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Place Names in Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of the Mist

Map of Greece“Hundred Eyed,” “Redface Island,” — Gene Wolfe’s (1986) Soldier of the Mist is awash with charming place names that evoke wonder and puzzlement. This essay uses the lens of toponymy, the formal study of place names, to explores how the protagonist Latro generates these intriguing and idiosyncratic labels.


Noted toponymist George Stewart (1975) observed,

Place-names possess a marked capacity to outlive the displacement of one language by another, by being passed from the speakers of the original language to those of the succeeding one.

Related to this argument, we learn in the Foreword to Soldier of the Mist that Latro speaks Greek fairly well, but he writes in his native tongue, which is archaic Latin. To understand Latro’s recording of place names, it is important to note (Soldier of the Mist, 1986, xii; all references in this essay refer to the original Tor hardback edition):

In dealing with place names, I have followed the original writer, who sometimes wrote them as he heard them but more often translated them when he understood (or believed he understood) their meanings.

This process of translation is referred to as folk etymology, and it is the primary method Latro uses to record his place names.

Shortly after its publication, intrigued Soldier of the Mist fans began speculating on exactly how Latro generates curious coinages like “Thought” for Athens. Jeremy Crampton provided considerable insight into the topic when he began the process of analyzing these names in his 1988 fanzine Book of Gold #1 (BoG1), which is available on Ultan’s Library here. Crampton’s article “Some Greek Themes in Gene Wolfe’s Latro Novels” (SGT) also originally appeared in this year. Crampton speculates, for example, that Latro’s “Clay” (Plataea, the opening of the story) is probably derived from a translation to platus, or plate, which was made of clay. Attica is recorded as “the Long Coast” due to its extensive shoreline (Crampton, SGT 1988; Wolfe, 1986). “Fennel Field,” according to Crampton (BoG1 vii, 1988), is named after the “yellow-flowered plant which is often used to flavor food” and grew wild at Marathon.

Crampton’s Glossary in Book of Gold #1 also provides notes, some onomastic and others descriptive, on Advent, Bearland, Boat, the Circling Isles, Clay, Cowland, Crimson Country, Dolphins, Goodcattle Island, Hill, Hundred Eyed, Long Coast, Redface Island, Riverland, Rope, Silent Country, Thought, Tieup, and Tower Hill. “Hundred Eyed” represents Argos, the “monster of the same name with many eyes” (BoG1 xxii, 1988). “Thought” is derived from “the goddess Athene, who sprung like a thought from the brow of Zeus” (ibid xxiii).

Other derivations in Crampton’s Glossary, such as “Thought” and “Rope,” are based on his analysis of Darrell Schweitzer’s interview with Mr. Wolfe that appeared in the Spring 1988 edition of Weird Tales, which is also reproduced here in full (ibid xiv):

Latro calls Athens Thought because that’s what he thinks it means. As it turns out, he’s right. That is what it means, although his derivation of it is incorrect. He’s connecting Athens with athanatos, which anybody with a superficial knowledge of Greek would do—immortal. What’s immortal is thought… Latro also thinks that Sparta means rope, because there is a very common Greek word spartos, which is rope, cord, string. Now Sparta didn’t mean rope. What it actually meant was scattered. But it took its name from a Greek word that was obsolete by the time Latro was in Greece.

These errors in derivation are examples of folk etymology. As it turns out, Latro uses a variety of methods to generate place names and, applying the categories provided by academic toponomy, we can identify that these include folk etymology, association, description, and commemoration. Topony also provides the tools with which we can examine and explain these naming processes.


How does a place gets its name? How do we come to know it and remember it?

Scholars who explore these questions engage in toponymy. In 1958, George Stewart introduced a popular taxonomy of toponyms that is still widely recognized (Fouberg, Murphy, & de Blij, 2009).

In Stewart’s system, there are 10 categories of place names. The first is descriptive; a location is named after a feature prominent to the eye, such as the Rocky Mountains. Latro’s “Long Coast” is an example of such a descriptive place name.

A related category is associative, in which a well-known feature of the place, such as a man-made object (e.g. Bridgeport), or highly representative flora or fauna, is linked to that location (e.g. Holly Ridge). Latro’s “Tall Cap Country” fits in this category.

Other place names fit into the category of incidents. For example, Columbus designated a Caribbean island “St Vincent” because he discovered it on January 22, 1498, the feast day of St. Vincent of Saragossa.

A fourth category, possessive, is based on ownership of a place, such as Johnson City.

