Wednesday, December 31, 2008


This article is a continuation of an old entry I posted in 2005. To save the reader the trouble of treasure hunting, I have pasted the short old piece below (with some editing). My opinions in this post and my Nov post are echoed and inspired by various articles that can be found on the net.

The most important of these is Bill Joy’s ‘Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us’. This article was published in Wired magazine in 2000, and could still be easily googled. I believe that Bill Joy’s work, a prescient warning by an eminent and far-sighted technologist, will eventually be recognized as one of the most important articles published in this century.

The threat to democracy/liberalism posed by transhumanism is discussed in another article, ironically from a transhumanist website:

The Old Article:

“I have been interested in roleplaying games since primary school days. It is always fun to take on an alter-ego, especially one engaged in much more interesting activities than mundane schoolwork. One of the most extensive and well-developed RPG series is the D&D (forgotten realms) fantasy world. This game system has been around since the 1970s, and even today, best-selling computer games like Neverwinter Nights and the classic Baldur's Gate series are D&D spinoffs.

The great attraction of D&D is that it offers an entire alternative civilization and world based not on science but on magic. Its magical system is quite simple: basically 'magic' is an energy (governed by a goddess called Mystra) that builds and upholds the universe. Clerics, mages and sorcerers draw on this 'weave' of energy in different ways (either through the gods, their own arcane training or natural gifts), and shape this energy using their wills to accomplish spectacular feats. Given the nature of the game, most of these feats are of a very lethal and damaging nature. Many of them would probably fall in the category of 'black magic'.

D&D, of course, does not offer a very sophisticated (or convincing) metaphysical system. What is much more interesting is not D&D’s view of magic, but the consideration of the socio-political and economic implications of a world where tens of thousands of people wield magic. It is a very interesting attempt at the construction of an entire complex civilization based on magical and not physical technology.

Adding to its richness is its many nations with different cultures, magical proficiency, races, wealth and morality/religion. To just give a quick overview: there are a few nations in Faerun (a kind of magical alternative Europe where most of the action take place) with vast knowledge of magic. These are the elven nations (underground drow cities and Evermeet) and the magocracies (rule by mages) of Halruaa, Thay and Shade.

Both Halruaa and Shade are descendants of an ancient magical empire called Netheril, which was destroyed by its own hubris. However Halruaa has an orderly and beneficent culture, and despite its potential power, it is really no nuisance to its neighbors. However it is also quite isolationist, and its philosopher-mages (who rule benevolently over a peasant population) are much more interested in research than commerce or conquest. Shade, on the other hand, is an extremely ruthless and aggressive city state with armies of mages wielding shadow magic (never mind what it is). Much unlike Halruaa, it is bent on world domination. Being a cousin state to Halruaa, it is also seeking to corrupt the ruling class of Halruaa by luring them with the powers of shadow magic.

Thay, neighbor to Shade, is a vast evil empire ruled by a council of mages. Its nominal head (since the council is forever fighting for power) is one of Faerun's most powerful wizard and necromancer (Szass Tam) with legions of undead at his command. Thay is forever at war with its neighbors, but because of its internal divisions and very powerful neighbors (Aglarond and Rashemen) it has never managed to overrun Faerun. Instead it has embarked on a commercial program to sell magical artifacts. Something like a Thayvian 'to get rich is glorious' policy change.

Evermeet is one of the last surface Elven powers. It is located on the extreme west of Faerun, run by beneficent and magically powerful elves who insist on being left alone. Its main direct enemies are not humans, but the drows (the dark elves) who live underground. If united, these drows are probably much more numerous and powerful than the surface elves, but fortunately for Faerun, they are like the Thayvians and forever fight among themselves. Their cities, too, are concentrations of magical power and lore.

The other nations of Faerun (e.g. the Venice-like metropolis of Waterdeep, the more mundane nations of Sembia and Cormyr) all have mages and clerics, but none of them have concentrations comparable to the magocracies or the elven nations. It is therefore notable that D&D postulates such a variety of political and cultural adaptations in different magical nations to deal with the problems and blessings of magical ability. After all, if magic were to exist on our earth, its regulation and control would perhaps be the chief political and social issue of all nations.

Yet despite the variety, it is even more interesting that magic users dominate the political orders of almost all the human nations. There is strikingly no democracies or republics in Faerun. The most liberal regime will be an oligarchy, and that is usually dominated by magic users. Waterdeep, for instance, is no magocracy, but it is run by a secret council of Lords with some of the most powerful mages in Faerun. The same pattern holds for almost all nations. Rashemen, for instance, is a warrior and even barbarous power, but it too is run by its witches.

Thomas Hobbes, the political philosopher, has based the equality of men not on an abstract or spiritual concept, but on the equal ability of each man to kill. In a world where magic users can unleash unspeakable violence on hapless 'muggles', even that primitive concept of equality cannot be sustained. D&D is being politically insightful in eliminating any semblance of democracy or liberalism in Faerun.

One then think about the myth of Atlantis and its magic. How then did Atlantis survive as a magical civilization? One would think only a totalitarian state or at least one of the autocratic D&D regimes can support such a civilization. Perhaps. Or is it because Faerun is populated by humans too much like us? Violent, quarrelsome and greedy creatures. Perhaps the Atlanteans were quite different, at least at first.

In any case, with some of the technologies coming to birth in the 21st century, one wonders whether we will end up with the chaos of the D&D world. After all, no one WEAK should ever want to live in Faerun. It is a world of adventure, darkness, heroism and general war. The strong and magically potent thrive there, but the rest play second or third fiddles at best and typically end up as undead corpses. And this is in large part thanks to the abundance of magical talent. In our 21st century world where 'transhumanist' technologies might one day empower large groups of people to become virtual wizards, will we too end up with autocratic 'magocracies'?


I found out a while ago that in the D&D 4th Edition world (the D&D system goes through periodic revamps), the goddess of magic has somehow been murdered by an evil god (Cyric), and this understandably drastic event has unleashed a catastrophe, a ‘spell plague’, that has swept through Faerun. Halruaa, the archetypal mage-kingdom, has apparently ‘detonated’--Atlantean-fashion perhaps--leaving a broken archipelago behind. There are few survivors.

This event reminds me of the events in the Warcraft storyline. In an episode of Warcraft III, Dalaran, the city of mages, succumbs to an undead plague before being knocked down by the mighty spell of a big mean demon. I mourn for the fallen mages and their ruined libraries.

Beyond game universes, Robert Jordan’s ‘Wheel of Time’ series also explores (much more subtly and extensively) the uses and abuses of magical power—but commenting on that will probably require another very long post.

In any event, our civilization knows very well the danger of power over nature. Though the D&D gods could honestly display more imagination (and sympathy) in their cyclical revamps (which usually involves gods and goddesses randomly dying and/or rising again), denizens of the 21st century could hardly oppose the basic contention that great power in the hands of fallible mortals or immortals almost always leads to disaster.

In Warcraft III, this is quite clear. It is a traitor mage of Dalaran who opens the way for the undead and demonic invasion. Without the magical power and knowledge fostered by Dalaran, the undead/demonic scourge would have left the world (and Dalaran itself) alone. Of course, one could counter-argue that if Dalaran had been even more powerful, it might have used a divine vacuum cleaner to suck the demon and his friends back to the abyss. Thus the problem is not magic, but its insufficiency.

This argument is fallacious, however. If Dalaran had 10 times the magical lore and power, then its traitors/scoundrels would also likely be 10 times more powerful and knowledgeable, and would likely do 10 times the damage. The greater the power, the greater the solutions possible--but the problems would also increase in severity.

In Halruaa, there were no scoundrels misusing power and bringing about a great fall. Their mistake, if there is even one, is less clear. Halruaa, unlike Thay or Shade or the Drow cities, was one of the ‘good guys’. Its policies were beneficent, it kept to itself despite its power, and it was a well-run and orderly country by D&D standards. Yes, it did use magic everywhere, but in a country where one-third of the population (1.7 million citizens altogether) were mages, this was only to be expected. When the goddess died, their magic naturally or unnaturally unraveled, and Halruaa died a violent and undeserved death.

If we must insist on a sin, then the Halruaans’ only sin was to persist in using magic when its use had led to a terrible catastrophe for their ancestors. The Halruaans were descended from the inhabitants of Netheril, the mightiest human civilization that has ever existed—a civilization with magical achievements that far surpassed anything in ‘modern’ Faerun. These Netherese, in hubris and for defense, built flying cities that soared above the earth, living like gods among the clouds.

