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Digging Up the Future: On GK Chesterton

by David Langford

Editor's note:
This essay was first Up Through an Empty House of Stars by David Langfordpublished in Vector 100 (1980); revised and slightly expanded in 2001 for a Langford nonfiction collection, published by Cosmos Books in May 2003, titled Up Through an Empty House of Stars: Reviews and Essays 1980-2002 (see the foot of this page for full publishing details); Dave's earlier non-fiction collection, The Complete Critical Assembly, is also available through Cosmos.

Quite often, almost too often, we are reminded by sf's ever-industrious archaeologists that fantastic literature did not begin only when Amazing Stories first hacked its way from the forehead of Hugo Gernsback. Of course nobody has ever forgotten Verne and Wells, however much the world would be improved by a little judicious forgetting of Verne's 19th-century English translators and remembering of Wells's non-fantastic works. Of course Verne and Wells had numerous predecessors and followers which historically-minded critics like Brian Stableford or Chris Morgan can haul up and display to us: fascinating or repulsive creatures of the deep, knobbly with odd-shaped concepts and phosphorescent with bad writing.

However, the tunnel vision of the sf field is capable of missing things much more plainly in view. A writer can keep the wrong company: John D. MacDonald would probably be thought of as a better sf author of his period, had he not gone on to make his pile from colourful thrillers. A writer can eclipse himself: if Aldous Huxley's Brave New World weren't so tediously and traditionally a book which must be read, we might hear a bit more about his After Many a Summer or Ape and Essence (for example) in the fantastic-literature context. And a writer can be so versatile and too-damn-brilliant that nobody trusts him: a producer of notable fantasy, detective fiction, essays, verse, apologetics, polemic, plays, biography, criticism, you name it; a writer who's always had something in print since 1900 and who is repeatedly rediscovered and discussed by the literary world at large, but not so much in sf circles. Which is strange, as five of his six novels are undeniably speculative.

The author is of course G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), who is perhaps most widely remembered for his 49 "Father Brown" detective stories. Which is not to dismiss these "mere" detective tales: they form the only body of such short works comparable to Conan Doyle's, are notably better written, and include some of the best detective stories ever written, often with a fantastic glamour of the seemingly supernatural. Try "The Sign of the Broken Sword" or "The Honour of Israel Gow" in The Innocence of Father Brown (collection, 1911). I can't help suspecting that if he had written less non-fantastic material, Chesterton might have received more attention in The Encyclopedia of SF (1979) than his present few inches and the epitaph "Though he wrote some sf, most of his numerous works fall into various other categories."

Chesterton was at core a lover of the fantastic. His early notebook scribblings at the age of 17 or 18 -- posthumously published in The Coloured Lands (1938) -- were full of demons and monsters hilariously treated. To the end of his life, in essays and polemic, he would invariably choose the most fantastic and ridiculous metaphors to further his arguments. This, he explained, not only made them more interesting to read but was a genuine test of intellectual rigour. If an argument worked in a vague sort of way when applied to political abstractions or Platonic ideals, but became absurd when one substituted more solid things such as pigs, elephants or Chesterton himself (he liked to joke about his huge bulk), then possibly it might not be a good argument. Here he defends farce and might as well be defending sf:

... if the other forms of art had been despised, they would have been equally despicable. If people had spoken of "sonnets" with the same accent with which they speak of "music-hall songs", a sonnet would have been a thing so fearful and wonderful that we almost regret we cannot have a specimen; a rowdy sonnet is a thing to dream about. If people had said that epics were only fit for children and nursemaids, Paradise Lost might have been an average pantomime.... For who would trouble to bring to perfection a work in which even perfection is grotesque? Why should Shakespeare write Othello if even his triumph consisted in the eulogy, "Mr Shakespeare is fit for something better than writing tragedies"? (The Defendant, 1901)

The first of Chesterton's cover scannovels was The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), which begins in a London of 1984 -- the date is mere coincidence -- that's startlingly familiar. A delightful prologue, "Introductory Remarks on the Art of Prophecy", explains ...

