Saturday, September 16, 2006

GKC motifs: "two ways of getting home"

A Word Before We Begin
Ever since childhood I have held a certain musical work in very high esteem. That is Prokofiev's famous "Peter and the Wolf" which teaches the sounds of the various musical instruments by giving each distinct choir of instruments a catchy musical phrase and building a story out of them. Thus Grandfather is the bassoon, the wolf is the horn trio, the bird is the flute, the cat is the clarinet, and "Peter" is the strings. Those phrases are called motifs.

Perhaps the point I am trying to make is best made musically: at one of the exciting points in the story, the bird helps Peter, symbolized by having the flute play the "Peter" motif. Indeed, a given theme may occur numerous times, not always in the same musical arrangement or setting. All this is common to many pieces of music, but such a device is rarely seen in literature, or if it is, few take note of it. (sorry for the pun!)

There are certain ideas which Chesterton uses over and over again in many of his books. Sometimes these are expressed in certain recurring phrases, sometimes (as the musician says) in "variations on a theme" - and so I have decided to call them "GKC motifs." From time to time I will post a summary of our work on one or another of these repeated phrases.

"Two Ways of Getting Home"

Every once in a while someone points out that a lyricist of the rock group "Led Zeppelin" must have read Tolkien's masterwork. There is a reference to Gollum in, I believe, a song called "Misty Mountain Hop." But perhaps their most well-known song is "Stairway to Heaven" where we meet that lady who's sure "all that glitters is gold". A famous verse refers to the alternative of going up through the snowy Redhorn Gate or down through the dark depths of Khazad-dûm:
"Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run,
there's still time to change the Road you're on."
Perhaps our literary rocker had been reading GKC, for this important theme forms the very beginning of both The Everlasting Man and Orthodoxy:
There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place; and I tried to trace such a journey in a story I once wrote.
The Everlasting Man CW2:143
The story GKC refers to is traced at length in his Manalive (CW14) Part II Chapter III "The Round Road; Or, The Desertion Charge."

But this is actually a rephrasing of the beginning of Orthodoxy, which may be called "the Englishman who discovers England":
I have often had a fancy for writing a romance about an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas. ... His mistake was really a most enviable mistake; and he knew it, if he was the man I take him for. What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again? ... This at least seems to me the main problem for philosophers, and is in a manner the main problem of this book. How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it? ... We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable. ... But I have a peculiar reason for mentioning the man in a yacht, who discovered England. For I am that man in a yacht. I discovered England.
Orthodoxy CW1:211-212,213
In The Ball and the Cross, there is a miniature version of this voyage of discovery: the two main characters (neither of whom is a sailor) travel in a borrowed yacht for two weeks and land on what they think is a deserted island, but soon learn that they have (you guessed it!) discovered England.

In the story called "The Coloured Lands" [CW14:110] the journey is made by changes in colour, rather than changes of location.

In Lord Kitchener, GKC comments: "After his great adventures in Africa and Asia, the Englishman has re-discovered Europe; and in the very act of discovering Europe, the Englishman has at last discovered England." [CW5:389]

This motif is related to the "upside down" motif, and the "too large to be seen" motif, which we shall examine another time. But I want to point out the metaphysical secret of this motif, which is also hinted at in the rock song I started with:
"There's a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure,
'Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings."
At the West-Gate of Moria, Gandalf puzzled over its password - which was written plainly before him. In the Chesterton motif, the duality is not in the word way but in the word home. The interrogative for "home" is not "Where?" but "Whom?"

Home is
... the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home. [CW10:140]


At 18 September, 2006 23:32, Blogger Kevin O'Brien said...

This is brilliant stuff - food for thought, and one way of getting a handle on such a profound thinker and prolific writer. How many motifs have you thus far identified?

At 19 September, 2006 07:44, Blogger Dr. Thursday said...

Maybe 15, depending on how one considers certain ones as separate from certain others. Some might be stretching the idea a little, but most are just like this one.


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