Eventually (and the story is silly, so I should not go into details), one of the Netherese archmages overreached. His folly led most of the Netherese cities to crash to the ground, killing their inhabitants. One city, however, went into ‘the world of shadows’, and returned, quite naturally, as Shade thousands of years later. A few other cities were saved by divine intervention, and the few survivors made their way down south, building the nation that became Halruaa. Instead of renouncing magic and its power, these survivors sought to rebuild their old civilization--but this time, they exerted a much stricter oversight over magical research.

For both Dalaran and Halruaa, there was some attempt to use reason and ethics to control the use and development of magical power. In Halruaa, arguably, it was very successful. But due to circumstances outside its control, and the whim of certain Californians), there was an eventual detonation with 1.7 million casualties.

So what’s the problem with power? There is no problem with power in a world without evil. In our world, and in Faerun, great power can, and usually does, lead to catastrophe. And evil often grows greatly after that.

Indeed, as I browsed the D&D 4th Edition guidebook at Kino (too expensive to buy), I noticed just how much darker the world of Faerun has become after the spell plague (and this is Faerun we are talking about—a world brimming with monsters and dark magic in the best of times). Beyond the implosion of Halruaa (definitely one of the few good magocracies), here are some of the other disastrous changes:

1) With Halruaa gone, Shade is the only remaining heir to Netheril and it has vastly expanded its domains and now rules much of northern Faerun. With magic dating back to ancient times, and with vastly increased armies and resources, there don’t seem to be any ‘good’ power that can really tackle it, except maybe Waterdeep or the elves?

2) The most powerful ‘wizard’ in Faerun, the Simbul (a woman), who used to be the ruler of Aglarond and the most deadly enemy of the Red Wizards of Thay, has vanished. She is believed to be hiding in the Dales, but it is unclear (to me) whether she can still do much. At the same time, Elminster, the ‘Gandalf’ of the D&D series and probably Faerun’s greatest (male) wizard is also knocked out due to the death of the goddess of magic. He can still talk and cast some spells, but is only a shadow of his former self.

3) While the famous good wizards are dead or basically gone, the evil Szass Tam of Thay has killed off all his rivals and unified Thay. It now swarms with an ‘undead scourge’ of epic proportion. Without Elminster and the Simbul, or Halruaa, Thay is seemingly unstoppable--but an interesting possibility remains that Shade will end up fighting Thay. Of course, we also cannot discount the possibility of a ‘Nazi-Soviet Pact’.

4) Asmodeus (the name is from the Book of Revelation), one of the archdevils of the nine hells (I shall spare the reader details of the complex cosmology of Faerun) has been elevated to godhood through a rather disturbing episode. Azuth, the former god of magic and consort of Mystra (the murdered goddess) was thrown all the way to hell by the implosion of Mystra’s realm. Sounds silly, but whatever it is, dying Azuth was murdered by Asmodeus who then consumed his ‘divine essence’. Thus the archdevil became a god, a supremely evil one, of course, immediately. So the nine hells and their swarms of devils (no demons, these constitute a separate species) are now naturally much more powerful.

5) The Drow cities, as far as I know, seem utterly unaffected by the spell plague. The Californians are clearly being biased in blowing up Halruaa but leaving the Drow cities untouched, when they are major concentrations of arcane lore and power as well.

In short, evil has grown significantly more powerful, and good much weaker. My impression of Faerun in the 2nd and 3rd Edition is that the good guys are mostly in charge, while the evil ones are trying to pull them down. It appears that the tables are neatly turned.

Perhaps this makes for good gaming. Although I have not played RPG computer games for quite a few years now, I suppose I can foresee future D&D 4th Edition games featuring heroes and heroines trying to turn back the tide of darkness after the Apocalypse.

Yet to me, the one ‘moral’ of the D&D series is that humanity in its current state is thoroughly unready for ‘magical power’ (of whatever form). Raise a magical civilisation, and the result will likely be 4th Edition Faerun, or worse.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Some Things Never Change

A few days ago, I watched an advertisement by the Singapore Armed Forces. As glamorous music played, a sabre-wielding general slashed wildly at his opponent. Before anyone managed to be decapitated, the scene abruptly shifted to an urban wasteland. Rifle-wielding soldiers, with painted green faces, were trooping through bushes, hunting for prey. "Some things never change," a narrator intoned.

Two days before this, I was watching a classic 1970s production, ‘The World at War’—a documentary series on World War II. I was especially interested in the episodes on the Holocaust. There were interviews with victims, SS men, and elaborate descriptions of the state-run horror that sent millions to their death. Murder, with industrial efficiency. If we were in the same position as the SS men, would we push the same buttons, succumb to social and political pressure, and plumb the dark depths necessary to work the assembly lines of death? The Nazis were fellow human beings, after all.

World War I. Stalin’s purges. Nanking. World War II. The Holocaust. Hiroshima. Cambodia. Vietnam. Rwanda. Mankind’s greatest century. Mankind’s bloodiest century. In our new century: September 11, the various terrorist bombings, the Mumbai attacks. Some things never change. From the birth of our species, generation after generation has carried on the proud human tradition of brutality and massacres and genocides, greed and corruption and lies, lies, lies. Human evil seems infinitely creative, multi-fanged and evergreen.

This account is, of course, one-sided. We are a race that has partaken of the fruit of the knowledge of good AND evil. Perhaps for every Hitler, there would be half a Mother Theresa (or maybe one) to nicely balance up. But if we were still a relatively feeble race that could at most spear or bludgeon ourselves to death, then this state of affairs is regrettable, but perhaps still tolerable. But when we have become a species armed with tens of thousands of nuclear warheads, a species tapping the codes of life, a species able to manipulate matter at the nanoscale, nicely 'balancing up' is no longer enough.

Our proud and seemingly supreme civilisation has in fact been at the brink of annihilation for 60 years. Students of history would probably know the moment when our species (or at least our civilisation) might well have ended in nuclear fire: the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Even at that point, a mere 17 years after the invention of the first atomic bomb, the USA was armed with 27,297 warheads. The USSR, 3,332. Throughout the crisis, President Kennedy had to resist repeated urgings by his military chiefs to launch a full scale attack on Cuba to wipe out the Soviet missiles--a step that would quite certainly escalate into a nuclear war. It was Kennedy's admirable restraint and cool-headedness under excruciating pressure that saved the world (though historians would also point out that it was his foreign policy failings that caused the Soviet Union to plant the missiles there in the first place). Yet despite Kennedy's leadership, all could still have been lost--if not for sheer luck, or grace. In the 2002 Havana Cuban missile crisis conference, the world learnt that at the height of the crisis, a US navy ship was dropping depth charges (bombs) onto an unidentified submarine. The submarine turned out to be a Russian B-59 carrying a nuclear-tipped torpedo. It is interesting to note that the captain was under orders that allowed the use of the torpedo if his submarine was "hulled" (the hull is breached). It appeared that our civilisation might have escaped nuclear doomsday by mere accident.

And have things changed since 1962? Have we become repentant and humble, buried our heads in ashes, don sackcloth and cry out for mercy and salvation? Quite the contrary. And the most dangerous phase is not before. It is ahead. With inexorable technological advancement, the weapons of both legitimate states and terrorist organisations would continue to be refined--enabling mass-murder at an ever-more attractive price. In essence, we seemed to be a species bent on suicide. The trajectory is clear. Mankind remains the same: a layer of ethical, intellectual and spiritual development smothering an unregenerate core of foolishness, animality and perversity. But our power grows exponentially. Thus the world struts in deluded pride--till we plunge off a cliff.

Maybe it is not even pessimistic to state that our civilisation has almost no chance of survival in the long run. It is merely realistic. What chance is there for a sudden explosion of ethical, or even spiritual, development? Yet only that could give us a fighting chance. Anyone who has undertaken some kind of ethical training would know the sheer army of obstinate obstacles in ourselves: ignorance, attachment to darkness and perversity, weakness, hatred, anger, greed and so on. Even for a single human being to advance ethically or spiritually is difficult. To expect a substantial portion of the human race to do so, in our decadent world system and with our age-old human resistance to the light, is probably to expect the impossible. There are other seeming solutions: a world totalitarian state to control technological advancement? Allowing AI to shepherd us forever? Maybe using technology to transform human beings into docile loving creatures? Or perhaps the world would suddenly leave aside numberless differences to unite peacefully in a United States of Earth? And proceed with many hallelujahs to a golden age of equality, fraternity and liberty!

It is probably more realistic to recognise that we are in a grace period--a time before the destruction of the current world order. One way or another, the end will probably come. It may be a century or sooner, or later. But at some point, the balance would be tipped, our luck will run out, and we would destroy most of what we have built up over 10,000 years, the last cycle of civilisation. And perhaps most of humanity would perish. Maybe the only mercy is that most of us would perish quickly, and not because of a prolonged horrible ordeal.