The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children's games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. And one of the games to which it is most attached is called, "Keep to-morrow dark," and which is also named (by the rustics in Shropshire, I have no doubt) "Cheat the Prophet". The players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that the clever men have to say about what is to happen in the next generation. The players then wait until all the clever men are dead, and bury them nicely. They then go and do something else. That is all. For a race of simple tastes, however, it is great fun.

Several satirical pages on prophecy follow, concluding:

Then the people went and did what they liked. Let me no longer conceal the painful truth. The people had cheated the prophets of the twentieth century. When the curtain goes up on this story, eighty years after the present date, London is almost exactly like what it is now.

Another Chestertonian preoccupation, medievalism and its pageantry, soon intrudes. In 1984 the King of England, chosen by lot from the Civil Service, is the peculiarly humorous Auberon Quin (said by some to be based on Max Beerbohm). As a joke on all London, Quin decrees that the city boroughs be restored to their "old independence" under Lord Provosts ... compelled to build individual city walls, their officials decked in ornate costumes, a wealth of ridiculous detail:

"It is usual -- it is usual -- that is all, for a man when entering the presence of Royalty to lie down on his back on the floor and elevating his feet towards heaven (as the source of Royal power) to say three times, 'Monarchical institutions improve the manners.'"

All goes well for twenty years or so, the King still enjoying his joke of respectable City men performing the elaborately silly rituals of his decree (shades of Gormenghast) -- until the new Provost of Notting Hill, himself a medieval throwback, chooses to take the King quite seriously. Ringingly he asserts the independence of Notting Hill and his own right to repel by force of arms the foul commercialism of Bayswater and Kensington, who wish to put a by-pass through his fiefdom.

And there's war in London: with pikes and halberds as the only weapons permitted by royal decree, with cunning ploys like commandeering of cabhorses for cavalry, turning off the gas supply to street lamps in one crucial battle, and a threatened flood from the waterworks in another. All the improbabilities are held together by careful touches of realistic observation (and even by Chesterton's irreverence and love of paradox -- his vision is solid enough to stand up to being joked about). Here's one dazed character's report of events after a long, monotonous advance through London streets:

"When something happens, it happens first, and you see it afterwards. It happens of itself, and you have nothing to do with it. It proves a dreadful thing -- that there are other things besides one's self. I can only put it in this way. We went round one turning, two turnings, three turnings, four turnings, five. Then I lifted myself slowly up from the gutter where I had been shot half senseless, and was beaten down again by living men crashing on top of me, and the world was full of roaring, and big men rolling about like ninepins."

Doesn't that feel right? Reading this many years ago has left me suspicious of those battles so common in sword and sorcery, where every hack of every blade is followed with millimetric precision as though the author had filmed the action and was going through it frame by frame. Ursula Le Guin, as you might have guessed, knows all about this: the Chestertonian approach is used for the climactic confrontation in The Eye of the Heron.

In the end Quin and the throwback Provost are left in the darkness of the last battlefield (Chesterton abandoned logic in moments of intensity, and this scene is spoilt if you start asking what happened to everyone else). They realize they are complements, a lunatic with no sense of humour and a lunatic with nothing else. And the reader is left with what amounts to mental indigestion: there's been wit, shrewd reasoning, more than adequate characterization, exciting action, uproarious farce, mysticism, philosophy, marvellous description (GKC studied as a painter and always had an eye for light on landscape -- you could collect whole bouquets of amazing dawns and sunsets from his work, no two alike) ... This is an astonishingly crammed first novel which stands any amount of rereading.

Nor was Napoleon a flash in the pan. cover scanFour years later Chesterton did it again and did it better with The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), subtitled "A Nightmare". All the old skills are here, improved by or despite four years of journalism; the plot is even more preposterous but at the same time more coherent. I need hardly summarize this one: sf booksellers may not stock it, the fools, but a Penguin Modern Classics edition is more or less perpetually in print. Briefly: there appears to be a vast anarchist conspiracy against world civilization, chillingly summed up in the lines

"They have two objects, to destroy first humanity and then themselves. That is why they throw bombs instead of firing pistols. The innocent rank and file are disappointed because the bomb has not killed the king; but the high-priesthood are happy because it has killed somebody."

