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Greville MacDonald, Date Unknown

A Cosmic Chess Game
by Greville MacDonald
(My complete GMD bio/commentary is here).



Once upon a time two great chess-players entered upon a contest that for all time should determine their skill. The laws of the game were of their own devising and different from those now holding: for each was to carve his own men to the best of his ability; and the skill he manifested in his handicraft was to be judged equal with his control of the game. Each, moreover, was to play on a separate board; and wise men were to be brought to sit as umpires whose judgment should be final. Now each player carved his men, his kings, queens, bishops, knights, castles, and pawns, with skill the like of which had not been seen before: for an eternity was given to each for his work. But when all was in readiness and the game should begin, none could be found wise enough for umpires: though not a few volunteered. And the players, for lack of better critics, were constrained to this strange agreement, that their own chessmen, whom they had fashioned, should be their judges.

For awhile the skill of the players seemed equal, and the game progressed in such profundity of thought and subtlety of invention that the chessmen, who, you must believe, were endowed with some understanding, were so amazed that they doubted whether they did not themselves initiate their excursions and bold doings. But before many aeons had passed over this wonderful game, the play of the two master-craftsmen became strangely different. The skill of him who held the red men remained as it had begun. His men he could count upon to do as he bid them, and, in given circumstances, to act as they had done a thousand years before. His chessboard remained as fair and unsullied as when it had first left his workshop at the beginning; and his play was such good play that it could hardly be bettered. The board was so bright in colour, sunny in light, pleasant to live upon, that the red chessmen desired none better, for they also remained, as they had begun, masterpieces of skill. And they knew that they were so.

But the player who owned the white men was different; and his work differed, though in high honour he still conformed with the rules each had agreed upon. As he watched the meek submission of his men and their obedience to his will, he, strange and purposeless though it appeared to his opponent, learned to love his poor carvings of ivory, and in so doing he came to desire something beyond the exercise of his own skill and personal power. He, foolishly, as was accounted by his opponent and indeed as appeared to all the red men as well as to many of his own, taught his people, kings with their queens, knights in their castles, bishops ministering to pawns, to understand the game, so that they should choose their own moves. They should think out where their own safety lay, because their master had need of them; they should look how best to serve those having need of their help, so that their master could not repent him of the freedom he had given; and lastly, they should, in such service, attain a higher understanding to work in co-operation with himself, the designer of them and their laws. Thus should they deepen the intent of the game, and choose whether or no they would help their master to victory.

But, you must observe, there arrived an inevitable consequence, which had indeed been foreseen by the carver of his freed chessmen. Though they were still compelled to move within certain rules and limits prescribed by the game, which rules and limits could not be transgressed without personal as well as social disaster, they yet had choice in their moves and their motives. And because many moved foolishly and many lazily, because some even chose to deny their obligation to obey the rules, disaster seemed to assail the game of that player who loved his men. And the men of both sides declared him to be weak in power and foolish in desire; some even said that, had he loved his men as he pretended, he would have kept them rigidly tied to their obligations.

And the board of the white men grew strange in appearance and mightily unintelligible. The squares became blurred; for the white-daisied meadows grew black with soot belched from the tall objects which the castles had become, and which the poor pawns half worshipped as the emblems of success and progress. The shady woods were cut down that fuel might be found for the feeding of the chimneys and 'the fouling of the meadows. The rivers that marked out the squares on the land grew rank with horrors that, in fighting for life, had found only death; and the blue waters became red with the streams of greed and hatred that poured into them. How so? Because some of the pawns, if one among them seemed more favoured of their master, would hate, starve, and slay that fellow. Some kings, you must observe, grew tyrants, and sought to take freedom from any who questioned the regal right of exacting service. Some knights grew lazy because they, having turned their castles of strength into chimneys of commercial success, enticed the pawns to fuel their furnaces, and thus save themselves from their birthright to work and be free. And some bishops, who claimed best to understand the will of the master, grew greedy also of power, and sought, like the kings, to rob the men of their freedom, and cast their minds, if not their bodies, in chains. They said, "The master may have given you freedom of conscience, but we must regulate it! He has certainly given you power of reason, but we must endorse it!" Yet, notwithstanding all this seeming disaster, the master worked on in the strength of his deep intent. "The game is not yet played!" he cried; "have we not a million years before us? If I can show one good pawn, bishop, or king who has justified the freedom I have given, he is worth more than all the automata; he justifies all my own disappointments, all the hard years of my labour."

But the master of the red men, the red men themselves, and indeed many of the white, railed at the good master of the white men because their whiteness was stained. They cried that, had he been omnipotent, he had saved his pawns from the tyrannies of those he had ordained for their guidance; that, had he been all-loving, he had never allowed them to grow greedy and lazy; that, had he been omniscient, he had endowed them with such wisdom as would have made them understand the folly of bartering the bread of life for the Dead-Sea apples of starvation.

And the white men grew stronger, more powerful, and regardless of that freedom which was responsible for their growth. Nay, they even denied its reality. They sold their bodies in slavery, for the sake of ease and unearned power, to a Mammon that gave them gold; they sold their minds to spare them the labour of thought; they submitted to false churches that, distrusting their privileges, feared freedom because of its abuse in license.

And there the fable ends.

Must I, in conventional manner, declare the moral? It is as brief as it is obvious. In the master of the white men, who soiled their gardens and sullied their pristine purity, is suggested the idea of a beneficent and omnipotent Creator; while in the maker of the red men is symbolized the sort of god whom the agnostic would have selected to obviate sin and suffering. And I have ended my fable at this point, for it merges into the actual story of human growth and human failure. And hardly, I think, were it worth while pursuing our search for the truth, whether in Nature, or in men's hearts, or in scriptures, but for one fact in our history that has given us knowledge of the import of things. You know what this fact is--the coming among us of One whose personal life was inspired by law and revealed in beauty; whose social life was inspired by love of the children of men and revealed in sorrow because they rejected the truth; whose oneness with eternal Law transcending all mundane obligation was revealed in His sacrifice, and His going from those He loved, that they might grow and learn freedom in faith.


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