Sunday, June 26, 2011

Book Review: Magister Ludi, by Hermann Hesse

Magister Ludi
Author: Hermann Hesse
(tr. by Richard & Clara Winston)
Mass Market Paperback, 520 pages
Published by Bantam, October, 1970
(Originally published as Das Glasperlenspiel,
1943, by Fretz & Warmuth Verlag AG,
Zurich, Switzerland)
Genre: Literary Fiction, Science Fantasy,
Utopian Literature

AWARDS: Nobel Prize in Literature, 1946

The great German-born writer Hermann Hesse had a profound impact on me during my college years.  I am now trying to re-read the books that so fascinated me back then, although I don't expect I'll ever really be able to plumb their depths.  Hesse was much influenced by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung, so his novels are full of symbolism and the hidden workings of the human psyche.  They also portray the workings of the archetypes -- those universal denizens of Jung's collective unconscious, which is shared by the entire human race.  Adding to this is Hesse's luminous, lyrical prose, which extends itself into long, descriptive passages of great literary beauty.

In other words, this is not an easy read.  It is, however, a rewarding one, if one is willing to invest the time necessary to savor the book, since it obviously does not lend itself to fast reading.  This is by no means the type of book that one "can't put down".  In fact, one must indeed put it down, and often, so as to ponder the things Hesse is saying.  Then one is inevitably drawn back to it.  At least, this is what happened with me. 

I would call this a rather unique hybrid of novel and philosophical treatise.  In that respect, it reminds me of the classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig, a book that, among others, was very influential in the development of the American counter-culture several years ago, and which I also intend to re-read.   Another book that comes to mind is Sophie's World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy, by Jostein Gaarder, which I have yet to read. 

These are books that use the format of a novel to present philosophical ideas.  Therefore, the plot, if any, is driven by such ideas.  Obviously, this is not the typical novel that contains the basic elements of fiction writing as we have come to expect them.   There's no heart-pounding suspense, no fast action, little to no character conflict.  At the risk of sounding repetitious, I must again state that we are instead presented with a banquet of intellectual concepts to be pondered and enjoyed for the sheer enjoyment of doing so.   So this is literary pleasure of quite a different order. 

Through the fictional character named Joseph Knecht (whose last name in German means "servant"), Hesse presents the theme that dominates all of his books -- the intellectual life as contrasted with the active life.  Knecht undergoes an evolution in this novel, coming to the point of accepting that the intellectual life alone cannot satisfy completely, if entirely divorced from life in the sensory world.   In the process, the reader is given an intimate look into Knecht's -- and therefore, Hesse's -- inner world.  

The novel's predominant metaphor is the Glass Bead Game, invented by Hesse.  He never provides a clear picture of it, however, although he does say that, in its beginnings, the game was, indeed, played with glass beads.  Eventually, it evolved into a complex interrelationship of ideas, taken from certain fields of human knowledge, such as music, mathematics, languages, and science.   The purpose of each game is to find ways to link core concepts in these fields into one grand, symphonic whole.

There are at least two important sources of conflict in the novel, although said conflict is on a strictly intellectual level.  It's not of the action-oriented variety.  Instead, it's a clash of ideologies.  Knecht has two opponents here -- Plinio Designori, a guest student in the fictional province of Castalia, where the Glass Bead Game was developed, and Father Jacobus, a member of the Benedictine Order, whom Knecht meets when he is assigned to tutor monks in the basics of the Game.   Designori, who eventually returns to the outside world, represents the active life; he later becomes involved in politics.  Jacobus, on the other hand, represents the life of the spirit.  He is concerned about the fact that Castalia has no religion or belief in a Supreme Power.  Both of these men have a great influence on Knecht, who will eventually make the decision to fully integrate his intellectual life with that of the senses, of action.  This is despite the fact that he had been chosen to be the Magister Ludi -- the Master of the Glass Bead Game, at the age of 40.  As Magister Ludi, one of his duties includes leading the annual celebration of the game, an occasion of great ceremony in Castalia, attended by heads of state and other influential people in Hesse's futuristic world.

The novel also includes several poems "written" by Knecht in his student years, as well as three fictional lives he was required to complete as part of his studies.  These further demonstrate Hesse's power as a lyrical writer.  I only wish I knew German, so I could read this book in the original, thus getting the true "feel" of the work!

The perfect culmination to Hesse's literary work, this novel will repay the reader with some very interesting, profound concepts that will indelibly imprint themselves in his/her mind.  I would especially recommend it for those times when one does crave something to really engage the intellect.  Not that there's anything wrong with reading less challenging works, however.  It all depends on what the mind and the emotions are open to at any given point in time.  At least, this has been my experience, although I'm sure I'm not unique in this respect.


My "Favorite Authors" post about Hermann Hesse is HERE.

Here's a list of links related to the Glass Bead Game:

The Glass Bead Game - Alexander Sidorkin

The Glass Bead Game - Wikipedia

Webmagister Ludi and the Glass Bead Game - Willard van de Bogart

The Glass Bead Game: Cosmic Play in a Symbolic Universe

The Waldzell Glass Bead Game: Overview


  1. This was a very interesting and thorough review. I haven't read Hesse before but I have read books that are philosophy driven rather than plot driven. Good job!
    Also, lovely photo header!

  2. Nice read on Hesse. I need to revisit him. I'm now following our blog, hope you'll take a look at mine.The Dirty Lowdown

    Rob C

  3. Hi, Sharon!

    Thank you so much for your lovely comments about my review! Hesse is one of my favorite writers, so I wanted to make sure I did him justice.

    Thanks as well for complimenting my blog header! I didn't create the picture, unfortunately, but thought it would be perfect for the name of my blog.

    Last but most definitely NOT least, thank you for the follow! Much appreciated!! : )

  4. Hi, Rob!

    Thank you so much for your comment! Yes, Hesse is a great writer, and his greatness becomes even more apparent with each re-reading!

    Thanks as well for following my blog! I will certainly go check out yours!! : )


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