The Old Dragon But Slept: Terra Ignota, the Sensayer System, and Faith

by Max Gladstone on March 10, 2017

Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders tell the story of beautiful, brilliant, compassionate people who are also terribly vulnerable. They are Eloi who have convinced themselves Morlocks do not exist; they are victim-beneficiaries of two hundred years of willful ignorance of growing rot. Like the dragon Smaug, they’ve rested on their hoard for centuries, adding layer after layer to their invulnerable bejeweled armor—but they cannot see the armor’s chink, the soft space waiting for Bard the Bowman’s arrow.

The arrow is shaped like God.

  • We should begin our investigation of religion in Terra Ignota by outlining the domain of our investigation. What are we talking about when we talk about religion?

The question is almost as old as religion itself, and far trickier than is comfortable. Etymology helps in proportion to the amount of trouble it causes. The term’s commonly asserted root lies in the Latin religare, to bind—religion binds people to one another, or binds people to things. (A dialectical materialist might joke that this makes religion a literal form of bondage.) Others trace the word to religere, to read over—emphasizing the ritualistic repetition involved in many religions. To read over is to be bound to a text, of course—and both proposed etymologies suggest an inherent community, either a community between things bound together, or a community between the readers and the author, or authors, of the text.

Wikipedia’s current definition of religion, as of February 26, 2017—the feast day of Alexander of Alexandria, a day on which men have honored their creator in times past, and still do today—indicates that “Religion is a cultural system of behaviors and practices, world views, sacred texts, holy places, ethics, and societal organisation that relate humanity to what an anthropologist has called ‘an order of existence.’” The emphasis here lies on the relationship between human beings and an order of existence. The definition assumes nothing about the nature of that order, and its inclusion or exclusion of supernatural causes. And, in fact, the definition continues by noting that a religion “may or may not contain various elements,” including the divine, sacred things, faith, supernature, or transcendent norms—a list that starts to sound an awful lot like the Possibly Proper Death Litany of Madrak the Agnostic Priest, in another work of science fiction with a great deal of interest in religion and religiosity.

Supernature is not inherent to religion. Theravada and Chan Buddhism are commonly called religions, but their doctrine and practice do not require supernature. The Analects of Confucius, a core text in another cultural system that’s commonly described as religious, place little value on speculation about supernature: 子曰:「未能事人,焉能事鬼?」曰:「敢問死。」曰:「未知生,焉知死?」(The master said: if you cannot serve man, how can you serve the spirits? Zilu then said: May I dare ask about death? The master said: If you do not understand life, how can you understand death?) The Analects refer to rites and rituals, but as ends in themselves—practices with historical and cultural meaning that have a perfecting influence on those who perform them, in much the way a modern doctor would recommend exercise or a modern psychiatrist meditation—but make no attempt to set out a coherent metaphysical world picture.

Nor are coherent metaphysical systems essential to so-called “Western” religions. The theologian Rudolph Bultmann, for example, asserts in his New Testament and Mythology: “Can Christian proclamation today expect men and women to acknowledge the mythical world picture [of the New and Old Testament] as true? To do so would be both pointless and impossible. It would be pointless because there is nothing specifically Christian about the mythical world picture, which is simply the world picture of a time now past that was not yet formed by scientific thinking. It would be impossible because no one can appropriate a world picture by sheer resolve…” For Bultmann, Christian proclamation must not consist of the acceptance of certain supernatural facts, but rather on a particular mode of being in the world—on a particular relation of the self (and of humanity) to existence. Granted, not all Christians share Bultmann’s perspective, but neither is he an iconoclast or heretic.

Let us, then, settle on a lightweight and flexible definition: Religions are systems of practice and association centered around an understanding of the world. The element of association seems key: one person can have a faith in isolation, but a religion requires company. Co-religionists share practices, language around these practices, and also faith—understood not as belief in a series of facts, but in the sense of the definition Paul Tillich offers in The Dynamics of Faith: faith is a state of being, specifically the state of being ultimately concerned, of having a core principle, practice, community, around which the rest of one’s meaning is organized and ordered.

