“Chesterton, Arthur, and Enchanting England” by J. Cameron Moore

While in the light of Charles Huttar’s contribution last week I should be extra careful to avoid any ‘historicist’ Providentialism, I can’t help thinking this week’s contribution is more than just another serendipity. J. Cameron Moore not only directs our attention to someone beloved of, and influential upon, various of the Inklings–the great controversialist, G.K. Chesterton. But, complementing Charles Huttar’s contribution, turns to Chesterton’s treatment of Arthur in relation to history, myth … and locality. We should remember that ‘Warnie’ Lewis considered Chesterton’s “Ballad of the White Horse” to be “the very best ballad I ever came across in my life” – and so we see Chesterton (thus famously the ‘balladeer’ of King Alfred the Great)  as Chesteron the Arthurian.

David Llewellyn Dodds, Guest Editor


At first glance, Chesterton’s fiction seems quite different from the Arthurian-infused mythos of the Inklings.  Chesterton has no independent mythical geography that draws from Arthurian legend; there is no corresponding map of Narnia, Middle-earth, or the Byzantine Empire for Chesterton’s fiction. While many of his novels have fantastical or mythical elements, they remain firmly grounded in England, closely linked to the political, social, and religious questions of Chesterton’s day.

Yet, despite this parochial nature, his works are marked by the near omnipresence of fairyland. For Chesterton, fairyland is everywhere—even in the heart of industrial London, as we shall see—and if he had ever been asked to draw a map of fairyland, he would likely have drawn a map of England or of his neighborhood.  It is in this sense that King Arthur is central to Chesterton’s imagination of England. Chesterton’s mythical geography is a geography of England, and at the heart of this fairytale, Chesterton places King Arthur.

In order to understand Arthur’s prominent place in Chesterton’s imagination of England, we must first note that for Chesterton the end of poetry is wonder, as Harold Petipas notes in his excellent article on Chesterton’s poetics.  This point could be extended to include not just poetry but all creative making.  In his Autobiography, Chesterton writes that

“At the back of our brains, so to speak, there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence.  The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he was actually alive, and be happy” (99).

Arthur helps to bring about this wonder at the splendid fact of existence by making strange the English landscape.

Arthur enchants England in two major ways for Chesterton.  First, Arthur points to the Roman remains upon which England is built.  Chesterton’s poem “The Ballad of King Arthur” references the time when “Britain trod the Roman way,” and “The Grave of Arthur” describes the inscription on Arthur’s tomb as the “Roman rhyme” (3; 26). Chesterton claims in A Short History of England that England and France do not merely have Roman remains, “They are Roman remains” (429).

Second, this land of Roman remains is a land where Roman Christian heroes go on adventures. This principle is at the heart of Chesterton’s understanding of England and his tendency to regard all of England as fairyland. Fairyland might be wherever we happen to find ourselves, could we but see it; however, the English fairyland is particularly nuanced by the fact that beneath the English soil lie Rome and Romance. In A Short History of England, Chesterton imagines the Roman ruins buried like ancient bones beneath the English soil; all English adventures take place on top of this archaic foundation (429).

Arthur stands at the end of the Roman order in the midst of chaos, and his appeal— his persuasive enduring legend— is based on this fact (Short History 437-38). In his 1922 article for the Illustrated London News “King Arthur: Myth and History,” Chesterton argues that, regardless of his historical status, Arthur endures because he was one of the Christian heroes who defended Christian, Roman Britain against the heathens.

As a Roman Christian hero, Arthur tells us something of what it has meant to belong to England.  He offers the history from the inside that Chesterton argues for in The Everlasting Man:

We need a new thing; which may be called psychological history. I mean consideration of what things meant in the mind of a man, especially an ordinary man; as distinct from what is defined or deduced merely from official forms or political pronouncements…So long as we neglect this subjective side of history, which may more simply be called the inside of history, there will always be a certain limitation on that science which can be better transcended by art. So long as the historian cannot do that, fiction will be truer than fact. (139)

All the tales of King Arthur provide us with this subjective side of history; they open a window into the English folk of the past wherein we can discover something of their vision of the world.

