(These tales concern the doing of things recognised as impossible to do; impossible to believe; and, as the weary reader may well cry aloud, impossible to read about.”)
So begins Tales of the Long Bow, in which a man eats his hat, another sets the Thames on fire, silk purses are made out of sow’s ears, and pigs fly. Who says Distributism is boring? These tales certainly suggest the opposite. Yet some critics have dismissed this book as a mere “Distributist” novel, complaining that Chesterton has needlessly restricted his creativity in favor of his political agenda. As with all of Chesterton’s writings, it would be useful if those who criticized them actually sat down and read the book before dismissing it. They would look less stupid to the increasing number of people who have read the book…and reveled in it.
The reviewers in Chesterton’s day were quite a bit better than the critics in our day. The Sunday Times said that Chesterton was “the legitimate successor to Rabelais and Swift,” with “nonsense inextricably mingled with more wisdom than most ‘serious’ writers are capable of conceiving.” Sir John Squire called it a book “which no other man living or dead could have thought of.” He acknowledged Chesterton’s greatness as writer who has the unsurpassed skill to make us see things as if seeing them for the first time: “His power of playing with proverbs and stock metaphors depends largely on his ability to see what they mean, and ignore that they are stock. He is aware of every word.”
Aware of every word. This is one of the most astute observations of Chesterton’s writing that you will ever encounter. Some critics have expressed exasperation over what they call Chesterton’s careless, sloppy style. They have been deceived, however, by amazing effect of writing that seems effortless, “tossed off,” as Chesterton claimed. But the carelessness is only on the part of the critics. Careful readers appreciate and marvel at the unique craftsmanship of Chesterton’s writing. Bishop Fulton Sheen said that Chesterton was the most influential writer on him personally because “he never wastes a word.”
Chesterton is indeed “aware of every word,” and never more so than in this, his most subtle work of fiction. The tales were first published separately, but they are clearly woven together. The characters are carefully and lovingly drawn. Each one makes an understated, yet magnificent, yet entirely appropriate entrance, as in the best sort of drama. Or comedy.
First we meet Colonel Crane in his garden, putting his top hat on a South Sea idol that is meant to serve as a scarecrow, and then putting a cabbage on his own head. Then we meet “his most intimate and incongruous friend,” Robert Owen, a lawyer, sitting on an island in a river, fishing. It is he who will eventually set the river on fire. Then comes Captain Pierce, defender of pigs, who argues that “those noble and much maligned animals” gave the Prodigal Son “such excellent advice that he returned to his family.” Next, Enoch Oates, an honest, if somewhat baffled American who finds what he’s longing for in the “medieval” English countryside. Rounding out the League of the Long Bow are Parson White, who rides a white elephant, Commander Blair, who builds castles in the air, and Professor Green, the astronomer who discovers a cow jumping over the moon. At first glance, they might be considered eccentric. But as Chesterton explains, you cannot have eccentrics without a center. The surprise is that these men are not on the fringe, but help form the very fabric of what is normal, a life that is indeed “centered.” Captain Pierce muses: “When you come to think of it, it’s we who always stay where we are, and the rest of the world that’s always moving and shifting and changing.” They are the natural allies of Adam Wayne of Notting Hill, the title character of Chesterton’s first novel, which is no less a “Distributist novel” than this one. But theirs is not so much an armed revolt (though there is a bit of that), it is a revolution in the literal sense, a turning back to recover the things that have been lost. “When the real revolution happens,” says Captain Pierce, “it won’t be mentioned in the newspapers.”
The League of the Long Bow is protecting the land, finding new ways to do old things, so that the old things can still be done. They are creatively re-creative in rejecting faddish theories, swerving around nonsensical regulations, outwitting the “inevitable,” and defying politically corrupt schemes. They do it by emphasizing the basic, unchanging truths. For instance, they all get married, because, as Commander Blair says, “You can’t have the family farm without the family.” But that doesn’t mean being boring. Flying pigs are not boring.