More than most prose writers of his age or journalists of any age, Chesterton believed in the universal power of symbols; accordingly, his Autobiography is given coherence by a symbol: a toy theater. Often in the course of the book Chesterton describes the story of his life as a detective story; he apparently meant that scattered through the earlier parts of his life were the clues that would explain the end of his spiritual quest in Roman Catholicism. Certainly, the toy theater provides one such clue. Created for him in his childhood by his father, the toy theater becomes Chesterton’s vision of human life: Men and women play out their tiny dramas, like the pasteboard figures of his childhood, mostly unaware of the macrocosm of which they are an infinitesimal part. That macrocosm is, for Chesterton, the metaphysical as well as the physical world—and its backdrop is eternity. Chesterton first describes the toy theater in his second chapter, “The Man with the Golden Key,” in which he recalls one of its figures, a pasteboard man who held a key, wore a crown, and crossed a bridge. In his final chapter, “The God with the Golden Key,” he returns to that image, in adulthood perceiving it to be the figure of Saint Peter, who crosses the bridge and carries the key to the eternal kingdom. In another way, too, the toy theater anticipates future developments, for it introduced him to the love of light, color, and visual imagery that animates the best of his fiction, from the stunning final scenes of The Man Who Was Thursday, with its elephant-and-balloon escape and its pageant of the seven days of Creation, to the colorful paragraphs, full of candy-store and bakery delights, that introduce “The Invisible Man,” a Father Brown story in which the imagery is so intense and effective as to cause the reader to lose sight of—or not to care about—the basic implausibilities of the story.
It is not surprising that Chesterton so emphasized childhood. For him, the biblical adage “Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3) was a literal truth. Childhood as Chesterton describes it is not a dream state from which the adult wakes. On the contrary, it is the child who is wide awake and who sees clearly; it is the adult who goes astray, in part as a result of education. The child knows, as the adult does not, that the world is full of miracles, and he knows the difference between reality and art, understanding that art is essential for full emotional growth. Adults, Chesterton writes, think that violence in fairy tales breeds violence in behavior, but children are wiser than that; they know the difference. Children know, too, that they need a small world, one clearly defined by limits; that, Chesterton explains, is why children delight in the miniature universes of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883). Children will invent games and superstitions that create boundaries (such as not stepping on cracks) if their world is not limited enough. Moreover, children understand the need for moral law and are not offended by moral tales. Every child also understands the need for authority and for acceptance of hearsay evidence, for the child trustingly accepts adult rule and his family’s version of its history. No child can know his ancestors for himself. (“Hearsay Evidence” is, in fact, the title of Chesterton’s opening paragraph, in which he describes his family background.) Chesterton knew these truths in childhood. In 1926, when he became a Catholic, he reacknowledged them in his willingness to accept the Church’s version of history, its disciplines and limitations and morality, and its world of miracles.
In the intervening years, however, he turned away from these truths to his discomfort. As an art student and young journalist, he plunged into what he regarded as the mental and moral morass of advanced thought in his day. His intellectual...
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