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Gene Wolfe Essays

Here below is the beginning of my favorite essay on JRR Tolkien. It is by the author Gene Wolfe, who is the finest writer in any genre currently gracing our planet, and he happens to have selected, and expanded, the genre called science fiction to work his arts. I was fascinated by his insight into Tolkien, not to mention into our Lower Earth of which Middle Earth is an elevated reflection.

Because this essay disappeared from the reaches of the Internet for a time, I wish to reprint the opening here, and post to link to where the balance still might be found.

The full essay is here. http://www.thenightland.co.uk/MYWEB/wolfemountains.html

The Best Introduction to the Mountains

by Gene Wolfe


There is one very real sense in which the Dark Ages were the brightest of times, and it is this: that they were times of defined and definite duties and freedoms. The king might rule badly, but everyone agreed as to what good rule was. Not only every earl and baron but every carl and churl knew what an ideal king would say and do. The peasant might behave badly; but the peasant did not expect praise for it, even his own praise. These assertions can be quibbled over endlessly, of course; there are always exceptional persons and exceptional circumstances. Nevertheless they represent a broad truth about Christianized barbarian society as a whole, and arguments that focus on exceptions provide a picture that is fundamentally false, even when the instances on which they are based are real and honestly presented. At a time when few others knew this, and very few others understood its implications, J. R. R. Tolkien both knew and understood, and was able to express that understanding in art, and in time in great art.

That, I believe, was what drew me to him so strongly when I first encountered The Lord of the Rings. As a child I had been taught a code of conduct: I was to be courteous and considerate, and most courteous and most considerate of those less strong than I — of girls and women, and of old people especially. Less educated men might hold inferior positions, but that did not mean that they themselves were inferior; they might be (and often would be) wiser, braver, and more honest than I was. They were entitled to respect, and were to be thanked when they befriended me, even in minor matters. Legitimate authority was to be obeyed without shirking and without question. Mere strength (the corrupt coercion Washington calls power and Chicago clout) was to be defied. It might be better to be a slave than to die, but it was better to die than to be a slave who acquiesced in his own slavery. Above all, I was to be honest with everyone. Debts were to be paid, and my word was to be as good as I could make it.

With that preparation I entered the Mills of Mordor, where courtesy is weakness, honesty is foolishness, and cruelty is entertainment.

I was living in a club for men, a place much like a YMCA. I was thoroughly wretched in half a dozen ways (much more so than I had ever been in college or the Army), but for the first time in my life I had enough money to subscribe to magazines and even buy books in hardcover. Planet Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Weird Tales, and Famous Fantastic Mysteries — pulps I had read as a boy while hiding behind the candy counter in the Richmond Pharmacy — were gone; but Astounding Stories lingered as a digest-size magazine a bit less costly than most paperback books. There was also The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, put out by the same company that had published Curtains for the Copper and other Mercury Mysteries that my mother and I had devoured. I subscribed to both, and to any other magazines dealing with science fiction or fantasy that could locate.

Here I must do someone (quite likely the late Anthony Boucher) a grave injustice. I no longer recall who wrote the review I read in Fantasy & Science Fiction. It was a glowing review, and I would quote at length from it if I could. It convinced me then and there that I must read The Lord of the Rings. In those days (the middle 1950s, if you can conceive of a period so remote) the magazine offered books for sale — one might write enclosing a cheque, and receive the book one had ordered by mail. Accustomed as you are to ordering from Amazon.com, you will deride so primitive a system; but you have never been a friendless young man in a strange city far from home. Now that you have enjoyed yourself, please keep in mind that the big-box stores we are accustomed to did not exist. There was no cavernous Barnes & Noble stocking a thousand titles under Science Fiction and Fantasy, no two-tiered Borders rejoicing in a friendly coffee shop and a dozen helpful clerks. There were (if the city was large and one was lucky) one or two old-line book shops downtown; they carried bestsellers, classics like Anna Karenina, cookbooks, and books of local interest, with a smattering of other things, mostly humour and books about dogs. The city in which I was living also boasted a glorious used-book store, five floors and a cellar, in which one might find the most amazing things; but these things did not include science fiction or much fantasy — the few who were fortunate enough to own those books kept them. There may have been speciality shops already in New York; there very probably were. But if there were, they could not have specialized in fantasy or science fiction. Or in horror, for that matter. It was a surprise, a distinct departure from the usual publishing practices, whenever any such book appeared.

An example may make the reason clear. In 1939, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei had published twelve hundred copies of H. P. Lovecraft’s The Outsider and Others, at their own expense. Fanzines had publicized their effort widely and with enthusiasm; but selling those twelve hundred books, which cost three dollars and fifty cents before publication and five dollars after, took four years.

The copy of The Fellowship of the Ring that I received from Fantasy & Science Fiction lies on my desk as I write. It is, I suppose, the first American edition; it was issued in 1956 (the year in which I bought it) by the Houghton Mifflin Company of Boston. It is gold-stamped, and is bound in cloth the colour of slightly faded denim. Its elegant dust jacket vanished long ago, though I still recall it. Its back board holds a much-folded map of Middle-earth, sixteen inches on a side, showing among other places the Shire, the Lost Realm of Arnor, Mirkwood, the Brown Lands, Rohan, and Gondor. On its half-title there is now a quotation from Thoreau that I inscribed in blue ink many years ago. I give it because its presence on that slightly yellowed page should convey to you more of what this book meant to me in those days than anything that I might write in my little essay possibly could.

