Book Review: The Flying Inn by G.K. Chesterton

Perhaps prophetical more so than prosaic (and not at all in the sense Chesterton intended it) the Flying Inn is one of those books which should rank among the classics. Certain works on similar subject matter become quickly dated, while this work through its immortal prose, and brilliant poetry shall remain a classic because it could be something happening today.

The Flying Inn is a story of Patrick Dalroy, an Irish Navy captain who fought the Turks on behalf of various Greek Islands, and then returned to England after the English brokered a peace deal with a Turks. What he discovers is that Lord Ivywood, the same English diplomat who brokered the deal with the Turks, is now enforcing prohibition throughout England. When Dalroy meets Mr. Humphrey Pump, the owner of the pub “The Old Ship”, Lord Ivywood is in the process of closing it down. After listening closely to the law, Dalroy discovers that in order to ease the transition to an alcohol free England, an Englishman may still walk into any building which has a pub sign outside and purchase an alcoholic drink. Wasting no time, Dalroy grabs the sign for the Old Ship, along with a cask of Rum, a cask of Cheddar, and heads for the hills with Pump.

The tale brings us through the adventures of Dalroy and Pump who mysteriously appear with their Inn sign and are out again before the authorities can do anything about it (if they will at all). The perplexed Ivywood, who has employed a Turkish man who once preached on the street corners with other local buffoons on their soapbox as his prophet of the new prohibitionist religion, continues his course not only to remake England, but to remake man in spite of the “Flying Inn”, until this Inn  shows up at his door step. At last, Ivywood sets the climax in order to change the law which brings about the thrilling conclusion, which follows logically, but almost seems to be of a different book.

Chesterton is perhaps one of few authors who can combine a flowing prose with verse and song on the scale to which he employs it, coining such memorable verses as the perfect vegetarian and the song of Quoodle. More importantly, while the book is about England  altering her law and culture to mollify Islamic tradition and practice, the book is not about the Islamification of Europe which some may take it to be. It is actually about the work of modernism in culture, and how the concepts of modernism evolve continually, so that man too evolves (that is in terms of culture). This is expressed perfectly by Ivywood towards the end:

[Mr. Crooke] “Do you think you made the world,  that you should make it over again so easily?”

“The world was made badly”, said Ivywood, with a terrible note in his voice, “and I will make it over again.”

This last statement of his sums up so powerfully the motivation for all his movements throughout the book, for his fascination with Islam is not about Islam itself, it is about creating a new man. His forcing prohibition and embracing Eastern philosophies has little to do with the Eastern philosophies and religion itself, but everything to do with rejecting the spiritual and cultural patrimony of the Christian tradition in England. Ivywood is the archetypal modernist, who does not embrace Islam because he believes in it, he does not even truly embrace it per se, he sees it as a catylist, or more correctly, an antithesis in Hegelian logic, to the thesis which is that of the Western tradition which the modernist despises, and this will produce the synthesis, a new order, and a new man.

Chesteron through Dalroy, makes a commentary on it:

“Do you know, Hump, I think modern people have somehow got their minds all wrong about human life. They seem to expect what Nature has never promised; and then try to ruin all that nature has really given. At all those atheist chapels of Ivywood’s they’re always talking of Peace, Perfect Peace, and Utter Peace, and Universal Joy and souls that beat as one. But they don’t look any more cheerful than anyone else; and the next thing they do is to start smashing a thousand good jokes and good stores and good songs and good friendships by pulling down ‘The Old Ship’. Now it seems to me that this is asking for too much and getting too little. I don’t know whether God means a man to have happiness in that All in All and Utterly Utter sense of happiness.” (Pg. 65-66)


The book as a whole leads us through many avenues, with strong distributist overtones, and many humorous anecdotes which make the book very readable. Most importantly, it serves as a warning, and proves Chesterton prophetic. I doubt he would have imagined a real Islamic takeover of Europe, which is what we are looking at presently. However, the warning to modernity has become true in exactly that form, when you break from your tradition, lay waste to the roots of what makes your culture true, what you have is something hollow, something which will collapse, or else be conquered. Thus Dalroy at the close of the book enumerates the stages of empire:

“The destiny of empire is in four acts: Victory over barbarians. Employment of barbarians. Alliance with barbarians. Conquest by barbarians. That is the great destiny of Empire.” Not only is this the destiny of the once great British Empire, it is the destiny of the American Empire as well. The only way to avert it is by recovering the Western tradition.


Rob Sunday, January 17, 2010 at 2:41:00 PM CST  

The last paragraph says it all. Henry VIII and Queen Bess started the decline of the west and have much to answer for.

Dave,  Friday, February 5, 2010 at 12:31:00 PM CST  

Thanks for this, Athanasius. A very interesting slant on a book more subtly complex than it seems. Have you read John Coates's analysis of it in "Chesterton and the Edwardian Cutural Crisis"?

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