A fifth category is commemorative. A commemorative place name celebrates a prominent person such as San Francisco or an abstract ideal like Concord. Latro’s “Hundred Eyed” (for hundred eyed Argus) falls into this category.

The sixth category of place names, which is highly relevant to the present essay, is folk etymology. In these cases, a place name is interpreted from another language. The translation is usually derived from a common sound or spelling. Latro’s “Hill” for Thebes is an excellent example.

The seventh category is commendatory and emphasizes a positive expectation of the new establishment (e.g, Prosperity).

The eighth category is relatively recent and is referred to as manufactured, such as Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

The mistake category typically involves an error in cartography. Nome, Alaska is probably based on the cartographer’s note “Name?” written on a sea chart.

Finally, the shift category refers to a toponym transferred from one place to another, such as Portsmouth, England shifted to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

The following sections attempt to classify some of Latro’s place names in Soldier of the Mist according to Stewart’s taxonomy. The predominant category is folk etymology, followed by the less frequent use of descriptive, associative, and commemorative place names. In most cases, unless otherwise specified, I rely on the Online Etymology Dictionary by Douglas Harper to inform my analyses.

Folk Etymology

Folk etymology is the process of deriving a place name from a reasonable, but technically inaccurate, translation from one language to another. For example, imagine an English-speaking tourist who speaks German as a second language. He travels in Germany without carefully studying its place names. During the trip, he visits a large German city and wishes to record the name in his travel diary. He finds a native speaker and asks for the city’s name. The friendly German replies, “Baer-leen.”

Our English-speaking tourist knows that “bear” is the German bär, and he sees flags around the city adorned with bear crests. He puts two-and-two together and records “Bear Town” in his journal. Actually, etymologists speculate that Berlin stems from an old Polabian stem berl- for “swamp,” reflecting an associative toponym for a town situated on a marsh adjacent to the Spree River. Although not a good translation for tourism, Berlin was probably originally referred to as “Swamp Town.”

In this example, the tourist’s toponym is a reasonable place name representing a significant locale in his travels. Folk etymology reveals a fundamental tendency of the human mind: it constantly labels things. It assimilates, accommodates, and generally projects a personal frame of reference on the unknown. Abram Palmer, a 19th century etymologist, explained it this way:

The fact is, man is an etymologizing animal. He abhors the vacuum of an unmeaning word. If it seems lifeless, he reads a new soul into it, and often, like an unskillful necromancer, spirits the wrong soul into the wrong body (Wilton, 2013).

Latro is certainly a necromancer of sorts. At times, he records place names that do not match the literal sounds spoken by a Hellene because he is trying to communicate a deeper meaning about a place based on his understanding of the language.

The following table summarizes some of Latro’s place names derived from folk etymology. The first column is Latro’s place name. The second entry is the contemporary English translation. The third section notes how Latro used folk etymology to derive a place name.

Latro’s place name English place name

Folk etymology

Bearland Arcadia Gk. arktos – bear
Boat Lemnos Gk. lembos? – a boat built for speed; a fast cutter
Clay Plataea Vulgar Latin plattus – plate (plates were made of clay)
Cowland Boeotia Gk. bous – cow, bull, or ox
Hill Thebes Gk. teba – also Archaic Latin for hill
Rope Sparta Gk. spartē – rope, cord 
Silent Country Laconia Gk. Lakōnikos – taciturn (Spartans were renowned for brevity in speech)
Thought Athens Gk. athanatos – immortal (Latro associates immortality with thought)
Water Aegean Gk. aiges – waves

The place name “Bearland” is analogous to the tourist’s translation of “Bear Town” for Berlin. The Peloponnesian prefecture of Arcadia (Αρκαδία) is actually a commemorative place name for the mythical hero Arcas, but Latro doesn’t know this. The Greek word for bear is arktos, so Latro reasonably assumes that Arcadia is an associative toponym based on a representative animal of that region. The Greek suffix –ia connotes “the land of; territory.”

Latro’s “Boat” is a bit of a puzzler. He is referring to the island of Lemnos, residence of Hephaestus. Lemnos was originally a commemorative toponym for the Great Goddess by the original inhabitants. Latro perhaps derives “Boat” from the Greek word lembos, which is a small, fast cutter. He views vapor rising from volcanic Mosychlos and imagines that it is the Smith God’s sail.

