’ he cried. ‘Are you a devil?’
“‘I am a man,’ answered Father Brown gravely; ‘and therefore have all devils in my heart.'” (p. 140)

The above quote summarizes the message of Father Brown. The “Father Brown” corpus carries an intrinsically personal vision of life on earth, and in that way it acts as a weighty supplement to Chesterton’s other writings.

Meat:

My favorite stories from this collection were “The Blue Cross,” “The Invisible Man,” “The Honour of Israel Gow,” “The Hammer of God,” and “The Three Tools of Death.”

In 1910, “The Blue Cross” became the first “Father Brown” story to be published, and in many ways it exemplifies his humble character, and has less violence than many of the others. “The Hammer of God” is also classic Chesterton as well as a thrilling mystery.

Chesterton masterfully utilizes the Scottish castle setting in “The Honour of Israel Gow,” to set the tone of a horror story. In general, I really enjoyed his use of setting. The modern BBC series ties Father Brown down to the Cotswolds (SW England), but this book alone has numerous and varied settings.

Bones:

Although I know it is par for the field, I did not like that nearly all of the stories involved a murder. I felt that Chesterton displayed his unique cleverness whenever there was no violence in the story at all, as in “The Blue Cross,” or Father Brown’s whimsical prelude, The Club of Queer Trades. I wanted more variety.

Quotes:

“Men may keep a sort of level of good, but no man has ever been able to keep on one level of evil. That road goes down and down.” (p. 65)

“I never said it was always wrong to enter fairyland. I only said it was always dangerous.” (p. 111)

“‘How do you know all this?’ he cried. ‘Are you a devil?’
“‘I am a man,’ answered Father Brown gravely; ‘and therefore have all devils in my heart.'” (p. 140)

“There is this about such evil, that it opens door after door in hell, and always into smaller and smaller chambers. This is the real case against crime, that a man does not become wilder and wilder, but only meaner and meaner.” (p. 167)

“Even the most murderous blunders don’t poison life like sins.” (p. 183)

Read (free): Internet Archive (pdf), LibriVox (audio), Project Gutenberg (epub/mobi/html)

Review: The Napoleon of Notting Hill

Rating: ★★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Overview:

Like its more famous cousin The Man Who Was Thursday, The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a tale of paradoxes and dichotomies. It was published in 1904 (his first novel) and set in semi-utopian future, and the tale arcs around two central characters.

The first central character is Auberon Quin, described in the following way:

When he entered a room of strangers, they mistook him for a small boy, and wanted to take him on their knees, until he spoke, when they perceived that a boy would have been more intelligent.

Auberon is selected by a kind of hyper-democratic lottery as the King of England while he is ludicrously babbling about Nicaragua. This plot device—the selecting of monarchs at random—was not a mere gimmick for Chesterton, but was his actual explanation of dynastic monarchy, as he had stated in his chapter of Robert Browning’s philosophy:

The great compliment which monarchy paid to mankind [is] the compliment of selecting from it almost at random. (Robert Browning, p. 94)

The second central character (to whom the title alludes) is Adam Wayne, who lives his whole life in Notting Hill, and grows an obsessive patriotic loyalty for the London borough that he calls his home.

He still retained his feeling about the town of Notting Hill . . . He was a genuine natural mystic, one of those who live on the border of fairyland. But he was perhaps the first to realise how often the boundary of fairyland runs through a crowded city. Twenty feet from him (for he was very short-sighted) the red and white and yellow suns of the gas-lights [i.e. street lamps] thronged and melted into each other like an orchard of fiery trees, the beginning of the wood of elf-land.

The playful competition and opposition of these two characters comprises the whole plot of this novel.