Which seems almost more topical nowadays than one is happy about. Heading these anarchists are the seven members of their Central Council, who take their names from the days of the week. The hero Syme, after a few chapters of argumentative fireworks which have enough serious content and relevance to make Oscar Wilde's look trifling, bluffs his way into the position of Thursday on the Council.

Syme, in fact, is a poet-policeman from a decidedly jolly branch of the force whose members carry cards inscribed "The Last Crusade" and are most melodramatically recruited by an unseen man in a dark room. No experience is necessary:

"You are willing, that is enough," said the unknown.

"Well, really," said Syme, "I don't know any profession of which mere willingness is the final test."

"I do," said the other -- "martyrs. I am condemning you to death. Good day."

Much of the book is concerned with horrific encounters and comic unveilings of Council members since (NB: if I felt that a good book could genuinely be spoilt by preknowledge of revelations, I would do a Spider Robinson here and warn you not to read the rest of this sentence) each other member of the Council save only Sunday, the terrifying President, proves to be another policeman. This sounds like knockabout farce, but there's more here than that. Not only has Chesterton retained and honed the old skills, he's acquired a new one -- the ability to convey a sense of evil. Even in their masks, and even when you know the masks are masks, the members of the Council of Days exude a kind of oblique horror foreshadowing C.S. Lewis's handling of N.I.C.E. personnel in That Hideous Strength ...

He knew that each one of these men stood at the extreme end, so to speak, of some wild road of reasoning. He could only fancy, as in some old-world fable, that if a man went westward to the end of the world he would find something --say a tree -- that was more or less than a tree, a tree possessed by a spirit; and that if he went east to the end of the world he would find something else that was not wholly itself -- a tower, perhaps, of which the very shape was wicked. So these figures seemed to stand up, violent and unaccountable, against an ultimate horizon, visions from the verge. The ends of the earth were closing in.

The novel has the usual sacrifice of logic to mood; if Chesterton wants a snowstorm five minutes after an open-air breakfast on a Leicester Square balcony, he simply puts one in. It becomes a horrific chase of Syme and his revealed allies, culminating in a vision of all Earth -- or at least, all France -- united under the banner of anarchy to hunt down this last handful of sane men. Joyous reversals follow, leading to a farcical chase after the President himself (who flees by cab, elephant, balloon, etc, flinging nonsensical messages to the pursuers: "Your beauty has not left me indifferent. -- From LITTLE SNOWDROP."), which transforms into an allegorical masked ball. A spanner is thrown into the allegory by the return of the one real anarchist to confront Syme's band of impostors; President Sunday himself is intolerably unmasked; and in the end it may all have been a dream. An annoying, unforgettable, marvellous book.

Chronologically the next Chesterton fantasia is The Ball and the Cross (1909); I first mention The Flying Inn (1914) for two reasons. Firstly, this and those already discussed have long been available together as the much-reprinted A G.K. Chesterton Omnibus (1936) and I find it oddly hard to separate them; secondly, The Ball and the Cross is a slightly different and less luxuriant breed of fantasy.

The Flying Inn is a "contemporary" novel for 1914 and deals with something very like US Prohibition on English soil. The chiliastic terror of Thursday is abandoned and some new subtlety of character introduced. There are still rumbustious comic turns, accentuated by dollops of light verse -- Chesterton made almost a whole separate book, Wine, Water and Song (1915), from this incidental verse. But when the dust has settled one remembers Lord Ivywood, the fanatical Temperance peer (as opposed to the Lords Spirituous, no doubt) whose mania leads him through Prohibition to Islam, treason against England and eventual dementia; or his admirer Lady Joan Brett, gradually realizing through subliminal hints and the imprisoning sense of Oriental decor that among his lordship's planned reforms may well be the instituting of the harem with herself as Wife No. 1; or the avant-garde poet Dorian Wimpole, who sings the virtues of oysters, sharks and other "creatures that man forgets" until stranded in a wood with a donkey to learn a healthier attitude towards the creature Chesterton felt the aesthetes really did forget, the indiscriminate mass of humanity.

