ROOTS AND BRANCHES: THE SYMBOL OF THE TREE IN THE IMAGINATION OF G.K. CHESTERTON
The most famous poem about trees begins, "I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree." It was written by Joyce Kilmer and published in 1914. Most people today who might know the poem and might even know the poet's name assume that Joyce Kilmer was a woman. He was not. Not only was he a man, but a soldier who died heroically in World War I. He was also a great admirer of G.K. Chesterton, who was a direct influence on his poetry. Is it possible that Chesterton's many references to trees inspired Joyce Kilmer to write his famous poem? The question, even though I am the one asking, is ridiculous. No poet needs another poet to inspire him to write a poem about trees. All he needs is a tree.
But the fact remains, as the present book shows, that the tree is a central symbol in Chesterton's writing. And while this book focuses on his fiction, the tree figures throughout his other prose and poetry as well. From the tree comes "the almighty stick," which, says Chesterton, is "the scepter of man," giving the mark of kingship to every man, but it is also "the wooden pillar of his house," which is as central and essential as any material object can be. The stick is "a universal thing, and has many functions. It is sometimes a crutch, sometimes a club, sometimes a balancing pole, sometimes a mere toy to twiddle in the fingers. Sometimes it is used for holding a man up, and sometimes for knocking him down" (Daily News, Oct. 23, 1910). Thus is wood "the most human of non-human things" (New Witness, Oct. 26, 1916), even as a tree is the most human of plants, rooted in the earth, yet reaching for heaven.
And yet, in a thundering contrast, Chesterton describes the tree as "a top-heavy monster with a hundred arms, a thousand tongues, and only one leg" ("Science and the Savages," Heretics). Nothing human about that. But this, of course, is Chesterton getting us to look at a familiar thing and see it as something strange, to see it for the first time. He also gives the tree a very unfavorable comparison with the human when he uses it to epitomize the vast difference between man and all other things. For man is the creature who makes dogmas. "Trees have no dogmas" ("Concluding Remarks," Heretics).
For the most part, however, we can rely on Chesterton using the tree for more positive roles than its lack of faith. He usually calls on it as a symbol of things human and divine. "A man's soul," he says, "is as full of voices as a forest; there are ten thousand tongues there like all the tongues of the trees: fancies, follies, memories, madnesses, mysterious fears, and more mysterious hopes" (Illustrated London News, July 2, 1910). The tree is mystical, obviously mystical, obviously pointing to things beyond itself, but even as we take hold of that, Chesterton trips us up with one of his paradoxes.
The error of current mysticism is that mysticism, religion and poetry have to do with the abstract. There is a tendency to believe that the concrete is the symbol of the abstract. The truth, the truth at the root of all true mysticism, is quite the other way. The abstract is the symbol of the concrete. This may possibly seem at first sight a paradox; but it is a purely transcendental truth. We see a green tree which we worship. Then because there are so many green trees, so many men, so many elephants, so many butterflies, so many daisies, so many animalculae, we coin a general term "Life." And then the mystic comes and says that a green tree symbolises Life. It is not so. Life symbolises a green tree. Just in so far as we get into the abstract, we get away from the reality, we get away from the mystery, we get away from the tree. And this is the reason that so many transcendental discourses are merely blank and tedious to us, because they have to do with Truth and Beauty, and the Destiny of the Soul, and all the great, faint, faded symbols of the reality. And this is why all poetry is so interesting to us, because it has to do with skies, with woods, with battles, with temples, with women and with wine, with the ultimate miracles which no philosopher could create. The difference between the concrete and the abstract is the difference between the country and the town. God made the concrete, but man made the abstract. A truthful man is a miracle, but the truth is a commonplace. (The Speaker, May 31, 1902)
The essence of paradox is that truth is unexpected. The reason that truth is unexpected is that we have the wrong expectations of truth. In an essay entitled "The Wind and the Trees," Chesterton gives a vivid description of the visual effect of a strong wind dramatically bending huge trees so that they look like giant dragons chained to the ground by their noses. A child who does not know any better or an adult who should know better might see these trees writhing and throwing their huge arms back and forth, and conclude that the trees, with all their gyrations, are stirring up the wind. This is a vital lesson in how we get things wrong, for the truth is precisely the other way around.
