On St. George Revivified

An essay by G. K. Chesterton, as collected in All I Survey, reproduced here in honour of St. George’s Day.

The disadvantage of men not knowing the past is that they do not know the present. History is a hill or high point of vantage, from which alone men see the town in which they live or the age in which they are living. Without some such contrast or comparison, without some such shifting of the point of view, we should see nothing whatever of our own social surroundings. We should take them for granted, as the only possible social surroundings. We should be as unconscious of them as we are, for the most part, of the hair growing on our heads or the air passing through our lungs. It is the variety of the human story that brings out sharply the last turn that the road has taken, and it is the view under the arch of the gateway which tells us that we are entering a town.

Yet this sense of the past is curiously patchy among the most intelligent and instructed people, especially in modern England. Among a hundred such scraps and snippets, I saw this morning a literary competition in an exceedingly highbrow weekly, a prize being awarded for a conversation between a modern interviewer and St. George. And I was struck by the fact that clever, and even brilliant, contributors missed much of the point, even about the modern interviewer, by missing the point about the ancient saint. [Read more…]

Reading the Great Books

A new group has been formed on Goodreads, with the intention of reading and discussing as many as possible of the Great Books, as identified in the curriculum of St. John’s College, Annapolis, Md. Our reading for March is the first half of the Iliad, and if anybody wants to join us, I believe it is not too late to do so. You can find out as much as you need to know by visiting the group’s home page:


‘Vengeance’ revisited

A follow-up to my recent squib, ‘A case of vengeance’:

No doubt one reason why Flyspeck Flivverpuff was so happy to hear suicide recommended as a sure ticket to Hell was that, in fact, this was a lie. It may be – it probably is – that anyone who is absolutely Hell-bent on going to Hell will find a way to get there; and the Spanish swordsman of the story probably got what he had coming to him. But it is not, in fact, and never has been the teaching of the Church, (that is, of the Ordinary Magisterium), that suicides go to Hell automatically. The unnamed interloper was badly misrepresenting the teaching of the Church, as you would expect from someone that Flivverpuff himself suspected of having had words put in his mouth by one of his fellow devils.

Paragraph 2283 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

Paragraph 2281 makes it clear that suicide is a grave sin, and indeed combines several sins in one:

Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.

But this does not make it unforgivable or beyond the range of God’s mercy. Jimmy Akin, the well-known Catholic apologist, speaks eloquently on the issue in this video:

(Why Salazar went to Hell, on the other hand, we shall probably never know. We may suspect that it had little to do with whatever offence caused the swordsman to seek infinitely repeated revenge upon him. So extreme and disordered a desire is not usually bestowed upon an appropriate object. Of course, if Salazar had not been in Hell, Flivverpuff’s ‘customer’ would have had an entirely different punishment laid out for him: the doom of knowing that he had made an irreparable blunder, and his quarry was beyond his grasp for ever.)

Hope that helps. A merry Third Day of Christmas to all.

How to Shut Down Tolkien

A talk given by Brandon Rhodes at PyGotham 2014, and in my humble but infallible opinion, a very interesting one. Rhodes has much to say about how to encourage the creative faculties and how to bully them into silence.

There are one or two minor factual errors. Lewis was not the first person to whom Tolkien showed the Silmarillion matter: he had given some of it to R. W. Reynolds (for whom he wrote the ‘Sketch of the Mythology’ about 1926), and his earliest audience had been his wife, Edith. But these are unimportant in this context. Lewis was definitely the critic and catalyst who awoke Tolkien’s full powers and spurred him on through his most productive period. How he did so, and how he almost failed, makes an illuminating story.

Hat tip to Nancy Lebovitz for sending me the link.

‘The Storyteller’, by Saki

Joel Salomon, in a comment at According to Hoyt, observes:

Of course it is possible to tell a compelling story about a heroine without flaws….

Here is how the thing was done, by the inimitable H. H. Munro, better known as Saki.


The Storyteller

by Saki


It was a hot afternoon, and the railway carriage was correspondingly sultry, and the next stop was at Templecombe, nearly an hour ahead. The occupants of the carriage were a small girl, and a smaller girl, and a small boy. An aunt belonging to the children occupied one corner seat, and the further corner seat on the opposite side was occupied by a bachelor who was a stranger to their party, but the small girls and the small boy emphatically occupied the compartment. Both the aunt and the children were conversational in a limited, persistent way, reminding one of the attentions of a housefly that refuses to be discouraged. Most of the aunt’s remarks seemed to begin with ‘Don’t,’ and nearly all of the children’s remarks began with ‘Why?’ The bachelor said nothing out loud. ‘Don’t, Cyril, don’t,’ exclaimed the aunt, as the small boy began smacking the cushions of the seat, producing a cloud of dust at each blow.

