This … philosophical comedy comes to us from 1913, and is an example of Chesterton at his mystical, questioning best. The setting and set-up are simple: Patricia Carleon, daughter of a duke and a girl given to nature and fancies, meets a man who tells her that he is a fairy. When it is revealed that he is really a conjurer there for a village entertainment, she is heartbroken.
However … is he really “just” a conjurer? This becomes the subject of much debate between a clergyman, the Rev. Cyril Smith, the village doctor, Grimthorpe, and Patricia’s recently-arrived-from America brother, Morris. The action takes place in the Duke’s drawing room, complete with French windows with a view out into the lawn and neighboring homes.
As practical, scientific Morris “exposes” the sham tricks of the conjurer, more and more inexplicable things occur which could only be the result of magic; Morris has a fit and needs medical attention. The following exchange occurs between Rev. Smith and Dr. Grimthorpe:
Doctor. I have got him into bed in the next room. His sister is looking after him.
Smith. His sister! Oh, then do you believe in fairies?
Doctor. Believe in fairies? What do you mean?
Smith. At least you put the person who does believe in them in charge of the person who doesn't.
Doctor. Well, I suppose I do.
Smith. You don't think she'll keep him awake all night with fairy tales?
Doctor. Certainly not.
Smith. You don't think she'll throw the medicine-bottle out of window and administer—er—a dewdrop, or anything of that sort? Or a four-leaved clover, say?
Doctor. No; of course not.
Smith. I only ask because you scientific men are a little hard on us clergymen. You don't believe in a priesthood; but you'll admit I'm more really a priest than this Conjurer is really a magician. You've been talking a lot about the Bible and the Higher Criticism. But even by the Higher Criticism the Bible is older than the language of the elves—which was, as far as I can make out, invented this afternoon. But Miss Carleon believed in the wizard. Miss Carleon believed in the language of the elves. And you put her in charge of an invalid without a flicker of doubt: because you trust women.
Doctor. [Very seriously.] Yes, I trust women.
Smith. You trust a woman with the practical issues of life and death, through sleepless hours when a shaking hand or an extra grain would kill.
Smith. But if the woman gets up to go to early service at my church, you call her weak-minded and say that nobody but women can believe in religion.
Doctor. I should never call this woman weak-minded—no, by God, not even if she went to church.
Smith. Yet there are many as strong-minded who believe passionately in going to church.
Doctor. Weren't there as many who believed passionately in Apollo?
Smith. And what harm came of believing in Apollo? And what a mass of harm may have come of not believing in Apollo? Does it never strike you that doubt can be a madness, as well be faith? That asking questions may be a disease, as well as proclaiming doctrines? You talk of religious mania! Is there no such thing as irreligious mania? Is there no such thing in the house at this moment?
Doctor. Then you think no one should question at all.
Smith. [With passion, pointing to the next room.] I think that is what comes of questioning! Why can't you leave the universe alone and let it mean what it likes? Why shouldn't the thunder be Jupiter? More men have made themselves silly by wondering what the devil it was if it wasn't Jupiter.
Doctor. [Looking at him.] Do you believe in your own religion?
Smith. [Returning the look equally steadily.] Suppose I don't: I should still be a fool to question it. The child who doubts about Santa Claus has insomnia. The child who believes has a good night's rest.
Doctor. You are a Pragmatist.
So, of course, we are now in familiar Chestertonian territory: the question of “reason” vs. “belief.” Like Dickens before him (and GKC idolized Dickens), Chesterton saw magic in the everyday. An almost pagan animism is rampant in the works of Dickens, and while Chesterton sees the mystery inherent in all the natural and man-made world around us, he, unlike Dickens, tends to put a more Christian spin on the great mystery. However, Chesterton also believed that Christianity was merely one prism through which one could perceive the magic of the ordinary.
The era just before (and immediately after) the Great War was also the Golden Age of Fairies in England. The little folk were seen everywhere, or perceived to be seen everywhere, and this is not surprising. That period was perhaps the most dramatic break between the Old and New Worlds – more so than the Industrial Revolution. Life had become increasingly more urban, methods of killing more efficient, and lore and legend that had survived for generations was becoming lost. People felt ungrounded, as if the world that they had known for so long no longer existed, and was replaced with something foreign and profoundly unhealthy. The cult of nature – and of natural gods, such as fairies, elves, Pan and assorted wee-folk – had its powerful last hurrah before being wiped away forever by progress.
Chesterton was, by nature and temperament, a man who would applaud the return of fairies into everyday life, and one who could resist what might be an eternal question: do things become real simply through the power of our believing in them?