Daniel Matthys gave in to his misgivings about online shopping, stumbling upon a hidden treasure, a personally signed copy of GK Chesterton’s 1928 book The Sword of Wood.
Being a localist at heart, I must confess my misgivings concerning online shopping, suspicious of the detachment embodied by online transactions.
In an ideal world I would buy only local products from local shops owned and operated by local families, ignoring the allure of Amazon and eBay; the cheap prices and the extensive range, standing by the principles of local community and local jobs.
Online prices might be cheap but a community is priceless.
Thus it was with a strong sense of irony that I received my most recent purchase, bought on eBay and shipped to Australia from Britain.
The irony is simple and potent. If I consider myself a localist, I have only become one by first becoming a Chestertonian; a fan of the writings and ideas of British writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton.
What was in the box? A book by Chesterton, of course, which I had purchased about a week before it arrived.
It was late at night and, having finished my tasks for the day, I found myself idly window-shopping online.
Not having found anything particularly interesting, I searched for works of Chesterton, hoping to find a cheap paperback.
Nothing was forthcoming but, seeing a category labelled ‘antiquarian and collectable’, I clicked it, although I had little hope it would yield anything of interest.
There at the bottom of the page, however, was a signed copy of a short story by Chesterton entitled The Sword of Wood.
The Sword of Wood was published in 1928 towards the end of Chesterton’s life. Chesterton, who was first published as a journalist in 1900, had a varied and immensely prolific career, writing anything from detective stories to epic poetry.
He is perhaps best known today, at least among Catholic circles, for his work in apologetics, particularly the books Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Max.
My own interest in Chesterton’s works dates back a couple of years whilst studying at the University of Western Australia. My fascination with Chesterton’s life grew as I read more of his writings and came to learn more about him.
Born in late Victorian England, Chesterton was raised largely without religion and considered himself an agnostic by age 19.
Yet, by 1908, aged 34, the young journalist had unsheathed his pen and wit in the defence of orthodox Christianity with the publication of the appropriately entitled Orthodoxy.
In 1922, having long considered himself an Anglo-Catholic, Chesterton concluded that Anglo-Catholicism was not enough and converted to Roman Catholicism.
What was perhaps most thrilling about reading the almost century old works of Chesterton was the wit, childlike wonder and general good nature he brought to his writings.
We live in a society where good literature is often expected to generate a bleak and nihilistic attitude towards life.
By contrast, the words and ideas of Chesterton almost seem to sparkle off the page, investing in the reader a renewal of wonder in all that they take for granted.
Furthermore, Chesterton largely dealt with the same errors of thought which plague our contemporary society.
Issues such as divorce, euthanasia, the role of dogma and the flaws of both socialism and capitalism were all issues he tackled throughout his career, ensuring that his writing remains just as relevant today as when it was published.
So when I saw a signed copy of The Sword of Wood available for purchase, perhaps the only time I shall ever have this opportunity, I was not long in purchasing the book.
Often, Australians are unable to easily view much of the history we read about.
What may be a day trip for a European is inevitably an expensive overseas holiday for us.
The same is true, to a degree, in the world of literature.
In some sense, The Sword of Wood, signed in Chesterton’s own hand, brings me close to the author and his world.
It is an amazing feeling to hold a work almost 100 years old. As a Catholic, this feeling is compounded; Chesterton, after all, exemplifies in many ways what is expected of the Catholic writer and intellectual.
One can picture Chesterton in 1928, standing at 6’4 and weighing about 300 pounds, seated, perhaps at a desk, signing copies of The Sword of Wood, my copy being one of 530. He would have likely been dressed in a cape, possible smoking a cigar.
Close at hand, and products of his childlike yearning for romance and adventure, would have been a swordstick and a revolver.
As I held The Sword of Wood I wondered what Chesterton would have made of the world today.
I suspect he would not have been too surprised. Certainly, he did not belong to the more starry eyed optimism of his contemporaries such as George Bernard Shaw and HG Wells, both of whom looked forward to utopias predicated on socialism and science respectively.
In fact, as far as predictions, GK Chesterton earned the title of prophet more than any of his contemporaries.
In 1926, he wrote: “The next great heresy is going to be simply an attack on morality; and especially on sexual morality … The roots of the new heresy, God knows, are as deep as nature itself, whose flower is the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eye and the pride of life … The madness of tomorrow is not in Moscow but much more in Manhattan.”
As with so much else of his writings, Chesterton was proven almost exactly right after his death.
Yet, if Chesterton was not an optimist, he was anything but a pessimist. Though he stood firmly against the tide of the modern world, he did so in the attitude of what could be described as a daft idealisation of a mediaeval knight, a knight whose defence of his values is characterised by an almost complete disregard for the success of his venture and whose jousting belong far more to a friendly tournament than the battlefield.
Fundamentally, Chesterton reminds modern Catholics, sometimes tempted to despair at the world surrounding them, of the enduring romance of orthodoxy.
He also embodies a spirit of joy and fellowship which is a necessary counter to the perception of Catholicism as a rigid and lifeless religion.
In fact, Chesterton, with his compatriot Hilaire Belloc, was so successful in promoting a joyous Catholicism that HG Wells once complained they had successfully “surrounded Catholicism with a kind of boozy halo.”
To return to my earlier irony in that the advance of globalism allowed my purchase of the work of a profound localist, I do not necessarily believe Chesterton would write off all the modern world has become.
What he would do, I believe, is remind us of the importance of our fellow beings over the goods we purchase. This is a necessary lesson.
I am proud to own a great man’s signature and intend to keep his work as a reminder of the many necessary lessons GK Chesterton brought to his readers throughout the course of his long and illustrious career.