Defeating Demons with G.K. Chesterton

After rereading The Man Who Was Thursday, I wondered why, when Chesterton went to the trouble of opposing an angel and the devil, he chose “Gabriel Syme” as the name for his protagonist instead of Michael the Archangel, who will defeat Satan in the Battle of Armageddon.

One analyst suggested that Gabriel was chosen for its nearness to Gilbert, Chesterton’s first name, a view supported by Syme’s undeniable parallels in appearance, personality, and social background with his author.* Chesterton is a deep thinker who deserves more credit than that, however.

Gabriel is the angel of the Annunciation, the bearer of good news to Mary. This alone is points to the symbolic appropriateness of the name Gabriel, as Syme reflects after all has been revealed that he “felt he was in possession of some impossible good news.” This line ends the penultimate paragraph of the book; Syme has reached the pinnacle of his character arc and anticipates his resolution in the final paragraph.

The trajectory of that arc can be partly illuminated by examining Syme’s parallels to the angel from whom he borrowed his name. In popular Christian mythology, Gabriel is often identified as the trumpet blower who announces the resurrection of the dead, as seen in Paradise Lost and many Negro spirituals. Gabriel is also the patron saint of messengers.

Syme begins the story as a messenger of the end of the world and its destruction by the forces of evil. By the end, he has participated in a ceremonial near reenactment of creation’s beginning, a ceremony that also suggests the Last Supper and the Passion.

Chesterton in The Everlasting Man argues that those events symbolized the last gasp of the dying old world, soon to be followed by Christ’s resurrection and the birth of the new world. The sense of simultaneously experiencing a beginning and an ending evokes the paradoxical mix of tragedy and celebration promised in the Apocalypse.

Syme is not a warrior like Michael. He is a poet who wants to be a warrior, but even more so, he wants to be a warning and a rallying cry, like the trumpet blower. As the poet of order, Syme realizes by the end that his trumpet signals the victory of God’s law on earth and in his own life.

Perhaps the real answer to Syme’s association with Gabriel can be found in the character’s relationship with the anarchist Lucian Gregory. Syme and Gregory are on opposite sides and could even be called enemies. But Syme never faces him in any battle, let alone defeats him.

Naming Syme after Michael might have twisted the story Chesterton wanted to tell. In the end, Syme finds himself walking with Gregory “like old friends … in the middle of a conversation…” In his autobiography, Chesterton firmly refuses to allow that Gregory might reconcile himself to God.

Chesterton recalls that he “introduced at the end one figure who really does, with a full understanding, deny and defy the good [because he, Chesterton,] already knew too much to pretend to get rid of evil.” Lucian truly is the last rebel.

In light of that, this ending is hard to explain, but it relates to the centrality of the Sabbath in the story. God’s day of rest is not given an ending like the other days in the Bible’s creation account. The sense of anticipation in creation has both been fulfilled and not.

Syme is not Michael because it is still the time of messenger-angels, not warrior-angels. The conversation is not over but still in “in the middle.”

Syme’s role awaits further fulfillment beyond the ending of the book in his inevitable marriage to Rosamund Gregory. To Chesterton, marriage represented the best things in creation of which he wished to awaken appreciation: companionship, the sustaining of life, and, above all, a bedrock of civilization and the maintainer of society. Rosamund is twice described as having “gravity” in her manner, compared to the high-strung speeches of Syme and Gregory, which points to her role as steadying influence.

The word gravity, of course, also has the more common meaning associated with the archetypal representative of the immutable laws that govern the universe. The connection with Syme may be found in his office as Thursday, the day when God made the sun, moon, and stars to govern the day and the night.**

Rosamund represents an ideal of sanity and order that Syme seeks during the novel and will find afterwards in his marriage to her. Chesterton hints at Rosamund’s embodying the good for which Syme is striving in many ways throughout the book, but, as in the cases of Syme and Gregory, it is most easily found in her name.

Though Germanic in origin, the name “Rosamund” has been associated, dating back to the the 15th century at the latest, with the Latin rosa mundi, “rose of the world.” It’s likely that Chesterton meant his readers to think at once of the Virgin Mary, long symbolized by roses, and her angel messenger who announced the coming of the King and Governor of the universe.

 

Further Reading (none as spoiler-free as the above)

The Aforementioned Analyses

* Frederick Buechner, in  Speak What We Feel, an analysis of Chesterton’s work from a biographical perspective
** Sonja West, in “The Man Who Was Thursday, the Nightmare of Modernity, and the Days of Creation”  http://www.discovery.org/a/1145

Annotated Bibliography of Other Insightful Commentary

Introduction to Oxford World’s Classics The Man Who Was Thursday and Related Pieces by Stephen Medcalf
This piece is long and can’t be found online, but it’s worth the effort. The author illuminates some of the most obscure sections of the text with entertaining and profound analysis

Dale Ahlquist’s “Lecture 10,” http://www.chesterton.org/lecture-10/
Though very brief, it was the most enjoyable and thoughtful review I found.

“The Ellesmere Book Club: The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton”
http://www.terynobrien.com/2013/06/18/the-ellesmere-book-club-the-man-who-was-thursday-by-g-k-chesterton/
A personal reflection on the power of the book and its themes.

“Job’s Riddling God: Chesterton’s Consoler?” from Robert Wild’s Tumbler of God: Chesterton as a Mystic
http://www.fatherbobwild.org/tumbler_11.htm
A fascinating analysis of the connection between The Man Who Was Thursday and The Book of Job, with a biographical emphasis.

“The Man Who Was Thursday: Chesterton’s Duel with the Fin de Siècle” by Daniel Moran
An analysis of The Man Who Was Thursday through the lens of Chesterton’s philosophical context and development.

Martin Gardner’s Introduction to The Annotated Thursday
I didn’t agree with all of his analysis, but I still found it thought-provoking and illuminating in many respects. Gardner also refers his readers to similarly thought-provoking but occasionally disagreeable analyses of The Man Who Was Thursday in his Acknowledgments.

C.S. Lewis’s comments in Surprised By Joy
G.K. Chesterton’s works played a significant role in turning Lewis’s heart and mind to God. Lewis discusses how he felt about them in various passages of his autobiography. Need I say more?

Stephanie Helmick

Author: Stephanie Helmick

Stephanie Helmick studied Economics, History, and Mathematics at George Mason University. She began her academic career investigating libertarianism, proceeded to church history, dallied in Shakespearean literature, and currently revels in graphic novels and all things Disney.

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