FROM THE PAST
G. K. CHESTERTON'S
THE TERROR OF A TOY (1923)
would be too high and hopeful a compliment to say that the world
is becoming absolutely babyish. For its
chief weak-mindedness is an inability to appreciate the intelligence
of babies. On every side we hear whispers and warnings that
would have appeared half-witted to the Wise Men of Gotham.
Only this Christmas I was told in a toy-shop that not
so many bows and arrows were being made for little boys; because
they were considered dangerous. It might in some circumstances
be dangerous to have a little bow. It is always dangerous to
have a little boy. But no other society,
claiming to be sane, would have dreamed of supposing that you
could abolish all bows unless you could abolish all boys.
With the merits of the latter reform I will not deal here. There
is a great deal to be said for such a course; and perhaps we
shall soon have an opportunity of considering it.
For the modern mind seems quite incapable of distinguishing
between the means and the end, between the organ and the disease,
between the use and the abuse; and would doubtless beak the
boy along with the boy, as it empties out the baby with the
But let us, by way of a little study in this mournful state
of things, consider this case of the dangerous toy. Now the
first and most self-evident truth is that, of all the things
a child sees and touches, the most dangerous toy is about the
least dangerous thing. There is hardly
a single domestic utensil that is not much more dangerous than
a little bow and arrows. He can burn himself in the fire, he
can boil himself in the bath, he can cut his throat with the
carving-knife, he can scald himself
with the kettle, he can choke himself with anything small enough,
he can break his neck off anything high enough. He moves all
day long amid a murderous machinery, as capable of killing and
maiming as the wheels of the most frightful factory. He plays
all day in a house fitted up with of torture like the Spanish
Inquisition. And, while he thus dances
in the shadow of death, he is to be saved from all the perils
of possessing a piece of string, tied to a bent bough or twig.
When he is a little boy it generally takes him some time
even to learn how to hold the bow. When he does hold it, he
is delighted if the arrow flutters for a few
yards like a feather or an autumn leaf. But
even if he grows a little older and more skilful, and has yet
not learned to despise arrows in favour of aeroplanes, the amount
of damage he could conceivably do with his little arrows would
be about one-hundredth part of the damage he could always in
any case have done by simply picking up a stone in the garden.
Now you do not keep a little boy from throwing stones by preventing
him from ever seeing stones. You do not
do it by locking up all the stones in the Geological Museum,
and only issuing tickets of admission to adults. You do not
do it by trying to pick up all the pebbles on the beach, for
fear he should practise throwing them into the sea You do not
even adopt so obvious and even pressing a social reform as forbidding
roads to be made of anything but asphalt, or directing that
all gardens shall be made on clay and none on gravel. You neglect
all these great opportunities opening before you; you neglect
all these inspiring vistas of social science and enlightenment.
When you want to prevent a child from throwing stones, you fall
back on the stalest and most sentimental and even most superstitious
You do it by trying to preserve some reasonable authority and
influence over the child. You trust to
your private relation with the boy, and not to your public relation
with the stone. And what is true of the natural missile is just
as true, of course, of the artificial missile; especially as
it is a very much more ineffectual and therefore innocuous missile.
A man could be really killed, like St. Stephen, with
the stones in the road. I doubt if he could be really killed,
like St. Sebastian, with the arrows in the toyshop.
But anyhow the very plain principle is the same. If you
can teach a child not to throw a stone, you can teach him when
to shoot an arrow; if you cannot teach him anything, he will
always have something to throw. If
he can be persuaded not to smash the Archdeacon's hat with a
heavy flint, it will probably be possible
to dissuade him from transfixing that head-dress with a toy
arrow. If his training deters him from
heaving half a brick at the postman, it will probably also warn
him against constantly loosening shafts of death against the
policeman. But the notion that the child depends upon particular
dangerous, in order to be a danger to himself and other people,
is a notion so nonsensical that it is hard to see how any human
mind can entertain it for a moment. The
truth is that all sorts of faddism, both official and theoretical,
have broken down the natural authority of the domestic institution,
especially among the
poor; and the faddists are now casting about desperately for
a substitute for the thing they have themselves destroyed. The
normal thing is for the parents to prevent a boy from doing
more than a reasonable amount of damage with his bow and arrow;
and for the rest, to leave him to a reasonable enjoyment of
Officialism cannot thus follow the life of the individual boy,
as can the individual guardian. You cannot
appoint a particular policeman for each boy, to pursue him when
he climbs trees or falls into ponds.
it will have a try at that before long. Thus we have all heard
of savages who try a tomahawk for murder, or burn a wooden club
for the damage it has done to society. To such intellectual
levels may the world return.
There are indeed yet lower levels. There
is a story from America about a little boy who gave up his toy
cannon to assist the disarmament of the world.
I do not know if it is true, but on the whole I prefer
to think so; for it is perhaps more tolerable to imagine one
small monster who could do such a thing than many more mature
monsters who could invent or admire it.
There were some doubtless who neither invented nor admired.
It is one of the peculiarities of the Americans that
they combine a power of producing what they satirize as "sobstuff"
with a parallel power of satirizing it. And of the two American
tall stories, it is sometimes hard to say which is the story
and which the satire. But it seems
clear that some people did really repeat this story in a reverential
spirit. And it marks, as I have said, another stage of the cerebral
decay. You can (with luck) break a window with a toy arrow;
but you can hardly bombard a town with a toy gun.
If people object to the mere model of a cannon, they
must equally object to the picture of a cannon, and so to every
picture in the world that depicts a sword or a spear. There
would be a splendid clearance of all the great art-galleries
of the world. But it would be nothing
to the destruction of all the great libraries of the world,
if we logically extended the principle to all the literary masterpieces
that admit the glory of arms. When this progress had gone on
for a century or two, it might begin to dawn on people that
there was something wrong with their moral principle. What is
wrong with their moral principle is that it is immoral. Arms,
like every other adventure of art of man, have two sides according
as they are invoked for the infliction or the defiance of wrong.
They have also an element of real poetry and an element of realistic
and therefore repulsive prose. The child's
symbolic sword and bow are simply the poetry without the prose;
the good without the evil. The toy sword is the abstraction
and the emanation of the heroic, apart from all its horrible
accidents. It is the soul of the sword,
that will never be stained with blood.