Friday, May 21, 2010

Home to the Dukes of Beacon

Dear Enbrethiliel,

It's Belfry, here.

This may seem an odd choice, given what others have complained of as "GKC's predilection for splashing purple moons and peacock skies about and calling it scenery" ( --> ). But in fact he was also a man keenly interested in family and holy homes, and being also a writer of vivid imagination, in Manalive he builds for us a diverting holiday house indeed, though it takes a while.
A wind sprang high in the west, like a wave of unreasonable happiness, and tore eastward across England, trailing with it the frosty scent of forests and the cold intoxication of the sea.
[...]
The flying blast struck London just where it scales the northern heights, terrace above terrace, as precipitous as Edinburgh. It was round about this place that some poet, probably drunk, looked up astonished at all those streets gone skywards, and (thinking vaguely of glaciers and roped mountaineers) gave it the name of Swiss Cottage, which it has never been able to shake off. At some stage of those heights a terrace of tall gray houses, mostly empty and almost as desolate as the Grampians, curved round at the western end, so that the last building, a boarding establishment called "Beacon House," offered abruptly to the sunset its high, narrow and towering termination, like the prow of some deserted ship.

Welcome!



From relatively scant readings, it's my impression that in Chesterton, perhaps stemming from his dramatic interests, Scenery is usually dynamic in the sense that he'll tell you about a thing or a place because something happens there; this is in contrast to Tolkien, say, who will write about inns and castles, vast stretches of field, forest, and mountain, to impress upon you the vastness of Creation in space as well as time, and even more because in some way he saw them and they beautiful to behold. And for these reasons Tolkien will then tell you of things that happened there.

We are brought to Beacon House by a great wind against which people, houses, and even hats stand only by the grace of God; and Beacon House meets the wind looking at first very much like a "deserted ship" --- think of an empty sailing ship, stalled with her prow to the wind's eye. She'll feel the wind, that wind ordinarily her life and strength, and though this wind won't move her, it feels not a little precarious for all that! (On the other hand, does anyone else think of Minas Tirith and the Tower of Ecthelion to read that?)

But our ship is not quite deserted:
And there were actually five inmates standing disconsolately about the garden when the great gale broke at the base of the terminal tower behind them, as the sea bursts against the base of an outstanding cliff.

There is indeed a garden; every house should have one.
... All day that hill of houses over London had been domed and sealed up with cold cloud. Yet three men and two girls had at last found even the gray and chilly garden more tolerable than the black and cheerless interior.

Oh! alas, the house is dark and dull; they have left it, while the garden remains drab and cool.
But let's follow that breeze a little more:
When the wind came it split the sky and shouldered the cloudland left and right, unbarring great clear furnaces of evening gold.
[...]
Grass and garden trees seemed glittering with something at once good and unnatural, like a fire from fairyland. It seemed like a strange sunrise at the wrong end of the day.

Alright, Chesterton's had his "peacock sky" --- never you mind, my dear --- about this time, two (young ladies) of the five leave the other three (young men) in the suddenly colourful garden, running back inside, where
the sunset breaking more and more from the sundering clouds, filled the room with soft fire and painted the dull walls with ruby and gold.

Something is coming to light the beacon in Beacon House, I think!

On some sides our garden is not fenced, but walled (very sensible on windy heights), for soon we see "a disappearing hat .... like a white panama ... settling in the centre of their own lawn as falteringly as a fallen leaf."
"Somebody's lost a good hat," said Dr. Warner shortly.

Almost as he spoke, another object came over the garden wall, flying after the fluttering panama. It was a big green umbrella. After that came hurtling a huge yellow Gladstone bag, and after that came a figure like a flying wheel of legs, as in the shield of the Isle of Man.

It's a tall wall, too; we have now met the notorious Innocent Smith, who is not a small man, but his arrival is as sudden and unexpected as the brightening evening. At the close of the Enigmas, Smith revisits this garden wall, playing at alleycat stray (no House can hold him: he holds himself to his House).

As we go on, we find the house doesn't seem the same, anymore: given a room, "Smith went up the stairs four at a time, and when he bumped his head against the ultimate ceiling, Inglewood had an odd sensation that the tall house was much shorter than it used to be." His room also seems small for him, a "dwarfish room, with its wedge of slanted ceiling, like the conical hood of a dwarf." But it suits him:
"I love these pointed sorts of rooms, like Gothic. By the way," he cried out, pointing in quite a startling way, "where does that door lead to?"

"To certain death, I should say," answered Michael Moon, staring up at a dust-stained and disused trapdoor in the sloping roof of the attic. "I don't think there's a loft there; and I don't know what else it could lead to."

