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.
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.
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.
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.