Chesterton: The Flying Inn

January 18, 2015

The Flying Inn
G.K. Chesterton
(Dover, 2001) [1914]
320 p.

There are people who judge The Flying Inn to be one of Chesterton’s better works of fiction — and perhaps it is, though that would not be saying all that much. Is it a philosophical comedy? A farcical dystopian vision? A profound cultural critique? A mere excuse to string together drinking songs? It’s a little difficult to get a clear reading, because the dang thing won’t sit still. My view is that Chesterton was going for something like the good-natured adventuring of Pickwick, but this time through a landscape in which everyone but Pickwick and friends — sorry, Dalroy and friends — have forgotten what England is all about.

The story takes place at an unspecified time in the future, in which English society, and in particular the elite class, has fallen under the exotic sway of Islam. It’s simplified theology, the sumptuous aesthetic appeal of Arabic carpets and purfumes, and the ascetic appeal of teetotalism have endeared it to people who matter. The kinds of arguments on behalf of Islam that appeal to them are superbly half-witted (much more so than any such real-world arguments would be). Most significantly for the story, the English Parliament has passed laws shuttering all pubs that do not have a sign in front, and the signs have been confiscated — mostly. Captain Dalroy and his friends still have one, and the book is a record of their wild romps over rolling English roads with a sign, a barrel of rum, and an armful of cheese. They plant their sign in the unlikeliest of places, serve up warm cheer to the common folk who gather around them, and then abscond again before the authorities catch up with them.

The story is punctuated by spontaneous song-making on the part of the characters, and some of Chesterton’s better-known warm-hearted poetry comes from this book: “The Rolling English Road”, “The Logical Vegetarian”, “The Song against Songs”, “The Song of Right and Wrong”, and “Wine and Water”, among others. It’s not great poetry, but it is the sort of thing one would enjoy singing while drinking rum and running from the police (or so I imagine).

Considered as cultural criticism, The Flying Inn is vexing. The face of Islam presented in the book is a largely aesthetic one: only those aspects which appeal to the “progressives” have been adopted, and it seems to me that the real target of his satire is modern secularism. The character of the novel’s central villain, Lord Ivywood, bears this out; in his notes on the book, Dale Ahlquist summarizes Ivywood well:

Lord Ivywood is one of Chesterton’s best bad guys. He represents everything that is wrong with the world. He is not only the personification of Big Government and Big Business, he is the loss of Western religion, the unreflective acceptance of Eastern religion in the wake of that loss, and he is the mood of modernism in art, philosophy, and love: “I see the breaking of barriers,” he says. “Beyond that I see nothing.”

As such, it is not really clear what the quasi-Islamic background adds, unless it be simply its value as a foil. Maybe Chesterton needed something to oppose the traditionalism of his protagonists, and an unadulterated secularism was just too bland. Certainly the prospect of a marriage of progressivism and Islam has comedic value. Oh, did I mention that the book lies well out of the political correctness safety zone?

As a road novel, the book inherits the weaknesses inherent to its genre: a general shapelessness, haphazard action, and transient characters. I imagine Chesterton writing his episodes on napkins in pubs, puffing on a cigar and laughing to himself, and finally delivering the stack of napkins to his publisher. The book is witty, disorganized, genial, tedious, and sort of fun. I’m glad I read it, and please God I’ll not read it again.

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