Posts Tagged ‘g. k. chesterton’

Review: The Napoleon of Notting Hill

Book Reviews | Posted by Shannon
Feb 15 2017

In a drear future – or, we may say, a drear past that never was – democracy in England died. England sank into a dull despotism. Its army and police almost vanished; its King was chosen out of alphabetical lists. “No one cared how: no one cared who. He was merely a universal secretary.”

In a system like this, anybody could become King. And anybody did.

Auberon Quin was a man who cared for only one thing: a joke. As a private citizen, he made a fool of himself for his own amusement. As a king, he still made a fool of himself, but he quickly branched out to making fools of other people, too. He instituted the Charter of the Cities, making each municipality of London a sovereign city and imposing on them an absurd glory. Each city had its own guard, its assigned colors and heraldry. Each had a Lord High Provost, who could not put a letter in a mail-box without five heralds proclaiming the fact with trumpets.

For ten years, the businessmen and bureaucrats endured the robes and trumpets and heralds. Then the farce was interrupted by a lunatic, who mistook the whole thing for a drama and wanted to turn it into an epic.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill was written by G. K. Chesterton and published in 1904. After a satiric prologue about the game Cheat the Prophet, the narrator sets the story “eighty years after the present date.” This adds up to 1984, and the colorless, moribund England of Notting Hill, languishing in a world made ever more uniform by imperialism, would have been dystopia to Chesterton. So this is another English novel presenting a dystopian 1984, but of quite another flavor.

Like all Chesterton novels, Notting Hill is written in omniscient style; the narrator is practically a character, and that character is G. K. Chesterton. A brief sample: “In the beginning of the twentieth century you could not see the ground for clever men. They were so common that a stupid man was quite exceptional, and when they found him, they followed him in crowds down the street and treasured him up and gave him some high post in the State.”

In humor, social criticism, spiritual opinions, and the well-used paradox, whole passages of Chesterton’s fiction are indistinguishable from his nonfiction. There’s a rambling quality to Notting Hill sometimes, and the long paragraphs of dialogue often serve Chesterton’s ideas more than his plot. Still, this book stands out as one of the most disciplined of Chesterton’s novels.

As obvious as Chesterton was in expressing his opinions through the pages of his novels, he also managed one of the most subtle interweaving of theme and plot that I have ever seen. The main theme of The Napoleon of Notting Hill is patriotism, but it takes until the very end of the book to see how the plot cross-examines the idea of loving your country. Notting Hill becomes a nation in microcosm, passing through in twenty years what takes real nations centuries, and new turns in the story present new arguments against patriotism. The slaughter at the end of the novel, uncharacteristic and startling, offers the most final argument.

Although a dystopian of a sort, and set far in the future of its writing, Notting Hill is an unusual specimen of speculative fiction. Neither technology nor magic has any real place in its world, which is the London of 1904 draped with medieval glory. The English government is altered in a few, somewhat metaphysical paragraphs in order to make the creation of Notting Hill possible. But there’s no menace to it, just plenty of room for absurdity. Big Brother is not listening.

notting hill 2Still, Notting Hill shares one great commonality with many better-known works of speculative fiction: It explores the present through the future. The glory of speculative fiction is that it is, more than other popular genres, about ideas, and Notting Hill is about nothing if not an idea.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill overflows with humor and depth. The characters are large as life and enjoyable, though they seem sometimes to be embodiments of different philosophies as much as people. The plot is very good – quick, unexpected, lively. “Two Voices” – the novel’s closing chapter, and its climax – is a masterpiece, the full meaning of the story bursting forth in an evocative and fascinating scene. And Chesterton not only considers the worth and meaning of patriotism, but gives voice to its heart, ringing in the words of Adam Wayne: “I have a city. Let it stand or fall.”

