The Ethics of Elfland--Part 2

It is a dreadful thing to say that Mr. W. B. Yeats does not

understand fairyland. But I do say it. He is an ironical Irishman,

full of intellectual reactions. He is not stupid enough to

understand fairyland. Fairies prefer people of the yokel type like

myself; people who gape and grin and do as they are told. Mr.

Yeats reads into elfland all the righteous insurrection of his own

race. But the lawlessness of Ireland is a Christian lawlessness,

rounded on reason and justice. The Fenian is rebelling against

something he understands only too well; but the true citizen of

fairyland is obeying something that he does not understand at all.

In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an

incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and all evils fly

out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love

flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited.

An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.

This is the tone of fairy tales, and it is certainly not lawlessness

or even liberty, though men under a mean modern tyranny may

think it liberty by comparison. People out of Portland Gaol might

think Fleet Street free; but closer study will prove that both fairies

and journalists are the slaves of duty. Fairy godmothers seem at

least as strict as other godmothers. Cinderella received a coach

out of Wonderland and a coachman out of nowhere, but she

received a command -- which might have come out of Brixton --

that she should be back by twelve. Also, she had a glass slipper;

and it cannot be a coincidence that glass is so common a

substance in folk-lore. This princess lives in a glass castle, that

princess on a glass hill; this one sees all things in a mirror; they

may all live in glass houses if they will not throw stones. For this

thin glitter of glass everywhere is the expression of the fact that

the happiness is bright but brittle, like the substance most easily

smashed by a housemaid or a cat. And this fairy-tale sentiment

also sank into me and became my sentiment towards the whole

world. I felt and feel that life itself is as bright as the diamond,

but as brittle as the window-pane; and when the heavens were

compared to the terrible crystal I can remember a shudder. I was

afraid that God would drop the cosmos with a crash.

Remember, however, that to be breakable is not the same as to be

perishable. Strike a glass, and it will not endure an instant;

simply do not strike it, and it will endure a thousand years. Such,

it seemed, was the joy of man, either in elfland or on earth; the

happiness depended on not doing something which you could at

any moment do and which, very often, it was not obvious why

you should not do. Now, the point here is that to me this did not

seem unjust. If the miller's third son said to the fairy, "Explain

why I must not stand on my head in the fairy palace," the other

might fairly reply, "Well, if it comes to that, explain the fairy

palace." If Cinderella says, "How is it that I must leave the ball at

twelve?" her godmother might answer, "How is it that you are

going there till twelve?" If I leave a man in my will ten talking

elephants and a hundred winged horses, he cannot complain if

the conditions partake of the slight eccentricity of the gift. He

must not look a winged horse in the mouth. And it seemed to me

that existence was itself so very eccentric a legacy that I could not

complain of not understanding the limitations of the vision when

I did not understand the vision they limited. The frame was no

stranger than the picture. The veto might well be as wild as the

vision; it might be as startling as the sun, as elusive as the

waters, as fantastic and terrible as the towering trees.

For this reason (we may call it the fairy godmother philosophy) I

never could join the young men of my time in feeling what they

called the general sentiment of revolt. I should have resisted, let

us hope, any rules that were evil, and with these and their

definition I shall deal in another chapter. But I did not feel

disposed to resist any rule merely because it was mysterious.

Estates are sometimes held by foolish forms, the breaking of a

stick or the payment of a peppercorn: I was willing to hold the

huge estate of earth and heaven by any such feudal fantasy. It

could not well be wilder than the fact that I was allowed to hold it

at all. At this stage I give only one ethical instance to show my

meaning. I could never mix in the common murmur of that rising

generation against monogamy, because no restriction on sex

seemed so odd and unexpected as sex itself. To be allowed, like

Endymion, to make love to the moon and then to complain that

Jupiter kept his own moons in a harem seemed to me (bred on

fairy tales like Endymion's) a vulgar anti-climax. Keeping to one

woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman. To

complain that I could only be married once was like complaining

that I had only been born once. It was incommensurate with the

terrible excitement of which one was talking. It showed, not an

exaggerated sensibility to sex, but a curious insensibility to it. A

man is a fool who complains that he cannot enter Eden by five

gates at once. Polygamy is a lack of the realization of sex; it is

like a man plucking five pears in mere absence of mind. The

aesthetes touched the last insane limits of language in their eulogy

on lovely things. The thistledown made them weep; a burnished

beetle brought them to their knees. Yet their emotion never

impressed me for an instant, for this reason, that it never

occurred to them to pay for their pleasure in any sort of symbolic

sacrifice. Men (I felt) might fast forty days for the sake of

hearing a blackbird sing. Men might go through fire to find a

cowslip. Yet these lovers of beauty could not even keep sober for

the blackbird. They would not go through common Christian

marriage by way of recompense to the cowslip. Surely one might

pay for extraordinary joy in ordinary morals. Oscar Wilde said

that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for

sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets.

