Every fall, the bowling green located across from my house morphs into a croquet court. League players bring outsized mallets and whimsically large wooden balls to this game. I’ve often watched the action that’s played across nine wickets. It’s more strategic, complex, and merciless than most would guess. Thinking about the sport—and reaching deep into my ramshackle mental storeroom this morning—I fished for a memory, thinking that H.G. Wells, science-fiction author and prophet, may once have had something very peculiar and wise to say about playing croquet.
And sure enough, while clicking over to the “Online Books Page,” I found the nearly forgotten H.G. Wells short novel The Croquet Player, which takes place at a polite British resort in 1937. The tale deserves a second look.
In this unusual and unsettling ghost story, Wells’s finicky main character, George Frobisher, tells us much about himself when he compares his playing lawn croquet favorably to the participation of others in punishing athletic contests. Hockey may be more “gladiatorial,” aviation more “lethal,” and gambling more “vexatious,” Frobisher said. But, he insists, “I do not see there is any greater reality in what they do than in what I do. Risk is not reality. They are players just as I am a player.” Among sporting people “there is a lot of sham in their pretension to hairiness and virility. At heart they are as tame as I am.”
Wells has a good laugh at his character’s expense. What can a well-mannered Victorian holdover like croquet possibly have in common with a rough and tumble game like field hockey? Yet his fussy old George had a point: competition underlies all sports. As a psychological fact, the intense anticipation of victory itself is not much different across the spectrum of play. After all, international chess grandmasters often measure their weight-loss in kilos under the brain-churning stress of a grueling—though stationary—match.
Frobisher, raised an only child by a maiden aunt, admits that he is a “soft.” Soft yes, but he’s not without resources. Skill at his preferred game, croquet, lets him make “some of the fiercer sort extremely cross and silly.” He could make the wooden ball “perform like a trained animal.” And he could “keep his head and temper…for which you certainly need nerve and complete self-possession.”
Two strange men interrupt Frobisher’s genteel self-possession on a day that is otherwise filled up with afternoon croquet and an evening game of bridge. The first of them, a former doctor, has retired after collapsing under the weight of a creeping, unrelenting dread. The other, his “psychotherapeutist,” accompanies him on the rest-cure. Both agree that something sinister is loose in the world.
A specific, unrelenting vision torments the doctor. He once viewed a Neanderthal skull in a museum, and the relic torments him with the thought that a warlike brute—the savage ghost of human evolution—must still lay buried within the character of modern people. The other, the therapist, very much a man of the world of 1937, diagnoses a more general malaise; he notes that his patient’s fearful preoccupations play out against a general, endemic panic, a “plague of the soul,” as the specter of war haunted Europe.
The therapist, surely Well’s fictional double, proceeds to deliver a tirade of awful warnings. He states that the modern brain is no different than the brain of the “cave man.” Civilization is a thin veneer over irrationality. Therefore “only giants can save the world from complete relapse. And so we—we who care for civilization—have to become giants. We have to bind a harder, stronger civilization like steel about the world.”
As Frobisher insists he must hurry off to his genteel game, the therapist calls after him, “but what does croquet matter…if your world is falling in ruins about you?"
In fact, two years after Wells wrote The Croquet Player, the world fell into ruin. The Second World War, the deadliest in history, roused millions of ordinary British citizens—many reticent George Frobishers among them—and millions more Americans to fight against fascism in Europe and Asia. To defeat it, the combatants needed all the precision, skill, self-possession, and nerve that they had learned on hockey and football fields and—Wells’s worry about British softness notwithstanding—even on lawns where players played tennis and strategized at croquet.
Even if Wells was wrong about Neanderthals brutishness, he was correct to look for fearfulness in our human core. Long before the first mammals scurried on this planet, evolution had laid down the reptilian fear circuitry that we still carry with us. Noisy political campaigns and the notorious “ninety minute news cycle” nourish this primeval capacity for fear. Especially now in this surreal season when “risk is not reality,” they exploit and feed on fear. As things again seem to be falling apart, Wells’s old story invites a postscript on how play helps us keep our heads and temper by taking us away from our preoccupations. Losing ourselves in play helps us put things into perspective. Though we have a distance to go before we can claim good will and prosperity for all, this age of alarm and loathing makes it nearly impossible to appreciate that we do, in fact, now live in a healthier, wealthier, more tolerant, less violent, and more secure world than ever. Challenging play (even if the game is croquet), reliably delivers surprise, pleasure, strength, sociability, and poise, all antidotes to modern discontents: fear, weakness, isolation, and imbalance.