G K Chesterton, Joan of Arc and the merry month of May

“Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment, I am firmly of opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington.”1

It is no insignificant jubilee to be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, the Englishman whom, upon his death in 1936, Cardinal Pacelli called a “devoted son of holy Church and gifted defender of the faith”. Four centuries after Henry VIII fell from the honour of the title of Fidei Defensor, G K Chesterton restored something of the spirit of Anglia plena joci and threaded the needle of philosophical realism and romance, of dialectic and devotion, of “Merrie England” and “Our Lady’s Dowry”.

Chesterton’s lifelong pursuit of God was concomitant with a tender devotion to the Immaculate Virgin Mary, which long anticipated his profession of the one true faith. In his lifetime, he authored over 100 books of philosophy, fiction, poetry, polemic and — following his entry into the Catholic Church in 1922 — history, hagiography and apologetics. His charity for his opponents often converted them to friends, if not believers, whilst his contagious admiration for the truth and peculiar caste of wit frequently made his arguments as surprising as they were unanswerable. Despite his almost incessant use of paradox, Chesterton was not eccentric in the etymological sense of being “off centre”; in fact, his thought turned on the very fulcrum of the truth: the holy humanity of Christ. But Chesterton was certainly no catechist; like some of the most profound utterances of Our Lord in the Gospel, his conceits were not whimsical but tactical, calculated not so much to instruct as to confound human wisdom. He deployed his paradoxes with aeronautic agility, deftly defying the earthbound philosophies leading western civilisation to its ruin. He proved clairvoyant in his warnings,2 and his relevance has only increased as the consequences of these errors have been played out. Chesterton’s fondness of paradox might present a stumbling block for those who lack the appetite for it, but his ironical edge is balanced by the perfect sincerity with which he wielded it. In this regard, it is telling that Chesterton is at his most solemn and also his most sublime when writing about Our Lady, to whom he reserves his most lyrical works of verse.3

Such was Chesterton’s legacy at the time of his death that Mgr Ronald Knox, in giving his friend’s funeral oration, declared that, “All of this generation has grown up under Chesterton’s influence so completely that we do not even know when we are thinking Chesterton.”4 Over subsequent generations, how much more have his ideas imbued our aesthetic and intellectual sense with an appetite for the truth? How much more worthy then is Chesterton than Shakespeare’s Falstaff to boast to being “not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men”? Though there is indeed something of Falstaff in his persona — with his cape, sword stick, immense girth and liberality with tobacco and alcohol — we do well to remember his own words: “It is one thing to describe an interview with a gorgon or a griffin, a creature who does not exist. It is another thing to discover that the rhinoceros does exist and then take pleasure in the fact that he looks as if he didn’t.”5 What is most remarkable about Chesterton is that he was a real man of flesh and blood and spirit, destined for an eternity more enduring than mere posterity, and a judgment more terrible than that of mean critics. In a sense, he was the least chimeric of men, as not only did he know his mind as much as any man ever did, but by analogy, he seems to have known the mind of all mankind, and even something of the mind of the Creator, which he gently reflected in his own literary creations. Chesterton grappled with the complexities of the modern world without attempting to escape metaphysical reality, and on the darkling plain of the twentieth century, was a kindly light, leading lukewarm Catholics to grow in love for their faith and calling many men of good will to conversion — and all this with originality, hilarity and a courage that was all the more courageous for being so cavalier.

So, to compare like with like, we would do better to consider Chesterton along with the saints. In his book, St Thomas Aquinas (1933), he wrote something on their subject which, consciously or unconsciously, reflected his own character:

“The Saint is a medicine because he is an antidote. Indeed that is why the saint is often a martyr; he is mistaken for a poison because he is an antidote. He will generally be found restoring the world to sanity by exaggerating whatever the world neglects, which is by no means always the same element in every age. Yet each generation seeks its saint by instinct; and he is not what the people want, but rather what the people need… it is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.”6

If Chesterton wasn’t a saint, he certainly found the secret of imitating the saints most ingeniously, and in a way which reflects the needs of the Church and the world. A few relevant paragraphs of Chesterton are an antidote — and a refreshing one — to many of the temptations of thought ever proximate in a post-Christian society. This refreshment owes something to Chesterton’s philosophy of practical romance

“The thing I propose to take as common ground between myself and any average reader, is this desirability of an active and imaginative life, picturesque and full of a poetical curiosity, a life such as western man at any rate always seems to have desired”.7

It is fitting therefore that Chesterton should have been born at the height of May, when English spring blooms into English summer and English Catholics traditionally give special honour to Our Lady in May Day processions and a hundred half-forgotten conventions, sacred and profane, which are in fact relics of English popular piety.8 Chesterton would also undoubtedly approve of Pius XII’s institution of the feasts of St Joseph the Worker (1 May 1955) and the Queenship of Mary (31 May 1954), which effectively bookend the merriest month with a kind of liturgical diptych of the chastest and most loving of marriages, and he would be gratified that the latter feast takes place so close to the day of his birth, separated only by feast of St Joan of Arc (30 May), instituted during Chesterton’s lifetime.