Good Friday

Literature, Religion | Posted by Shannon
Mar 25 2016

A Good Friday Excerpt of
Orthodoxy
by G. K. Chesterton

The grinding power of the plain words of the Gospel story is like the power of mill-stones; and those who can read them simply enough will feel as if rocks had been rolled upon them. Criticism is only words about words; and of what use are words about such words as these? What is the use of word-painting about the dark garden filled suddenly with torchlight and furious faces? ‘Are you come out with swords and staves as against a robber? All day I sat in your temple teaching, and you took me not.’ Can anything be added to the massive and gathered restraint of that irony; like a great wave lifted to the sky and refusing to fall? ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me but weep for yourselves and for your children.’ As the High Priest asked what further need he had of witnesses, we might well ask what further need we have of words. Peter in a panic repudiated him: ‘and immediately the cock crew; and Jesus looked upon Peter, and Peter went out and wept bitterly.’ Has anyone any further remarks to offer. Just before the murder he prayed for all the murderous race of men, saying, ‘They know not what they do’; is there anything to say to that, except that we know as little what we say? Is there any need to repeat and spin out the story of how the tragedy trailed up the Via Dolorosa and how they threw him in haphazard with two thieves in one of the ordinary batches of execution; and how in all that horror and howling wilderness of desertion one voice spoke in homage, a startling voice from the very last place where it was looked for, the gibbet of the criminal; and he said to that nameless ruffian, ‘This night shalt thou be with me in Paradise’? Is there anything to put after that but a full stop? Or is anyone prepared to answer adequately that farewell gesture to all flesh which created for his Mother a new Son? …

The mob went along with the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the philosophers and the moralists. It went along with the imperial magistrates and the sacred priests, the scribes and the soldiers, that the one universal human spirit might suffer a universal condemnation; that there might be one deep, unanimous chorus of approval and harmony when Man was rejected of men.

There were solitudes beyond where none shall follow. There were secrets in the inmost and invisible part of that drama that have no symbol in speech; or in any severance of a man from men. Nor is it easy for any words less stark and single-minded than those of the naked narrative even to hint at the horror of exaltation that lifted itself above the hill. Endless expositions have not come to the end of it, or even to the beginning. And if there be any sound that can produce a silence, we may surely be silent about the end and the extremity; when a cry was driven out of that darkness in words dreadfully distinct and dreadfully unintelligible, which man shall never understand in all the eternity they have purchased for him; and for one annihilating instant an abyss that is not for our thoughts had opened even in the unity of the absolute; and God had been forsaken of God.


CSFF Blog Tour: The Myth of Arthur

Culture, Literature | Posted by Shannon
May 27 2013

Say, have you thought what manner of man it is
Of whom men say “He could strike giants down”?
Or what strong memories over time’s abyss
Bore up the pomp of Camelot and the crown.
And why one banner all the background fills,
Beyond the pageants of so many spears,
And by what witchery in the western hills
A throne stands empty for a thousand years.
– G. K. Chesterton, “The Myth of Arthur”

Arthur Pendragon holds a high place in the culture of our civilization – universal, always recognizable and yet always changing. In this – and in how he walks the boundary of myth and history – the king Arthur is like the outlaw Robin Hood.

Robin Hood is a more human figure than Arthur, whose birth and death were marked by magical intervention and who was always entangled in otherworldly things. The outlaw is merrier than the king, happier and freer in the greenwood than Arthur was in Camelot.

Arthur is dated several centuries earlier than Robin Hood, which may account for the paganism in the Arthurian legends. Robin Hood certainly never consorted with fairies and half-fairies, nor did he owe his bow to another world, or his life to enchantments. Neither, for that matter, did he ever go on a holy quest. The Merry Men never sought the Holy Grail.

There is, in the vast web of stories around Arthur, a tension between paganism and Christianity. In the tales of Robin Hood, pagan Britain has surrendered to Christian Britain, and new ambiguities creep through the stories. The villains, in the ancient ballads, will take Christian oaths; “by the rood” Robin will swear, and so will, on occasion, the sheriff of Nottingham. Robin Hood casts in his lot with some men of the church, and robs others; to the unmerciful Bishop of Hereford he declined to show mercy.

The greatest commonality between King Arthur and Robin Hood is the fascination they have so long and so widely enjoyed, and the consequent endless retellings of their tales. Anyone may tell his own version of Arthur or Robin Hood, and many people have. Today the CSFF tour begins a review and a discussion of one of the latest versions – Merlin’s Blade, by Robert Treskillard.

It may be that these fields of legends grew up from the seeds of lost history. No one really knows if Arthur ever ruled Britain or Robin Hood ever rebelled in it. But I think that most of us hope they did.

