Notes on Knowledge of Angels

At opposite ends of Grandinsula, a remote pre-reformation Christian island, shepherds find a creature with strange footprints stealing their lambs, and fisherman find a swimmer near exhaustion struggling towards the shore. The child cannot stand, eat or speak like a human being; the swimmer says he is a prince in the unheard of land of Aclar, and declares himself to be an atheist. Severo, Cardinal and Prince of the island, is confronted by a double conundrum. Could an atheist be in good faith? Not if the knowledge of God is inborn; then the atheist must once have known God, and reneged on the knowledge. If he is a renegade from the truth, he must be burned as a heretic; but Severo would dearly like to save him. How could it be found out whether everyone has inborn knowledge of God, since the teaching of the Church as best known to the greatest scholar on the island is unclear? Perhaps by teaching the wolf-child to speak, and then asking her... That will take time. Meanwhile, it is worth while trying to demonstrate the truth of God to the mysterious atheist in argument.
What becomes of the argument, of the atheist, and of the wild child, and the effect of their fates on Severo, and the islanders who come in contact with either the Prince of Aclar, or the ferocious child Amara makes up the thread of the story. This is a fable about tolerance, and its conflict with moral certainty. I wish it had no relevance to the contemporary world, but it has all too much!

About the origins of KNOWLEDGE OF ANGELS the author writes:

Some twenty years ago I heard a lecture on feral children by Harlan Lane, author of The Wild Boy of Aveyron in which he mentioned the MAID OF CHALONS, who had been found in the French Alps, and confined in a convent while she was taught French by nuns who did not mention God to her, in order to find by questioning her later, whether the knowledge of God is innate. Very struck, I asked Mr. Lane for references. He gave me a citation in Jean-Baptiste Rousseau. I could not find any further information, beyond the brief one in Rousseau, but I was dazzled by the idea of trying to draw a line from a sub-human creature to the divine. The image of this child of the snows shone somewhere in the back of my mind, and there the matter lay for some time.
I have always been interested in the logical proofs of the existence of God; I spent hours of my childhood standing in the corridor during religion lessons as a punishment for refusing to find the five proofs of St. Thomas convincing. Although not valid proofs, these are ideas of uncommon beauty. I left the church in early adult life; but one does not `leave' one's education...
When the story of the Fatwa on Salman Rushdie broke I was dismayed to read various commentators asserting that Islam was more intolerant than Christianity. These people had short memories. In 1993, on impulse, John Townsend, my companion in life, and I, went for a brief visit to Mallorca, to get away from a dismal English February. As soon as I saw the landscape of Mallorca, the story unrolled itself from the back of my mind, and fitted itself on the landscape like a glove on a hand. It occurred to me, as it should have done sooner, that instead of spending years researching seventeenth century France, and telling a true story, I could extract the essence of the historical incident, and tell it in an imaginary `Mallorca' so that its pungent relevance to the present day would more easily be seen.
What sort of thing a society tries to discover from a wild child tells us a lot about the central concerns of that society; Jean-Jaques Rousseau (Second Discours) sought light upon his theory of the noble savage; a contemporary rescued child [vide The New Yorker, April 13th, 1992 et seq] was used to try to confirm modern theories of language acquisition; in the Middle Ages the existence of God would have been the prime concern. By propelling into a medieval country, full of unquestioning faith, both a wild child and an atheist, the book explores the limits of tolerance, and the connection between intolerance and moral certainty, which dogs religious believers, and makes them all too often murderous and cruel. On returning from that one week in Mallorca, I set to work in a frenzy, and wrote Knowledge of Angels in approximately three months. I could think of nothing else. But the answer to `how long have I been working on it?' is, really, all my thinking life.


Knowledge of Angels is a fable; understanding it does not require an independent survey of its many sources, but it makes its own statement and invites your own thought and feeling. However in the face of many requests I offer the following remarks and references: The primary reference is to Epitre II sur l’Homme from the letters of Jean Baptiste Rousseau, ed. Louis Racine. This obscure locus is of very limited use, but it is posted in full here. The citation at the front of the novel is intended simply to indicate to the reader that they are reading about something which did really happen.
Beneditx’s arguments are the ontological argument formulated by St Anselm and others, and the five “Ways” of St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica question 2, articles 1-3, et passim. Summa Contra Gentiles 1.iii-iv. See also Anthony Kenny The Five Ways
The distinction between morning knowledge and evening knowledge is from St Augustine, Civitate Dei 11.29
Palinor’s ideas are very roughly those of Emmanuel Kant. He is named for Palinurus, the pilot of Aeneas.
The collision of ideas in the story occurs in the real world not by the incursion of a modern thinker into a mediaeval society but by the survival into the modern world of mediaeval patterns of thought.
On feral children the stories are all doubtful. The most useful books are Charles Maclean, The Wolf Children 1978, Harlan Lane op cit., and J.A.L. Singh & Robert M. Zingg’s Wolf Children and Feral Man, 1942.
On the exposure of children John Boswell, The Kindness of Strangers.
There are extensive allusions to The New Testament.
On the Inquisition please note that we are concerned with not the Spanish Inquisition, which was always political and under the control of the Spanish Crown, but the mediaeval inquisition, which, whatever you think about it, was concerned with matters of faith, and controlled from Rome.

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©Jill Paton Walsh 1988

 

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Knowledge of Angels
by Jill Paton Walsh
adapted for the stage by Tamsin Clarke

PLAYING AT
ST. LEONARD'S CHURCH, SHOREDITCH, LONDON E1 6JN
3rd Oct to 27th Oct, Wednesdays to Saturdays.

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