The Ontological Argument

Most of you probably know what the ontological argument is. Technically, an ontological argument is a proof of the existence of God from reason alone, but in practice, the term is more specific. It originates with Anselm’s argument that there must be a being, a being greater than which cannot be conceived, but is more famous in Descartes’ form, in which he likens theology to geometry. Just a we are certain that a triangle’s angles add up to 180 because we cannot conceive of triangle with other angles (any such object would not be a triangle), so too we can be certain that a perfect being exists, because we cannot conceive of a perfect being that does not exist – because existing is part of being perfect.More generally, we might call something an ontological argument if it tries to prove existence from a definition. Another argument is the more recent one drawing on impossible objects – just as we know that all round squares are round, whether or not we believe them to be possible, just so we can know that all existing Gods are existing, without requiring any preconceptions about whether God is real, or even possible.

These arguments have cropped up many times. They never go away. And they are continually refuted.

It occurs to me that both sides are missing the point. There is no need to argue over whether these arguments are valid. In my opinion they are, but this concession should not cost anybody anything.

Why do I think they are valid? Because I can’t see any reason to reject them that is not motivated by a dislike for their conclusions. In response to the argument “‘God’ means a perfect being. Therefore God is perfect. Not existing is a flaw. Therefore a perfect being cannot not exist. Therefore God, which is perfect, cannot not exist, therefore God exists”, many things can be challenged – but none unproblematically. Obviously there is the theological point about whether existence is ‘more perfect’ than non-existence, but that is easily avoided by specifying the meaning of perfection in advance, or using some similar argument that bypasses the term. That aside, we can:

a) Say that ” ‘X’ means a thing that is Y” does not entail “X is a thing that is Y” – that is, “1+1=2” is not justified by knowing that “2” means the number to which 1+1 sums. This, it seems to me, is an arbitrary assault on our use of definition.

b) Say that “All X things Y” does not entail “This X thing Ys” – in this case, ‘perfect things do not not-exist’ doesn’t entail ‘God, which is perfect, does not not-exist’. Again, an assault upon meaning.

c) Say that “God is a perfect being” is not true if God does not exist. This is failing to understand what ‘God’ means in the language. When people say “I love God”, they are thinking of a perfect being – they are not thinking that they love either a perfect and existing being, or else a being that does not exist and is not perfect. To demonstrate this further: if a person says ‘I want to try to be like God – perfect!’, a proof that God did not exist might dishearten him, but it would not cause him to think “oh, well God doesn’t exist, so now I want to try to be imperfect!”. Or another way: when people say ‘God’, even if they are thinking of a being that they think might or might not exist, they are not thinking of a being that they think might or might not be perfect.

d) Say that God not being non-existant does not entail God being existant. This, unfortunately, does not appreciate the meaning of ‘existance’. Either something exists or it does not. If something doesn’t exist, it’s non-existant, and that’s a flaw -and if it’s not non-existant, it exists, and even if there an intermediate state, this too would be an imperfection.

e) Say that we’re so annoyed by it all that we won’t let people say “God is perfect”, just on the off-chance of god not existing. That is, to say that we just can’t talk about non-existant things, or,with Russell, that anything we say about them is false. Now, first off, this is clearly an ad hoc stitch. Russell’s approach totally denies the reality of our language use: it says that ‘God is perfect’ and ‘God is not perfect’ are both false. That ‘pink unicorns are pink’ is false. That ‘the king of france is the king of france’ is false; that ‘no unicorn has ever been seen’ is false. That ‘Gandalf is a wizard’ is false. This theory is obviously false. There’s no reason to even think it up except as an answer to ‘how can we avoid the ontological argument (and some similar paradoxes that emerge in similar fashion)?’.

The first option there is a little better, but it’s still wrong. We CAN talk about non-existing things. We do it all the time. “Gandalf is a wizard” – look, there, I did it again! I said something, and what’s more it was true. And look, I can even build an argument on it! “Gandalf is a wizard. Aragorn is not a wizard. Nothing is both a wizard and not a wizard. Therefore Gandalf is not Aragorn.” That’s a pretty valid argument, despite it being about things that don’t exist. So why can’t we say “God is perfect”?

Because, let’s face it, it’s true. If you’re talking about something imperfect, you’re not talking about God. And we can’t replace it with something more cautious like “God is something that is said to be perfect”, because although that’s true, it’s insufficient – there are lots of things that could be SAID to be perfect without actually being God. And a person can still believe in God even if nobody says that anything is perfect. And if you use ‘something I believe to be perfect’ -well, the first objection still stands, and if a person says “I want to believe that the true God is perfect”, they DON’T mean “I want to that the being that I truly do believe to be perfect is perfect”. If that were what they meant, they couldn’t fail to live up to their desires! No, we just have to lump the fact that when people say ‘God’, they mean a perfect being.

Similar problems face the objection to the argument that “All existing things exist”. It’s pretty basically true that “All things that X, X”. Changing this to “All things that X and exist, X” is ungainly and arbitrary.


No, people shouldn’t worry about showing that the argument is invalid. As Russell himself admitted, it’s hard to really say why – and such arguments have rarely, if ever, persuaded anyone who didn’t already not believe in God. No, we should just not look at validity as being everything.

If you don’t want to accept that God exists, don’t try to disprove the argument that “God is perfect, therefore God exists” – just don’t talk about God. An argument does not exist in the abstract- an argument has to be made. So don’t make it. And if somebody else does make it, say that you’re not interested in it, because the topic doesn’t concern you.

This isn’t advice about conversations – it’s not putting your head in the sand. It’s getting to the heart of why ontological arguments are divisive. They put the proof in the definition that is present in the premise – so to reject them, you must not accept that definition.

BUT: there’s more than one way of not accepting a definition. Traditional attempts to disprove the ontological argument rely upon “that’s not the right definition” – on the basis that definitions are right or wrong, and that’s that. Yet that is not always that. You can also simply refuse to define something in the way that people suggest. Think of a definition as saying “let X equal…” – at which point you should leap up and say “no! I won’t!”. Every definition is a request, and every request can be denied.

Or, if you want it put in terms of existence: say there are two types of existence. One meaning of “X exists” is “X is a valid term in our discussion”; another is “X is an entity within the real world”. The key feature of “God” is that if it is a valid term, it must refer to an entity within the real world. Likewise terms like “entities within the real world” – either the term is invalid, or it refers to entities within the real world. The ontological argument demonstrates this implication – but rather than take it down, we can also simply deny that “God” is a valid term. On what grounds? We don’t NEED any grounds. The word ‘alalss’ is not a valid term in normal English arguments. We could easily (in theory) take the word ‘fish’ out of our valid English terms, just by not using it. And so, if we no longer talk about God, it is no longer true that it must exist. If that sounds odd, rephrase that ‘it must’: if we no longer talk about God, we no longer have to accept that God exists. Where atheists go wrong is in agreeing to talk in terms of “God” at all – they’ve conceded the ground in their first step.

Again, this might sound very odd – but consider it analogously to discussions about morality. You are accused of being unchaste for having sex before marriage. Well, maybe you’ve given some thought to the matter, and might try to show that sex before marraige was unchaste – or, you could just say ‘don’t talk to me about chastity’. That’s not an admission of being unchaste, that’s simply denying that there’s any reason to talk in those terms. Denying the significance of those terms. You are accused: “you’re lustful!”. Rather than saying “well, being driven by a desire for sex isn’t lustful…” just say “why thank you.” Or “I don’t know what that word means”.

To make it clear: I’m not saying people should say “I don’t want to use the term ‘God'”. Obviously, this would just be sticking their heads in the sand. Because saying you don’t want to use the term admits that there IS a term. No, say “I’m sorry? What’s this ‘God’ word you’re using? I don’t believe you have the right to go around using those sounds as though they meant something.” Deny that it’s a word in the language.

