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Knowledge Of Angels: Man Booker prize shortlist Paperback – 1 February 1998
It is, perhaps, the fifteenth century and the ordered tranquillity of a Mediterranean island is about to be shattered by the appearance of two outsiders- one, a castaway, plucked from the sea by fishermen, whose beliefs represent a challenge to the established order; the other, a child abandoned by her mother and suckled by wolves, who knows nothing of the precarious relationship between Church and State but whose innocence will become the subject of a dangerous experiment.But the arrival of the Inquisition on the island creates a darker, more threatening force which will transform what has been a philosophical game of chess into a matter of life and death...
'An irresistible blend of intellect and passion' ― Mail on Sunday
'This remarkable novel resembles an illuminated manuscript mapped with angels and mountains and signposts, an allegory for today and yesterday too. A beautiful, unsettling moral fiction about virtue and intolerance' ― Observer
'Remarkable...Utterly absorbing...richly detailed and finely imagined' ― Sunday Telegraph
'The lucidity of Jill Paton Walsh's style and the dexerity of the narrative are such that her book reads more like a good thriller than a weighty novel of ideas...An ingenious fable' ― The Times
- Publisher : BLACK SWAN; 1st edition (1 February 1998)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 288 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0552997803
- ISBN-13 : 978-0552997805
- Reading age : Baby and up
- Dimensions : 13.1 x 1.9 x 19.9 cm
- Best Sellers Rank: 380,631 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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I first read it 20 years ago at school and rereading it now am shocked it was on the syllabus. It deals with complex ideologies and philosophies. Morality, religion etc. There are few references / scenes with detailed sexual encounters, some discussing bestiality. I do not agree that this book is suitable for a child.
The island is ruled by a Cardinal Prince called Severo; and by its laws any confirmed atheist must be burnt at the stake.
Such a confirmed atheist is Palinor, a personable and upright young man who was shipwrecked off the coast and swam to the island. When he is arrested and brought before Severo, the latter feels reluctant to condemn him outright, and he summons a mentor of his, an austere and scholarly monk called Beneditx, for advice. The Church has no jurisdiction over believers in another faith, only over lapsed Christians and over atheists. Benedictx, though a gentle person, accepts the teaching of the Church that an atheist must do violence to the knowledge of a deity or deities that is innate in every human, and that, if he will not accept arguments for the existence of a deity, such wilfulness merits death. Severo questions whether such knowledge is innate; but Benedictx believes he can prove it by an experiment.
It happened that recently, high up in the snowy mountains, there had been found a wild young girl who had been brought up by wolves, behaved like a young wolf, moved on all fours, howled and snarled like a wolf, attacked humans with claws and teeth, would eat only raw meat and could not speak a human language. The experiment was to have her brought up in a nunnery, taught to speak and be educated there without, however, being taught anything about God: would this girl in due course reveal an innate knowledge of a deity? This would of course take time, and Palinor’s life would be spared while the experiment continued, and during this period Benedictx would try to persuade him of the existence of God. Since Palinor had not experienced faith or revelation, the persuasion would have to by arguments based on reason.
The girl is baptized as Amara, but the nuns are sworn never to mention God to her. As she will eat only raw meat and as the nuns have vowed themselves to perpetual Lent, the task of feeding her falls on Josepha, a young novice who had not yet taken her vows, and it is Josepha who, with great insight into and pity for the suffering of this terrified wild creature in her captivity, becomes totally devoted to her and slowly wins her confidence - a long process that is movingly described and beautifully paced. Amara slowly learns to speak in a rudimentary fashion, to walk upright, and to carry out small tasks.
Meanwhile Bendictx tries on Palinor Thomas Aquinas’ five intellectual proofs for the existence of God; Palinor good-naturedly counters them all. (Some readers may find some of these discussions heavy going.) Palinor is not a proselytizing atheist; he is tolerant and has some respect for people of all religions; and he gives his counter-arguments only because he is asked to do so. Benedictx becomes dismayed and ultimately shattered to see his arguments dismantled. But both he and Severo would like to save Palinor if they can - and then Fra Murta, an Inquisitor, proud of the number of heretics he has delivered to the secular arm to be burnt at the stake, turns up from Rome. There are now disputations between Severo and the Inquisitor on which the ultimate fate of Palinor depends. And apparently much will turn on whether or not Severo could show that Amara, now able to speak, had had no awareness of divinity in her savage state.
So the story of Palinor is about arguments for and against the existence of God; the story of Amara is about whether the religious sense is innate or not. Each is fascinating in its own right, but they are, to my mind, somewhat unconvincingly knitted together. Apart from that, however, this is a captivating book.
Not sure that the graphic descriptions of the nastiest ways people treat people should let this book be read by anyone , let alone young teens.
Beneditx, had engaged one of the Church's brightest theologians, Severo, steeped in Anselmian philosophy, to convince Palinor that all humans can come to the knowledge of God by human reason. Despite intense efforts Severo fails to persuade Palinor and is with a kind of bitter irony himself finally subverted by the atheist's iron logic and loses his faith. At the same time, in order to save Palinor from the Inquisition cardinal Beneditx contrives a scheme which he hopes will demonstrate quite the opposite : that knowledge of God is not innate, but is a learned response.
The context within which this intellectual struggle takes place is quite macabre: an infant girl, Amara, is abandoned in the snowy mountains and mysteriously nurtured by wolves. When eventually rescued as a child she has developed all the savage behaviour of a wild beast. She is taken to a monastery to be looked after by an order of nuns where she is put into the care of Josefa, a young novice recently driven into the monastery by her father because, he tells her, she is too ugly ever to marry. The touching relationship that develops between the snow-child and young novice is one of the few glimmers of hope in the novel. Slowly and painfully Amara assumes human ways and eventually learns to speak. But she has a significant and baleful role in the story.
The Cardinal, Beneditx, attempts to use the wolf-child to thwart the Inquisitor's determination to prove the atheist a heretic. He instructs the nuns never to speak of God to the child, hoping to demonstrate that the Inquisitor's charge against Palinor: that all human beings have an innate knowledge of God, which he is willfully resisting (and is therefore a heretic) is false. The plan goes wrong; Amara, led by Josefa, finally talks of a protective spirit supporting her in the mountains. Beneditx is lost; he is left humiliated and now vulnerable, experiencing his own `dark night of the soul'. For him there is no knowledge like that of the angels.
I have come to the novel late, and almost twenty years since it was written, but it still has power to haunt and to provoke. Is the idea of God as fascinans et tremendum now alien, or it is the world that is alienated? Is the struggle of light over darkness being won, and by whom? Are faith and reason to be reconciled? How is the Church now responding to its prophetic challenge?
Several reviewers have commented on the brief sexual encounter in the novel, even suggesting that readers of my own generation might be scandalised. It is indeed shocking as intended: by both its explicitness and its unexpectedness. Perhaps another sign of enlightenment, that caring sexual relationships can and should be guilt-free and joyful, another view of humanity that the Church still struggles with.
When a novel has a galloping narrative, disturbs and threatens, yet cares about its characters, raises eternal questions and leaves the reader reaching for the author's other books, it has to be good.