Our fabled shores none ever reach,
No mariner has found our beach,
Scarcely our mirage is seen,
And Neighbouring waves of floating green,
Yet still the oldest charts contain
Some dotted outline of our main.

You are not likely to believe me when I say that I still remember vividly, almost 50 years later, how strictly I disciplined myself with that book, forcing myself to read no more than a single chapter each evening. The catch, my out, the stratagem by which I escaped the bonds of my own law, was that I could read that chapter as many times as I wished; and that I could also return to the chapter I had read the night before, if I chose. There were evenings on which I reread the entire book up the point — The Council of Elrond, let us say — at which I had forced myself to stop.

Naturally I had sent for The Two Towers as soon as I could. Eventually it came, bound and typeset as beautifully as The Fellowship of the Ring, with the same map (I confess that I had hoped for something new) in its back. Just as I inscribed that quotation from Thoreau in Fellowship, I put one from Conrad Aiken on the half-title page of Two Towers:

There was an island in the sea
That out of immortal chaos reared
Towers of topaz, trees of pearl
For maidens adored and warriors feared.

Long ago it sunk in the sea;
And now, a thousand fathoms deep,
Sea worms above it whirl their lamps,
Crabs on the pale mosaic creep.

By the time I received Two Towers, I had learned my lesson — I ordered The Return of the King at once. That, too, is on my desk. With one other thing, its back holds a delightfully detailed map of Rohan, Gondor, and Mordor. The quotation I inscribed on its half-title is from Robert E. Howard. You have my leave to quarrel with me, but I think it the finest of the three, indeed one of the finest things have ever read.

Into the west, unknown of man,
Ships have sailed since the world began.
Read, if you dare, what Skelos wrote,
With dead hands fumbling his silken coat;
And follow the ships through the wind-blown wrack–
Follow the ships that come not back.

If you remember the end of this last volume, how Frodo rides to the Grey Havens in the long Firth of Lune and boards the white ship, never to be seen again in Middle-earth, you will understand why I chose that particular quotation and why I treasure it (and the book which holds it) even today. But there is one thing more.

You see, ten years later I wrote J. R. R. Tolkien a fan letter.


The full essay is here. http://www.thenightland.co.uk/MYWEB/wolfemountains.html

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About John C Wright

John C. Wright is a practicing philosopher, a retired attorney, newspaperman, and newspaper editor, and a published author of science fiction. Once a Houyhnhnm, he was expelled from the august ranks of purely rational beings when he fell in love; but retains an honorary title.

May 31, 2011 @ 1:31 pm


Gene Wolfe’s 1986 novel “Soldier of the Mist” centers on a Roman mercenary named Latro. Having suffered an injury during the Battle of Plataea, a Greco-Persian War skirmish, Latro has no memory of his past. Each night, he writes the day’s events on a scroll; the next morning he reads the scroll to bring himself current. Latro has to carefully choose what he is going to write down: he is limited by time, because when he sleeps he loses his memory again, and by the medium, because there is only so much papyrus. It is hinted that Latro’s wound was caused by the meddling of the gods, and, like the blind seer Tiresias, whose affliction was also the result of divine vengeance, Latro is given another gift: he can see the gods, and even speak with them. It could be the case, however, that Latro’s wound causes him to hallucinate.

On the phone from his home in Peoria, Gene Wolfe explained to me recently that Latro’s memory loss does not make him an unreliable narrator, as many critics assume. Instead, Latro might reveal only the truth that matters. Latro must ask himself, Wolfe said, “What is worth writing, what is going to be of value to me when I read it in the future? What will I want to know?” These are questions that Wolfe has been asking himself, in one form or another, for decades. His stories and novels are rich with riddles, mysteries, and sleights of textual hand. His working lexicon is vast, and his plots are unspooled by narrators who deliberately confuse or are confused—or both.

Wolfe has published more than twenty-five novels and more than fifty stories, and has won some of science fiction and fantasy’s most prestigious awards. But he has rarely, if ever, been considered fully within the larger context of literature. His books contain all of the nasty genre tropes—space travel, robots, even dragons—and he hasn’t crossed into the mainstream on the strength of a TV or movie adaptation. Wolfe himself sees the trappings of science fiction and fantasy, the spaceships and so on, as simply “a sketchy outline of the things that can be done.” But even within fantasy fandom, Wolfe’s work presents difficulties. His science fiction is neither operatic nor scientifically accurate; his fantasy works are not full of clanging swords and wizardly knowledge. But ask science-fiction or fantasy authors about Gene Wolfe and they are likely to cite him as a giant in their field. Ursula K. Le Guin once called Wolfe “our Melville.”

