Monday, May 22, 2006

The True Romance

Today we have a rare Chesterton essay, from the Daily News in 1911, that can only otherwise be found in the lightly-available A Handful of Authors. The essay itself is delightful for any number of reasons, being an excellent exhibition of Chesterton's linguistic and aesthetic prowess, and ending with a wonderful little kick.

The True Romance
By G.K. Chesterton
This is a perfectly true story; but there is in it a certain noble irony, not very easy to analyse, which goes down to the very roots of Christianity.

Some hundreds of years ago there was born in one of the southern peninsulas of Europe a man whose life was very like the life of a boy in one of Mr. Henty's books. He did everything that could possibly be expected of a boy's hero; he ran away to sea; he was trusted by admirals with important documents; he was captured by pirates; he was sold as a slave. Even then he did not forget the duties of a Henty hero. He made several picturesque and desperate attempts at escape, scaling Moorish walls and clambering through Moorish windows. He confronted the considerable probability of torture, and defied it. But he was not like the unscrupulous prison-breakers, like Cellini or Casanova, ready to break the world as well as the wall, or his promise as well as his prison. He remembered that he was the hero of an honest boy's storybook, and behaved accordingly.

Long afterwards his country collected the depositions of the other Christian captives, and they were an astonishing chorus. They spoke of this man as if he were a sort of saint, of the almost unearthly unselfishness with which he divided their distresses and defied their tormentors. As one reads the coldest biographical account one can feel the alien air, that enormous outside world of Asia and Africa that has always felt slavery to be a natural and even monotonous thing. One feels the sunny silence of great open courts, with fountains in the midst, guarded here and there by mute, white-clad, unnatural men; dim and secret divans smelling of smoke and sweet stuff; grass burnt out of the bare ground, and palm trees prised like parasols. And in all this still horror of heat and sleep, the one unconquered European still leaping at every outlet of adventure or escape; climbing a wall as he might a Christian apple tree, or calling for his rights as he might in a Christian inn.

Nor did our hero miss that other great essential of the schoolboy protagonist; which is accidental and even improbable presence on a tremendous historical occasion. All who love boys' books as they should be loved know that Harry Harkaway, as well as crossing cutlasses with an individual smuggler or slaver, must also manage to be present at the Battle of Trafalgar. The young musketeer from Gascony, however engrossed in duels with masked bravos or love-letters to Marguerite de Valois, must not forget to put in an appearance at the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. Here also my hero in real life equalled any of the heroes of juvenile fiction; for he was present and took an active part in one of the most enormous and earth-changing events in history.

Europe, in the age in which he lived, was, as it is now, in one of its recurring periods of division an disease. The Northern nations were full of sombre fanaticisms; the Southern nations of equally sombre statecraft and secrecy. The country of the man I describe was indeed rich in territory; but its King was morbid, mean, and lethargic; a man of stagnant mysteries, as he looks in those fishy, pasty-faced portraits which still endure. His strong but sinister Imperial armies were engaged in wars, more or less unjust on both sides, with the sinister enthusiasms of the North; the whole civilization was bitter and trivial, and apparently tumbling to pieces. And at this moment appeared upon its Eastern borders its ancient and awful enemy, the Turk.

Like genii summoned out of that Eastern sea by the seal of Solomon, robed in the purple of the twilight or the green of the deep, rose the tall, strange, silent sails of the admirals of Islam. The very shapes of the ships on the horizon were unfamiliar and fearful; and when they came close to the Greek islands, prow and stern showed the featureless ornament of the foes of idolatry; the featureless ornament in which one seems to see a hundred faces, as one does in a Turkey carpet. The ships came silently and ceaselessly, in numbers that, it seemed, had never been seen since Xerxes seemed stronger than the gods. And every hermit on a Greek headland, or little garrison of knights upon an islet in the mediterranean, looked at them and saw the sunset of Christendom.

They encircled and besieged a stronghold in that central sea, whose fall would have been the fall of Europe. In the general paralysis the Pope, with one exception, was the only man who moved promptly; he put out the Papal galleys and addressed a public prayer for help to all the Christian princes. The cold and sluggish King doubted and hung back, just as he would have done in the historical novel. But he had a half-brother - as he would have had in the novel. The half-brother was every bit as brave, handsome, brilliant, and generous here as he would have been in the novel. The King was as jealous of him as he would have been in the novel. This quite genuine hero rushed to the rescue, and in such crises it is popularity that tells, even in empires.

The young Prince had already won romantic victories in Africa, but he could bring only a few ships in time for the attack. Then was waged on that blue and tideless sea what must have been one of the most splendid and appalling battles that ever stained the sea or smoked to the sun. The Turks slew eight thousand Christian soldiers, and the sea drank galley after galley of the Christian fleet. But the fight was sustained with that terrible and intolerant patience that only comes in a collision of strong creeds, when one whole cosmos really crashes into the other. before night the tide of that river of blood began to turn. Thirty thousand of the Turks were killed or taken prisoners, and out of the Turkish ports and galleys came into light and liberty twelve thousand European slaves.

This was the great battle of Lepanto, and of course our hero was there, sword in hand; of course he was wounded there. I can fancy him standing on the deck, with his arm in a sling and looking at the slender escape of Europe and the purple wreck of Asia with a sad, crooked smile on his face. For he was a person whose face was capable of expressing both pity and amusement. His name was Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, commonly called Cervantes. And having another arm left, he went home and wrote a book called Don Quixote, in which he ridiculed romance and pointed out the grave improbability of people having any adventures.
Most of the people I know have never heard of the battle of Lepanto, much less of its deadly importance. When told that Cervantes was there, they usually give a little start of surprise, but that's as far as it goes, they generally not having read Don Quixote either.

Most of the people I know are hopelessly lame.


Ed said...

Well done! I'm inspired to read about that battle. Thanks.

Nick Milne said...

You're welcome. I hope you find it engrossing.

Don't forget, of course, to read Chesterton's own epic poem about the battle. It is titled "Lepanto," appropriately enough, and can be found here.