Book Review || Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh

Knowledge of Angels is a frank and heartbreaking look at faith. Jill Paton Walsh has a vibrant and philosophical imagination that brings the story of an atheist, two avid Catholic believers, and a wild girl found amongst wolves to life in a vivid tale.

This novel is actually a fable set on an imagined island called Grandinsula at around the fifteenth century, when the Spanish Inquisition judged unbelievers and sinners. We come first to a quiet village: its shepherds have made a disturbing discovery of a girl child in the mountains who was so fierce they thought she was a wolf. Then, along the island's coastline, a man, Palinor, who claims to come from a place where all can practice their religion freely and without judgment, is rescued from the sea - a man who has no belief in the existence of god. These two people are delivered into the hands of the capital Cuidad's Cardinal Severo, who must come to a decision as to what to do with them both. It is Palinor's charm and his vigorous arguments against the existence of God that inspires Severo to send the child to a place where she will never be told about God to see if we are born with an awareness of our creator and his angels. He tells Palinor that if the girl has knowledge of her creator without being told about him, he will have to suffer the consequences of his atheism, otherwise he will be free to go home.

Palinor and Amara represent the outsider to Medieval communities in ways different to the usual pariahs that existed in those days. Most outsiders were so because of their differing religious practices, such as Jewish communities, but in essence they still believed in God, albeit their own version. However, these two outsiders are not normal: one has met with philosophy about God and rejected it, and the other is completely ignorant of the society of humanity, let alone the possibility of an all-powerful creator.

Palinor inspires in the Cardinal the yearning for the youthful discussions he had on his way to believing inexorably in God and his reasons for keeping Palinor on the island become personal and selfish. His decision has different effects on the two outsiders: one is horrific and will affect the island irreparably.

To me, Walsh's prose feels sad while being some of the most rich and interesting I've read in a long time. Its frankness is what makes it appear sad - there is no narrative judgment: she tells the story as simply as she can without lofty elaborations. The philosophical discussions allow for the different shades of belief to be explored and it makes you consider what it is you believe yourself. Thought-provoking and intellectually challenging, you are encouraged to think about what makes faith real to you, and how everything you believe may be nothing but a construct of the society in which you find yourself.

Further Reading:

The Spanish Inquisition: Debunking the Legends
Medieval Religion
The Conflict Between Science and Religion Lies in Our Brains
Maternal Deprivation