And here I’ll bring in chastity again. You can not talk about chastity – or you can redefine it. Why redefine it? You only do that if you think there’s some valuable use of the word ‘chastity’ that you want to salvage. And if you don’t believe in God, what use of “God” would you want to salvage? Just throw the word away! Deny that it’s a word in the language.

But of course: theists will object: “but it IS a word in the language! Look, I’m using it! We’re using it!”. Well yes; THEY are using it. It is a word in THEIR language. But who said that that was your language? In a very real sense, people who believe in God are speaking a different language from the rest of us. Although, of course, that does not mean that people cannot be bilingual…

I would draw an analogy with mathematics. I can invent a new mathematical function, k, such that kX is undefined for even numbers. The proper response should not be ‘The k function doesn’t exist’ or ‘the k function cannot be applied to even numbers’ but simply ‘what the hell are you talking about this nonsensical ‘k’ for? What USE is that?’ And if I can’t show you any use, don’t bother being annoying by the undefined values, just don’t use the function in the first place.

Or to simplify: you can have a theist worldview or a non-theist worldview, but once you introduce the concept of deity as a meaningful, coherent, applicable concept, it has no coherent place other than at the top.

Now, it might be objected: but this doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t stop it being true that there’s a God when a theist says it. No, it doesn’t, that’s quite true. And I can’t even say ‘God doesn’t exist’ to counter it, because I can’t have that be true, unless I define ‘God’ in a way that’s got nothing to do with what the theist is talking about. But so what? There is no concession here. Because the ‘existence’ of God has no practical importance if you don’t believe in God.

Again, take mathematics. If I and my countrymen speak a language in which 1+1=3, my entire body of mathematics is going to look completely at odds with yours. But I can still admit ‘yes, accepting your definitions, 1+1=2′. That doesn’t mean I’ve got to abandon MY mathematics, because I don’t have to accept your definitions. And the ‘truth’ of your claim that 1+1=2 has no consequences for me – because the conclusions of your mathematics are all equivalent to the conclusions of mine, if we just translate from one to another by changing numerals. Your premise don’t add anything to my conclusions, they merely suggest that I rephrase them.Of course, to you, 1+1=2 is enormously important, and it’s the wellspring of your arithmetic.

Just so, saying that, accepting the definitions of theists, God does exist, has no implications for me. It has implications for theists, who base all sorts of things on it, but anything a theist says can be said by a non-theist as well. They can even say things for ‘the same’ reason – only with different phrasing.

The point, then, is that the existence of God is not a game-changer, even though its of vital importance to believers (and I mean genuine importance – not just that they THINK its important). An analogy: the keystone of an arch is of vital importance to the arch. Yet a different keystone could have been used, and then THAT keystone would have been vital to the (or rather, a very slightly different) arch. In just the same way, nothing can be derived properly by theists from the existence of God that could not be derived properly by non-theists from other premises.

And if to some theists that sounds rather dismissive – well, actually it’s dogma. As the Catholic Encycopedia puts it:

“The Church, on the contrary, recognizes the capacity of human reason and grants that here and there pagans may have existed, who had freed themselves from prevalent errors, and who had attained to such a knowledge of the natural law as would suffice to guide them to the attainment of beatitude. But she teaches nevertheless that this can only be the case as regards a few, and that for the bulk of mankind Revelation is necessary.”

That is: yes, the same conclusions can be reached by non-believers, it’s just harder for them. That is: the theistic worldview allows us more easily to arrive at the truth.

Well, that’ their viewpoint, and I think it’s hard to prove it one way or another – and in any case, what’s true for the many need not be true for the particular individual, so I’m happy to leave matters with Catholicism settled on that ground.

So, perhaps I’ll end with: before getting into any argument about whether things exist, first ask: what are the practical consequences of whether this thing exists or not? If there are none, perhaps you’re just disagreeing over what language to speak to describe the same things as each other.

A Religion of the Future (Sketch)


– This is a thing I wrote up a while ago now, when I was last working on religions; as you can see, it springs from reading about analyses of different types of New Religious Movement, which I wanted to incorporate into my primary conworld; but many of the most interesting features seemed to be most applicable to a modern or futuristic setting.

– As it happened, at the time I was playing with a SF world, and this religion seemed ideal for it. It’s a strange setting for me, as it’s neither the minimalist SF setting I normally play with nor the sort of rich, multi-species universe that would normally act as the opposing temptation. Instead, this setting is a human-only world that has faster-than-light travel and communication, which has become divided into many competing factions. The “Free Colonies” spoken of below are one of the larger factions in the setting.

– Although it’s atypical for me, I’ve recently been thinking about this setting again, and I might be putting up some more details in the future, so I thought it a good time to throw up this taster.


Pure Body System (PBS) has two chief sources: the Physical Semantics movement, and the Primitivism movement. PBS combines these strands into a powerful psychological, physical and social doctrine, which has become the dominant ideology of Free Colonial culture, accounting for a significant fraction of the human race.

The Physical Semantics (PS) movement probably had its roots in the 20th century, but it was not until the late 21st century that it reached its zenith. During the 22nd century, around the time of the early colonies, PS was a component of a large percentage of the dominant ethoi; since that time, it has dwindled in significance, with its followers crystalising into a handful of ethoi, of which PBS is the most significant. The origins of PS lie in studies of so-called ‘body language’ – the observation that much information is transmitted by non-verbal, and often non-conscious, physical means, such as posture, gesticulation, and facial expression. The fact that this communication was not always conscious was key: was it not true, asked the PS pioneers, that a thinking human being was always communicating in this way? Studies showed that even a subject told to be expressionless nonetheless made many motions, which could sometimes be correlated to reported thoughts. When these result were combined with a ruthless materialism, the conclusion was obvious: rather than these motions accompanying mystical ‘mental’ entities, was it not more reasonable to think that what we took as mental, our thoughts, were in fact physical – that our thoughts WERE our ‘communication’ of them? These insights could provide important help to humans – after all, the problem of communication was responsible for so many of the world’s ills. Now, the ‘meaning’ to be communicated was not something hidden away in somebody’s head, but graven on their every move and expression – it was only a matter of picking it up, in which modern science could undoubtedly assist.

Pure Body System, with its primitivist tendency, sees the human body as innately interpreting body language, but only imperfectly. The margin of perfection, however, has been distorted by deviance from our evolutionary form – if people have ‘distorted’ (genetically or cybernetically modified) or ‘degenerate’ (unhealthy) bodies, their natural body language becomes, as it were, garbled or mumbled, making communication more difficult. Accordingly, physical fitness and purity are among the greatest virtues, and rarely knowingly compromised – even superficial ‘body modifications’, like painted nails or unusual haircuts, are deprecated, as their deviance from pure body appearance causes distraction from the conveyance of meaning.

‘Communication’ is, of course, of immense practical benefit to the individual, but there is also a wider importance, seen in the PBS interpretation of compassion, empathy and love. Compassion is the condition of feeling another’s emotions as one’s own – this is held to be the result of perfect communication of that emotion. Compassion is therefore hindered by poor communication. Empathy is a characteristic of some individuals that allows them to ‘receive’ communication more accurately than most individuals – this is why empathic people are more compassionate. Just as we may, over time, tune into a radio signal, so to communicate we tune into the signal we receive from others – empaths are quicker and more talented at finding the signal, but more important is to transmit more clearly and strongly. Love, in turn, is a state of perfect compassion, which only occurs when there is good communication – which usually requires the receiver to finely-tune to the transmission. This is why love is said to grow between people who live together for a long time – they slowly learn the body language of the other. Likewise, parents and children, and also siblings. Romantic love is said to occur when an attraction (physical or semantic) causes the attention to be turned on a person intently and with great concentration. The knowledge and practice of PBS allows the same effects to occur more quickly and with less effort – hence, PBS promotes a universal love and harmony.

