The Holy War


It may not be strictly accurate to do so, but many periods of history have come to be characterised by a particular event. For example, in our world the Great War and the fall of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York are often regarded as the defining events of the 20th and 21st centuries respectively.

In the world of Lyra Belacqua, Arthur Shire, Peter Joyce and Sonya Moon it was the ending of the Authority and the expulsion of the renegade angel Metatron from the Worlds of Life which set the course of future history, despite those events having taken place in another world altogether.

Likewise, the final dissolution of the Subtle Knife in the JET fusion reactor in Culham changed the underlying techno-socio-religious trends of the worlds of the local multiversal cluster in ways which were not to become apparent for many years thereafter.

The purpose of this short essay is to describe the events and trends which led, in the middle of the twenty-first century, to the Holy War, the Siege of Geneva and the Catastrophe.

The Liberation

I said in the introduction to this piece that the ending of the Authority and the departure of Metatron were the defining events of the twenty-first century in the manifestation of reality we call Lyra's World, or L-world for short. These events were significant not only in terms of the local world-cluster but also in their effect on the power struggles that were taking place (and continue to this day) in Base Reality, or the Metaverse as it is sometimes known.

I have headed this part of my essay The Liberation, because that is the name we now give to the events of 1997-8; the Insurgency of Lord Asriel, the Battle of the Plain, the Ending of Death and the Sealing of the Windows. But for many years it was, by Magisterium fiat, known as The Rebellion and Asriel and his supporters condemned as accursed traitors.

For the Magisterium, although deprived of its top command, possessed a vigorous underlying structure, staffed with active and ambitious men. These men saw no reason why they should not take over the reins of ultimate temporal and spiritual power in their turn. The sometime head of the Society of the Holy Spirit, Father MacPhail, was swiftly replaced after his martyr's death and there were many young zealots ready to fulfil the role in which both he and Father Gomez had failed - to be the hero who eliminated the False Eve, Lyra Belacqua.

An example that comes readily to mind is Father Reilly's attempt in the year 2000 to recover a valuable theological instrument - an alethiometer - from Lyra Belacqua. He died with a witch's arrow in his chest. It is interesting to note that although Lyra Belacqua was again to face death at the hands of the Church in later years, it was her half-sister Elizabeth Boreal's jealousy which eventually killed her, and that only indirectly.

To return to a wider scope. I have said that the Magisterium, although grievously wounded, was far from defeated. After the initial shock it regrouped. There was a brief period of intense infighting and instability in which the whole apparatus of the Magisterium, the Society of the Holy Spirit, the Church, the General Oblation Board and the Consistory Court of Discipline might have fractured into a thousand separate sects and schisms. But it did not. Under the energetic and ruthless leadership of Cardinal Johannes Weiss the power of the forces of religious control was again extended from its base in Switzerland to the wider world.

This period is now called the Great Fear. It lasted for ten years. Conformity was all; to think - or worse, to express one's thoughts - in a manner which could be interpreted as heterodox was to lay oneself open to the risk of midnight arrest and summary execution, or the assassin's blade, or a one-way train journey to the labour camps of the Great Steppe.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that the power of the Magisterium exerted itself uniformly. Its control was most complete in central Europe, particularly towards the east, where the State and the Church were one monolithic structure. In western countries a more subtle approach was required. For example, in Brytain political power was distributed equally between Church, State and Industry. Even though the Church of England was Established - i.e. integrated into the parliamentary monarchy which had ruled the country for several centuries - it was not the executive and it had to get its way by influence, not command. King Alfred's attempt in 2020 to disestablish the Church was only a partial success. It turned out that the priesthood was better managed if it was kept in plain sight and its influence remained a matter of public debate, rather than the private lobbying that was the case in the nations of the north American continent.

As the years of the twenty-first century wore on, numerous small wars broke out, both in Europe and such regions as Hindustan, Kanton and Nippon. They were, more often than not, mere territorial disputes. The Siege of Colmar and the Annexation of the Rheinland date from this period. The Magisterium kept an eye on these skirmishes but did not, as a rule, interfere in them. It had bigger fish to fry.

