Novel Thoughts blog

Crapulous Cowards and Quarrels

A review of "The Ball and the Cross"

December 5, 2014 7:25 pm | 2 Comments

“I object to a quarrel because it always interrupts an argument.”
—G. K. Chesterton

As I write, a lot of Catholics are worried abBalltheCross_Front_Cover_edit__83387.1411648090.1280.1280out the ongoing tussling about pastoral issues in the Church. Others are worried about what seems to be a growing partisan divide in America between those with differing political views. I’m worried about this as well—mostly because many people have decided that differences of opinion are so great that they must avoid the contamination of being friends with those who disagree with them, only engaging their opponents in angry online quarrels.

So it’s an opportune time to revisit G. K. Chesterton’s rollicking, rousing fantasy, The Ball and the Cross.  Now in a new edition by Chesterton Press, The Ball and the Cross is the story of a Jacobite Catholic from Scotland, MacIan, and a brawny atheist named Turnbull. Their argument begins with the memorable words “Stand up and fight, you crapulous coward!”, uttered by MacIan as he smashes through the window of Turnbull’s bookshop, The Atheist. They’re both convinced of the rightness of their causes and want to back up their arguments not merely with words—but with swords. The trouble is that society at large has ceased to care about these sorts of debates and would rather they both be silenced. Or at least have their swords taken from them. So begins an adventure that ranges across landscapes and through ideas. As MacIan and Turnbull try to escape from police pursuit so that they may engage in a duel to the death with one another, they begin to find another obstacle arising: friendship.

The two begin, gruffly, to acknowledge admiration for one another. But they also both feel strongly enough about their respective causes that they would die defending it. Can there be any compromise? Can there be friendship?

We can only look to Chesterton himself for the answer. Famed for his public debates with the leading intellects of his time, including many who disagreed quite profoundly with him such as George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells, Chesterton nonetheless maintained fast friendships with many of the men whose ideas he stood firmly against.  Unlike his good friend Hilaire Belloc, who was renowned for his feuds with those he disagreed with, Chesterton was able to reach past ideas and ideology to engage with persons—without renouncing or downplaying any of his strongly-held beliefs. The Ball and the Cross gives some insight into how he managed to do that, as he imbues many of the characters with aspects of his own personality.

The new edition from Chesterton Press features marvelous illustrations by Ben Hatke, best known as the author and illustrator of the Zita the Spacegirl graphic novel series. The imaginative world-building of the Zita books is reflected here in the fantastical designs of flying ships, demon-ish villains, and hilariously inept policemen. It’s an author / illustrator pairing that would be difficult to rival.

If you are looking for that perfect Christmas gift for a Chestertonian friend, you can’t go wrong with this book. If you’re looking for a book that can cure the blues of following an endless series of irate facebook exchanges, you can’t go wrong with this book. Or if you just want to read one of the greatest minds of the 20th century as he playfully tosses around ideas and paints sparkling images with a literary style that has never been matched, you can’t go wrong with this book.

After reading, you may find yourself yearning for a good argument instead of a quarrel, and a friend instead of a foe.


John Herreid

John Herreid

John Herreid is catalog manager at Ignatius Press. In addition to catalogs and ads, he has also worked on the cover design for many Ignatius Press books and DVDs. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and four children.

Tags: Ben Hatke G.K. Chesterton reviews The Ball and the Cross


  1. December 12, 2014 at 3:20 am

    Excellent book. One of GKC’s best.

  2. […] The Ball and the Cross by G.K. Chesterton (in a new edition illustrated by Ben Hatke) is balm for the soul—or at least it was for me, after a year that saw plenty of contentious quarrelling among Catholics. Read my review here. […]

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