Tremendous trifles

“The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.”

The essay “Tremendous trifles” questions the need of doing extraordinary things in the name of adventure. It challenges the theory advocating the importance of travelling to unknown continents and climbing highest of mountains to gain vigour and zest in life. Instead it puts forth a remarkable idea that even the commonplace existence can be striking if only one chooses to observe the unremarkable and what appears to be ordinary with fascination.

The difference between the two theories is illustrated with the help of a fairy tale. That of Paul and Peter. The two little boys are playing in their garden when they are visited by fairy, disguised as a milkman, who agrees to grant them one wish each. Paul wishes to become a giant so that he can travel from Niagara to Himalayas in an afternoon’s stroll. However he discovers that once his wish is fulfilled, once he becomes big enough to cover such great distances with little effort, everything that he held in great awe looses it’s awesomeness. The Niagara appears to him no more interesting than tap water and the Himalayas are nothing more than a little cork rockery in his garden.

Peter makes the opposite request. Instead of asking to be turned into a giant he wishes the fairy to make him a pygmy. And at once the things that appeared commonplace become grand and magnificent. The grass turns into a green jungle through which the rays of the sun shine gold and silver. The play bed transforms into an insurmountable mountain standing in dominance. His garden that appeared insignificant changes into a land of unending adventures.

He concludes that “It is from the valley that things look large; it is from the level that things look high”. To make ordinary things extraordinary all one needs to do is put on the “sacred spectacles of exaggeration”. Or in other words change one’s point of view.

While the author makes a case for marvels in everyday life I think it would be improper to interpret it as an argument against travelling. When he says that there’s a lot to see in your own garden he does not mean that there’s nothing to behold elsewhere. The real instruction of the essay, I believe, is that the mere inclination of going out adventuring is not enough. One must have the desire to observe. One must exert effort not only physical but also mental to gain proper enjoyment out of anything. Otherwise even the most splendid of spectacles loose their flavour.

The attitude of looking at things from a different point of view is a common theme is Many of Chesterton’s essays. In “On chasing after one’s hat” he compares the flooded London alleys to streets in Venice with people going around in boats and having the time of their life. He looks at every inconvenience as an adventure and always manages to find something remarkably exciting about anything.

“After one has met a man a million times in the newspapers it is always a complete shock and reversal to meet him in real life”

The book “Tremendous Trifles” is a collection of trifle incidents that occurred in the life of GK Chesterton. There’s an instance of “A great man” in which the author meets an old writer in the woods who even in his advanced age is full of life. As Chesterton observes the old man’s eyes are full of youth and his words are full of life. He talks not of the good old days but of the stuff that he is yet to do. Chesterton regrets that he would never be able to meet the man again , who is really one of a kind with his supernatural talent that inspired creativity even in him, for he died last Tuesday. I found this account very relateable as I have known old men like these myself who radiate a much more fiery life energy and mental activity than most of the the younger folks I know.

In “A piece of chalk” the author sits down to paint the devil and his thoughts turn to theology. He talks about virtue as something plain and positive and not just the absence of vice. For instance he calls Mercy as not just not being cruel or sparing but something that can be seen like the sun. He calls Chastity not simply as abstinence from sexual wrong but something flaming like Joan of arc. What’s remarkable about this essay is to notice how the author’s thoughts diverge from painting to a wide array of topics and then converge back to painting again. He travels a wide landscape of ideas and impressions while being still and without moving an inch.

There are many such instances related in the book. All of them appear to be commonplace at the start but they almost always turn into something more thought provoking, tremendous trifles is not trifle at all. The best thing about the collection is that you can pick up any essay at random, be done with it in 15 minutes and rest assured that it’ll still stay with you for the remainder of the day.

Hit the road jack



  • On January 22, 2015