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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.

Introduction

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.

Toponymy

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).

Conclusion

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.

References

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.

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.

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.

Shadows of the New Sun: Nancy Kress

Photograph of Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress is the author of 26 books, including the classic Beggars in Spain, which won the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novella in 1991.

Last month she deservedly won a 2013 Nebula award for her  novella After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall (Tachyon Publications).  Nancy also teaches at Clarion and other writing festivals and is the author of several books on writing. You can find out more on her website.

Her contribution to Shadows of the New Sun is a delight – an exploration of the pain and pleasure of being lost in books, inspired by one of Gene’s earliest classic short stories. We wanted to find out more about the origins of her story and what she thinks about the author who inspired it and were therefore delighted when she agreed to answer our questions…


You’ve known Gene a long time, but how did you originally come across him? Did you encounter the man or his writing first?

I first read Gene when “The Island of Dr. Death And Other Stories” appeared in 1970. I was enchanted. By 1980, when The Shadow of the Torturer was released, I was a firm fan. At that time I was teaching at the State University of New York at Brockport, and the English Department was running a week-long summer writing workshop in various genres: poetry, fiction, journalism, science fiction. Each faculty member (I was adjunct faculty at the college) was asked to invite one co-teacher, and I was astonished and delighted when Gene accepted. We hadn’t met before, and I was an unknown, having published only a handful of stories. Gene stayed at my house for the week, and we had plenty of time to schmooze.

During that workshop, my young son broke his arm at Day Care and I rushed him to the ER. That happened to be the same night I had invited all our students, plus some faculty, to dinner. So I’m calling from the hospital to Gene: “Could you please put the ham in the oven at 325 degrees?” And later, “Do you think you could get my big pot from the lower left-hand cupboard by the stove, fill it with water, and set it boiling for the corn?” Later: “Gene–do you know how to shuck corn?” Gene did it all, and both the kid and the dinner were fine.

Tell us about your favourite story or novel by Gene and what it means to you.

My favorite is “The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories,” which is why I leapt at the chance to add to the story for the Gene Wolfe tribute anthology. I loved it for two reasons. That little boy is so appealing, so clueless as to what is happening in his household, and so real. Creating a character that memorable in such a short space is not easy. Second, I was exactly that kind of child, bringing the characters from my favorite books into my “real” life—at least, in my mind.

Gene wrote a memorable introduction to your first collection back in 1985 (and it is reprinted in Castle of Days). If you were to introduce Gene, what would you try to say?

I would say that this is the science fiction writer that other SF writers aspire—or should aspire—to be. Incidentally, I am still touched and proud of that introduction he wrote for my first collection.

There’s also an extract from a letter to you in Castle of Days. Does Gene always write such wonderful letters?

Yes. We used to correspond regularly. Somehow when the Internet appeared and both our lives got much more complicated, we stopped doing that. It’s a shame, really.

Cover to Shadows of the New Sun

How did you get involved in the Shadows of the New Sun collection?

I was thrilled to be asked to contribute a story.

Some of the stories in Shadows of the New Sun play with Wolfean conceits and themes or re-examine earlier stories, but yours, “… And Other Stories” takes this process to a new level. Can you tell us the origin of the story?

I can’t ever identify the origin of any of my stories. I did know that I wanted to somehow use “The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories”, and so I reread it. And immediately my story popped into my head. There are gift stories, that come to you whole, and this was one. Although, of course, they’re not really unearned “gifts”—they come from years of unconscious fermenting of ideas, emotions, other authors’ work, daily experiences, imagined experiences, and everything else that roils away in the bottom of writers’ souls.

What is it about Gene and his work that has inspired so many other writers and readers?

Its complexity and simplicity combined. The complexity is in the ideas, the plots, and the wonderful language. The simplicity comes in the characters’ desires. You are always clear what Tackie or Severian or Candy Garth need, and their humanity leads you through their sometimes convoluted plots.

 

Detail from Bruce Pennington: The Shadow of the Torturer, (c) Bruce Pennington

An interview with artist Bruce Pennington

Many British readers first encountered Wolfe’s novels through the stunning cover artwork of Bruce Pennington. His artwork was used on the first hardcover and paperback editions of the Book of the New Sun, The Island of Dr Death and Other Stories and Other Stories,  Gene Wolfe’s Book of Days, The Fifth Head of Cerberus and The Devil in a Forest.

Visually striking, the art seems to perfectly capture the blend of the futuristic and the fantastic that characterises the Urth cycle. Bruce’s work was a fixture of any bookshop with a good SF and Fantasy section in the 60s, 70s and 80s. His work could be seen on the covers for Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and many more. It has been said that Gene considers Bruce’s cover for The Shadow of the Torturer to be one of his favourites. It has also been suggested that in chapter 26 of The Urth of the New Sun (“Gunnie and Burgundofara”), Severian’s remembrance of his youth in Nessus is a direct reference to Bruce’s painting:

“As clearly as if he were in that chamber of tears with us, I saw the young journeyman striding along, his fuligin cloak billowing behind him and the dark cross of Terminus Est rising above his left shoulder.”

