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. I am not setting up as an authority on either. I am not pretending to be learned; nor is there here any question of learning. It is a question of quite superficial information, but of information that is fairly well spread over the whole surface. I have not been right slap-bang through The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire lately, any more than had Mr. Silas Wegg; I have not read every word of the Acta Sanctorum within the last week or so; I have not even read very closely the relatively modern romance of The Seven Champions of Christendom. I have nothing but general information; but it is fairly general. What surprises me in people younger, brighter, and more progressively educated than myself is that their general information is very patchy. Now, it is unfair to say that they know nothing about St. George, because it may fairly be answered that there is nothing to be known about St. George. In one sense, nobody knows who St. George was; we only know who he was not. The only clear and solid fact about him is that he certainly was not what Gibbon said he was; the contractor of Cappadocia. He was merely recorded as a common soldier of the legions martyred with multitudes under Diocletian; nor is there any particular reason to doubt that he was. All the rest is legend, though legend is often very valuable to history. And I mean by general information the sense of the life in legends; how they grow; where they come from; why they remain. I know what saints were supposed to be; what patron saints were supposed to do; how they often did it for the most diverse groups ages after their death; how other saints besides George dealt with dragons; how other nations besides England invoked St. George; how the saints were before the knights; how the knights were before the nations; and so on. In short, I have picked up quite crudely what Mr. Wells calls an Outline of History; but a more scientifically educated generation still seems to have only snippets of history: the lie out of Gibbon; the legend about the dragon; the phrase ‘St. George for Merry England,’ and such isolated items. The result is a curious sort of narrowness, even about the problem of the present or the immediate past. For instance, one quite intelligent contributor apparently identified ‘St. George’ as somebody supposed to have lived in ‘Merry England’, and explained that his period (whatever it was supposed to be) was not really merry, because there was a great deal of mud in the streets, or people lived in mud hovels. Apart from everything else, I call it narrow for a man to suppose that Mud is the opposite of Merriment. Did he never make any mud-pies? Was he not much merrier making them than contributing to intellectual weeklies? But the essential point is this. Everybody thought the joke must be found in showing how unlike St. George’s time was to ours. I think it would be a much better joke to show how extremely like St. George’s time was to ours. But the writers are hampered in this by being extremely vague about what was St. George’s time. Now, a man in the later Roman Empire, like George the Martyr, would have seen all round him an ancient world that was astonishingly like the modern world. Whether or no Merry England was a suitable phrase for mediævalism, whether or no mediævalism was all mud, it is quite certain that the Empire of Diocletian was not all mud. Imperial Rome was not all mud, but all marble, all mortar and massive building, all pipes and tanks and engineering, all sorts of elaborate equipments of luxury or hygiene. And among all those palatial baths and towering aqueducts, George would probably be thinking pretty much what many an intelligent man is thinking now – that man does not live by soap alone; and that hygiene, or even health, is not much good unless you can take a healthy view of it – or, better still, feel a healthy indifference to it. Suppose, for instance, that the soldier George had read some of the satires on fashionable society that were produced in that old Pagan world. He would find fact after fact and fashion after fashion exactly parallel to our own. He would find Juvenal making fun of fashionable ladies who join in masculine sports or adventures in a spirit of self-advertisement. The Roman satirist describes how grand Roman ladies would appear as gladiators in the arena, sacrificing not only modesty, but the manners of their rank, in order to be in the limelight. That exact fashionable blend of Feminism and Publicity did really exist in the real epoch of the real St. George: almost exactly as it exists today. Or suppose the Roman soldier read the religious and philosophical literature circulating through the Roman Empire. He would find all that we call New Religions now already called New Religions then. He would find idealists who were Vegetarians, like Apollonius of Tyana; theosophists who had learned all about Reincarnation from Brahmins and Hindu seers; prophets of the Simple Life in the drawing-rooms of duchesses, talking about the secrets of health, wealth, and wisdom; promises of a new Universal Religion, which should include all beliefs without any particular belief in any of them. If the real original St. George did find himself interviewed by a modern newspaper man, he would think that hardly anything in the newspaper was new. He would not think primarily that he had come into a strange world, far away from dragons and princesses and mediæval armour. He would think he had got back into the old bewildered and decaying world of the last phase of Paganism, loud with denials of religion and louder with the howlings of superstition. He would find everything in Juvenal – except Juvenal. He would find quite as many absurd lady gladiators – only not so many people calling them absurd. He would be quite at home, thinking himself back in the old Diocletian Empire – and he would prepare for death.

