Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Chesterton, G K

(1874-1936) UK author, voluminous essayist, poet, illustrator, biographer, editor and Catholic apologist. Though several of his novels are sociological sf (> SFE), his best fictions all exude a fantastic glamour, enhanced by a gift for visually evocative prose, perhaps harking back to his Slade School artistic training: luridly symbolic dawns and sunsets glow through all the books.

One basic GKC assertion is that nothing is truly dull or mundane when properly regarded: in his first novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), the grey boroughs of London come to life with revived heraldic pageantry, and Notting Hill is seen in a new light as a place worth dying for. Its defender, simultaneously insane and right, speaks of a fairy wand that can transform grimy streets – and indicates his Sword. (The implied nostalgia for medieval simplicities is characteristic.) This image of London as a City of hidden Fairytale glitter was, as GKC acknowledged, inspired by Charles Dickens and by Robert Louis Stevenson's New Arabian Nights (coll 1882).

A second recurring trope is the Happy Surprise or Eucatastrophe. The popular Father Brown detective stories continually threaten some disquieting supernatural intrusion – Black Magic, Curses, Invisibility, psi powers (> Talents) – as a crime's one possible explanation, only for terror to be dispelled by reason. GKC wrote many fantastic "crime" stories whose eucatastrophe is the revelation that no real crime occurred: examples appear in The Club of Queer Trades (coll 1905) and Four Faultless Felons (coll 1930), which includes an Absurdist Ruritanian tale of revolution.

Both these themes meet in GKC's masterpiece, The Man who Was Thursday: A Nightmare (1908), a theological Horror-comedy of Masks set in the same fantasticated London, with an excursion to an equally gaudy toy-theatre France. Its narrative exuberance persuasively presents Fin-de-Siècle Decadence fused with bomb-throwing anarchy as a vast conspiracy against civilization. The protagonist, Syme, is a poet turned policeman, recruited like others by a huge unseen man for "The Last Crusade"; penetrating a secret anarchist conclave, he bluffs his way by sheer rhetoric into the post of Thursday on the conspiracy's General Council, whose members are named for days of the week. It is a gallery of creepy grotesques, Tuesday's bestial hirsuteness being the least alarming example. The aged Friday's decrepitude verges on literal decay, yet he contrives to keep up with Syme's panicky flight through a Labyrinth of London streets. Saturday, a man of science, has unnervingly hidden eyes: those who climb endless stairs to confront him feel the chill vertigo of mathematical and astronomical infinities. Wednesday seems more obviously diabolic as Syme wounds him four times in a forced duel without drawing blood. Monday has the twisted half-smile of the pure fanatic, and at the book's zenith of terror and paranoia appears to suborn an entire French province to the anarchist cause, merely to crush Syme and his few sane companions.

All these masks are stripped away in a sequence of extravagantly joyful surprises; but there remains Sunday, the President, whose face always borders on being too large to be humanly possible (> Great and Small; Liminal Being). Prefacing a final antic pursuit, Sunday informs his accusers: "I am the man in the dark room, who made you all policemen." Contrapuntal discussions of metaphysics continue through the remaining action, with all participants finding Sunday comparable only to Pan or the Universe at large; meanwhile he has pelted them with Nonsense messages, Nature's reply when the wrong question is asked. When the chase ends, Sunday entertains his pursuers royally at a Masque where their own costumes echo the Biblical days of Creation . . . and finally Sunday's own gigantic visage swells to unbearability (> Face of Glory) and dissolves with the words "Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?" GKC himself tentatively interpreted this vision as tearing the mask off Nature to find God behind. The whole is a remarkable narrative confection, compulsively readable yet often profound. A stage adaptation is The Man who Was Thursday (1926) by Mrs Cecil Chesterton and Ralph Neale.

The Ball and the Cross (1909 US) is more overtly theological; a Catholic and an atheist passionately wish to duel to the death over Religion and the latter's blasphemy in an England which GKC presents as insane since no one else cares enough to fight. Their escapes from police and other interference make for knockabout, sometimes slapstick adventure, punctuated with brilliant debate. The final refuge is a trap: an asylum run by Satan, who wishes to erase every memory of religious enthusiasm and has therefore incarcerated everyone involved in the would-be duellists' escapades. Satan tempts the pair with suitably flawed Utopias, which they reject. The prison's architectural Wrongness (>>> Edifice) anticipates the N.I.C.E. Objective Room in C S Lewis's That Hideous Strength (1945), as does the final Healing conflagration.

Lesser works tend to laborious Humour, as in the mildly surreal Manalive (1911), where the themes of eucatastrophe and seeing the world with new, childlike eyes are enacted by one "Innocent Smith". Tales of the Long Bow (coll of linked stories 1925) actualizes various metaphors as Rationalized Fantasy: pigs fly, castles float in the air, the Thames is literally set on fire, etc.

Two GKC plays use fantastic themes. Magic (1913) features a stage Magician who performs an impossible trick aided by Demons, and to save an observer's sanity must devise a false explanation. The Surprise (written circa 1930; 1952) presents a life-size Puppet-play which goes awry when its Dolls are magically granted free will – leading to an Allegory of incarnation as the outraged Author announces his intention of "coming down" to deal with this.

The Coloured Lands (coll 1938) ed Maisie Ward assembles a variety of GKC's fantastic writing and drawings, from precocious juvenilia – like an allegorical story of taming the nightmare, written circa 1892 – to mature unpublished work. Some of this material reappears, with uncollected stories, fables and allegories from his copious journalism, in Daylight and Nightmare (coll 1986) ed Marie Smith.

GKC's own ability to regard Reality with enduring amazement, to carry off melodrama with panache, and to dazzle with unexpectedly apposite similes and metaphors (also alliteration, puns, paradox and ideas that sparked ideas in a kind of controlled free-association) make his fiction persistently readable. His influence is acknowledged by many writers including Neil Gaiman, Mary Gentle, R A Lafferty and Gene Wolfe. Surprisingly many of his more than 100 books are genuinely distinguished, though his reputation declined with the decline of the literary essay and persistent accusations of antisemitism (which, though not wholly unfair, were magnified by hindsight). In fantasy, he would be of major importance solely for The Man who Was Thursday, an indisputable classic which has remained continuously in print for nearly 90 years. [DRL]

other works include: Greybeards at Play (1900), Nonsense verse; Charles Dickens (1906) and Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens (1911); The Ballad of the White Horse (1911), verse retelling of the King Alfred Legend, with striking religious Visions; The Flying Inn (1914); Wine, Water and Song (1915 chap), verses from The Flying Inn; The Collected Poems of G.K. Chesterton (1927); The Return of Don Quixote (1927); Robert Louis Stevenson (1927); The Sword of Wood (1928 chap); A Handful of Authors: Essays on Books and Writers (1953) ed Dorothy Collins; Collected Nonsense and Light Verse (1987) ed Marie Smith.

further reading: Autobiography (1936); Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1944) by Maisie Ward; G.K. Chesterton: A Centenary Appraisal (anth 1974) ed John Sullivan; G.K. Chesterton (1986) by Michael Ffinch; G.K. Chesterton: A Half Century of Views (anth 1987) ed D J Conlon; The Chesterton Review (1974-current), journal of the G K Chesterton Society.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton

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This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.