Reading G.K. Chesterton’s essay “The Ethics of Elfland” is like experiencing a surprisingly great movie or sermon. You are anxious that the wonderful sensations the previous scenes have evoked will not only end with each upcoming scene but will be completely ruined by it. But this essay does not disappoint.
It takes you up paragraph by profound paragraph to higher ground and leaves you at a height where everything and everyone – including yourself – can be seen in greater perspective. The essay, like its subject, is enchanting. It is something every believer should read at least twice. But Calvinists and apologists in particular should read this work even more carefully. For the essay indelibly reminds us that the kingdom of God is not for adults but for children.
Since it would be superfluous to write an essay about an essay, I will merely summarize Chesterton’s two main points and leave you to discover a new world on your own with his clearly drawn map (which is free for you to print out and read here.)
After briefly showing how both democracy and tradition are true (as they both are based on what the majority of people believe), Chesterton relates that folktales similarly contain more truth than the teachings of experts and elitists because they are stories held in common. He thus goes on to elaborate on why he believes in the laws of fairy tales more than he does the laws of scientists and philosophers.
Chesterton’s main thesis is that existence is a wonderful miracle. Scientists and modern people speak of the laws of nature. But Chesterton observes that this is a lie. There are laws of logic and reason. We cannot imagine one plus one equalling three. But we can imagine trees growing golden candlesticks instead of fruit. Chesterton points out that naturalists have assumed by the mere fact of repetition – trees grow fruit, the sun rises and falls – that nature is governed by necessity. But Chesterton shows that this is an unproven leap of faith. To the contrary, fairy tales admit that existence is based on an arbitrary, mysterious miracle. Why did Cinderalla’s mice turn into horses? Magic. Why do eggs turn into birds? Likewise magic. Materialists may scoff at such “superstitious” explanations. But as Chesterton ably demonstrates, it is the materialist’s blind faith in the supposed mechanical necessity of nature’s repetition that leaves him in the dark. Only those governed by the ethics of elfland can see the truth and wonder of it all.
Since there is no necessity in creation, repetition need not have been, and by this very fact existence is so precious. A person must not be carried away by the repetition of trillions of stars; rather he must be captivated by the existence of even one sun. Chesterton exhorts that only those who understand the precious need-not-have-been of existence can respect the otherwise irrational limits placed on it. A person need not be seduced by the allure of adultery if he is enchanted with a precious thing called monogamy. This enchantment is a fundamental ethic of elfland. In fairy tales, the main characters do not look a gift horse in the mouth. Cinderalla does not ask the fairy godmother why she must be back from the ball by midnight; she is too enamored by the miracle that she is going at all.
If we are to love God with all of our mind, we must have the right presuppositions. As Chesterton shows, we must have that attitude that can “exult in the monotonous” which is the basis not only for the ethics of elfland but for true Christian living as well.