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: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/158185-great-books

‘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. The children moved listlessly towards the aunt's end of the carriage. Evidently her reputation as a story-teller did not rank high in their estimation. In a low, confidential voice, interrupted at frequent intervals by loud, petulant questionings from her listeners, she began an unenterprising and deplorably uninteresting story about a little girl who was good, and made friends with every one on account of her goodness, and was finally saved from a mad bull by a number of rescuers who admired her moral character. ‘Wouldn't they have saved her if she hadn't been good?’ demanded the bigger of the small girls. It was exactly the question that the bachelor had wanted to ask. ‘Well, yes,’ admitted the aunt lamely, ‘but I don't think they would have run quite so fast to her help if they had not liked her so much.’ ‘It's the stupidest story I've ever heard,’ said the bigger of the small girls, with immense conviction. ‘I didn't listen after the first bit, it was so stupid,’ said Cyril. The smaller girl made no actual comment on the story, but she had long ago recommenced a murmured repetition of her favourite line. ‘You don't seem to be a success as a story-teller,’ said the bachelor suddenly from his corner. The aunt bristled in instant defence at this unexpected attack. ‘It's a very difficult thing to tell stories that children can both understand and appreciate,’ she said stiffly. ‘I don't agree with you,’ said the bachelor. ‘Perhaps you would like to tell them a story,’ was the aunt's retort. ‘Tell us a story,’ demanded the bigger of the small girls. ‘Once upon a time,’ began the bachelor, ‘there was a little girl called Bertha, who was extra-ordinarily good.’ The children's momentarily-aroused interest began at once to flicker; all stories seemed dreadfully alike, no matter who told them. ‘She did all that she was told, she was always truthful, she kept her clothes clean, ate milk puddings as though they were jam tarts, learned her lessons perfectly, and was polite in her manners.’ ‘Was she pretty?’ asked the bigger of the small girls. ‘Not as pretty as any of you,’ said the bachelor, ‘but she was horribly good.’ There was a wave of reaction in favour of the story; the word horrible in connection with goodness was a novelty that commended itself. It seemed to introduce a ring of truth that was absent from the aunt's tales of infant life. ‘She was so good,’ continued the bachelor, ‘that she won several medals for goodness, which she always wore, pinned on to her dress. There was a medal for obedience, another medal for punctuality, and a third for good behaviour. They were large metal medals and they clicked against one another as she walked. No other child in the town where she lived had as many as three medals, so everybody knew that she must be an extra good child.’ ‘Horribly good,’ quoted Cyril. ‘Everybody talked about her goodness, and the Prince of the country got to hear about it, and he said that as she was so very good she might be allowed once a week to walk in his park, which was just outside the town. It was a beautiful park, and no children were ever allowed in it, so it was a great honour for Bertha to be allowed to go there.’ ‘Were there any sheep in the park?’ demanded Cyril. ‘No;’ said the bachelor, ‘there were no sheep.’ ‘Why weren't there any sheep?’ came the inevitable question arising out of that answer. The aunt permitted herself a smile, which might almost have been described as a grin. ‘There were no sheep in the park,’ said the bachelor, ‘because the Prince's mother had once had a dream that her son would either be killed by a sheep or else by a clock falling on him. For that reason the Prince never kept a sheep in his park or a clock in his palace.’ The aunt suppressed a gasp of admiration. ‘Was the Prince killed by a sheep or by a clock?’ asked Cyril. ‘He is still alive, so we can't tell whether the dream will come true,’ said the bachelor unconcernedly; ‘anyway, there were no sheep in the park, but there were lots of little pigs running all over the place.’ ‘What colour were they?’ ‘Black with white faces, white with black spots, black all over, grey with white patches, and some were white all over.’ The storyteller paused to let a full idea of the park's treasures sink into the children's imaginations; then he resumed: ‘Bertha was rather sorry to find that there were no flowers in the park. She had promised her aunts, with tears in her eyes, that she would not pick any of the kind Prince's flowers, and she had meant to keep her promise, so of course it made her feel silly to find that there were no flowers to pick.’ ‘Why weren't there any flowers?’ ‘Because the pigs had eaten them all,’ said the bachelor promptly. ‘The gardeners had told the Prince that you couldn't have pigs and flowers, so he decided to have pigs and no flowers.’ There was a murmur of approval at the excellence of the Prince's decision; so many people would have decided the other way. ‘There were lots of other delightful things in the park. There were ponds with gold and blue and green fish in them, and trees with beautiful parrots that said clever things at a moment's notice, and humming birds that hummed all the popular tunes of the day. Bertha walked up and down and enjoyed herself immensely, and thought to herself: “If I were not so extraordinarily good I should not have been allowed to come into this beautiful park and enjoy all that there is to be seen in it,” and her three medals clinked against one another as she walked and helped to remind her how very good she really was. Just then an enormous wolf came prowling into the park to see if it could catch a fat little pig for its supper.’ ‘What colour was it?’ asked the children, amid an immediate quickening of interest. ‘Mud-colour all over, with a black tongue and pale grey eyes that gleamed with unspeakable ferocity. The first thing that it saw in the park was Bertha; her pinafore was so spotlessly white and clean that it could be seen from a great distance. Bertha saw the wolf and saw that it was stealing towards her, and she began to wish that she had never been allowed to come into the park. She ran as hard as she could, and the wolf came after her with huge leaps and bounds. She managed to reach a shrubbery of myrtle bushes and she hid herself in one of the thickest of the bushes. The wolf came sniffing among the branches, its black tongue lolling out of its mouth and its pale grey eyes glaring with rage. Bertha was terribly frightened, and thought to herself: “If I had not been so extraordinarily good I should have been safe in the town at this moment.” However, the scent of the myrtle was so strong that the wolf could not sniff out where Bertha was hiding, and the bushes were so thick that he might have hunted about in them for a long time without catching sight of her, so he thought he might as well go off and catch a little pig instead. Bertha was trembling very much at having the wolf prowling and sniffing so near her, and as she trembled the medal for obedience clinked against the medals for good conduct and punctuality. The wolf was just moving away when he heard the sound of the medals clinking and stopped to listen; they clinked again in a bush quite near him. He dashed into the bush, his pale grey eyes gleaming with ferocity and triumph, and dragged Bertha out and devoured her to the last morsel. All that was left of her were her shoes, bits of clothing, and the three medals for goodness.’ ‘Were any of the little pigs killed?’ ‘No, they all escaped.’ ‘The story began badly,’ said the smaller of the small girls, ‘but it had a beautiful ending.’ ‘It is the most beautiful story that I ever heard,’ said the bigger of the small girls, with immense decision. ‘It is the only beautiful story I have ever heard,’ said Cyril. A dissentient opinion came from the aunt. ‘A most improper story to tell to young children! You have undermined the effect of years of careful teaching.’ ‘At any rate,’ said the bachelor, collecting his belongings preparatory to leaving the carriage, ‘I kept them quiet for ten minutes, which was more than you were able to do.’ ‘Unhappy woman!’ he observed to himself as he walked down the platform of Templecombe station; ‘for the next six months or so those children will assail her in public with demands for an improper story!’

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. This is the experience of all writers. It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories ‘In Our Time’ went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In ‘This Side of Paradise’ I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile. The amateur, seeing how the professional having learned all that he’ll ever learn about writing can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming — the amateur thinks he or she can do the same. But the amateur can only realize his ability to transfer his emotions to another person by some such desperate and radical expedient as tearing your first tragic love story out of your heart and putting it on pages for people to see. That, anyhow, is the price of admission. Whether you are prepared to pay it or, whether it coincides or conflicts with your attitude on what is ‘nice’ is something for you to decide. But literature, even light literature, will accept nothing less from the neophyte. It is one of those professions that wants the ‘works.’ You wouldn’t be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave. In the light of this, it doesn’t seem worth while to analyze why this story isn’t saleable but I am too fond of you to kid you along about it, as one tends to do at my age. If you ever decide to tell your stories, no one would be more interested than, Your old friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald P.S. I might say that the writing is smooth and agreeable and some of the pages very apt and charming. You have talent — which is the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point.