One year before the beatification of Joan of Arc, though still a full fourteen years before Chesterton’s entry into the Catholic Church, he wrote a complete account of his conversion up until that point, in which he pitted his own philosophy of practical romance against the ideas of his contemporaries. In Orthodoxy (1908), Chesterton observes that the only thing that really unites the errors of modernity is an inability either to accept or wholly to do away with Christendom — a predicament which, he wrote, left modern man “stuck at the cross-roads”. Long before George Bernard Shaw (one of Chesterton’s many frenemies) put words as beautiful as they were glib into the mouth of Joan the Maid, Chesterton bowed in simple reverence to the traces of the divine which she had left in history, which he confessed had helped to draw him to God:

“Joan of Arc was not stuck at the cross-roads, either by rejecting all the paths like Tolstoy, or by accepting them all like Nietzsche. She chose a path, and went down it like a thunderbolt. Yet Joan, when I came to think of her, had in her all that was true either in Tolstoy or Nietzsche, all that was even tolerable in either of them … She beat them both at their own antagonistic ideals; she was more gentle than the one, more violent than the other. Yet she was a perfectly practical person who did something, while they are wild speculators who do nothing. It was impossible that the thought should not cross my mind that she and her faith had perhaps some secret of moral unity and utility that has been lost. And with that thought came a larger one, and the colossal figure of her Master had also crossed the theatre of my thoughts.”9

Whether or not Chesterton will one day be raised to the altars like St Joan of Arc, he nonetheless resembles her far more closely than he does Tolstoy, Nietszche or even Shaw, by the same standards he applies to St Thomas and all the saints: by being a sign of contradiction not to what made western civilisation but to everything that was unmaking it.

It is a pity that Chesterton did not return to the life of St Joan, as he did the life of St Thomas Aquinas and St Francis of Assisi. One wonders what he would have made of the idea, popular among the most venerable historians and clergymen, that her providential mission, beyond the apparently political one of restoring sovereignty to France by putting the king back on the throne and chasing away the occupying English, was to save her from the influence of the Protestant Revolution which would ravage England in the following century.10 We could expect Chesterton to discern in Joan’s invitation to the English to join forces with the French and “do the noblest deed which has ever been done for Christianity”,11 and in her threat to the proto-Protestants of Bohemia to “leave the English behind” and lead a crusade against them,12 and in countless other clues,13 that had her mission really succeeded, not only might the historical conditions for the Protestant Revolt never have come into existence, but a united Europe — the true West — might have answered the cries of the Byzantine Empire, conquered by the Ottoman Empire just two decades later. Perhaps better than anyone, Chesterton could have realised Joan of Arc’s own sense of her mission and immortalised it in an imaginative interlude of a biography, or in an epic poem dedicated to the frustrated designs of divine providence, in which Joan the veteran, barely in her fortieth year, stands in the breach of the Walls of Constantinople, repelling the forces of Islam and saving not only France but all of Christendom!

Though this is the most audacious speculation, it may not be unworthy of the audacity to which Chesterton’s philosophy exhorts us. Though Joan of Arc’s career ended as it did — in a martyrdom more terrible and yet more glorious than any of her military victories — and Chesterton (to our knowledge) never wrote of her at any length, he implicitly assures us that, “like every book I never wrote, it is by far the best book I have ever written”.14 It certainly would have been an apt riposte to Shaw’s St Joan, from Shaw’s best enemy who, by his own admission, was “only too ready to write books upon the feeblest provocation”.15 As things are, the writings that he did leave us inspire us with the confidence that a “life of practical romance” is just what we need to sustain us in the battles we must fight in our own day — and in this very month of May.

A conference celebrating the 150th anniversary of G K Chesterton’s birth, organised by Corner Cabinet magazine, will take place in London on 1 June. Book on the Corner Cabinet website before 25 May.


  1. G K Chesterton, Autobiography(1936), p 9.
  2. See, for example, Heretics (1905) and Eugenics and other evils (1922).
  3. See for example, “Lepanto” in Poems (1915) and The Queen of the seven swords (1926), which features Marian poems written in Chesterton’s adolescence.
  4. Quentin Lauer SJ, G. K. Chesterton: Philosopher without portfolio (Fordham University Press, New York, 1991) p 25.
  5. G K Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908), p 6.
  6. G K Chesterton, St Thomas Aquinas (1933) p 5.
  7. Orthodoxy, p 6.
  8. For example, earliest Robin Hood ballads revolve not around Robin’s love for a sweetheart named Marian, but his Marian devotion; something that the prince of thieves shared with the prince of paradox. See notably A gest of Robyn Hode (Child Ballads, Nº 117), which inspired Chesterton’s poem “The two maidens” in The Queen of the seven swords (cf. note 3).
  9. Orthodoxy, p 31.
  10. “Why were God and His heavenly messengers so much on the side of France in this conflict? … The only explanation this writer can guess at — admittedly highly speculative — is that if France had become a mere appanage of England, as appeared so likely in 1429, it would probably have been drawn after England in rejecting the Catholic faith in the Protestant revolt during the following century, and that this might have ended in the destruction of the Church in the course of that revolt.” — Warren H. Carroll, The Glory of Christendom, p 521–2. Cf. note 13.
  11. Joan of Arc’s First Letter to the English Commanders at Orleans (22 March 1429).
  12. Joan of Arc’s Letter to the Hussites (23 March 1430).
  13. There are no shortage of glimpses into the possibility of this apparently fanciful scenario, though the speculations of other authors do not go have the sublime audacity which we might expect from Chesterton. For example, “… Joan took a mortally wounded English soldier on her knees and persuaded him to confess his sins before he died. It is moments like this that show Jan the Maid as not only a saint for France, but for Christendom.” (Warren H Carroll, p 521). “ … Joan wrote Duke Philip of Burgundy calling for him and Charles VII to make ‘a good firm peace, which will last a long time’ and to ‘forgive each other, with a good heart, wholly, as faithful Christians should, and if you want to make war, go and fight the Saracens.’” (Ibid, p 523).
  14. G K Chesterton, The Everlasting Man(1925) p 2.
  15. Orthodoxy, p 5.