What are some apocalyptic scenarios? The worst nightmare, a perfectly possible one, is a revived Nazi movement. Not the crude Nazism of Hitler, with its nonsense about the Aryan master race and its pseudo-scientific social Darwinism and eugenics. But a Nazism based upon 21st or 22nd century genetics and cybernetics: a transhuman movement that has the real capability to alter human nature using genetic, cybernetic and social engineering, a political and social movement to create a truly new race that is no longer human, a creed that seeks to supplant homo sapiens by something else--a creed that proposes a Final Solution to all human problems. Impossible? Alarmist? Let us not delude ourselves. Nazism arose in Germany, the most cultured nation of Europe, the land of Mozart and Beethoven and Hegel and Einstein (if we include Austria as part of a greater German bloc). The nation with the most advanced science. The nation that was seemingly on the forefront of human advance. It was such a nation that succumbed to mass insanity because of wounded national pride and economic despair--and of course, because of the innate depravity hiding in every human heart. Which nation in our world can claim to be utterly safe from such madness? And the crimes of the Nazis remain as a dark example for all to follow. Their actions are no longer unprecedented.

And let us never forget how close Nazi Germany came to forging a 'new dark age, made more sinister and perhaps more protracted by the lights of perverted science' (Churchill). In 1940, if Britain had surrendered, in 1941, if Stalin had fled Moscow, or if Russian resistance had crumbled because of their catastrophic early losses--today the world might either be an atomic wasteland (the US would still have built the first atomic bomb), or a nightmare empire incarnating hell. Hitler very, very nearly succeeded.

And horrifying as the deeds of Hitler were, the chilling fact is that his advent was premature. The time was not yet ripe. The Nazis lacked the tools to create a true 'master race'. But in this century and the next, the power to do what Hitler could only dream of, would be ready for the seizing. And even more wonderfully, weapons based on nuclear technology, nanotechnology, genetic engineering and artificial intelligence would be present to finish what Hitler prematurely began. If there is a good time for the Beast of the primordial ocean, the evil behind and within us to rise and dominate human affairs once more, it would be in the coming decades and centuries. He came too soon, and he would be back.

Given this prognosis, the most rational thing to do is twofold: on one hand, to hold back, for as long as possible, the hand of death. On the other, to prepare the seeds of a new future, the next cycle of civilisation. If a crucifying end-game is already looming, the key is to learn and to prepare for the next game. This may sound horribly cold-hearted, or even insane, but it is in fact the sanest thing to do. Prepare a foundation for the remnant that would survive the horsemen of the apocalypse--a foundation for that remnant to build on, to build with. Sow Fire for a mass ethical and spiritual development beyond our reach in this cycle. Sow wisdom that would allow humanity to reign over nature with a completeness beyond our imagination. . Sow mercy, that mankind may find healing in the ruins of a bygone age. Sow love, for a future unity of mankind--a unity that eluded us in this age. But whatever we sow, it is clear that only with the grace of God can they grow. A race like ours, which has made our kind of mistakes, surely cannot demand anything--we can only hope for mercy.

An 'ark' is needed to carry mankind and nature forward. For after the darkness and the flame, we are likely to have an earth scorched and devastated, a world where demons roam, both figuratively and literally. For mankind to rebuild in such a world would probably mean the return of the bloodshed and obstinate darkness that doomed us in the first place. An ark is needed to make the road of ascending humanity smoother and more possible. But at this point, we can only speculate about the form of this 'ark'. Would it be an alliance of man and machines? A group armed with science or even deeper knowledge and power? Would it hide from the world? Or tackle the oncoming darkness, in the hope of mitigating its effects? Would it fight, unleashing violence for violence? All this is unclear.

But what is clear is that while we still have the resources and peace, we need to prepare for the inevitable.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Nov Post

Yes, October has passed without a post...

My belated excuse is that I was, and am, working on a 17,000 word module on narrative writing for The Ministry. After that deluge, one can, perhaps, be excused for not having the inclination to write anymore.

Still, it is November, and I must write something.

Actually I was intending to cut and paste an article by Benjamin Franklin, 'The Morals of Chess'. Since that venerable Founding Father is long dead, I do not think he can mind. I have changed my mind but I hope interested parties will read his article (freely available without his permission through Google). Learn more about the wonders of CHESS.

This month, the Leonid meteor shower is going to drench our skies! I still remember the night before my A Levels 10 years ago (oh yes, I am getting old, very old), right before my Astrophysics exam. I was out there in the wee hours of the morning (forgive the cliche)., looking at shooting stars.

The shower featured in York too, about a year after that.

Since then, I have not seen shooting stars. But I hope to catch one next week.

As some readers might have noticed, this is indeed a random rambling, though ironically it is no doubt more comprehensible than my obsessively planned and structured Normal posts. Much hair has fallen around the area of my computer. One who wishes to be comprehended by everyone, should seek not to. Lamely profound quote of the week.

Why has God created such a big universe? Oh yes, God exists. So since he exists...and since the universe is somehow created or manifested by him, and since it is so big, He obviously needs a lot of space to execute his grand schemes, whatever they are. Yet human beings are so, so physically small. The crown of creation being an iota of dust. Or perhaps we flatter ourselves, we aren't the crown of creation. When we are indeed crowned, we will be kings of infinite space? Or Queens? Or bishops? or rooks or knights? Or both king and pawn at once. Servant-leadership.

Ok, the clock is running. Time is running out (if time actually exists). I need to go back to saner pursuits.

am I mad, or is most of the world insane? Naturally, I prefer the latter.


Tuesday, September 30, 2008


There are Singapore nights when light pollution is oddly absent, when star-fires fill the sky and when clear winds soar, lifting musing thoughts into darkness, into mystery. Perhaps one would look at a star, deceptively youthful, yet an echo of ancient fire before the ages of humanity. Stretching forth with imagination’s yearnings, one could reach across space to touch a star. Drinking in the wine of emptiness, we could imagine vastness exceeding the world. Our quivering spirit can encompass the heart of stars, and we can stretch forth into infinity; yet remain very much, ourselves.

If imagination is the prophet sight of some inner Spirit, then what it could fathom, it could also perceive?

But we doubt. For in our fallen nature, in our cramped darkness, the inner fires are faint mystic oceans that send messenger ships of thought-woven sails into harsh obliterating light—silent heralds into a marketplace crowded with bustle and worthless priceless wares. Only in Silence can we sometimes hear the stirrings of angels’ wings.

And thus the spectacle of life unfolds in high darkness—a cosmic cinema effusive with scenes of brief pains and briefer joys, dramas of prolonged anguish, music of strange lasting content dancing with the rushing of life’s winds. Life—built on death, a splendor-song reaching for joy, an impermanent raft sailing on a white river stretching into eternity.

The wheel spins and ages change. Beauty dies, and rises again in whirling fire, then sinks once more. And we seek the purpose of the dance.

But at some point, by a blue sea, we may hear a Call. And we voyage within, like miners in dark caves hunting for diamond-beams of some mysterious bliss. Materialistic ideology may tell us that man is a limited creature compacted of unknowing mud, wondrously contrived by processes meaningless and blind—limited in power, in knowledge, in existence. Yet when one soar into the darkness of one’s inner self, one may find atomic radiance. From above, a gesture of Grace and a torrent of fire; from within, a diamond sight and abysmal sweetness. From around, Angels’ wings enfolding space, their robes of glory flickering. From beyond, ancient beings of pure spirit, free and glorious, reigning invisible in silence.

If literature is fundamentally about the exploration of man, and of the problem of existence, of his sufferings and his promise, then we cannot neglect the art of the infinite. This ‘mystic’ view is shared by few, yet this does not prevent it from being true. If transfiguration be humanity’s fate, if oceans of light lies hidden behind the horizons of earth, then literature must be a beacon of flame, a faint echo but nonetheless prophetic, and a power that incarnates Flame.

Thus do we craft characters who walk with mortal pace, or characters shining with aureole light, luminous beacons of humanity’s far promise? There are surely already enough exemplars of the former.

Thus in the Atlantean series, I attempted to create characters who are indeed fully human, but who are also like light poured into a little glass, pregnant with the Sun. It seems good to set oneself the challenge of portraying the beauty of God in man, of living Fire in man, of humanity set aflame by spirit-stuff. Atlantis is a civilization of light, yet one of poignant tragedy. Of Eleven and their few followers who soared high into the Temple of God, but who were unable to incarnate the Flame.

The series also considers this question, central to much of ‘fantasy’: what is the price of magic? Limbs, blood, mana? In Atlantean ‘magic’, the Art, the price is the loss of self. To unite with a Will beyond oneself, to gain gifts of authority over Nature, such as enjoyed by the mighty Rulers of the elements and of creation. For where there is authority, there is no need for ‘magic’. To command the elements will be the same as the governance of one’s body and one’s mind. To assert our separateness, to deny love, to rebel, then one needs machinations and formulas and mantras—for the true power is lost.