With this classifier in hand, let us evaluate religion as viewed by Mycroft Canner and his contemporaries. Certainly they are concerned with religion, enough to ban it entirely after the Church War—but how do they define the subject of their ban? One of Too Like the Lightning’s first serious beats of expository worldbuilding describes the role Mertice McKay believed would be left vacant by religion’s banishment:

What terrible silence McKay foresaw: a man afraid to ask his lover whether he too feared the hereafter, parents afraid to answer when their children asked Who made the world. With what terrible desperation McKay screamed in the ears of those with the power to stop it, “Humanity cannot live without talking about religion! Let us create a new creature! Not a preacher, but a teacher, who hears a parishioner’s questions and presents the answers of all the different faiths and sects of history, Christians and pagans, Muslims and atheists, all equal. Let this new creature show our lonely modern soul that he is not the first to ask why death must be, or how a good God could create Evil.

For McKay, it seems—or for Mycroft, if we’re to read the quote as Mycroft’s dramatization of McKay rather than a literal quote—the most notable danger of the post-Church War ban is that it will deprive humanity of religion as a source of metaphysical truth. Should we fear the hereafter? Is there, in fact, a hereafter to fear? Does the world have a creator? The sensayer, this “new creature” McKay proposes, is not a community organizer—not a part of any community in her role as sensayer. She does not bind anyone to anything. Nor does the sensayer seem to recognize that critical difference between faith and belief. By the 25th century, as too often in our own, these concepts have been conflated: Dominic uses them interchangeably, for example, in Seven Surrenders. (“Desperation is not faith. How canst thou tell if thou believest?”)

A sensayer, then, serves a storehouse of metaphysical knowledge for the subjects of her function. By 2464, metaphysical convictions have blossomed to fill the space left by religion’s collapse, and the sense of a religion as a community of shared faith and practice has disappeared entirely.

Mycroft, in the same scene, reinforces this belief: “Sensayers live for metaphysics, Thisbe, it’s what they are. How would you feel if someone erased your memory of the most important thing that ever happened to you?” Metaphysics, not community, not ritual, not faith, is the sensayer’s domain. Sensayers serve a counselor function, helping parishioners establish metaphysical postulates and live according to them. We’ll get to the criteria by which these postulates are formed a little later in this essay.

The sensayer-parishioner relationship is private, as a result of the strictures placed on religious speech after the Church War. Sensayers can serve many connected people—there seems to be no conflict of interest in serving all individuals in a given bash, for example, though a given sensayer may also serve only a single of a bash, as Julia serves Carlyle—but sensayers do not appear to encourage those communities to share metaphysical truths, and are in fact expressly forbidden from sharing their own metaphysical truths with their parishioners. Metaphysics is so private that when Mycroft recounts Carlyle Foster’s meeting with Bridger toward the beginning of Too Like the Lightning, he feels he must apologize: “I will show you worse in time, but you will never understand this history if you do not dare read about another’s God.” He apologizes for exposing the reader to another’s metaphysics far more directly than he apologizes for exposing the reader to his own visceral memories of the Mardi murders.

So, while Sensayers call those with whom they consult “parishioners,” they are parishioners without a parish. The metaphysics to which religion has collapsed in Terra Ignota are fundamentally private—throughout Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders, people respond to their metaphysical convictions being exposed, or even named, with the same violent embarrassment the average 21st century Westerner would feel having their clothes ripped off in public. Take, for example, JEDD Mason’s first appearance in Too Like the Lightning, in which he discerns the metaphysical alignment of a traitor:

One-by-one the drill troops held their breath as J.E.D.D. Mason’s dead eyes rolled across them. On the third—a slender Dutch Greenpeace Mitsubishi football player stationed by Cato’s door—they stopped. “Which karma do you want?” He asked.

It is hard to name the expression of abject contact, more shocked and intimate than fear, which seized her face. With slow and careful hands she released the clasp which held her weapons belt, and let the whole fall to the floor. Three others followed suit.

JEDD Mason has seized the football player by her metaphysics. JEDD Mason plays this trick frequently, and the “First Rule of Fight Club” approach to religion is so firmly embedded in the world of Terra Ignota that each time JEDD Mason drags a person’s metaphysics into the light, the reader feels a true rush of sympathetic embarrassment. Nonetheless, it is hard to comprehend the magnitude of the response. What conspirator would be reduced to confession and surrender in this way?

