The Ball and the Cross in a Nutshell

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Although The Man Who Was Thursday is probably the best (and certainly the best-known) of Chesterton’s novels, it is not by any means the only novel of his that is worthy of merit and therefore worth mentioning. The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a futuristic political novel advocating small government and localism. It was dedicated to the great localist Hilaire Belloc and was admired by the great enemy of big government, George Orwell. 

The Flying Inn is a rambunctious romp in defense of merriment and in defiance of Puritanism. It celebrates good things, such as ale and cheese, and censures bad things, such as Islam and Prohibition. 

Manalive is a parable on the difference between childlike wisdom and childish wickedness in which the aptly named protagonist Innocent Smith is so misunderstood that he is presumed guilty until proven innocent. And yet, of all Chesterton’s novels, with the exception of The Man Who Was Thursday, the one most worth reading is probably The Ball and the Cross.

First published in serial form in the pages of the British journal The Commonwealth in 1905 and 1906, The Ball and the Cross was first published in book form in the United States in 1909 and in the United Kingdom a year later. Its overarching spirit can be encapsulated in a comment that Chesterton made of his relationship with his brother, Cecil. We were always arguing, said Chesterton, but we never quarreled. The whole novel is delightfully argumentative, in the sense that there is not a protagonist and an antagonist but only two antagonists: MacIan and Turnbull, a Catholic and an atheist respectively, who are intent on fighting a duel in defense of their beliefs. 

As we get to know them, and as they get to know each other, we see how they come to respect and ultimately even to like each other, in spite of their fundamental differences. As with the six detectives in The Man Who Was Thursday, we come to realize that the authentic quest for truth, rooted in the goodness and beauty of reason, is a noble endeavor. The real villains are not MacIan and Turnbull, who both believe in the objectivity of reality, but the various types of relativists whom they meet, none of whom believe in truth and none of whom, in consequence, feel that truth is worth fighting for and still less dying for.  

With the proto-surrealism that would also characterize The Man Who Was Thursday, the novel is framed within a weird, dreamlike first and final chapter indicative of the supernatural setting of all reality. The novel begins in a flying ship with two characters, Professor Lucifer, the mad and demonic scientist who had invented the ship, and a holy monk called Michael. Parallels with The Man Who Was Thursday, which begins with an argument between characters named Lucien and Gabriel, are inescapable. 

At the foundation of everything is the primal struggle between light and darkness, between good and evil, between God and Satan. Whether Professor Lucifer is the devil himself, he is certainly of the devil’s party; and even though the holy monk, Michael, might not be his archangelic namesake, he is certainly on the side of the angels. The whole action of the novel is set, therefore, within a theological-cosmological framework.

The novel gets its title from the ball and the cross which surmount the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. This invites yet another parallel with The Man Who Was Thursday in which Gabriel Syme is inspired by “the great orb and the cross” of St. Paul’s to raise his sword-stick in salute to the symbolism it represents: “It seemed a symbol of human faith and valour….” 

On a deeper symbolic level, it could be said that the ball and the cross also represent the City of Man and the City of God. It does so in two distinct ways. First, Turnbull’s atheism represents the reduction of reality to mere matter (the ball), whereas MacIan’s Catholicism represents the dilation of reality into the presence of the divine as revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ (the cross). 

Second, however, it represents the secularized relativism of most of the characters of the novel who seek nothing but their own self-gratification and comfort (the ball signifying the City of Man), whereas Turnbull and MacIan are willing to sacrifice themselves in pursuit of that objective truth, which is ultimately God Himself. They are crusaders, even though Turnbull doesn’t know it, who take up their swords in defense of the Truth. In taking up their swords, in their willingness to suffer for the sake of truth, they are simultaneously taking up the cross, signifying the City of God. They are ultimately on the side of the angels, MacIan knowingly and Turnbull unknowingly.

At its core, The Ball and the Cross is a reflection of the inexorable bond between clarity and charity. It shows that reason is inseparable from love. When we succumb to hatred of our enemies, we are already on the wrong side, even if we are saying the right thing. Chesterton was always arguing, but he never quarreled. May we learn to do the same.

Editor’s Note: This is the thirty-eighth in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”

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Joseph Pearce a senior contributor to Crisis. He is director of book publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. An acclaimed biographer and literary scholar, his latest book, Benedict XVI: Defender of the Faith, is newly published by TAN Books. His website is jpearce.co.

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