Walking with Chesterton and Lewis (and Tolkien)

There are two types of people in the world — hikers and walkers. Lewis is a hiker, whereas Chesterton (and Tolkien) are walkers

G.K. Chesterton (l) and C.S. Lewis
G.K. Chesterton (l) and C.S. Lewis (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

There are two types of people in the world: those who prefer G.K. Chesterton to C.S. Lewis, and those who don’t.

As counterintuitive as this might seem, this sweeping statement is literally and logically true. Those who have never heard of either writer, those who like neither of them, and those who couldn’t care less, one way or the other, do not prefer Chesterton to Lewis. They are, therefore, in the same camp as those who prefer Lewis to Chesterton.

There is, logically speaking, one other group who don’t prefer Chesterton to Lewis: those who like them both equally. Although it is no doubt true that most people who like Chesterton also like Lewis, and vice versa, it is equally true that very few like them equally. This is due to the fact that both writers are so different in their style of approaching the truth that those who read them almost invariably prefer one approach to the other. 

The two men are clearly kindred spirits. Lewis loved reading Chesterton, even in the days of his own atheism, declaring that Chesterton had more common sense than all the moderns put together, except for his Christianity. Ironically, it would be Chesterton’s exceptional Christianity that would be largely responsible for bringing Lewis to his knees, in the best sense of the word; Lewis’s conversion being due in no small part to Chesterton’s influence. Lewis wrote that It was the reading of Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man that enabled him to see, for the first time, the Christian outline of history in a way that made sense. This book was, Lewis confessed, a major milestone on his own journey to Christ.

As for Chesterton, he never seems to have read Lewis or to have known of his existence, the latter being largely unknown until after Chesterton’s death. There is little doubt, however, that Chesterton would have relished Lewis’s refreshing approach to apologetics and, even more, his refreshing approach to the telling of fairy stories. One can only imagine the sheer delight with which Chesterton would have read The Chronicles of Narnia, the Ransom Trilogy, Till We Have Faces, The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters. It is likely that the two men would have crossed swords, had Chesterton lived to see the publication of works, such as Mere Christianity, but it would have been the amicable and chivalrous dueling as that which Chesterton depicts between MacIan and Turnbull, the Catholic and atheist protagonists of his novel, The Ball and the Cross. Even in the crossing of swords, or perhaps especially in the crossing of swords, Lewis and Tolkien would have become the best of friends. 

Having accepted and embraced the kinship of spirit between these two great Christian apologists, why is it that those who like both writers almost invariably prefer one to the other? This question is best answered with another sweeping generalization: There are only two types of people in the world. There are those who go for a hike, and those who go for a walk. Lewis is a hiker, whereas Chesterton is a walker. This is the key difference between the two men. Those readers who are hikers prefer Lewis; those readers who are walkers prefer Chesterton.

Perhaps some explanation is needed. An episode in Lewis’ life should serve.

Although the source escapes me (it’s recounted either in Lewis’ published letters or possibly in George Sayer’s memoir of Lewis), Lewis and his brother Warnie went out for a hike with their good friends, J.R.R. Tolkien and George Sayer. The Lewis brothers liked to walk vigorously, covering lots of ground; Tolkien preferred to amble, stopping every few hundred yards to look at a flower or a tree. The brothers became increasingly frustrated with their lack of progress and increasingly impatient with Tolkien’s dilatory perambulations. They strode off ahead, leaving Tolkien and Sayer to meet them in the pub when they eventually arrived.

This difference in approach to a country walk is evident in the difference between the respective writing styles of Lewis and Chesterton. Lewis goes from A to B as the crow flies, getting straight to his point and making it with succinct precision. Chesterton wanders off from the designated route, pursuing some secondary thought or path of reasoning; he takes his time, enjoying the walk at a leisurely pace and in no great hurry to reach his destination. Chesterton writes as Tolkien walks, stopping to look at a flower or tree, or to see the trees reflected upside-down in a puddle or pond. And this is why readers of Chesterton and Lewis almost invariably prefer one to the other, even if they like both immensely. Those who read as Lewis hiked become impatient with Chesterton’s dilatory digressions and his failure to get to the point as quickly as they would like. These literary hikers prefer Lewis to Chesterton. By contrast, those who are happy to take a stroll with a very wise friend, happy to go wherever he leads them, even off the beaten track, being in no particular hurry, will prefer Chesterton to Lewis. 

In this sense, Chesterton is closer to Tolkien, not merely in the way that they prefer to walk but in the way that they prefer to write. It is likely, for instance, that those who become impatient with Chesterton’s wandering from the point, also become impatient with the ambulating pace of the hobbits in their trudging trek across Middle-earth. 

Perhaps the reader will have fathomed from the foregoing ramble that the present writer prefers Chesterton (and Tolkien) to Lewis.