Title: The Coloured Lands
Author: G.K. Chesterton
Format: Short Story
Pages: 5 (in Tales Before Narnia, edited by Douglas A. Anderson)
Published: 1925 (first)
Reason for Beginning: It is in the anthology I have, it is short, and I have heard wonderful things about G.K. Chesterton, who was supposedly one of the wittiest, most intelligent, and most imaginative writers of the early 20th century, and a Christian apologist to boot. This is the first anything of his I have read.
Reason for Finishing: It’d be pretty bad to not finish a story this short, but having it be so interesting is nice too.
Spoiler-free Synopsis: A mysterious (and awesomely dressed) man shows a bored young boy a new way of looking at the “mundane” world.
Story Re-readability: Yes! In fact, I just did re-read it, and would happily do so again.
Author Re-readability: Very much so, I think, although I am not sure how representative this is of his other writings. But his style is sharp and focused, without superfluous words or thoughts, while still being vivid and allowing for complex ideas. Reminded me a bit of an early 20th-century Neil Gaiman, actually, from what little of his I’ve read, with a similar bit of wry, unexpected, and somehow stylish humor.
Recommendation: Yup. For…well, everyone interested in seeing the world in a new way, I guess. It’s short enough, you certainly can’t lose by reading it.
Possible SPOILERS, if you care about that for a 5 page story. It’s not like there’s a twist ending or anything, but I personally found it delightful to read without any prior knowledge. Still, it’s difficult to talk about it without mentioning the theme, since there’s not much plot. And I don’t think the experience will be truly spoiled if you read my thoughts.
The plot, in its entirety, is the mysterious man telling the boy, Tommy, of his travels through the Coloured Lands, and what he learned there. This young, slender man is himself rather unusual, switching between spectacles of different colors and wearing a suit “of such very light grey that it looked almost white in the strong sunlight,” his long nearly-white hair shaded by a “Japanese parasol of a bright peacock green.” We get the impression that he might be magical, but we’re not quite sure. Tommy is sitting on the lawn, alone, staring at the white wall of his house quite dejected at how bland everything seems to him, when the man suddenly walks up behind him. The man appears and leaves without warning, and without Tommy properly seeing him, but never unmistakably works magic. He claims to know a Wizard, who let him travel through the Blue Country, the Green Country, the Yellow Country, and so on.
“Who are you?” [Tommy] asked suddenly.
“I’m not sure,” replied the other. “I rather think I am your long-lost brother.”
“But I haven’t got a brother,” objected Tommy.
“It only shows you how very long-lost I was.”
I’m not sure what to make of that exchange, although I do think it’s fun. This ambiguity about the character makes me want to know more, but I’m kind of glad Chesterton only tells us as much as he does. Leaves more room for my own imagination to gleefully color in the details. I think that’s one of the unique pleasures of fantasy, especially in short story form, to suggest rather than always explain.
But what’s more important than the man’s identity is that Tommy’s current state of mind is one “in which grown-up people go away and write books about their view of the whole world, and stories about what it is like to be married, and plays about the important problems of modern times. Tommy, being only ten years old, was not able to do harm on this large and handsome scale.” Thus, it’s not quite right to say that Tommy is merely bored. He is thoughtful, but doesn’t know what to do about his thoughts. Maybe he doesn’t even recognize them as thoughts, because all the sense he can make of them is that the world around him – that is, the cottage wall, its dull yellow thatch, the row of flower pots along it, the “blank blue sky” above it – seems to be lacking something. What the man shows him is that there is in fact a wealth of substance, mystery, and beauty in all of it, and that the problem is with the boy’s perception.
The content of what the man tells Tommy I shall not tell you, for it is better to just read them yourself. But I think the end theme is that our world, even as flawed as it truly is, is nonetheless much more interesting and well-designed than we give it credit for. All through the story, short as it is, Chesterton works this in. He says at the start that “it is always assumed in stories that Tommy is a common name for a boy…[but he does] not really know very many boys named Tommy…Do you? Does anybody?” By this humorous little rumination on whether or not Tommy is a truly common name, he gets us to look a little differently at something which seems otherwise utterly mundane.
The mysterious man, as a character, I like very much. He has a sense of humor, but speaks to Tommy with proper respect for the boy’s intelligence. The way he leads up to his tale with an “interactive object lesson” (if I may use terms from the educational system) shows an understanding for how to engage children in deeper subject matter. And while just a bit odd, he’s never threatening – you just get the feeling that he knows things most humans don’t, and that he can probably appear anywhere he wants to, even though he claims to be as human as the rest of us. Or, at least, he claims to have been a child once and to have had similar thoughts as Tommy about the dullness of the world, so perhaps that’s not necessarily the same thing.
“The Coloured Lands” is an example of Mooreeffoc fantasy, which you might realize is the word Coffee-room “viewed from the inside through a glass door” (Tolkien 19). The idea of this subgenre is to “recover a freshness of vision” about things that have begun to appear normal. Tolkien thought it a nice subgenre, but one of limited use. I guess I can see what he means, for I would be on very thin ice if I tried to wrestle out a deeper meaning than what I’ve already said. But perhaps it’s not impossible. I do think there is some depth to Chesterton’s little tale, and I’m sure it shall sit quietly in the back of my mind for some time, in case I should realize a larger picture made from its simple, but bright, colorings.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy Stories”