But the 21st century reader, and the faithful with which she is familiar, have resources our 25th century conspirator lacks. From the reader’s perspective, whether she is conscious of this fact or not, her metaphysical convictions are only a piece of a greater religious whole—a communal ordering of the physical, social, and moral universe. Religion, for her—and I include even doctrinaire atheism under this banner, as a clear and stridently doctrinaire communal world-ordering—is a community of conviction and practice and faith, rather than a fundamentally solitary endeavor of propositional belief. When inconsistencies or points of doctrinal confusion arise, religious adherents rely on community. A member of a religious group who has decided to kill, will kill—especially if she believes the murder justified—despite even a strict doctrinal prohibition against violence. Doctrine and metaphysics are not the sole source of religious truth. Indeed, the communal world-ordering religion offers is available in need even to those who deny all religious authority. The joke runs that there are no atheists in foxholes—but that’s not so much a point about atheist hypocrisy so much as an observation that deep-seated cultural systems of world-ordering endure, and can be relied upon to communicate with others, even by those who deny their validity—the net stretches beneath the trapeze artist whether she knows it or not.

But the sensayer system, along with the Romanovan codes criminalizing proselytization, have cut through the trapeze artist’s net. The sensayer’s insistence on privacy leads to an atomized religiosity, depriving individuals of all resource save their own conviction—individuals in Terra Ignota cannot be certain that anyone, even their own sensayer, shares their beliefs, let alone their perspective on the universe.

If the people of the 25th century practice the high-wire acrobatics of faith without a net, then we must determine the quality of their acrobatic technique. Absent religious tradition, absent the charismatic transmission theologians describe as kerygma, absent proclamation or conversion experience, how do people of the 25th century reach their religious convictions?

We have little evidence to go on, here. Carlyle Foster’s few explicitly professional meetings with Saneer-Weeksbooth bash members in Too Like the Lightning focus on exploration—they’re early in the sensayer system, getting-to-know-you sort of conversations. We see a few of Julia Doria-Pamphilii’s sessions, but Mycroft recognizes these as diverging from standard sensayer practice. But we can derive a sense of the foundation on which metaphysical convictions are formed by watching them broken.

In Carlyle Foster’s meeting with Dominic in Seven Surrenders, Dominic forces Carlyle to reevaluate his (or more properly her, at this point in the novel) ‘religion,’ understood here in the limited 25th century sense. Dominic’s attack presses Carlyle on several fronts. First, Dominic uses theatricality and blackmail to disorient Carlyle and isolate her from her social and personal resources—flashy, but also superfluous, as the nature of religiosity in Terra Ignota is pre-isolating for Dominic’s convenience. Dominic attacks Carlyle’s ego, calling her choice of faith “cowardly;” but her true thrust is against on Carlyle’s internal consistency:

“Thou wishest desperately for thy Clockmaker to exist, but desperation is not faith. How canst thou tell if thou believest?”

“Because I love God!” Carlyle declared, with all the strength and fervor with which she had risen from bed that morning, every morning, marking on her calendar how each day was sacred to so many names for God.

Love, then, seems to be the rock on which metaphysical convictions are built—at least, the rock on which Carlyle’s are. Dominic attacks first the logical necessity of this connection between love and belief—belief, not faith—then makes the simple move of asserting that, if Carlyle truly loved God, she would not violated a sacred oath. This assault shakes Carlyle, as if hypocrisy, sin, failure, or divergence from doctrine cannot coexist with true religious sentiment. Though, of course, Carlyle has never experienced this coexistence outside herself: she has not lived among priests who sin and repent, among drunken and wrathful men of god, among religious couples struggling through the aftermath of infidelity, among birth control-using Catholics—nor even among queer evangelicals who belong to churches that preach against homosexuality. For Carlyle, sin and hypocrisy and contradiction are evidence of wounds of faith, rather than social realities that people of faith manage within their communities.

Dominic’s assault shifts to evidentiary grounds: clearly Bridger is evidence of an interventionist God, therefore Carlyle cannot believe in Deism. This doesn’t actually follow. For one thing, knowledge of physics in Terra Ignota is not yet complete, and it’s possible, however unlikely, that Bridger could be a natural phenomenon. But if we suppose a watchmaker God, well, any watchmaker may introduce complications—even grand complications—to the mechanism while remaining, fundamentally, a watchmaker. Carlyle, however, does not have this answer to hand—and finds herself without resources to draw upon save her own logic. There is no priest of recourse, no Deist reading group, to which Carlyle can turn for counsel after excusing herself from this deeply uncomfortable conversation. She has only her sensayer—and her sensayer is being what a 21st century reader could be forgiven for calling an asshole. She will betray no one but herself if she fails here.

Dominic’s final twist of the knife is to force Carlyle, through leading questions, to admit that she wished her God would intervene and prove Their existence—though intervention is against Deist principles, and even if God were to intervene, it would be unjust for Them to visit Carlyle Foster directly. Carlyle, Dominic says, yearns for an interventionist and merciful God. That is Carlyle’s true religion. “There is no need now… to pretend thou desirest thy God to be a clockmaker.”