There are eight stated goals of Pure Body System:
1. To achieve a healthy and natural body
2. To become charismatic and empathic, resulting in social success
3. To eliminate the anxiety that follows from uncertainty of understanding
4. To enable personal psychological difficulties to be directly perceived and treated by experts
5. To enable the easier detection of hatred and deceit
6. To more closely bond families and communities, creating environments of warmth, nurturing and security
7. To eliminate social inefficiencies and counterproductivities arising from mistaken communication
8. To institute universal love and abolish all war and conflict


PBS is a religion of initiation, with multiple levels, known as ‘waypoints’. These are divided into three ‘courses’. The first course has three waypoints:

Alpha Point: those interested in the science pay for elementary instruction about the nature of PBS. This includes some advice on body language, persuasion and fitness, and some therapy.

Beta Point: those who wish to know more must first begin to reform their bodies to a point where they can communicate naturally – this means attaining health and fitness, and reversing or compensating for body modifications. PBS experts will provide assistance and encouragement in exchange for a low fee. At this point, followers are usually placed in like-minded groups of students.

Gamma Point: the interested may now, in exchange for money, receive further training and advice. This tends to move away from advice in the social/employment sphere, and toward first family matters and then more deeply into psychological issues. More socialising is done with both experts and fellow-travellers.

This first course is explicitly designed to show outsiders the benefits that PBS can bring even to people who do not enter into it fully. By the time Gamma Point is completed, many will have seen how empty their lives are, and wish to enter into community with other improved-communicators. For them, there is now the second course:

Womb Point/Delta Point: on reaching Delta Point, now called Womb Point, followers undergo a number of periods of disconnection from human contact, lasting usually around a week, designed to challenge the assumption of normalcy that followers have until now placed on wider society – by giving them time alone, they are shown how alien and unnatural much of society really is. On each occasion (known as a ‘gestation’, or more colloquially as a ‘holiday’), followers are guided out of solitude by experts.

Birth Point: after many holidays, the follower undergoes one final period of seclusion, known as ‘birthing’, which may last one or more months.

Baby Point: after the birthing, the follower enters into a society of experts. While there, he undergoes intensive ‘deprogramming’, to break the bad old habits of the outside world. This involves a combination of role-playing exercises and sensory displays designed to show and instinctualise the true semantic relations between different behaviours.

Pupil Point: the new initiate now enters into a wider society of initiates, as a junior member. With expert guidance, he learns the nuances of natural communication by engaging in it.

Student Point: the initiate has learned enough to live a contented and peaceful life. They engage in periodic ‘reconfigurations’ – mass calisthenic practices that reinforce particular physical/semantic relations while maintaining physical fitness and health and fostering communal spirit.

The second course aims to introduce people into a better and more select society. Most Free Colonies are now predominately inhabited by Students. Where initiate society is large, it often contains more-initiated sub-societies, where particular companies have given an iteration of the Second Course. Sometimes, these sub-societies may themselves contain elite sub-sub-societies. All of these, however, are fundamentally considered to be at the level of the Second Course.

The Third Course has a new objective: to institute the First and Second Courses. It too has multiple waypoints:

Guider Point: one who is sound and secure in his semantics learns how to teach and guide other Students.

Teacher Point: Guiders who excel go on to teach the First Course, and assist at Womb Point and Birth Point.

Expert Point: Experts oversee the First Course, oversee Womb Point and Birth Point, and guide through the Second Course. Experts oversee most Reconfiguration.

Deprogrammer Point: Deprogrammers are responsible for deprogramming; they are also overseers to ensure the orthodoxy of Experts, Teachers, and Guides.

Beyond this point is the Fourth, and highest, Course – its students are the highest authorities.

Wisdom Point: the Wise are the ultimate controllers of the first three Courses, and guide advancement to this point. They are students of Configuration Science.

Serenity Point: the Serene are responsible for ‘aligning’ PBS societies, so that their semantic systems do not diverge. Their knowledge of Configuration Science is considerable.

Scientist Point: Scientists are those who have mastered Configuration Science, which attempts not only to instil semantic systems but also to find the most optimal. Scientists may make sweeping social changes; they may even maintain certain societies as experiments for their research.

Religion in Vajhoros, V. e.

One Caravan School

Not all acquiesced to the Four Caravans Edict. An iconoclastic clerical faction, most commonly among the incendiary preachers sent to eradicate the native religion of Nalai, rejected what they saw as a populist dilution of their religion, and insisted that there could only ever be one caravan to follow – the caravan of the church. Icons are a superstitious distraction; the empire has no authority without the church; the family cannot guide its children unless it is itself guided by the church. The church, therefore, is the font of all wisdom. As the purpose of the law is to guide toward the attenuation of tsaien in the afterlife, the church is the font of all law.

The organised church, however, has long since been purified of any One Caravan elements; One Caravan considers this fortunate, as the metropolitan system is a tool for control of the church by the Emperor. Indeed, little of the apparent One Caravan ‘church’ has survived persecution. Abnegation is performed in small groups, guided by the presence of a clergyman, usually in private residence. There is no devotion, and much focus is placed on the sermon. The material for sermons is always derived from the writings or words of theologians; becoming a theologian is simply a matter of becoming religiously learned, and being ‘accredited’ by a shoni, which for One Caravan School is an ad hoc assembly of other theologians.

The mystical side of One Caravan is displayed in their practice of solitary abnegation – occurring rarely, in advance of important occasions or to mark some celebration or tragedy, this abnegation may last for hours or days. Penitential fasting is also common. In general, however, One Caravan is a practical, philosophical religion, shorn of the ‘superstitious’ and ceremonial aspects of its sister-faiths. The focus is the philosophical derivation of moral laws. In this derivation, there may be divergences between theologians, and over time several major schools have emerged.

One Caravan School has long been persecuted as a danger to the state, and in many areas it has been destroyed entirely, yet in rural, isolated areas it has survived, and as it has dwindled it has become more tolerated. More moderate theological schools have been able to accommodate obedience to secular authorities, making their sect less politically contentious; their steadfast rejection of superstition has mostly saved them from rural witchhunts. Indeed, they currently enjoy quite a positive reputation, particularly as they gradually migrate to the more liberal cities – they are seen as puritanical, rational and literate. The School is increasingly attractive to the scientifically-minded, and is now common among engineers and bureaucrats.

Reaction: Shardik

“How else but through a broken heart may the Lord Christ enter in?”
– Oscar Wilde, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”

He who builds a barn knows that rats will come

[They] were free to go where they might… Free as flies, free as autumn leaves or as wind-borne ashes.

Richard Adams has written nearly twenty novels or short story collections; one of them, Watership Down, is the best-selling novel ever published by Penguin, and has been voted one of the fifty favourite books of the British public, as well as spawning endless adaptations, including a classic film that has received numerous accolades – one of the fifty greatest British films, one of the hundred greatest animations, one of the twenty greatest tearjerkers, and a Hugo Award, among others. The novel is one of the classics of fantasy – and when it was written it joined The Lord of the Rings and Jonathan Livingston Seagull as the only fantasy novels to make it to the mainstream bestseller lists, as the #2 best-selling fiction book of 1974.

Watership Down, however, was not the apex of the author’s career – indeed, it was only the first of those twenty-odd novels. Of the rest of them, little, if anything, is ever heard. An author arose out of nowhere, became an incredible publishing success, and since then has spent another thirty years writing his novels in almost complete obscurity.