We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde.

Well, I left the fairy tales lying on the floor of the nursery, and I

have not found any books so sensible since. I left the nurse

guardian of tradition and democracy, and I have not found any

modern type so sanely radical or so sanely conservative. But the

matter for important comment was here: that when I first went

out into the mental atmosphere of the modern world, I found that

the modern world was positively opposed on two points to my

nurse and to the nursery tales. It has taken me a long time to find

out that the modern world is wrong and my nurse was right. The

really curious thing was this: that modern thought contradicted

this basic creed of my boyhood on its two most essential

doctrines. I have explained that the fairy tales rounded in me two

convictions; first, that this world is a wild and startling place,

which might have been quite different, but which is quite

delightful; second, that before this wildness and delight one may

well be modest and submit to the queerest limitations of so queer

a kindness. But I found the whole modern world running like a

high tide against both my tendernesses; and the shock of that

collision created two sudden and spontaneous sentiments, which

I have had ever since and which, crude as they were, have since

hardened into convictions.

First, I found the whole modern world talking scientific fatalism;

saying that everything is as it must always have been, being

unfolded without fault from the beginning. The leaf on the tree is

green because it could never have been anything else. Now, the

fairy-tale philosopher is glad that the leaf is green precisely

because it might have been scarlet. He feels as if it had turned

green an instant before he looked at it. He is pleased that snow is

white on the strictly reasonable ground that it might have been

black. Every colour has in it a bold quality as of choice; the red

of garden roses is not only decisive but dramatic, like suddenly

spilt blood. He feels that something has been done. But the great

determinists of the nineteenth century were strongly against this

native feeling that something had happened an instant before. In

fact, according to them, nothing ever really had happened since

the beginning of the world. Nothing ever had happened since

existence had happened; and even about the date of that they were

not very sure.

The modern world as I found it was solid for modern Calvinism,

for the necessity of things being as they are. But when I came to

ask them I found they had really no proof of this unavoidable

repetition in things except the fact that the things were repeated.

Now, the mere repetition made the things to me rather more

weird than more rational. It was as if, having seen a curiously

shaped nose in the street and dismissed it as an accident, I had

then seen six other noses of the same astonishing shape. I should

have fancied for a moment that it must be some local secret

society. So one elephant having a trunk was odd; but all

elephants having trunks looked like a plot. I speak here only of

an emotion, and of an emotion at once stubborn and subtle. But

the repetition in Nature seemed sometimes to be an excited

repetition, like that of an angry schoolmaster saying the same

thing over and over again. The grass seemed signalling to me

with all its fingers at once; the crowded stars seemed bent upon

being understood. The sun would make me see him if he rose a

thousand times. The recurrences of the universe rose to the

maddening rhythm of an incantation, and I began to see an idea.

All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind

rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is

supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably

dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was

personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This

is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in

human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by

death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or

desire. A man varies his movements because of some slight

element of failure or fatigue. He gets into an omnibus because he

is tired of walking; or he walks because he is tired of sitting still.

But if his life and joy were so gigantic that he never tired of

going to Islington, he might go to Islington as regularly as the

Thames goes to Sheerness. The very speed and ecstacy of his life

would have the stillness of death. The sun rises every morning. I

do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my

activity, but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular

phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he

never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a

lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen,

for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that

they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through

excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding

vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they

want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it

again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly

dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in

monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in

monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it

again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon.

It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it

may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got

tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of

infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is

younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere

recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore. Heaven may encore the

bird who laid an egg. If the human being conceives and brings

forth a human child instead of bringing forth a fish, or a bat, or a

griffin, the reason may not be that we are fixed in an animal fate

without life or purpose. It may be that our little tragedy has

touched the gods, that they admire it from their starry galleries,

and that at the end of every human drama man is called again and

again before the curtain. Repetition may go on for millions of

years, by mere choice, and at any instant it may stop. Man may

stand on the earth generation after generation, and yet each birth

be his positively last appearance.

