“The heraldic lion”

Every modern person of intelligence can see quite easily that the heraldic lion is very different from the real lion. But what we moderns do not realize is this: that the heraldic lion is much more important than the real lion. Words positively fail me to express the unimportance of the real lion. The real lion is a large, hairy sort of cat that happens to be living… in useless deserts that we have never seen and never want to see; a creature that never did us any good, and, in our circumstances, cannot even do us any harm; a thing as trivial, for all our purposes, as the darkest of the deep-sea fishes or as minerals in the moon. There is no earthly reason to suppose that he has any of the leonine qualities as we ordinarily understand them. There is no ground for imagining that he is generous or heroic, or even proud… He does not touch human life at all. You cannot turn him, as you can the ox, into a labourer nor can you turn him, as you can the dog, into a sportsman and a gentleman. He can share neither our toils nor our pleasures… He has no human interest about him. He is not even good to eat. From the fringe of his mangy and overrated mane to the tip of his tail (with which, I understand, he hits himself in order to overcome the natural cowardice of his disposition), from his mane to his tail, I say, he is one mass of unimportance. He is simply an overgrown stray cat and he is a stray cat that never comes into our street… We have to put him in our museums and such places, just as we have to put tiny little chips of grey stone that look as if you could pick them up in the street, or homely-looking brown beetles at which no self-respecting child could look twice.

But the only kind of lion that is of any earthly practical importance is the legendary lion. He is really a useful thing to have about the place. He holds up the shield of England, which would otherwise fall down… The legendary lion, the lion that was made by man and not by Nature, he is indeed the king of beasts… His virtues are the virtues of a grand European gentleman… He has the sense of the sanctity and dignity of death which is behind so many of our ancient rites. He will not touch the dead. He has that strange worship of a bright and proud chastity. The lion will not hurt virgins. In an innumerable number of old legends and poems you will find the description of the refusal of some eminent lion to touch some eminent young lady… The valuable lion, we have agreed, is a creature made entirely by man, like the chimera and the hippogriff, the mermaid and the centaur, the giant with a hundred eyes, and the giant with a hundred hands…. Remember all the great truths you have read in this article; remember that this heraldic lion is the symbol of all that has lifted our Christian civilization into life and energy and honour – magnanimity, valour, disdain of easy victories, a scorn for all the scorners of the weak.

The Illustrated London News, 11 November 1905.

Published in: on March 7, 2007 at 1:08 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Dale Ahlquist at the American Chesterton Society would know the source. Write him at info@chesterton.org.

    Best,
    Sean Dailey

  2. It appears the source is the Illustrated London News, November 11, 1905

  3. Many thanks for that, Mike. Updated.


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