ROOTS AND BRANCHES: THE SYMBOL OF THE TREE IN THE IMAGINATION OF G.K. CHESTERTON
Great intro to literary giant:
I had often heard great quotes of the prolific journalist and theologian G.K. Chesterton (GKC) but knew little of his fiction. However, I am a sucker for symbolism and paradox, so my interest was tweaked when I was introduced to Deb Elkink's book. I also noticed that respected scholars were praising Elkink's work (including Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society) and that she is an award-winning author, so I became even more interested . . .
I had heard that his half-dozen or so novels and collections of short stories could prove perplexing in meaning, but Elkink managed to save me the confusion by untangling this meaning to show the metaphysical connotation beneath. The book opens with the author painting a picture of GKC's life in a concise and interesting bio. In the analysis portion, Elkink focuses on the single image of a tree and takes it from his childhood experiences through his final fiction, showing how his exposure to the classics of English literature and the Bible were foundational for his writing.
And then there was the surprise 'Part II' of Roots and Branches, where she shows how Chesterton told about his own conversion to faith through one character in one chapter of the novel The Flying Inn — a sort of fictional "conversion narrative." Has this aspect never been discovered before?
Now that my appetite is whetted and I feel more prepared and fascinated, I am beginning to collect GKC's fiction as I continue to watch one of his fictional characters, Father Brown, come to life in the BBC mystery series and will get around to watching "Manalive" one day, too (a movie made from his novel of the same name).
CONCLUSION: I found Elkink's book was a great way to be introduced to this literary giant's life and fiction!
— Lori Harder, artist and teacher
Insightful and informative:
Most of the analysis on G. K. Chesterton's work has focused on his non-fiction books, predominantly Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man. With Roots & Branches: The Symbol of the Tree in the Imagination of G.K. Chesterton award-winning novelist Deb Elkink wants to broaden that focus to include a look at Chesterton's fiction.
Elkink first encountered Chesterton while working on a post-graduate degree in Historical Theology. Roots & Branches, which grew out of her academic research, is a literary analysis of Chesterton's novels and short stories. For those unfamiliar with Chesterton, the first chapter provides an introduction to a writer of many genres: essays and articles, plays, poems, novels, short stories, art and literary criticism and biography.
The last chapter provides an overview of Chesterton's six themes: home and journey, the person and God, light, the church, the ladder and the cross. Within these themes, Elkink notes: "The tree becomes an allegory for salvation. It acts as Chesterton's 'visual aid' or wholistic model of the spiritual process by picturing the incarnational, redeeming work of Christ and the continuing sacramental presence of God in the world."
Roots & Branches provides an insightful and informative look at a prolific and often paradoxical writer. In between, Elkink demonstrates, through careful, thoughtful and thorough research, how the symbolic use of the tree took root in short stories Chesterton wrote as a youth, grew in use in his early novels and matured in his later works.
"The sacramental themes, introduced in earlier writings have, by Chesterton's maturity, been refined and advanced," writes Elkink. "The Garden of Eden, fallen into wilderness, now becomes the glorious jungle of the world, inhabited now by both evil and good, and still offering humanity a choice. The tree is the cause of, and the escape from sin. It becomes the instrument of violent sacrificial death climbed because of love, and figures not only the crucifixion but also the incarnation, the church, and the light of Christian truth."
Roots & Branches: The Symbol of the Tree in the Imagination of G. K. Chesterton provides an insightful and informative look at prolific and often paradoxical writer. Both fans of Chesterton and those who know little about him will be well-served by Elkink's analysis.
If there were any shortcomings, it would be the book's style and layout.
Roots & Branches began as and remains an academic thesis. While I'm aware of the reasons behind the choice, I think the average reader would have been better served with a less academic approach.
And, with academic theses come notes. In Roots & Branches, it was decided to post them as footnotes at the end of each page. While this makes it easier to read than flipping back and forth between end notes and text, the footnotes often break up the text and can let the reader lose the narrative.
Don't let these shortcomings deter you from reading Roots & Branches. While they can make the book tough to get through at times, I'd strongly suggest persevering. Roots & Branches is worth finishing. Here's a little encouragement from the Epilogue titled "A Chestertonian Invesion of Mt. 7:17"
"From Athena's olive triumph,/To the Trees of Tolkien's light/From Matt's and Luke's list of 'begats'/To rooted branchings left and right/The myths of Man are arbor-crowned/On Calvary's deathly height./But in this, Deb Elkink's book/Inverted, as in G. K.'s sight/You will find, and I agree/That her good fruit has borne an Tree." (Peter J. Floriani)
— Robert White
(Review first appeared in Arts Connection)