The Small Black Box of Morality by Eleanor Arnason

These pieces are used by permission of the author. They appeared in the 10th Anniversary edition of Tales of the Unanticipated, a small-press magazine published by the Minnesota Science Fiction Society, and edited by Eric M. Heideman.

Eleanor Arnason was interviewed in TOTU #1 and contributed a poem to that issue. Since then, she’s been a frequent contributor of fiction and poetry to our pages. Meanwhile, her reputation as a science fiction and fantasy novelist has grown substantially. Here’s a creation myth told by the bearlike hwarhath extraterrestrials of Arnason’s novel, Ring of Swords. For more information on the hwarhath, see the bibliography following the story.
The Small Black Box of Morality

by Eleanor Arnason

After the Goddess created the world, she went off to do other things. In time, it occurred to her that she would like to see how the world was doing. So she hiked up her robe and fastened it and crossed the universe with long quick strides, coming at last to the right place.

The world was there, exactly where she had left it. Everything on it flourished, and all the plants and animals behaved as she had intended.

This gave her pleasure, and she decided to spend some time admiring her handiwork. She let down her robe and refastened her belt and stepped out of the sky.

Back and forth she went, over mountains and valleys, across wide prairies and into the ocean. She examined everything and muttered words of praise and self-congratulation. But finally it occurred to her that something was missing.

“None of my plants and animals have any judgment. They can’t discriminate. They don’t know right from wrong. My world needs morality,” the Goddess said.

She took a handful of darkness and shaped it into a box. Into the box she put the ability to tell right from wrong.

Where did she get this ability? Out of herself.

In some versions of the story, this wisdom came from her mouth. It was a small animal that rested on her tongue, and she spat the animal into the box. In other versions, she put blood into the box or milk from her upper left breast. Still other versions claim that she took out her right eye and pulled morality out of her brain through the empty socket. She put the eye back in, but it never saw as sharply after that.

When people behave in a wrong and unjust fashion and get away with it, they are said to live “on the right side of the Goddess.”

Wherever it came from, moral judgment was in the box, and the Goddess set out to find someone who wanted her gift.

She went to the trees first. Of all her creatures, they were the least violent and had the most dignity. But they were happy with their slow lives. “Why should we worry about right and wrong? These ideas sound like the chattering animals who live in our branches. They bother us as much as we are willing to be bothered. Leave us, Great Mother, to what you have already given us: sunlight and starlight and rain.”

Next she offered her gift to the little plants that covered the ground. But they were happy with their quick lives. “We grow. We flower. We make seeds and die. Surely that’s enough, Great Mother. Don’t ask us to think as well.”

The Goddess turned to her animals. They were all satisfied with What they had already. The predators praised the teeth and claws she had given them. The herd animals praised their homs and quick feet. The sneaky animals were happy with being sneaky. The animals who were good at hiding thanked her for this skill. No one wanted judgment. They all said, “You have provided for us splendidly. We aren’t greedy. We don’t need anything else.”

Finally the Goddess came to the first people. There were only two of them, a woman and a man. The woman was named First Woman. The man was named First Man. At that time, they had no tools and no knowledge of fire. They were not yet hunters. Instead, they wandered through the world looking for things to eat that were small and slow: roots in the ground, bugs and worms. It was a miserable life.

All the fine and handsome animals had turned her down,.so the Goddess made her offer to First Woman and First Man.

They listened to her, First Man frowned and looked unhappy. As bad as his life was, he was used to it. Morality was an innovation. That bothered him.

But First Woman said, “It’s worth a try. As animals go, we aren’t much to speak of. We are small and slow and lack the abilities that other animals have. We aren’t even attractive. Look at the fur that covers us! It’s a very ordinary shade of grey, and it isn’t especially thick or soft or glossy. Many animals have coats that are much handsomer.

“The same is true of every part of us. Our teeth can’t tear like the teeth of a predator, and they can’t grind like the teeth of an animal that grazes. Our nails are blunt. We can’t see half as well as that hunting bird in the sky.”

“Where? Where?” asked First Man and peered upward.

First Woman ignored him. “Our hearing is not especially keen. Our sense of smell is worse than our sense of hearing.

“If we take this gift which the Great Mother has offered us, at least we’ll be different. And maybe the Goddess will take an interest in us. Maybe she will help us now and then.”

First Man scratched his crotch and picked his nose and tried to think of an argument. But nothing came to him, since he lacked judgment and discrimination.

So the woman held out her hand, and the Great Mother put the small black box of morality on her palm.
The woman opened the box, though it wasn’t easy, since she lacked judgment and had never seen a box before. Inside was the ability to think about ideas. She took it out and divided it. Since she was bigger than the man, she took the piece that was larger and ate it greedily.

First Man turned his piece over and over and sniffed it and touched it with the tip of his tongue.

By this time, the woman had judgment, and she knew that it hadn’t been a good idea to take the bigger piece, since it meant that First Man would always have a less good sense of morality. But what’s done is done.

“Eat it up,” she said, and praised the wonderful flavor of the thing and how full she was now and how satisfied she felt. This was not all entirely true, but she knew that people had no future, unless both sexes could tell right from wrong.

Finally, the man ate his piece of morality.

“What happens after this ought to be interesting,” said the Goddess.

“The Small Black Box of Morality,” yet another hwarhath story, has just been reprinted in WOMEN OF OTHER WORLDS, a Wiscon anthology published by an Australian university press.


hwarhath Bibliography


Ring of Swords (Tor Books, 1993)

Hearth World. Set 15 years after Ring of Swords.
Mostly about Nicky Sanders’s niece Yolanda and her adventures on the hwarhath home planet.

In Progress
Dark Goddess. Set five years after Hear th World. The final novel about Nicky Sanders, Ettin Gwarha, and Anna Pere.


These are all written as if they are works of hwarhath fiction, translated by human scholars. The plan is to create an alien literature, at the point when the culture that has produced the literature begins to change, influenced by what the hwarhath have learned about humanity.

“The Hound of Merin, Xanadu I (Tor Books, 1993). This is a hwarhath historical romance.

“The Semen Thief,” Amazing, 68 (9) Winter 1994. A hwarhath folk tale.

“The Lovers,” Asimov’s Science Fiction, 18 (8) July 1994. Another historical romance.

“The Gauze Banner” has been sold to the second Amazing anthology, due out from Tor. This is a hwarhath “lying” myth.

Other stories are in’progress or planned, including at least one example of hwarhath science fiction.