This was my first conviction; made by the shock of my childish

emotions meeting the modern creed in mid-career. I had always

vaguely felt facts to be miracles in the sense that they are

wonderful: now I began to think them miracles in the stricter

sense that they were wilful. I mean that they were, or might be,

repeated exercises of some will. In short, I had always believed

that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it

involved a magician. And this pointed a profound emotion

always present and sub-conscious; that this world of ours has

some purpose; and if there is a purpose, there is a person. I had

always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a


But modern thought also hit my second human tradition. It went

against the fairy feeling about strict limits and conditions. The

one thing it loved to talk about was expansion and largeness.

Herbert Spencer would have been greatly annoyed if any one had

called him an imperialist, and therefore it is highly regrettable that

nobody did. But he was an imperialist of the lowest type. He

popularized this contemptible notion that the size of the solar

system ought to over-awe the spiritual dogma of man. Why

should a man surrender his dignity to the solar system any more

than to a whale? If mere size proves that man is not the image of

God, then a whale may be the image of God; a somewhat

formless image; what one might call an impressionist portrait. It

is quite futile to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos;

for man was always small compared to the nearest tree. But

Herbert Spencer, in his headlong imperialism, would insist that

we had in some way been conquered and annexed by the

astronomical universe. He spoke about men and their ideals

exactly as the most insolent Unionist talks about the Irish and

their ideals. He turned mankind into a small nationality. And his

evil influence can be seen even in the most spirited and

honourable of later scientific authors; notably in the early

romances of Mr. H. G. Wells. Many moralists have in an

exaggerated way represented the earth as wicked. But Mr. Wells

and his school made the heavens wicked. We should lift up our

eyes to the stars from whence would come our ruin.

But the expansion of which I speak was much more evil than all

this. I have remarked that the materialist, like the madman, is in

prison; in the prison of one thought. These people seemed to

think it singularly inspiring to keep on saying that the prison was

very large. The size of this scientific universe gave one no

novelty, no relief. The cosmos went on for ever, but not in its

wildest constellation could there be anything really interesting;

anything, for instance, such as forgiveness or free will. The

grandeur or infinity of the secret of its cosmos added nothing to

it. It was like telling a prisoner in Reading gaol that he would be

glad to hear that the gaol now covered half the county. The

warder would have nothing to show the man except more and

more long corridors of stone lit by ghastly lights and empty of all

that is human. So these expanders of the universe had nothing to

show us except more and more infinite corridors of space lit by

ghastly suns and empty of all that is divine.

In fairyland there had been a real law; a law that could be broken,

for the definition of a law is something that can be broken. But

the machinery of this cosmic prison was something that could not

be broken; for we ourselves were only a part of its machinery.

We were either unable to do things or we were destined to do

them. The idea of the mystical condition quite disappeared; one

can neither have the firmness of keeping laws nor the fun of

breaking them. The largeness of this universe had nothing of that

freshness and airy outbreak which we have praised in the

universe of the poet. This modern universe is literally an empire;

that is, it was vast, but it is not free. One went into larger and

larger windowless rooms, rooms big with Babylonian

perspective; but one never found the smallest window or a

whisper of outer air.