Also there's the amazing Misysra Ammon, Prophet of the Moon, with his dotty eloquence and theory that all English culture derives from Islam:

"Why, my good friends, the very name of that insidious article by which you make strong your drinks is an Arabic word: alcohol. It is obvious, is it not, that this is the Arab article 'Al' as in Alhambra, as in Algebra; and we need not pause here to pursue its many appearances in connexion with your festive institutions, as in your Alsop's beer, your Ally Sloper, and your partly joyous institution of the Albert Memorial."

Here too is Chesterton's cruel satire on hygienic Garden Cities, and the drinking song with the lines "Cocoa is a cad and coward / Cocoa is a vulgar beast," -- by which subtle means GKC "resigned" as a journalist for newspapers owned by the Cadbury chocolate barons.

The actual plot of The Flying Inn concerns a very tiny underground of two or three men who spread unrest (armed only with traditionalist virtues, a now forbidden inn sign, a large cheese and a barrel of rum) and eventually lead the revolt against Ivywood. This is familiar to us now, and not entirely convincing, but Chesterton comes so close to pulling it off that he outshines hundreds of later users of the revolutionary theme in sf. Part of the secret is a carefully limited scale: Chesterton's early twentieth century England seems small enough for a single man to wake and shake the country, while a world or empire of worlds does not.

With Chestertonian paradox, his strengths can be seen leading him towards obscurity. In his own lifetime the writing of such fantasies was going out of fashion and even being thought vaguely reprehensible. Critics had always tut-tutted his practice of putting farce next to serious argument or gorgeous landscape descriptions verging on the purple; critics and literary pundits, as he might have phrased it himself, were increasingly fonder of what was called realism and too often meant writing books all on one dismal note irrespective of reality.

Worse, GKC's speculations were broadly sociological. Rather than introduce an alien menace in the Wells manner, he extrapolated internal trends like the decay of the monarchy, the rise of terrorism or the US Prohibition craze. Thus, while "mainstream" criticism put him safely aside on the "minor classics" shelf, he was never really picked up by the pulp-fed sf fans or critics: people who can still enjoy a Martian invasion in the nineteenth century are less happy with London's civil war in a 1904 mislabelled 1984. Perhaps the swing towards softer sf could lead to a Chesterton revival -- though not, please not, at the ichor-bespattered hands of Lin Carter.

The other fantasy which should still be read is The Ball and the Cross (1910), wherein Chesterton's religious cover scanfeelings come out of the closet. I should assure you that lumpen proselytization does not intrude into the fiction, although the attitude is there as it is in R.A. Lafferty -- another GKC fan. By this time Chesterton had published his pyrotechnic Catholic justification Orthodoxy (1908), which however eccentric in its reasoning makes C.S. Lewis's comparable efforts (excluding, perhaps, The Screwtape Letters) seem drab and lacklustre. That's the second time Lewis has cropped up. What I tell you three times is true.

The Ball and the Cross deals with a Catholic believer and an atheist, both sympathetically presented, who take their argument regarding blasphemy to the point of agreeing to duel. Thus they are pursued through England by policemen etc. incapable of thinking anything worth fighting over, least of all religion. The intending duellists are helped and hindered in a series of parable-like encounters -- for example, with a vaguely Swinburnian pagan who wants them to fight in his garden as a kind of glorious blood sacrifice: they decline to do so. The final section is the weirdest, with the heroes shut in a vast loony-bin containing every sane person they've met en route, and perhaps every sane person left in the world. The asylum proprietor is indeed the devil, who attempts to "break" our heroes in a psychological manner foreshadowing C.S. Lewis's passages in That Hideous Strength concerning the Objective Room and the process of killing off the remaining humanity in N.I.C.E. neophytes. Indeed it's hardly too much to say that Lewis ripped off the idea wholesale --