The Magisterium's New Strategy

For, with a few exceptions, the Magisterium had managed to keep a tight fist on theological investigation. It had become aware of the work of Barnard and Stokes very early on and condemned their theories as heresy, while nevertheless storing away the knowledge they had gained. Rusakov and Khunrath had also been given the choice - rather like Galileo in our world - between surrendering the fruits of their researches to the Society of the Holy Spirit and recanting, or suffering death by torment in the white-tiled basements of the Consistory Court.

It was impossible, for example, for a young theologian to gain access to the facilities he needed to advance his knowledge without first gaining the approval of the Magisterium, which controlled the educational system through its network of schools, universities and teacher/priests. Only mathematicians - who need no equipment beyond their brains and a pencil and paper - could work outside the system, but at the cost of producing work that could not be published and which was generally regarded as, at the very least, theologically unsound.

Meanwhile, the world was changing. It changed most noticeably in eastern Europe, where the grip of the theocracy had been strongest. Strong it may have been, but it was also brittle and concentrated in the hands of a few men. When the peoples of the East did finally throw off their chains it was in blood and fire and turmoil. Many thousands died and the resulting self-governing nation states were far from stable, but they were at last independent - free to follow the will of their own elected rulers and not the dictates of the Cardinals of Geneva.

Paradoxically, the Church's rule continued the longest in those countries where it had been imposed the least stringently. By the time of Peter Joyce's English childhood in the 20s and 30s we find that Church attendance was no longer compulsory, although failure to follow the routines and ceremonies of Divine Worship could still have uncomfortable social implications. It was, for example, difficult to maintain steady employment if one were not a regular communicant at the nearest parish oratory.

Only a few years later, however, it had become possible for a couple to live together without being married. A Bohemian way of life, true, but no longer illegal. The moral influence of the Church was in full retreat. Why was this so?

Partly it was a matter of personalities. Cardinal Weiss died in 2024 and was succeeded by a Frankman, Pierre Leroque. He was also capable and energetic, but he was primarily a pragmatist. Such men are good at managing people and projects, but they tend not to be visionaries. They react to events, rather than instigating them.

The other factor to consider is the Knife; or rather its absence. Students of the affairs of Base Reality have studied the effects the Knife had on the Multiverse. Its very existence caused grave distortions in the Metaverse, which were reflected in its various manifestations, or worlds as we call them. Its use as a world-crossing device dealt grievous blows to the stability of the worlds of the Multiverse, changing the course of history in all of them. The sealing of the Windows and the final destruction of the Knife allowed those changes to revert, as a sailing vessel driven off course by a contrary wind can only return to its true path when that wind abates. The ship of history is a large, cumbersome thing, and even after the removal of the disturbing influence of the Knife it was many years before it returned to its proper heading.

By the 2040s the Magisterium had retreated to its home in the Holy City of Geneva. It was seeking a new way to power. I have said that the Church kept a tight rein on theological, and by extension technological, developments. It also, quite naturally, guarded the hearts, minds and daemons of the common people by means of its still active network of priests and teachers, although non-Church schools had appeared in such countries as Norge and Svede. And so the Magisterium became the de facto owner of what is called intellectual property. The concept of copyright and patent as we know them in our world did not exist in the L-world. All intellectual rights in created works passed by default to Geneva and were then licensed out (with contractual and legal safeguards) to anyone who thought that he could make a living from them, after paying the Magisterium's substantial fees, that is. Year by year the political power of the Magisterium waned, but simultaneously its commercial and theological power increased. The city of Geneva became a powerhouse of knowledge and the store of the world's wealth.

It protected itself accordingly. The city walls were built and rebuilt, higher, wider and deeper each time. The lake to the east of the city was dammed and mined to prevent incursion. The knowledge and secrets that were the backbone of its strength were buried in subterranean vaults, hundreds of feet below the foundations of even its highest towers. In 2045 the first sections of an overarching concrete dome, intended to shield the city from aerial attack, were put in place.

The Coming of War

It was not a moment too soon. The new countries of the east had allied secretly with the Afric states to the south. None of them were wealthy, and the licensing fees for the Magisterium technology which could have helped them to develop their own industries were far beyond their reach. They were too proud in their hard-won independence to pay the alternative political price which was absorption into the Commonwealth which the Magisterium had set up. Membership of this organisation was the key to accessing the knowledge they needed, but it was also a grave surrender of sovereignty.