Their infernal parallels seemed to expand with distance; but for

me all good things come to a point, swords for instance. So

finding the boast of the big cosmos so unsatisfactory to my

emotions I began to argue about it a little; and I soon found that

the whole attitude was even shallower than could have been

expected. According to these people the cosmos was one thing

since it had one unbroken rule. Only (they would say) while it is

one thing it is also the only thing there is. Why, then, should one

worry particularly to call it large? There is nothing to compare it

with. It would be just as sensible to call it small. A man may say,

"I like this vast cosmos, with its throng of stars and its crowd of

varied creatures." But if it comes to that why should not a man

say, "I like this cosy little cosmos, with its decent number of

stars and as neat a provision of live stock as I wish to see"? One

is as good as the other; they are both mere sentiments. It is mere

sentiment to rejoice that the sun is larger than the earth; it is quite

as sane a sentiment to rejoice that the sun is no larger than it is. A

man chooses to have an emotion about the largeness of the

world; why should he not choose to have an emotion about its


It happened that I had that emotion. When one is fond of

anything one addresses it by diminutives, even if it is an elephant

or a life-guardsman. The reason is, that anything, however huge,

that can be conceived of as complete, can be conceived of as

small. If military moustaches did not suggest a sword or tusks a

tail, then the object would be vast because it would be

immeasurable. But the moment you can imagine a guardsman

you can imagine a small guardsman. The moment you really see

an elephant you can call it "Tiny." If you can make a statue of a

thing you can make a statuette of it. These people professed that

the universe was one coherent thing; but they were not fond of

the universe. But I was frightfully fond of the universe and

wanted to address it by a diminutive. I often did so; and it never

seemed to mind. Actually and in truth I did feel that these dim

dogmas of vitality were better expressed by calling the world

small than by calling it large. For about infinity there was a sort

of carelessness which was the reverse of the fierce and pious care

which I felt touching the pricelessness and the peril of life. They

showed only a dreary waste; but I felt a sort of sacred thrift. For

economy is far more romantic than extravagance. To them stars

were an unending income of halfpence; but I felt about the golden

sun and the silver moon as a schoolboy feels if he has one

sovereign and one shilling.

These subconscious convictions are best hit off by the colour and

tone of certain tales. Thus I have said that stories of magic alone

can express my sense that life is not only a pleasure but a kind of

eccentric privilege. I may express this other feeling of cosmic

cosiness by allusion to another book always read in boyhood,

"Robinson Crusoe," which I read about this time, and which

owes its eternal vivacity to the fact that it celebrates the poetry of

limits, nay, even the wild romance of prudence. Crusoe is a man

on a small rock with a few comforts just snatched from the sea:

the best thing in the book is simply the list of things saved from

the wreck. The greatest of poems is an inventory. Every kitchen

tool becomes ideal because Crusoe might have dropped it in the

sea. It is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to

look at anything, the coal-scuttle or the book-case, and think how

happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship on

to the solitary island. But it is a better exercise still to remember

how all things have had this hair-breadth escape: everything has

been saved from a wreck. Every man has had one horrible

adventure: as a hidden untimely birth he had not been, as infants

that never see the light. Men spoke much in my boyhood of

restricted or ruined men of genius: and it was common to say that

many a man was a Great Might-Have-Been. To me it is a more

solid and startling fact that any man in the street is a Great


But I really felt (the fancy may seem foolish) as if all the order

and number of things were the romantic remnant of Crusoe's

ship. That there are two sexes and one sun, was like the fact that

there were two guns and one axe. It was poignantly urgent that

none should be lost; but somehow, it was rather fun that none

could be added. The trees and the planets seemed like things

saved from the wreck: and when I saw the Matterhorn I was glad

that it had not been overlooked in the confusion. I felt economical

about the stars as if they were sapphires (they are called so in

Milton's Eden): I hoarded the hills. For the universe is a single

jewel, and while it is a natural cant to talk of a jewel as peerless

and priceless, of this jewel it is literally true. This cosmos is

indeed without peer and without price: for there cannot be

another one.

Thus ends, in unavoidable inadequacy, the attempt to utter the

unutterable things. These are my ultimate attitudes towards life;

the soils for the seeds of doctrine. These in some dark way I

thought before I could write, and felt before I could think: that

we may proceed more easily afterwards, I will roughly

recapitulate them now. I felt in my bones; first, that world does

not explain itself. It may be miracle with a supernatural

explanation; it may be a conjuring trick, with a natural

explanation. But the explanation of the conjuring trick, if it is to

satisfy me, will have to be better than the natural explanations I

have heard. The thing is magic, true or false. Second, I came to

feel as if magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have

some one to mean it. There was something personal in the world,

as in a work of art; whatever it meant it meant violently. Third, I

thought this purpose beautiful in its old design, in spite of its

defects, such as dragons. Fourth, that the proper form of thanks

to it is some form of humility and restraint: we should thank God

for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them. We

owed, also, an obedience to whatever made us. And last, and

strangest, there had come into my mind a vague and vast

impression that in some way all good was a remnant to be stored

and held sacred out of some primordial ruin. Man had saved his

good as Crusoe saved his goods: he had saved them from a

wreck. All this I felt and the age gave me no encouragement to

feel it. And all this time I had not even thought of Christian


Next Chapter

This document (last modified September 23, 1995) from the

Christian Classics Ethereal Library server, at Wheaton College

Back to the Outline of Philosophy 101

Last Revised 6/7/96