Naturally, certain death requires closer inspection, so we do that, and find the
"long gray-green ridge of the slate roof, ... gutters ... chimney-pots", and an evening tea party more lively than any of Mary Poppins'. (I do object to how Moon fligavit ampullam... sure it's a lovely sound, but breaking glass in the streets is a stupid violence.)

There's lots more, but now at least we've seen our House's salient points from ground to roof-top; later, blue railings will become javelins, the dining room will become a courtroom, where Mrs. Duke the Landlady, the Duke of Beacon will sit in judgment, and we'll get a close look at the strangest sorts of vandalism and attempted murder. I will spare you my hash of the details, and instead let Chesterton do all the speaking.

You can find the text in various forms here, though my personal preference is to find it solid, in a library, which works well whenever they have a copy.

the pedestrian reader

9 comments:

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Ah, I feel those winds blowing already! Beacon House is a great choice! =D

Chesterton's scenery--uh, I mean, settings--often make me ask what he was smoking when he wrote his novels. =P But I like that they are obviously ordinary rooms or houses or gardens or cities that suddenly come extraordinarily alive for the purpose of the story. Like what you'd expect of scenery in Lewis Carroll's Wonderland . . . or even the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

We read of settings that are so vivid and that develop as much as only characters are supposed so, and that are considered characters themselves. Chesterton's settings take it a bit further: they always ham it up for the bewildered reader.

PS--One could do better than to trust the Project Gutenberg version. There is an awful typo at the end--part of one of my favourite passages, no less!--which totally changes the meaning of the line. Insupportable!

Belfry Bat said...

... often make me ask what he was smoking when he wrote his novels

Really??? Harrumph! There's plenty to find intoxicating just in ordinary life without artificial perturbation!

Glad you liked ;-)

PST!---that's really too bad; Something Must Be Done!

Jen G. said...

Enbrethiliel has piqued my interest in Chesterton and you've heightened it! I was thinking this sounds a bit Wonderland-ish and she beat me to saying it!

Belfry Bat said...

There is something of Wonder about Manalive --- and even more in The Man Who Was Thursday (see E's "Top Ten role models[stricken] likable villains").

Well worth noting is that half the wonder in Manalive comes from everything's being so ordinary --- not as commonplaces assigned strange powers or acting oddly, as the "eat me" and "drink me" biscuits and bottles in the Alice books --- simply ordinary things being themselves, seen in new light. (lurid golden-purple-peacock sunset light... :P )

Sullivan McPig said...

Sounds like a weird, but wonderful place.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

In that case, Jen, I hope you really enjoy the Chesterton-themed posts I do starting next Saturday! =D

Paul Stilwell said...

"From relatively scant readings, it's my impression that in Chesterton, perhaps stemming from his dramatic interests, Scenery is usually dynamic in the sense that he'll tell you about a thing or a place because something happens there; this is in contrast to Tolkien, say, who will write about inns and castles, vast stretches of field, forest, and mountain, to impress upon you the vastness of Creation in space as well as time, and even more because in some way he saw them and they beautiful to behold. And for these reasons Tolkien will then tell you of things that happened there."

Well said.

I'll admit, when I first read Manalive I could've gone on reading Chesterton's introduction descriptions even if they were the only thing in the book, to the very end.

Now, after some time, the "purple-peacock" shows itself. But Chesterton was very particular in describing settings and atmosphere; even though he would use rather general-sounding words, they went to make up a very specific and unique inner image.

He brings out the peacock, but he gradually narrows in on one of the eyes in a feather, and then in the eye, on a singular ring of colour, and then relates it to the whole.

Meredith said...

I wondered why that quote sounded so familiar... then I followed the link. Oh yeah, I wrote that. When I was 18. ::serious brain hurt follows::

^_^

I was always baffled when GKC described an evening sky as GREEN. So bizarre. But I keep encountering British people - always British! - who apparently see this green hue in the English sky. Anyone know what's up with that, or have a photo?

Belfry Bat said...

Paul, yes, there's an amazing depth of focus to GKC! I should say more, only you've already done it better.

Meredith, would you belive that quote has been sitting in my head, unattributed, mysteriously nagging at me for ... well, not quite as long as it's been there on the 'net, but a few years anyways? It was a cheery surprise to see how easily the googlemonster found just what I wanted, and then to see where it had come from!

That's a very strange thing about green in the English sky. If it's at sunset, maybe there's something of Ireland being reflected and refracted through the atmosphere? Ah, the Irish Mirage... (I doubt it, actually :P ) I'll have to hop over there and see it properly.

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