Thursday, December 22, 2005

What Gnosis Is: a Prologue

Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, better known as the Lord Dunsany, was an incredible writer of early imaginative fiction. Years ago, I read one of his stories that has stuck with me, and that I have retold many times. Yet, like a character in a Borges tale, I have never been able to find that story again. So, I do not know it's name, nor in which of Dunsany's collections of stories it is to be found. And, my telling has probably drifted far from the original, so judge it not by my poor summary.

The setting for the story is a valley kingdom through which a stream flows. The people of the kingdom know only their valley—though from time to time, a lone shepherd in the foothills might catch the sound of a distant ocean wave crashing, carried inland by the wind, and smell the slight smell of salt on that wind. Over the years, from these slight hints, theories of what lay beyond the mountains developed. The foremost of these was that on the other side of the mountains is a great river, like the river in the valley, only far, far larger. So large, that it carries whole trees down its current and they crash one into another making the loud noises that can sometimes be heard, and the breaking apart of these trees gives the air the smell of their salty sap. Many learned discourses have been written on this very subject, and while there are still proponents of the salt deposit theory, the tree sap theory has largely won out.

The king has read these scholarly treatises with interest, and has a fascination with, and fear of, what lay beyond the mountains like all in his kingdom. Over the years of his reign he has sent many to travel over the mountains to see the great river, and report back to him. None have ever returned. And with each disappearance, fewer have been willing to go, even as the offered rewards have risen. Until finally, the king offers his daughter's hand in marriage, along with half the kingdom, and the other half when he dies: to any man willing to brave the journey and return to report.

In the valley was a shepherd, who has fallen in impossible love with the king's daughter. He over hears the king's offer to his courtiers, and the thought of marrying her fills him. A way has been opened to him to fulfill his dearest wish, and in spite of his trepidation, he resolves to undertake the journey, no matter how perilous, and win his love's hand.

When the shepherd announces his intentions, he is celebrated as a hero. A banquet is given in his honor, where he is presented to the king's daughter, who seems pleased with him as well. There are toasts to the shepherd's bravery. They have him swear oaths to return and report of the great river so they may know, for certain, that the prevailing theory is correct. Some scholars even pull him aside, or whisper in his ear, to tell him what he should look for in particular, to solve this or that dispute among them.

And so, with great aplomb, and even greater expectations, he begins his journey, following the shepherd's paths he knows so well deep into the foothills. Then he begins to climb, following animal paths. And , finally, up where there are no paths at all. He travels through thick fog, hearing the mysterious sounds grow louder, imagining all that he had been told were their causes—these growing larger and more terrifying in his imagination as he continues. Many times he begins to turn back, but steels himself with the thought of his love, and the disgrace if he returns a failure.

Finally, he comes over a rise, and sees before him the vast expanse of the ocean. He walks forward down the slope as the sun slowly sets beyond the endless water, and he realizes that something in him has changed. He knows with certainty that he will never return to the valley—now that he has beheld the ocean. Not only is the valley too confining, but he has become a stranger to it.

So it is with Gnosis. When we gain Gnosis we are transformed, we can never go back. The path of Gnosis is always forward, towards the depths.


John said...

Beautifully described and most certainly true. To know is to be alone until such time another may be found who also knows. This gives even more meaning to the communion of believers or knowers and how deeply filling it is to have such fellowship. Now, the journey is very individual and we must make it alone and perhaps may find that the end, if such a thing exists, is the finding of unity with all separation stemming from error dispelled.

Corwin of Amber said...

Have you asked the guys behind the Dunsany main website? They may help you.