Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Why did Chesterton Write Fiction?

Years ago, I gave up reading fiction. I wanted to concentrate on non-fiction, and I didn't have as much time, so it seemed like a good idea.

Then I discovered Chesterton, and at first, I got into the non-fiction, Orthodoxy and his other famous works. Then I discovered the Father Brown mysteries, which I broke my vow to read.

There are times, though, when I wonder why he took the time to write fiction. Is it because he just got a great idea in his head and couldn't do anything till he wrote it down? Was he hoping to teach people, or just entertain?


  1. A good story changes you. I think we were made to enjoy stories. I too cut out fiction for lack of time and for lack of quality fiction. But, I believe C.S. Lewis' notion that salvation history is nothing by a story (myth) that happens to be fact--i.e. God used real things in history to tell us the Story of His love for us. Chesterton loved stories. He said that the fairy tales were truer that then stuff that the educators were trying to supplant them with.

  2. To sum up; the sanity of the world was restored and the soul of man offered salvation by something which did indeed satisfy the two warring tendencies of the past; which had never been satisfied in full and most certainly never satisfied together. It met the mythological search for romance by being a story and the philosophical search for truth by being a true story. That is why the ideal figure had to be a historical character, as nobody had ever felt Adonis or Pan to be a historical character. But that is also why the historical character had to be the ideal figure; and even fulfil many of the functions given to these other ideal figures; why he was at once the sacrifice and the feast, why he could be shown under the emblems of the growing vine or the rising sun. The more deeply we think of the matter the more we shall conclude that, if there be indeed a God, his creation could hardly have reached any other culmination than this granting of a real romance to the world. Otherwise the two sides of the human mind could never have touched at all; and the brain of man would have remained cloven and double; one lobe of it dreaming impossible dreams and the other repeating invariable calculations. The picture-makers would have remained for ever painting the portrait of nobody. The sages would have remained for ever adding up numerals that came to nothing. It was that abyss that nothing but an incarnation could cover; a divine embodiment of our dreams; and he stands above that chasm whose name is more than priest and older even than Christendom; Pontifex Maximus, the mightiest maker of a bridge.

    [GKC, The Everlasting Man CW2:380, emphasis added.]

    Tolkien's explanation, of course, is that we sub-create, because we are made in the image and likeness of the Creator.

  3. "[A fairytale] cannot help having some meaning; if it have proportion and harmony it has vitality, and vitality is truth. The beauty may be plainer in it than the truth, but without the truth the beauty could not be, and the fairytale would give no delight. Every one, however, who feels the story, will read its meaning after his own nature and development: one man will read one meaning in it, another will read another....

    A fairytale, like a butterfly or a bee, helps itself on all sides, sips at every wholesome flower, and spoils not one. ...

    A fairytale, a sonata, a gathering storm, a limitless night, seizes you and sweeps you away: do you begin at once to wrestle with it and ask whence its power over you, whither it is carrying you? ... to one the sonata is a world of odour and beauty, to another of soothing only and sweetness. To one the cloudy rendezvous is a wild dance, with a terror at its heart; to another, a majestic march of heavnly hosts, with Truth in their centre pointing their course, but as yet restraining her voice. The greatest forces lie in the region of the uncomprehended.

    I will go farther.--The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is--not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself. The best Nature does for us is to work in us such moods in which thoughts of high import arise. ... Is it nothing that she rouses something deeper than the understanding -- the power that underlies thoughts?"

    I wish I could quote the entire rest of George MacDonald's prologue to the Light Princess And Other Fairy Tales. ("The Light Princess," of course, is Chesterton's favorite fairy tale.) But basically the point is that fiction, through telling magnificent stories that are to be read with the heart rather than the intellect, can inspire man to goodness and cast a vision of heaven rather than pummelling man with mere arguments. This was certainly a view Chesterton shared ("all argument is a sort of violence"), and it is also the reason why Lewis talked of Goerge MacDonald's books as having "baptised my imagination" and thus prepared him for conversion to Christianity.

    In any case, that's certainly why I write fiction. Ahh, yes, I remember another quote of Chesterton:

    "The philosopher tries to get heaven into his head, whereas the poet only tries to get his head into heaven. Is it any wonder, then, that it is the philosopher's head that breaks?"

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. (The above deleted post was by me. It contained a serious typo that has now been corrected)

    I think it is highly unhealthy, spiritually and intellectually, to turn your nose up at fiction, as the numerous quotes and lengthy posts above attest better than I could say.

    Speaking for myself, I have learned more from reading fiction over the years than I have from non-fiction. For one thing, I could never have gotten back into the Church without having read The Lord of the Rings, a work of fiction.

