Wednesday, March 23, 2016

On Re-Reading G.K. Chesterton's "Manalive"

“A wind sprang high in the west, like a wave of unreasonable happiness.”

This wind, appearing in the first line of G.K. Chesterton’s short novel, Manalive, is a boisterous wind, blowing hats to the tops of trees, blowing Innocent Smith over a high garden wall, and eventually blowing clean apart the naïve (even nasty) worldviews held by the assembled cast of characters.  Furthermore, it is a wind that brings life and joy and purpose, proving in the end that the happiness it carried was, in fact, not unreasonable at all.

Chesterton foreshadows this explosion of good and jolly sense early on when he tells us this “was the good wind that blows nobody harm.”  Yet it was resisted at first by the two young couples into whose moribund company Innocent Smith suddenly appears and then more forcefully by the experts in materialist philosophy who end up prosecuting the uniquely adventurous hero of the novel.

Along the way, Chesterton’s wit and wisdom are on wonderful display.  So too is his artistic temperament, his poetic skills, his chivalrous ideals, and his moral courage. Manalive is a classic of inventiveness and fun. However, amid the riot of revelry and the kaleidoscope of color, there are quite serious lessons being taught. The reader will find himself challenged by the novel’s exhortations about love and marriage, contentment, modern philosophy, common sense and appreciation, the rule of courtesy, Christian apologetics, the ingenious thrift of the Swiss Family Robinson, democracy, property, the overreach of science, socialism, Christianity as a “creed of wonder,” spiritual homesickness, patriotism, and more.  I recommend Manalive heartily. No surprise there...I’ve been doing so for 30 years.

And yes, one can one re-read a work often and still find fresh enjoyment and profit. C.S. Lewis, perhaps thinking of Chesterton (one of his literary influences), once wrote, “One must read a good book at least once every ten years.” I wholeheartedly agree.  In fact, there are a dozen or more of my favorite books (Randy Alcorn’s Heaven, Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring trilogy, Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, history books by Walter Lord and Samuel Eliot Morrison, and yes, Chesterton’s Manalive) that I couldn’t possibly wait for ten years to get back to.

This time around, I had particular motivation to glean relevant truths from Manalive for it is one of a series of books I’m reading with friends this spring.  It’s a project meant to sharpen yet further our understanding and appreciation of key books by reading them together and then sharing with one another our responses.

And so with my latest reading of Manalive, I’m pleased to tell my partners in the project that I was moved on several points: 1) to dedicate myself anew to keeping spontaneity and romance, appreciation and gallantry in my marriage; 2) to review until I can clearly recall in detail Innocent Smith’s use of the pistol to illustrate the value of presuppositional apologetics; 3) to relish Chesterton’s unique skills in describing color and paradox and careful perceptions of everyday life; 4) to appreciate anew how strong a theme in Chesterton’s work is Christianity serving as man’s true and desired home; and 5) to better appreciate the gifts of everyday life, to see with more wondrous eyes the beauty of plain things.

Postscript 1: The first books in this spring reading project series were C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy; the next up (at least, in the original plan) is Francis Schaeffer’s The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century. The invitation to participate in this reading project, by the way, can be read here. And the resultant review of the space travel series can be found here.

Postscript 2: Reading often creates its own spin. Reading one book prompts you to read another that you hadn't planned on. That's certainly happening with this project. There were things in Out of the Silent Planet that caused me to go ahead and read a book given to me as a Christmas gift, Os Guinness' latest book dealing with Christian apologetics, Fool's Talk. I found it very good. And upon finishing Manalive, I found myself following up by re-reading one of G.K. Chesterton's best on apologetics, Orthodoxy. It too is terrific and the "combined weight" of reading these various titles dealing much with the same issues was of tremendous value.