One of the more interesting toponyms is Latro’s “Clay” for Plataea. Plataea is actually based on a descriptive toponym from the Greek platys, “flat, broad,” as the city was located on a plateau. Latro instead makes a different association. The best explanation is Crampton’s (1988) argument that Latro associates Plataea with the Vulgar Latin word plattus, which possibly referred to a plate, and plates were made of clay.

Latro refers to Boeotia as “Cowland,” deriving cow from the Greek bous. Pindaros argues that Boeotia is an associative toponym: “The people here laugh at us because we named our country after our cattle.” The urban Athenians used the term “boeotian” to denote a country bumpkin.

Similarly, “Goodcattle Island” is an associative toponym for Euboea, based on the Greek eu “good” and bous “cow,” signifying a productive area for raising cattle. Despite the obvious links to associative toponyms, toponymists argue that the etymological roots of Boeotia are unclear. The name may stem from the Indo-European bhei “to fight,” or indicate that the original settlers migrated from Mount Boion in Macedonia. Regardless, Latro’s “Cowland” and “Goodcattle Island” are reasonable toponyms that describe important fauna of the area.

Latro’s “Hill” is one of the clearest examples of a place name based on folk etymology. The Boeotian city of Thebes, which is recorded as “Hill” by Latro, is perhaps a shift toponym for Egyptian Thebes. The Hellenes pronounced Thebes (Θῆβαι) as “Theb-eye.” Latro connects this pronunciation with the archaic Latin word for hill, teba.

Latro refers to Sparta as “Rope” because he associates it with the Greek spartē,  “rope, cord,” created from the shrub spartos. According to Wolfe (Schweitzer, 1988, as cited in Crampton, 1988), Sparta is really based on a descriptive toponym for a Greek word signifying “scattered,” as it was a loose collection of villages without a wall. In terms of the “Silent Country,” Wolfe (1986, xii) explains in his introduction, “Latro seems to have heard some taciturn person referred to as having Laconic manners, and to have concluded that Laconia meant ‘Silent Country.’” Laconia was actually a commemorative toponym for the founder Lacedaemon, son of Zeus and Taygete.

The toponym “Thought” for Athens, according to Wolfe (Schweitzer, 1988), is created by Latro associating the place name with the Greek athanatos (“immortal”).

Why would Latro derive “thought” from “immortal”?

In a 2010 contribution to a now deleted online discussion group run by Wolfe’s publisher Tor and entitled “The Gene Wolfe Book Club”, Michael Andre-Driussi distinguished between thought-as-process (e.g. a stream of consciousness in a living person) versus thought-as-product (e.g. art, literature) that is recorded and transcends time and space. Latro associates immortality with thought products, particularly those thoughts that are recorded in text and passed down through the generations.

In Sword and Citadel (1994, p. 147), the character Severian articulates this idea in his analysis of the alzabo’s ability to absorb the thoughts of its victims:

Not surprisingly, the problem of correlating the alzabo with some higher truth was more difficult; but at last I decided that it might be likened to the absorption by the material world of the thoughts and acts of human beings who, though no longer living, have so imprinted it with activities that in the wider sense we may call works of art, whether buildings, songs, battles, or explorations, that for some time after their demise it may be said to carry forward their lives.

The association between immortality and recorded thoughts is poignantly conveyed in Latro’s recurrent, yet fleeting, awareness of his amnesia as he rereads his scroll; he is dependent on the scroll to maintain a sense of personal continuity and identity.

Athens is actually a commemorative toponym for the goddess Athena, but the word is probably pre-Hellenic and of unknown origin.

Finally, the Hellenes pronounced the Aegean (Αἰγαῖον) as “eye – gah – ee – on,” possibly derived from the Greek αἶγες  (“eye-gees”) for “waves.” Latro assumes this is a descriptive toponym that he connects with the Latin aqua, which led to the translation of “Water.”

Descriptive Place Names

Latro’s toponym English toponym Visible feature
Circling Isles Cycladic Islands A swirl of Aegean islands
Dog’s Tail Kynosoura A thin, oblong peninsula
Long Coast Attica Long shoreline
Riverland Egypt The Nile

Descriptive toponyms emphasize a prominent visible feature of a place such as the swirl of islands Latro refers to as the “Circling Isles.”