And the style is one of suggestive symbolism. The word itself must pack in much more, till it becomes mostly opaque to all but the most patient. Surely the form must imitate the substance, the form revealing the riddling substance, the form revealing the dark Fire.

My craft is still poor, and far from equal to the task. And my mind is like the Singapore sky. Awash in light that drowns the Stars.

But one must begin.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

More Complete Draft

I suppose this could be Part I of my latest short story. It still needs revision.

Through half-closed eyes, Tonfe gazed at the chalice of eleven feathers, an imprint of Life onto stone. He rested quiet, murmuring a soft song interweaved with the music of home-bound birds, songs riding on sweet winds that bring sleep. He heard from afar, the waters of mother Nile rushing, and above, he felt the subtle rain from stars clear and high.

Out through the Temple windows, away in the darkened West, a yellow Light flamed—lonely, it faded into growing night. Tonfe stretched forth his fingers, an ice touch on curtained fire—still, smooth, silken, silent—and caressed the fading Light.

He closed his eyes. He felt the light rain falling like silver feathers descending. Yet it was warm here—safe, to some extent. But he knew this place would soon be gone, and he with it.

Rumors there had been plenty, like burrowing ants weaving among rotten wood. There was peace now. The Akroti-backed faction had brought about the end of civil war. The Temple of the Flame by the Nile, a haven of rebels, had been cast down; the great port of Haliaa razed by a black fleet from the Motherland. Order reigned.

There had been a great battle. Tonfe knew that his father had left many months ago with most of the soldiers, and had not returned. His mother was now the head of the faithful, the wife of the last Senator.

The boy opened his eyes slightly for a last look at the chalice. Curtained by shadows, but deep, like oceans poured into a little glass, pregnant with the Sun.

Tonfe closed his eyes, retreating into darkness and love. Into a womb of dreaming, of autumnal stretchings, of a yawn across lapsed time over warm seas. Of reaching, reaching for a time beyond rumors that weave like burrowing ants in rotten wood—a yearning for the silence beyond the tippety, tippety, tap, of doom. He felt a comfort and soft touch, armless, wordless, a song whispered and forgotten—yet remembered in quiet, floating echoes, like circling leaves dancing with cool dawn winds. Finally, the floating hands, cool, tender hands, of memory, uncovered yellowed pages of lost time.

Of lost time. Of time past, and time not yet come.

The boy slept. And in his sleep, he saw again the Chalice of Eleven. But this time, it was no mere imprint in stone, but a radiance hewn from living flame. And above the
chalice was a wheel, a wheel spinning with Lights of eleven hues.

The Tarasha—the Atlantean Flame, eleven yet one, armed and triumphant against the armies of Night.

One of the Eleven called—a star-fire iridescent with the Art. From that Truth came a being like a man, middle-aged, robed in white and holding a staff ringed with liquid lightning. His eyes were kind, though they were the depths of luminous valleys, plunging deep. A voice came, from the man perhaps, yet sounding from the boy’s own heart.

“I come. Do not despair.”

Then he saw in a land far to the north, many cities of radiance and a large army of men and women dressed in white seamless robes. And a man, looking surprisingly like his father, but immeasurably older, was at their head.

The man walked towards the growing mist, head hung, arms drooping, eyes shining with grey dreams of brooding night. The low light of dusk revealed white and red: a smooth, thin linen of Atlantean white streaked with the blood of old battles. He held his staff firm, but wearily.

He raised his palm, an ascending star. Diamond-white, flames, a deadly, cackling dance of meteors slicing straight, left a burnt taste wafting through the dark. A sun, then two, then multiple—conflagrations rose from the blue-red horizon, dressed in blood-stained, lethargic clouds. A march of blasting roars; then a fading, like falling leaves, of low, circling echoes.

He woke.

It was already deep night and the far hills echoed a dim red light. He gripped the white sheets about him. Cold and moist with sweat, he stirred, slipping off the bed—silent, a shadow, ignoring the strange chills that gripped him in fluttering embraces. He sought his mother.

Has the Flame truly abandoned them?

I come. He comes. But who is he?

Water streaming by the wind, wet and unheard, through a gentle cut on earth. The song of Mother Nile, mother of the Atlanteans before ever Atlantis was, flowed through the night, a solace in their seemingly last hour. And she would flow on, long after they were gone.

He left the temple. The cloudy darkness, hidden from mundane sight, seemed to thicken, a miasma of chills that covered him like the fine grey dust of corpses. The grass was withering and death’s grin stalked through the town. Greyness and fading surrounded him; the faithful and their refuge were like the sawdust of time, the leavings of labor long lost and abandoned. Tonfe’s eyes looked grey and withered, and in them were reflected the broken town of the last faithful.

He was the last child left. The rest had already perished from a strange plague. The priests reported that the plague was the physical manifestation of a dark curse, a new terror of the Traitors, a cloud of death that had weighed on the land for many months. The priests had chanted the Tarasha Hymns, they had done all they could, shepherding the children and the old into the temple. But all had perished, save one. Somehow, he had clung on.

Tonfe reached the House of the Assembly.

Atlantean architecture strived for symphonies in stone—buildings that through their proportions, materials and motifs, evoked a music beyond themselves. Mere pleasing lines and spaces, smooth functionality—these were important, but foundational. The rest involved incarnation.

Thus even in refuge and war, the House of the Assembly was a splendor and a flame. Ringed with massive white pillars and carvings upwards sweeping like many-hued fire towards high spires—it soared, heavy and strong, yet light and graceful, a lion and a swan defying Darkness. The Eleven-hued Fire was emblazoned in gold on its doors, ringed by carved Hymns that shone with soft silver radiance.

Tonfe silently entered the House that was open to all.

In the middle of the packed Elder Chamber, a soaring space reaching into carved sky, he found her—his mother, who looked down unmoving, Life’s imprint poised in stone. Her robes stirred slowly, shifting against a calm female silhouette, pegged firm and forced to return after rhythmic stray. A murmur, anxious and humming like innumerable bees, weaved around one pillar-like figure rooted in ancient time, like the sounds of circling thoughts that yet revolve around one star. She was strong. She was their leader—but perhaps, even she was not enough.

She stirred, instantly aware of her son, even though Tonfe was in the shadows.

Alkara lomberi?

A soft feminine voice sounded in silent thought. Why are you here? There was love, but there was also rebuke. And fear.

Tonfe did not answer. He was observing the radiances that filled the hall, emanating from the elders. From his mother came a cleaving light, strong, courageous, compelling. From others came other hues of the Eleven. The old chief priest sat in the middle of a soft white flame more sweet than strong, shining from the Old One of the Eleven, the heart of a crystal Rose where a cloud flaming shone. There, deep in him, far and remote even from the priest, Tonfe vaguely saw a Temple fire rising to heights unseen and the far supreme love that broods over all pain. He saw, as if, in a far-off reflection, the eyes of the One who loves.

These were elders unlike the helpless politicians that had been swept away by the black tide—no mere talkers and slave of convention mouthing ancient words. The leaders of the faithful were close to the Flame and its Power.

The Assembly had fallen silent. Many had become aware of Tonfe, who slowly came forward. Though shriveled and tortured by fever, his long eyes, a feature typical of his race, shone with exceptional intelligence. And his figure remained one of grace and gentle proportion, beautiful like a fire of spring. He stood out even in a race justly renowned for beauty. And weakened as he was, and just a boy of fourteen, his face and gait was one of just command, of rightful domination, revealing a Will that inspired or compelled obedience. In front of so many august elders, he stood respectful, but without fear, holding the eyes of his audience.

They viewed him with a mixture of love, sadness and respect. He had borne his suffering as well as any soldier—like those who had perished in the wars against the Akroti and the Traitors. He had made no complaints, not one. He had fed on an implacable will, clinging on to life even as all his closest friends had died. He had defied the dark without counting the costs.

He was the last child. Their future. And yet, it was clear to all, especially to his mother, that this future was dying. It may not last the night. An Akroti army was marching on the town, and Tonfe was being consumed. His departure from the Temple had worsened his condition. Even in the holy house of Assembly fortified with many spells and prayers, he was mostly sustained by sheer will, like a messenger of war, deeply racked and wounded, fortified and held by duty.

Concentrating Fire, he summoned his will and addressed the Assembly in clear ringing words. He spoke of his dream, of the Eleven and their Light, of a Messenger with a word of hope, of a land to the north with cities of radiance. Of a man like his father leading an army triumphing over darkness. Of the man passing into shadows.

