Sunday, September 07, 2008

Chesterton on Magic (and Dragons) in Stories

Please finish your food and drink before reading!

I was thinking about my writing, and laughing about those who find it hard to deal with magic in fiction. It is symptomatic of a failure to read Chesterton, though perhaps it is some kind of enzymatic deficiency. Perhaps they need to eat more. (I have got to stop writing these things before lunch.)

There's plenty of interesting GKC articles about writing in general, and even some about fairy-tale and magic. I was reading one some time ago about the Loch Ness Monster because someone asked about what GKC had to say about it, and there's a great bit of commentary in it. I thought you might wish to enjoy it too:
He [Robert Lynd] wrote an article on the Monster of Loch Ness, in a recent issue of the News Chronicle, which exactly illustrates the elusive thing I mean. It was a very good article; but it was full of hesitations and (if I may use the jargon) of inhibitions. He said first, with obvious common sense, that it is very difficult to contradict the evidence of a hundred apparently normal and respectable and independent witnesses. The same might be said of the great Sea-Serpent; the number of people who could swear to having seen it must by this time amount to pretty nearly a hundred. So far so good. It is for the other side to rebut this evidence definitely and in detail: to cross-examine these witnesses; to prove a rather improbable conspiracy; or to construct some theory to explain that number of people having been deceived. But the critic, feeling that in fairness he must pass on to state the other side, states it in a way which is supremely typical of modern irrationalism. He says, in these words or words to the same effect: "But if I agree to believe in the Monster of Loch Ness, where am I to draw the line? There are such a lot of other stories about other monsters"; and he proceeds to pour forth the riches of his wide reading, introducing us to the most fascinating and agreeable monsters of Celtic or Norse mythology; and seems gloomily resigned to go through with it and swallow all the monsters one after another, back to the whale that swallowed Jonah or the dragon that was to devour Andromeda. Anyone addicted to the antiquated mystery of Logic, so much studied by the superstitious Schoolmen or the Middle Ages, will be rather disposed to stare at this statement of the difficulty. He will naturally answer: "Well, I suppose you will draw the line where the evidence fails. You accept this Monster because there are a hundred people to give evidence. You will naturally believe less where there is less evidence, and not at all where there is no evidence. There is really no need for you to draw abstract a priori distinctions between a Seven-Headed Dragon in Persia and a Nine-Headed Dragon in Japan." The truth is that the critic is misled from the first by a vague idea that, in accepting any such story, he is stepping across the border of fairyland, where any fantastic thing may happen. This is a fallacy, even about preternatural things. A man may believe one miracle and not another miracle; knowing there are true and false miracles, as there are true and false banknotes. But the Monster is not a miracle. Something like it may occur along with magic in magic-tales. But a man might as well say that millers and cats and princesses are fabulous animals, because they appear side by side with goblins and mermaids in the stories of the nursery.
[ILN Jan 6 1934; reprinted in Avowals and Denials. Special thanks to Frank Petta and my mother for these non-CW ILN essays.]
You will note with delight that he refers to the "Schoolmen" - those are the guys who do that awesome "thirteenth century metaphysics" which we used to make all that cool stuff happen where I used to work... Yeah, the Control Room and WATCHER and all that.

Wow, I wonder if Control Room Guys and Field Techs and policemen and Carmelites are fabulous animals? (Cellists I already know about; all these fretless string players are fabulous. Hee hee.) Oh, we haven't gotten to the Carmelites, yet - have we? Let me just check... oh, yes - we do very shortly. Just be patient, it's great. No you will not get to see them, they're cloistered. Yes, yes. What else? Oh, we'll see some police action (yes, there will be a car chase, of course, all fiction these days has to have that!) What else? An old guy on a boat, and another pretty girl, some more magic, some more food, and a map of North Belloc from the 1880s... Oh, yeah - and perhaps something even more terrifying... oh yes. Now don't get scared, it's nasty enough to make your skin crawl. Yes, you're going to meet... A LAWYER (!!!!!) But it's OK, since he's fictional. Completely imaginary. No, he's not going to come out of the computer and give you a subpoena! Heavens, what a horrible thought. He's just a figment of the imagination, thank God. Actually there will be several lawyers, but some of them are "good". Yes, I said it was imaginary. Whether there are any such in reality I shall not attempt to discern at present. Ahem.

At the risk of getting myself even deeper into complexities, I shall give you the cross-links to the reference about true and false banknotes:
A false ghost disproves the reality of ghosts exactly as much as a forged banknote disproves the existence of the Bank of England - if anything, it proves its existence.
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:358]

No conceivable number of forged bank-notes can disprove the existence of the Bank of England.
[GKC ILN Apr 14, 1906 CW27:164]
Or, as a certain lab-coat-wearing lunatic writer might put it, "No conceivable number of fictional control rooms (or used-book stores) can disprove the existence of the AC&TG Control Room (or Weaver's Books)." Which is a good thing.

Post Script: Just before I posted this, I was thinking about how one tells the difference between "good" lawyers and the common or garden form, and I was wondering if the "good" ones are the ones that don't have horns. Then I remembered the stuff in the Apocalypse/Revelation about the angels blowing horns, and got kind of confused. So is it the bad guys who have horns or not? It reminds me of the "Far Side" comic, in two scenes. The caption below the first reads: "Welcome to heaven, here's your harp", and on the second: "Welcome to h*ll, here's your accordion." Hee hee. Incidentally, the best information I have obtained to date puts the viola at the forefront of musical insults. Not even drummers get abused as bad as they do. But I cannot go into that here. I know too many musicians, and somedays I are one. And when I'm not, I build pipe organs, or wish I was building them. Great! Swell! (Oh boy) Ever notice how talk about laughter sooner or later comes around to music? I think that's hinted at in The Never-Ending Story where Falkor says "All the languages of joy are related." Or that Professor Harold Hill's real name is Gregory? Yes, it is. Amazing. This kind of stuff only happens in the real world. Thank God.


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