Catholic Church, Classic Literature, Communion of Saints, Faith, Favorite Authors, G.K. Chesterton, Kat's Reading List, Neil Gaiman, Philosophy, Theology, Writing

Chesterton, Elfland, and the Modern Imagination

I recently attended my very first Chesterton Conference, an event which is put on every year by the American Chesterton Society. If you have never heard of the writer G.K. Chesterton, it might strike you as odd that there could be an entire conference dedicated to his work, never mind an entire national organization. (Chesterton is actually celebrated world-wide, as there is also an Australian Chesterton Society, as well) Well, let me tell you, Chesterton is probably the greatest writer that the 21st century has somehow managed to almost completely forget. If you have heard of him at all, it’s probably in connection with the Father Brown mystery series that he wrote and that is now in its latest incarnation on the BBC staring Mark Williams (Mr. Weasley from the Harry Potter movies).

I’m not going to get into the topic of why Chesterton has fallen into obscurity, though. That is a conversation for another time.

My own interest in Chesterton began because he was a major influence on the lives and works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who are of course the main influences on my own life and work. In fact, the biggest factors that drew me to the conference were a talk about Lewis and Tolkien, given by the author Joseph Pearce whom I greatly admire and wanted to meet, and also a one-act play based on a conversation between the two men (the conversation that finally converted Lewis to Christianity). Lewis and Tolkien brought me to the conference, but I am quickly learning to love Chesterton in his own right.

I would be remiss to not also mention the influence of Chesterton on the other significant author in my own life, Neil Gaiman. In his collection of nonfiction, The View from the Cheap Seats, Gaiman shared a speech that he gave at MythCon in 2004, in which he acknowledged Chesterton, Tolkien, and Lewis as being essential in who he ended up being as a writer. He said,

“Chesterton and Tolkien and Lewis were, as I’ve said, not the only writers I read between the ages of six and thirteen, but they were the authors I read over and over again; each of them playing a part in building me. Without them, I cannot imagine that I would have become a writer, and certainly not a writer of fantastic fiction. I would not have understood that the best way to show people true things is from the direction that they had not imagined the truth coming, nor that the majesty and the magic of belief and dreams could be a vital part of life and of writing.”

The theme of this year’s Chesterton Conference was “Test of the Imagination” and there really couldn’t be a topic closer to my heart. In his book Orthodoxy, Chesterton has a chapter titled “Ethics of Elfland”, and that (along with Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories”) could be the thesis of all that I do. I believe in the power of stories more than anything else, and Joseph Pearce put it perfectly in his talk. He said that God Himself is a storyteller and we were made in His image. We were made for stories and for storytelling. Pearce pointed out that God tells us the most powerful messages through stories and He told us the most powerful story by coming down and becoming part of it Himself, and then He told us even more stories (the parables) within that story.

In his essay “On Fairy Stories”, Tolkien said, “History often resembles Myth because they are both ultimately made of the same stuff.” And Chesterton said, “Fairyland is nothing more than the sunny country of common sense.” There is more truth in mythology and fairy tales than our modern, materialist sensibilities feels comfortable admitting, but the beautiful thing about truth is that your opinion doesn’t change it.

Being able to immerse myself for a full weekend in these topics and conversations was soul-filling. Other talks throughout the weekend included “Chesterton and the Historical Imagination” (basically, how to understand and teach about Western Civilization), “Chesterton and Walt Disney” (a fascinating comparison of the two men, who probably never met but had a great deal in common), and “Chesterton and Kierkegaard” (another fascinating comparison, and I also learned that I’ve been pronouncing “Kierkegaard” wrong all of these years). There was so much more, but there is no way that I could attempt to capture it all here. Luckily, the ACS captured it all on recordings which should be available on their website soon. And really, you should just come to next year’s conference and discover this brilliant world for yourself.

If you are interested in learning more about Chesterton and his writing, I highly recommend Dale Ahlquist’s book G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense (which I now have a signed copy of). I wrote about it in July’s book post, along with Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man. I also recommend checking out the ACS’s website for your book orders and for more information on this incredible man.

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