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The Flying Inn
by G. K. Chesterton
Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2001
(320 pages; $10.95, paper)
reviewed by Addison H. Hart
Dover Publications has reprinted what has been called G. K. Chesterton’s most underrated novel. It is not easy to say precisely why this is the case with The Flying Inn, but it seems plausible that the cultural critique presented by Chesterton in this novel of 1913–1914 was soon overtaken by the events of World War I, quickly lessening whatever sense of immediacy it may have exercised initially in the minds of readers.
Whatever the cause, The Flying Inn has often been undeservedly overlooked, even though the essence of its cultural concerns, even after the better part of a century, is still stewing today. Dover deserves accolades for bringing this book out in an inexpensive, attractive, and durable paperback edition.
Describing a Chesterton novel is difficult, filled as it always is with fantastic characters, twistings and turnings of plot, and wild adventures. Undaunted, though, I will attempt here a brief summary of this novel’s “idea.” It has to do with a Britain that is rapidly losing her heritage and identity through the political maneuverings of one Lord Ivywood, a fastidious “New Age” type of convert to a highly nuanced brand of Islam. Lord Ivywood has in his company his very own imported prophet (“the greatest prophet the world has ever seen”), a strange little Turk named Misysra Ammon. Ivywood, through Parliament, has succeeded in having legislation enacted in England that curtails the sale of alcohol, a “politically correct” legal targeting of the ancient institution of the public house and the free men who enjoy it.
The ultimate goal of Ivywood, however, is not mere teetotalism. Rather, he desires a wholesale spiritual transformation—indeed obliteration—of England’s Western and Christian identity. Underlying the political philosophy of Ivywood, as Chesterton makes explicit, is the influence of both “Orientalism” (popular among many of the intelligentsia in pre-WWI Britain—one thinks of the strange sensationalism surrounding Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet, during his visit to England in 1912–1913) and the German philosophical pessimism of Nietzsche. Indeed, Ivywood’s character mirrors that of Nietzsche, both in its behavioral characteristics and final condition. Ivywood is, to all intents and purposes in the novel, the Antichrist, and Ammon functions as his “false prophet.”
Rebelling against this greater rebellion is the former king of Ithaca (one of the novel’s truly grand allusions), a giant red-haired Irishman named Patrick Dalroy. Irish though he is, he is allied with a thoroughly English pub-owner named Humphrey Pump (nicknamed “Hump”). Together they take their “flying inn”—a donkey-cart at first, and later a motor car—laden with rum, a huge round of cheese, and a pub signpost, willfully and wonderfully undermining the new world order, all “politically correct” claptrap, oppressive nitpicking legalisms, and Ivywood’s teetotalitarianism in one uproarious episode after another. Along the way, the two acquire fellow travelers, disturb the damnable “peace,” and make up and boisterously sing songs to amuse themselves (the book is filled to overflowing with some of GKC’s most delightful poetry). The novel eventually concludes with a decisive war between the West—England—and Islam at “the end of the world” (this last phrase is used as a wordplay more than once in the novel).
The Flying Inn is part Homer, part Book of Revelation, part Lewis Carroll, part the merry adventures of Robin Hood, and entirely and quintessentially Chesterton. In other words, though full of good humor and irrepressible fun, the cascade of metaphors and images only slightly veils what is in fact a serious denunciation of those destructive cultural and philosophical heresies with which Chesterton sparred throughout his career. In addition to these overarching philosophical concerns, The Flying Inn also skewers such lesser lunacies as the pomposity of “higher” biblical criticism, the self-delusory elitism of “modern” art, and the “radicalism” of a fictional commune committed to living the “natural” and “simple” life while all along being manipulated by the ideological whims of a rich and crazy employer (“But it seems to me a very rum sort of Radicalism to eat and drink at the orders of a master who is a madman, merely because he’s also a millionaire”—words that brought unbidden to this reviewer’s mind images of Ted Turner).
The Flying Inn has relevance today for those with eyes to see it. It is a book to be enjoyed, but also to be savored thoughtfully. For one thing, it really is not all that inconceivable that such a sentiment as the following, spoken in the novel by Ivywood, is taken seriously by some influential persons in our own day: Islam is “in a peculiar sense, a religion of progress,” containing in itself “the principle of perpetual growth toward an implied and infinite perfection.” Therein lies a great and terrible lie, made up of a whole tissue of smaller lies (which I will leave to the reader to take apart and analyze on his own), the mendacity of which Chesterton was already laboring to expose in 1914 in The Flying Inn, and with which we are still confronted today.
Addison H. Hart is retired from active ministry as parish priest and university chaplain. He is the author of Knowing Darkness: On Skepticism, Melancholy, Friendship, and God and The Yoke of Jesus: A School for the Soul in Solitude (both from Eerdmans). His forthcoming book is a study of the Sermon on the Mount. He lives and writes in Norheimsund, Norway.