We are having Honors Colloquium on G. K. Chesterton this semester. I was skeptical at first, then I began reading Chesterton. In Honors, we read texts, discuss them for two hours, and write a response to the reading and discussion each week. The following is what I wrote this week. All of the quotations, by the way, come from Chapter 14 of Chesterton’s Heretics.
“But in order that life should be a story or romance to us, it is necessary that a great part of it, at any rate, should be settled for us without our permission.” This says G. K. Chesterton. I like the idea of life being a story or romance to me. I do not like the idea of having it settled without my permission. Or, if I am not allowed to give permission, at least I want an explanation of things. My readers will have enough life experience to realize that events do not arrive with tags attached to explain them. Bother.
I am not fond of having my life come at me in sudden, unexpected bursts; yet, were I shown a chart of my life and given time to study it, I would be either bored or in the throes of overwhelming terror constantly. The nicest things in life seem to come in those sudden, unexpected bursts. Friendship catches me unawares; when I am feeling gloomy someone breaks in upon my solitude to make me feel immensely loved. I sit in the cafeteria with the sole purpose of selling pancakes to passers-by, and I leave with a grand assurance of the kindness of people whom I would not have stopped to see ordinarily. If I had a schedule of complements and kindnesses to be bestowed upon me, they could not delight me so.
The lovely thing about the fairy tales is that, when the princess is held captive in the tower, she does not know that the prince is, at that moment, riding to her rescue. If she knew, she would not feel the terror of her impending doom, nor would she feel the joy of her rescue when it came. It would be only what was expected. We, who read the fairy tale, are almost delighted with her fear, because we know that the prince is astride his horse and coming, lance in hand, to her aid. We know that the prince belongs to a kingdom that certainly wins, and we know her fears will all be at an end soon.
When Cinderella sits crying in the ashes, she does not know that the fairy godmother is about to appear and to dress her in a lovely gown. But again, we are delighted to see her tears, because we know that the godmother is coming to change her mourning into dancing. Her dancing is wonderful, because she did not think she would be allowed to dance.
Chesterton says, “The thing which keeps life romantic and full of fiery possibilities is the existence of these great plain limitations which force all of us to meet the things we do not like or do not expect.” Suppose Cinderella had not been subjected to a cruel step-mother? Suppose she had liberty and money, and had run away from her stepmother, bought herself a gown, rented a limousine, and attended the ball all without the fairy godmother? Well, perhaps the prince would still have danced with her, but she likely would not have looked as lovely in an ordinary gown as in her magical one. Ah, you say, but she would not have had to run away at the stroke of twelve. I reply that, if she had not, she could never have had the joy knowing she was sought all over the land because the prince loved her. There might still have been “happily ever after” at the end, but it would not have been the same sort of intense joy at an event that almost did not happen.
But I have been speaking of fairy tales. What about real life? There is an irony here, to be sure. As a Christian, my life just as certainly has “happily ever after” at its end as any fairy tale does. When I am locked in towers, there is quite certainly a Prince-who-must-win coming to my aid. When I sit weeping in the ashes, there is quite certainly a glorious gown being prepared for me. I also have been sought and found because of a great love. And yet, quite nonsensically, I beat my fists on the tower walls; I cry my heart out in the ashes; I complain that the glass slippers pinch, or that the Prince holds me too tightly. The happiness prepared for me, then, is all the more wonderful. Without a shadow of deserving it, I am to enter bliss. That is more romantic, perhaps, than even the fairy tales.