Meat:

Without spoiling the plot, there are some themes worth mentioning. One is the nearness of fairyland. “Fairyland” or “Elfland” in Chesterton (and the Inklings who read him) refer to a hypothetical land visited by imagination. The theme is the precise precursor to Lewis’ Narnia and functions like another dimension, visited in vision by the most childlike characters. In Napoleon of Notting Hill, the narrator references “fairyland” quite a few times through the course of the novel (for example, see the above quotation). This is important because these are some of his earliest published references to an idea that became integral to Chesterton’s view of life. “Fairyland” figures most prominently in Chesterton’s works Magic: A Fantastic Comedy and Orthodoxy, but I have yet to find a book in which it is not mentioned.

Another theme is the vindication of humor. (See also “A Defence of Nonsense”!) Auberon Quin seems to take nothing seriously, and Adam Wayne seems to take everything seriously. As the novel proceeds, positive and negative judgments are given on both characters, and the reader is left wondering who is the hero.

“Madmen are always serious; they go mad from lack of humour. You are looking serious yourself, James.” (Auberon Quin)

Chesterton also has an interesting take on patriotism, which I give here at length, since it does not in any way spoil the novel, and is a characteristic sample:

Upwards from his abstracted childhood, Adam Wayne had grown strongly and silently in a certain quality or capacity which is in modern cities almost entirely artificial, but which can be natural, and was primarily almost brutally natural in him, the quality or capacity of patriotism. . . . He knew that in proper names themselves is half the poetry of all national poems. Above all, he knew . . . that the patriot never under any circumstances boasts of the largeness of his country, but always, and of necessity, boasts of the smallness of it.

All this he knew, not because he was a philosopher or a genius, but because he was a child. Any one who cares to walk up a side slum like Pump Street, can see a little Adam claiming to be king of a paving-stone. And he will always be proudest if the stone is almost too narrow for him to keep his feet inside it.

It is almost impossible to convey to any ordinary imagination the degree to which he had transmitted the leaden London landscape to a romantic gold. . . . To this man, at any rate, the inconceivable had happened. The artificial city had become to him nature, and he felt the curbstones and gas-lamps as things as ancient as the sky. (p. 134-136)

Political themes are also important to Napoleon of Notting Hill, but there is nothing there I haven’t written about in my review of What I Saw in America. His stance on “internationalism” is obvious in Napoleon from the semi-utopian setting of the book; ultimately, he sees efforts to unite the world in peace to be idealistic and misguided. He also mocks pure democracy in the setup to the novel (again, he wrote about this in his writings on America).

Bones:

This novel is not as fast-moving as The Man Who Was Thursday. Admittedly, during the first few chapters, I was quite lost as to where the novel was going, or who the “Napoleon of Notting Hill” could be. The first chapter is essentially an essay. But the novel does start to get interesting after “The Charter of the Cities,” and it does have its fair share of action in the second half. Take heart; patience is rewarded in this one.

When I saw how the plot turned in this novel, I was inclined to think that it could have been a short story. The short story usually turns on one key dilemma or plot device (in this case, a monarch selected at random), and so far that has been true of Chesterton’s novels. At least they are interesting, and Chesterton’s narration has many intriguing asides.

Review: The Crimes of England

Rating: ★½

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Genre: Non-fiction, wartime essays.

Overview:

After the publications of The Barbarism of Berlin and its expanded edition, The Appetite of Tyranny, Chesterton wrote this longer work (published in January 1916) in defense of the same ideas. Ostensibly, the book is a confessional of England’s “crimes” in recent history, meaning the late nineteenth century:

I have thought it advisable to provide you with a catalogue of the real crimes of England. (p. 9)

In reality, though, the title is an ironic jab against England’s then-recent policy of having Germany as an ally. He means to recount how badly Germany has treated England and Europe, and England’s “crime” of being all too forbearing with Germany.

Long and weary as may be the records of our [England’s] wickedness, in one direction we have done nothing but good. Whoever we may have wronged, we have never wronged Germany. (p. 53)

Chesterton held to what some reviewers have called “Teutonophobia,” and his account of England’s so-called crimes amounts mainly to not throwing Prussia under the bus when they had a chance.

