Chesterton on “The Ethics of Elfland”

  This summer I’ve been reading some Chesterton. I’ve just finished The
Man Who Was Thursday (Salvo readers, any reviews?), but “The Ethics of
Elfland,” from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, has always been a favorite of
mine. I’ve included some related excerpts below, but you can read the
entire essay here.

Chesterton suggests that the fairy tales of his youth, the ones that
instilled wonder and humility, have proved the most “sensible” of all
the stories he’s encountered; it is these “fairy tales,” not the lies
of materialism or romanticism, that form us to appreciate the good
order of God’s created world.

…we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the
ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when
we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need
tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by
being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of
three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like
romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales–because they find
them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should
think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring
him. This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal
leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were
golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they
were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember,
for one wild moment, that they run with water. I have said that this
is wholly reasonable and even agnostic. And, indeed, on this point I
am all for the higher agnosticism; its better name is Ignorance. We
have all read in scientific books, and, indeed, in all romances, the
story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks about the
streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he cannot remember
who he is. Well, every man is that man in the story. Every man has
forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego;
the self is more distant than any star. Thou shalt love the Lord thy
God; but thou shalt not know thyself. We are all under the same mental
calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what
we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and
practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of
our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and
art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that
we forget.

But though (like the man without memory in the novel) we walk the
streets with a sort of half-witted admiration, still it is admiration.
It is admiration in English and not only admiration in Latin. The
wonder has a positive element of praise. This is the next milestone to
be definitely marked on our road through fairyland. I shall speak in
the next chapter about optimists and pessimists in their intellectual
aspect, so far as they have one. Here I am only trying to describe the
enormous emotions which cannot be described. And the strongest emotion
was that life was as precious as it was puzzling. It was an ecstasy
because it was an adventure; it was an adventure because it was an
opportunity. The goodness of the fairy tale was not affected by the
fact that there might be more dragons than princesses; it was good to
be in a fairy tale. The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt
grateful, though I hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when
Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I
not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of
two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars
and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?

Well, I left the fairy tales lying on the floor of the nursery, and I
have not found any books so sensible since. I left the nurse guardian
of tradition and democracy, and I have not found any modern type so
sanely radical or so sanely conservative. But the matter for important
comment was here: that when I first went out into the mental
atmosphere of the modern world, I found that the modern world was
positively opposed on two points to my nurse and to the nursery tales.
It has taken me a long time to find out that the modern world is wrong
and my nurse was right. The really curious thing was this: that modern
thought contradicted this basic creed of my boyhood on its two most
essential doctrines. I have explained that the fairy tales founded in
me two convictions; first, that this world is a wild and startling
place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite
delightful; second, that before this wildness and delight one may well
be modest and submit to the queerest limitations of so queer a
kindness. But I found the whole modern world running like a high tide
against both my tendernesses; and the shock of that collision created
two sudden and spontaneous sentiments, which I have had ever since and
which, crude as they were, have since hardened into convictions.

The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they
find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his
legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because
children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce
and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They
always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until
he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult
in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It
is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and
every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic
necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every
daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be
that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and
grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature
may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical ENCORE. Heaven
may ENCORE the bird who laid an egg. If the human being conceives and
brings forth a human child instead of bringing forth a fish, or a bat,
or a griffin, the reason may not be that we are fixed in an animal
fate without life or purpose. It may be that our little tragedy has
touched the gods, that they admire it from their starry galleries, and
that at the end of every human drama man is called again and again
before the curtain. Repetition may go on for millions of years, by
mere choice, and at any instant it may stop. Man may stand on the
earth generation after generation, and yet each birth be his
positively last appearance.

One thought on “Chesterton on “The Ethics of Elfland”

  1. “They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember,
    for one wild moment, that they run with water.” Although much of the section you’ve quoted is memorable, this line especially made an impression when I read it the first time and it has stuck with me since. Incidentally, Chesterton fans should check out a movie adaptation of Chesterton’s novel “Manalive.”

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