If any other novel of his had an opportunity to gain its own fame, it was his second novel, Shardik, which surely must have gained some attention in its day – and yet, beyond a cameo in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, it seems to have faded entirely from public consciousness, even among fantasy devotees. It was thus with some sense of mystery that as a child I opened the two-decade-old and dusty tome, with its faded cover, found in a box of books and bric-a-brac gifted us by an old and eccentric family friend who seemed perpetually to use us as an escape valve for her unrelenting acquisition of useless and obscure items. One day, “would you like these ski boots? I’m not sure what I’m going to do with them.” (Well no, as you’ve never been skiing – why did you buy them?). Another – “would these be any use to you?” – three hundred of those little plastic clips for closing bags and a thousand post-it notes? Why, it’s what we’ve always wanted. And, one day, an old plastic suitcase stuffed with books on obscure diets, and Greek myths, and never-heard-of poets in English, French and German – and Shardik.

When I opened it, the smell of the paper grabbed me by the nostrils, and brought me into an entirely different sort of world from any I had known.  At the time, I read Pratchett, and Eddings, and Feist, and Dragonlance, and Gemmell – Shardik isn’t really like any of those, at all. It quickly became one of my two favourite books, although, attempt after attempt, I failed to finish the book, dissuaded by confusion, depression, and on occasion sheer moralistic hatred of the characters. In the end, I had the marvellous idea of beginning in the middle, and finally I made it to the end. Yet none of that struggle made me dislike the book, or disparage it – on the contrary, it gave the book a sort of mystic power in my mind. It was, and still is, the only fiction book ever to have defeated me (barring books where I have read the first chapter or two but not really got into it – for me, if I once get into a book, I get through it all).

Shardik is not Watership Down, either. It isn’t set in England, or even Europe – instead, it’s set in a minor, tropical nation of savannah and jungle, long ago lost to history. Its main protagonist is not an animal, but an illiterate peasant. It has an animal in it, yes, but it does not think like a human, but rather goes about like an animal, killing and destroying. Its characters are not heroes and villains, but universally flawed, yet almost always well-intentioned, humans. It does not tell an adventure story, but a story of religion, conquest, and slavery. It’s easy to imagine the readers of Watership Down being somewhat confused.

Shardik tells the story of a simple hunter, Kelderek, who one day encounters in the forests of his island a gigantic bear, driven from its home by a forest fire, which, he comes to believe, is an incarnation of Shardik, the ursine avatar of the Power of God. Once upon a time, his people mutter, they ruled over a vast empire, the empire of Bekla to the south, and dwelled in comfort and refinement, until Shardik was lost to them, and they were exiled to a small and muddy island, where they are ruled now by the paranoid and deformed High Baron, Bel-ka-Trazet, while revering still the shattered remnants of Shardik’s priesthood, led by the nameless priestess, the Tuginda, on the mystical neighbouring island of Quiso, performing still the same tasks and rituals even though they have no longer any focus. In this environment, faith and politics, and fear and ambition, devotion of many kinds, and the savagery of nature clash unstoppably to change the course of the lives of all the characters, and turn their eyes to the long-awaited, long-foretold return in glory to Bekla – an empire itself feeling the scars of a bloody civil war fought on the issue of slavery.

Above all, Shardik is a novel about religion – or, more accurately, faith, as the apparatus and ritual of religion is only tangentially touched upon. Instead, the focus is on the faith (or non-faith) of Kelderek, Bel-ka-Trazet, the Tuginda, Ta-Kominion (a young nobleman), and Rantzey and Melathys (two subordinate priestesses) – how it interacts with emotion and pragmatism, and how it addresses, and interprets, both bounty and hardship.

And here I have my first problem with the novel. The subject matter is worthwhile and appreciated – faith, I think, is a subject that fantasy is uniquely well-placed to address – and there is no doubt that it is handled extremely well, but it is also handled narrowly. There is very little in the way of respectable dissent from the Approved View the book hands down – Kelderek struggles against it, and argues well both for and against it in his own mind and with others, but there is no doubt about how the reader is meant to conclude. The problem is particularly severe as a result of the absence of the two most charismatic dissenters, Bel-ka-Trazet and Ta-Kominion, from the majority of, and the key parts of, the book. It is worthwhile, I think, comparing this novel to A Canticle for Leibowitz, another explicitly religious fantasy – in Leibowitz, it is far less clear what the Approved View is, and there is far stronger dissent from in within the book.

This may not have been so much of a problem for me, where I not to disapprove of the Approved View. Ill-mannered as it may be to introduce personal beliefs into the matter, nonetheless it is impossible to read a book, particularly so opinionated a book as this, in isolation from our pre-existing views. Now, those of you who have been paying attention will know that I have no religion, and no faith, and no believe in God – but both by upbringing and by inclination, the specific believe that I do not have is generally Catholic in form. Consequently, Leibowitz struck a chord within me – though I disagreed with much of it, it was something familiar, recognisable, respectable to me. But Shardik is not a Catholic book – Shardik is Protestant in the most arrational, and often agonisingly passive, way. Again and again we are told, in essence, that salvation is through faith alone and not through deeds; again and again, we are told how wrong it is to seek to deduce God’s will or plan how best to serve him – God’s will, is to be shown, not found: the question “then what are we to do?” is answered by “Kelderek, how many more times? It will be shown us, shown us, shown us what we are to do!” We must, we are told, simply wait. Well, I don’t believe that – and I also don’t believe that a doctrine of waiting quietly and of relying on God aids greatly in writing an exciting tale. Personally, I would have greatly preferred even a hint of theological nuance at this point – and it could easily be given. By the end of the book, there are in essence three significant religions – the established hierarchy of Quiso, Kelderek and new interpretations of the religion of Shardik, and the religion of U-Deparioth, held by another major character, the urbane Ellaroth – yet there is singularly little theological conflict. Neither Kelderek nor any other non-Quiso religious figure has a coherent theology to oppose that of the Tuginda, and the religion of U-Deparioth is not only virtually absent from most of the novel but also, when seen, is presented as more-or-less interchangeable with the religion of Shardik. The sequel, I am told, makes mention of a great many more religions in Bekla, but these do not feature at all. This, I feel, is a serious flaw in the novel, and not only because it allows the Tuginda to reign unchallenged in the theological sphere. It also damages both the theme and the plot of the novel: the theme, because on the one hand we are told of the enormous significance of religion in life, while all throughout the Empire religion is neither salient nor distinct; the plot, because a key symbolic episode, the Streels of Urtah, gains much of its power from the mythology of Deparioth, which is distant and unaffective. While it is clearly intentional to keep the reader in the dark about the details of the significance of the Streels, the eventual revelation would have considerably more power if the mythology had been more familiar to us at this point; additionally, the sudden religiosity of the Sarkids when the Streels feature would be more believable if it were not the first mention of their religion that we saw.

The resulting religious picture is therefore disappointingly bland. Why could not we have been given a serious, fleshed-out, henotheism or polytheism in Bekla? As it is, the most appealing religious dissent is the atheism, or at least extreme pragmatism, of Bel-ka-Trazet, who is portrayed in a surprisingly sympathetic, even positive, manner, but who is sadly absent from the key sections of the novel. Indeed, I’m tempted to say that not only this novel, but all other novels, would benefit from having a good deal more Bel-ka-Trazet in them. Perhaps there is some sort of Boba Fett issue here, but to me he seemed the most charismatic character in the book.

The main religion, meanwhile, failed even to be convincing in its own right – not because of any shallowness on the part of the variety of religious experiences and attitudes displayed, but because the religion seem very much to be Protestant Christianity in a bear skin. This is most obviously seen in the fact that their supreme deity is called simply God, and Shardik is the ‘Power of God’ that has been incarnated to save and guide mankind, through its own sacrifice. And of course all the other religions also worship God, they just don’t worship Shardik or believe he has been sent by God. This is not animism, or shamanism, as we might imagine on hearing of ‘bear worship’ – this is a simple Abrahamic faith, albeit without codified scripture (and the concept of revelation is indeed central). This is not necessarily a problem – it seems natural that an Englishmen of the time would be most interested in Abrahamic religions, but it raises an important question: why has Adams disguised this as something other than it is? Why isn’t it written in a more explicit way – why no prophets, no messiahs, no scripture? Perhaps he sought simplicity – but religion is the core of the book, so ought to be least skimped on. Perhaps he was afraid of blasphemy, or accusations of it. Or perhaps it is accidental – maybe he lacked the knowledge or imagination to make a more truly un-Christian faith. Personally, I hope it is the latter reason – because there is no reason why this faith had to be Abrahamic at all. Indeed, with the focus on faith and interpretation, a less explicit religion, a more genuine animal-worship, would have thrown the fascinating duality of religious thought processes into starker and more penetrating light.