Examples of Bruce’s work can be seen in the gallery above and on his website.

Novelist Stephen Palmer, author of Urbis MorpheosMuezzinland, Memory Seed and Glass, to name a few, interviewed Bruce for Ultan’s Library in April 2013. Steve’s article on religion in the Book of the New Sun is reprinted on Ultan’s Library.


How were you first approached about the four covers to the UK (Arrow) edition of Gene Wolfe’s ‘Book Of The New Sun’ quartet?

The editor and art director of Arrow Books decided to try me out with “The Shadow Of The Torturer” in the early 1980s. They liked the result enough to use my talent on several more Gene Wolfe covers.

Did you get to read any of the text before you began work? Did the publishers perhaps give you a summary of the scenario and characters?

I was always given the text to read through of each book before tackling the picture.

Would you agree that many of your paintings, including those not for SF book covers, seem to mix the ancient past with the distant future? The cover for “The Citadel Of The Autarch” in particular seems to epitomise this feel.

Both ancient and futuristic themes hold a fascination for me personally. It is the polarity of both extremes that has a certain impact I suppose.

Was there a specific real-world inspiration for the bird-creature holding a flaming torch depicted in the painting for “The Claw Of The Conciliator”?

Throughout my school days I was obsessed with ornithology. This took the form of creating my own ‘bird club’ at school, with lectures and bird-watching expeditions into the countryside. The bird-like creature that you mention wasn’t drawn from any particular fowl. The pin-tail duck is about the closest I can think of.

In many of your paintings lifeless environments seem to take on the forms of living things; is this a phenomenon, imaginary or otherwise, that particularly interests you?

During my ornithology days I took up taxidermy, which involved working on the lifeless forms of dead birds. This meant removing the bones etc to make room for wires and sawdust stuffing. Maybe all of that influenced me subconsciously.

I have found that many Gene Wolfe fans who discovered him when he was becoming better known as an SF author associate your four paintings with the work. Has this been borne out by your own experience since painting them?

It was gratifying to receive a letter from Gene Wolfe to the editors of Arrow Books, in which he believed that he and I were in danger of forming a mutual admiration society (praise indeed). I also received letters from fans endorsing the same opinion. All I can say is that I’ve been extremely fortunate to be given such atmospheric tales to illustrate.

How do you think about your cover art for Gene Wolfe’s books? Do you see your pictures as being illustrations of episodes in the books, or do you view them as images inspired by the books? In other words, are you trying to capture a scene or event, or you trying to express the mood and feel of the book in a visual medium?

The atmosphere and iconography of Gene Wolfe’s books already existed in my own imagination way before I read them. If you take a look at the section of my website titled “Migraine Monochromes” you’ll see what I mean. They were done back in the 1970’s – prior to 1980 when I was given the first in the Urth series to illustrate. The mood and environment were paramount above any particular scene, although I tried to keep as close as possible to the text.

Tell us about the colour palette you use for your depictions of Urth. Why those particular colour combinations for a world under a dying sun?

Regarding my choice of colour schemes, I tried to keep them sombre and solemn, as opposed to bright and vivid.

Many of your illustrations of Urth prominently feature stone and bone, particularly skulls. What are the significance of these materials for your conception of how Urth looks and feels?

Those familiar with my imagery know that I have a liking for fossilised remains and bones, particularly skulls. This stems from my early childhood when I discovered a horror comic in my school desk – that, along with seaside ghost trains, were to blame, I’m certain.

Did you read all the Gene Wolfe books you illustrated? If so, what was your reaction to them?

I’m a slow reader, so I have to confess that I tend to ‘skip-read’ books that I have to illustrate. With the Gene Wolfe books though I got really engrossed. From the very first description of them before I had a chance to read them I knew that they were meant for me. I’d like to thank all those who made it all come together.


We’d like to thank Bruce (and Steve) for their time in putting together this interview. All of the images above are the property of and copyright Bruce Pennington.

To see more examples of the art of Bruce Pennington, try the following links:

Grand Master Wolfe

Photograph of Gene Wolfe

Photograph of Gene Wolfe

In December 2012 the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) named Gene Wolfe as the latest recipient of the Damon Knight Grand Master award for his “contributions to the literature of Science Fiction and Fantasy.”

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The final page of the Book of the New Sun

Mapping a Masterwork: A Critical Review of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun

  • Volume One: Shadow and Claw
  • Volume Two: Sword and Citadel (Millennium, 2000)

Reviewed by Peter Wright

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