Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Everyone Ready to Start Chapter One? OK, Let's Go

Chapter One of TMWWT is titled: The Two Poets of Saffron Park

Chesterton is setting the stage for his fantastical story, and since the subtitle is "A Nightmare" I think we can take the hints that most of this book is really supposed to be a dream. There are several clues in the first chapter, for example,
"The place was not only pleasant, but perfect, if once he could regard it not as a deception but rather as a dream."
and again
"...she kept recurring like a motive in music through all his mad adventures a red thread through those dark and ill-drawn tapestries of the night. For what followed was so improbable, that it might well have been a dream."
and once more,
"...that you thought a paradox might wake men up to a neglected truth."
There is another reference to "dream" but I'll let you find it. I am not putting page numbers down because I figure we all have different editions.

I noticed two things that reminded me of C.S. Lewis, the references to "a son of Adam" and the lamppost.

There are an unbelievable number of references to numerous other books and ideas: the Bible (Eden, "no man born of woman", etc.) Elizabeth and Queen Anne, artists, poets, colors, philosophy, theology, feminism/emancipation, order/disorder/chaos, the Baker Street reference to Sherlock Holmes, the Bradshaw reference (the train timetables), etc.

Maybe it was obvious, but Gregory's name is Lucian. Now, Gilbert had a good friend named Lucian Oldershaw, one of the original three Junior Debate Club, but I suspect, since Syme's name is Gabriel, that the names are supposed to be contrasted: the good angel and the bad angel.

Memorable quotes:
" is always the humble man who talks too much; the proud man watches himself too closely."
"He seemed like a walking blasphemy, a blend of the angel and the ape."
"Sometimes a man like your brother really finds a thing he does mean. It may be only a half-truth, quarter-truth, tenth-truth; but then he says more than he means--from sheer force of meaning it."
To which I can say, I've been there, done that.

Words I had to look up in a dictionary: empyrean epical

So we have three characters so far: Lucian Gregory, the Anarchist Poet [Gilbert calls him the "hero" of the story, is he? We'll find out.], Gabriel Syme, the orderly poet, (the "two poets" the chapter heading was referring to) Lucian's sister Rosamund Gregory, thrown in as a love interest? to ask questions so Gabriel can answer them? We'll find out.

So, there we have the first chapter. If you haven't read it yet, go ahead. Post your impressions, your questions, your comments, your favorite lines if you want.


  1. I've read TMWWT before, so maybe it's cheating, but I'd have to disagree with the assertion that Chesterton intended parts of the book to be a dream. Chesterton delights in the absurd in many of his works. He makes his characters unbelievable, and I believe that he has a point in doing so. I haven't read a book of his where the moral, or lesson to be learned, was still a mystery when the last page was turned... though the mystery of the characters remain. Maybe I'm wrong, but to think of the story as a dream somehow takes away from the excitement of it all. To me, the fantastic is all the more fantastic when it's imagined to be real than when it's imagined to be merely fantasy.

  2. Certainly, its debatable. However, the subtitle...

    and there is that line in Chapter 2 (which we haven't got to yet) and the sort of re-awakening right before the end where Syme and Gregory are walking again...

    and there is a dreamy quality to it, not that it isn't real, but foggy, a fantasy is like a dream, isn't it?

  3. I'm afraid I still can't say for sure if I think it was a dream or not. There are possiblities both directions. And the subtitle could be refering to that dream like quality that it certainly has.
    A sentance in one of the last chapters mentions that the six men discussed the 'place at the end' (I don't know what to call) later on. Now as far as I can tell, they had no time for this before Syme has his chat with Gregory. If so that would mean that the main characters at least from "the dream" were actually real.
    Also I don't think the quotes you mentioned doesn't give much of a hint either way. Although it may be that I can't understand the hints, that's quite possible. The second says that it might have been a dream, in fact it seems to me to suggest the opposite, that it was a crazy adventure; it seemed like a dream, but perhaps it wasn't. The other two, may be trying to introduce the possiblity of a dream, but they are not in reference to the later happenings.
    I dear, I do hope I made sense. (:
    Oh, sorry if two of nearly the same comment come up, I tried to post one a few minutes ago, but it didn't seem to work.

  4. I think it's important to realize that, dream or no dream, a lot of this story is meant to be FUNNY. I think we tend not to see the humor in what Chesterton is doing here - much of this first chapter is the joke of the anarchist being scandalized: Gregory is supposed to be shocking, but he himself is shocked by Syme and his orthodoxy. This is a paradox, but it's really quite funny, if you think about it.

    In the same way, the philosopher policeman from later in the book is funny. This is hard to catch, but I think if we look at this as not just a thriller or a nightmare, but as a story filled with some really hilarious stuff (the false Professor being mistaken for the real one, the elaborate messages conveyed with finger code, etc.) we'll lighten up enough to enjoy the book more and see more of what GKC was doing.

    One of the amazing things about this story is it's a funny nightmare philosophy modern novel that is very serious in its humor, real in its surrealism, and anti-modern despite its modern form.

  5. I was thinking about this. We should make a point to post what we think is funny about the story.

    What lines strike you?