Latro’s playful toponym “Dog’s Tail” is Kynosoura, a thin, oblong peninsula jutting off the eastern coast of Salamis and shaped like the tail of a dog. The toponym appears to be generated from kynos (“dog”) and oura (“tail”). Yet, as with many place names, some etymologists argue that “Dog’s Tail” may be a folk etymology. The Hellenic mariners also referred to Ursa Minor as Kynosoura, which is odd, given that the entire seven-star pattern would be named “Dog’s Tail” as opposed to the three stars in the tail itself. Without getting into the details of their arguments, nineteenth-century etymologists variously derived the translations “Trail of Light” and “High in Rising” for Kynosoura. The general lesson here is that etymology is often a slippery business with multiple plausible interpretations. In any case, Latro seems to rely on the derivation from kynos and oura, which probably resulted in something akin to “Canis Cauda” in his scrolls.

Wolfe (1986) mentions in his Introduction that Latro’s “Long Coast” refers to Attica. This is a clear example of a descriptive toponym representing the long shoreline of this prefecture viewed from the Saronic Gulf. Latro’s place name is perhaps influenced by the Greek akte, meaning “shore; maritime place” (Room, 1997, p. 39).

“Riverland” is an interesting puzzle and connects Soldier of the Mist to later novels in the series. On the surface, Latro’s referring to Egypt as “Riverland” suggests a descriptive toponym. This is odd, however, because his amnesia would presumably have erased his recollections of the Nile. Latro has been to Egypt, so he may have a buried memory of the Nile influencing his use of this place name. In Chapter 1, the Egyptian healer would refer to Egypt in his native tongue as “Kemet,” as indicated in the glossary. Kemet means “black land,” which is a descriptive toponym for the dark soil of lower Egypt. Another possibility is that they conversed in Aramaic, referring to Egypt as “Mitsrayim,” translated as “two straits.” Latro might conclude that these straits represent part of a river cutting through the land.

Associative Place Names

Latro’s toponym English toponym Representative object
Tall Cap Country Phrygia Phrygian cap
Fennel Field Marathon The field of wild fennel (Gk. maratho)
Hot Gates Thermopylae Gk. thermo hot + pylae gates – adjacent hot sulfur springs leading to Hades
Tie Up Piraeus Unclear—tying up boats at the port?
Tower Hill Corinth Referring to the Acrocorinth—a towered citadel looming over Corinth

Associative place names derive from an observer linking a place to something prominent there. In one sense, an associative toponym is a descriptive toponym, but the “something” is often man-made. “Tall Cap Country” refers to the iconic Phrygian cap worn by natives of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). Associative toponyms may also represent local fauna or flora. Latro’s “Fennel Field” and “Hot Gates” are clear examples.

A less clear example is “Tower Hill”, representing Corinth. It probably refers to the Acrocorinth, which is the citadel looming over Corinth, a suggestion originally made by Andre-Driussi in 2010 in the the aforementioned online discussion in the now defunct Gene Wolfe Book Club. It would certainly be a prominent feature to Latro as he entered the city, and he is less likely to know that Corinth is actually a commemorative place name for the founder Corinthus, son of Zeus.

Latro’s “Tie Up” is a puzzler unless we avoid over-analysis and simply acknowledge that he is referring to the fact that this locale, Piraeus, is a popular Athenian port where vessels are moored. The name Piraeus is perhaps a descriptive toponym from Gk. peran “beyond,” in reference to the fact that a marshy area separated it from the mainland. Its precise etymological roots are unknown, so it makes sense that Latro would rely on his own associative toponym.

Commemorative Place Names

Latro’s toponym English toponym Well-known individual or ideal 
Advent Eleusis Demeter
Dolphins Delphi Apollo (in dolphin form)
Hundred Eyed Argos Argus Panoptes, the 100-eyed giant
Peace Salamis Phonecian salam  “peace”
Redface Island Peloponessus Pelops

A commemorative place name glorifies a founder or ideal. “Advent”, for example, is from the Gk. eleuseos, “the coming,” representing the spiritual advent of Demeter in the Eleusinian mysteries.

“Dolphins” is from the Gk. delphis (gen. delphinos) “dolphin,” which is the form that Apollo took in the Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo. Apollo the Dolphin God recruited Cretan sailors to found his temple at that location.

“Hundred Eyed” is the commemorative place name for the 100-eyed giant Argus Panoptes whom Hera set to guard the nymph Io after she had been turned into a heifer.

“Peace” is derived from salam, the Phoenician word for peace (c.f. Salem, Massachusetts).

“Redface Island” is a portmanteau for Pelops and nesos (island). Pelops was king of Pisa on Peloponessus, and his name is itself a combination of pellos (dark) and ops (face, eye), which was probably a birthmark (i.e. a port-wine stain).


