Vital Signs

When Incarnation Is Considered Idolatry

In his trenchant 1919 Introduction to Scott Montcrieff’s translation of The Song of Roland, G.K. Chesterton was especially stirred by the Old French epic poem’s final stanza, after “Charlemagne the Christian emperor” had already victoriously fought on the Spanish March against encroaching Islam and seemed, at last, to have “established his empire in quiet.”  But then, the final poignant stanza surprises us, says Chesterton—namely, King Vivien’s unexpected appeal to Charlemagne for help:

And there appears to him the angel of God crying aloud that his arms are needed in a new and distant land and that he must take up again the endless march of his days.  And the great King tears his long white beard and cries out against his restless life.  The poem ends, as it were, with a vision and vista of wars against the barbarians; and the vision is true.  For that war is never ended, which defends the sanity of the world against all the stark anarchies and rending negations which rage against it for ever.  That war is never finished in this world, and the grass has hardly grown on the graves of our own friends who fell in it.

In 1917, one year before his courageous brother, Cecil, died in France, Chesterton published A Short History of England.  It was written in response to “a sort of challenge,” and he calls...

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