(If you read one post from my blog, it shouldn’t be this one. Also, serious Unsong spoilers.)
Unsong’s Comet King is something of an indulgent caricature, implausibly determined and noble and capable. But if I put aside the desire to be respectable, I can enjoy indulgent caricatures.
This post presents some Unsong excerpts that touch on the Comet King’s character and fate, in chronological order.
- Thamiel is the facet of God that governs Hell. In the Unsong universe, Hell is straightforwardly evil and horrifying.
- The Comet King (whose given name is Jalaketu) is the son of the Archangel Raziel. He is single-mindedly focused on dismantling Hell.
As a child, proposing to confront the demons marching across the American west [ch. 29]:
“Jala, this is unsafe!”
“Yes, Uncle. We must make it safe.”
“Somebody has to and no one else will.”
Upon meeting Thamiel shortly later [ch. 29]:
“If this were a story,” Jalaketu continued, “and you were challenged by just one boy, wielding a sword made from a fallen star, here because he wouldn’t abandon his homeland – do you think it would end well for you? For the demon?”
“Are you going to ask for my surrender?” snarled Thamiel.
“No,” said Jala. “There is no surrender I can accept. If you left Colorado, I would follow you. If you left America, I would hunt you down. Even if you left the world entirely and returned to Hell, I could not allow this.”
Discussing a controversial plan with his advisors [ch. 35]:
“Proper?” asked the Comet King. “I come to you with a plan to fight off Hell and save the world, and you tell me it isn’t proper?”
Vihaan stared at the priest, as if begging him to step in. “I swear,” said Father Ellis, “it’s like explaining the nature of virtue to a rock”.
“Do you know,” interrupted Jalaketu, “that whenever it’s quiet, and I listen hard, I can hear them? The screams of everybody suffering. In Hell, around the world, anywhere. I think it is a power of the angels which I inherited from my father.” He spoke calmly, without emotion. “I think I can hear them right now.”
Ellis’ eyes opened wide. “Really?” he asked. “I’m sorry. I didn’t…”
“No,” said the Comet King. “Not really.”
They looked at him, confused.
“No, I do not really hear the screams of everyone suffering in Hell. But I thought to myself, ‘I suppose if I tell them now that I have the magic power to hear the screams of the suffering in Hell, then they will go quiet, and become sympathetic, and act as if that changes something.’ Even though it changes nothing. Who cares if you can hear the screams, as long as you know that they are there? So maybe what I said was not fully wrong. Maybe it is a magic power granted only to the Comet King. Not the power to hear the screams. But the power not to have to.”
Speaking with Thamiel [ch. 43]:
“If humanity was good, if even the tiniest, most miniscule fraction of humanity was good, God would have saved Sodom. Abraham asked Him that, and He agreed, because He knew it was the easiest bargain He’d ever make. A bet without risk.”
“Lot was good,” said the Comet King.
“One man whose name means ‘a multitude’. That is the kabbalistic lesson: a single good man is equivalent to a multitude of good men. Because he can convince others, set up incentives, build institutions, drag the rest of the world kicking and screaming. If I had been with Abraham, I would not have stopped at ten people. I would have told God to save the city for the sake of one righteous man, and God would have done it, because one man can be a great multitude when kabbalistically necessary.”
“And then what? Fine. You convince God to save Sodom. And what do you get? A city full of Sodomites. The scum of the earth. Worms and maggots infesting the world. And now they’ll never stop, because you showed them they’ll never face punishment for their crimes. They’re all yours. What does it gain you?”
“I keep them from you,” said Jalaketu.
“I’m telling the truth when I say I don’t like you,” said Thamiel. “Please don’t believe this is one of those times where the Devil always lies and you can’t trust him. I really don’t like you and I am really looking forward to the part a few years from now where God gives me the advantage over you and you end up wholly in my power. Remember that.”
“I remember,” said the Comet King.
Responding to his future wife’s marriage proposal [ch. 47]:
“I accept,” said the Comet King. “My uncle Vihaan is in the third floor library. He manages my schedule. Ask him when a good time for the wedding would be.”
Without a word, Robin got up from the table and headed towards the stairwell.
