Last week I reviewed Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education. There’s a lot going on in the book which I won’t rehash here, but one of the main things that stuck out to me as inspiring and wonderful, was the school itself, that is to say, The Scholomance.
Yes. The heartless, soulless, emotionless, a-bunch-of-other-things-that-end-in-less, mystical meat-grinder of a university that tried so hard to end our beloved heroine at every turn was perhaps the most amazing (and definitely my favorite) part of the novel . . .
I guess I’m an academic after all.
But seriously, I was pretty much in awe of Novik for the realization of this place, because as I read further into the book, and learned more about The Scholomance, I realized that what she had created was actually an Aristotelian ideal of existence. The Eudaimonia Machine . . .
Only, ya know, twisted and evil.
So what the hell am I talking about? I’ll tell you, but first a little history lesson:
The Little History Lesson:
So this lesson will be taught in two parts. First a little background on the term Scholomance itself, and then on to the Eudaimonia machine. Here we go!
Wtf is a Scholomance
So The Scholomance is the school in A Deadly Education which all the wizards and witches attend to learn magic which will (hopefully) help them survive in the real world which is apparently filled with Maleficaria (monsters, demons, what-have-you) which are just dying to eat everyone, all the time. It’s horrible and cruel, and seemingly more people die during their tenure than graduate but hey, that’s the world we live in . . . err the world they live in.
When I first picked up the novel and the school was termed Scholomance, the name seemed vaguely familiar, but no references came to mind readily. After I was finished reading, I googled a bit and found that apparently, the term Scholomance comes from the Romanian word Şolomanţă, and was rumored to be a school in Transylvania which was fabled to teach black magic. Students were purported to learn:
“all the secrets of nature, the language of animals, and all imaginable magic spells and charms.”Transylvanian Superstitions by Emily Gerard. pg. 136. Found at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/52165/52165-h/52165-h.htm
It was also said that the school was run by the Devil who taught there and that only ten students were admitted at a time, and when the class graduated, one was held behind as the Devil’s aide de camp. This lucky (or perhaps luckless) soul would ride around on a dragon that controls the weather.
I suppose if there are Dragons involved, Novik would know about it.
Perhaps The Scholomance’s most famous portrayal outside of Romanian myth and legend, was Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It is thought that Stoker read Emily Gerard’s Transylvanian Superstitions and much of the folklore cited there is what inspired the novel. The Scholomance is only mentioned twice however by name (so says wikipedia).
As much as my literary mind would love to believe that I somehow remembered one, or both, of these two measly references in Dracula, the reality of the situation is I’ve only read the book once, and it was for class so I probably retained only exactly what I needed for my paper. The more likely scenario is that I remembered it from World of Warcraft. In that game, The Scholomance, was a castle like school in which the undead baddie Kel’Thuzad trained his necromancers. It was apparently a pretty high level dungeon so I likely never actually ran it, but I definitely would have seen all the ads for it . . .
And a Eudaimonia Machine?
Now this, is where things get even more interesting. The Eudaimonia Machine.
In the work of Aristotle, Eudaimonia is referenced as ‘happiness’, ‘welfare’, or ‘human flourishing and prosperity’ (certainly different then the Scholomance). Architect and entrepreneur David Dewane has thought a lot about these things and wondered what it might mean for people to reach such a state and how. He says:
“eudaimonia for a knife is being sharp and cutting. If it’s dull or just lying on the counter, it’s not achieving its highest state. So what is that for a human?”https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/story-new-york-eudaimonia-machine-david-dewane-optimal-work-space
For him, it would seem eudaimonia involves “deep work”, or the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. Some might say . . . Flow. Dewane feels it’s your environment that allows you to achieve eudaimonia. No surprise then, that an architect would set out to design a building which helps achieve this state.
James Matheson, someone I found on Medium, has a good post describing the concept, but the idea is basically that as you complete your work day, you are able to handle less and less distraction, and so you should change your environment accommodate that fatigue. The building ends up having the following five rooms (or maybe levels . . .):
- Gallery – Where you enter the machine. It’s probably the most crowded level as it’s where everyone comes for inspiration and to talk. This level has examples of work created at the higher levels, placed to give you a bit of positive peer pressure.
- Salon – A bar or maybe a coffee shop. It has good seating and is an area where you can hang and literally chew things out with your peers
- Library – A library. All of the work produced in ‘the machine’ will be recorded, and accessible to you here. It’s where you will begin to gain the knowledge you use for your work.
- Office – Areas for meetings and ‘shallow work’. This is where you work out the finer points of your strategy and everything in order.
- Chambers – Where the rubber hits the road so to speak. This is where the work happens. Total focus. Crush it.
There is a point to all this I swear (possibly spoilers ahead)
So lets take a look at the five levels of The Sholomance as realized in A Deadly Education. The are: The Library, The Cafeteria, Language Halls, Classrooms, Shop & Special Classrooms.
Now let’s see how well those map onto our machine:
- The Library – A library. This is the first level of the Scholomance. It’s the ‘safest’ level. Students come here to study, talk, hang out. Instead of positive peer pressure, of the Eudaimonia Machine’s Gallery, there is the more negative peer pressure of the fact that if a student doesn’t get a spot, they’ll be forced to study on one of the more dangerous floors.
- The Cafeteria – Where the food is. Students sit, eat, kill whatever tiny Mals hide in the pudding. It’s a good chance to shore up alliances and hash out trades with your peers
- Language Halls – Where the languages are learned. Since language is essentially the basis of spell casting in this universe, it’s important to study up. In the language hall is where students really learn the foundations of what they’ll cast later on.
- Classrooms – Students probably shouldn’t be heading to any of the previous levels alone, but now it’s really getting dangerous. Especially if the room is empty. But once other students arrive, it is mostly safe. A lot of the subjects learned here are seemingly busy work (shallow work?), but sometimes there are a few rare gems which come through. Students often collaborate with their alliances to get the work done, or get the details worked out for projects they’ll pursue on the final level. (also no teachers! could probably write a whole other post on that, but I won’t. I’m getting tired.)
- Shop & Special Classrooms – These are some of the most dangerous parts of The Scholomance, but also where the real work gets done. In the shop, students create magical artifacts such as magic mirrors, or mana sharers. Whatever they need to survive the end of the year.
We Made it!
So obviously, the Scholomance doesn’t map one-for-one onto Dewane’s Eudaimonia Machine, but I couldn’t help but think that it seemed to fit pretty well as a kind of riff or reversal of the concept. Instead of creating an environment which progressively gets rid of distraction to allow someone to achieve the pinnacle of their capability, The Scholomance is designed specifically to progressively introduce distractions (in the form of bigger and badder mals) so that the students won’t live long enough to do so.
The irony here is, I get the distinct impression that despite all of the danger and distraction present within The Scholomance, I do believe our heroine, El (short for the back half of Galadriel), truly flourished through the course of her adventure, and possibly even found some semblance of those Aristotelian virtues, prosperity and happiness.
We’ll see what her next year holds . . .
I’m impressed you made it this far. Thanks for sticking with it. If you have thoughts or other connections, please leave em in the comments section.
Hey again, I hope you enjoyed On The Scholomance as a twisted, evil Eudaimonia Machine. If you’re at all interested in reading more of my writing, or what goes into my own stories, I’ve started a newsletter (which is hopefully released quarterly) so people can get a more “behind the scenes” look of what I’m doing and what’s going on in my world. Please consider subscribing. Just for signing up, I’ll email you the first story I ever wrote, about a Warlock Doctor. Fun times. Thanks again!
See you next time!
This is really interesting, and I may just have to reread the book with this info in mind!