Chesterton’s England, ca. 100 years ago, is home to a de facto group of patriots, a Robin Hood renaissance. There’s the lawyer, Mr. Robert Owen Hood, whose name itself harkens back to the leader of the Merry Men. His friend Colonel Crane is a quiet soul with a fiery past, plus a penchant for studying indigenous tribes and their religions. Among the other five members, the aviator Hilary Pierce stands out as a brash aviator, someone full of antics which he carries out with great seriousness.
Their goal? To achieve impossible things, and to save England from despots. So Mr. Hood sets the Thames on fire, Colonel Crane eats his hat, and Hilary Pierce makes pigs fly, all in the name of rescuing the common man from the evils of either greedy aristocrats or corrupt bureaucrats. Sly politicians, doctors, and scientists stand in their way, but the League of the Long Bow prevails with one promise: it always does what it says it will do.
When I think of weird classics, I think of Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno or Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford’s The Inheritors (the latter I left unfinished). But Tales of the Long Bow is a whole ‘nother level of weird. It is very niche, to the point that if you don’t know much about British politics and social changes at the beginning of the 20th century, then much of the book will make no sense. I had just enough knowledge to basically “get it.”
The humor is also very quirky and British. Chesterton’s brand of absurdism is both punny and layered, so you feel like you’re listening to an endless stream of inside jokes, interwoven with the social commentary. Some of it is pretty hilarious, like his depiction of the obsequious Mr. Vernon-Smith:
“I wish those friends of yours didn’t give you such revolutionary ideas,” said Mr. Vernon-Smith. “My cousin knows the most dreadful cranks, vegetarians and–and Socialists.” He chanced it, feeling that vegetarians were not quite the same as vegetables; and he felt sure the Colonel would share his horror of Socialists.
The book is a series of short stories, and some of them are stronger than others. I think my favorite might be “The Exclusive Luxury of Enoch Oates,” featuring a particularly hammy caricature of an American millionaire.
As a whole, where the book fell short for me were some of the subplots, which seemed to drag on too long or had an “aha!” moment that was more silly than funny. Also, there was occasional derogatory racial language, which was disappointing.
Overall, I give it 3 stars. I didn’t love it, but I’m not sorry I read it. Tales of the Long Bow is a strange combination of now-esoteric social commentary, quasi-Dickensian characters, and sometimes hilarious, sometimes aggravating storylines. Thanks to Mudpuddle for sharing about this book!
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