‘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. To begin with, note the queer, automatic assumption that it must always mean throwing mud at a thing to call it a relic of mediaevalism. The modern world contains a good many relics of mediaevalism, and most of us would be surprised if the argument were logically enforced even against the things that are commonly called mediaeval. We should express some regret if somebody blew up Westminster Abbey, because it is a relic of mediaevalism. Doubts would trouble us if the Government burned all existing copies of Dante’s Divine Comedy and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, because they are quite certainly relics of mediaevalism. We could not throw ourselves into unreserved and enthusiastic rejoicing even if the Tower of Giotto were destroyed as a relic of mediaevalism. And only just lately, in Oxford and Paris (themselves, alas! relics of mediaevalism), there has been a perverse and pedantic revival of the Thomist Philosophy and the logical method of the mediaeval Schoolmen. Similarly, curious and restless minds, among the very youngest artists and art critics, have unaccountably gone back even further into the barbaric period than the limit of the Tower of Giotto, and are even now telling us to look back to the austerity of Cimabue and the Byzantine diagrams of the Dark Ages. These relics must be more mediaeval even than mediaevalism. But, in fact, this queer phase would not cover only what is commonly called mediaevalism. If a relic of mediaevalism only means something that has come down to us from mediaeval times, such writers would probably be surprised at the size and solidity of the relics. If I told these honest pressmen that the Press is a relic of mediaevalism, they would probably prove their love of a cliché by accusing me of a paradox. But it is at least certain that the Printing Press is a relic of mediaevalism. It was discovered and established by entirely mediaeval men, steeped in mediaeval ideas, stuffed with the religion and social spirit of the Middle Ages. There are no more typically mediaeval words than those noble words of the eulogy that was pronounced by the great English printer on the great English poet; the words of Caxton upon Chaucer. If I were to say that Parliament is a relic of mediaevalism, I should be on even stronger ground; for, while the Press did at least come at the end of the Middle Ages, the Parliaments came much more nearly at the beginning of the Middle Ages. They began, I think, in Spain and the provinces of the Pyrenees; but our own traditional date, connecting them with the revolt of Simon de Montfort, if not strictly accurate, does roughly represent the time. I need not say that half the great educational foundations, not only Oxford and Cambridge, but Glasgow and Paris, are relics of mediaevalism. It would seem rather hard on the poor journalistic reformer if he is not allowed to pull down a little turnpike-gate till he has proved his right to pull down all these relics of mediaevalism. Next we have, of course, the very considerable historic doubt about whether the turnpike-gate is a relic of mediaevalism. I do not know what was the date of this particular turnpike; but turnpikes and tolls of that description were perhaps most widely present, most practically enforced, or, at least, most generally noted, in the eighteenth century. When Pitt and Dundas, both of them roaring drunk, jumped over a turnpike-gate and were fired at with a blunderbuss, I hope nobody will suggest that those two great politicians were relics of mediaevalism. Nobody surely could be more modern than Pitt and Dundas, for one of them was a great financial statesman, depending entirely on the bankers, and the other was a swindler. It is possible, of course, that some such local toll was really mediaeval, but I rather doubt whether the journalist even inquired whether it was mediaeval. He probably regards everything that happened before the time of Jazz and the Yellow Press as mediaeval. For him mediaeval only means old, and old only means bad; so that we come to the last question, which ought to have been the first question, of whether a turnpike really is necessarily bad. If we were really relics of mediaevalism — that is, if we had really been taught to think — we should have put that question first, and discussed whether a thing is bad or good before discussing whether it is modern or mediaeval. There is no space to discuss it here at length, but a very simple test in the matter may be made. The aim and effect of tolls is simply this: that those who use the roads shall pay for the roads. As it is, the poor people of a district, including those who never stir from their villages, and hardly from their firesides, pay to maintain roads which are ploughed up and torn to pieces by the cars and lorries of rich men and big businesses, coming from London and the distant cities. It is not self-evident that this is a more just arrangement than that by which wayfarers pay to keep up the way, even if that arrangement were a relic of mediaevalism. Lastly, we might well ask, is it indeed so certain that our roads suffer from the slowness of petrol traffic; and that, if we can only make every sort of motor go faster and faster, we shall all be saved at last? That motors are more important than men is doubtless an admitted principle of a truly modern philosophy; nevertheless, it might be well to keep some sort of reasonable ratio between them, and decide exactly how many human beings should be killed by each car in the course of each year. And I fear that a mere policy of the acceleration of traffic may take us beyond the normal modern recognition of murder into something resembling a recognition of massacre. And about this, I for one still have a scruple; which is probably a relic of mediaevalism.

‘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. It is all very well to talk of the freedom of fairyland, but there was precious little freedom in fairyland by the best official accounts. Mr. W.B. Yeats and other sensitive modern souls, feeling that modern life is about as black a slavery as ever oppressed mankind (they are right enough there), have especially described elfland as a place of utter ease and abandonment—a place where the soul can turn every way at will like the wind. Science denounces the idea of a capricious God; but Mr. Yeats's school suggests that in that world every one is a capricious god. Mr. Yeats himself has said a hundred times in that sad and splendid literary style which makes him the first of all poets now writing in English (I will not say of all English poets, for Irishmen are familiar with the practice of physical assault), he has, I say, called up a hundred times the picture of the terrible freedom of the fairies, who typify the ultimate anarchy of art—
‘Where nobody grows old or weary or wise, Where nobody grows old or godly or grave.’