‘Come and look out of the window,’ she added.

The child moved reluctantly to the window. ‘Why are those sheep being driven out of that field?’ he asked.

‘I expect they are being driven to another field where there is more grass,’ said the aunt weakly.

‘But there is lots of grass in that field,’ protested the boy; ‘there’s nothing else but grass there. Aunt, there’s lots of grass in that field.’

‘Perhaps the grass in the other field is better,’ suggested the aunt fatuously.

‘Why is it better?’ came the swift, inevitable question.

‘Oh, look at those cows!’ exclaimed the aunt. Nearly every field along the line had contained cows or bullocks, but she spoke as though she were drawing attention to a rarity.

‘Why is the grass in the other field better?’ persisted Cyril.

The frown on the bachelor’s face was deepening to a scowl. He was a hard, unsympathetic man, the aunt decided in her mind. She was utterly unable to come to any satisfactory decision about the grass in the other field.

The smaller girl created a diversion by beginning to recite ‘On the Road to Mandalay.’ She only knew the first line, but she put her limited knowledge to the fullest possible use. She repeated the line over and over again in a dreamy but resolute and very audible voice; it seemed to the bachelor as though some one had had a bet with her that she could not repeat the line aloud two thousand times without stopping. Whoever it was who had made the wager was likely to lose his bet.

‘Come over here and listen to a story,’ said the aunt, when the bachelor had looked twice at her and once at the communication cord. [Read more…]

Patricia C. Wrede & Marie Brennan on epics

My own essai on managing the length of epic fantasy, ‘Zeno’s mountains’, appears to have incited Marie Brennan to write a piece of her own: ‘How to write a long fantasy series’. This, in turn, inspired Patricia C. Wrede to write a two-part essay on ‘preventing epic bloat’: ‘Epics, part 1’ and ‘Epics, part 2’. If you are interested in epic fantasy and the writing techniques that pertain to it, I can recommend them all.

(Mary Catelli has also been good enough to leave a comment to the second part of Ms. Wrede’s essay, pointing the way back to ‘Zeno’s mountains’. I thank her for her thoughtfulness, and hope that some of Ms. Wrede’s readers may enjoy my little screed, in the brief time that remains to us. You see, closing a chain of links so early, by pointing back to the first URL in the chain, could cause the entire space-time continuum to collapse on itself. Or at least the Internet. You have been warned. By the time I get to say ‘I told you so’, it will be too late.)

Robert Muchamore’s 10-Minute Guide to Becoming a Literary Genius

Thanks to Barbara Morgenroth and The Passive Voice.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: a letter to Frances Turnbull

Published in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters. Hat tip to Brain Pickings via The Passive Voice.

I should like to call particular attention to the last sentence of the P.S.:

You have talent — which is the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point.

This is perhaps the best definition of talent, that obscure and much-abused term, that I have ever read. —T. S.


November 9, 1938

Dear Frances:

I’ve read the story carefully and, Frances, I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell. [Read more…]

‘On Turnpikes and Mediaevalism’, by G. K. Chesterton

Collected in All I Survey (1933).


Opening my newspaper the other day, I saw a short but emphatic leaderette entitled ‘A Relic of Mediaevalism’. It expressed a profound indignation upon the fact that somewhere or other, in some fairly remote corner of this country, there is a turnpike-gate, with a toll. It insisted that this antiquated tyranny is insupportable, because it is supremely important that our road traffic should go very fast; presumably a little faster than it does. So it described the momentary delay in this place as a relic of mediaevalism. I fear the future will look at that sentence, somewhat sadly and a little contemptuously, as a very typical relic of modernism. I mean it will be a melancholy relic of the only period in all human history when people were proud of being modern. For though today is always today and the moment is always modern, we are the only men in all history who fell back upon bragging about the mere fact that today is not yesterday. I fear that some in the future will explain it by saying that we had precious little else to brag about. For, whatever the mediaeval faults, they went with one merit. Mediaeval people never worried about being mediaeval; and modern people do worry horribly about being modern. [Read more…]

‘Fairy Tales’, by G. K. Chesterton

Collected in All Things Considered (1908).


Some solemn and superficial people (for nearly all very superficial people are solemn) have declared that the fairy tales are immoral; they base this upon some accidental circumstances or regrettable incidents in the war between giants and boys, some cases in which the latter indulged in unsympathetic deceptions or even in practical jokes. The objection, however, is not only false, but very much the reverse of the facts. The fairy tales are at root not only moral in the sense of being innocent, but moral in the sense of being didactic, moral in the sense of being moralising. [Read more…]