Jalaketu toyed with his olive for another moment, then popped it in his mouth and walked out the door into the atrium. Father Ellis saw him and rose to his feet in a rage.
“SEVEN MINUTES, JALA. THAT WAS SEVEN MINUTES AND FOURTEEN SECONDS. YOU PROMISED ME TEN. I WANT YOU TO GO BACK IN THERE AND…”
“Father, I need your help.”
The anger evaporated from the priest’s face. “What’s wrong, Jala?”
“The girl. Robin. She told me that marriage and relationships were a waste of the time I should be spending planning my war against Hell. She offered to marry me, serve as my public face, and leave me alone completely in order to free me from the burden. I said yes. She and Vihaan will plan the wedding. You’ll need to officiate, of course.
“God damn it, Jala! I wanted to humanize you, and instead you found somebody just as defective as yourself. You’ll get nothing out of it, she’ll get nothing out of it, and you’re going to miss your chance at something natural and important just to get someone who will pose for photo ops once in a while.”
“No, Father, I need your help.”
“Why? What is it?”
“Father, I think I’m in love.”
Speaking to his daughter, unsuccessfully trying to take her home from danger [ch. 36]:
“Sohu,” said the Comet King, “before you and your sisters and brother were born, I thought of you as strategic assets. I told Father Ellis I would make an army of you. He said that was wrong. Then – your eldest sister, Nathanda. She was the first. When I saw her, I…Father Ellis talks of goodness as something burning and beautiful. I told him he was wrong, that goodness was something cold and crystalline. But when I saw Nathanda, for the first time I understood what it meant to see goodness the way that Father Ellis did. Terribly hot, and too bright to look upon directly. Then I knew as long as she was alive I did not need to worry any further about staying human. I had caught humanity and wrapped it around me tightly like a mantle. All thoughts of sending you off as an army vanished. You’re not a pawn – or at least you’re not only a pawn – you’re my daughter. And I will not let any harm come to you.”
“But Father. You’re always telling us that we need to think of what’s best for the world.”
“Yes,” said the Comet King. “So consider this: If anyone harms you, even the littlest cut or scrape, I will come against them as fire and night. I will destroy them and their people, uproot everything they have built, wipe them utterly from the Earth. […] What is best for the world is that I not do that. That is why I am taking you home, Sohu.”
Counseling the Archangel Uriel, who maintains the physical world [ch. 36]:
“No one keeps winning forever. And when I break, I’ll do what comets do. Shatter into fragments, but stay locked on the same path, so that only the most careful astronomers can even tell they’re broken. And that’s what you need to do, Uriel. We need your help.”
“HUMANS DON’T LIKE ME.”
“Humans dislike many things humanity needs.”
“I AM NOT GOOD AT ANYTHING.”
“You are good at one thing. You run the universe. That is enough. We need a universe. No one has to be good at everything.”
“YOU ARE GOOD AT EVERYTHING.”
“Not everything. I cannot run the universe. That is where you come in. And my daughter.”
“SHE IS VERY GOOD. SHE IS LEARNING QUICKLY.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“I WILL NOT HURT HER.”
“No, I don’t think you will.” He sighed. “But you need to be more careful. Both of you. Uriel, stay away from humans. They are ungrateful. They are foolish. They are cannibalistic. You and I, we are similar. Too similar. We take the straight paths. Try to do things right, damn the consequences. Humans are not like that. They manipulate the social world, the world of popularity and offense and status, with the same ease that you manipulate the world of nature. But not to the same end. There is no goal for them, nothing to be maintained, just the endless twittering of I’m-better-than-you and how-dare-you-say-that. You are no good at that, and you will never be any good at that, and if you were good at that you would not be good at what you need to be good at. We are similar, Uriel, deep down, but leave humans to me. That is my burden. The world is yours. The world, and training my daughter.”
Searching for Metatron, the highest archangel [ch. 22]:
Five years ago, the Comet King had set out to find God. Not in the way where you live a life of humility and prayer. In the way where you need a really fast boat.
