“The Ethics of Elfland” is a chapter from Orthodoxy, (1908) by G.K. Chesterton. As Amazon.com notes in a review:
If G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy: The Romance of Faith is, as he called it, a “slovenly autobiography,” then we need more slobs in the world.
Its purpose, according to a brief preface by the author:
It is the purpose of the writer to attempt an explanation, not of whether the Christian Faith can be believed, but of how he personally has come to believe it. . . . It deals first with all the writer’s own solitary and sincere speculations and then with all the startling style in which they were all suddenly satisfied by the Christian Theology.
In the Elfland chapter, in all its rambling glory, he comes to two principles of Elfland, which he will apply also to Christianity:
- The power of elementary wonder
- The doctrine of conditional joy
To start, let’s ignore how easily he disposes of the knowledge of science (“for no egg in itself suggests a chicken”), which leads him to convoluted arguments like:
. . . this fairy-tale language about things is simply rational and agnostic. It is the only way I can express in words my clear and definite perception that . . . there is no logical connection between [a chicken] flying and laying eggs. It is the man who talks about “a law” that he has never seen who is the mystic. Nay, the ordinary scientific man is strictly a sentimentalist. He is a sentimentalist in this essential sense, that he is soaked and swept away by mere associations. He has so often seen birds fly and lay eggs that he feels as if there must be some dreamy, tender connection between the two ideas, whereas there is none.
(Okay, he’s applying his own system of belief to science, and then arguing that it makes no more sense than his own approach.)
But he has a lot of insight about Elfland – that is, the wondrous power of imagination of fantastic stories, especially the fairy tales heard in childhood. Here’s his first principle, the concept of elementary wonder (or “the ancient instinct of astonishment”):
My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery. I generally learnt it from a nurse; that is, from the solemn and star-appointed priestess at once of democracy and tradition. The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales. They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things. They are not fantasies: compared with them other things are fantastic. Compared with them religion and rationalism are both abnormal, though religion is abnormally right and rationalism abnormally wrong. Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense. It is not earth that judges heaven, but heaven that judges earth; so for me at least it was not earth that criticised elfland, but elfland that criticised the earth. I knew the magic beanstalk before I had tasted beans; I was sure of the Man in the Moon before I was certain of the moon. This was at one with all popular tradition. Modern minor poets are naturalists, and talk about the bush or the brook; but the singers of the old epics and fables were supernaturalists, and talked about the gods of brook and bush. That is what the moderns mean when they say that the ancients did not “appreciate Nature,” because they said that Nature was divine. Old nurses do not tell children about the grass, but about the fairies that dance on the grass; and the old Greeks could not see the trees for the dryads.
. . .
But as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened–dawn and death and so on–as if THEY were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as NECESSARY as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of the imagination. You cannot IMAGINE two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail.
. . .
This elementary wonder, however, is not a mere fancy derived from the fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy tales is derived from this. Just as we all like love tales because there is an instinct of sex, 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.
In a follow-up post, we’ll look at his second doctrine of Elfland, what he calls the Doctrine of Conditional Joy . . . the magical virtue of “if.”