Huizinga's genius is to find the idea of play hiding like a spider in the most unlikely places. The medieval "judicial duel", where justice was done by fighting? Clearly a development of ancient forms of combat - and that combat itself was always highly stylised and ritualised, which show, according to Huizinga, that they themselves were "play" forms. He demonstrates with convincing scholarship that Greek tragic drama and religion were also born from play.
The important thing for the reader to understand is that Huizinga does not think that play is in any way trivial or less than serious. In fact, he argues that play is a wider, more all-embracing concept than seriousness. Because the idea of seriousness excludes play, whereas the idea of play can very well be taken seriously. In the latter portion of his book, he laments the fact that play has been ripped from its organic place at the heart of communities and transferred to commercialized spheres of sport.
Contrary to what another reviewer says here, Huizinga was not writing in the 1950s but in 1938. A time when the old ideals of nobility and chivalry even in war had been exploded. A time when the very idea of play was something worth cherishing, something to attempt to preserve for a more fortunate future.
This is a masterpiece of deeply humanist historical and cultural analysis. If it annoys poststructuralists, well, its the poststructuralists who have the problems.
Steven Poole, author, Trigger Happy: Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution