It is a futuristic humorous fantasy set in London but it retains the appearance and atmosphere of the London of Chesterton's time. There are no mind boggling inventions or dystopian type scenarios which you'd expect to find in novels of this sort, but nevertheless, it is bizarre.
As I experienced with one of his later novels, The Man Who was Thursday, what was going on or where the story was heading was a mystery to me. Unlike The Man Who was Thursday, this book had an underlying philosophical theme which echoed Chesterton's concern that larger nations were gobbling up smaller nations and that 'Progressives' were intent on destroying independence and patriotism.
In the introduction to the Dover Edition of this book, there is a quote on how Chesterton came to write this novel after he'd walked down a street in Notting Hill:
In all these world-shaking events this little bit of Notting Hill was of no account. And that seemed idiotic. For to this bit of Notting Hill the bit was of supreme importance.
In the same instant I saw that my Progressive friends were more bent than any on destroying Notting Hill...When they said, 'Every day in every way better and better,' they meant every day bigger and bigger - in every way.
I saw that these Progressives were obsessed with the idea of dilation. There is such a thing as a dilated heart, which I am told is a disease. There is such a thing as a dilated, or swelled, head. But the typical case of a creature who dilated equally all round is that of the imperially-minded frog who wanted to be a bull, and dilated until he burst...
Chesterton's futuristic London was ruled by a despot. The hereditary monarchy had been abandoned and replaced by a system in which the King of England was picked like a juryman from an alphabetical list.
As the story opens, the kingship is bestowed upon Auberon Quinn, a man who cares for nothing but a joke and who brings his sense of the ridiculous into the affairs of government.
One day the King decided to go and mingle with the people, and as he was passing through Notting Hill, a young boy assailed him with a wooden sword and declared, "I'm the King of the Castle."
The King, who was fond of children, praised the boy's patriotism and presented him with half a crown 'for the war-chest of Notting Hill.'
Inspired by his meeting with the boy, he hurried home to revive the mediaeval Charter of the Cities and issued a proclamation for the restoration of the ancient fortified cities (boroughs). He supplied each of them with a banner, a coat of arms and appointed a rotation system to select a Provost to preside over each area.
Ten years later, as the King continued to enjoy his joke, some of the Provosts appeared before him with a complaint regarding the Provost of Notting Hill, Adam Wayne, who refused to let a road be built through his borough. In the middle of their audience with the King, Adam Wayne dramatically entered and proved to be none other than the boy who had assailed the King years before, now a young man of nineteen. Unbeknown to the King, Wayne had taken the 'joke' seriously and was ready to defend Notting Hill to the death.
What follows are a series of battles, bizarre scenes, heroics, humour and mad antics.
One part I really enjoyed was when the King decided to become a war correspondent:
The argent exterior...(I am losing the style. I should have said 'Curving with a whisk' instead of merely 'Curving.' ...I cannot keep this up. War is too rapid for this style of writing. Please ask office-boy to insert mots justes.)
The last chapter uncovers a different philosophical aspect of the book from the obvious 'big nation eats little nation' theme: the concept that the love of a fanatic and the laughter of a satirist are but two lobes of a healthy brain. Auberon Quin and Adam Wayne were two lobes of the same brain cloven in two, which in their separate states produced antagonism and madness.
My teenaged children have enjoyed G.K. Chesterton's novels from around the age of 15 years and up. The combination of bizarre fantasy, heroic action and humour appeals to them and although his writing can be a challenge to get through, it is unique and his absurd humour and sharp wit are compelling draw cards.
The book is listed in Ambleside Online's Year 11 History (20th Century) as an optional supplement as it looks at the clash between imperialism and nationalism and is available free online here.