This essay has explored how the categories and insights of toponymy can be applied to Latro’s place names, shedding light on the protagonist’s thought processes. Latro relies predominantly on folk etymology, and to a lesser extent on descriptive, associative, and commemorative derivations, which breathe life into his Hellenic place names. In turn, these colorful place names motivate the curious reader to learn more about Hellas, classical mythology, and the Greco-Persian Wars.

More broadly, Latro’s place names illustrate how language influences a person’s perception and memory of a place. Latro sees mist rising from a volcano and thinks of a sail, generating “Boat.” He sees a towering citadel dominating a hill, generating “Tower Hill.” He hears “the-beye” and associates it with the archaic Latin word for “Hill.”

It is important to remember that Latro’s approach to recording place names is not archaic or obsolete. Travelers still use prominent or idealized features of the places they visit that ultimately color their perceptions and memory of that place: Paris—“city of light,” San Francisco –“city by the bay,” Prague—“golden city of 100 spires.” Place names influence how people represent a place in their autobiographical memories and how they communicate the essence of those locales to others.


Crampton, J. (1988). The Book of Gold: The newsletter of Gene Wolfe and his works. Retrieved from Ultan’s Library, http://ultan.org.uk/books-of-gold/.

Crampton, J. (1988). Some Greek themes in Gene Wolfe’s Latro novels. Retrieved from Ultan’s Library, http://ultan.org.uk/some-greek-themes-in-latro/.

Fouberg, E. H., Murphy, A. B., & de Blij, H. J. (2009). Human geography: People, place, and culture.

Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Harper. D. (2016). Online etymology dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.etymonline.com/.

Room, A. (1997). Placenames of the world. Retrieved from Google Books.

Schweitzer, D. (1988). “Profile: Gene Wolfe”. Spring 1988 issue of Weird Tales, edited by George Scithers, Darrell Schweitzer and John Gregory Betancourt (Terminus Publishing Company Inc, Philadelphia, PA).

Steward, G. (1975). Names on the Globe. Oxford University Press.

Wilton, D. (2013). Common errors in etymology. Retrieved from http://www.wordorigins.org/index.php/site/comments/common_errors_in_etymology/.

Wolfe, G. (1986). Soldier of the mist. New York: Tor.

Wolfe, G. (1994). Sword and citadel. New York: Tor.

An Homage to my Honorary Grandfather

C S E CooneyJust shy of eighteen, I met Gene Wolfe. My father introduced us, and then we all went out to dinner: Gene, his wife Rosemary, my father, my stepmother Terry, and me.

I’d been shy about meeting him—not because I’d read his books (I’d read one, The Shadow of the Torturer, just recently, not having any idea who the author was or who he’d be to me)—but because I was shy of new people in general.

Halfway through dinner, I found myself asking if he’d read my novel. I don’t know what brazen ghost possessed me. I could see the moment his face changed. Got very careful indeed. Gently he said, “I can read it, but I can’t promise to say anything about it.”

I remember backpedaling, saying I’d just send the first three chapters. He twinkled at me. (He has very twinkly eyes.)

And after I sent my chapters, I received a letter.

I don’t know if Gene ever read past the first chapter. But he wrote me a long letter about what he did read, what he’d observed, and it was a letter full of keen incite, encouragement, what I was doing well (Dialogue! Character!), and most importantly, stuff I needed to work on. For example, I had a tendency to interrupt my dialogue with long infodumps. He used the phrase “lumps of prose like uncooked dumplings,” which delighted me—and has stayed with me these many years.

I could feel my brain cracking open and horizon pouring in. I wrote him back. I thanked him. I asked him questions. He started teaching me about short stories.

The subject had come up at that initial dinner. “Write short stories,” he advised me. “Build your byline. Once you have a body of work and some name recognition, you’ll be ready to sell your novel. Learn your craft; novels are the easiest to write. Short stories are harder. Poetry is the hardest of them all.”

That made me feel smug; I was already a poet.

“How do you write a short story?” I asked. I’d never been able to write short. A teacher in high school had called me “prolific,” in a tone of voice that was half-admiring, half-resentful.

“Anything can be a short story,” said Gene. “Look around. This chair could be a short story. That waiter. How they interact.”

Immediately I had an idea for a sentient chair and its best friend, the waiter.

To this day, I still write long, often novella-length. But I marvel at the engineering behind a Gene Wolfe short story. How can he pack all that story into such a limited frame? I have to sit with his stories and sink in; they go down so deep. They resound.