As Tonfe spoke, a Power seemed to come out of him, a Power using him to speak, a Power entering into the veins and souls of those present. To a greater and lesser extent, they saw what he saw, felt what he felt. They partook in his dream of light and shadow.

As he ended, the atmosphere was changed. Dim still, but pregnant with the energies of the Stars that broke the darkness. Silence reigned. And In that hush, the chief priest, was the first to speak.

“ The boy was the vessel of a Word. Even among the great Seers who have left us—few could have implanted a vision of such power—and none have the skill to fuse such high power with such humble gentleness that it could rest quiet and harmless till it was unleashed. And the Power, terrible and strong as it was—was only a sign. For in the Flame unleashed, I felt hints of a Fire much greater.”

“And that would mean only two things: our annihilation or our salvation. If the first, then the Traitors have attained power and skill so sublime that they could emulate the Melchis themselves. And that message from Tonfe had come from them, a prophecy of Light but in actuality, an infernal message of deception. Hell then must reign, and humanity must end. If the second, then the greatest prophecy of our age has come true. One of the Melchis, one very close to the Eleven, has come to us. And he comes not only with Wisdom and gentleness, but with the Power to overthrow the Six.”

“Which is the truth? I know in my heart that the Flame will never abandon us. The Seers have left to search for the ancient one. Somehow, one of the Melchis had lived on from the days of the Eleven, ten thousand years ago. They have found him. The Seers will return with the ancient one at their head, and Tonfe has been chosen as his messenger.”

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Incomplete Draft (again)

I think I have to be more disciplined about writing. I shall try to write a complete piece of work each month (a narrative piece followed by an expo piece). Here is the first few paragraphs of another short story (returning to the style of 'Jerusalem'):

Fean walked towards the growing mist, head hung, arms drooping, eyes shining with grey dreams of brooding night. The low light of dusk touched his robe, revealing white and red: a smooth, thin linen of Atlantean white streaked with the blood of old battles, a last wall girding his hardened flesh. He held his staff firm, as firm as he had held it many decades ago before the white towers of Tarasha Lehe. He was an old warrior, but tired, very tired.

He raised his arm, an ascending star. Diamond-white, flames, a deadly, cackling dance of meteors slicing straight, left a burnt taste wafting through the dark. A sun, then two, then multiple—blazes orb-like rose from the blue-red horizon, dressed in blood-stained, lethargic clouds. A march of blasting roars; then a fading, like falling leaves, of low, circling echoes.

He was tired.

The shadows swarm near. It was long, very long, since any machine or men could have reached him—unless he so willed it. And he often did, for canny reasons of his own. He was the Commander and his wisdom in the ways of war was matched by few: Master Atos, perhaps, and a few of his generals, maybe. But this time, there was no strategy, no plan, no all-annihilating trap of lethal finesse. The fires that should have cleanly consumed have failed.

The cursed Xastranz, the new armour donned by the soldiers and machines of the dark Atlanteans, had again proven its worth. The Guardians’ weapon of choice, the diamond-white fire that killed instantly without pain, had caused most to perish, but not all. Overwhelmingly out-numbered, this meant certain defeat.

When Master Atos taught him personally to wield it, in the days when the faithful of the Flame were few and hunted...

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Last Tower Falls

An address by Atos to the Council of the Tarasha

The last Tower falls.

For four hundred years the Towers have stood, their eleven-hued Fires flaming firm against evil's menace. For four hundred years Tarasha Lehe has flourished--our new homeland, the fortress haven of new Spring. Now, dark winds break down our last defenses, and the rot of the dead West , storms of blood, magic and machine--death's legions--have reached us at last.

The Council speaks of hope. For a century now, a few of our Order have labored in secret to transform three of our holy Stones into weapons of flame. They are to be used when all else have failed, when the choice is between extinction and something worse; they are meant to rouse the burning heart of our world, the winds of stars, the force of life to purge the world; and allow what remains of humanity to begin anew--but without us.

To send the fallen continent, our motherland, into forgotten dreams. To completely cleanse the world of our tortured demon-twisted brethrens is in fact to destroy ourselves that the world may live. That is our 'hope'. For once the Art has been turned to warfare and murder--for however pure and holy the purpose, we can no longer turn back. Even self-defense, over the last four centuries, has darkened the souls of many and poisoned our civilisation. Both deep and superficial wisdom speaks with one voice: the sword once unsheathed, will remain unsheathed. The mark of a weapon like this, once completed, once used, cannot be eradicated. To heal the world, we must hide the Stones once more--all the Stones, not just the three. The field of Light that has nourished our people for 10,000 years will be no more. And the Guardians and our Art must disappear from the view of most. And even with this, the mark of the day of Fire shall remain in the deepest memory of man. And one day, in the far distant future, mankind, even without the Art but goaded by restless memories, may rediscover his doom.

And know this well: the use of the Stones of fire means the Flame itself shall withdraw. Our children will live in despair. For they shall call in the halls of the Eleven-hued Fire, and there shall be silence. The songs of our ancestors shall be emptiness; and the past a taunting scourge, a canopy of unreachable stars disturbing the growing night--not the stars of our forebears, when they, stirred by star-fire skies and hearts, set out on their ancient journeys upwards into fiery secrecies of wisdom and power. But the stars of our children will be old light, unreachable and dead, remnants of fading shadows echoing black space.

Our children will beg to forget. And mercifully, they will.

For they shall look at their neighbors with envy, young races crude and inexperienced and weak perhaps, but free from an enormous burden of guit, the guilt of a people who has broken the world--unburdened with memories that cannot be recovered, with no need to curse one's past for the terrors of the present. Our children will yearn for that freedom. And thus slowly, gradually, they shall stop believing in the old ways in a harsh new world bereft of the Flame and the Art. Plagued and weakened and growing fewer, they will unite with the freedom they seek.

And all that remains of us will be whispers and dreams.

I was born in the last years of Atlantis, and saw its beauty before it fell. Elders of Tarasha Lehe, all of you here, save one, could not fully mourn what you did not know. My heart is still there in the land of my youth, though centuries have passed since I left. I remember the voyage of the Stones, the raising of the Towers of Flame, the birth of Tarasha Lehe. I saw the new Spring and the triumph of the Light--the years of joy. And now, it seems, I would see the work of centuries, the prayer of ten thousand years, fade away. I have seen Atlantis die. And now I must see it die again.

Senate of the Tarasha, Leaders of the last Atlanteans, no one here has more to mourn, more to lose, or more memories, than I, the forger of the 3 Stones. Who mourns the loss of the Art more than one who has spent his long life teaching and refining it? Yet, with darkness nearing Salem itself, I know there can only be one right way.

It is the will of the Flame that our Order obey the will of the Council. Your word will decide the fate of the world.

And there is hope for mankind--even after this. Yes, some things are beyond healing. Thousands of years of blood-lust and violence shall reverberate from the closing days of our age. A thousand burning cities will echo the screams and fires of Abra Lodesh, the holy city of the Flame. The visions and weapons of our fallen brethrens will haunt the wars of future generations. And the demons unleashed unto the minds and bodies of men will remain, though they will be much weakened. But then there is hope. For hell is yet at bay, and earth, though fallen and bloodied, will still be earth; and humans, though crushed, short-lived, miserable, weak, would still be human.

And the Guardians of the Flame, dispersed from here, may awaken new springs in some of the younger races. And therein lies our greatest hope. For then the Flame will remain, though no longer Eleven-hued. If humanity can still remember the dream held by our forebears in the desert of our wanderings--that of immortality and truth, that of transfiguration, that of burning flame--then our songs will still be sung, in different tongues but still one in essence one-pointed towards the Love that broods over this earth. And one day, perhaps, Mercy will fall.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


En-caged in thought-woven bars of invisible steel
En-caged, barred, from deep fire
Embracing the lower way—the lower way.
Feeling the lawful pain of chained human
For love, hug
humiliation daily, daily,
With Humanity stone-chained to pain,
Loneliness—till all, even I,
Believe the riddle of one’s being in plain sight.
Till all, even I, see
An imprisoned dream set free.

Confusion, pride, tendrils
Of despairing need—invasions, lonely wars of lonely nights
Lighted by warrior swans of might,
Behind, always behind,
The Tower endures
Soaring forlorn towards desert skies.

I dreamt the
Temple Fire has come down. That I have touched the valley’s floor.
That the Rain falls and the white flower
Blooms eleven-hued in new spring.

Go down, go down.
Even if the loss of all be the price.
Old Adam’s son,
Grey and feeble,
Star-fire dimmed, staff entombed,
Robe fouled--
Shatterness inviting scorn.