  6. Let me add that Chesterton's body of work would be seriously diminished without such immortal works as The Ball and the Cross, Manalive, The Flying Inn, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, and especially The Man Who Was Thursday, as well as his other novels, to say nothing of the Father Brown mysteries and and his other detective fiction.

    What good would his Distribist non-fiction be without The Flying Inn and The Napoleon of Notting Hill? How could we possibly enjoy his apologetics without also reading The Ball and the Cross? And I maintain that you will not really be able to understand our present crisis with Islam unless you read and study The Man Who Was Thursday.

  7. As has been eloquently stated, fiction---like music, which is more my province---has a way of bypassing the brain with all its barriers, to go straight to the heart. This is a tremendously good thing in our age of so many ideological hangups. Sometimes someone can become so adept at deflecting the non-fictional presentations of truth, yet when a concrete illustration of either the truth or a person's falsehood of choice is presented to him in the form of fiction, he can see it anew for what it really is---and either finally embrace it (in the case of truth) or finally renounce it (in the case of falsehood).

    This all correlates to another Chestertonian theme, it seems to me: to see as though for the first time what has always been there. Good fiction can awaken anew a sense of wonder over the truth.

    In short, fiction utilizes indirection, which---like archery---can often hit the bullseye more successfully than by aiming dead-on through bald arguments.

  8. The paradox relates to the usual assumption that fiction is "untrue". That is not accurate. The parables - like the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan - are no less true for never having occurred. And the same with many other stories, from Sherlock Holmes to (insert your favourite author here).

    Indeed, fiction can be quite true - as it differs from a "news report" (if you are an academic, read that as "non-fiction" or "lab work" etc.) merely because the one happened in the Primary World (see Tolkien for details) and the other didn't.

    But there is a deeper paradox, which is what Kass brings out - perhaps something akin to the harmonic notes which I am sure she will understand.

    An aside: I ws delighted over her use of "indirection" which is an important tech word in computing -sometimes it's sort of what Supertramp called "the long way home" - but also one of GKC's leitmotifs is the journey to home (with stops around the world!) See Manalive, and TEM intro, and elsewhere for more.

    Ahem. As I was saying, there is a deeper paradox. And that is this: "Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for we have made fiction to suit ourselves." [GKC, Heretics CW1:66] This might also be a GKC leitmotif: certain things cannot be represented within a given art:

    "There is an almost infinite variety of meanings which can be expressed by windows and pillars and all other forms of artistic workmanship - but they have their indwelling limitations. They cannot express darkness in a window or a surrender in a column of stone." [GKC, Lunacy and Letters 42]

    Hence the paradox when Truth presented a story to us: a romantic one, fully satisfying as the best fiction - but with one difference: it really did happen in the Primary World. (See TEM CW2:380)

    Oh, yes, that was me quoting TEM earlier, hiding even my pen name under the cloak of anonymity. Hee hee.

  9. I think that there are a lot of things that you can say in fiction that you can't say in non-fiction. Not to jump directly to one of the baser uses of fiction, but in the Father Brown stories Chesterton satirizes a number of ideologies and actual people. If he were to have done this in real life, he might have faced a costly libel suit.

  10. I think that there are a lot of things that you can say in fiction that you can't say in non-fiction. Not to jump directly to one of the baser uses of fiction, but in the Father Brown stories Chesterton satirizes a number of ideologies and actual people. If he were to have done this in real life, he might have faced a costly libel suit.

  11. I think that there are a lot of things that you can say in fiction that you can't say in non-fiction. Not to jump directly to one of the baser uses of fiction, but in the Father Brown stories Chesterton satirizes a number of ideologies and actual people. If he were to have done this in real life, he might have faced a costly libel suit.

  12. Why did my last comment appear three times? Sorry- I don't know why that happened.

  13. Yes! Dr. Thursday, I appreciate your comparison to harmonic notes. That's exactly it. There's a whole chain reaction that is set off both in music and in fiction, and sometimes what is happening below (or above) the surface of the notes or the words is just as important---if not more so---than what is readily apparent.

  14. Fiction lets us explore ideas without having to live through situations. The best stuff for that nowadays is probably the better Japanese animation.
    Consider this quote from the very Chestertonian anime Trigun, which is basically Innocent Smith vs. the Neitschean Superman.
    The secondary villain, a nihilist named Legato Bluesummers, has just slaughtered a whole slew of bandits (for being loud).
    "Why did I only kill half of you? It was not sentiment; my reasons were entirely practical. If your bonds are truly deeper than family, you must give your companions a proper burial. But this is not an act of mercy. This is to teach you just how much pain there is in living."
    Isn't that just like something from Thursday?

    I know I write fiction, as sf author Michael McCollum put it, because nobody else would write the stories I wanted to read. I get a definite sense of that in a lot of Chesterton, that he'd have been happy to read those stories if someone else wrote them, but...alas, he had to do it.


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