Moreover, our journey into the poetry of the past returns us to our world with renewed wonder.  After all the most mysterious bit about Arthur is not that he is simply the past king of England (Rex Quondam) but that he is also the future king (Rex Futurus).   The tale of the once and future king can make strange our own time and place; he reminds us, like Hamlet reminds Horatio, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies.

For Chesterton, this is not an abstract philosophical point.  The enchantment of England for which Arthur stands as an enduring symbol is not a bygone age inaccessible except through the portal of poetry.  Quite the opposite, fairyland, the world of Romance and Adventure, is just as much here and now as it was among the towers of Camelot.  Fairyland endures even in the heart of the modern industrialized city, a place seemingly inimical to the hermits, forests, castles and quests of Arthur and his court.

An illustration by Chesterton in his first book, Greybeards at Play (1900)

Chesterton’s poem “Modern Elfland” clearly articulates this reading of the industrial city, arguing that fairyland survives in the midst of the smog-filled streets of the industrial revolution.  Where the speaker of the poem expects to find fairyland, he discovers instead that

lo, within that ancient place
Science had reared her iron crown
And the great cloud of steam went up,
That telleth where she takes a town. (Collected Works X: 233)

Yet the speaker is still able to discover the strange magic of fairyland in this new, monstrous environment:

But cowled with smoke and starred with lamps
That strange land’s light was still its own;
The word that witched the wood and hills
Spoke in the iron and the stone. (233)

Far from banishing fairy land, the modern city becomes the site of an enchantment analogous to that of the natural world.  It is clear that whatever enchantment there is comes from outside the walls of the world.  The speaker of the poem recognizes that it is “not Nature’s hand” which twists the “mute unearthly porter’s spine” of the railroad tracks (234).  Rather it is the “word” that “witches” both the natural and artificial materials (234). The same presence which makes the natural world marvelous is also at work in the bricks and mortar of the city.  The poem catalogs the markers of fairyland in the city; train signals become dragons’ eyes and chimneys are seen “signaling to the sky” (234).  Even the dog seems “four legged by monstrosity.”  The speaker has achieved the proper point of defamiliarization at which even the given created order—a dog with four legs—appears strange and fantastic.

Chesterton at age 17

This is not simple optimism and praise of modernity.  Even as he discovers fairyland in the city, the speaker laments many features of modern industrial life.  He addresses the city directly and argues that “though you too touch the new time’s desecrating hand, / through all the noises of a town / I hear the heart of fairyland” (234).  The focus on noise here together with the “cloud of steam” that first alerts the speaker that “Science” has overtaken fairyland presents a good portrait of the mills and factories which formed the core of the new industrial world—a world which Chesterton repeatedly attacked for its treatment of the poor and alienation of workers.  Yet, despite these atrocious qualities, the speaker of the poem can still recognize the supernatural presence at work.

The poem concludes with a typical Chestertonian turn.  The speaker has set out for fairyland, discovered the industrial town, and recognized the heart of fairyland amid the smog and steam.  Finally, he reads the inscription above a door and is shocked to discover his own name: “Then through my spirit pealed and passed: / This is the town of thine own home / and thou hast looked on it at last” (134).  The speaker has been examining his own home all along, but it is not until he can see it as fairyland even in its modern iteration that he truly sees his home. Cleveland, or Flint, or wherever we hail from is really elfland, and only when it is seen imaginatively as elfland is it really seen properly.

For Chesterton, King Arthur can help us begin to recover a life-giving vision of our own homes. Arthur’s enchanting and mythologizing of the English landscape ought to provide us eyes with which to see anew both that landscape and also the spaces of our own lives. The mystery that even now enchants the ruined arches of Glastonbury also dwells in our own homes and lies waiting outside our windows.


Chesterton, G.K. A Short History of England. The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton XX. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2001. Print

—. The Autobiography of G. K. Chesterton. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2006. Print.

