“Lions: Real, Heraldic, and Symbolic”

GKsWeekly5.pngIllustrated London News – November 11, 1905

Sir Thomas Browne, whose tercentenary was celebrated at Norwich the other day, was, as everybody knows, a medical man. He was a rather curious kind of medical man; and there are a great many points in which he presents a somewhat singular contrast to our doctors of to-day. For instance, instead of being a doctor who became a knight, he was a knight who became a doctor; a bizarre and topsy-turvy conception. He was a doctor who wrote an eloquent and exhaustive work on urn-burial, churchyards, and death generally; a subject which doctors are now understood to avoid. But in nothing is he so permanently interesting as in his relations with the remarkable zoology of his time. His superb religious rhetoric and the whole literary side of him are obviously immortal. Nothing finer has ever been said about the soul than that phrase of Browne’s that it is a thing in man “which owes no homage unto the sun.” But a more delicate defence is needed of his quaint science, and, indeed, of all the mediaeval science from which he drew his ideas. We know that his theology was true. We know that his zoology was untrue; but do not let us too readily assume that it is therefore unimportant. The whole of that old, fantastic science is misunderstood. It made every creature rather a symbol than a fact. But, then, it thought that all material facts were valuable as symbols of spiritual facts. It did not really very much mind whether the lion was a noble animal who spared virgins. What it did want to make clear was that, if the lion was a noble animal, it would spare virgins.

Let me take this example of what I mean. Every modern person of intelligence can see quite easily that the heraldic lion is very different from the real lion. But what we moderns do not quite realise is this: that the heraldic lion is much more important than the real lion. Words positively fail me to express the unimportance of the real lion. The real lion is a large, hairy, sort of cat that happens to be living (or rather happens to be dying) in useless deserts that we have  never seen and never want to see; a creature that never did us any good, and, in our circumstances, cannot even do us any harm; a thing as trivial, for all our purposes, as the darkest of the deep-sea fishes or as the minerals of the moon. There is no earthly reason to suppose that he has any of the leonine qualities as we ordinarily understood them. There is no ground for imagining that he is generous or heroic, or even proud. Some people who have fought him say that he is not even brave. He does not touch human life at any point at all. You cannot turn him, as you can the ox, into a labourer: nor can you turn him, as you can the dog, into a sportsman and a gentleman. He can share neither our toils nor our pleasures: you cannot harness a lion to a plough, nor can you, with a pack of lions, go hunting an elephant. He has no human interest about him. He is not even good to eat. From the fringe of his mangy and overrated mane to the tip of his tail (with which, I understand, he hits himself in order to overcome the natural cowardice of his disposition), from his mane to his tail, I say, he is one mass of unimportance. He is simply an overgrown stray cat. And he is a stray cat that never comes into our street. He is living his commonplace existence in regions where no white man can live without going mad with monotony and heat. We have to put him in our museums and such places, just as we have to put tiny little chips of grey stone that look as if you could pick them up in the street, or homely-looking brown beetles at which no self-respecting child could look twice. We have to do this because there are in the world a race of extraordinary people called men of science, who want to know all the facts, whether they are interesting or uninteresting facts. They cross-examine us about our experiences, as do the austere detectives of fiction about whom I wrote last week. They want to know every little detail of every passing day, however dull or seemingly unimportant. They ask us to search and prod our memories for the small things that so easily escape us; they attach importance to every little domestic incident, even to such a trifle as a lion.