CSFF Blog Tour: Imagining Angels

Culture, Literature | Posted by Shannon
Apr 24 2013

One sometimes wonders – on these tours where we debate angel books and angel characters – what angels make of it all. Possibly they don’t make much. Heaven has more important business. Anyway, they have surely noticed by now that gaps in human knowledge are often filled by human imagination.

God has set limits so that, though angels are always seeing us, we can hardly ever see them. Our knowledge of angels is so slight that Christians have had a diversity of views on them. Even staying within biblical parameters, we can imagine angels many different ways. Here is a brief sampling of angelic portrayals from literature written by Christians – two from our modern era, two from the era just before.


We’re close now, so close than I can see that touching a Sabre’s wing may be the fastest way to lose an arm. I set to examining the nearest one. He’s gigantic, like Jake said. And his eyes are pure white, trademark white. Like Canaan’s. Like Helene’s. He has the celestial gaze of one who’d lay down his life for another. His skin, too, is white, so white it looks almost silver. His muscled arms and chest make Canaan look trim. But as much as I can find things to admire about his physique, it’s his wings that so separate him from any other angel I’ve seen.

Their beauty is staggering, their design inexplicable. Where I expect to see rows and rows of snowy white feathers, one blade lies on top of another – thousands of them – sharp and glistening silver. Shannon Dittemore, Broken Wings

Love, we have looked on many shows
As over lands from sea to sea
Man with his Guardian Angel goes
His shining shadow more than he.

– G. K. Chesterton, “Love, We Have Looked on Many Shows”

In a graceful, fiery spiral they drifted down behind one of the college dormitories and came to rest in the cover of some overhanging willows. The moment their feet touched down, the light from their clothes and bodies began to fade and the shimmering wings gently subsided. Save for their towering stature they appeared as two ordinary men, one trim and blond, the other built like a tank, both dressed in what looked like matching tan fatigues. Golden belts had become like dark leather, their scabbards were dull copper, and the glowing, bronze bindings on their feet had become simple leather sandals. Frank Peretti, This Present Darkness

But Thou, Lord, surely knewest thine own plan
When the angelic indifferencies with no bar
Universally loved, but Thou gav’st man
The tether and pang of the particular,

Which, like a chemic drop, infinitesimal,
Plashed into pure water, changing the whole,
Embodies and embitters and turns all
Spirit’s sweet water into astringent soul

That we, though small, might quiver with Fire’s same
Substantial form as Thou – not reflect merely
Like lunar angels back to Three cold flame.
Gods are we, Thou hast said; and we pay dearly.
C. S. Lewis, “Scazons”

CSFF Blog Tour: Other Mills

Literature | Posted by Shannon
Feb 20 2013

Yesterday I mentioned G. K. Chesterton’s opinion that pagans practiced demonic rites because they knew they were terrible. Today I will provide excerpts from The Everlasting Man where he wrote this.

This passage also touches on the issue of magic in Christian fiction, which Becky Miller raised in her post. I believe that Christians who categorically reject all “magic” in fiction are misguided, but not as misguided as people who breezily accept all magic without a thought. Witchcraft, under all its various names, is a great evil, and also a great danger. If we are going to handle it properly – even in reading and writing fiction – first we must understand it properly.

Chesterton wrote of the fictional King Dives: “The mills of God grind slowly, and he works with other mills.” And the root of both witchcraft and human sacrifice, as Chesterton illustrates in The Everlasting Man, is a desire to work with other mills.


Whether it be because the Fall has really brought men nearer to less desirable neighbours in the spiritual world, or whether it is merely that the mood of men eager or greedy finds it easier to imagine evil, I believe that the black magic of witchcraft has been much more practical and much less poetical than the white magic of mythology. I fancy the garden of the witch has been kept much more carefully than the woodland of the nymph. I fancy the evil field has even been more fruitful than the good. To start with, some impulse, perhaps a sort of desperate impulse, drove men to the darker powers when dealing with practical problems. There was a sort of secret and perverse feeling that the darker powers would really do things; that they had no nonsense about them. And indeed that popular phase exactly expresses the point. The gods of mere mythology had a great deal of nonsense about them. They had a great deal of good nonsense about them; in the happy and hilarious sense in which we talk of the nonsense of Jabberwocky or the Land where Jumblies live. But the man consulting a demon felt as many a man has felt in consulting a detective, especially a private detective; that it was dirty work but the work would really be done. A man did not exactly go into the wood to meet a nymph; he rather went with the hope of meeting a nymph. It was an adventure rather than an assignation. But the devil really kept his appointments and even in one sense kept his promises; even if a man sometimes wished afterwards, like Macbeth, that he had broken them.

