In reaction to the shallowness and frivolousness of their age, a number of groups interested in fostering the intellectual and the spiritual capacity of society begin to develop. Among these is the League of Journeyers to the East, which focuses on the contemplative elements of culture and introduces them into the glass bead game.
The history and development of the game is an interesting one. Like any great idea, the game itself has no real beginning, for it is foreshadowed in ancient philosophies that range from Pythagoras’s mathematical theorems to the ideas of harmony and peace of ancient Chinese thinkers. The present form of the game had developed in Castalia, a province of intellectual elites whose quest for wholeness and unity finds its highest expression in the game. The origins of the Castalian order and the establishment of the game had grown and evolved in reaction to the age of the feuilleton, where bourgeois writers discussed such mundane and superficial topics as the role of the lapdog in the lives of great courtesans.
At first the game is little more than a witty exercise for musicians and students interested in the intellectual commonalities of music and mathematics. Eventually, a musicologist named Lusor, or Joculator, Basiliensis invents a new language of symbols and formulas for the game, whose glass beads resemble an abacus, and reduces mathematics and music to a common denominator. The game becomes the essence of intellect and art, symbolizing the mystic union of literature, music, art, and mathematics.
An orphan named Joseph Knecht possesses a tremendous musical aptitude. After his teachers recognize his musical genius, they invite the Music Master to hear Knecht play. Although Knecht is nervous at the audition, the Master puts the child at ease by playing himself. During this moment, Knecht learns the harmony and unity that lies at the heart of all music.
After this audition, Knecht is invited to Eschholz, where he studies music with the hopes of being invited to one of thirteen advanced schools. At the age of seventeen, he goes off to Waldzell, the elite school where students study the glass bead game. There he meets Carlo Ferromonte, a gifted musician who encourages Knecht’s passion for music so fervently that Knecht does not attend to his other studies. Knecht also meets Plinio Designori at Waldzell. Unlike the other students, Designori is an outsider, a hospitant, a student from a wealthy family who is allowed to study as a guest. As an outsider, Designori recognizes the shortcomings of the Castalian order and begins a series of debates with Knecht about the order. Even though Designori’s questions are unsettling to Knecht, his own studies of the history of the order in preparation for these debates provide a deeper knowledge about the order’s structure and its vision for unity.
At the age of twenty-four, Knecht is allowed a period of free study, a privilege that is granted only to those pupils who demonstrate a firm grasp of the spiritual discipline of Castalia. During this period, Knecht must write an autobiography in which he places himself in another time and place and gives a fictional account of his life. As a result, Knecht writes three fictitious lives. In a letter to his friend Fritz Tegularius, Knecht explains how he intends to spend his free study: investigating the synthesis of forces that make up the glass bead game and tracing them to their sources. When he realizes he must learn Chinese to foster his study, Knecht seeks out the Older Brother, a Castalian elite who is an expert in the I Ching
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I Ching. Once a year during this study, Knecht returns to Waldzell to take part in an advanced course on the game. His uncertainty about his vocation becomes clear during these sessions, as he asks himself whether or not the game represents what is best in Castalia and whether or not it is worth dedicating his life to.
At the end of his period of free study, Knecht is summoned by the presiding magister ludi, Thomas von der Trave, for a period of questioning; eventually, Knecht is invited to join the order. Shortly thereafter, von der Trave sends him to the Benedictine monastery at Mariafels, where Knecht acts as both an envoy and a teacher of the game to young monks.
At Mariafels, Knecht meets Father Jacobus and engages in long discussions about history and art. From Jacobus, Knecht learns that every individual is an actor in history, creating history and also sharing the blame and responsibility for the events of the time. From Knecht, Jacobus learns that Castalia, much like his own Benedictine order, reflects an attempt to bring spiritual order to the world. Upon his return from Mariafels, Knecht learns that Master von der Trave is gravely ill; when von der Trave dies, the elite select Knecht to succeed him as the new magister ludi. Knecht spends a great deal of time meditating about this new position, and his visions teach him that his life is eternally circular and that he will play the role of master and pupil simultaneously, and forever.
