|Another Dave Langford review.|
Though so often dismissed (e.g. by Orwell in a particularly bilious mood), G.K.Chesterton keeps making comebacks -- sustained by the ever-popular The Man Who Was Thursday and the 49 "Father Brown" stories. As I write , his first novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill is back in print; likewise the minor but amusing collection The Club of Queer Trades; a vast omnibus of lesser-known detective stories is in the pipeline from Unwin; such hints of an increasing revival may or may not be connected with the passing of his works into the public domain come 1987....
Of Chesterton's six novels, none is exactly realistic; two are definitely fantasies (The Man Who Was Thursday, 1908; The Ball and the Cross, 1910), and three can be described as sociological SF (The Napoleon of Notting Hill, 1904; The Flying Inn, 1914; The Return of Don Quixote, 1927). Critics of SF and fantasy, however, have failed to annex Chesterton with their customary territorial verve. Why not? I can imagine the vox-pop comments: "G.K. who?" "Er, I dunno, I thought his writing was all allegorical, not real SF." "You must realize, old chap, Chesterton's politically outdated." "All that sociological stuff extrapolating things like the decay of the monarchy, the rise of terrorism, the temperance fad... no proper SF themes like mile-long spaceships or black holes." "Wasn't he a Catholic? I don't care for these religious books: I mean, look at L.Ron Hubbard...." Et cetera.
Now eighty years old, The Ball and the Cross is a underrated, little-reprinted fantasy and allegory with its roots in both religious and political conflict. (Exit all the above voices, pursued by a bear.)
As it happens, the opening chapter gives the illusion of a sprightly SF period-piece, with its debate between a mad scientist and "an exceedingly holy man, almost entirely covered with white hair" aboard a flying machine whose implausibility is sketched with vast unconcern. Allegory begins to loom, these characters' names being Professor Lucifer and Michael, but something rather different from the dour didacticism of, say, C.S.Lewis's The Last Battle is promised by Chesterton's style:
A monk of immense learning and acute intellect, he had made himself happy in a little stone hut and a little stony garden in the Balkans, chiefly by writing the most crushing refutations and exposures of certain heresies, the last professors of which had been burnt (generally by each other) precisely 1,119 years previously. They were really very plausible and thoughtful heresies, and it was really a creditable or even glorious circumstance that the old monk had been intellectual enough to detect their fallacy; the only misfortune was that nobody in the modern world was intellectual enough even to understand their argument.
Having swapped epigrams about rationalism and faith (the Ball of the world and the Cross, taking unexpectedly solid form when the aircraft has a close encounter with the dome of St Paul's), Lucifer and Michael fade out to be replaced by the more solidly named and depicted MacIan and Turnbull, whose bizarre adventures fill the book. MacIan is a Catholic and a Jacobite, with a sneaking regard for the divine right of kings; Turnbull a red-hot socialist who publishes a paper called The Atheist and longs for revolution. Both are sympathetically presented. They collide, violently:
Here, after twenty lone years of useless toil, [Turnbull] had his reward. Someone was angry with the paper. He bounded to his feet like a boy; he saw a new youth opening before him. And as not unfrequently happens to middle-aged gentlemen when they see a new youth opening before them, he found himself in the presence of the police.
Neither the vaguely kindly police nor the woolly-liberal magistrate can follow the logic by which two complementary fanatics want to spill blood over a "mere" difference of opinion. This pattern is set and the long chase begins. Pursued across England in scenes of grim farce, MacIan and Turnbull ask only a quiet spot for their sword-duel to the death. Even while running, they argue in the compulsive Chestertonian mode of alliteration, echolalia, puns, paradox and bizarre analogy. Some people hinder them, usually the endemic police. Others help for the wrong reasons, as with the pagan gentleman who wants them to cross swords in his back garden for the greater glory of human sacrifice: they decline to do so. Amazing dawns and sunsets glow over the English countryside. Elaborate plans to be seen fighting for a socially acceptable reason (over a woman rather than over the universe) are laid, and fail. The safely remote desert island selected for the climactic encounter proves, in a highly characteristic reversal, to be Thanet.
