The Katabasis of Father Brown: Descent in “The Sign of the Broken Sword”

SPOILER ALERT!  What follows is a sort of commentary/essay on G.K. Chesterton’s story “The Sign of the Broken Sword.”  If you wish a. not to have any of the story spoiled and b. to know what exactly I’m talking about, read it first.  It is not long.  Then, come, read this post!

A katabasis (Latinised as catabasis) is, according to Raymond J. Clark in Catabasis: Vergil and the Wisdom Tradition, is a descent to the Underworld by a living human being in the flesh — ie. not a divinity, not in a dream, not necromancy.  Many katabaseis involve the hero of the story going to Underworld to fetch back a person or gain knowledge, thus requiring a favour of the Queen or King of the Dead, such as dread Persephone, Lord Pluto, or Ereshkigal.  The most famous katabasis in all of western literature is that of Dante in his Inferno, vol. 1 of The Divine Comedy.  This descent was patterned on that of Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid, Book VI; other mythological heroes to descend include Herakles and Orpheus.

The katabasis has survived into modern literature as well.  Two recent examples, both of them framed on Classical myth, are found in Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips and The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan.  Themes and images of descent make their appearance in less explicit places as well, however.  “The Sign of the Broken Sword” is one such place, beginning with a descent from the churchyard into the woods, and out again at the inn at the end.  Along the way, Father Brown and Flambeau wrestle with a mystery that itself is a descent into villainy, horror, and treason.

Our first clue that Chesterton has written us a katabasis comes in the first paragraph as he is setting the stage and setting the oppressive, heavy mood that persists throughout the story.  In describing the forest, he writes:

The black hollows between the trunks of the trees looked like bottomless, black caverns of that Scandinavian hell, a hell of incalculable cold.

First, Chesterton is not merely imagining that Hell would be a place of cold for northern peoples, an inverse of the Mediterranean Christian Hell of fire.  Hel in Norse mythology is the name of the goddess of the Underworld, one of the children of Loki (himself god of mischief), and she rules over an Underworld of cold ice — as Chesterton says, “a hell of incalculable cold.”  At first reading, I assumed Chesterton was merely making the hell reference to produce the weighty mood that he sought.  Such is not the case, as further evidence of katabasis, of descent, rears its head as our main characters walk away from the monument to General Arthur Saint Clare and make their way into the woods — into hell itself.

The first clue is merely incidental, but not to be missed — they are leaving an old graveyard, the earthly abode of the dead.  There is no more appropriate place to begin a descent to the Underworld than a graveyard, if you ask me.  Another piece of corroborating evidence is found as our protagonists pass “many hundreds of grey and ghostly trees” — strikingly reminiscent of the shades of the dead who abide in Hades, even described as “ghostly”.  And that this hell is Scandinavian is kept within the reader’s awareness by the description of the moon as being “like a lustrous snowball”.

At one point, Brown and Flambeau pass from one bit of forest to another.  As they are about to plunge into the depths of the next piece of wilderness, we read of Flambeau:

He stared firmly at the grey facade of forest in front of him, with the one black gap in it, like the mouth of the grave, into which their path plunged.

They are descending into “the mouth of the grave” — into Hell itself.  As they move through hell, at one point a tree branch curves against the white face of the moon — described as a “devil’s horn.”  As the evil of the narrative discussed by Father Brown and Flambeau unravels and becomes clear, they plunge through dark corridors and blackness.  The path grows steeper, more convoluted and twisted, the deeper into the tale of General Saint Clare they tread.  Ghostly language is used even to describe the spare light to be found in the wood at night, “a ghost of a net”.

We eventually reach a firmer reference to Hell once Father Brown has unravelled the clues and is about to relate to Flambeau the whole horrid, wretched story of evil:

“I mean that,” retorted the cleric, and suddenly pointed at a puddle sealed with ice that shone in the moon. “Do you remember whom Dante put in the last circle of ice?”

“The traitors,” said Flambeau, and shuddered. As he looked around at the inhuman landscape of trees, with taunting and almost obscene outlines, he could almost fancy he was Dante, and the priest with the rivulet of a voice was, indeed, a Virgil leading him through a land of eternal sins.

Thus, Father Brown is leading Flambeau through Hell.  Flambeau is like Dante, Father Brown like Virgil.  The Hell is one of coldest ice, a Scandinavian Hell as found in the wintry wood of Chesterton’s story.