Faced with the choice between starvation and capitulation, the eastern and southern states chose to fight. United under their charismatic leader, Asriel n'Krame, they swept northward and westward with only one aim in view - to invade and occupy Geneva and ransack her hidden wealth. Meanwhile, the Tartar and Mongol countries to the east and the Independent States of America stood by and awaited the outcome of the conflict with interest.

Geneva still had her friends. The western countries of Europe, such as Brytain, Doychland and Frankland saw with alarm the possibility that the source of their wealth would be cut off. In addition, the influence of the Church in government was still very real. It was not difficult for the Synod to persuade the King of Brytain to declare a Holy War against the Pagan Horde in the defence of the City of Geneva and for the young men and women of Brytain to answer the call. In the spring of 2052 battle was joined in Europe. Two days later HMS Thaxted was sunk off Heligoland, first naval victim of the war. It was to be a long, hard-fought business.

The Matter of Jesus Christ

While the Magisterium accumulated riches through its monopoly on knowledge, it continued to develop its doctrines and dogmas. However, the result of the investigations of its scholars into the reasons for the fall of the Authority and the loss of the Essential Divine was what it had most wished to avoid - an internal schism. At the root of this division was the matter of Jesus Christ.

There can be no doubt that a man called Jeshua Bar-Joseph once lived in the lands which border the Jordan river. That he had a daemon in the form of a dove is also a matter of official record. The Romans kept very precise and accurate details of their conquered peoples. Taxation depended upon them. Beyond these two facts the truth becomes harder to determine. Did the Magdelena always keep to the same dove-form from the time of her birth? Did she perform miracles? And did she die upon a small wooden cross, flayed and pinned to its frame?

The Church's position on this has never been entirely clear. Certainly in the late 1990s images of the dying Christ/Magdelena were still extant in oratories and, according to the testimony of Arthur Shire, in parish workhouses. But by the time of the Holy War of 2052-2055 the Christ had been airbrushed out of the picture. He was referred to as the Blasphemer and His daemon, the Magdelena, reassigned to the Holy Spirit. The name of Christ, once familiar in such English place names as Christchurch and Corpus Christi, had been obliterated. His image had been taken down from gallery and church walls and the Gospels drastically rewritten to accommodate a new truth.

Why was this so? What was it about the name and deeds of Jesus Christ that threatened the Magisterium so much that it had to resort to such a radical rewrite of history? The answer is still not clear. It could have been a matter of individual prejudice, as expressed by Johannes Weiss or his successors. Or it could have been a doctrinal decision, made in Conclave and driven by the engines of government.

One thing is sure. The Magisterium was a fundamentalist, Old Testament organisation which preferred to rule by decree rather than by consent. Its God was the Authority - an authority that brooked no argument and accepted no compromise. Its Bible was the absolute Word of God, neither to be denied nor contradicted. Jesus Christ - the true human who moved among men and daemons, who talked and listened and loved and taught and died - had no place in this system of hard, absolute, determined truth. Christ was the Blasphemer, His the name that should not be spoken.

And yet; folk memory is a sturdy plant and it persists where others fail. It may be driven underground when the frost is hard, but its roots seldom completely die. In the minds of the common people, in old family Bibles hoarded in chests and attic, in samizdat books and magazines, the old memories were kept alive. The Jesus story refused to go away and even when the only official manifestation of His existence was the annexation of His daemons's name by the Holy Spirit, it lived on. One day it would return, purified and strengthened by its absence. That would be the day the power of the Magisterium was ended for ever; unless it took action first. There were a few men within the Church establishment, such as the recently returned exile Martin James, who perceived this and sought to restore the Christ, not through any desire for His presence, but as a more subtle way for the Magisterium to retain its power. Human beings needed an Intercessor to stand between themselves and God. This much was plain. But; if the return of the Christ were inevitable, it still remained within the power of the Church to create a Saviour in its own image - a puppet Christ through which it could order the affairs of the world.

Such was the situation in mid-2055 when Sonya Moon, Peter Joyce and Arthur Shire came to a Geneva which stood on the verge of liberation.

About the author

Ceres Wunderkind is a practical theologian and occasional musician and storyteller who lives and works in those parts of England which were once known as Wessex. He is married with one child.