Students of The Game:
See you, here is the Black Stone,
Here is the Gold Stone.
The nearest comparison I can make to The Glass Bead Game is Neal Stephenson's Anathem, at least in the broad strokes of concepts. Both deal with secular monasteries, communities of intellectual ascetics living apart, in elite & idyllic worlds. While Anathem is perhaps more committed to the conceit, & then goes on to turn into a rollicking adventure novel staring outcast monks, The Glass Bead Game (also known as Magister Ludi) turns inward. It involves the Master of the Glass Bead Game, as his search for spiritual meaning takes him into the life of a Castilian, up in the ranks of the Order, & finally out. Castilian! What a perfect word for the secular monks, how apt & concise; Castalia & castillo. The eponymous Glass Bead Game is...well, rather like being a Dungeon Master, it turns out. It is meme control, it is a forerunner of what we might call an analog computer-- set in the future of 1943, what Hesse imagined to be the 25th Century, it misses the rise of the machine (25, 32). It is a synthesis of all culture, all art, all music, all math-- the Glass Bead Game is played by manipulating symbols, a language that encompasses the totality of the pure intellectual pursuits, often following a theme or attempting perfect elegance. It is worldbuilding, perfected. The Dungeons & Dragons comparison only becomes stronger when you note the younger Castilians perchant for creating "Lives," moments of history told through the fictional eyes of a person from that moment in history (113). In order to illuminate a subject they create a character, a back story, immerse themselves in language & mannerism. I frankly rather adored the book. I've said before that people should be aware that Fantasy novels actually do fairly well when it comes to the Nobel Prize-- Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude is an excellent example of a Fantasy novel that received wide acclaim. So it is with The Glass Bead Game & Science Fiction; the Nobel in 1946 went to Hesse for it, & that is a victory for the genre.
Women are absent, in the novel. Or all but. The Castilians are celibate, but not chaste-- that is, marriage is forbidden, but not sex (112). Despite that note, there is no discussion of romance, of liaisons, of...well, women at all. Even when the protagonist talks to his friend in the outside world, his wife is invisible-- he speaks about his father-in-law long before finally making note of his wife's existence-- & even then, she remains a spectre (322, 327). This is slightly remedied in the apocryphal "Lives," which may offer insight into the Castilian system as divided from the rest of the world-- one of the over arching themes of the book. The male characters, however, are deeply explored. Our protagonist, Joseph Knecht, is brilliant but not especially so for the ranks of the Order. His dominant traits are his brute charisma-- which he struggles not to abuse-- & his search for deeper spiritual meaning. Knecht strives for the center, not the periphery-- he is Hesse's secular saint (82). His friend Fritz Tegularius is brilliant, but damaged-- he will never truly move up in the Chinese bureaucracy of Castilia because of his moods. I mentioned beatification-- The Music Master in fact embodies it, wholesale. Plinio Designori is Joseph's friend in the outside world, a vibrant boy who grows into a troubled & divided man, embodying the struggle between the contemplative & life (237). Father Jacobus is unfair but willing to offer an olive branch & above all has a sense of humor-- his wry jokes about the Book of Revelation had me laughing as I read on the train (166).