These omissions, however, are likely not made on religious grounds, but rather reflect a general deficiency in worldbuilding. The geography is often confused, both in physics (the vegetative zones, for instance, seem allocated by throwing darts at a map, from all I can see) and in description (I’m still not clear whether Sarkid is a city or a region, for instance, and whether it is adjacent to, or within, Lapan, nor where exactly Deelguy is, nor of the western border of the empire – and all this despite a map!). Culture and economics are vividly described, but seem hollow, and sometimes unbelievable – why, for instance, does Transvrako remain so underpopulated? Given that it is underpopulated, how can it remain in such abject poverty and lawlessness? As the greatest threat appears to be groups of no more than a handful of men, why are people unable to defend their villages, and why, as so much of the area is wild and empty, can people not simply scratch out a living in the wild places without fear of harassment? Let’s not even address the economics of the ending… and as I have said there is virtually no information about the practice of religion, while the magic that appears on Quiso in the early chapters is barely mentioned again.

Why does the worldbuilding matter? Imagine taking a long trip by car to a destination, following the instructions given by a friend. Even if you follow the instructions to the letter, doesn’t a small part of you like having the reassurance that if you wanted to you could take a sudden turn and trundle down the B-roads to cut across country? A poorly-constructed world is when you feel that if you were for even a moment to diverge from the allotted route, you would find that the roads all ended once you were out of sight of the motorway. Or again: we live in our books, if only for a little while, and in a book with thin worldbuilding we are constantly confronted with indescribable, individually insignificant but cumulatively disturbing, suggestions that we are living in the Truman Show. A fine enough effect where disturbance is what the author desires – but otherwise it’s a distracting inadequacy.

In society, likewise, all people are divisible into three categories – a handful of sensible people, a great many urbane, suave aristocrats, and an endless sea of vaguely-cockney working men. If it were a play, most of these characters would simply be replaced by a single faceless man who changes hats, like the servant in A Man for All Seasons.

This point itself raises two new issues. Firstly, the issue of dialect. People are often enjoined to write as people speak, not as philosophers write, and indeed there is great merit in this – but Shardik is a fine example of why it is not always a good idea. It was written in the seventies, but by a man then in his fifties, and sounds distinctly pre-war in its dialogue, with the lower-class characters speaking in the sort of My Fair Lady way that may have represented speech at the time but now seems painfully out of date and not a little patronising. Meanwhile, the aristocrats, and in particular Ellaroth, not only speak but act in the sort of unemotional, flippant, interchangeable stiff-upper-lip fashion that seems scarcely credible now – and Ellaroth suffers as a result, as the painfully-sketched contrast between mask and raw emotion beneath becomes less credible and understandable when the mask is so alien to us, and so clearly affected. Finally, the Deelguy we meet speak in a swap-the-vowels accent that is frankly too bizarre to be believed, and which is rather alienating.

The second and more interesting issue took a long time to occur to me, but now seems to explain a great deal. Shardik should not be understood as modern writing, nor as Victorian writing – it is Shakespearean. It is, in essence, a very long play in novel form. The key dialogue is theatrical, not realistic – full of high sentence, strangely well-considered and precise. Internal thoughts, likewise, are not rambling and disunified, but presented, more or less, as the sort of philosophical soliloquys we expect on the stage. Even the descriptions read as stage directions in their terser moments, and as Othellian anecdotes at their more expansive.

This should not be seen as a criticism. If we judge the writing of Shardik by how close it is to reality, we would judge it poorly – but we do not have to. Consider instead that these soliloquys are not a portrayal of actual psychology, but of a condensed, pureed thought process – how the character would say he thought if he had the time, and literacy, to find the ideal formulation. Once we leap across the barrier of this alien, and somewhat ponderous, style, we find much to admire. The prose is, at times, beautiful, and rarely if ever is it ugly or jarring. It adheres fanatically to the dictum to show and not tell – only, rather than the dichotomy of ‘showing’ as action and ‘telling’ as authorial description, its distinction is between ‘telling’ as literal description and ‘showing’ as imagery, allegory and metaphor. Where other authors use one verb to express an emotion, Adams uses a sentence. Where others use a sentence, Adams uses a paragraph. These similes are usually vivid, and are sometimes imaginative to the point of being bizarre. The most notable example I can recall occurs when Shardik is ill, and Kelderek is observing him. Rather than saying simply “Kelderek was horrified by the poor condition of the bear”, Adams tells us:

“After war has swept across some farm or estate and gone its way, the time comes when villagers or neighbours, their fears aroused by having seen nothing of the occupants, set out for the place. They make their way across the blackened fields or up the lane, looking about them in the unnatural quiet. Soon, seeing no smoke and receiving no reply to their calls, they begin to fear the worst, pointing in silence as they come to the barns with their exposed and thatchless rafters. They begin to search; and at a sudden cry from one of their number come running together before an open, creaking door, where a woman’s body lies sprawling face down across the threshold. There is a quick scurry of rats and a youth turns swiftly aside, white and sick. Some of the men, setting their teeth, go inside and return, carrying the dead bodies of two children and leading a third child who stares about him, crazed beyond weeping. As that farm then appears to those men, who knew it in former days, so Shardik appeared now to Kelderek: and as they look upon the ruin and misery about them, so Kelderek looked at Shardik drinking from the pool.”

A page later, a paragraph is devoted to the disillusionment that accompanies the sight of suffering: “To see strength failing, ferocity grown helpless, power and domination withered by pain as plants by drought – such sights give rise not only to pity but also – and as naturally – to aversion and contempt.” This theme is then illustrated through the image of a dying captain huddled by a fire in the cold, whom we must abandon to his fate before we too succumb to the conditions – we discard our past with him, and decide that it is right that he should be abandoned; and then, suddenly we see him differently: “How odd it is that until now no one, apparently, should have perceived that after all he was never particularly wise; never particularly brave; never particularly honest, particularly truthful, particularly clean.” Psychology in Shardik is displayed not literally but symbolically, in the juxtaposition of and transition between different images and analogies. It is strange to read, and can be alienating, but it can also be beautiful at times, and at times can cut to the heart of a feeling better than literal description could. It is also extremely appropriate to the themes of the novel, in which interpretation and myth are more important than the cold facts themselves.

It may seem slow and plodding, but this is more to do with the plot than the writing – in the passages where real tension and excitement are called for, the archaic style rallies around superbly, and passages such as the battle of the foothills and the end of the Genshed section are dealt with as excitingly as any more sensationalist modern author would be capable of. Adams can write excitingly, and doesn’t even have to change his style to do so – he just chooses, by and large, not to.

That is because the focus of the book is psychology – not, as I say, a mimetic stream-of-consciousness, but a philosophical, ruminative psychology of motivation and theology and self-justification. And here too the style may be unfamiliar, but the effects are powerful – although a large stretch of the third quarter of the book is, through a combination of uneventfulness and mental wrangling, a little slow and difficult for readers expecting more continuous action.