While he is in office, Knecht attempts to return Castalia to its former glory, and he succeeds to some degree in accomplishing his task. His goals as master are to be faithful and loyal to the hierarchy and to awaken, to press forward, and to grasp hold of reality. While Knecht is able to restore Castalia to some former grandeur, he has difficulty moving Castalia into an engagement with the outside world.
During the final years of his tenure as Magister Ludi, Knecht reacquaints himself with Designori. Their conversations raise old questions about the spiritual value of the outside world. After many discussions, Knecht receives permission from the order’s board of directors to visit Designori at his home. There he meets Designori’s wife and his son Tito. After the visit, Knecht realizes that his service to the order is now at an end, and he wishes to go into the world and serve as a tutor to Tito. He writes a circular letter to the hierarchy, pointing out the dangers of the hubris of the order and its vulnerability to destruction both from within—arguments among themselves over spiritual practices—and from without—the order’s inability to meet the intellectual challenges of the world. Knecht’s letter also expresses his desire to step down from his position as Magister Ludi, a request the board denies.
The next morning, Knecht meets with Magister Alexander and explains to him his calling to the outside world. Knecht knows in his heart how much Castalia has lost touch with the feelings and emotions of the world, and he must leave to bring the lessons of Castalia into the world, where they can continue to grow and thrive. He leaves Alexander the next morning, defecting from the order, and proceeds to the Designori house to begin his new commitment.
Knecht finds that Tito already has left for the mountain house where they will conduct lessons. Knecht leaves for the house as well. The following morning Tito jumps into the nearby lake for a swim; Knecht, already weakened from his journey and illness, plunges into the icy lake to join Tito for a swim. He drowns. Tito, feeling responsible for the master’s death, has a sudden premonition of his future and the great demands that his new knowledge of life and death will place on his life.
The Glass Bead Game is Hesse’s masterpiece. He wrote it over a period of eleven years (1932 to 1943), during a time when the world seemed bent on self-destruction. Because The Glass Bead Game is, among other things, an urgent plea for an all-embracing humanitarianism, it has a more didactic tone and a more explicit linkage with spiritual ideas from the past. The result is a book subject to many interpretations. On one level it restates Hesse’s belief in the individual’s ability to attain perfection and to help others by serving as an example, creating an eternal circle of master and disciple. By affirming faith in the individual’s perfectibility and will to serve, Hesse implies his belief in the coming of a better humanity that will conquer chaos and barbarity.
For many readers, the significance of The Glass Bead Game lies in the synthesis that it represents in Hesse’s art and life. It is the work in which he reaffirms most strongly his belief in the Kingdom of the Spirit, seeing in the Game an eternal approach to this Kingdom. The central figure’s name, (Josef) Knecht, means “servant” in German, suggesting that his purpose is to serve the hierarchy. His ultimate service is as supreme Magister Ludi, an office he holds for eight years, but he is plagued by doubts from the beginning. Slowly he realizes that he is aware of the polarities of the light World of the Father (Castalia) and the dark World of the Mother (the outside world). Knecht harbors two opposing feelings within his breast—one toward service to the Order, the other toward “awakening.”
The irrational strain grows. As with Goldmund, it is the artist in him that desires liberation. When he does decide to leave the Order, the reason he gives is that he fears that devotion to the spiritual life in seclusion from the world leads to degeneration, that the glass bead game is nothing but an esoteric play as pastime. He prefers to become a Castalian teacher in the outside world. Not long after Knecht leaves Castalia in his quest for self-fulfillment, he drowns in an icy lake one morning right at sunrise. Hesse himself saw Knecht’s death as a sacrifice made to free Tito, his pupil, to take up Knecht’s cause. This affirmative conclusion is symbolized by the way Tito takes up the robe Knecht has left behind and puts it on after Knecht’s death.
By writing The Glass Bead Game, Hesse tried to achieve mainly two goals: to build a spiritual realm in which he himself could live and breathe in spite of the poisoning of the world around him and to strengthen the resistance of his German friends against the barbaric powers under which they had to suffer. In order to create this spiritual realm, however, it was not enough to return to the past or to dwell on the present. Instead it became necessary for Hesse to project his ideas into the future, when the unbearable present would have become history. The utopian character of the novel, therefore, is not a gimmick but a need to view the present from a clearer perspective.