January 30, 2002

Tolkien and Wolfe

Category: Literature :: Permalink

Several of my friends and acquaintances are fans of the science-fiction and fantasy writer Gene Wolfe. I’ve been working my way through Wolfe’s works, and last night I started what appears to be Wolfe’s deepest and most difficult work, The Book of the New Sun, the first volume of which is Shadow and Claw.

I was able to read only the first chapter last night, and I was pretty tired at the time, so I suspect that I’ll read that first chapter again tonight. Mind you, in “The Best Introduction to the Mountains,” an essay on The Lord of the Rings, Wolfe says,

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.

I suspect that wouldn’t be a bad way to read The Book of the New Sun either. Wolfe doesn’t always explain what’s happening in the book, let alone the significance of the events, and I usually finish a Wolfe story with the sense that there’s a lot I haven’t caught yet. I’m not going to adopt the Wolfe method this time; instead, I’ll read the whole thing straight through. But I may start keeping a Wolfe journal, jotting down some things I’ve noticed or things I need to think about more. For instance, the story begins shortly after the narrator, Severian, has nearly drowned, which I suspect is a baptismal image, and all the more so since the title of the chapter is “Resurrection and Death.” And here’s a paragraph worth thinking about:

We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges. When soldiers take their oath they are given a coin, an asimi stamped with the profile of the Autarch. Their acceptance of that coin is their acceptance of the special duties and burdens of military life — they are soldiers from that moment, though they may know nothing of the management of arms. I did not know that then, but it is a profound mistake to believe that we must know of such things to be influenced by them, and in fact to believe so is to believe in the most debased and superstitious form of magic. The would-be sorcerer alone has faith in the efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all.

Posted by John Barach @ 12:06 pm | Discuss (0)

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