The difficulty I have with the psychology is not the style or the content, but the distribution – certain characters are explored, while others go almost unheeded. Most glaring of these omissions is Ellaroth himself – not only a key character in the plot but also the focus of several chapters. Never, however, do we really see under his mask, except what other viewers can see when he loses control in moments of extreme emotion. This could be effective, except that we see far too little even of the emotionally-masked Ellaroth – in the only chapters where he has considerable screen time, we see him through the dull and somewhat slow eyes of his friend, Mollo, and we are too busy digesting the exposition at this point to concentrate on nuance of character, even should there be any. The result is that by and large, with the exception of one speech (most of which is not translated for us), Ellaroth appears almost entirely free of emotion, motivation or background – dangerously close, at several points, to a deus ex machina. This problem is exacerbated by (or perhaps creates) Ellaroth’s alienation from the main, religious themes of the book – alone of the major characters, Ellaroth could not care less about Shardik either way. While this could present a valuable dash of perspective to the tale (as Siristrou does at the end of the book), the fact that we don’t see much of Ellaroth’s own religion, or anything else that he cares about, it instead makes the character seem somewhat superfluous and artificial. This, however, is in strong contrast to the structure of the book, which presents Ellaroth as one of the most central figures. In particular, his importance at the end of the novel is disappointing – particularly when compared to the near-vanishing of Radu, by then a far more interesting character, and one who could have served much of the narrative function of Ellaroth in the final section.

This should highlight the fact that Shardik is only Adams’ first novel, and its events and themes are on an altogether grander scale than his first – consequently, he does make mistakes in pacing, plot and structure. The opening section needs more Melathys and Bel-ka-Trazet; ideally, more Ta-Kominion as well. Either the first or second section needs more Ged-la-Dan, and ideally more Zelda. As it is, important characters go without definition, or only receive sufficient focus when it is too late. The penultimate section is extremely powerful, but the final section is essentially an epilogue, and far too long and uneventful – which would be more forgivable if it did not then eventually surrender to the necessity of an epilogue-within-an-epilogue (though as a chapter, the final epilogue is both well-written and a brilliant concept to frame the events of the novel). Moreover, though pains are taken to see the effects of past actions, too much of the final section is spent watching characters (most notably Ellaroth) who are relatively unscathed, while Radu, who has been set up as a major focus of the preceding section, is forgotten (along with a few others I wanted to see more of – a certain boy who paces on the shoreline with a stick swearing, for instance).

By far the biggest problem, however, is the lacuna between Book II and Book III. It is easy to see why this temporal void was allowed – the significant events of the gap would have been spread out over years, making them difficult to relate coherently, while most of the characters, both new and old, would have been doing very little. Nonetheless, I believe that finding a way of filling this gap could have greatly improved the novel, for several reasons:

–         It would have given us time to know get to know Ellaroth, making the third book far more emotive. He’s not a character, as I’ve said above, who we can love on first sight.

–         It would have allowed us to see the reaction to the death of a certain character in the preceding book – as it is, they seem to fade from the story too easily, not casting that shadow that in reality they would have cast.

–         It would have allowed us to see Zelda and, in particular, Ged-la-Dan in the hour of their darkest deeds. Zelda is shown as somewhat sympathetic both before and after, and although we see the darker point in hindsight, this does not have the same power as watching him live through them. Indeed, I would suggest that Ellaroth and Zelda should have shared this section. Ged-la-Dan is an important shadow-antagonist throughout the novel who never gets enough screentime. Showing more clearly the complicated relationship between Ged-la-Dan and Crendrik would have put the latter’s decisions in a more nuanced background. As it is, I feel it is too easy to hate Crendrik, as indeed I did on first reading.

–         It would have shown us Kelderek’s Third Big Decision, and possibly the biggest of the three. The decision he makes, while sensible and rationalised in hindsight, is probably the most important event in the novel, and the impetus to the whole of the second half, yet inexplicably we never see it. Accordingly, we’re not fully engaged as he deliberates whether or not he was right, which takes away much of the power of the novel.

–         It would balance the overall structure of the novel, which leans to heavily toward the second half

This lack of balance is made worse by the uneven narrative technique of exploring different points of view. In my reaction to Legend, I denigrated Gemmell’s use of mini-POVs of various minor characters, which lacked sufficient depth and relevance; Adams shows how this ought to be done. Rather than a paragraph or two, Adams devotes pages, or even chapters, to different perspectives, and this shows us the events in question in an altogether different light. I only wish he had done it more. Unfortunately, only the early sections show this variety, with the book increasingly focusing on Kelderek solely. The book suffers as a result – partly because it accentuates the degree to which the book is unbalanced, and partly because overexposure makes Kelderek’s dilemmas less affective. It’s also unnecessary. While much of the middle section is doomed to be Kelderek-dominated, there is no reason why the latter sections could not have featured the perspectives of Ellaroth (or someone close to him), Radu, the Tuginda, or a certain woman. Indeed, best of all would have been the perspective of Lalloc, or even Genshed – although I can understand why Adams may have felt unable to do this (and thankfully, in the case of Lalloc, as the ridiculous accent-writing would have become unbearable).

This, however, touches on a further problem: it is clear the ending matters more to Adams than to me. I feel a little guilty about this, as it’s the sort of moral issue we can’t respectably ignore – and indeed it is affective (a certain moment with Genshed in the deserted village may well compete for ‘most gut-wrenchingly horrible paragraph’ among the novels I’ve read). It just get a feeling that it’s not as affective for me as it’s meant to be, and that’s alienating for me. I’ve never read Adams’ autobiography, but I hear it has dark moments in it – and he explicitly says in an introductory note that some of the child-torture is written from his own experience. This certainly makes it even darker (Adams, like Ellaroth, has a stiff-upper lip mentality that can neuter some of the darker moments, downgrading them from horrific to merely disturbingly callous, and a glimpse behind the mask can help bring back that colour), but it also makes me aware of a gulf between author and reader – as someone without those experiences, can I ever really understand what the novel is meant to mean? I find myself, rather off-puttingly, wishing that certain scenes had been more brutal, more explicit, more disgusting – not because that would have been enjoyable, but because I think I may need to hear a shout to hear what Adams can hear in a whisper; and yet I doubt Adams could have made himself write any more darkly, even had he so wished. Indeed, the reason he added that autobiographical hint at the beginning was to seek to avoid accusations from readers that he had the sort of mind that could have invented such things.

Nor need those concerns be unfounded: we must remember that this novel was written in the 1970s, when child abuse, sexual slavery and the other issues raised were not perhaps as openly discussed as today, and certainly not as openly the topic of popular entertainment. And perhaps that is a good thing in this case: not only in relation to Genshed, but also regarding the stories we hear from some women near the end of the novel (and indeed some of the war scenes and their consequences earlier on), Shardik is a novel that touches on the worst things a novel can deal with, and a less inhibited writer could have let it plunge to, frankly, limitless depths of pain and suffering quite easily. On the one hand, I would love to see what a writer of such quality could have done off the leash, and what an incredible book Shardik might have been – but on the other hand, I know that it’s not exactly comfortable reading at the moment, and there is a point where ‘artistically valuable’ is less salient than ‘too harrowing to read’.

I have, then, discussed many flaws in the book. I tend to do that – I assume perfection, and try to detail why it was not always attained. Nonetheless, if other people are to gain anything from this, perhaps I should say some words on why the book is actually worth reading. What’s it got?

–         It’s dark. As I say, this isn’t portrayed in a sensationalist style – indeed, the very contrary. Nonetheless, rape and murder and mutilation are constant features, and are just as likely to happen to children as to adults. This is not some run-of-the-mill fluffy-dragon fantasy that tosses around war and slavery without any attention to what the words really mean. Bekla may not be a completely convincing world in terms of geography and sociology, but it is impressively real in terms of psychology and human suffering. The style is archaic, but the contents are decidedly modern.

