Wednesday, May 18, 2016

That Chesterton Misquote: a Detective Story

Old School Renaissance

In a post a few days ago, I made a quasi-defense of allowing our four-year-old son to read the 1981 Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Fiend Folio. In my Google+ and Facebook intro blurbs for the link, I paraphrased an alleged G.K. Chesterton quote. The paraphrase went like this:
Fairy tales do not tell children that monsters exist. Children already know that monsters exist. Fairy tales tell children that monsters can be killed.
Now my "paraphrase" was actually a direct word for word copy of an actually existing rectangular Chesterton quote thingy--the sort of picture people post and repost on Facebook and other social media (though note the wonky punctuation):

But I thought (though I honestly don't remember why I thought) that that itself was probably a paraphrase of something where Chesterton was actually referring to dragons not monstersI used "monsters" (while acknowledging that it was probably a paraphrase) because it squared better with my post--I was talking about monsters in general, such as the monsters in the Fiend Folio, not dragons specifically. Here's one of the rectangular quote thingies on the Chesterton dragon version:

And here's another:

And here are three more:

I've posted five of these because they all differ. The major differences are the substitution of "Fairy tales are more than true-" for "Fairy tales do not tell children dragons exist," and "beaten" for "killed." But minor differences include "don't" for "do not," "that dragons" for "the dragons," "the children" for "children" and the insertion of "that" in-between "us" and "dragons."

This is, of course, annoying. If Chesterton really said it, you would think someone would simply look at exactly what he said in Collected Essays Volume XXVII or whatever and just quote it. Is it "don't" or "do not"? Well, what did he actually say?

Okay. Now it gets even more annoying. Hold onto your hats and wait for it . . .

The quote has also been ascribed to Neil Gaiman:

And now, instead of "killed" versus "beaten," we have "beaten" versus "defeated."


What was the original quote and who actually said it?

In fact it was Neil Gaiman quoting Chesterton in the epigraph to his 2002 Coraline, p. 7:

Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten. 
- G.K. Chesterton
But the story is not over. As Gaiman later admitted, he misquoted Chesterton--and this was in the epigraph!

How did he misquote Chesterton? Why did he misquote Chesterton?

Well, Gaiman may have had his memory filtered through an earlier misquotation from a third source. Hold onto your hats again. That source is . . . 

Terry Pratchett.

In When the Children Read Fantasy, published in SF2 Concatenation (1994), which obviously preceded Coraline, Pratchett wrote:
One of the great popular novelists of the early part of this century was G.K. Chesterton. Writing at a time when fairy tales were under attack for pretty much the same reason as books can now be covertly banned in some schools because they have the word ‘witch’ in the title, he said: “The objection to fairy stories is that they tell children there are dragons. But children have always known there are dragons. Fairy stories tell children that dragons can be killed.” 
Now, do not misunderstand what I'm doing here. I'm not being critical of Gaiman. Indeed, we have Gaiman to thank for admitting his mistake.

Gaiman himself realized that he had misquoted Chesterton and attempted to unravel what had happened:
It’s my fault. When I started writing Coraline, I wrote my version of the quote [from Chesterton's] Tremendous Trifles, meaning to go back later and find the actual quote, as I didn’t own the book, and this was before the Internet. And then ten years went by before I finished the book, and in the meantime I had completely forgotten that the Chesterton quote was mine and not his.
(See this Tumblr post by "MJS.")

So what was the original quote? it's from "The Red Angel," Chapter XVII of Chesterton's Tremendous Trifles (1909):
The timidity of the child or the savage is entirely reasonable; they are alarmed at this world, because this world is a very alarming place. They dislike being alone because it is verily and indeed an awful idea to be alone. Barbarians fear the unknown for the same reason that Agnostics worship it--because it is a fact. Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
Of course, in classic Chestertonian fashion, Chesterton restates essentially the same idea at least three more times in the chapter. Here's another version in the very next paragraph (warning: one of the terms used is now considered politically incorrect):
Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear. When I was a child I have stared at the darkness until the whole black bulk of it turned into one negro giant taller than heaven. If there was one star in the sky it only made him a Cyclops. But fairy tales restored my mental health, for next day I read an authentic account of how a negro giant with one eye, of quite equal dimensions, had been baffled by a little boy like myself (of similar inexperience and even lower social status) by means of a sword, some bad riddles, and a brave heart. Sometimes the sea at night seemed as dreadful as any dragon. But then I was acquainted with many youngest sons and little sailors to whom a dragon or two was as simple as the sea.
So, what does this all mean? Well, obviously, quotes on the internet are often very unreliable, at least if one is a stickler for accuracy. Then again, I do not think anyone can deny that the basic spirit of what Chesterton originally said was preserved through the various permutations, even though technically he was misquoted again and again. And while I obviously like reading actual Chesterton, I think the best version of the quote is that first "monsters" one. It's simple, stark and clear. But I would have preferred that its origins hadn't been misdescribed.

[Crossposted at Save Versus All Wands]


  1. Wow your 4 yr old son is reading that?! That's some impressive homeschooling!!

    1. Not reading. Looking at the pictures. :)

  2. Funny, when I was a small child growing up in an integrated neighbourhood and attending an integrated school, I as a white child, could not imagine a black person being onerous or frightening. In my imagination the menacing and most malignant were always white men in hats.

  3. I liked your article and I get it.
    Made me think of another quote:
    It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculation, if you live near him. J.r.r.tolkien

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    1. Well, you're right. But sometimes you just get so tired of this stuff, it's hard to face writing even a short post on it.

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