For all readers except those most keenly fascinated by European history and politics, this book will make undoubtedly dull reading, set as it is in a balance of power that is no longer relevant, and dealing with the emotions of a war that not even centegenarians would recall directly.

Meat:

This book has one minor advantage over Appetite of Tyranny in that his anger over the outbreak of World War I had had another year to mellow, and he tries to substantiate his position historically, rather than through cultural generalizations.

Modern reviewers may be interested in Chesterton’s occasional reference to German race theory, called by him “Teutonism”—as well as the related idea which he calls “pan-Germanism,” that every great genius must have been Prussian. Chesterton calls this Germany ideology “a religion”:

Not a race, but rather a religion, the thing [Teutonism] exists; and in 1870 its sun was at noon. (p. 49)

Here he was referring back to the Franco-Prussian War, in which Germany achieved its unification and changed the balance of power in Europe. Chesterton didn’t know, of course, that pro-Aryan ideology would lead to another world war and millions more deaths just 23 years later.

As an aside, Chesterton takes the pro-Irish side on “the Irish question” in this book, a stance solidified soon after in his 1919 book Irish Impressions and also mentioned in What I Saw in America (1922).

Bones:

The Crimes of England mainly suffers from the same defects as The Appetite of Tyranny, so I refer my readers to that review.

I add to those criticisms as well that it was a deplorably dull read. Chesterton handles most topics well, but neat chronological accounts were not his forte, and so his account of historical relations between England and Germany is barely readable to someone who is not deeply acquainted with the time period.

Quotes:

These below are given to exemplify the author’s opinions in this book, not those of the reviewer:

I have passed the great part of my life in criticising and condemning the existing rulers and institutions of my country: I think it is infinitely the most patriotic thing that a man can do. . . . I think our whole history in Ireland has been a vulgar and ignorant hatred of the crucifix, expressed by a crucifixion. I think the South African War was a dirty work which we did under the whips of moneylenders. I think Mitchelstown was a disgrace; I think Denshawi was a devilry. (p. 53)

The German superiority has been in a certain thing and of a certain kind. It is not unity; it is not, in the moral sense, discipline. Nothing can be more united in a moral sense than a French, British, or Russian regiment. Nothing, for that matter, could be more united than a Highland clan at Killiecrankie or a rush of religious fanatics in the Soudan. What such engines, in such size and multiplicity, really meant was this: they meant a type of life naturally intolerable to happier and more healthy-minded men, conducted on a larger scale and consuming larger populations than had ever been known before. (p. 61)

Review: Magic (GKC)

Rating: ★★★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Full title: Magic: A Fantastic Comedy.

Genre: Play, comedy.

Overview:

This play is set at the Duke’s home. The action begins with the search for his adult niece, Patricia Carleon, who has been in the garden, exploring Fairyland.

[Enter Patricia.]
Carleon. [Still agitated.] Patricia, where have you been?
Patricia. [Rather wearily.] Oh! in Fairyland.
Doctor. [Genially.] And whereabouts is that?
Patricia. It’s rather different from other places. It’s either nowhere or it’s wherever you are.

Thus Patricia, the mystic, sparks a debate about belief involving herself, her uncle, and her uncle’s guests. The themes about disbelief and skepticism in this little play are strongly echoed in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which in 1950 became the first of The Chronicles of Narnia series. An interesting difference is that Lucy, who discovers Narnia, is a child; while Patricia, in Chesterton’s play, is an adult. Chesterton wants the reader to know that belief is not confined to childhood or naivete.

Conjurer. [Contemptuously.] Yes, your Grace, one of those larger laws you were telling us about. (p. 42)

Published in 1913 and performed in London’s Little Theatre, this is the first of only three plays written by Chesterton and performed during his lifetime. (A fourth was published posthumously.) This is also the only one of his plays that is widely accessible today, having been digitized by Project Gutenberg.