–         It deals in Real Human Themes that may be raised in a fantasy world, but that have application in real life – faith, courage, belief, reason, pragmatism, which ends justify which means, honour, power, the nature and effect of cruelty… it may occasionally seem to have made up its mind on some of these (particularly religion), but it’s never hectoring in tone, and usually at least tries to be nuanced, and show different points of view.

–         The writing style, both in prose and in descriptive technique, are highly distinctive, and effective, if you can get used to them.

–         It’s original in execution. The fact that Watership Down is more approachable suggests that much of the theatrical prose style is an experimental affectation, and throughout the book there are further experiments – from the first chapter (through the perspective of a non-sentient animal with no thinking creature appearing at all) through to the last (a brilliant conceit that, unlike most epilogues, manages to put the entire novel that has come before into a new light).

Overall, I think the best way to sum up the novel is to say that it’s somewhat odd literary fantasy, which might not satisfy those seeking the very best the genre has to offer, but should absolutely be considered by anyone who genuinely desires to read a fantasy novel that is nothing like conventional fantasy – and of course anybody interested in religion in fantasy. And anybody who loved Watership Down but didn’t know he wrote anything else – if nothing else, they’ll come away with a greater appreciation of the breadth of the man’s skill.

As for myself… no, Shardik wasn’t as good as I remember it being, but it will always have a place in my affections, and I’ve no doubt I’ll reread it again in the future [and the phrase “all the way, underground” will probably feature prominently in future nightmares, along with the myth of Leg-by-Lee]. As for Adams’ third novel, Maia, I admit to mixed anticipations – on the one hand, the thought of a novel focusing less on the elevated part of Shardik and more on the darker parts is appealing; on the other hand, the time period is uninteresting to me, perhaps because I feel it would be too familiar. Also, I didn’t exactly find Shardik gripping, even if it was ultimately fairly satisfying. I think that I’ll keep an eye out for Maia in second-hand bookshops, but not actually go out and buy it online. There’s so many other books I’ve to read first…

So, finally, to tidy things up (and apologies for the long length of the review, by the way – I guess the book just struck some chords with me), some numbers:

Adrenaline: 3/5. It’s slow and pensive, not exciting, and could easily have been a 2 – it even touches 1 at times. However, when the story calls for it, Adams can whip up the adrenaline, and there’s a couple of really good chapters in this respect, so I’m bumping it up to a 3.

Emotion: 4/5. Yes, part of the emotion provoked is anger, and part disgust, as well as the occasional happy moment. But I felt that it was all intended by the book, not directed at the book per se. Some of the book is a little cold, but I was very close to, and perhaps actually in, tears at one point. I cry fairly easily at books, I’ll admit, but it’s still a good sign.

Thought: 4/5. It doesn’t really manage to be as fascinating and nuanced as it could be, but nonetheless it’s an intelligent and thought-provoking book.

Beauty: 4/5. A little too… measured and marble for me to love it, but it’s distinctly above average aesthetically, both in prose and in imagery. In particular, I love Adams’ flair for remote analogies.

Craft: 3/5. Mostly… not noticeable. By that I mean that by and large I wasn’t thinking about craft as I read the book. I think that’s above average and deserves a 4. However, the big structural problem I mentioned above counts against it, and so does the most mishandled fall-in-love subplot I think I’ve ever read. However, the structural problems only became clear to me after some reflection, and the romance issue isn’t big or important enough to really spoil it. So 3.

Endearingness: 3/5. Well, it has a place in my affections. I’m sure I’ll recommend it to anybody who asks. I will reread it, I know. When I think of it, positive emotions occur. I like it, I can’t say why – and I mean like, not ‘think it good’, nor ‘enjoy reading it’, but actually like. But against that, overall… it’s just a bit too stony and unapproachable for me to say it’s above average here.

Originality: 4/5. There’s nothing here that’s stunningly wow-that’s-a-brilliant-idea original. However, I certainly couldn’t have written it, and there’s almost nothing that feels reused or over-familiar. Partly that’s because this book predates all those fantasy novels that have set the nature of cliché in the genre – which only makes it more admirably pioneering. This shows what fantasy ought to be: a genre filled with books that you’ll never find a twin of.

Overall: 5/7: Good.

Religion in Vajhoros, V. c.

The Empire

The Empire is a not only a political organisation but a religious one, chiefly because politics itself is an expression of religion under Six Caravans. Through good governance, it enables people to fulfil their desires. Through the law, it reinforces morality.

Morality is important for three reasons: as a universal code, it erodes provukă; as a code that protects, it enables all to fulfil their desires; and as a code that obstructs and chastens, it teaches constancy and moderation. The law is not always moral, but it is as close an analogue to morality as can be achieved.

The Empire is also responsible for overseeing and protecting all the other Caravans to attenuating tsaien.

The Family

The family exists to protect and nurture children, and for the period of childhood an individual is entirely dependent on their parents not only for physical well-being but also for their spiritual advancement. The parents have a responsibility to impart morality, constancy, piety, and knowledge of the saints. In return, the love and devotion of a parent or grandparent for their child brings them closer to weakening provukă.


The monastery is organisationally part of the Shonimô, but its intent is different – where the Shonimô aims to improve the public, the monastery improves its own members. Here, through rigid internal laws and the exclusion of the chaotic external world, monks may more easily weaken their provukă and learn constancy. Monasteries are forbidden from holding slaves or allowing lay brethren, in order to weaken their political and economic power. They have, however, two degrees: the inner core of self-governing monks and a periphery of talnam, ‘disciples’, who are bound to serve the monks as a child obeys their parents, for a span of years, or even for an entire lifetime.

In general, only the wealthiest and most powerful families may enter a member into a monastery, although the institution also serves a punitive role: those facing stern legal penalties (particularly execution) may escape them by entering a monastery.

To symbolise monasticism, the monks are usually branded on their face, and may have their noses removed. Leaving a monastery carries the death sentence. It is only available for men.


The talking group was recognised as a Caravan in part to appease anti-church elements hostile to monasteries, and in part to recognise changes both in society and in the church. At the same time as the church was building larger and larger cathedrals, focusing on mass abnegation, so too the literate and independent class was growing in size and importance. Such people no longer wished to be entirely led by the church, and the church no longer had the resources to do so, and thus some parts of the responsibility of the church were given to the people themselves.

The talking group is a group of devotees who gather to discuss themselves. Through confession to the group, people are brought to morality through shame, and to a greater understanding of their own repressed desires. Through discussion, dilemmas in life can be resolved, and desires fulfilled or dissolved. The dissolution of desires (which may be performed by clergy as well as talking groups) involves determining the underlying nature of a desire, behind the specifics, and is used when a desire cannot practically, or morally, be accomplished. For instance, a woman may show distress as a result of a repressed desire from a past life that her children prosper. This desire cannot be met – those children are long since dead – but it can be dissolved: once the desire is recognised, it can be replaced (if provukă is sufficiently weakened) by the analogous desire that her own current (or future) children prosper, as the desire that descendents prosper is the core of the specific desire. Meanwhile, by hearing the intimate stories of others confidentially, an individual can awake to greater empathy.

The talking group is not entirely independent from the Shonimô – by law, each group must have present at least one trained ‘advisor’ clergyman, and they are usually created by, and hosted by, a local shuni. Commonly, membership is determined by patron saint; in this way a single talking group can involve people of many social backgrounds.

Other Caravans

Six Caravans, despite its name, does not claim that there are only six caravans for the kingdom of attenuation – rather, it insists on the legitimacy and importance of those six, which act as models for other relationships. In general, any disciplining, educative or non-self-focused relationship or institution may be seen as beneficial, even if not of equal status with the acknowledged Caravans.

Religion in Vajhoros, V. b.

Six Caravans School

Six Caravans recognises the four caravans originally made explicit in the Four Caravans Edict as well as two more made explicit during the Aquien Reforms. The six caravans are: the ikôda (“icon”), the shonimô (“church”), the family, the Empire, the mvavaskantolkomtas (“monastery”) and the vasjaktemnas (“talking group”).


