I read Chesterton and cannot understand the following places:

Dr Boyne was a big dark Irishman, one of those rather baffling Irishmen to be found all over the world, who will talk scientific scepticism, materialism, and cynicism at length and at large, but who never dream of referring anything touching the ritual of religion to anything except the traditional religion of their native land. It would be hard to say whether their creed is a very superficial varnish or a very fundamental substratum; but most probably it is both, with a mass of materialism in between.



“Why, didn’t you notice,” answered Brown, “at that first meeting in the office, the lawyer played with a pen and not with a paper-knife; though he had a beautiful bright steel paper-knife in the pattern of a stiletto? The pens were dusty and splashed with ink; but the knife had just been cleaned. But he did not play with it. There are limits to the irony of assassins.

[Taken from THE GREEN MAN]

I want to be explained the meaning of these quotes from Chesterton.

After translating the first quote to French and looking up in English-French dictionaries I thought that it means that if Dr Boyne has any respect for religions then it must be only the religion of his native land. While at the same time he has no respect for other religions.

As for second quote, it is the last sentence from the long passage in which Father Brown explains how the murderer of the story made a slip and allowed himself to be caught. As I understand it, it may mean that murderers cannot consider all little details and that's why they get caught.

I want to know if I understand these quotes correctly!

  • Hello and welcome. On this site, we ask that when people ask questions of this type, they include what they've already found so far. This helps the community to zoom in on the asker's main issue without going over stuff they already know. Could you add those details to your question, please? As for the quotes themselves, the first seems to say that to Dr Boyne, 'religion' meant the 'religion' he/she grew up with; the second depends on the context surrounding that sentence.
    – Lawrence
    Feb 26, 2017 at 11:25
  • 1
    Thank you, Lawrence. Now I understand the first quote!! The second quote appears as the last sentence of the long passage in which the main character Father Brown explains how the murderer made a slip and allowed himself to be caught Feb 26, 2017 at 11:44
  • You're welcome. For the second quote, what have you come up with so far, after looking up definitions and so on? (Please edit those details into the question itself. On this site, 'comments' are considered ephemeral and are sometimes deleted without notice whereas the areas reserved for questions and answers are treated with more respect.)
    – Lawrence
    Feb 26, 2017 at 11:49
  • I think these quotes have lost some meaning without a little more context.
    – Neil W
    Feb 26, 2017 at 12:08
  • ... so I added some.
    – Neil W
    Feb 26, 2017 at 12:15

1 Answer 1


In The Dagger With Wings Father Brown, a Roman Catholic priest, is called in by the English police to investigate a case which seems to involve magic. Why would the English police call in a Roman Catholic priest to investigate a case of magic? Firstly, magic is not a Christian practice so it seems odd to call a priest at all, and secondly England has a national established Church, which is Protestant, so, if a priest was needed for any reason, the police might be expected to contact the Church of England. Chesterton felt this needed explaining.

The phrase the OP has highlighted includes "anything touching the ritual of religion". This means anything even slightly to do with religion. Magic comes into this category. The phrase "the traditional religion of their (Irishmen's) native land" means the Roman Catholic Church, the predominant religion in Ireland. So the police doctor, Dr Boyne, was the kind of Irishman who would never dream of referring a case involving magic (or anything even vaguely supernatural) to anyone other than the Roman Catholic Church. It was natural for Dr Boyne to turn to the Roman Catholic Church in such a case.

Dr Boyne is in many ways a sceptical man, he does not call in the Roman Catholic Church because of his personal faith, he does so simply because, given his background, it never occurred to him to do anything else. Chesterton goes on to say the faith of people like Dr Boyne is either very superficial, or very profound. It is superficial, since if he understood much Catholic teaching he would know it did not include magic. But perhaps, at a very deep and fundamental level, Dr Boyne believes all supernatural and religious ideas are ultimately one - a concept developed later in the story in the conversation between Father Brown and the man in the house.

The quote from The Green Man about irony refers to doing something which appears to be the opposite of what is intended, or has the opposite effect from that intended. Yet there are limits to the irony, because the thing could only be ironic in some ways and not others.

The concept of assassination in general is ironic, and Chesterton is probably making some allusion to this idea. Assassins often believe that they are doing something to make the world a better place, they believe they are doing good for humanity as a whole, but at the same time they are doing bad by killing another human being. So this irony of doing good by doing bad is a background idea here.

More specifically, it would have been ironic for the people investigating the murder to actually see the murderer playing with the murder weapon and not realise this. But the murderer does not play with the murder weapon - there are limits to the irony and that would be just too ironic. Yet even this non-irony is actually more ironic in another sense. The very fact that the lawyer is playing with a pen rather than a dagger seems strange to Father Brown who suspects that there is some reason the lawyer is avoiding the dagger. So, ironically, by not playing with the dagger, the lawyer calls attention to it more than if he had been playing with it.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.