Knowledge of Angels

Knowledge of Angels—an objective or subjective genitive? What angels know or what one knows of angels? The ambiguity of the expression, the title of Jill Paton Walsh’s remarkable novel (1994), poses a theological problem that teases throughout its pages. The author takes the issue head on in a disarming preface which promises us as readers the knowledge of angels, as we read this book and indeed virtually every text: “the position of a reader...is very like that occupied by angels in the world, when angels still have any credibility.” Note those sly tenses—“is” “still have”.

Jill Paton Walsh is veteran novelist; you might know her as the author of Peter Wimsey novels (which continue those of Dorothy Sayers) and of a score of children’s books. Knowledge of Angels was short-listed for the Booker prize when it appeared over twenty years ago, and reveals the author’s deep engagement with her Catholic faith. It is, for want of a better term, an allegory, the quest of a devout cardinal/prince for the assurance that the knowledge of God is both innate and discoverable by the application of reason. Such are the beliefs in the imagined fifteenth century, pre-reformation island world, presided over by Serveo. He is a just and learned lord, whose life is disrupted by two extraordinary events: the arrival of a mysterious cast-away who against all odds survives a fall from a ship to swim to the island’s shore, and the discovery of a feral child, suckled by wolves, and isolated virtually from birth from human contact. The cast-away declares himself a prince and, more troublingly, an atheist from a far-off land, unknown to the inhabitants of the island. The child, savage and without language, is more beast than human, eats only raw flesh, and attacks any who approach.

Serveo, in an act he ultimately comes to see as testing all his easy assurances, determines to conduct a trial: was the child born with an innate realization that God exists? Can his close friend and theologian Beneditx lead by reason the foreign atheist to the acknowledgment that there is a God. We have then a novel of ideas, worked out between Beneditx, the believe, and Palinor, the foreign atheist. In the latter we meet a tolerant, broad-minded ruler, now dispossesed of his kingdom by his chance fall into the sea. He converses ably in Latin, understands the arguments of his monk /educator Beneditx, and who lives an ethical materialist code—one might say a secular humanist, respectful but rejecting of the arguments for belief. Indeed so gracious an interlocutor is he, the Beneditx is increasingly drawn into admiration—as is the Cardinal Serveo. The caveat: atheism is punishable by death on the island.

The feral child is given over to the care of nuns, who occupy a secluded convent in the far side of the island, and there, by degrees, she becomes domesticated, acquiring basic language skills. The Cardinal has issued a stern order: no one is to mention God or make any reference to the supernatural in the child’s presence. When she is mature, she will be questioned to discover if she innately knows of her Creator.

Realist novel conventions hold throughout the piece. The imagined world offers us the details of clerical life, convent routine, early modern bureaucracy, and a profound sense of place—the very natural world that so deeply sealed the beginnings of the wolf child’s life.

The machinery of the allegory moves inexorably to a climax: spiritual crises, rational by terrifying Inquisitorial demands, deception provoked by love, and ironic reversals, all work out in unsettling manner as we as readers watch from above with the knowledge of angels. In a sense, the work of theology becomes an investigation of authorial stance and readerly perception. Only the reader knows the unfolding ironies that the author visits on her characters. The last climactic scene is set on a mountain top, where a fire signals from afar an ambiguous message and a fleet of ships advances the arrival of a deadly new understanding.

Not a simple allegory, no. There is a testing and a teasing of faith, a deliberate angelic view of human incomprehension, as opposed to the bright mirrors of angelic knowledge, the prefect glass of reflection of the way things are. This can only increase the irony and the tragedy of those characters who work out their lives driven by assurances that their faith reveals at the end to be beyond their comprehension. The novel exposes presumption, parochial vision, the folly of Inquisitorial assurance, and the dignity of conscience. Knowledge of Angels is a “calculated trap for meditation,”  a Lenten dish that is scarcely a fast.

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Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.

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