Modern literature takes insanity as its centre. Therefore, it loses the interest even of insanity. A lunatic is not startling to himself, because he is quite serious; that is what makes him a lunatic. A man who thinks he is a piece of glass is to himself as dull as a piece of glass. A man who thinks he is a chicken is to himself as common as a chicken. It is only sanity that can see even a wild poetry in insanity. Therefore, these wise old tales made the hero ordinary and the tale extraordinary. But you have made the hero extraordinary and the tale ordinary — so ordinary — oh, so very ordinary. (from Tremendous Trifles)
Only in fairy tales did hope ascend.
For the devils, alas, we have always believed in. The hopeful element in the universe has in modern times continually been denied and reasserted; but the hopeless element has never for a moment been denied…. The greatest of purely modern poets summed up the really modern attitude in that fine Agnostic line—
“There may be Heaven; there must be Hell.”
The gloomy view of the universe has been a continuous tradition; and the new types of spiritual investigation or conjecture all begin by being gloomy. A little while ago men believed in no spirits. Now they are beginning rather slowly to believe in rather slow spirits. (from Tremendous Trifles)
I find Chesterton’s perception of “modern fiction” — stories written in a realistic style nearly a hundred years ago — eerily similar to stories written in a realistic style today. When the imagination is separated from spiritual reality, it seems to stall on the bleak and the horrible.
It fits with what we know. Life is … not as exciting as we wish. And the consequences of our actions and choices are more dire than we expected. Then waiting at the end is … the end.
How different for the person who sees spiritual realities as more real than physical realities. The here and now is the prelude, not the main act, and most definitely not the final act.
What happens here is better because with it comes Promise. And Hope.
The one point I disagree with Chesterton on when it comes to story is his view of the protagonist of a fairy tale:
As I see it, a Biblical worldview says the soul is “sick and screaming” but that the world has also gone mad, though at times it may appear dull.
Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming. The problem of the fairy tale is — what will a healthy man do with a fantastic world? The problem of the modern novel is — what will a madman do with a dull world? In the fairy tales the cosmos goes mad; but the hero does not go mad. In the modern novels the hero is mad before the book begins, and suffers from the harsh steadiness and cruel sanity of the cosmos. (from Tremendous Trifles)
So the problem a fantasy deals with is — what does a soul sick and screaming do in a world gone mad? Certainly painting it in those terms, such a story does not appear to traffic in hope.
But I suggest the solution to the problem offers the truest hope — such a soul can do noting to right the world. He must trust in someone greater than himself.
The idea that the soul is healthy, I think, is perhaps the cruelest of concepts, one that leaves the reader, knowing himself to be less than whole, wanting.
As I see it, then, there are two kinds of stories that lead to hopelessness — ones that are realistic about the physical world but not the spiritual, and ones that falsely infuse hope in a healthy soul.
How do you see it?