We all say comparisons are odious, and I wonder whether any of us know why. In the abstract, comparison is only a way of testing degrees and qualities, like the zoologist who thought it an exact and exhaustive description of a giraffe to say that “he is taller than an elephant, but not so thick”. There is nothing in this to indicate any odium – to suggest that he was cruel to wild elephants or unduly spoiled and petted his giraffes. But when we pass from nature to human nature, comparison does always sound like a depreciation. I think the reason is this: that for some cause, possibly original sin, we have a very weak supply of words of praise as compared with our rich and varied output of terms of abuse. We can call the unpleasant scholar or intellectual a pedant or a prig, but we have no special word for the pleasant sort of scholar or intellectual. We can call the wrong sort of society person a snob, but we have no special name for the right sort of society person. Thus we are driven to the ghastly necessity, for instance, of calling our friends `nice’. Fancy calling Dr. Johnson `nice’, and Fox `nice’, and Nelson `nice’. It does not present very vivid or varied portraits.
I have been reading, side by side, two books about men who were both `nice’, and whose books were `nice’. They were the two great nineteenth-century tellers of tales to children. They were also as flatly contrary to each other at every point as two men could be, but if I go beyond calling them both `nice’ and try to compare them or say what they were like, it will quite certainly sound as though I were praising one and blaming the other. This is simply because we cannot vary praise as we vary blame. One of these men was Charles Dodgson, commonly known as Lewis Carroll, a don at Oxford and a very Victorian English clergyman, the other was Hans Christian Andersen, a queer, cranky and visionary Danish peasant, and the author of immortal tales.
When I say that Lewis Carroll was very Victorian, that will sound like a reproach, though it ought to be a compliment as well as a reproach – only it is so much more difficult to find words to fit what was good in Victorian England than what was bad in it. If I say that Dodgson the don was conventional or comfortable or respectable, compared with Andersen the peasant, those words will sound like unfriendly words, but only because there are no friendly words to express the really friendly things that often do go along with conventions and comforts.
It is abominably stupid to call the Victorian Age merely conventional and comfortable, and to forget the fact that it produced a new kind of poetry which was supremely wild and supremely innocent. It was the poetry of pure nonsense, which has never been known in the world before and may never be known again. Lewis Carroll was not the only example: Edward Lear, I think, was a better one; and I would put in a word for the `Katawampus’ and other stories of Judge Parry, that children loved at least as much. Lewis Carroll’s letters to children prove that not only did he love children, but that children loved him; nevertheless I believe his intellectual attacks were directed to adults. Everything in Lewis Carroll is part of what he called the Game of Logic; it is very Victorian, by the way, to think of logic as a game. The Victorians had to invent a sort of impossible paradise in which to indulge in good logic: for all serious things they preferred bad logic. This is not paradoxical, or at any rate, it was they who made the paradox. Macaulay and Bagehot and all their teachers taught them that the British Constitution ought to be illogical – they called it being practical. Read the great Reform Bill and then read Alice in Wonderland – you will be struck by the resemblance of Alice in Wonderland. They had to go to fairyland to be logical. Thus I suspect that the very best of Lewis Carroll was not written by a man for children, but by a don for dons. The most brilliant strokes are not only mathematical, but mature. Ten lectures against the heresy of mere Relativity could be based on that one perfect sentence, “I have seen hills compared with which that would be a valley.”
But it may be questioned whether the little girls he wrote for were tortured by relativist scepticism. And, in a way, this is part of the glory of Lewis Carroll. He was not only teaching children to stand on their heads; but he was also teaching dons to stand on their heads. It is a good test of a head to stand on it. When the Victorians wanted a holiday, they made one, a real intellectual holiday. They did create a world which, to me at least, is still a sort of strange home, a secret holiday, a world in which monsters, terrifying in other fairy-tales, were turned into pets. Nothing will deprive them of the glory of it. It was nonsense for nonsense’s sake. If we ask where this magic mirror was found the answer is that it was found among very padded Victorian furniture: in other words, it was due to the historical accident by which Dodgson and Oxford and England were, at that moment, very comfortable and secure. They knew there would be no fighting, except the party system, in which Tweedledum and Tweedledee agreed to have a battle, the battle being much less obvious than the agreement. They knew their England could not see invasion or revolution; they knew it was growing richer by commerce; they did not realize that agriculture was dying, possibly because it was already dead; they had no peasants.
They found their flat contrary in that other great lover of children, whose story is told admirably in The Life of Hans Christian Andersen by Signe Toksvig. Hans Andersen was himself a peasant, and came of what is still a country of peasants. In a thousand ways, Hans Andersen represented the exact opposite of the sheltered don in his cushioned Victorian drawing-room. Hans was open to all the winds that blew, like a peasant on his fields, like a peasant on the European battlefields. He grew up anyhow, full of a sort of pathetic and greedy ambition, such as dons at Oxford do not show. He had experienced all realities, including his own weakness and his own desires. He did a hundred things, idiotic things, which Mr. Dodgson would have found unthinkable; but because he was a peasant he had his compensations. He remained in touch with the enormous tradition of the earth in the matter of mystery and glamour – he did not have to make a new and rather artificial sort of fairy-tale out of triangles and syllogisms.
Hans Andersen was not only an uncle loved by children, he was a child. He was one of those great children of our Christian past who have had the Divine favour which is called arrested development. His faults were the faults of a child – and very annoying faults they were. Why do aged men after reading this book, love Hans Andersen? I answer, because the most lovable thing in the world is humility. Now Hans Andersen had a vast vanity, which was founded on humility. I know that modern psychologists have called the combination an inferiority complex – but there is always an element of humility in the man who does not conceal his vanity.
Nobody ever made it so naked and shameless as poor Hans Andersen. But my intention here is only to stir such thoughts as are aroused by those contrasted types, neither of which, I hope, will ever be forgotten as nursery classics. Both had many imitators, I hope I shall not be misunderstood if I say that Hans Andersen was perhaps even greater, because he was himself an imitator. That great peasant, that great poet in prose, had the peasant quality which the Victorians had lost – the old mystical feeling about the ordinary materials of life. Hans Andersen would have found more on this side of the looking-glass than Alice found on the other. Beyond are fantastic mathematical projections; but why go through the looking-glass when all the rest of the furniture, all the chairs and tables, can be animated by elves?
My comparisons are becoming odious. It is because there is no variation in verbal praise. Differentation sounds like depreciation. Which is better; to have distilled from the dense commercial solidity of the modern world a wild new wine or honey of intellectual nonsense, or to have enlarged that large and magnificent accumulation of popular imagination in the past, and to have made again, with an original note, the great fairy-tale that is really a folk-tale? I only know that if you try to deprive me of either of them, there will be a row.
The Listener, November 29, 1933.
Chesterton, G.K. The Spice of Life and Other Essays. Edited by Dorothy Collins. Beaconsfield: Darwen Finlayson, 1964.