In the accounts given us of many rude or savage races we gather that the cult of demons often came after the cult of deities, and even after the cult of one single and supreme deity. It may be suspected that in almost all such places the higher deity is felt to be too far off for appeal in certain petty matters, and men invoke the spirits because they are in a more literal sense familiar spirits. But with the idea of employing the demons who get things done, a new idea appears more worthy of the demons. It may indeed be truly described as the idea of being worthy of the demons; of making oneself fit for their fastidious and exacting society. Superstition of the lighter sort toys with the idea that some trifle, some small gesture such as throwing the salt, may touch the hidden spring that works the mysterious machinery of the world. And there is after all something in the idea of such an Open Sesame. But with the appeal to lower spirits comes the horrible notion that the gesture must not only be very small but very low; that it must be a monkey trick of an utterly ugly and unworthy sort. Sooner or later a man deliberately sets himself to do the most disgusting thing he can think of. It is felt that the extreme of evil will extort a sort of attention or answer from the evil powers under the surface of the world. This is the meaning of most of the cannibalism in the world. For most cannibalism is not a primitive or even a bestial habit. It is artificial and even artistic, a sort of art for art’s sake. Men do not do it because they do not think it horrible; but, on the contrary, because they do think it horrible. They wish, in the most literal sense, to sup on horrors. That is why it is often found that rude races like the Australian natives are not cannibals; while much more refined and intelligent races, like the New Zealand Maories, occasionally are. They are refined and intelligent enough to indulge sometimes in a self-conscious diabolism. But if we could understand their minds, or even really understand their language, we should probably find that they were not acting as ignorant, that is as innocent cannibals. They are not doing it because they do not think it wrong, but precisely because they do think it wrong. They are acting like a Parisian decadent at a Black Mass. But the Black Mass has to hide underground from the presence of the real Mass. In other words, the demons have really been in hiding since the coming of Christ on earth. … In the ancient world the demons often wandered abroad like dragons. They could be positively and publicly enthroned as gods. Their enormous images could be set up in public temples in the centre of populous cities. And all over the world the traces can be found of this striking and solid fact, so curiously overlooked by the moderns who speak of all such evil as primitive and early in evolution, that as a matter of fact some of the very highest civilisations of the world were the very places where the horns of Satan were exalted, not only to the stars but in the face of the sun.

Take for example the Aztecs and American Indians of the ancient empires of Mexico and Peru. They were at least as elaborate as Egypt or China … Swinburne, in that spirited chorus of the nations in ‘Songs before Sunrise,’ used an expression about Spain in her South American conquests which always struck me as very strange. He said something about ‘her sins and sons through sinless lands dispersed,’ and how they ‘made accursed the name of man and thrice accursed the name of God.’ It may be reasonable enough that he should say the Spaniards were sinful, but why in the world should he say that the South Americans were sinless? Why should he have supposed that continent to be exclusively populated by archangels or saints perfect in heaven? It would be a strong thing to say of the most respectable neighbourhood; but when we come to think of what we really do know of that society the remark is rather funny. We know that the sinless priests of this sinless people worshipped sinless gods, who accepted as the nectar and ambrosia of their sunny paradise nothing but incessant human sacrifice accompanied by horrible torments. We may note also in the mythology of this American civilisation that element of reversal or violence against instinct of which Dante wrote; which runs backwards everywhere through the unnatural religion of the demons. It is notable not only in ethics but in aesthetics. A South American idol was made as ugly as possible, as a Greek image was made as beautiful as possible. They were seeking the secret of power, by working backwards against their own nature and the nature of things. There was always a sort of yearning to carve at last, in gold or granite or the dark red timber of the forests, a face at which the sky itself would break like a cracked mirror.