—. Collected Poetry, Part 1. The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton X. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1994. Print.

—. “King Arthur: Myth and History.” Illustrated London News 1920-22. The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton XXXII. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1989. 502-506. Print.

—. The Everlasting Man. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2008. Print.

Petitpas, Harold. “Chesterton’s Metapoetics.” Renascence 23.3 (1971): 137-144. Print.


Cameron Moore is Assistant Professor of English at Spring Arbor University in Spring Arbor, Michigan, where he teaches World Literature, Twentieth Century British Literature, and Composition as well as courses in the E.P. Hart Honors Program. His fields of interests include Chesterton, theological aesthetics, Irish literature, and Arthurian literature. He is currently working on a project which considers the place of beauty in Chesterton’s fiction and poetry. Cameron also directs the Spring Arbor Chesterton Society.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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20 Responses to “Chesterton, Arthur, and Enchanting England” by J. Cameron Moore

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    We should not fail to say that anyone who has enjoyed this, will also enjoy your contribution to The Inklings and King Arthur, ‘“All Men Live by Tales”: Chesterton’s Arthurian Poems’! This is so stirring, and illuminating, and in a Chestertonian way, it seems to me – but it is great to get all the detailed attention to more of the individual poems, there, too!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have not read it. Chesterton is (to me–I might be off on this) someone whose meaning is immediately evident and whose books–most of which are short–are accessible and enjoyable. Yet, I still find the need to slowly build a Chesterton of my imagination that brings all my reading together. The result is that with each new book–and each cartoon of Sir Slug–I am informing my first Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross. So I’m still on my way.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Wow – an exciting first Chesterton! Which makes me think I’m not sure what my own first Chesterton was! – a Father Brown story? ‘GKC’s “meaning is immediately evident and [his] books–most of which are short–are accessible”: discuss with respect to The Napoleon of Notting Hill, The Man Who Was Thursday, The Ball and the Cross (and any other fiction, as optional choice)’ would be an thought-provoking essay-question!

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  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    It’s good to see that picture of the seventeen-year-old Chesterton – and reading this has finally inspired or nudged me to catch up with Jeremiah Romano Mercurio and Daniel Gabelman’s edition of the chivalric fairy tale he produced at that age, in the Journal of Inklings Studies, volume 6, number 1 (April 2016), “Prince Wild-fire”. I say, ‘produced’, because, for the first, they show how he worked on illustrations and illuminations and text together (apparently sometimes plotting out the illustrations and marginal illuminations before the words of the story). In his dedicatory poem, he describes it as a medley “Of Grimm, Gargantua, Gulliver / Orlando and Don Quixote”, but, to attempt teasers rather than spoilers, there are a couple key elements resembling the ‘classic’ Arthurian features of the Sword in the Stone and the Waste Land!

    Here’s a taste of his artwork eight years before the Questing Slug (and well before Everyman’s Library was applying the mediaevalist lessons of Morris and Beardsley):

    https://i0.wp.com/inklings-studies.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Add_73320_A_0015.jpg?ssl=1

    Mercurio and Gabelman note in their introduction (available free online) that he went to art school soon after producing “Prince Wild-fire”, “but his style, developed early, remained largely unaffected by his formal training”!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for this David. What do you think the link between visual artistry and literary excellence in that age was? William Morris was a wallpaper designer, many of them were calligraphers or painters, and most of them could sketch competently. I love Tolkien’s artwork. Were they all Renaissance men and women that we no longer have, or was there a depth they could draw from that our generation of greats can’t, or is there too much to learn today, or is our education poorer (for the masses), or …?

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        A vastly intriguing passel of questions! To which, with Barfield and eurythmy, we can add music and dance(-related movement) and the speaking of narration, with Williams’s dramatic ventures, staging, stage design, music (again), costuming, and props (in team context – how (variably?) actively, on his part?), with the Chesterton’s similarly – with added accent on ‘toy theatre’ (and there’re the George MacDonald family dramatic undertakings). On the other hand, we have Williams’s reported visual problems and Lewis’s complaints about the anatomy of his own hands affecting drawing – while making jolly marginal illustrations (and what of Boxon?). I’ve only lately learned the degree to which David Jones started writing when he was recuperating and not up to visual works! There must be all sorts of personal, familial, local and variously broader cultural (not least ‘education-cultural’) elements at work and in play, interacting – then and now – but how to trace them?

