Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Tremendous Trifles

Once upon a time there were two little boys who lived chiefly
in the front garden, because their villa was a model one.
The front garden was about the same size as the dinner table;
it consisted of four strips of gravel, a square of turf with some
mysterious pieces of cork standing up in the middle and one flower
bed with a row of red daisies. One morning while they were at play
in these romantic grounds, a passing individual, probably the milkman,
leaned over the railing and engaged them in philosophical conversation.
The boys, whom we will call Paul and Peter, were at least sharply
interested in his remarks. For the milkman (who was, I need say,
a fairy) did his duty in that state of life by offering them
in the regulation manner anything that they chose to ask for.
And Paul closed with the offer with a business-like abruptness,
explaining that he had long wished to be a giant that he might stride
across continents and oceans and visit Niagara or the Himalayas
in an afternoon dinner stroll. The milkman producing a wand from
his breast pocket, waved it in a hurried and perfunctory manner;
and in an instant the model villa with its front garden was like a
tiny doll's house at Paul's colossal feet. He went striding away
with his head above the clouds to visit Niagara and the Himalayas.
But when he came to the Himalayas, he found they were quite small
and silly-looking, like the little cork rockery in the garden; and when
he found Niagara it was no bigger than the tap turned on in the bathroom.
He wandered round the world for several minutes trying to find
something really large and finding everything small, till in sheer
boredom he lay down on four or five prairies and fell asleep.
Unfortunately his head was just outside the hut of an intellectual
backwoodsman who came out of it at that moment with an axe in one hand
and a book of Neo-Catholic Philosophy in the other. The man looked
at the book and then at the giant, and then at the book again.
And in the book it said, "It can be maintained that the evil
of pride consists in being out of proportion to the universe."
So the backwoodsman put down his book, took his axe and,
working eight hours a day for about a week, cut the giant's head off;
and there was an end of him.

Such is the severe yet salutary history of Paul. But Peter, oddly
enough, made exactly the opposite request; he said he had long
wished to be a pigmy about half an inch high; and of course he
immediately became one. When the transformation was over he found
himself in the midst of an immense plain, covered with a tall green
jungle and above which, at intervals, rose strange trees each with
a head like the sun in symbolic pictures, with gigantic rays of
silver and a huge heart of gold. Toward the middle of this prairie
stood up a mountain of such romantic and impossible shape, yet of
such stony height and dominance, that it looked like some incident
of the end of the world. And far away on the faint horizon he
could see the line of another forest, taller and yet more mystical,
of a terrible crimson colour, like a forest on fire for ever. He
set out on his adventures across that coloured plain; and he has
not come to the end of it yet.

Such is the story of Peter and Paul, which contains all the highest
qualities of a modern fairy tale, including that of being wholly unfit
for children; and indeed the motive with which I have introduced
it is not childish, but rather full of subtlety and reaction.
It is in fact the almost desperate motive of excusing or palliating
the pages that follow. Peter and Paul are the two primary influences
upon European literature to-day; and I may be permitted to put my own
preference in its most favourable shape, even if I can only do it
by what little girls call telling a story.

I need scarcely say that I am the pigmy. The only excuse for the scraps
that follow is that they show what can be achieved with a commonplace
existence and the sacred spectacles of exaggeration. The other
great literary theory, that which is roughly represented in England
by Mr. Rudyard Kipling, is that we moderns are to regain the primal zest
by sprawling all over the world growing used to travel and geographical
variety, being at home everywhere, that is being at home nowhere.
Let it be granted that a man in a frock coat is a heartrending sight;
and the two alternative methods still remain. Mr. Kipling's school
advises us to go to Central Africa in order to find a man without
a frock coat. The school to which I belong suggests that we should
stare steadily at the man until we see the man inside the frock coat.
If we stare at him long enough he may even be moved to take off his coat
to us; and that is a far greater compliment than his taking off his hat.
In other words, we may, by fixing our attention almost fiercely
on the facts actually before us, force them to turn into adventures;
force them to give up their meaning and fulfil their mysterious purpose.
The purpose of the Kipling literature is to show how many extraordinary
things a man may see if he is active and strides from continent
to continent like the giant in my tale. But the object of my school
is to show how many extraordinary things even a lazy and ordinary man
may see if he can spur himself to the single activity of seeing.
For this purpose I have taken the laziest person of my acquaintance, that
is myself; and made an idle diary of such odd things as I have fallen over
by accident, in walking in a very limited area at a very indolent pace.
If anyone says that these are very small affairs talked about in very
big language, I can only gracefully compliment him upon seeing the joke.
If anyone says that I am making mountains out of molehills, I confess
with pride that it is so. I can imagine no more successful and productive
form of manufacture than that of making mountains out of molehills.
But I would add this not unimportant fact, that molehills are mountains;
one has only to become a pigmy like Peter to discover that.

I have my doubts about all this real value in mountaineering,
in getting to the top of everything and overlooking everything.
Satan was the most celebrated of Alpine guides, when he took
Jesus to the top of an exceeding high mountain and showed
him all the kingdoms of the earth. But the joy of Satan
in standing on a peak is not a joy in largeness, but a joy in
beholding smallness, in the fact that all men look like insects
at his feet. It is from the valley that things look large;
it is from the level that things look high; I am a child
of the level and have no need of that celebrated Alpine guide.
I will lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help;
but I will not lift up my carcass to the hills, unless it is
absolutely necessary. Everything is in an attitude of mind;
and at this moment I am in a comfortable attitude.
I will sit still and let the marvels and the adventures settle
on me like flies. There are plenty of them, I assure you.
The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only
for want of wonder.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton