“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):
- The power of elementary wonder
- 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.