Meat:

The debate about belief is resolved in much the same way as it is in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: we are reminded of the gloriously child-like wisdom of giving people the benefit of a doubt when they speak of miracles.

Why should sham miracles prove to us that real Saints and Prophets never lived. There may be sham magic and real magic also. . . . There may be turnip ghosts precisely because there are real ghosts. There may be theatrical fairies precisely because there are real fairies. You do not abolish the Bank of England by pointing to a forged bank-note. (p. 30)

One character notes that disbelief is just as bad a curse as gullibility.

Here is the boy who questions everything and a girl who can believe anything. Upon which has the curse fallen?

Bones:

There is not a lot of action in this play. The plot would have been more memorable if it had been a little longer or had more change of scenery.

Quotes:

Old women have taught you that the fairies are too small to be seen. But I tell you the fairies are too mighty to be seen. (p. 4)

The Doctor does not believe me. He is an agnostic; and he knows everything. (p. 43)

There is no bigot like the atheist. (p. 47)

Read: LibriVox (audiobook), Internet Archive (pdf), Project Gutenberg (epub/mobi/html), Kindle Store (mobi)

St. George of England

Mine eyes were sealed with slumber; I sat too long at the ale.
The green dew blights the banner; the red rust eats the mail.
And a spider spanned the chasm from the hand to the fallen sword,
And the sea sang me to sleep; for it called me lord.

This was the hand of the hero; it strangled the dragon’s scream,
But I dreamed so long of the dragon that the dragon was a dream:
And the knight that defied the dragon deserted the princess.
Her knight has stolen her dowry; she has no redress.

Mirror of Justice, shine on us; blaze though the broad sky break
Show us our face though it shatter us; shatter and shake us awake!
We were not tortured of demons, with Berber and Scot,
We that have loved have failed thee! Oh, fail us not!


Source: G. K. Chesterton, The Queen of Seven Swords. London: Sheed & Ward, 1926, p. 49.

Review: Greybeards at Play

Rating: ★★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Full Title:  Greybeards at Play: Literature and Art for Old Gentlemen, Rhymes and Sketches

Genre: Poetry, humor.

Overview:

Greybeards at Play is Chesterton’s first published book. He published it in 1900 at the ripe age of 26, so “greybeard” is used with tongue in cheek. This kind of dichotomy or paradox is a major pattern that marks his entire writing career, and looms large in almost every book he wrote. Aging and youth is also a favorite theme of Chesterton in his prose and poetry, used, for instance, in the introduction to The Man Who Was Thursday:

The world was very old indeed when you and I were young.

Meat:

The four poems play on philosophical themes and mock, to some extent, the high-faluting learning that he probably encountered during his London education. (Supposedly, Chesterton’s alma mater had the highest rate of Oxbridge admissions in the country.) This quick book makes fun and relaxing reading and the illustrations make it a treasure from Chesterton’s early career.

The whimsical monochrome illustrations accompanying the poetry will remind some of children’s books like those of Shel Silverstein, but the poetry is not really for children, hence the title.

If you have enjoyed Chesterton’s Wild Knight and Other Poems (1900) or Poems (1915), you will likely enjoy a quick romp through Greybeards at Play, although Greybeards is not as serious as most of his other poetry. If you enjoy the humor in his poetry and the lilt of English “doggerel,” you could also take a peak at Wine, Water and Song, which is all doggerel.

Bones:

These poems are fun, but the book goes by fast, and they are not Chesterton’s best poems (as reflected in the rating).

When I first read the Kindle edition of this book, I wondered at the brevity of it. The word count is only 1675. The reason is that the illustrations are missing in some editions. Chesterton himself created these illustrations, and as far as I know this is the only book he illustrated. He had taken classes at Slade School of Fine Art (UCL), focusing on illustration. If you do read this book, make sure you find an illustrated edition, such as the free HTML version on Project Gutenberg.