The great human dogma, then, is that the wind moves the trees. The great human heresy is that the trees move the wind. When people begin to say that the material circumstances have alone created the moral circumstances, then they have prevented all possibility of serious change. For if my circumstances have made me wholly stupid, how can I be certain even that I am right in altering those circumstances? (Daily News, Dec. 1, 1906) The tree epitomizes the wonder of creation. The artist sees every tree telling a tale, or more poignantly, escaping with its tale untold. He knows that there is a truth behind all things, a truth independent of himself. "I enjoy stars and the sun or trees and the sea, because they exist in spite of me; and I believe the sentiment to be at the root of all that real kind of romance which makes life not a delusion of the night, but an adventure of the morning" (Illustrated London News, Nov. 22, 1913). The artist is almost overwhelmed by this. In his poem "Eternities," Chesterton talks of wanting to give a name to each leaf on every tree. It is a wonder that he naturally wants to share.
Thus, Deb Elkink rightly calls Chesterton "the didactic artist," and the almighty stick is not only a personal prop, it is the chief tool in his classroom. Indeed, the tree even figures in one Chesterton's principal essays on his economic philosophy of Distributism: "Reflections on a Rotten Apple." Here the tree represents ownership, self-sufficiency and independence. And in addition to serving as metaphor to address the modern world's commercial ideas, Chesterton also uses the tree to address our obsession with the notion of "progress." Whereas the metaphor for progress is usually the road, with the sense of going somewhere, Chesterton suggests that the tree is a better metaphor, "because the tree grows, so does society. Human society is more like a tree than a road. The trunk of this tree is country life" (Christian Science Monitor, Mar. 22, 1912). And the tree serves as an object lesson in one of Chesterton's sublime precepts: "Do not try to bend, any more than the trees try to bend. Try to grow straight, and life will bend you" ("The Furrows," Alarms and Discursions).
Most notably, he uses trees to make his vivid points in the essential "Ethics of Elfland" chapter in Orthodoxy. Trees produce both the logical necessities, but also the very non-necessities, the magic of imagination. We cannot imagine two trees plus two trees not equaling four. It is a logical impossibility. We can, however, imagine candlesticks growing on trees, even if we might not expect it. Whatever we can imagine is a possibility. Logic says that if the apple hits Newton on the nose, Newton's nose also hits the apple. The one demands the other. But we can see a clear picture in our minds of the apple suspended in the air above Newton's nose. Gravity is not a necessity. It is merely the way to bet. Arithmetic and logic can only work one way, in this world and in fairy land. Imagination can work millions of ways, especially in Elfland, where the forests are full of magic.
Chesterton deals equally well with the hardness and complexity of reality on the one hand, and the hopes and dreams and fears of our imagination on the other. It is even debatable which is more complex. The exterior world created by God and the interior worlds created by us are fully fertile, and fully forested, and God dwells in both places.
Deb Elkink's choice of studying the tree in Chesterton's fiction [Part I] leads her to the same conclusion we would find if studying the tree in the rest of his writings. It is that the tree forms the great sign of contradiction, the cross, which is the symbol of the ultimate paradox: the God-Man. It is not surprising that Chesterton should be so consistent. And if we look at Chesterton's favorite time of year, we will see that there is a tree associated with Christ's birth that is also a paradox: the Christmas tree. It is not merely the symbol of the winter feast, the celebration in the bleak mid-winter. Bringing a tree inside is an act of defiance. It is defying death. Life contradicts death. Chesterton completes the paradox when he says that the cross is the tree of life.
There are few intellectual exercises more rewarding than the close reading of a Chesterton text. And too few critics have made the effort. Along with most exercise, it is avoided. Perhaps they are intimidated to offer a critical analysis of a writer who is himself a master literary critic. But Deb Elkink has risen to the challenge. She has not only gone very deep, she has gone deep on one theme in Chesterton, which illuminates the rest of his writing. The branches of the tree cover a wide area indeed.
But she has also has plunged into one particular text [Part II]: Chesterton's rollicking tale, The Flying Inn. With her essay, "The Seven Moods of Gilbert," she has presented a more penetrating analysis of this novel than has ever been written. But it is also the most creative, for she has chosen to interpret the story through the eyes of a minor character, so minor as to be forgotten by even the book's most ardent admirers, who are usually taken up with the heroes Dalroy and Pump, and their adversaries, Ammon and Ivywood.