Gene taught me how to write cover letters. How to submit. How to subscribe. “Writers who don’t subscribe to the magazines they submit to are cutting their own throats.” He was clear on that point.

I still overwrite my early drafts (Gene told me he does too), and I still have to watch out for “lumps of uncooked prose.”

He once advised, “Always tell a story as cleanly and as clearly as possible.”

I find myself coming back to that. I often garland my stories in gilded curlicues of language that I later sometimes want to slash back to the bone. But there was this one time, after I wrote “Three Fancies from the Infernal Garden” (Subterranean Magazine: Winter 2009) and showed it to Gene, telling him I’d probably need to cut much of the sing-songy rhythm and internal rhyme, he urged me not to take my knife to it.

So I remember that too: Not only “Tell the story as cleanly and as clearly as possible,” but also—remember that sometimes, the elaborate is beautiful.

In a decade and a half of loving advice, encouragement, introductions, brilliant brunches, and road trips that Gene Wolfe has gifted to me, another moment sticks out. Early on in my submitting-short-stories process, I’d written him this letter—hyperbolic, tear-stained—about receiving yet another rejection. I’d thrown myself against a wall, I said, I’d wailed. And he wrote back, “Good on you! That means you care. It’s good to care.”

He wrote it better of course; but memory synthesizes our experience. And what a thing to remember! Especially for a young writer, addled by self-doubt, newborn-barefoot on the fierce terrain of the unknown. Rejection is a natural part of the process, and so is the artist’s reaction against it. It’s all right; we’re supposed to feel—even Gene Wolfe still gets sad at a rejection letter. It’s good to feel.

“And when it’s done,” he told me, “look at your story again. Scrub her face. Give her a new dress. And send her back out into the world.”

It’s because of Gene Wolfe that I view each new story as an intrepid daughter of Nellie Bly: suitcase in hand, checkered suit impeccable, head held high, heading off into the sky.

C. S. E. Cooney (csecooney.com/@csecooney) is the author of Bone Swans: Stories (Mythic Delirium 2015), the title story of which was nominated for the 2015 Nebula Award. Her novella “The Two Paupers,” second installment of her Dark Breakers series, is included in Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016. She is an audiobook narrator for Tantor Media, the singer/songwriter Brimstone Rhine, and the Rhysling Award-winning author of the poem “The Sea King’s Second Bride,” which can be found in her collection How to Flirt in Faerieland and Other Wild Rhymes. Her short fiction and poetry can be found at Uncanny Magazine, Lakeside Circus, Black Gate, Papaveria Press, Strange Horizons, Apex, GigaNotoSaurus, Goblin Fruit, Clockwork Phoenix 3 & 5, The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, and elsewhere.


Aramini on A Solar Labyrinth

For some years now, Ultan contributor Marc Aramini has been engaged in an exhaustive chronological study of every piece of short fiction written by Gene Wolfe. The first half of his analysis, covering the stories from 1951-1986, has recently been published as Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe 1951-1986.[ Amazon UK and USA]. Marc’s video lectures on Gene Wolfe are on youtube.

In conjunction with our publication of Wolfe’s ‘A Solar Labyrinth’ we present the entry from the collection on that very story.

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A Solar Labyrinth

A Solar Labyrinth © 1983 by Gene Wolfe. This story first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and was later included in Wolfe’s anthology STOREYS FROM THE OLD HOTEL. It is reprinted here by kind permission of the author and the author’s agents, the Virginia Kidd Agency, Inc.

MAZES MAY BE MORE ANCIENT THAN MANKIND. Certainly the cavemen constructed them by laying down football-sized stones, and perhaps by other means as well, now lost to us; the hill-forts of neolithic Europe were guarded by tangled dry ditches. Theseus followed a clew­ – a ball of thread – through the baffling palace of Minos, thus becoming the first in what threatens to be an infinite series of fictional detectives. The Fayre Rosamund dropped her embroidery with her needle thrust through it, but forgot the yarn in her pocket, thus furnishing Queen Eleanor’s knights with the clue they required to solve Hampton Court Maze.

Of late, few mazes have been built, and those that have been, have been walled, for the most part, with cheap and unimaginative hedges. Airplanes and helicopters permit rampant mar-sports to photograph new mazes from above, and the pictures let armchair adventurers solve them with a pencil. Gone, it might seem, are the great days of monsters, maidens and amazement.