I await battle, with
staff's shadow planted in grey ground.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Atlantean Lit Essay

A lit essay written for the benefit of students. It demonstrates the use of rhetorical devices in analytical essays and conveniently uses my own Atlantean short stories. The formatting was ok for the original Word document...

With reference to the articles in the Foundation Archive, critically analyze the characters in “Indeed Only One”, “Evensong”, and “Ugly Duckling”. How far do they portray the features that are unique to the Atlantean race?

“The Stones vanished as Enoch’s vision soared into the ancient dawns of a young humanity. Salem loomed, and in its Fire, Enoch saw the despair and glory of the dying Atlanteans. He saw their broken spirits uplifting the earth, their unrelenting holiness warring with fatal guilt—and in their final fiery triumph, he saw how they sealed their doom but saved the world. Surveying centuries with the sweep of dreams, Enoch plunged ever deeper into the memories of a forgotten earth.

Enoch saw the descent of the Atlantean Flame onto a pure desert people. He saw the primeval sages of humanity, burning with wisdom and power, inspiring ages of splendor. He saw the Exodus, the voyage of faith through the western seas and the settlement of the Atlantean motherland. He saw the forging of the Stones. He saw a tremendous ten thousand years of civilization, knowledge and power. And in noontime glory, Enoch saw the abrupt darkness that murdered the light.”

--Ugly Duckling

Truth, beauty and power—these qualities concisely sum up the Atlantean race. Portrayed in the various short stories and articles as a glorious ancient race favored by God, a race that once wandered the banks of the Old Nile and the fertile grasslands of a young Sahara, a race that built a homeland of splendor that now sleeps forgotten beneath the waves of the Atlantic (“A History of Atlantis—The Origins”)—the Atlanteans were humans, yet in many ways they transcended or pushed to an extreme degree the qualities of modern humanity. After all, this was a race with a set of achievements no other nation has been able to surpass in its entirety.

For a start, Atlantean civilization was by far the longest lived nation in world history, with peerless roots stretching deep into humanity’s youth. Lasting for ten thousand years, and existing as a cohesive nomadic culture for ten thousand years before that, even India, China or Egypt must pale in comparison (“A History of Atlantis—The Origins”). And in that time, the Atlanteans were a people of peace, producers of a cornucopia of architectural, literary, musical and artistic wonders—master creators of beautiful works incarnating obsessive perfection:

“The citadel had haunted him, entrancing him with its surreal and implacable splendor. Seamlessly crafted from a single mountainous block of multi-colored stone, its lyrical rock arteries raced sinuously upward, softening harshness and lifting one’s sight to an inexorable height, where a second sun blazed fiercely with diamond white flame. But Enoch did not avert his eyes—for the searing fire invited his heart like the cozy hearth of a forgotten home.

Rays of seven hues interweaved with flame, stretching hundreds of meters from the orb. They danced playfully to a hidden tune, capering off the numerous gem-like windows that adorn the building and its walls. Radiated by this symphony of light, the building was a rainbow flame that soared aloft the wave-like walls.

What kind of civilization will endow a mere fortress with such splendor?”

--Ugly Ducking

Indeed, even the fallen Atlanteans did not lose their essential devotion to beauty. The war machines of the dark Atlanteans were “seamlessly wrought with fluid, organic curves and beautifully clothed with something that looked distinctly like flesh”—together, they were an army exhibiting a “spectacular, diverse and obsessive artistry” (Ugly Ducking).

Yet for all their peace-loving qualities and exquisite civilization, the Atlanteans were a mighty people, with vast power derived from vast wisdom. For they were the pioneer explorers of physical knowledge, the field that we today call ‘science’. And they were led in their early days by a group of ancient sages, the Melchis, who voyaged into the unknown seas that lay beneath, within and above man, gaining knowledge that would be described today—derogatorily—as being “magical” or “occult” (“The History of Atlantis—the Origins”). Yet to the Atlanteans, such inner science would be another ‘Art’ (Ugly Duckling), a means of creating beauty and manifesting truth—divine in origin, divine in execution, and divine in consummation.

Such were the Atlanteans, and such are the main characters of the three short stories Indeed Only One, Evensong, and Ugly Duckling.

Atos, the protagonist of Evensong, is the only ‘living’ Atlantean in the 3 Atlantean short stories. All the others are either beings of fire existing in the ‘Atlantean Flame’ after death, or like Enoch in the Ugly Duckling and Indeed Only One, characters with a modern front and internal Atlantean core. This is not surprising, as Evensong is the only short story set in the age of Atlantis—albeit at its closing (8000 BC), while the rest are set in the modern world, long after the extinction of the Atlantean nation.

Atos is described by Dyani, his student and eventual successor, as one who reveals “the marvels of herbs and song”, an ancient one who brings her tribe ‘herbs and beauty”. Quite clearly, he is quintessentially Atlantean in his nature and pursuits: seeking beauty, incarnating it, teaching it and bringing it to others. Atos’s poetic speech is a further expression of his inner devotion to beauty. Notice, for instance, the use of metaphor, poetic diction, rhythm and antithesis in his dialogue:

“Not all riddles, Dyani, are meant to confound. Darkness can be the best friend of truth.”

“ The Spirit in man will ever thirst for the living waters. We must ever ascend, ever soar—this is the fate of humanity. Our discontentment is our greatest gift and our bane.”

Indeed, such poetic diction also characterizes the speech of the mystical Atlanteans in Ugly Duckling. The Old Woman, one of the 11 Elders of the Flame, the Master Melchis of the Atlanteans, thus describes the plight of modern humanity:

Thus will their imagination and power and knowledge turn against them. For
they know, but not truly, their power is but a shadow. Helplessness and terror grow with mastery, and the blessing they seek is their doom.

Thus will fire and darkness, plague, war and mechanized horror blossom, the dark rose born of man’s angel mind, bloodlust and beastly greed. Such is the word of Justice, flame-child, such is the fate of proud and idolatrous man.’

And in the last parts of Indeed Only One, when Enoch has become one
with his Atlantean self, this is his poetic answer to Death’s temptation:

No, tempter. The Atlantean Power is immense; it is Truth, but it cannot conquer you. The ancient Melchis forged the Stones over a thousand years, the summit creations of their Art; but they heralded your legions’ advance and your greater triumph…

No, this is the task of One infinitely greater. Evil, freely committed, is the root of your dominion, and humanity must choose to be free. Even a young humanity, aided by the wonders and grace of the Stones and the hidden help of the Eleven, were too attached to the shadows to be worthy of life eternal. Now, burdened with the deeds of a long night and crucified with a thousand wounds of time—how could the wonders of the Art save humanity?

The poetic rhythm, the juxtaposition of antithetical imagery, the paradoxical
expressions and metaphorical language are again revealing hints of the
characters’ inner pursuit of and identification with beauty—the one essential
Atlantean trait that are found in both Enoch and the Old Woman.

And for the Atlanteans, beauty, truth and power are one in essence and
execution. As Atos admits in Evensong, the songs he teaches are no ordinary

The songs I teach are the seeds of a mighty Fire; my presence here inspires their growth. In distant ages, your seers and civilizations will equal our own. Knowledge and power will be the destiny of your descendants—or at least of those who are worthy of an imperishable Flame.”

And earlier in the story, we find this description:

Softly singing an ancient song, the old man rose and called for Rain.

Indeed, Atlantean spirituality can be described essentially as a Call for the
Spirit and the descent of it in response (“Atlantean Religion”). In this process,
the word and the song activated power, and were power. For a civilization so
knowledgeable about the arts and knowledge of the inner worlds, this
relationship between literature and ‘magic’ is not surprising. Indeed, the
language and poetry of the Atlanteans were meant to invoke and incarnate transcendent beauty and mystical power—and literary prowess was ultimately inseparable from occult and spiritual power. The true Atlantean sage, like Atos, was a seer, a poet and a mage—another essential feature of the mightiest Atlanteans.

The Old Man and the Old Woman, the two mystical Atlanteans in Ugly
Duckling, clearly are sages of the same kind. Notice for instance, the revelation of the true energies hiding in and behind the Atlantean language by the Old Man:

‘Behold the Poetry that built the worlds.’ The voice was that of the old man, but infinitely enhanced in grandeur and beauty.

From the still Light came a small voice, a soft musical ripple--then Words immense arose, lamps of fire pregnant not merely with sound and faint idea, but surging with a universe of meaning and sealed with flaming Truth. Each seemed the very heart of a world, a supreme beat guiding a dance of infinite bodies.