But the only kind of lion that is of any earthly practical importance is the legendary lion. He really is a useful thing to have about the place. He holds up the shield of England, which would otherwise fall down, despite the well-meant efforts of the Unicorn, whose hoofs are deficient in a prehensile quality. The African lion does not matter to anyone. But the British Lion, though he does not exist, does matter. He means something; it is the only true object of existence to mean something; and the real African lion has never succeeded in meaning anything at all. The legendary lion, the lion that was made by man and not by Nature, he is indeed the king of beasts. He is a great work of art, a great creation of the genius of man, like Rouen Cathedral or the Iliad. We know his character perfectly well, as we know the character of Mr. Micawber or Macbeth, or many other persons who have never taken the trouble to exist in a mere material way. His virtues are the virtues of a grand European gentleman; there is nothing African about his ethics. He has the sense of the sanctity and dignity of death which is behind so many of our ancient rites. He will not touch the dead. he has that strange worship of a bright and proud chastity which is the soul of our Europe, in Diana, in the Virgin Martyrs, in Britomart, which left a single white star in the sensual storms of the Elizabethan Drama, and which is reconquering the world in its new form – the worship of children. The lion will not hurt virgins. In an innumerable number of the old legends and poems you will find the description of the refusal of some eminent lion to touch some eminent young lady. Some say that this sense of delicacy is mutual; and that young ladies also refuse to touch lions. This may be true: but even if it is true is probably only applies to the lower or actual lion, the mere lion of Africa, a negligible creature whom we have already dismissed to wander in his deserts, deserts which are as futile as himself and which form the dustbin of the universe. The valuable lion, we have agreed, is a creature made entirely by man, like the chimaera and the hippogriff, the mermaid and the centaur, the giant with a hundred eyes, and the giant with a hundred hands. The lion on one side of the royal shield is as fabulous as the unicorn on the other side. In so far as he is not merely fantastic and impossible, he consists of all the aggregate good qualities of a kind of super-celestial country gentleman. He is the English aristocrat in a lion’s skin. I intend no unpleasant allusion to another animal who once assumed that costume. I mean merely that the fabulous lion is really a human being: a thing which it is extremely difficult for a real lion to be. The heraldic lion is fading, I fear, upon our escutcheons. He still swings valiantly, however, over certain places of entertainment where so many of the kindlier traditions of our ancient civilisation have taken refuge. If you see the Red Lion, which should be on the shield of the knight, painted only on the signboard of an inn, remember all the great truths that you have read in this article; remember that this heraldic lion on the sign is the symbol of all that has lifted our Christian civilisation into life and energy and honour – magnanimity, valour, a disdain of easy victories, a scorn for all the scorners of the weak. Do not pass by “The Red Lion” with indifference or contempt. Now I come to think of it, you may not pass by it at all.

The heraldic lion has, perhaps, sprawled rather too widely over this article. A great many other examples might be taken. The heraldic leopard is not without his good points. The dogheaded men in Africa were full of interest; nor must we forget Sir Thomas Maundeville’s memorable description of the hippopotamus, that it was “half man and half horse.” That is what may be called a impressionist or symbolist sketch of it; it avoids teasing details, and gives a sense of mass and atmosphere. I have often looked at the hippopotamus in his cage at the Zoological Gardens, and wondered which part of his appearance or physiognomy impressed the incisive Sir Thomas Maundeville as being contributed by some human person of his acquaintance. Had Sir Thomas seen a very human class of hippopotamus, or had he mixed with a hippopotamic class of men? But the general remakrs which I have made about the medieval lion, the heraldic lion, apply equally well to all these other mediaeval monstrosities or combinations. They were all fictitious. They were all entirely different to an independent of, the living creature upon which they were supposed to be modelled. And those who wrote about them and talked about them, and gravely disputed about all their characteristics, physical, mental, and moral, were, at the bottom of their hearts and the back of their minds, totally indifferent to whether or not they were true or not. The Middle Ages were full of logic. And logic in its examples and symbols is in its nature entirely indifferent to fact. It is easy to be logical about things that do not exist as about things that do exist. If twice three is six, it is certain that three men with two legs each will have six legs between them. And if twice three is six, it is equally certain that three men with two heads each will have six heads between them. That there never were three men with two heads each does not invalidate the logic in the least. It makes the deduction impossible, but it does not make it illogical. Twice three is still six, whether you reckon it with pigs or in flaming dragons, whether you reckon it in cottages or in castles-in-the-air. And the object of all this great mediaeval and Renascence science  was simply to find everywhere and anywhere examples of its philosophy. If the hippopotamus illustrated the idea of justice, well and good; if it did not, so much the worse for the hippopotamus. These ancients sought to make the brutes the mere symbol of the man. Some moderns seek to make Man a mere symbol of the brutes. These old scientists were only interested in the human side of the beasts. Some new scientists are only interested in the beastly side of the men. Instead of making the ape and tiger mere accessories to the man, they make man a mere accessory, a mere afterthought to the ape and tiger. Instead of employing the hippopotamus to illustrate their philosophy, they employ the hippopotamus to make their philosophy, and the great fat books he writes you and I, please God, will never read.

–G.K. Chesterton

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