But not quite. I have heard that a certain wealthy citizen has not only designed and built a new maze, but has invented a new kind of maze, perhaps the first since the end of the Age of Myth. To preserve his privacy I shall call this new Daedalus Mr. Smith. To frustrate the aerial photographers in their chartered Cessnas, I shall say only that his maze is in the Adirondacks.

On a manicured green lawn stand – well separated for the most part – a collection of charming if improbable objects. There are various obelisks; lamp posts from Vienna, Paris, and London, as well as New York; a pillar-box, also from London; fountains that splash for a time and then subside; a retired yawl, canted now upon the reef of grass but with masts still intact; the standing trunk of a dead tree overgrown with roses; many more. The shadows of these objects form the walls of an elaborate and sophisticated maze.

It is, obviously, a maze that changes from hour to hour, and indeed from minute to minute. Not so obviously, it is one that can be solved only at certain times and is insoluble at noon, when the shadows are shortest. It is also, of course, a maze from which the explorer can walk free whenever he chooses.

And yet it is said that most of them – most adults, at least ­- do not. In the early morning, while the shadows of the hills still veil his lawn, Mr. Smith brings the favored guest to the point that will become the center of the maze. The grass is still fresh with dew, and there is no sound but the chirping of birds. For five minutes or so the two men (or as it may be, the man and the woman) stand and wait. Perhaps they smoke a cigarette. The sun’s red disc appears above the mist-shrouded treetops, the fountains jet their crystal columns, the birds fall silent, and the shadowy suites spring into existence, a sketch in the faded black ink of God.

Mr. Smith begins to tread his maze, but he invites his guest to discover paths of his own. The guest does so, amused at first, then more serious. Imperceptibly, the shadows move. New corridors appear; old ones close, sometimes with surprising speed. Soon Mr. Smith’s path joins that of his guest (for Mr. Smith knows his maze well), and the two proceed together, the guest leading the way. Mr. Smith speaks of his statue of Diana, a copy of one in the Louvre; the image of Tezcatlipaca, the Toltec sun-god, is authentic, having been excavated at Teotihuacan. As he talks, the shadows shift, seeming almost to writhe like feathered Quetzalcoatl with the slight rolling of the lawn. Mr. Smith steps away, but for a time his path nearly parallels his guest’s.

“Do you see that one there?” says the guest. “In another minute or two, when it’s shorter, I’ll be able to get through there.”

Mr. Smith nods and smiles.

The guest waits, confidently now surveying the wonderful pattern of dark green and bright. The shadow he has indicated – that of a Corinthian column, perhaps – indeed diminishes; but as it does another, wheeling with the wheeling sun, falls across the desired path. Most adult guests do not escape until they are rescued by a passing cloud. Some, indeed, refuse such rescue.

Often Mr. Smith invites groups of children to inspect his maze, their visits timed so they can be led to its center. There, inlaid upon a section of crumbling wall that at least appears ancient, he points out the frowning figure of the Minotaur, a monster that, as he explains, haunts the shadows. From far away – but not in the direction of the house – the deep bellowing of a bull interrupts him. (Perhaps a straying guest might discover stereo speakers hidden in the boughs of certain trees; perhaps not.) Mr. Smith says he can usually tell in advance which children will enjoy his maze. They are more often boys than girls, he says, but not much more often. They must be young, but not too young. Glasses help. He shows a picture of his latest Ariadne, a dark-haired girl of nine.

Yet he is fair to all the children, giving each the same instructions, the same encouragement. Some reject his maze out of hand, wandering off to examine the tilted crucifix or the blue-dyed water in the towering Torricelli barometer, or to try (always without success) to draw Arthur’s sword from its stone. Others persevere longer, threading their way between invisible walls for an hour or more.

But always, as the shadow of the great gnomon creeps toward the sandstone XII set in the lawn, the too-old, too-­young, insufficiently serious, and too-serious drift away, leaving only Mr. Smith and one solitary child still playing in the sunshine.

A look behind the names

Scott Wowra

Scott Wowra

“Rope…” “The Long Coast…” “Thought…” 

Why does Latro, the narrator of Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of the Mist, give such strange and wonderful names to the places he visits in ancient Greece? How does he derive them and what does his choice of names reveal about his thinking?

Scott Wowra explores these questions in his scholarly new article, “Place Names in Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of the Mist”. Skilfully using the taxonomy of toponomy, the formal study of place names, he provides key insights into the way that Wolfe subtly reveals how his protagonist perceives the world that he lives in through the way that he assigns names to the places through which he passes.