The shape of his cell specially irritated him. It was a long, narrow parallelogram, which had a flat wall at one end and ought to have had a flat wall at the other; but that end was broken by a wedge or angle of space, like the prow of a ship. After three days of silence and cocoa, the angle at the end began to infuriate Turnbull. It maddened him to think that two lines came together and pointed at nothing. [...] Above all he had a hatred, deep as the hell he did not believe in, for the objectless iron peg on the wall. (The Ball and the Cross)

... the room was ill proportioned, not grotesquely but sufficiently to cause dislike. Mark felt the effect without analysing the cause. [...] The point of the arch was not in the centre; the whole thing was lop-sided. [...] Then he noticed the spots on the ceiling; little round black spots at irregular intervals ... (That Hideous Strength)

Both books end in similar ruin and disaster for the bad guys. Personally I prefer Chesterton's more ambiguous physical conflagration to Lewis's fire from heaven, but obviously I must be wrong, since The Ball is relatively obscure while That Hideous Strength is constantly reprinted.

Like The Man Who Was Thursday, The Ball could well be subtitled "A Nightmare", beginning in story and ending in allegory. It and the other three novels discussed above are the major Chesterton fantasies, all well worth reading if you can find them. A personal aside: when critics speak of "major" books which are "essential reading", one can cringe at the worthy dullness somehow implied. Chesterton is nowhere dull in these novels; there's a constant crackle of wit, energy and inventiveness. Long ago when I first read The Flying Inn, the youthful and dubious Langford looked into it somewhere in the middle, was hooked, and read happily to the end despite certain resulting obscurities.

Some other works should at least be mentioned. Tales of the Long Bow (1925) is a rather silly set of linked stories wherein figures of speech are laboriously brought to life. Pigs fly, and there are castles in the air. The neatest example is that of the political crusader who's informed that his efforts will never set the Thames on fire: thanks to the floating industrial effluent he's crusading against, he has little difficulty in doing so. (How's that for an early environmental story?) Eventually there is successful revolution in England, something also featuring in the linked detective-story collection The Man Who Knew Too Much (1922).

The detective puzzle format was a fatal temptation to GKC. He could handle it superbly, as with Father Brown, but would often hang plots on the flimsiest notions. Again and again all the evidence proves X guilty beyond doubt, only for a blinding flash of revelation (echoing the happy surprises of The Man Who Was Thursday) to turn all the clues upside down and vindicate X as both innocent and laudable. The formula can pall.

It gave rise to a novel, Manalive (1911), which is fantastic only in the sense of extreme improbability, but which has been called the decisive test of a Chesterton fan. Here the dotty hero burgles numerous houses and runs off with numerous women for the love of adventure. A moral chap at heart, he is duly revealed to have burgled only houses which he happens to own, and eloped only with his own variously disguised wife. The parable -- GKC's constant reiteration that the commonplace is wonderful if approached in the right spirit -- runs away with the author.

Constant use of the "final topsy-turvy revelation" plot structure was horribly easy for someone as inventive as Chesterton, and reduced some of his work to more "literary" versions of the sting-in-the-tail short story we have all read too often. Eventually his formula writing, his endless defences of Catholicism and the now almost forgotten political movement Distributism, and the strain of editing a activist magazine "inherited" from his dead bother Cecil, almost ruined him as a creative author.

In The Return of Don Quixote (1927), medieval pageantry is again introduced into English politics, but with an older and more disillusioned Chesterton realizing quite accurately that cloaks, tunics and hose cannot make a wet or self-serving politico any more dynamic, however much he proclaims his born-again status. The book is intelligent but implausible and dull. "The Sword of Wood" (1928) is a neat, almost science-fictional squib about an "enchanted" sword which bears all comers until at last defeated by the hero's walking stick. The sword was magnetized, you see....

