I love G. K. Chesterton, though he is not much in literary favour any more. I love how his novels feel as though they were written for a lark in fifteen minutes on the back of a restaurant napkin. I love their utter disdain for things like narrative pace and plot unity. Most of all, I love the sincerity of their absurdity.
I have just finished reading Chesterton’s The Flying Inn, a fantastical hypothesis set in a future where a kind of adulterated Islam has conquered most of the world and made alcohol illegal throughout England. The book can only be read as racist today, though this would not have occurred either to Chesterton or many of his contemporaries, but it would be unfair to the story’s other qualities if I was too dwell on this fact too much. Islam was for Chesterton merely a convenient binary for English Christian culture, which he also represents unfavourably, a binary of the sort that he loved to push to illogical and satirical extremes. In this sense, Islam is more a literary figure for Chesterton than it is a religious and political fact.
I do not have the space to discuss the text in detail, because I would like to attend to one detail in particular and to the tangent where it has led me, so I will say only that, like every Chesterton novel, there is much to love and much to hate in it. It bears certain similarities, in the central protagonist especially but also elsewhere, to his first novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, but there is a greater seriousness to its fantasy, though not perhaps the kind of theological implications of The Man Who Was Thursday. I do recommend it, of course, along with everything else Chesterton has written and a good biography of his life.
I recommend Chesterton so heartily, not only because I enjoy him so much, which I do, but because his surreal approach to narrative has had such a tremendous, and also largely unrecognized, influence on certain strains of subsequent literature. The most obvious of these strains is that of popular fantasy, where he has been a favourite of writers from C. S. Lewis to Neil Gaiman, even making several appearances as a character in Gaimon’s Sandman series. Less obvious and less recognized is the influence that he has had on the development of magic realism in the novel, mostly because this influence is indirect through the work of Jorge Louis Borges, whose short stories and fables (see Ficciones) were a central inspiration in the kind of writing that is practised by authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie. Borges mentions Chesterton’s influence explicitly several times in Other Inquisitions, a collection of essays and other oddities, and I think there may be an essay or two to be written on the subject.
In any case, it was an entirely different tangent that I found myself following after reading The Flying Inn. Late in the story, Humphrey and Dalroy, the protagonists, are partaking of a giant cheese that they have taken from one of the last pubs in England, dragged all over the countryside, and shared with those they happened to meet. Wimpole, the latest friend to partake of the cheese, declares that it tastes holy, which Dalroy explains by noting that it has been on pilgrimage. He then goes on to conjecture on what sort of cow would produce a cheese that tastes so holy, saying, “I think this cheese must have come from that Dun Cow of Dunsmore Heath, who had horns bigger than elephant tusks, and who was so ferocious that one of the greatest of the old heroes of chivalry was required to do battle with it.”
Now, this quotation may seem a little obscure to warrant sustained attention, except that one of my favourite books is The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, and I have often wondered about the origin of the Dun Cow, though not seriously enough to go looking for an answer. This reference to a Dun Cow, however, in a book that Wangerin might well be supposed to have read, intrigued me very much, so I decided that it was probably time that I did go looking to find what answers there might be. In the event, it is unlikely that the story Chesterton references was the inspiration for Wangerin’s title, for several reasons.
The Dun Cow of Dunsmore Heath is entirely unlike the Dun Cow of Wangerin’s story. The mythic beast was huge with massive horns, one of which, more likely an elephant tusk, still sits in Warwick Castle, the supposed home of the ancient hero of chivalry that Chesterton mentions, Sir Guy of Warwick. Besides being very large, the cow’s milk was also said to be inexhaustible, but when one woman was not satisfied with a single pail of milk, the cow became angered and began rampaging over the countryside until it was slain by Sir Guy. A contemporary translation of the most famous verse description of the myth, reads as follows: “On Dunmore heath I also slew / A monstrous wild and cruel beast, / Called the Dun Cow of Dunmore Heath, / Which many people had oppressed.” This beast is not very likely the source of the Dun Cow of Wangerin’s narrative, who is a gentle and holy figure.
Now that I had begun my search, however, I was not satisfied to discover what Wangerin’s Dun Cow was not. A cursory search was all that was required to inform me that Book of the Dun Cow is actually the translated title of a 12th century Irish manuscript, the oldest to contain narrative materials. Its name comes from the myth that it was made from the hide of a cow by St. Ciarán of Clonmacnois, one of the twelve apostles of Ireland. This source is much more consistent with the character of Wangerin’s Dun Cow and also with the archaisms that Wangerin uses throughout the text, though it still does not make any clearer who the Dun Cow might be supposed to allegorize. Perhaps she might be meant to represent St. Ciarán or one of the saints more generally, though this does really account for the role that she plays in the narrative.
The result of Chesterton’s reference, then, and the subsequent directions that it has sent me, is not exactly increased clarity, but it is at least increased knowledge and also increased avenues for exploration and speculation. I now have a link to the complete translated text of the Irish Book of the Dun Cow manuscript, which I intend to read next in this little textual chain. Hopefully it will lead to others.