“Place Names in Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of the Mist” is due to be published in Ultan’s Library on Wednesday 7 September 2016.

What would it be like…

The cover of Bone Swans by C. S. E. CooneyWhat would it be like for you as an aspiring author to have Gene Wolfe as your mentor?

Award-winning author and poet C. S. E. Cooney knows because Wolfe encouraged and advised her when she was starting out and, in an exclusive piece for Ultan’s Library, she tells us all about it. We share her experiences of authorial rejection and acceptance and, in so doing, get a fascinating glimpse into Wolfe’s own approach to the practicalities of getting published.

C. S. E. Cooney’s “An Homage to my Honorary Grandfather” is scheduled for publication in Ultan’s Library on Friday 1o June 2016.


Ultan’s Library congratulates Marc Aramini on his Hugo nomination

Master Ultan offers warm congratulations to regular Library contributor Marc Aramini, whose full-length study of Wolfe’s fiction, Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951 to 1986 , has been nominated for a 2016 Hugo Award in the category of Best Related Work.

Ultan’s Library published Marc’s piece on The Fifth Head of Cerberus in 2014 and interviewed him about his short story in the tribute-anthology Shadows of the New Sun. Marc has also recorded a series of well-received video lectures on Wolfe and is a regular contributor to the Urth mailing list.

Most recently, Ultan’s Library published an extract from Between Light and Shadow about Wolfe’s story ‘A Solar Labyrinth’ as well as Wolfe’s original story.

The Feast of Saint Katharine (with a “K”)

Wolfe scholar and regular contributor to Ultan’s Library Michael Andre-Driussi describes his latest article thus: This essay traces the vestigial novella “The Feast of Saint Catherine” cryptically contained within the published text of The Book of the New Sun as a fossilized embryo. The plot of the tale will be established, along with the internationally recognized word count requirement for the form “novella.” Following these unassailable facts are speculative projections as to the novella’s resolution, conjectural notes on genre authors Clark Ashton Smith and Jack Vance, and suppositions regarding Gene Wolfe’s rejection of the novella.

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Andre-Driussi examines the New Sun’s origins

Miachael Andre-DriussiIn his latest essay for Ultan’s Library, “The Feast of Saint Katharine (with a “K”)”, Wolfe scholar and lexicographer Michael Andre-Driussi examines the origins of the published four-volume The Book of the New Sun as a projected novella.

What might that novella have been like? Which parts of that original short version survive in the greCover image for Lexicon Urthus - A Dictionary for the Urth Cycle, by Michael Andre-Driussiatly expanded story that we now have? And why did Wolfe change his original plan and go for something so much longer?

Andre-Driussi sifts through the evidence and shares his findings with the readers of Ultan’s Library.

“The Feast of Saint Katharine (with a “K”)” is due to be published in Ultan’s Library on Wednesday 30 March 2016.

Ultan’s Library republishes a classic Wolfe story

In a complete departure from previous practice, Ultan’s Library, which normally publishes literary criticism on the works of Gene Wolfe, has republished a classic Wolfe short story.

“A Solar Labyrinth”, which originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1983 and was later collected in Wolfe’s anthology Storeys from the Old Hotel, is a jewel of a tale, a miniature masterpiece. Neil Gaiman chose it as the basis for his own homage to Wolfe, “A Lunar Labyrinth” (collected in Shadows of the New Sun) and described it as, “a short story of brilliance and beauty and, hidden deep in the shadows, danger and darkness.”

The central conceit, about a maze made of shifting shadows, is a wonder in itself, but the true marvel of the story is the way that its form so artfully matches its subject matter. Just as the penumbrous walls of Mr Smith’s maze complicate its solution by moving with the passage of the sun, so the story’s meaning inexorably shifts under the reader’s gaze. Does the story have a happy pastoral ending, or a sinister and malevolent one? And is this a story about mazes at all, or is it really about untangling the meaning of stories in general, and in particular those written by Gene Wolfe who, as the author of The Shadow of the Torturer and the rest of The Book of the New Sun, really does know a thing or two about constructing narrative solar labyrinths?

To help readers contemplate these imponderables, Ultan’s Library is also delighted to publish the chapter on “A Solar Labyrinth” from Marc Aramini’s masterly and compendious survey of Wolfe’s fiction, Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe 1951-1986. Many thanks to Marc for giving Ultan’s Library permission to do so.

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