And as Father Brown draws his story to a close, Flambeau sees the warmth of the light of the inn at which they shall rest come story’s end.  The katabasis will be soon over.  At the end, they emerge from the woods, from Hell, and come back to our world, to an inn, the Sign of the Broken Sword.

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Saint of the Week: Dante Alighieri, Supreme Poet of Italy

The Salutation of Beatrice by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Throughout Christian history, two ways of living, praying, meditating have co-existed, generally peacefully.  One of these ways is the Way of Negation, the way of denial, of asceticism, of apophatic theology (to describe God only by what He isn’t).  The other is the Way of Affirmation (or something — apologies if I’m wrong; correct me in the comments!), the way of joyful living, of cataphatic theology (to describe God by the attributes revealed in Scripture & reasoned from the universe).  Both are needed, I believe, and most of us fall a little bit in each.

The latter type of believer includes such luminaries as C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, the other has St. Antony and Dionysius the Areopagite.  In his masterful history of the Spirit at work in the Church, The Descent of the Dove, Charles Williams places Dante Alighieri (c. 1265-1321) amongst those who tread the Way of Affirmation.

Dante lived bountifully.  In La Vita Nuova we do see a little bit more swooning than would be appropriate in our culture or even in actual 13th-century Florence.  However, this swooning was because he was grasping life so fully, not denying what was there in Beatrice and thus living the earthly life given by Almighty God to its very fullest extent.

He is best known, however, not for swooning over Beatrice, but for La Divina Commedia, The Divine Comedy, a work in three volumes: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso.*  The first volume is the only I have yet to read; we begin with Dante’s journeys in Hell, right to Satan’s belly, with Virgil as guide.  Thence Virgil takes him to Purgatory; my friend Andrew finds Purgatory quite amusing — it is rumoured to be the most original of the three.  And Beatrice leads him through Paradise.

I know people who are obsessed with being lame, so they say things like, “Dante’s Inferno is just a really long version of Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid.“**  Yes, Dante reworks a lot of Virgil’s material.  But he does it in a thoroughly Christian, thoroughly Mediaeval way (since neither the Renaissance nor Florentine Renaissance actually happened [along with the “Dark Ages”], Dante is pure Mediaeval awesomeness).  Dante’s Hell is not simply the place where the wicked are punished in various curious ways.

It is you.

Yes, you are Dante’s Hell.  Don’t worry — you’re also Purgatory and Paradise.  A Christian story is not simply beautiful, but beauty that points to Truth.  And the Truth we see in Hell is the embodiment of all of our sins, from pettiness to treason.  The Inferno is an unveiling of the messy, unpleasant business we call “fallenness.”  Do what you will with Genesis 2-3 — there may be funnier, more “life-affirming” creation stories out there*** — but it relates a basic truth about our lives.  We are all screwed up.  We all have Hell within.

If all Dante did was moan about Hell and how to avoid it, then he would fall firmly in the category of “The Way of Negation.”  But he moves on from Hell, to Purgatory and, ultimately, Paradise.  We have these places in us as well.  Made in the Image of the Living God, there is glory and beauty in the human race.  We are not designed to wallow in the filth of our own sin.  We are designed for the glory and beauty of Paradise, accessed through the work of Purgatory.

Thus, the Divine Comedy.  If this were all Dante Alighieri had written, he would deserve an account in every Church History textbook.  However, he was also a great scholar and populariser of the vernacular, as in De Vulgari Eloquentia (in Latin here).  He also got entangled in local politics, getting himself exiled.  Finally, he was a Third Order Franciscan (and we all know my love for St. Francis) — indeed, if we count Dante among the Great Franciscans, St. Francis died in 1226, St. Bonaventure lived from 1221 to 1274, and Dante was born in 1265.  They all overlapped and all have had a powerful impact upon the thoughtlife of the Christian world.

So read a little Dante today, for there you will find a man plugged into the Fountain of Life.  There you will find a man thoroughly engrossed in the world of his day — political, intellectual, poetic — yet who did not lose sight of the one God worthy of praise.

*In Dorothy L. Sayers’ translations for Penguin, that would be Hell, Purgatory, Paradise.

**This is the lame sort of person who can see nothing but political propaganda in the Aeneid.

***The Blackfoot one related by Tomson Highway in “Why Cree is the Funniest of All Languages,” (in Me Funny ed. Drew Hayden Taylor) is certainly funnier.