Review: The Ballad of St. Barbara

Literature | Posted by Shannon
Jan 13 2013

There is an old legend of St. Barbara, patron saint of artillery and of those in danger of sudden death. And there are, I suppose, few better places to tell it than in the trenches of World War I.

The Ballad of St. Barbara is written in two parts, both verse, alternating the legend of St. Barbara with a story of the First Battle of Marne. As the English line was driven backward before the German guns, one Englishman spoke to another:

There was an end to Ilium; and an end came to Rome;
And a man plays on a painted stage in the land that he calls home;
Arch after arch of triumph, but floor beyond falling floor,
That lead to a low door at last; and beyond there is no door.

And the other, a Breton, answered:

There are more windows in one house than there are eyes to see,
There are more doors in a man’s house, but God has hid the key:
Ruin is a builder of windows; her legend witnesseth
Barbara, the saint of gunners, and a stay in sudden death.

The verses that tell of Barbara have a simple, lyrical rhythm – four brief lines, the second rhyming with the fourth. The WWI verses are more complex, and not always easy to follow. Both are compellingly written, filled with wonderful phrases and evocative imagery.

“Her face was like a window / Where a man’s first love looked out” – a favorite Chesterton simile. “A seraph’s strong wing shaken out the shock of its unshuttering;” “Dark with the fate of a falling star;” Caesar’s  “iron armies wound like chains / Round and round the world.”

Chesterton connects and mixes the two halves of his poem with great skill, and each strengthens the meaning of the other. They join in fear, triumph, and courage – and in the opening of the third window, in the last name of God. (After Barbara had “riven roof and wall” to make a third window, her father asked, “Hath a man three eyes, Barbara, a bird three wings?” And the answer is no – but God has three names.)

There are those who would point out that even if she ever existed, Barbara is not the patron saint of gunners, or of anyone else. But if it’s historical facts you’re after, you won’t be reading poetry anyway. The Ballad of St. Barbara is beautiful, memorable, touching chords of the heart – as a poem should.

Clippings from my Kindle

Misc. | Posted by Shannon
Nov 16 2012

Nearly a year ago I got my Kindle. A few months after that, I figured out how to create highlights. Here are a few Clippings from my Kindle.


God is the only Being in this world who knows fully why He created me. Therefore, He directs my life. Husbands cannot give us purpose. God may choose marriage for part of our ministry. Our future husbands are not mapping out the course of our lives; instead, they are mates designed to join us on the path God has for us (and vice versa). Cheryl McKay, Finally the Bride

I bethought me that a bird capable of addressing a man must have the right of a man to a civil answer; perhaps, as a bird, even a greater claim. George MacDonald, Lilith

If two madmen had ever agreed on anything they might have conquered the world. G. K. Chesterton

I often say I’d rather be alone than with the wrong person, even if the wrong person feels right for a while. It’s not worth getting in the way of, or delaying, God’s true calling on my life. Cheryl McKay

I realized that every woman should hold out for a prince – especially if her Father is the King. Christopher Pence

God is a romancer. No one can match His love. No one in this world can love me more than Him. None. My search to find a love greater is fruitless. God’s love is unmatched. We search for many things to fill our God-sized holes. Only He can fill. Only He can fulfill. Only He can reach. Cheryl McKay, Finally the Bride

She fetched him meat and drynke [drink] plenty, Lyke [like] a true wedded wyfe [wife]. Ancient ballad of Robin Hood’s Merry Men

God tells me things on a need-to-know basis. Apparently, He doesn’t think I need to know anything. Cheryl McKay

I say you shall yet weary
Of the working of your word,
That stricken spirits never strike
Nor lean hands hold a sword.
G. K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse

Follow the passions of your heart, as the Lord allows. Cheryl McKay

And the whole world turned over and came upright. G. K. Chesterton

You, my dear Lord, are all I need. For today. Please don’t change my life one day too soon. Cheryl McKay

Character Profiles: Rotten to the Core

Writing | Posted by Shannon
Jul 27 2012

And all that sat by the fire were sad,
Save Ogier, who was stern,
And his eyes hardened, even to stones,
As he took the harp in turn;

Earl Ogier of the Stone and Sling
Was odd to ear and sight,
Old he was, but his locks were red,
And jests were all the words he said
Yet he was sad at board and bed
And savage in the fight.

