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G. K. Chesterton: Modernizing the Middle Ages

24 Oct

There are times when I feel very annoyed with G. K. Chesterton. Never mind that he’s one of my favorite authors. When he writes a novel that makes me want to violently reinstate some aspects of the Middle Ages—and then ends it by saying that is impossible—it is frustrating, even if I would have come to that conclusion on my own after my literary high fades.

Take The Napoleon of Notting Hill, for example. I’ve read that it was a favorite of Michael Collins, the Irish revolutionary, and in fact was an instigator of his political activism. And up through the climax it does seem to demand that modern society is insufferable and has to be changed, even if that change comes in the form of requiring each neighborhood in London to design its own coat of arms and to walk around in medieval clothing. And then—the medievalists and the modernists slaughter each other, while the practical joker of a king who started the whole mess walks off hand in hand with the leader of the medievalists, who has discovered that he needs a less severe outlook on life. Reading it, I was prepared for a tragic ending, but the ending turned out almost inexplicably comic. Maybe I was too emotionally invested in the plight of the medievalists, but I’m more inclined to think that Chesterton himself felt the conflict between a realistic outlook on life and the desire to revolutionize modern society because of its ugliness.

I recently finished a second Chesterton book that left me with a similar feeling. It wasn’t quite as bad, since it didn’t end with only two people surviving; but I was again almost ready to take the side of the medievalists, when Chesterton started being realistic. Drat.

The book is called The Return of Don Quixote, which is a pretty accurate statement of what it is—a book about a medievalist (formerly a Hittite-obsessed librarian) who tries to bring back elements of the Middle Ages, and very nearly succeeds. Unfortunately he discovers that the modern British nobility are not actually nobles by blood, and that, after he publicly makes mention of the fact, is what does him in. Or at least what does his cause in; the librarian himself ends the book happily married (like all the other main characters). The Return of Don Quixote is not one of Chesterton’s better works, mostly because of a somewhat disjointed plot. What Chesterton gets right is his characters.

Many females in literature bore me, particularly if they are cast as introverts–the reality of their experiences and thoughts never seems to see daylight. Not so with this story’s original medieval dreamer, a young woman named Olive Ashley. It was her play about Richard the Lionhearted that accidentally initiated the whole mess. She is the one who originally believes in the ideals of medievalism; and she is the one who finds the solution to it, after it has failed as a practical way to improve England.

The solution to present problems is not to go back to the past. That does not mean some ideas of the past should not be continued in the present; but it does mean that it isn’t enough to try to copy an era. Every era has its flaws; and, although Olive does not express these, the medieval period was full of them. To speak of the medieval period simply as an Age of Faith, or of Chivalry, is to ignore the fact that it was an extremely complex time which included a lot of unbelief and needless violence. To paint the period either black or white is simply to be untruthful, and medievalizing society will not bring us into a utopia. But, according to Olive, there is one way to preserve the good things of Middle Ages.

“Don’t you see,” she exclaims, “the modern people may be right to be modern; there may be people who ask for nothing better than banks and brokers…. There may be people to whom it’s senseless to talk about a flower of chivalry; it sounds like a blossom of butchery. But if we want the flower of chivalry, we must go back to the root of chivalry. We must go back if we find it in a thorny place people call theology. We must think differently about death and free will and loneliness and the last appeal. It’s just the same with the popular things we can turn into fashionable things; folk-dances and calling everything a Guild. Our fathers did these things by the thousand; quite common people; not cranks. We are always asking how they did it. What we’ve got to ask is why they did it…. Rosamund, this is why they did it. Something lived here. Something they loved.”

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Posted by on October 24, 2012 in Realistic Fiction

 

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