But the character is not so minor after all. For Elkink's thesis, Dorian Wimpole represents none other than G.K. Chesterton. Dalroy, Pump, Ammon, and Ivywood, as amusing and entertaining and even exasperating as they are, are no different at the end of the tale as they are at the beginning. They all remain true to their characters. But one character undergoes a change, a conversion. It is Dorian Wimpole. That is what makes the story interesting. That is what makes any story interesting. Especially Chesterton's own story.
(President of the American Chesterton Society)
In Augustine's great treatise on teaching the Christian faith, De Doctrina Christiana, he begins strangely enough with semiotics: a discussion of "things" and "signs." In a world of things, we find that some things become signs of others things, such as the smoke that signifies fire, a natural sign, or the letters F-I-R-E (real sounds in the air, or ciphers on the page), a conventional sign. Signs become ever more complex as one considers figuration (signs of signs), such as when fire is itself symbolic: "Our God is a consuming fire." Augustine's intention in beginning with an erudite analysis of language was not academic. He sought to build up a hermeneutical theory for the reading of Holy Scripture governed by love, to show how all things (including things that signify) are meant to point us or convey us toward one final end, the love of God himself. In his autobiographical Confessions, Augustine reflected a similar outlook. He reported how he looked at all the things of this world and they seemed to reply in unison, "It is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves," pointing beyond themselves to God. And as he told the story of his own life, he seemed to incorporate his own life into the narrative and symbols of the Scriptures. Just as the fall from innocence in Genesis began with eating the forbidden fruit of a tree, so also he stole forbidden pears from a tree as an adolescent (even when he was not hungry) and somehow recapitulated the sin of Adam and Eve in his own person. When he surrenders himself to the grace of God in self-despairing faith, it is in another garden and it seems he was aware of the symbolism here again of returning to the original biblical garden to walk again with God.
It was for other later Christian writers such as Dante and Milton to take up the sacramental attitude in Augustine and to develop a Christian imagination that ranged more widely to develop the potential of the biblical narrative for imagining new stories and exploring the sign-quality of the world given by God and narrated in Scripture. Indeed, the literary critic Northrop Frye argued that the overarching story and symbolic world of the Bible shaped the Western literary tradition from beginning to end. The Christian outlook that sees the "things" of the world as having a sign quality, pointing beyond themselves, is properly called sacramental.
The Enlightenment saw a flattening of the Augustinian world of signs and symbols into a flat world of surfaces, a modernizing world that seemed to be described comprehensively by materialist science and to which God was remote. If God was brought back, it was only at the end of a long argument. The result was what T. S. Eliot called a dissociated sensibility. G. K. Chesterton recognized this situation and wrote, "The huge modern heresy is to alter the human soul to fit modern social conditions, instead of altering modern social conditions to fit the human soul." In response, in the nineteenth century a number of Christian thinkers and writers, such as Samuel Coleridge and George MacDonald, sought not to demythologize the world but to remythologize it, recognizing the imagination itself as an organ of truth. Soon there were others. Among these remythologizers there was none more robust than Chesterton himself whose deeply sacramental imagination perceived God's presence everywhere in the world of things.
Deb Elkink has managed to find one particular magic thread to trace through the whole of Chesterton's life and writings to display the workings of this sacramental vision. Her focus might at first seem narrow or arbitrary. How much can we learn from the single image of the tree in Chesterton's oeuvre? The answer is, very much indeed. Just as in Scripture we begin the human story of the gift of life and the descent into evil with trees in a garden, and just as the climax of salvation history is enacted by the Son of God being nailed upon a tree, and just as the centre of the new creation is a tree whose leaves are for the healing of the nations — so also there is a profundity and fecundity to Chesterton's use of the imagery of the tree throughout his writing. Every tree is, so it seems, a burning bush. So, by tugging on this magic thread Deb is able to pull all the others along with it. The tree is domestic, an image of our true home, and it is anthropological, an image of our human nature. The tree is revelatory, a luminous sign of truth, and it is ecclesial, a place of veneration. The tree is anagogical, an image of ascent, and it is redemptive, an image of salvation. And so on. Deb traces this thread wherever it will go, and her exploration of the literature to do with Chesterton is comprehensive, her research thorough, and her writing crisp. We are given in the end a tremendous insight into the sacramental imagination of Chesterton as a whole. And what a remarkable imagination it is. There is much here to help the modern reader recover a vision of the Christian life that is joyful, hopeful, and redeemed. I know that Deb would be pleased if, as for Augustine, all these signs pointed, finally, to the God in whom our love can at last rest fulfilled.
(Professor of Spiritual Theology, Regent College, Vancouver)