The play Magic (1913), though hardly a notable play, is an interesting fantasy centred on a trafficker in magic who performs a small miracle -- whereupon a nearby sceptic almost goes mad at the doing of the impossible, necessitating that the magician save the day by devising a means whereby his miracle could have been faked. Another and posthumous play, The Surprise (1952. written circa 1930) is a direct religious allegory of omnipotence and free will, which needn't concern us here (our editor being adequately supplied with these qualities).

I hope I've given some idea of Chesterton's vast versatility, even while leaving more than 90 of his books out of the reckoning. His style deserves further attention, though, since it's unique. He loved to argue by seeming free-association in a series of paradoxes -- "truth standing on its head to attract attention" -- spiced with puns, alliteration, assonance, and grotesquerie. Sometimes this echolalia of words and idea failed to cohere, but more often it succeeded brilliantly. "Brilliant", the critics would say with that delicate intonation that led GKC to remark, "The word brilliant has long been the most formidable weapon of criticism ..." As a sample, here's part of an argument from Orthodoxy, and a widely applicable argument it is:

Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

I wonder if our old pals Erich von Däniken and Brad Steiger ever read Chesterton?

Later in life GKC virtually parodied himself, often writing mechanical essays without real thought behind them -- caught in the wheels of his own flamboyant style. The ever-present deadlines dragged him down. In 1938, Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise was to identify journalism as the worst enemy of the creative writer, and despite much good stuff like the posthumous Autobiography (1936), the later Chesterton is frequently a horrible example of this truth.

As well as the formidable weapons of his style and wit, GKC at his best had that feeling for the commonplace, the redeeming realistic detail which holds up an author's colossal tower of fantasy like a guy-rope. Ursula Le Guin, in "Science Fiction and Mrs Brown", argued that real, commonplace people are needed if sf's galaxy-spanning empires are to work, that without the transmuting touch of ordinary homeliness they are mere cardboard. Chesterton thought that way too, and quite fortuitously summed up the feeling when dedicating a poem to his wife ...

Up through an empty house of stars,
Being what heart you are,
Up the inhuman steeps of space
As on a staircase go in grace,
Carrying the firelight on your face
Beyond the loneliest star.

(The Ballad of the White Horse, 1911)

I could go on quoting Chesterton interminably, but out of sheer humanity will desist. Read, if you can and if you haven't, the books mentioned above in tones of respect; after so very many unreadable "classics of forgotten sf" it's an enormous relief to find someone who can write and write well. A rediscovery of Chesterton's fantasies is long overdue.

Footnotes, 2001

As I was to find, the rediscovery happens at regular intervals. Expect another when this author slips out of extended 70-year copyright in 2007.

Although this 1980 piece is the seventieth item in my "early fanzine work" list, it was my first attempt to write at length about a single author. Its original appearance in the 100th issue of the British SF Association's Vector was sufficiently scanner-proof to demand retyping, during which some quotations were expanded and inscrutable BSFA in-jokes quietly lost.

A few notes. Chesterton's bulk was legendary even outside his own writing, as indicated by P.G. Wodehouse's simile of some particularly awful crash sounding like "G.K. Chesterton falling on to a sheet of tin." Remembering that Notting Hill used to be an almost comically boring and downmarket area of London helps reinforce both the joke and the serious counterjoke of The Napoleon of Notting Hill: why should this dull place be worth fighting for? but then, why should anywhere? As for our man's skimpy Encyclopedia of SF coverage, I was allowed to redress the balance in the 1997 Encyclopedia of Fantasy....


Many Chesterton titles are still in print around the world. For bookshop links see the infinity plus bookshop.

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© David Langford, 1980, 2001
Up Through an Empty House of Stars by David Langford
This essay was first published in Vector 100 (1980); revised and slightly expanded in 2001 for Up Through an Empty House of Stars: Reviews and Essays 1980-2002.

Up Through an Empty House of Stars is published in the following editions by Cosmos Books (an imprint of Wildside Press):

May 2003, hardback, $34.95, ISBN: 1592240542 (order from / order from

November 2003, trade paperback, $21.95, ISBN: 1592240550 (order from / order from

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