But, after all (it is a shocking thing to say), I doubt whether Mr. Yeats really knows the real philosophy of the fairies. He is not simple enough; he is not stupid enough. Though I say it who should not, in good sound human stupidity I would knock Mr. Yeats out any day. The fairies like me better than Mr. Yeats; they can take me in more. And I have my doubts whether this feeling of the free, wild spirits on the crest of hill or wave is really the central and simple spirit of folk-lore. I think the poets have made a mistake: because the world of the fairy tales is a brighter and more varied world than ours, they have fancied it less moral; really it is brighter and more varied because it is more moral. Suppose a man could be born in a modern prison. It is impossible, of course, because nothing human can happen in a modern prison, though it could sometimes in an ancient dungeon. A modern prison is always inhuman, even when it is not inhumane. But suppose a man were born in a modern prison, and grew accustomed to the deadly silence and the disgusting indifference; and suppose he were then suddenly turned loose upon the life and laughter of Fleet Street. He would, of course, think that the literary men in Fleet Street were a free and happy race; yet how sadly, how ironically, is this the reverse of the case! And so again these toiling serfs in Fleet Street, when they catch a glimpse of the fairies, think the fairies are utterly free. But fairies are like journalists in this and many other respects. Fairies and journalists have an apparent gaiety and a delusive beauty. Fairies and journalists seem to be lovely and lawless; they seem to be both of them too exquisite to descend to the ugliness of everyday duty. But it is an illusion created by the sudden sweetness of their presence. Journalists live under law; and so in fact does fairyland. If you really read the fairy tales, you will observe that one idea runs from one end of them to the other—the idea that peace and happiness can only exist on some condition. This idea, which is the core of ethics, is the core of the nursery-tales. The whole happiness of fairyland hangs upon a thread, upon one thread. Cinderella may have a dress woven on supernatural looms and blazing with unearthly brilliance; but she must be back when the clock strikes twelve. The king may invite fairies to the christening, but he must invite all the fairies or frightful results will follow. Bluebeard's wife may open all doors but one. A promise is broken to a cat, and the whole world goes wrong. A promise is broken to a yellow dwarf, and the whole world goes wrong. A girl may be the bride of the God of Love himself if she never tries to see him; she sees him, and he vanishes away. A girl is given a box on condition she does not open it; she opens it, and all the evils of this world rush out at her. A man and woman are put in a garden on condition that they do not eat one fruit: they eat it, and lose their joy in all the fruits of the earth. This great idea, then, is the backbone of all folk-lore—the idea that all happiness hangs on one thin veto; all positive joy depends on one negative. Now, it is obvious that there are many philosophical and religious ideas akin to or symbolised by this; but it is not with them I wish to deal here. It is surely obvious that all ethics ought to be taught to this fairy tale tune; that, if one does the thing forbidden, one imperils all the things provided. A man who breaks his promise to his wife ought to be reminded that, even if she is a cat, the case of the fairy-cat shows that such conduct may be incautious. A burglar just about to open some one else's safe should be playfully reminded that he is in the perilous posture of the beautiful Pandora: he is about to lift the forbidden lid and loosen evils unknown. The boy eating some one's apples in some one's apple tree should be a reminder that he has come to a mystical moment of his life, when one apple may rob him of all others. This is the profound morality of fairy tales; which, so far from being lawless, go to the root of all law. Instead of finding (like common books of ethics) a rationalistic basis for each Commandment, they find the great mystical basis for all Commandments. We are in this fairyland on sufferance; it is not for us to quarrel with the conditions under which we enjoy this wild vision of the world. The vetoes are indeed extraordinary, but then so are the concessions. The idea of property, the idea of some one else's apples, is a rum idea; but then the idea of there being any apples is a rum idea. It is strange and weird that I cannot with safety drink ten bottles of champagne; but then the champagne itself is strange and weird, if you come to that. If I have drunk of the fairies' drink it is but just I should drink by the fairies' rules. We may not see the direct logical connection between three beautiful silver spoons and a large ugly policeman; but then who in fairy tales ever could see the direct logical connection between three bears and a giant, or between a rose and a roaring beast? Not only can these fairy tales be enjoyed because they are moral, but morality can be enjoyed because it puts us in fairyland, in a world at once of wonder and of war.