"Ful ofte in a game a sooth I have herd seye."
If these words don't prompt a flicker of recognition, modern readers may be forgiven. Nor are they words that fall trippingly from the tongue: many an English Major has been thoroughly challenged trying to pronounce them.
Yet they are good words -- words taken from "The Monk's Prologue," part of The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer. We know them better in a paraphrase that's proverbial, "Many a truth is spoken is jest."
In the realm of literature, many court jesters speak truth to kings. Closer to our time, America was given a jester all its own in the person of Mark Twain.
"Ah, well," Twain once said, "I am a great and sublime fool. But then I am God's fool, and all His works must be contemplated with respect."
Here one remembers Edward Wagenknecht's story of Twain's reply to the young Winston Churchill: at a time when the young politician defended his country's actions in The Boer War, saying "My country, right or wrong."
"Ah," Twain replied, "when the poor country is fighting for its life, I agree. But this was not your case." And in the gift book he gave Churchill, he penned this inscription:
"To do good is noble; to teach others to do good is nobler; and no trouble."
Reading this line, one also remembers a line G.K. Chesterton wrote about Twain in a tribute published in 1910: "But wit is a sword; it is meant to make people feel the point as well as see it." Many people saw the point of Twain's wit, Chesterton concluded: more than a few felt it.
In the early 1900s, as Twain's life drew to a close, Chesterton himself became famous in the guise of a jester. And in many ways he took his cue from Twain, saying once in the pages of The Mark Twain Quarterly: "I have never understood why a solid argument is any less solid because you make the illustrations as entertaining as you can." Further, following Twain's death in April 1910, Chesterton wrote a long essay in tribute to him, calling him "a great jester."
Chesterton once told Twain's cousin Cyril Clemens: "I have always admired the genius of Mark Twain... He was the greatest master of the tall story who has ever lived, and was also, what is more important, a thoroughly sincere man." Then, taking up Cyril Clemens' autograph book, he wrote in it: "Greetings to the Mark Twain Society from an Innocent at Home, G.K. Chesterton, known as the unjumping frog of Bucks County."
But of all the things Chesterton said about Twain, perhaps this passage from his April 1910 essay was the most telling and profound:
"No writer of modern English, perhaps, has had such a genius for making the cow jump over the moon; that is, for lifting the heaviest and most solemn absurdity high up into the most starry adventures. He was never at a loss for a simile or a parable, and they were never, strictly speaking, nonsense. They were rather a kind of incredible sense."
Just this month, a new book has been published by a noted author drawing on the tradition established by writers like Twain and Chesterton.
The book is called "Fool's Talk," written by the Oxford-educated cultural scholar and author, Os Guinness. And if Twain and Chesterton were writers who marshaled wit and paradox in commending wisdom, Guinness richly mines many a classic vein of wisdom, and wit, to help Christians in our time discern what it means to be winsome, and compelling, in commending faith.
Guinness takes the reader to lines that, in turn, lead to the place of reflection -- like these, from William Hazlitt: "Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be." Indeed, Guinness has himself penned many telling lines, as with two questions he poses at the outset of his book:
How can we speak for our Lord in a manner that does justice to the wonder of who God is, to the profundity of the good news He has entrusted to us, to the wily stubbornness of the human heart and mind, as well as to the wide-ranging challenges of today's world and the mind-boggling prospects of tomorrow's? In short, how can we as followers of Jesus be as truly persuasive as we desire to be?
These are questions worth asking -- and seeking answers, readers can do no better than turn the pages of this book. For over forty years, Dr. Guinness has crafted learnèd, witty, and compelling books. This book may be his finest -- one rich in simile, parable, and insight.