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Chesterton, G K

Entry updated 2 April 2021. Tagged: Artist, Author.

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(1874-1936) UK author and illustrator of his own books and many by Hilaire Belloc – with whom he was long associated, closely enough that George Bernard Shaw referred to them as The Chesterbelloc. A posthumous collection, Daylight and Nightmare: Uncollected Stories and Fables (coll 1986), which assembles fantasy and some sf stories from 1897 through 1931, may demonstrate the range of his emblem-haunted imagination as a teller of tales, but most of his numerous works fall into various other categories – Chesterton in general exemplified the Edwardian man of letters and wrote on almost everything, in every conceivable form, from poetry and the famous Father Brown detective stories to Christian polemics, as well as very numerous "weekend" essays, plus literary criticism and history. Shorter fiction of interest appears in: The Man Who Knew too Much and Other Stories (coll 1922; cut 1961), where mysteries solved by Horne Fisher (who knows too much about the seamy side of English Politics) culminate in War while non-Fisher stories include "The Trees of Pride", whose exotic imported trees arouse fearful superstition and are in truth Poison; Tales of the Long Bow (coll of linked stories 1925), tall tales of literalized figures of speech (the Thames, thanks to industrial Pollution, is easily set on fire) which culminate in a Near-Future English revolution; The Poet and the Lunatics: Episodes in the Life of Gabriel Gale (coll 1929), featuring a case of abnormally rapid petrification in "The Finger of Stone" (December 1920 Harper's Bazaar); Four Faultless Felons (coll 1930), which includes a Ruritanian novella, "The Loyal Traitor" (May 1930 The Story-Teller); and The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond (coll 1937), whose nonfantastic "The Three Horsemen of Apocalypse" (July 1935 The Story-Teller) was a tale strongly admired by Jorge Luis Borges. An ostensibly nonfiction piece of interest, "England in 1919" (Christmas 1919 Pears' Annual), is told as though written in 1969 after the Futurist Government has destroyed most historical documents.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), Chesterton's first novel, is set in a distant Near Future 1984 (George Orwell's use of the same date for Nineteen Eighty-Four [1949] seems coincidental), soon after whose outset London is whimsically balkanized by royal decree into a number of tiny Medieval-Futurist principalities, leading to a moderately spoofish War among these statelets. The tale immediately establishes the nostalgic, medievalizing, anti-Wellsian, Merrie-Englande tone of most of his longer works, which tended, in one way or another, to idealize a dreamlike England; but their insistence on the homeliness of the past and the familiar is so surreally put that the ultimate effect is deeply uncanny. In their arguments about the desirability of the homeland they comprise a series of Utopias, though often only by inarguable implication. Further novels of this sort include The Ball and the Cross (March 1905-November 1906 The Commonwealth, nine chapters only; exp 1909), which – lumberingly featuring a Professor Lucifer whose Invention of a fantastic flying machine seems almost irrelevant to his subtler poisoning of Near-Future England – is an allegory in which Faith and Reason ultimately join forces against Satan; and The Flying Inn (1914) which – not exactly prefiguring twenty-first-century troubles – posits a teetotal, vegetarian, Muslim-influenced rule over Britain; the failure of this regime comes from the fact that (as Chesterton makes clear), barring a few mad idealists, the politicians and other authorities who impose abstinence on the common people do not regard it as something which should interfere with their own pleasures. The later The Return of Don Quixote (1927) is a Near Future Satire set in England and espousing, not for the first time in Chesterton's career, a return to pre-industrial values: here politicians with purchased titles who are happy to adopt the cosmetic restoration of medieval costumes and pageantry (see Medieval Futurism) find themselves discomfited when an arbiter who is a genuine medievalist rejects their merely capitalist ownership of a guild on the ground that they have never been apprenticed to, let alone mastered, the guild's trade.

Chesterton's finest novel, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare (1908; vt The Annotated Thursday 1999), is an Urban Fantasy [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] mostly set in the Babylon-like London so alluring to writers of the fin de siècle. Six secret agents disguised as anarchists, unaware of each others' true Identities and codenamed for the days of the week (the protagonist becoming Thursday) are shown to have been recruited to man the frontiers of the world against "Sunday", the anarchist leader and their greatest foe – who after various escapades including multiple unmaskings, a duel, nightmarish pursuit across a French province seemingly in the grip of world-engulfing anarchy, and an escape by Balloon, turns out to be not only their legitimate boss but in fact a forbidding Christ figure (see Godgame; Secret Masters); there is a Slingshot Ending. The book – dramatized by his brother's widow, Mrs Cecil Chesterton [Ada Elizabeth Jones (1869-1962), who also wrote as John Keith Prothero], and Ralph Neale as The Man Who Was Thursday: Adapted from the Novel of G K Chesterton (1926) – has been an acknowledged influence upon such Catholic writers as R A Lafferty and Gene Wolfe; and the uncanny magic-carpet London so lovingly created by Chesterton and his confrères arguably marks a significant stepping-stone – along with Robert Louis Stevenson's New Arabian Nights (coll 1882) – between the world of Charles Dickens and that of Steampunk. [JC/DRL]

see also: Automata; Alternate History; Club Story; Gods and Demons; Parody; Time Travel.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton

born London: 29 May 1874

died Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire: 14 June 1936

works (highly selected)


Wit, Whimsy, and Wisdom of G K Chesterton

individual titles



about the author

The literature on Chesterton is very extensive indeed. The following titles are highly selected.


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