And that word, desire, lies at the heart of religious conviction in the sensayer system. It is not a system of faith, nor a system of community. Members of the Terra Ignota world believe what they want to believe—and their beliefs grow and change with their desire. Nothing enforces the parishioner’s beliefs save guilt, and parishioners can be just as easily encouraged to change their belief structure as to work through their guilt. The “parishioner” is bound to nothing—not a parish, not a particular system of metaphysics, nor even a particular sensayer. Nor is any text read over, if one does not like what it says.

And here comes the singularity.

In warding itself against religion, humankind has left itself uniquely vulnerable to religion. Humans are drawn to shared meaning. We can see this even in Ignotan society, where the corporatist Mitsubishi and the pseudofascist, or at the very least Imperial, Masons slowly aggregate power. Both these structures approach an ultimate ordering of the cosmos, resting in Earth or in Law, but neither can take the final step to offering a complete ordering of the world, since they have forsworn the tools and weaponry of religion—at least in public. They are unwilling to ascribe ultimacy to their rituals. For all Ignotan society’s emphasis on community, each person remains alone in her own confrontation with the ultimate.

Alone, and vulnerable.

Enter Madame.

When Carlyle Foster, Thisbe, and other newcomers first arrive at Madame’s 18th century Sadist Disneyland, they recognize that they are being offered the forbidden fruit of gendered sexuality. But less obvious—perhaps because the sensayer system cushions them by offering a false familiarity—is that they are being presented at the same time with the forbidden fruit of communal religion. The seduction of religion is far less prurient, but far more dangerous, than the seduction of sexuality: a sexual seduction changes our internal architecture of desire, but a religious seduction changes our internal architectures of ontology and epistemology. Madame’s highly gendered, yet highly flexible, sexual seductions change what people want, but the parallel religious community she propagates through JEDD Mason changes the selves that do the wanting.

Lacking religious resources save their own fragile convictions, Carlyle and Thisbe and the rest stagger into a web of exceedingly powerful people of faith, who not only possess a shared order for the world, but who cooperate to interpret the world within that framework—and who, more distressingly, have the power to reshape the world to fit their framework. Our main characters exist in the context of these believers—and to exist in that context, is to be shaped by those believers’ underlying assumptions and come to communicate in them, and ultimately, to share them. And we, the reader, follow in their footsteps.

What reasons, what evidence, have we to believe JEDD Mason’s claims of Godhood? None—he’s obviously brilliant, but then, so are his parents, and his bash-cult has used every imaginable resource to raise him as an agent of world domination. Of course he’s clever. In fact, it does not matter whether his claims to Godhood are true within the narrative. His faithful do not attribute to him any power even the most skeptical reader will disagree he possesses; the only difference is that his faithful have built a shared faith around him, and the reader is uncertain whether to share that faith. We are armored somewhat by the fact that JEDD Mason is a creature bounded by the text—but then, so are many subjects of faith. The characters in Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders have no such armor. Nor does the chance that his Godhood is delusional make a whit of difference to the effectiveness of the strategies his followers deploy.

The playbook is as old as human history: find a person who lacks a network of practice and community, and enmesh them in yours. They will come to see the world as you do. Then, encourage them to bring their friends. Religion and the human animal have had thousands of years to adapt themselves to one another—they came up together, much as did the human animal and the techniques and tools of gendered sexuality. “The old dragon but slept,” Dominic says of gender—but he might as well have been discussing religion. And: “As with smallpox, you are all more vulnerable now than in the filthy past, since without exposure you build no resistance, yet we do not vaccinate against a thing defeated.”


We leave the world of Terra Ignota at a dangerous pass. Enemies long since thought defeated have raised their heads once more. But were these forms of human action truly enemies of the human species? Earth deprived of religion is deprived of shared truths and the resources required to strive for ultimate meaning—even the Utopians feature wildly divergent futures in their coats. Apollo mourned a world too comfortable to strive. Perhaps the return of religion—or the old techniques of religion given a new life in a new time, under different cultural circumstances—will bring with it that fire he thought absent. Or perhaps the war he worked so hard to frame will destroy it at last, as humans once more sacrifice all on the altars of faith. The old dragons are waking.

A chick will die if it does not break the egg’s shell. We do not know the strength of the chick. We do not know the thickness of the shell. We do not know what world waits beyond. For now, we can only see the cracks.