Their final haven is a vast asylum which is a true science-fictional nightmare -- the kind Chesterton thought he saw in the too clean and sterile utopias of Wells. The earlier political apathy (nobody but MacIan was offended by The Atheist; nobody but Turnbull bothered to publish its views) is now enforced by regulations foreshadowing present-day psychiatric practice in certain countries. Turnbull and MacIan are locked up as an insane disturbance, victims respectively of religious mania and "Eleutheromania". Everyone who helped them is locked up as having possibly been contaminated by their madness with the disease of thinking for one's self. Everyone who hindered them, or even was chased or tied up by them -- ditto.
"...He is a victim of the disease called Vinculomania -- the impression that one has been bound or tied up. We have also a case of Fugacity (Mr Whimpey), who imagines that he was chased by two men."
The asylum population grows exponentially. In charge is Lucifer, who by this time has dropped the title "Professor"; in the deepest dungeon is Michael, now a sort of apolitical personification of faith. The knockabout chase has clearly modulated into allegory. MacIan and Turnbull, in dreams, are taken to high places via that flying machine and offered their own utopias....
Their debate hasn't been one-sided. Each has softened towards the other, and despite Chesterton's bias Turnbull gets some splendid lines -- as in the early vow to fight that duel, no matter what. MacIan spends a whole paragraph swearing this by everything in and under heaven. "The atheist drew up his head. 'And I,' he said, 'give my word.'" Now MacIan is offered a theocratic fascism, dripping with heraldry and spectacle, in which it happens that the lower orders are brutalized as a matter of course. Turnbull has a proleptic peep at the glorious revolution, with special provision for unemployables and others who don't fit into the totalitarian dream: "Underneath whole squares and city districts were in flames, like prairies or forests on fire."
Rejection of these joys leads our heroes to soul-killing "humane" cells whose furnishings were later ripped off by C.S. Lewis for the N.I.C.E. Objective Room: inhuman shape, inexplicable angles, and "Above all he had a hatred, deep as the hell he did not believe in, for the objectless iron peg on the wall." Also prefiguring That Hideous Strength, the book ends in cleansing fire... but I find Chesterton's physical conflagration more, as it were, "ideologically sound" than Lewis's fire from heaven. A minor and eminently respectable character is driven too far by Lucifer's asylum rules: despite being the most conventional person in the book he knows a broken social contract when he sees one, and reaches for the petrol cans. Perhaps Chesterton has too much faith in the innate decency of the Common Man, but I'd place more trust in him than in all-potent eldils....
As this might indicate, despite being a Chesterton fan I don't agree in the least with his religion. Even from this viewpoint, the loading of The Ball and the Cross seems not unreasonable -- no worse than fantasy novels which seduce one into accepting the god-given but vaguely fascist authority of a "High King". You may reject him as a theological devil, but Lucifer is also the authoritarian state: a political devil. As with the Father Brown tales, the book's most powerful polemic is against hypocrisy and humbug. (This alliteration is catching.)
A fine, uneven, annoying work, packed with poetry and farce, with many of its dialogues reading like polemical essays... though remarkably good ones. All credit to the publishers for photo-reproducing the original 1909/1910 typography with its leisurely space between the lines: a small black mark, though, for the cover, which reproduces a famous Max Beerbohm caricature but curtails the punchline "Well, you haven't met Belloc." Other credits go to Paul Jennings, whose sympathetic introduction features the useful coinage "spiritual picaresque", and our very own George Hay, opener of strange doors, who inspired this reprint (The Boydell Press, 1984) in the first place.
Afterthoughts: I'm still a Chesterton fan, and it was a peculiarly prideful moment in my life when I was invited to write an introduction to the English Language Society's reprint of his (minor) fantasy play Magic. I thought of reprinting it here, but for a long time felt that even my undoubted brilliance didn't produce much that was worthwhile in the very, very brief space allowed. All the same, here it is.
|First published in Foundation 34, Autumn 1985.|
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