Born in New York City in 1931, Wolfe grew up reading the Buck Rogers comic strip and pulp magazines like Thrilling Wonder Stories. After a stint as a combat engineer in the Korean War, he studied engineering at the University of Houston with the help of the G.I. Bill, and then got a job with Procter & Gamble, where he devised a means of frying molded potato shingles before they dropped onto a conveyer belt to be canned in what is now familiar as the Pringles cylinder. He later worked as the editor of an engineering journal. Wolfe grew up a Presbyterian, but began to study Catholicism in the mid-fifties so that he could marry his wife, Rosemary, in her church. During the course of his instructions, he found something that resonated; he converted, and his faith remains deeply important to him. He recently told the MIT Technology Review that, after the war, Rosemary “saved” him.

Though he began writing in college and had moderate success selling his work, Wolfe was in his forties by the time he published “The Fifth Head of Cerberus,” the story that got him noticed by readers and editors, a tale of postcolonialism involving clones and travel to other planets. Soon after it first appeared, in 1972, it was published in a book of three connected stories. In 1980, Wolfe published the first volume of what would become his magnum opus, a tetralogy called “The Book of the New Sun.”

For science-fiction readers, “The Book of the New Sun” is roughly what “Ulysses” is to fans of the modern novel: far more people own a copy than have read it all the way through. A surreal bildungsroman, the book centers on a character named Severian. Trained as a torturer on the planet Urth, where torturers are a feared and powerful guild, Severian betrays his order by showing mercy, allowing a prisoner to kill herself rather than be subjected to his terrible ministrations. He then wanders the land encountering giants, anarchists, and members of religious cults. He eventually meets and supplants the ruler of Urth, the Autarch.

The four books that make up the series are sometimes vexing. A wise reader will keep a dictionary nearby, but it won’t always prove useful. Though Wolfe relies merely on the strangeness of English—rather than creating a new language, like Elven or Klingon—he nonetheless dredges up some truly obscure words: cataphract, fuligin, metamynodon, cacogens. The setting appears medieval, but slowly we tease out that what is ancient to these characters was once our own possible future. A desert’s sands are the glass of a great city, and the creaking steel walls that make up Severian’s cell in the guild dormitory is likely an ancient spaceship. Reading “The Book of the New Sun” is dizzying; at times, you become convinced that you have cracked a riddle, and yet the answer fails to illuminate the rest of the story. Wolfe doesn’t reveal the truth behind any of the central mysteries explicitly, but lets them carry the narrative along. At first, one hopes that they will eventually be resolved. Ultimately, they become less important than Severian’s quest for his own truth.

Unlike Latro, Severian remembers everything. But this does not make him a more reliable narrator. “The fact that he remembers everything doesn’t mean he won’t color the events through his own preconceptions and preferences,” Wolfe told me. Severian is free to pick and choose what he wants the reader to know—there are times when he loses trust in his own judgment, and at one point he even admits that he might be insane. In the early part of the first novel, “The Shadow of the Torturer,” Severian is given more responsibility in the guild and finds himself in chambers he was once denied access to. In one, he sees a dusty and faded picture he describes as “an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape. It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner.” Careful readers will realize this as a photograph of the first moon landing, but to Severian it merely evokes a deep nostalgia, as well as a desire to steal the picture and bring it outside, away from the stifling interior of the guild’s Citadel.

Moments like this have turned many of Wolfe’s fans into something like Biblical exegetes, who dig deep into his texts in the hope of finding clues not only to the plots and the characters but to Wolfe’s larger intentions. Partly what readers are excavating is Wolfe’s Catholicism, which he is quick to say figures into his writing. “What is impossible is to keep it out,” he told me. “The author cannot prevent the work being his or hers.” Flannery O’Connor, in her essay “Novelist and Believer,” cautions novelists to use religious concerns in ways that do not alienate the reader, to render encounters with the ineffable so that even those who might not understand or care for a particular metaphor—Aslan the Lion as Christ, for example—can still be moved by it. Many critics have speculated that Severian is a Christ figure: he brings the New Sun and puts an end to the cruelty of torture. But Wolfe wraps his Catholicism in strange language and cryptic images. Truth of any kind, no matter how closely you read, is hard to come by in Wolfe’s books. And yet, over time, it does seem to emerge.

During his journey, Latro is accompanied by another soldier, a black man whose name he doesn’t know. Though Latro keeps forgetting what they have gone through together, their friendship builds. “The heart remembers,” Latro says, “even when no trace of face or voice remains.” This man comes running up to him, “shouting, his arms in the air,” and though Latro does “not know where we met or why I love him (though no doubt those things are written somewhere on this scroll),” he can’t stop smiling. “Without thinking at all about what I should do,” he tells us, “I embraced him as a brother.”

This passage comes to mind when Wolfe, over the phone, tells me about grappling in his own life with the complicated questions of memory and truth that he has long been thinking through in his novels. His wife, Rosemary, suffered from Alzheimer’s disease; she died in December, 2013. “There was a time when she did not remember my name or that we were married, but she still remembered that she loved me,” Wolfe recalled. His narrators may be prophets, or liars, or merely crazy, but somewhere in their stories they help to reveal what Wolfe most wants his readers to know: that compassion can withstand the most brutal of futures and exist on the most distant planets, and it has been part of us since ages long past.

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