Ninety-two years ago, at the apex of England’s Edwardian ease, Gilbert Keith Chesterton published a curious little novel, written in his inimitable light-but-serious style. In the context of a literary ambience that had recently produced The Wind in the Willows and Peter Pan, The Flying Inn must have seemed like just another piece of whimsy, from an author already noted for whimsical productions (albeit ones espousing a traditionalist manifesto). Only now can we view this book in its proper light, and only now can we appreciate Chesterton’s keen insights into the meaning of modernity.
For those unfamiliar, The Flying Inn is a story of how Islam creeps up on an unsuspecting England and its rapid progress from fringe nuttiness to the highest offices of state.
In the first chapter, an old man in a battered fez is regaling indifferent passers-by with the ridiculous theory that English culture is really distorted Islamic culture—“proved,” he says, by the English habit of eating turkey for Christmas. Just a few weeks later, he is wearing rather better clothes and addressing Ethical Societies; a few weeks more, and he is a respected guest at all the fashionable parties.
And so it goes, until leading politician Lord Ivywood, who is temperamentally drawn to Islam because of its puritanism and extreme abstraction (to the point...