With the Call comes the Vision, with the Word comes the Fire. Again, this is the
characteristic quality of an Atlantean mage-poet. We see the obvious parallel in the climactic confrontation between Enoch and Death in Indeed Only One:

In the silence, a Word sounded, then an anthem of the stars. Music, eternal pure radiances of the Flame, surged ocean-like from one pure Light. It sang of life immortal, of supreme bliss, of the forgotten heights and dreams of men. It sang of original beauty marred by the Fall, of an uplifting Ray smiting darkness, of chants of truth overthrowing error. The ancient songs of the Tarasha, unveiled in their full glory, flooded through Enoch, concentrating Fire.

From here, we can also observe how the power of the Atlanteans has an
essentially redeeming quality—as the “Fall of Atlantis” puts it:

For the deepest dreams of Atlantean literature, magic and religion, were of a
world free from the touch of evil, of a new humanity renewed by the fire of God

Atlantis was glorious not merely because it was powerful and wise, but because she sought to use her strength to bring Light and transformation to all of fallen humanity. The Stones were forged for this reason; but due to the men’s fragility, it ended in horror and tragedy. Still, the driving force behind Atlantean civilization and its greatest representatives, was love:

From the crystal Rose a cloud flaming shone—Enoch saw a distant Infinity that kisses the heart of earth, a dark night that embraces without arms, a Temple fire rising to heights unseen. Enoch reached slowly forward, gazing into the lowered face of the Woman. Calm and serenely majestic, rippling sweet and intimate, she was peace, the all-embracing splendor and bliss of a hidden smile. Royal, she stood, holding the Rose like a crown, with downcast eyes filled with suffering earth and the far supreme love that broods over all pain. And in her, he saw the Word, a human Face of highest divinity, with eyes of homeliness that had given all, offered all, to Truth transcendent.

And Enoch answered:

Let it be done to me according to your will. I seek not to receive, but to give wholly—to the eternal One who loves me, and, like Moshe, to humanity, God’s beloved.

--Indeed Only One

Whether in Atos’ selfless and anonymous service in Bhavani’s remote Indo-European tribe, or in the Old Man’s advice to Enoch to ‘incarnate grace’ (Ugly Duckling), or in Enoch’s decision to choose love and embrace all necessary suffering for others, we can observe this greatest Atlantean quality: a selfless and generous Fire, the “supreme magic” of “Love, the heart of God himself inspiring the fallen light and good of our hearts” (Indeed Only One) that alone can finally annihilate evil and bring the Atlantean dream to pass.

Enoch, the Old Man and Woman and Atos—characters who incarnate love, wisdom, beauty and power—they are the archetypal representatives of a race that once inspired humanity’s dreams by their living, then our myths and yearning by their dying--and perhaps, one day, a new dawn by their rising.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Lit Annotation Guide

Literature Annotation Guide Version 1.5

Content Summary

After doing a first reading for each Act of the 'Crucible' or each short story (as the case may be), write a short one paragraph summary answering the following questions:

1) What is happening? (Plot)
2) To whom is it happening? Who is carrying out the actions? (Characters and actions)
3) Why is it happening? (Motivations of characters, causes of events and actions, general cause/effect analysis)
4) When is it happening? (Setting/time)
5) Where is it happening? (Setting)
6) How is it happening? (Mood/atmosphere, what emotions are being evoked? What is the tone of the writing?)

An example of content summary (for a scene in Waiting for Godot) can be found on pg. 174 of “Mastering Practical Criticism” (see the bibliography). You can update your content annotation as you do the critical annotation later.

Annotation for Critical Analysis

After establishing a basic understanding of the text, do an in-depth annotation for the different literary elements, namely: characterization, plot, point-of-view, setting, mood/tone/atmosphere, symbolism and theme. You may have to go through the text 4-5 times to fully annotate it for these different aspects. Also note that they are interlinked and may affect each other.

In essence, you have to detect what is being conveyed about the characters, setting, mood and so on, and how this is being conveyed. Scribble down the what and the how next to the relevant portions. Be as thorough as possible and let nothing escape your careful reading. Draw reasonable inferences from every aspect of the text, linking how to what in every possible way. Act on the reasonable assumption that nothing in a literary work is there by accident. Be a perfectionist and be obsessed.

Think of your text like a wet towel from which you must squeeze out every iota of meaning.

There are four reasons for such painstaking work:

1) Deepen your insight into the text
2) Improve your critical reading skills for all literary texts
3) Improve your literature exam grades by preparing for the different types of analytical questions
4) Improve your grades for the unseen assessment through the improvement of your critical reading skills

Application of Dialectics

While scrutinizing the text carefully, ask yourself the following questions from the list below. Questions relevant specifically to drama are marked with (D). Questions relevant specifically to short stories are marked with (SS).

When answering these questions, be open to contradictions, i.e. when formulating an initial thesis to any of the questions, be aware of the elements that support it, and the evidence that support its antithesis (this could be its logical opposite, or its opposite in a less rigorous sense). For instance, if you are considering whether Macbeth is ‘an evil man’ (we assume you have a reasonable definition for that), you should also consider the antithesis: ‘Macbeth is not an evil man”. Through your balanced evaluation of the available evidence, you might well arrive at a synthesis that includes the original statements and yet transcends their narrowness: “Macbeth is by nature a good person, but he was corrupted by external forces and his own ambition.”

To sum up:

Initial thesis: Macbeth is an evil man
Antithesis: Macbeth is not an evil man
Synthesis—your new thesis: Macbeth is by nature a good person, but external forces and his own ambition corrupted him.

Incidentally, this movement of informal dialectic is an excellent way to continually refine your thesis during essay re-drafting. It is also a good way to further develop the implied thesis in an assessment question (e.g. “Macbeth is a tragic hero”. Discuss). For instance, you can continue refining your latest synthesis:

Thesis: Macbeth is by nature a good person, but external forces and his own ambition corrupted him.
Antithesis: Macbeth is by nature a good person, but external forces and his ambition did not corrupt him
Synthesis: Macbeth is by nature a good person, but he chooses to allow external forces and his own ambition to corrupt him.

Remember that the more features/portions of the text you could account for, the more convincing your interpretation will be. Therefore, it is worthwhile to continually refine your thesis till it could best account for all the relevant evidence. Do remember that even with an excellent thesis (created after rounds of syntheses), a good analytical essay should still consider its antithesis—if only to refute it soundly.

Note: Questions involving conflict are relevant to every literary element and are included below. As Heraclitius puts it, “War is the father of all [literary] things”.

For convenience sake, gender-inclusive language has not been consistently used.


Conflict and Opposition

1) What are the central conflicts/tensions/dilemmas/inconsistencies/problems that the characters face? Are these conflicts within them (internal conflict of values/thoughts/actions/beliefs) or between them (relationship)? Or is the individual in conflict with external forces (e.g. society, culture, ideologies, technology, environment, time, fate, God and so on)?
2) Are the characters mainly reacting to their inner/outer circumstances and to each other, or are they more proactive in shaping circumstances and outcomes? How much freedom and power do the characters have in shaping their destinies?
3) Do some characters have obviously more power than others? How does this affect their relationship? Does the dominance pattern shift over time, and if so, how?

Character Traits

Infer the character’s gender, age, social class, level of education, intelligence, mood (its different variations), personality (choleric, sanguine, melancholic, detached/stoical, introverted, extroverted etc.), motivations, abilities and character (in the sense of moral grounding, values and personal creed--what he believes) by asking the following questions:


1) What does a character say about himself? What do other characters say about him? What does the narrator say about the characters? How far can we trust such disclosure?
2) What does the content of the dialogue reveal about the characters?
3) How does the character say what he says? What does the character’s dialect, accent, tone and diction (choice of words—formal, neutral, informal) reveal about him?
4) Which characters tend to dominate their respective dialogues? What does that reveal about the different characters?


1) What does the characters’ actions and responses reveal? Are there any inconsistencies between actions and words, or between different actions?
2) What do the movements, stillness and visual elements orchestrated by the stage directions reveal about the characters? (D)

Descriptions and Setting (more relevant to short stories)

1) What does the imagery, figurative language and other descriptive devices reveal about the characters?

Character Evaluation

1) Which are the main characters and which are the minor ones? Who are the protagonist(s) and antagonist(s) (this will gel with your conflict annotations above)?
2) Who are the ancillary characters (note especially the foil and the choric figure/commentator) and what functions do they serve?
3) Are the characters round or flat, dynamic or static?
4) Does your impression of the character changes over time? Is it a gradual revelation of what is already there, or a true dynamic change in the character?
5) Are any characters stereotypical? What functions do they serve?
6) Are the characters conceived realistically or non-realistically—do the elements of characterization tend towards realistic or nonrealistic drama? (D)

Personal Response

1) How far do you find the characters and their actions to be plausible and believable? Why?
2) Which characters evoke your sympathy and which your antipathy? Why is that so? How does your emotional reactions affect your evaluation of the central conflicts?


