Thursday, July 27, 2006

Short stories (I)

In an earlier post, I mentioned that one of my goals was to read Volume XIV of Ignatius Press' Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton: Short Stories, Fairy Tales, Mystery Stories – Illustrations.

I begin with the first three tales: "Half Hours in Hades," "The Wild Goose Chase," and "The Taming of the Nightmare."

All three tales are dated 1891-1892. That means that they were written when he was approximately 17 or 18 years old.

They read like a young writer's efforts. At times he seems more in love with the words or with being clever than with advancing the story. Still, there are glimpses of the humor and style that mark his later writings.

"Half Hours in Hades" is subtitled "An Elementary Handbook of Demonology." It includes illustrations.

This three-section piece reads like a partly completed work. Indeed, in the preface, the "author" says he was moved to write "this little work" after an "eminent Divine" suggested he write a book about demons.

The first two sections of the story describe the five primary types of demons, and the evolution of demons. There are references to Milton and Goethe and the types of demons they present in their works.

The most amusing section was the one on the "blue devil" which "have frequently been domesticated in rich and distinguished houses, and many of the wealthiest and most successful men of commerce may be seen with a string of these blue creatures led by a leash in the street or seated round him in ring on his own fireside."

Yes men?

Chesterton suggest that the blue devil, with the "singularly melancholy and depressing" noise that it makes, and less than "lively" general appearance, might be "a suitable pet for the houses of clergymen and other respectable person."

But then the piece suddenly shifts in section III to a the story of a witch telling her children about demonology, and doing some conjuring in a cauldron. Among the ingredients tossed into the cauldron is "the liver of a blaspheming Jew" – one of the kinds of statements that later led people to accuse Chesterton of being anti-Semitic (a charge I think was false, by the way.)

On the whole, I think this "story" is an experiment that deserved not to be finished.

The next tale is an entirely different matter.

"The Wild Goose Chase" is, I think, a successful tale. The title is a pun, of course. The "Little Boy" in the tale is indeed chasing a wild goose, but it also refers to all the wild goose chases we sometimes engage in.

Along the way he meets a vain Bird of Paradise, a nightingale - a musician who has lost his work - and a owl that is waiting for all the leaves to fall from the Tree of Knowledge, a "doosid original" vulture, and more. All the creatures are vaguely recognizable as human types.

He loses the goose, but by acting to save a bird from an eagle, he gets back on the trail. When he loses it again, it is by rejecting the opportunity to go back and forget everything he has experienced on his quest that he is able to rediscover the trail again, and continues on.

The story is a metaphor for all the quests/goals that challenge us. Fame? Fortune? Art? Faith? Some folks consider them "wild goose chases," but for the person, they give life purpose.

Not a great tale, but successful. I see shadows of future better quest tales in it – such as The Man Who Was Thursday.

The third tale of this trio is "The Taming of the Nightmare." Another word play in the title. Another quest tale – more of a fairy tale in the Grimm mold - but I think it’s not quite as good the "Goose" story.

In this case, it is the story of Little Jack Horner (yes, of nursery rhyme fame) who is sent to capture and tame the "Nightmare." I won’t spoil the end other than to say he does meet up with the Nightmare (and the title gives away what happens!), but he does meet some interesting characters along the way (a Gardener, turnip ghosts, a king, etc.).

The best of these characters is the Mooncalf, a mournful poetic creature.

I forget all the creatures that taunt and despise,
When through the dark night-mists my mother doth rise,
She is tender and kind and she shines the night long
On her lunatic child as he sings her his song.

The Mooncalf alone makes this tale worth reading!

On the whole, these three tales give us a taste of what is to come – satire, fanciful characters, quests, word plays, a bit of poetry, and so on.

And now, like the "Little Boy," I continue my wild goose chase to read all the tales in this collection.


Nick Milne said...

"Liver of blaspheming Jew" is a reference to the witches' list of ingredients in Macbeth, upon which that item appears. I suppose we could argue that Gilbert didn't have to make that particular reference, but it remains a reference nonetheless.

Of course, you might already know this, and do not find it important.

A Secular Franciscan said...

I did know that, but forgot to mention it. Thanks.