On this day in 1901, English author, journalist, artist, and wit G.K. Chesterton dashed out the first draft of a rather obscure short story that would ultimately define his work as a popular Christian philosopher. It was about a man who traveled around the world in an effort to find his true home—only to end up precisely where he began.
Thomas Smythe had been born, brought up, married, and made the father of a family in a little white farmhouse by a river. The river enclosed it on three sides like a castle—on the fourth side there were stables, and beyond that a kitchen garden, and beyond that an orchard, and beyond that a low wall, and beyond that a road, and beyond that a wood, and beyond that slopes meeting the sky—but Smythe had known nothing beyond what he could see from his house. Its walls were the world to him and its roof the sky. Indeed, in his latter years he hardly ever went outside his door. And as he grew lazy, he grew restless; angry with himself and everyone else. He found himself in some strange way weary of every moment and hungry for the next.
His heart had grown stale and bitter towards the wife and children whom he saw every day. His home had become drab and wearisome to him. Yet there was a fragment of a memory that yet remained of happier days when the thatch of his home burned with gold as though angels inhabited the place. Even so, he remembered it as one who remembers a dream. One calamitous day, his mind snapped under the weight of the contradiction—the contradiction between his fond remembrances of the past and his drab circumstances in the present. He presently announced that he was setting out to find his home—that fine white farmhouse by the river. Though his beloved wife and children tried to make him see that he was already there, he could not be persuaded. His delusion was complete.
Thomas Smythe then set out on an epic journey. He crossed hill and vale, mountain and plain, stream and ocean, meadow and desert. Like a transmigrating soul, he lived a series of existences but he never diverged from the line that girdled the world. At long last though, he crested a hill and suddenly felt as if he had crossed the border into elfland. With his head a belfry of new passions, assailed with confounding memories, he came at last to the end of the world. He had arrived at the little white farmhouse by the river—he had arrived at home. His heart leapt for joy as he saw his wife run to meet him in the lane. The prodigal had returned.
The story struck a chord with Chesterton’s readers for a thousand different reasons—it was a powerfully told parable of the universal human experience, it was a poignant prose poem of everyman’s heart longing, and it was a stern rebuke to the vagabond spirit that drags all the Cains, the Esaus, and the Lots eastward away from Eden. But they probably loved it most of all because it was their own story—the testimony of their own, as yet incomplete, pilgrimage home.