“The Ethics of Elfland” is a chapter from Orthodoxy, (1908) by G.K. Chesterton. As I mentioned in the first part of this two-part post, he describes two core principles of imaginative fantasy stories, recalled mostly as childhood fairy tales told to him in the nursery (which he will apply also to Christianity):

  1. The power of elementary wonder
  2. The doctrine of conditional joy

Here then, is the second principle, that he calls the Doctrine of Conditional Joy . . . the magical virtue of “if”:

For the pleasure of pedantry I will call it the Doctrine of Conditional Joy. Touchstone talked of much virtue in an “if”; according to elfin ethics all virtue is in an “if.” The note of the fairy utterance always is, “You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire, if you do not say the word `cow'”; or “You may live happily with the King’s daughter, if you do not show her an onion.” The vision always hangs upon a veto. All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend upon one small thing withheld. All the wild and whirling things that are let loose depend upon one thing that is forbidden.

. . .

In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.

. . .

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.

These are indeed two of the key building blocks of fantasy literature: developing a startling, imaginative world, and then developing a set of rules by which the wild magic of the fantasy must operate, so that it is not random or capricious, but purposeful and full of meaning, even if mysterious; so that it is a world that must be explored with great respect, even if it is a place where, as Chesterton proposed, instead of fruit, tigers or golden candlesticks grow from trees.

(Blog post on the FantasyLit.com blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature and The Purpose of Fantasy.