It was the height of his power, the age when he held sway over the whole American West and parts of Mexico. His ambitions soared to the conquest of Hell itself, to break the power of the Devil and release his victims from their eternal torture. But defeating Hell would take more than mortal weapons. It would take the Shem haMephorash, the true explicit Name of God, the Name which allowed the speaker to destroy and remake worlds. It was the Name that God had spoken during the Creation, the Name that would blare from the Last Trumpet
The Comet King sought Metatron. High above the world, his spy satellites sought the telltale golden sails of his boat. From sea to shining sea, his submarines and destroyers kept watch. Nothing.
So he decided he was doing things wrong. Finding God wasn’t the sort of thing you did with a spy satellite or a submarine. It was the sort of thing you did on a quest. So he built himself a ship. A superfast yacht with seven sails, six from the colors of the rainbow and one jet-black. Every beam and mast built with strange magics only he knew. He called it All Your Heart, because it is written in Jeremiah: “You will seek God and find Him when you seek with all your heart.” Then he left the kingdom in the hands of his daughter Nathanda and left from Puerto Penasco in search of Metatron.
Six months later, he returned. When they asked if he had found Metatron, he said yes. When they asked if he had learned the Name, he said yes. When they asked for details, he said no.
Before beginning the march to Hell [ch. 54]:
“The astronomers used to say comets are unpredictable,” said Robin. “That everything in the heavens keeps its own orbit except the comet. Which follows no rules, knows no path.”
“They are earthbound,” said the Comet King. “Seen from Earth, a comet is a prodigy, coming out of the void for no reason, returning to the void for no reason. They call it unpredictable because they cannot predict it. From the comet’s own point of view, nothing could be simpler. It starts in the outer darkness, aims directly at the sun, and never stops till it gets there. Everything else spins in its same orbit forever. The comet heads for the source. They call it crooked because it is too straight. They call it unpredictable because it is too fixed. They call it chaotic because it is too linear.”
He hesitated for a moment.
“That is why I love you, you know. In a world of circles, you are something linear.”
She said nothing, just kept tracing patterns on his chest.
“A few months to reach Yakutsk,” he said. “A few months to get back. The work itself shouldn’t take more than a few moments. I will see you again by the winter.”
Sleep came to them there, together, for the last time.
Upon realizing that he cannot destroy Hell [ch. 55]:
“Why would God do that? Why would He make a universe where the one thing it is absolutely one hundred percent morally obligatory to do is totally impossible, even if you do everything right, even if you get a weapon capable of destroying worlds themselves, who does that sort of thing?”
“GOD,” said Uriel. “HE DOES MANY THINGS THAT ARE HARD TO EXPLAIN. I AM SURPRISED YOU HAVE NOT REALIZED THIS BY NOW.”
“Who creates suffering that can never end? Who makes people, tells them to do the right thing, then pulls the rug out from under them when they try? I was supposed to be His sword, Uriel! I was Moshiach! He forged me, He and my father, put me through all of those trials so I could be worthy to be here today. Who forges a weapon like that and then keeps it sheathed? Why would God do that?”
“I AM GOING TO TAKE YOU OUT OF HERE NOW. I AM SURE YOU CAN FIGHT ME OFF IF YOU WANTED TO BUT I WOULD REALLY APPRECIATE IT IF YOU DID NOT TRY.”
The archangel reached out a gigantic hand and grabbed the Comet King. Then he rocketed upwards, fiery sword outstretched above him, clearing the smoke from their path. The darkness began to thin. A sense of orientation returned. At last a rush of information hit all of Jalaketu’s senses at once and he realized he was out of the pit, back above the earthly Lake Baikal.
His men started to cheer. Some of them blew horns. A few started singing verses from the Battle Hymn. His heart sank. They think I succeeded, he thought to himself. Of course they think I succeeded. I’m the Comet King, here I am shooting out of the Abyss alive, being carried by an archangel, of course they think I succeeded. “No!” he shouted at the armies. “Stop! I failed! I couldn’t do it! I couldn’t destroy Hell! You brought me all this way, you trusted me, and I couldn’t do it! It’s all gone wrong! Stop singing! Stop singing! Stop!”
Most of them couldn’t hear him, but a few caught the gist of his message. One by one, the songs wavered, but they didn’t die, his men still singing, sure that there must be something worth singing about. A few cried out, or raised banners, or started cheering on general principle.
“Don’t bring me back to them,” the Comet King said, almost sobbing. “Take me somewhere else…can’t face them, just now.”
