A Fairy Tale

by G. K. Chesterton

IN NOVELS, romances, scientific reports and similar documents, we have all come across the story of the man who, on waking up, forgets his name and wanders out into the streets without an identity. He can exercise an ordinary intelligence; he can perform all ordinary functions, but he cannot remember who he is. I am in this position. But then, as it is a comfort for me to reflect, so are you. Every human being has forgotten who he is and where he came from. We are all blasted with one great obliteration of memory. We none of us saw ourselves born; and if we had, it would not have cleared up the mystery. Parents are a delight; but they are not an explanation. The one thing that no man, however learned, can ever know, is his own name. It is easier to comprehend the cosmos than to compre­hend the ego; it is easier even to know where you are than to know who you are. We have forgotten our own meaning, and we are all wandering the streets without keepers. All that we call commonsense and practicality and worldly wisdom only means that we forget that we have forgotten. All that we mean by religion and poetry only means that for one wild moment we remember that we forget.

I was sitting the other day on a heap of stones in the Isle of Thanet, when I remembered that I had forgotten. Not a straw has stirred; not a bird had spoken; but my blood ran cold, and I knew at once that I was in fairyland. The commonplace country landscape of Thanet lent itself more to the fairy notion than any imaginable mountains or lakes or caves. It is always easier to see this elvish look in plain and familiar objects because of a fact that men in mostly our day fail to understand; because it is exactly the homeliest part of man that is nearest to heaven and hell. We can think of a stool or a pot being bewitched; we cannot easily think of a cartoon by Raphael being bewitched. Neither can we think easily of the Alps being bewitched; it would require a witch of some force and character. But a domestic and even prosaic landscape, like that of this flat corner of Kent, can be soaked in a super­naturalism all the more awful from being detached and alien from the landscape itself. Everything that stood up around me stood up shapeless and yet with some horrible hint of the human shape. Everything looked as if it had a face somewhere, but a face that was hidden or turned away. I seemed to be looking at the ugly back of everything. The stunted hedge looked like a line of hoary and hairy hobgoblins staring away from me towards the sun. The dwarfish trees were deformed and twisted by the silent and evil magic of the sea; they seemed to have hump-backs and hidden faces. Everything was at once secretive and vigilant; even the heap of stones beneath me seemed to be all eyes. But all external oddities were secondary to, or perhaps only symbolic of, the sudden sense of a sacred and splendid ignorance that had fallen upon my soul; the enigma of being alive. Saints have not discovered the answer. Philosophers have not even discovered the riddle. But in that moment at least I remembered that I could not remember.

But there is one merely human work in which the fundamental mood is truly and wisely recorded—I mean in fairly tales. I can never understand why it is that those who happen to disbelieve in Christianity do not go back to the great, healthy, permanent human tradition outside Christianity. Because you cannot rise to faith, you need not sink to natural philos­ophy. If I did not put my faith in the Gospel, I should not put it in Haeckel. I should put it in Jack the Giant Killer. I should put it in these enduring human stories, with their cele­bra­tion of hope, surprise, courage, the fulfilment of contracts, and the natural relations of mankind. The point is apart from my present purpose, and I will not pursue it here; but I fancy that it is one of the strange testimonies to Christianity that its opponents do not get clear of it into the original human condition, but go mad with mere reaction and anarchy. Those who object to the faith often object to the human fables; those who dislike Christianity carry their absurdity to the point of disliking Paganism too.

The essence of fairyland is this; that it is a country of which we do not know the laws. This is also a peculiarity of the universe in which we live. We do not know anything about the laws of nature; we do not even know whether they are laws. All that we can do is to take first by faith (from our parents, aunts, and nurses), and afterwards by very meager experiment (during the miserably insufficient period of three score years and ten), the general proposi­tion that there is some sort of strange connection, often repeated but still unexplained, between lighted gunpowder and a loud bang. And it is here that we may see the deep and sound philosophy of the fairy tale. The chemist says: “Mix these three substances and the bang will follow.” The good wizard in the fairy tale says: “Eat these three apples and the giant’s head will fall off.” But the chemist talks in a particular tone and style, which suggests that there is an abstract philosophy, some sort of inevitable connection between the three substances and the bang. Sometimes he calls it a necessity, which means a thing that cannot be broken. Sometimes he calls it a law, which means a thing that can be broken. But he always means that the mind sees a connection between the two things—as the mind sees a connection between four and eight—and the mind does nothing of the sort. The fairy-tale method is far more philosophical. The wizard says: “Do this one extraordinary thing and that other totally different extraordinary thing does continually follow. I don’t know why it does; I don’t even know that it will always do it. But it is a tip worth knowing when you want to kill a giant.” We do not know that these natural repetitions all around us are laws; we do not know that they are necessities. What we do know about them is that they are magic spells—that is, conditions which exist, but the nature of which is mystical altogether. Water is bewitched, so that it always goes downhill. Birds are bewitched, so that they fly. The sun is bewitched, so that it shines.