– G. K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse

That night, among the campfires of the Danes, five men sang by the fire in turn – the rhymester without a home, King Guthrum, and his three earls. Harold sang of the prizes of war, Elf sang of Balder beautiful, and Ogier sang about hate.

The wrath of the gods behind the gods
Who would rend all gods and men,
Well if the old man’s heart hath still
Wheels sped of rage and roaring will,
Like cataracts to break down and kill,
Well for the old man then—

While there is one tall shrine to shake,
Or one live man to rend;
For the wrath of the gods behind the gods
Who are weary to make an end.

Ogier was Rotten to the Core.

Some villains are sympathetic; you can’t help feeling sorry for them, or you like them in spite of themselves. Some are even redeemed. Other villains are unchangeably evil, yet in some way admirable. Their courage, or persistence, or intelligence just rates it.

And some villains are Rotten to the Core. There’s nothing in them to excite admiration, or liking, or pity. They are not redeemed, nor is anybody rooting for them to be. When such villains get their comeuppance, it’s wonderfully satisfying.

Villains who are Rotten to the Core are among the dullest to ever stalk the annals of villainy. They are also among the best, generally when combined with other archetypes, such as the Scary Evil Villain. There was never anything remotely sympathetic about Sauron. He was evil! evil!, and we were all very happy to see him go. But while he lasted, he was an excellent villain – powerful, malevolent, and impersonal.

Ogier, too, was a fine villain in his own right. There was little to him besides nastiness, but it was nastiness with meaning.

In The Ballad of the White Horse, the struggle between the Danes and British is part of, and symbolic for, the long war between Christianity and paganism. The Danes are pagans; they are almost paganism. Harold – the youth “the new wine of war sent wild” – exulted in the lawless strength of the Danes and boasted they would “enjoy the world, the whole huge world a toy”. Elf, the minstrel, sang beautifully the sadness of his pagan world. Guthrum, the conqueror who “read lines in Latin books when all the north was dark”, was intellectual, and atheistic, and despaired.

And Ogier, with his vision of the last eclipse and the gods behind the gods, was nihilistic, full of rage and hatred – rotten to the core.

The Tremendous Issue

Book Reviews, Writing | Posted by Shannon
Jun 21 2012

Last week I reviewed The Napoleon of Notting Hill. There was one criticism I had, when I first finished the novel, that I withdrew after further thought. I’ll share it now, but first a

SPOILER WARNING: This post will focus on the ending of The Napoleon of Notting Hill. If you don’t want it spoiled, stop reading here.

Twenty years after Notting Hill’s victory, it began to tyrannize the other cities, forcing on them its own customs and rules. When they answered with the threat of war, Notting Hill took up the challenge eagerly. Adam Wayne rebuked his people, “Notting Hill is a nation. Why should it condescend to be a mere Empire?”

But they would not listen. So Notting Hill went to war against a hundred allied cities, and Wayne went down with his army to die.

My brother called the battle a Shakespearean slaughter. Chesterton killed – if not everyone, then at least he came close. Notting Hill was destroyed entirely. Watching the characters fall, I was startled and disappointed. I can still feel disappointed reading it again. But I am no longer inclined to criticize, because now I understand the purpose of it.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a story about patriotism. In the last, unexpected twist of the book, Notting Hill dies, as all nations eventually must. And Chesterton confronts the strongest objection to loving a country.

After the battle, “upon the field of the bloody end of it all”, a voice spoke: “So ends the Empire of Notting Hill. As it began in blood, so it ended in blood, and all things are always the same.”

And another voice answered out of the darkness: “If all things are always the same, it is because they are always heroic. … If our ancient humanity were a single man, it might perhaps be that he would break down under the burden of so many diverse heroisms, under the load and terror of all the goodness of men. But it has pleased God so to isolate the individual soul that it can only learn of all other souls by hearsay, and to each one goodness and happiness come with the youth and violence of lightning, as momentary and as pure. And the doom of failure that lies on all human systems does not in real fact affect them any more than the worms of the inevitable grave affect a children’s game in a meadow.”

