Sunday, May 19, 2013

Foils and Faith: Chesterton's "The Ball and the Cross"

My older brother and I recently made an agreement to swap some works of two of our favorite authors. I gave him R. L. Stevenson's Father Damien letter, and he gave me G. K. Chesterton's The Ball and the Cross. Each of us was blown away.

Chesterton is one of my favorite authors, Catholic or otherwise, but it's taken me a long time to warm up to his novels. His apologetics, like the classic Orthodoxy, and short fictions, like the famous Father Brown detective stories, are pretty straightforward, at least for Chesterton. But anyone who has read Manalive or The Man Who Was Thursday knows that his novels can get absolutely out of this world.

So either I was finally ready for Chesterton craziness--or I was just in the mood--but I absolutely loved The Ball and the Cross. It's the first book I've read in a long time that has swept me away long into the night. Beginning with a flying ship, ending with a miracle, and filled up in between with chases, duels, romance, lunatic asylums, and theology, this is a book that I wanted to read over again almost as soon as I'd finished it. So let me start from the beginning.

The main plot revolves around two men who seem dire opposites--James Turnbull, a fiery Lowland Scotch atheist; and Evan MacIan, a young, mystic Catholic Highlander. But they are similar in that they're both so fiercely entrenched in their respective beliefs that they're willing to fight for them--literally. So when MacIan smashes the window of Turnbull's London newspaper shop--it contained an article blaspheming the Virgin Mary--both men readily agree to an old-fashioned duel to settle the matter. Unfortunately for the duellists, the London police don't see it quite so simply. Thus the mortal enemies find themselves allies in a haphazard escapade across the English countryside, forever trying to find a spot where they can just kill each other quietly and be done with it. But as the story moves on and their plans are foiled with Providential consistency, the two men begin to realize that they are not so opposed as they thought, and that there is a greater Enemy than the police whom they must unite to overthrow.

I've seen this book called an allegory, and I can see how Chesterton might have written it as one. There are a lot of profound themes in the plot which I know I didn't totally follow on the first read; mostly I enjoyed it as a rollicking good story where I began to expect the unexpected. Chesterton's writing style, too, is a joy, beautiful and wild but full of deep strains. The ending I've already hinted at; I will only further say that it's stunning, and just right.

The Ball and the Cross has all the open-air excitement of an old-fashioned adventure story, combined with all the spiritual depth of  Chesterton's "common sense" Catholicism. This book, if I had a hard copy of it, would officially be placed on my shelf of favorites. As it is I can only spread the good news to others. If there weren't tens of thousands of other great books for me to read yet, I'd happily strap on my own pack and sword to tramp alongside MacIan and Turnbull a second time in their grand, topsy-turvy adventure. Instead--lucky readers!--I get to invite you all to take my place.