    I thought the discussion about throwing up was funny (it struck me particularly because I'm writing a book right now and I generally don't like body fluids humor used gratuitously in fiction, but Chesterton's use of it was funny and wonderful!).

    Also, I was thinking about the dream thing. I think I mean that the story is like a dream in the same way that St. Paul uses to describe our lives as seeing now, as in a mirror, or as through a veil; our lives now are lived as if in a dream, and some day, it will be like waking and being truly alert and alive and seeing face-to-face. That's the kind of dreaminess I think TMWWT has--that kind of dreaming. Does that make sense?

  6. It does, Nancy. I agree with Stephen above, that I feel very cheated when some fantasy movie or story ends, and all the adventures turn out to be simply a dream and no more. It's like, what was the point of all that then? Seeing characters being in real peril, and having real adventures, is what helps you to care about them. To discover that none of it really happened is devastating.

    Take our Lord's passion and death as an example. We love it because it really happened, and has a real impact on us. But Islam cheats us of that by denying that Jesus really died on the cross. It denies us our salvation. To me, an author who plays the trick of making all a hero's adventures to be no more than a dream is no better.

    And that doesn't really fit Chesterton's character, does it.

    An example of humor in chapter 1? Syme defending railway timetables as poetic. If you've ever seen a timetable, you'll know what I mean. :-)


    Chesterton: “I happened to dedicate to Mr. Bentley, in those distant days, a book called “The Man Who Was Thursday”; it was a very melodramatic sort of moonshine, but it had a kind of notion in it; and the point is that it described, first a band of the last champions of order fighting against what appeared to be a world of anarchy; and then the discovery that the mysterious master both of the anarchy and the order was the same sort of elemental elf; who had appeared to be rather too like a pantomime ogre. This line of logic, or lunacy, led many to infer that this equivocal being was meant for a serious description of the Deity; and my work even enjoyed a temporary respect among those who like the Deity to be so described. But this error was entirely due to the same cause; that they had read the book but had not read the title-page. In my case, it is true, it was a question of a sub-title rather than a title. The book was called “The Man Who Was Thursday: a Nightmare.” It was not intended to describe the real world as it was, or as I thought it was, even when my thoughts were considerably less settled than they are now. It was intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date; with just a gleam of hope in some double meaning of the doubt, which even the pessimists felt in some fitful fashion.” From Chesterton’s ILN column for June 13, 1936 (uncollected); CW 37 (forthcoming).

  8. "...I feel very cheated when some fantasy movie or story ends, and all the adventures turn out to be simply a dream and no more. It's like, what was the point of all that then? Seeing characters being in real peril, and having real adventures, is what helps you to care about them. To discover that none of it really happened is devastating."
    The ending to the TV series "St. Elsewhere" (as an example).

  9. Blogger doesn't seem to like me today, here's my third and last attempt at a comment...

    Just a wonderful (and funny) little tidbit from the first chapter...

    "That young man with the long, auburn hair and the impudent face - that young man was not really a poet; but surely he was a poem. That old gentleman with the wild, white beard and the wild, white hat - that venerable humbug was not really a philosopher; but at least he was the cause of philosophy in others. That scientific gentleman with the bald egg-like head and the bare, bird-like neck had no real right to the airs of science that he assumed. He had not discovered anything new in biology; but what biological creature could he have discovered more singular than himself?"

  10. that young man was not really a poet; but surely he was a poem.

    This reminds me of a line from GKC's St. Francis where he says SF was poet, whose whole like was a poem.

  11. Regarding the motiff of "seeing things from the wrong end", there is this wonderful line in "The Sins of Prince Saradine" from "The Innocence of Father Brown"

    ... "I mean that we here are on the wrong side of the tapestry," answered Father Brown. "The things that happen here do not seem to mean anything; they mean something somewhere else. ...

  12. Father Brown is echoed by another of Chesterton’s fictional priests — Father Stephen in “The Tower of Treason.” Father
    Stephen: “I always liked the picture on the curtain. It was some village landscape with a bridge, but from almost any other angle I should see it was only a painted rag. And that is how I feel about this world. Not that it is unreal, for after all a curtain is real. But only that it is thin, and that the things behind it are the real drama.” Father Stephen’s story was added to some editions of Chesterton’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1922). It was reprinted in CW XIV, pp. 299–322.

  13. Gramps, on your first post above, I have read that quote, and I think there is something similar to it in the Autobiography (which is not surprising as they were written about the same time). I understand what Chesterton is saying -- that people should not take TMWWT too literally. But he still does not come out and directly say that the events in the book are merely a dream or nightmare, but merely that, if I interpret him correctly, that it is a bit of hyperbole regarding pessimists, doubt, and despair.

    On your second comment, it brings to mind, of all things, the veil in the fifth Harry Potter book, which is sure to figure prominently in the seventh HP book, due out this summer.

  14. On the dream/nightmare question, one point in its favor is the way the weather and time of year shifts to match the mood of the characters. However, since Chesterton is dealing with the dangers of ideas, transforming the setting into a nightmare in no way diminishes the genuineness of the danger.

  15. I think it is Chesterton's nightmare and not Syme's. I mean, insofar as Syme is real, the whole tale is real, but he is a character in Chesterton's nightmare.


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