And the first voice offered another challenge: “What might have been done to Notting Hill if the world had been different may be a deep question, but there is a deeper. What could have happened to the world if Notting Hill had never been?”

The answer came: “The same thing that would have happened to the world and all the starry systems if an apple-tree grew six apples instead of seven; something would have been eternally lost. There has never been anything in the world absolutely like Notting Hill. There will never be anything quite like it to the crack of doom.”

To end his story in grim failure was strange for G K. Chesterton. He wrote happy endings; in his novels I have read besides Notting Hill, I can recall only one character death, and that was of a minor villain. But it is only on the “field of the bloody end” that the question becomes so sharp. They ask, and answer again, what is the worth of Notting Hill – not in its triumph or in its weakness, but in its ruin.

And at that inevitable ruin, when a dark voice said it all meant nothing, another voice answered, “Notting Hill has fallen; Notting Hill has died. But that is not the tremendous issue. Notting Hill has lived.”

Review: The Napoleon of Notting Hill

Book Reviews | Posted by Shannon
Jun 14 2012

In a drear future – or, we may say, a drear past that never was – democracy in England died. England sank into a dull despotism. Its army and police almost vanished; its King was chosen out of alphabetical lists. “No one cared how: no one cared who. He was merely a universal secretary.”

In a system like this, anybody could become King. And anybody did.

Auberon Quin “had an appearance compounded of a baby and an owl. His round head, round eyes, seemed to have been designed by nature playfully with a pair of compasses. … When he entered a room of strangers they mistook him for a small boy, and wanted to take him on their knees, until he spoke, when they perceived that a boy would have been more intelligent.”

For a joke, Auberon Quin instituted the Charter of the Cities, making each municipality of London a sovereign city. Each city had its own guard, its assigned colors and heraldry. Each had a Lord High Provost, who could not put a letter in a mail-box without five heralds proclaiming the fact with trumpets.

This was the King’s joke on his modern, businesslike subordinates. He enjoyed it and they did not. After ten years, the farce was interrupted by a lunatic, who took the whole thing as seriously as life itself.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill was written by G. K. Chesterton and published in 1904. The novel begins in 1984, and it takes two time leaps so that it ends in 2014. This is enough to qualify The Napoleon of Notting Hill as speculative fiction, though its author never heard of the term.

Like all Chesterton novels, this is written in omniscient style; the narrator is practically a character, and that character is G. K. Chesterton. The narrator of Napoleon remarks: “Now, there is a law written in the darkest of the Books of Life, and it is this: If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it a thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.”

So the narration of Chesteron’s novels carries the same style and opinions as his apologetics.

Indeed, the fiction of G. K. Chesterton always revolves around the same things his nonfiction does. Many of Chesterton’s ideas can be seen in the pages of this book – on what makes men go mad, on the value and almost mysticism of ordinary things, and why it is better to “go clad in gold and scarlet” than in black frock-coats. But the idea that shapes the whole story is that of patriotism.

Adam Wayne was a lunatic because he was a patriot. He took Notting Hill seriously. Auberon had made the cities in mockery; he compelled them into mediavel glory for the pleasure of making his serious officials look like fools. He thought Notting Hill ridiculous, like the rest of it. The officials thought poor, small Notting Hill perhaps even more ridiculous than the rest of it. Adam Wayne thought it sacred enough to die for.

This was singularly foolish to his fellow provosts, but also singularly inconvenient. They had strictly commercial – and highly profitable – uses for Notting Hill. A Lord High Provost who could not be bought – who resisted their seizure of his city to the point of violence – that was more than they had ever dealt with.

Through the struggle for Notting Hill, the question is brought to fore: Is it rational to be a patriot? Is it sane to dress in gold and scarlet for glory, or to dress in black for dignity?

The Napoleon of Notting Hill overflows with humor and depth. The characters are large as life and enjoyable, though they seem sometimes to be embodiments of different philosophies as much as people. The plot is very good – quick, unexpected, lively. “Two Voices” – the novel’s closing chapter, and its climax – is a masterpiece, the full meaning of the story bursting forth in an evocative and fascinating scene. And Chesterton not only considers the worth and meaning of patriotism, but gives voice to its heart, ringing in the words of Adam Wayne: “I have a city. Let it stand or fall.”