Conflict and Resolution

1) Are the conflicts/complications in the story (include those you have analyzed above) resolved? If so, how?
2) At the end, are the characters successful or unsuccessful, satisfied or dissatisfied, changed or unchanged, enlightened or still ignorant?
3) Do you find the resolution(s) satisfactory? Why, or why not?


1) Can you identify the conventional structure of exposition, complication, climax and resolution in the story/drama?
2) If the story/drama has departed significantly from the conventional structure, how has it done so and what purpose do these departures serve?
3) What variations in chronological order appear in the story (e.g. gaps in time sequence, flashbacks or selective recollection)? What effects do these serve?
4) Is the structure of the plot more typical of realistic or nonrealistic drama? Why? Consider also the effects produced by this choice of structure (D).
5) Note the tragic and comic conventions present and consider their effects. If the dramatist has deliberately subverted these conventions (especially for modern drama), consider the reasons and effects (D).

Cause and Effect

1) Are the events of the storyline natural consequences of, or at least consistent with the characteristics, thoughts, motivations and actions of the characters? (A character-driven storyline)
2) Which characters or which relationships/conflict between characters play pivotal roles in initiating or causing the events (especially the main events) of the work? Analyze in detail these causes and effects.
3) Or do chance and random coincidence play the most significant role in shaping events?
4) Or do social forces and/or culture determine the storyline?
5) Or is it fate, God or some inscrutable force (divine or not)?
6) Do you find the story plausible and believable? Why, or why not?

Plot Devices

1) Is the plot predictable? Why is this so? (For instance, is the predictability achieved through skilful foreshadowing, a linear/stereotypical plot, or because you are aware of the conventions of the genre (tragic heroes usually do not live past the end of the story)?)
2) Or does the plot rely on suspense and surprise? How does it play with the reader’s expectations (e.g. through the use of red herrings) and does the storyline upset these expectations in the end?
3) To what degree do you find the storyline interesting? Why so? As conflict typically arouses curiosity, doubt, tension and generate interest, could you link the interest value of the story/drama to its conflicts?

Point of View (usually relevant only to short stories)

First Person Point of View

1) What situation prompts the narrator to tell the story?
2) What does the narrator reveals about himself either through direct disclosure, the reactions of other characters or the story itself?
3) What does the narrator’s style reveal about him (formal, informal, intimate etc.)?
4) Are actions, speeches, explanations and descriptions made fully or sparsely, and what effects are produced? Do readers feel close or distant to the characters?
5) Does the narrator change and is he aware of it?
6) To what degree is the narrator involved in the action? Is he someone who makes things happen proactively, or who mainly reacts passively? Or is he merely only an observer and witness (a minor participant)?
7) How self-conscious is the narrator—does he make himself the center of admiration, humor or even opprobrium?
8) What attitude does the narrator show towards the other characters? Does he clearly seek to evoke sympathy or antipathy towards the other characters?
9) How reliable is the narrator? How much authority does he possess and how deeply does he understand the situation? Does the narrator seem to have anything to hide? Is the story used for self-justification or exoneration? Can he be trusted with his criticism or description of other characters?
10) What effect does an unreliable narrator have on the story?

Second Person Point of View

1) What special situation prompts the narrator to address the reader/audience directly? What effect does this have on the story/drama?
2) All the questions above.

Third Person Point of View

1) Is the narrator third person objective/dramatic (who only reports what can be seen or heard, e.g. dialogue), third person omniscient (reports relevant thoughts and experiences in addition to objective occurrences) or limited third person/limited omniscient (who mainly focuses on the thoughts and feelings of a major character)?
2) How does this choice of narration affect the story?
3) All the questions above in First Person Point of View.


Nature of Setting

As a general guide, pay careful attention to the following:

-Weather, seasons, times of the day
-Details about nature and general flora/fauna
-Sounds, music and silence
-Details of houses and buildings
-Descriptions of objects
-Presence and nature of numinous/supernatural forces
-Political conditions
-Socio-cultural conditions
-Economic conditions
-Level of technology and civilization
-Historical setting

1) Are the settings mainly indoor or outdoor or a combination of both?
2) Is the setting used as a framing or enclosing device?
3) Do you have a strong sense of the time, place and socio-cultural context in which the story or drama is set? If the setting is prominent, at which point(s) has the author made it clear and how is it achieved? If not, why do you think this is so and what are the effects produced?
4) Is the setting realistic and does it establish increased plausibility through verisimilitude?
5) Does the setting change significantly in the story? And what effects does this produce?

Setting and Other Literary Elements

1) How does the setting contribute to our understanding of the characters? Does the environment exert an obvious influence (positive or negative) on the characters? Does the way the characters respond to the setting or its changes indicate their strengths and weaknesses?
2) What is the relation of the setting with the plot? (You can link this to the questions on Conflict).
3) Are there any special objects that are clearly important to the characterization, plot or theme of the story/drama?
4) What does the stage props, sets, lighting, makeup and costumes reveal about the characters? (D)

Conflict (this will enrich your analysis for the questions above)

1) How does the setting contribute to the central conflicts of the story/drama?
2) What are the contradictory elements within the environment itself (e.g. social, cultural, natural, divine, historical forces in conflict)? Or are the characters in conflict with the environment (social or natural)? And how do these conflicts contribute to the plot, theme, atmosphere and characterization?


To detect the tone of the story/drama, it is best to read selected portions, or even the whole work, out loud. Think about how and in what tone of voice you would use, and you would have a good clue about the emotions evoked (the mood/atmosphere) by the work at that point. Also be aware of the denotative and connotative meanings of words.

1) What feelings do the different portions of the works convey?
2) How are these feelings conveyed? Through dialogue, rhythm, diction, style, descriptions, setting, actions etc.? Always be sensitive to the emotional atmosphere of literary works, as literature is never only about colorless ideas, actions or beings.
3) If the story is comic, how are the comic effects produced? What elements of plot, characterization, setting and so on are particularly comic?
4) If the story is tragic and poignant, how are these effects produced? What elements of plot, characterization, setting and so on are particularly saddening and poignant? (Do not mix this up with the tragic conventions of drama).
5) How strongly did you respond to the story? What elements in the story elicit your concern, indignation, fearfulness, anguish, amusement or admiration?


Sometimes the author can use an ironic tone or create clearly ironic situations for various purposes. Do note that ironic elements are very common in literature. Be aware of the following types of irony and analyze their effects on mood, characterization, setting, plot and so on:

-Verbal irony (e.g. understatement, hyperbole, double entendre)
- Situational irony (in addition to conventional situational irony, note its two special variants: cosmic irony and dramatic irony)
-Socratic irony (seldom used in literary works)


1) Are any actions or setting or character symbolic in some way? If so, symbolic of what (ideas, conditions, feelings etc.)?
2) Are the symbol(s) cultural?
3) Are the symbol(s) contextual? If so, how systematic and consistent is the pattern of symbolism?
4) What effect is produced by the symbolism of the story or drama? Does it powerfully evoke its themes, or does it enrich/impact its plot, characterization and setting in any way?
5) How do the different symbol(s) relate to each other to affect the story/drama?
6) What are the allusions in the works? Do they relate to religious scriptures, myths, other literary works, art in general or other things?
7) How clearly does the work point towards an allegorical reading? How consistently and pervasively does the story embody the allegory—the entire work or just one part?


1) What are the main ideas evoked by the story or drama? Could they be categorized in any way (e.g. ethical, religious, political, economic, psychological issues)? What are the implicit persuasive points of the story (the implied ‘theses’ of the work, to put it crudely)?

Remember that simplistic one-word themes are insufficient. Do not merely write that a particular story is about ‘love’; instead, write that it is about how ‘love can be irresistible and irrational—stirring up the best and worst in human beings.’ Have a concrete claim that could be supported by a cogent and interesting argument.

2) How are the main ideas of the work evoked? Through dialogue, comments by the narrator, symbolism, setting, plot or perhaps the work as a whole? Are there any suggestive pattern or repetition of scenes, images, words and so on that help evoke this theme?
3) How balanced is the story/drama in presenting these ideas? If a particular idea is strongly presented, are there any qualifications or antitheses presented explicitly or implicitly?
4) How convincing is the story/drama in making its implied persuasive point (if any)? Did the work convey its ideas powerfully and memorably?
5) How universal are the ideas? Do they apply to humanity in general (as in a comment about the human condition) or to a more restricted group?
6) How timeless are the ideas? Or are they outdated conceptions with no relevance to the world today?


Jacobs, Roberts and Edgar V. Roberts. Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. New York: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004.

Barnet, Sylvan. William E. Cain. A Short Guide to Writing about Literature. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006.

Miller, Lindy. Practical Criticism. New York: Palgrave, 2001.