An icon, or ikôda, is a tool for the sokurmas of a tulmăn. Most commonly it is a depiction of the saint in question – a painting, relief carving, occasionally a sculpture – although it may sometimes be a relic of their life. It calls the attention of the tulmăn toward the devotee, and by showing respect and devotion to the icon devotion can be shown to the tulmăn itself. This provokes the saint to act on behalf of the devotee.

Icons are held to be a caravan toward three cities: devotion to the icon weakens provukă; the saint has the power to alter the devotee’s spirit in a way that eliminates or prevents unnecessary eribarkam; and by influencing the spirits of others, and by calming or controlling malign shojkam, the saint can bring material success to the devotee.

In formal theology, and in the more philosophical strains of thought common in the upper echelons of society, the role of icons is downplayed – it is recognised that their aid is unpredictable and the devotion required considerable. In popular religion, however, icons are central to everyday practice. No element of life is free from icons. Any building has icons over its doors; every hearth and dinner table, every office desk, has an icon. All the more important possessions are protected by icons. An individual will likely carry half a dozen icons at least; women, many more.

The choice of icon operates along two principles: one henotheistic, one polytheistic. The former begins at birth, when by calendrical calculations each child is allotted a patron saint to appeal to; later in life, an individual may change their patron to a saint they feel personally connected to. The second principle is one of portfolio, in which particular saints are appealed to in particular cases – certain saints are connected to cookery, for instance, and hence their icons will appear at hearths, while others are connected to swords, dogs, sea travel, prostitution, conception, blight, fair weather, gambling, rats, prosecution, road-laying and so forth. It is likely that for any subject a handful of conceivably-relevant saints could be named, often varying with geographic region.

Icons themselves can be divided into the devotional (seen in churches, or in bedchambers), to which full devotion is given, the protective (placed on or over anything for a general protection from harm or failure) which are rarely more than kept clean, and the invocational, to which quick prayers are said in time of trouble.

The manner of devotion is not prescribed, but there are several common elements, which may be divided into the preparatory, the exterior, and the inner. To prepare for devotion, the devotee must keep the icon clean, place themselves in a posture that is conducive to abnegation (commonly protestation or kneeling) and avoid any sources of distraction – they should not be afflicted through the sense, or be subject to hunger or lust. The exterior component of devotion is seen through physical contact with the icon and through symbolic sacrifice, often of alcohol or of a burning candle. The interior component is primarily thinking favourably of the saint, and often comparing the saint’s life to the devotee’s own life. It may also feature communication with the saint, particularly the asking of favours and the making of promises.


The Shonimô is the established church organisation of the Empire. It consists of a great many shoniam, ‘cults’, responsible to a small number of ankraonam, ‘metropolitans’. Cults are divisible into makshoniam, ‘small cults’ and vepshoniam, ‘big cults’. The former are responsible for minor shrines, and are usually devoted to a single saint; the latter are responsible for cathedrals, vepshonivarkoam.

The chief importance of the vepshonivarko is as a venue for weekly acts of mass abnegation. In these, devotees enter into the building, remove their clothes, cover themselves in ashes, and lie on the floor for periods of time, interrupted by bouts of kneeling. During this time, a leader will preach their inadequacy and the folly of the human race, illustrated through recent public news. At the end, they are washed clean through immersion. Abnegation is not, as may be thought, an activity designed to produce guilt, but rather a method for weakening provukă, the self-concept, by demonstrating both the weakness (and hence transience) of human flesh and also the fundamental unity of mankind, and the unity of mankind with other living animals. It is a small dose of humiliation to pierce the walls of vanity and delusion that maintain provukă.

Shoniam also provide icons for public devotion, and have an important educative facility, teaching the public about the lives of the saints. As the saints were real people with real lives, their stories act as illustrations of good (or bad) principles in life, and make people more able to fulfil their desires, and to attain the constancy that prevents the creation of unnecessary desires. They also provide experts to advise individuals on morality and prudence.

All shoniam are subsidiary to and supervised by an ankraon, or else they are illegal. There are perhaps a dozen ankraonam in total, with the same word being used for the individual, the authority, and the physical vepshonivarkoam that acts as their seat. No ankraon can exist without the license of the Emperor, and that license may be revoked. Each ankraon is responsible for its own employees, but they are also joined together in the Camera, which has the ultimate religious authority. The Shonimô has sole jurisdiction over crimes of heresy and apostasy, and over clergy throughout the Empire. The jurisdiction of the ankraon is not geographic, but rather, as the name suggests, an authority of founder over founded, with the link usually reflecting the origin of conquering armies, or the favourite cults of founding governors.

Those who feel a vocation toward the priesthood serve for a span of years as talna (sworn slave, legally a child) to a shonikonat (elder of a shoni), before becoming a shoniket (brother in the shoni). The shoniketam retain their status for life, though they do not always remain in a religious role until death. A shoniketam belongs to one shoni only, though they may move from one to another. The shoniketam of each shoni elect their own shonikonatam – in the case of makshoniam, these may be sole governing figures, but in the case of vepshoniam they are in essence a board of governors. In addition to their administrative role, they have an important function in society, acting as ‘councillors’ or ‘chaplains’ to aristocratic families and to vasjaktemnam. From the shonikonatam, the ankraon selects a dushoniari, the chief official. The shonikonatam of the ankraon (who have usually served as shonikonatam, if not dushoniari, themselves) select the new ankraon.

Religion in Vajhoros, V. a.

Movolkasproagmăthe kingdom of attenuation – An Introduction

In modern mainstream religion, movolkasproagmă is the main emphasis. The great majority of people practice one of three schools of this kingdom: Tajhuônănjioka (“Six Caravans School”, the orthodoxy), Tajhuôkemjioka (“One Caravan School”) or Tajhuôvotjioka (“Four Caravans School”), all three of which are closely related and often referred to collectively as Tajhuôjioka, “School of the Caravan”).

For Tajhuôjioka, the aim of attenuating tsaien is to be accomplished through self-improvement. At root, tsaien arises because the incorporeal spirit is filled with desires it cannot attain without a body. These desires accumulate through generations, because a desire unattained does not dissolve, but lingers perpetually. These desires are then inherited by new incarnations as ill-formed, instinctual desires that bring frustration and bad faith. In order to attenuate tsaien, these desires must be first brought forth and interpreted and then fulfilled or dissolved. At the same time, new desires must be of a kind that will not linger unfulfillably beyond death.

Desires (or more properly ‘willings’) it may be said, are of three kinds: the kind that cannot be fulfilled; the kind that can be fulfilled with a body but not without one; and the kind that can be fulfilled even without a body. Any desire that is limited by any form of provukă, self-concept, that is dependent on a perception of body or mind is inevitably of the second kind, which are called eribarkam, ‘fields’, after a popular board game – the meaning is essentially ‘hostages to fate’. It is impossible to avoid willing, but it is better if willing is more commonly selfless, as selfless willing is less likely to go unfulfilled after death. In particular, empathy enables individuals to have wills that are not self-centred: “for me to have money” is entirely self-focused, and entirely unobtainable after death; “for my children and their children to have money” is less self-focused, and can be satisfied posthumously, at least for the next few generations; “for my nation to prosper” is even more general, and can be satisfied for even longer after death; “for humanity to endure” is more general still. By weakening provukă, individuals can shift the balance of their willing toward these more general, universally achievable goals.

Within the kingdom of attenuation, then, several ‘cities’, or objectives, may be determined: knowledge of one’s own inherited desires; weakening provukă to avoid eribarkam; avoiding the creation of unnecessary eribarkam; and fulfilling or dissolving as many eribarkam as possible before death. These objectives may be reached in several ways, which is phrased as a choice between different ‘caravans’ setting out for the same cities, taking different routes.