G. K. Chesterton was a British journalist and author living in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He wrote on nearly every topic there was to be discussed at the time, and naturally that includes literature. In fact, it’s widely agreed that his critiques of Charles Dickins’ books were a key part of the latter’s success, and Chesterton went on to have strong influence on both Tolkien and Lewis.

Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton

Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton

It’s often said that he was a writer ahead of his time; but in reality what he wrote about then still applies now not because of any gift for prophecy, but rather because he had a keen understanding of human nature. For all our advances in technology and understanding, we don’t change. Humans make the same mistakes generation after generation, particularly if we don’t learn from the mistakes our parents made.

Of course, while that might sound depressing, it’s also helpful for writers: because if we make the same mistakes, it also means we have the same desires. Chesterton’s delightful wit and fascination with the wonder one could find in everyday life would make him a no-brainer for anyone to read, non-writers included. For any writer, though, studying the insights one can get from someone like Chesterton is nearly vital.

The most useful single piece of Chesterton’s writing for any author is found in his most famous nonfiction book, Orthodoxy. Chapter Four, “Ethics of Elfland,” seemingly pauses the larger discussion to talk about literature, and more specifically children’s nursery tales. He uses a discussion about Elfland to talk about not just what a child is interested in, but what adults are interested in as well — and that all the trappings of adult fiction are designed to take us back to the wonder of childhood. That makes it useful for anyone looking to capture a person’s attention, whether a writer or a teacher or an actor; but it’s especially important for writers of science fiction and fantasy.

Because it was published over a century ago, Orthodoxy can be found on Gutenberg; but if you don’t want to read anything other than just “Ethics of Elfland,” many different sites publish it as if it were a stand-alone essay. It’s a quick read, but you’ll want to return to this particular well many times over your career.