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Quixotic, Amusing and Profound
on November 6, 2003
This neglected tale is my second favorite of Chesterton's several novels (the first being The Man Who Was Thursday). In The Ball and the Cross, Chesterton pits two very likeable adversaries against one another in an old-fashioned duel of honor for their ardent beliefs: one fights for the truth of Christianity, the other for the truth of a very earth-bound Humanism. Chesterton gives equal time to the two viewpoints in the early stages of the duel, and sets up events so the two seem to argue in a world apart, desirous (unlike all those around them) of an actual resolution to what are seemingly theoretical and ethereal concerns.
I won't give away the ending, but through the intervention of other characters each duelist does find a satisfactory outcome, if not the one he expected or hoped for. In the end the two must team together to fight a third nemesis, one that has been hinted at from the outset when all others refuse to take their quarrel seriously.
Chesterton's writing here is, as always, full of sparkling wit, lively characterizations, and breathless pacing. Let me add that this novel is one of the great fables of the twentieth century. Among other things, it helps illuminate how much genuine conviction we have lost with our ever-increasing emphasis on "tolerance" - a fine value in itself, but most often an excuse for never discussing anything of importance if it will mean disagreeing with someone else.