I rose from the heap of stones having become altogether a citizen of fairyland. I grasped my stick like a sword and went up the white road looking for giants. I was disappointed for some little time, the two or three people whom I met being so far as I could estimate actually smaller than myself. But there was something of a rapid rigidity in the road running in front of me like a lean white hound, that dragged me on in undiminished confidence in the wonders that awaited me. For it is a mark of the essential morality of fairyland (a thing too commonly overlooked) that happiness in fairyland, like happiness anywhere else, involves an object and even a challenge; we can only admire scenery if we want to get past it. No man can take his ease in Elfland as in the land of the lotus eater. Children are its citizens, and children do not want to take their ease. I hoped to find a castle and an ogre; if I had luck a three-headed ogre, for in Elfland all sport is the defiance of something stronger; our only hunting is the hunting of big game. I wanted him large and wicked, very wicked. A minute after the road and hedges turned at an abrupt angle, and I saw before me something that snapped my last faith in reasonable things.

There in front of me, solid and silent in the sun, was the unmistakable ogre’s castle—turreted and castellated, with an extravagant skyline, exactly as I had seen it brightly coloured in my nursery picture-books. With all my elvish feelings I had not really believed that I should find such a fantastic fortress on a road in Kent. Turning to a fat, elderly countryman who was standing by a haystack (himself no doubt a fairy), I said, “Who lives in this place?” “That place,” he said, “why that’s Mr. Harry Marks’ place.” And I leaned upon my stick and gazed and thought of the war in Elfland.

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8 Responses to A Fairy Tale

  1. TJF says:

    On the whole, pretty good stuff, although I was unaware that Chesterton had a Humean view of causality — which is pretty abhorrent to reason.


  2. Dee of St Hermans says:

    Speaking as a wizard-chemist, I’m grateful to read Chesterton’s report from Elftown—so it is I’m not alone in this enchanted place!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. People ask a lot about systems of magic and so forth in fantasy novels, which I think is like the chemist. I write fantasy in part because I don’t believe in those systems, and trying to have or impose them ruins the essential magic which is, however few people believe, part of the real Earth, and not just the fictional Areaer.

    This essay or whatever it is is great! So is the chapter about Fairyland in Orthodoxy


    • Grant says:

      This a hundred times, one of the most disappointing things I have found in some more recent fantasy novels, movies and series has been the reduction of magic to a ‘system’ and a pseudo-scientific discipline in the fantasy world. It seems to go hand-in-hand with a combination of reduction of the fantasy world one that is essentially matching a secular or materalist conception in which magic is just some energy or some natural force effectively, and with the RPGing (Role Play Gaming) that can converge in a number of writers. The RPGing effect coming from both the influence of table-top or computer games where of course everything has to be quantified and systemtized so people can play out (but as much as I enjoy them, has the massive downside ussually any sense of enchantment, mystic or the unknown other).

      But yes, when magic is essentially turned into some form of scientific endevour, all enchanment and actual magic is either drained from, or at least heavely blunted in the story, and all becomes drab and grey lacking much or any in the way of wonder.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I absolutely agree, and this is part of why I have two fantasy worlds. Don’t expect a lot of real magic in Kaarathlon; when I built that world, I was having fun playing around with my notion of an alternate “system” not unlike the current notions about atoms and energy; this despite the fact that Kaarathlon is flat! To be honest, I enjoy what can be done with such a “system” and the way in which one can suggest the limits of such a “system” precisely by using it. On the other hand, the Areaeran cosmos consists of round planets, thermonuclear stars, and galaxies, so it has a more modern than medieval vision of the physical structure of the world, but it’s full of true magic – not a system.

        (Just letting you know since, if this makes you interested in my fantasy, I want you to be able to figure out which world you’re interested in and not be too disappointed – though I suspect my Introduction to ____ pages make this clear enough.)


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Midichlorians, anyone?

        Liked by 1 person

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