DMC 03.10.17 at 5:08 pm

Actually, inasmuch as they are species of Buddhism, Theravada and Chan posit the existance of the 6 orders of beings, only 2 of which are strictly natural. They concieve of Devas and Asuras(roughly gods and everything from titians to demons to fairies) but note that they, like humans, are transient and lacking in self nature and are not requisite to enlightenment.


JimV 03.10.17 at 5:42 pm

This is just a subjective note to say that I enjoyed the Craft series very much, especially “Three Parts Dead”, and “Two Serpents Rise”. (I enjoyed “Too Late the Lightning” better than “Seven Surrenders”, partly for similar reasons.)

For me, neither deistic nor theistic god-postulates satisfy any metaphysical need, that is they wouldn’t make a complex universe any more understandable, and there is no good empirical evidence for them in this universe. Good writers can write about them movingly, but using them as dei ex machina still feels like cheating, to me.


Monte Davis 03.11.17 at 7:16 pm

Those who enyoy the Terra Ignota books may enjoy Ada Palmer’s recent star turn on the “You Are Not So Smart” podcast. The topic is “progress” and how we might think more clearly about that.

We also hear how her Chicago students learn about historical agency and contingency through an elaborate RPG treatment of the Papal election of 1492.


Pavel A. 03.12.17 at 4:37 am

Th wrld s n fr. mrc s n fr. r ths shtpsts, t s trm f trd, th bst th ntllctl lft hs fr s prls? Srsly gys. Thr fckng psts n sm mdcr nvls (wth thr cmmnts pc, s y knw thy mst b nggng th nds f th mmnt!).

Th ppl rqr gdnc nd knwldg. Thy rqr sbstnc t fl th fr f rblln nd prtst. Thy dsprtly nd ntllctl mmntn t fght th hsts f fscsm. nstd thy gt ths. r y th slss mdrt lbrls MLK ws dscrbng?

plgz fr spllng my ngr nt ths spcfc thrd. wld cmpln t th st wnrs n gnrl, bt hv n d hw t rch thm.


Neville Morley 03.12.17 at 8:42 am

There is no art without Life, and no Life without Midland coal mines.


Gabriel 03.12.17 at 12:53 pm


First, you’ve misused the term shitpost. Your own offering is closer, not because it is ‘shit’, but because it is not germaine to the place in which it is posted.

Second, I’m not sure what you’re saying, mostly because your post consists entirely of generalized appeals to emotion, insults, and perhaps a straw man or two. I don’t think anyone here is suggesting that reading these books and talking about them should take the place of direct political action.

Lastly, what did you hope to accomplish by elbowing your way into the room, screaming, and throwing crap on the walls? I can only assume the desired result was to evoke a feeling of smug self-superiority; this is not effective political action and you may want to consider that you may be doing damage to the causes you purport to support.

Regardless: this is a space set aside to chat about the article above, and so you should probably do the above somewhere else.


Pavel A. 03.13.17 at 4:31 am


Sorry, I take it back. Was very frustrated yesterday. Hoping to be more provocative than anything. Sorry again.


Gabriel Morgan 03.13.17 at 8:51 am

Pavel, I understand the frustration very well. I think most of us do.


Z 03.14.17 at 10:15 am

In fact, it does not matter whether his claims to Godhood are true within the narrative. His faithful do not attribute to him any power even the most skeptical reader will disagree he possesses; the only difference is that his faithful have built a shared faith around him, and the reader is uncertain whether to share that faith.

This gets at my biggest problem with TlTL (with the important caveat that I haven’t read SS). Everybody in TlTl world that we meet takes it for granted that JEDD Mason is far beyond normal humanity but apart from a few show of extreme perceptiveness which to me are well within the bound of normal intelligence (and thus far less impressive from our contemporary perspective than the daily prowess of Cartesian set-set or the discoveries Utopians apparently produce on a monthly basis), I didn’t quite get what was supposed to be so amazing about him, nor was I sure if I was supposed to get it or supposed to feel puzzled. Then you have Bridger, who is obviously magical from our perspective and apparently equally obviously magical from the perspective of the characters.

So I found myself wondering if I was reading a story about political machinations in an alien social world (the main plot), or reading a crossover between that story and Harry Potter (the main plot plus Bridger read literally), or a crossover between that story and X-Men First Class (the main plot plus Bridger plus JEDD Mason read literally).


Luis 03.15.17 at 6:17 am

Z, you’ll get some answers to JEDD in Seven Surrenders, but even more questions. Helpful, I know :)

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