Discussing his failure during a brief meeting with his wife [ch. 56]:
“I think it might be impossible to use the Explicit Name of God to destroy Hell,” he said all at once.
“What?” asked Robin.
“I tried,” said the Comet King. “Many times. Under Lake Baikal. Uriel had to stop me. Said if I did it any more I’d probably destroy the world. There were more gates than we thought. Some of them are…seem impregnable.”
“So how are you going to destroy Hell, then?” asked Robin.
The Comet King just looked at her hopelessly, almost like he was too terrified to speak. Then he just shook his head ‘no’.
“Ask the Lady. Or the Chief Rabbi of Israel. Ask the Satmar Rebbe, or the Belzer Rebbe. Or ask the Pope, maybe he’ll know.”
“Ask the Dividend Monks. Go to San Francisco and ask the collective consciousness there.”
“I asked,” said the Comet King, and for the first time through her own confusion Robin heard the note of despair in his voice.
“Ask the other chief rabbi! Aren’t there always two? Ask the…”
The Comet King put his arms around Robin and whispered “I’m sorry”.
“No. Figure something out. Can’t you just…be really evil? Then die? That has to work. It’s not even Thamiel’s law. It’s God’s.”
“I asked Uriel,” said the Comet King. “He said it wouldn’t work. Doing evil for a greater good, because I want to save the world. It wouldn’t count.”
Talking with his wife four months later, after his return home [ch. 68]:
She looked around. The familiar objects of their bedroom. The spruce desk. The woven blankets. The painting of the Rocky Mountains. And now he was here with her. She started to cry.
The furrows on his brow deepened.
“Jala, I’ve done something terrible.”
“We can fix it.”
“I know we can.”
“Then don’t cry. Tell me.”
She gulped, took in a deep breath. “I sold my soul to Thamiel.”
It hit him. It hit him like an asteroid hits a planet, killing all life, boiling away the seas, a giant sterilizing wave of fire. “Robin…you…no…how…no…” and just like that the human part of him disappeared, was consumed, his eyes flashed with white fire, what had once seemed like hair stretched out behind him like the tail of a comet, the air turned cold, the room turned grey, the lights turned off, he stood there, raw, celestial, enraged.
“THIS IS NOT HOW IT ENDS!” he shouted, less at her than at everything. “NO. YOU CAN’T DO THIS. THIS. IS. NOT. HOW. IT. ENDS.”
“No,” she said. “It ends with you rescuing me from Hell. After however long it takes. I don’t know how you’ll do it, but I know it will be something wonderful.”
“THIS! IS! NOT! HOW! IT! ENDS!”
“Jala,” she said, “come off it. I have until sunset tonight with you. Don’t shout. Don’t say anything. Just sit here and be with me.”
The light came back to the room. The flames trailing behind him settled into snow-white hair. The unearthly light almost left his eyes.
“Will you stay with me for the next,” she looked at her watch “hour and and forty minutes?”
He hugged her.
“I’ll stay,” he said.
An hour and forty minutes later, Thamiel swaggered through the big spruce wood door with a gigantic grin on his tiny face, “Well!” he said, “It looks like we…”
The Comet King had his hands around the demon’s neck in an instant. “Listen,” he said. “I know the rules as well as you do. Take her. But as God is my witness, the next time we meet face to face I will speak a Name, and you and everything you have created will be excised from the universe forever, and if you say even a single unnecessary word right now I will make it hurt.”
The grin disappeared from the demon’s face.
“You can’t harm me,” said Thamiel. “I am a facet of God.”
“I will recarve God without that facet,” said the Comet King.
Discussing the Shem haMephorash with Metatron [ch. 49]:
“YOU ARE LOST IN DARKNESS,” said Metatron.
“So is the moon,” said the Comet King, “and so much the worse for the darkness.”
“YET YOU BEAR WITHIN YOU THE MOST HOLY NAME, WHICH MAY NEVER BE DESECRATED.”
“I earned it,” said the Comet King. “You gave it to me.”
“NOW I AM GOING TO TAKE IT BACK.”
“You can’t take it back!”
“I need it!”
“THE EXPLICIT NAME MAY ONLY BE BORNE IN A PURE MIND.”
