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Knowledge of Angels

Jill Paton Walsh

Average Review Rating Average Rating 6/10 (1 Review)
Book Details

Publisher : Black Swan

Published : 1998

Copyright : Jill Paton Walsh 1998

ISBN-10 : PB 0-552-99780-3
ISBN-13 : PB 978-0-552-99780-5

Publisher's Write-Up

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.

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!

'Remarkable…Utterly absorbing…richly detailed and finely imagined.'

Sunday Telegraph

'A compelling medieval fable, written from the heart and melded to a driving narrative which never once loses its tremendous pace.'


'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.'

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Reader Reviews

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Review by Amina Malik (130409) Rating (6/10)

Review by Amina Malik
Rating 6/10
Knowledge of Angels features two strangers who arrive on the island of Grandinsula and consequently become the subject of a unique experiment that puts the lives of both unknowing participants in the balance.

One of these 'participants' is Palinor an admirable character who is staunchly true to himself yet his incredible stubbornness is an attribute that ultimately leads to his downfall. A blatant atheist, he finds himself a rare breed on the shores of this conservative island, where he soon discovers that his views are unacceptable and punishable by death. Portrayed implicitly by Jill Paton Walsh as a Christ-like figure, he will not conceal his ideology even if it means his life is in danger.

The second 'participant' is Amara, a wolf-child, taken care of by kindly nuns who encourage language acquisition and human development from meagre beginnings. Amara, however, serves a purpose - she is used to discover whether knowledge of God is innate or taught. On her answer hinges the life of another, a fact unbeknownst to all but a few. The dangerous experiment is observed by three men; one a man of morality and intelligence; the second a priest who loses his faith and the third a man who kills in the name of God, but who justifies this with the idea that "any blood guilt is on the hands of the civil power". His evil, unmerciful tortures and killings are cloaked by a 'mask of piety'.

A strictly patriarchal society, it is a group of men who are in charge of the experiment, however, it is a woman who ultimately wields the most power. She, one of the moral touchstones in the book, is the one to unknowingly affect the balance of the scales, which hold the two stranger's fates.
An exploration of morals and ethics, Knowledge of Angels is relevant to the past and present in a world that is divided by similar religious disputes. Contradictory to the positive praise this book merits is that whilst it is a book of many questions it ultimately gives few answers. The reader is encouraged to question how people come to know God - is it innate or is it a knowledge that is taught? Religion is not portrayed well here - it is an unyielding force that will steam-roller any obstacles, regardless of loss of life.

Knowledge of Angels is thought-provoking to the point where one continues the debate long after the writer finishes. However, one drawback is that the fable-like backdrop can only be embraced if the reader is able to suspend disbelief and accept the minor contrivances. The great debate between Beneditx and Palinor for example, in which imagery and allegory are poetically utilized to create argument, is unsatisfying as Beneditx's arguments are unrealistically too weak, simply because this suits the author's intentions for the outcome of the plot. However, it is easy to overlook these flaws, as overall the book is unique in its combination of concept and style.

Jill Paton Walsh has, like many writers, used numerous references and taken ideas from various sources, which many readers will take delight in discovering. These include The Maid of Chalons, Epitre II Sur l'Homme, and ideas from the New Testament. Even Palinor's name holds an implicit reference to another great work as he is named after Palinurus, the pilot of Aeneas, from Vergil's The Aeneid.

This is a Pandora's Box wrapped up in theological debate and bound by the threads of two separate, yet intertwining, lives. It is at the end of the book that we realise what is in the box - or Jill Paton Walsh's core message - the importance of tolerance.
Amina Malik (13th April 2009)

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