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Chesterton often invokes associations with fairyland in the Father Brown stories, especially in relation to urban settings, maybe precisely because the association is not the obvious one to make? For example, here’s the opening description in ‘The Head of Caesar’ –

    ‘There is a sort of mews between two of the tall mansions, a mere slit like the crack of a door by comparison with the street, but just large enough to permit a pigmy ale-house or eating-house, still allowed by the rich to their stable-servants, to stand in the angle. There is something cheery in its very dinginess, and something free and elfin in its very insignificance. At the feet of those grey stone giants it looks like a lighted house of dwarfs.’

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Cameron Moore says:

    Aonghus, your point about the relationship between fairyland and the urban setting reminds me of Chesterton’s point (perhaps from “A Defense of Detective Stories”) that the city is much more enchanting than the forest for the simple fact that the forest might mean something but the city certainly does mean something. In the forest we hope that the circle of trees around an open glade means a fairy-circle; in the city we know that the circle of lampposts around the bus depot means that humans, those most fascinating creatures, have been up to something and the purposes of their strange arrangements and signals are indeed discoverable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aonghus Fallon says:

      Absolutely – which makes particular sense in the context of detective stories. Cities are not only fascinating in themselves, they are places where all kinds of wickedness can be found – the modern equivalent of an enchanted wood with its trolls and dragons, the qualification being that these latter-day trolls and dragons have discernible motives for acting as they do, motives which can be deciphered, just as the city itself can be deciphered and made comprehensible, if you have the wit to look.

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        His saying, ” it looks like a lighted house of dwarfs” makes me wonder if this urban-fairyland connection may contribute to the enjoyment (including coziness) of both Sherlock Holmes and Dickens in ways I had not thought about.

        There is also that rich complication in a conversation between Holmes and Watson in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”:

        “You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.”

        “Good heavens!” I cried. “Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?”

        “They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

        “You horrify me!”

        “But the reason is very obvious. The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.”

        Hence perhaps the Stately Home mysteries of the Golden Age (and since), as well.

        Stevenson sounds a variation on the urban-fairyland with his New Arabian Nights.

        And we might see Williams, a Chestertonian in various ways, providing an interesting combination of wonders and dangers of town and country in his first novel published, the Arthurian-themed War in Heaven.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Reblogged this on Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings and commented:
    Anyone who entitles an essay, “Enchanting England”, gets my attention immediately! I long for it passionately! Of course, a PR consultant hired by a tourist promotion company in England, will be tasked with doing exactly that. A mythology of England needs to be created in order to sell a place to visitors. A couple of years ago a resident of a particularly pretty Cotswold village was asked to move his car, parked in front of his own cottage, because it was spoiling the view and the photographs for visiting tourists. What if tourists were asked to do something much more radical? To seek “the dearest freshness deep down things” as poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins put it and that Chesterton also encouraged? Well, the PR consultant would lose his job because you could find this without having to leave your front porch!
    I loved this piece by Prof Moore, written in conjunction with the publication of The Inklings and King Arthur, and I warmly recommend it to you as well. And the essay on Chesterton and King Arthur is worth reading too, as I did in the past week.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I should have said from the beginning that I love this post that adds to such a strong series. Not only is it a Chesterton article, which I have been hungry for as a host of this blog, but Cameron found words for what has been in my imagination for a while (though not specifically with Chesterton). It is a wonderful post and I am proud to host it.

    Like

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I heartily second that!

      And with Charles Huttar’s striking remarks on “hauntings” in That Hideous Strength, last week, and this contribution, we are back to (and ready for) further discussion of the matter of your contribution, Stephen!

      Like

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