The Archangel Metatron stared at him. No one, not even the Comet King, could stare down the Archangel Metatron.
“I’m angry, and I’m heartbroken, and I’m empty inside. But I’m pure.”
The Archangel Metatron did not get flustered. The Archangel Metatron did not work that way.
“THE SANCTITY OF THE NAME WILL BE PRESERVED. I WILL GIVE IT BACK TO YOU WHEN YOU ARE READY.”
Celebrating Passover with his children [ch. 18]:
The Comet King spoke first, barely above a whisper. “Why are we doing this?”
His eldest daughter, Nathanda: “We’re doing this because you made us promise to help you stay human. This is what humans do. They celebrate holidays with their friends and families. Across thousands of years and thousands of miles, we’re all joined together, saying the same words, eating the same foods. Come on, Father. You know you need this.”
“I shouldn’t have come.” He started to stand, but Nathanda put her hand one one of his shoulders, Father Ellis on the other, and they gently guided him back to his chair.
Nathanda motioned to Sohu. She was the youngest by virtue of being perpetually eight years old. Sohu stood up.
“Why is this night different from all other nights?”
The Comet King said nothing. Sohu looked at the other Cometspawn, then at Father Ellis, then at Uncle Vihaan, waiting for someone to answer. All of them ended up looking at the Comet King. Finally, he spoke.
“On all other nights,” he said, “we remember that we failed. We remember that God does not answer prayers. We remember that those we love are still in bondage and can never be saved. Tonight, we lie.”
Over the next fifteen years, the Comet King becomes a tyrant and kills millions of people, including finally his children.
Explaining himself to the narrator, from whom he hopes to learn the explicit name of God [ch. 72]:
He pulled up a chair, not the throne, just another chair, sat right in front of me. “Seventeen years ago I tried to speak the Shem haMephorash and destroy Hell. I failed. I was too far. I thought I could fight my way to Lake Baikal, and then I’d be near Hell and I’d have a clear shot. It doesn’t work that way. Hell’s not just a place. It’s like Milton said – the mind can make a Heaven out of Hell, or a Hell of Heaven. I was in Hell, but I wasn’t of it.
Isaiah says that the Moshiach will be counted as the worst of sinners. I realized I wasn’t going to destroy Hell from the outside, but getting into Hell is easy. Millions do it every day. I could do the same. Wipe out a lifetime of accumulated good deeds through terror and oppression.
The only thing that stood in my way was my own conscience. I couldn’t accumulate sin in order to get into Hell. I’d be doing it for the greater good. That itself would make me unworthy of Hell. A perfect paradox.
I would have given up then except for Robin. She saved me. She sacrificed herself to give me a chance.
Do you understand what I’ve done? I didn’t become a genocidal tyrant to save the billions of souls in Hell. I did it to save her. Fifteen years of murder and oppression, and I never once thought about anyone else. And if there had not been a single soul in Hell besides hers, I would have spent those fifteen years just the same. Do you realize how wicked that is? I damned myself, Aaron. Where all my angelic powers failed, my human weakness succeeded.
Conquering the West was easy. Killing people…easy, once you…get used to it. But part of me always knew it wasn’t enough. A million lesser sins don’t sum up to abomination. There was still good in me. I didn’t want to kill my children. I thought I could avoid it, thought if I just committed enough other sins, or studied until I found a loophole, I might still avoid it.
“And here we are. They died screaming, just like I always knew they would.” He was quiet for a second. “I despise myself, Aaron. I despise myself and I want to die. I’m not worried about not going to Hell. I’m in Hell already.”
In his last moments, after recovering the explicit name of God [ch. 72]:
I saw the Comet King on his throne, holding his sword. Afraid, regretful, broken-hearted – any of a million things could have been holding him back. I thought of the old verse from the Rubaiyat, the same one I’d thought of when Ana read Job to us, long ago:
Oh, Thou who burns in Heart for those who burn
In Hell, whose fires thyself shall feed in turn;
How long be crying, ‘Mercy on them, God!’
Why, who art Thou to teach, and He to learn?
Then the Comet King muttered to himself, almost too soft to hear: “Somebody has to and no one else will” and he plunged the sword into his heart