Ultan's Library

a web resource for the study of Gene Wolfe

Some Greek Themes in Gene Wolfe’s Latro novels

by Jeremy Crampton

The moon is down
Taurus was in the sky before: it’s gone.
Time is passing.

It is midnight and I lie here alone.

“Who writes? For whom is the writing being done?” So Edward Said began his essay “Opponents, audiences, constituencies and community”, 1 by asking questions he said were vital for a “politics of interpretation.” Said, talking about modern literary criticism, could equally have been referring to genre fiction. His questions are particularly relevant for an examination of Wolfe’s writing.

In the first part of this essay I take up the question of Wolfe’s narrative approach, what “fiction” means to him, as encapsulated by Said’s questions, and as seen in the Latro novels.

In part two I examine some of the more important Greek references in the two books. I wish to go beyond this “investigatory” reading, as it is available to anyone willing to invest time in the reading, and examine some of the major themes such as divine involvement, Apollo’s oracle, loyalty and arete, which translates as all that is excellent, virtuous and “manly” (the adjective is exact: this is essentially a male concept in a male-dominated society).


Speak to the Silent City,
Saying that in her cause,
We begged no tyrant’s pity,
And fell obedient to her laws.

Simonides’ Epitaph to Thermopylae (as translated by Wolfe)

For whom is the writing done?

This question is asked in the context of a characterisation of Wolfe’s style which captures people’s overall attitude toward him rather well. The characterisation goes something like this: Wolfe’s writing is too complex, too literary and too unclear for the “common” reader (it sometimes has the rider that despite this, he writes beautifully). James Gunn’s comment is representative of this attitude when he notes that Wolfe’s earlier short fiction “was usually difficult, often ambiguous, sometimes obscure, and always skilfully written”.2 In Lane, Vernon, & Carson his writing is described as “highly literary, fascinating science fiction that repaid careful reading. It [is] complex but approachable, new but old, psychological but concrete.”3 Even critics who are largely favourable towards Wolfe can take this stance. For example, John Clute has written in Strokes:

Perhaps what’s necessary with Wolfe’s work is to train ourselves in the kind of close critical reading of texts that serious critics of the Modernist and Post-Modernist novel assume to be absolutely mandatory just for starters, with understanding to come later, after some work has been done.4

This attitude implies that Wolfe can only appeal to and be understood by a minority of “expert” readers, who are willing to invest time and effort in analysing his texts: if we do not engage in a “close critical reading” we will not fully come to grips with the work. It could be argued, that Wolfe has “deserted” the common reader, and that the audience for whom he writes is more “literary” and elitist. This is exactly the point that Said is making in his essay. In a recent commentary in The New Republic Irving Howe observes that the common reader is in danger of being wiped out due to the current exclusionary attitude of critics:

[i]t sometimes seems almost as if that figure [the common reader] has been banished, at least in the academic literary world, as an irritant or intruder, the kind of obsolete person who still enjoys stories as stories and still supposes that characters bear some resemblance to human beings.5

Could this lead, he wonders, to a less democratic culture, especially since that culture is already in “decline” due to the influence of television, anti-intellectualism and the loss of “firm convictions” within the educated classes? And does this in turn lead to the “decline in both the presence and idea of the common reader” (p.30)?

Wolfe’s relation to these conservative comments is complex. First, of course, would be his agreement that stories are to be enjoyed. He has said in interviews, and often has his characters repeat, that stories are a powerful and important tradition (Severian, for example, remarks that stories may be the only truly worthwhile human creation). And he would presumably agree, that academics have conspired to sever the public’s connection with literature through obfuscatory techniques, as in the introduction to his Storeys from the Old Hotel 1985 where he remarks that there are only a few academics in their fields because they actually love their subject, the implication being the rest are in it for the power and prestige.

But as I pointed out above, Wolfe himself is not immune to charges of being unsuitable for the “common reader.” Two responses to this come to mind, one made by Wolfe himself. These responses do not fully answer our reservations about Wolfe’s work, but they do offer a way of dealing with it. Both admit that Wolfe is a complex, ambiguous writer – a necessary admission in my view, though not an alienating one.

Not necessarily alienating because first, such complexity is not a disadvantage, but an opportunity for readers to engage with the novel at the level with which they are most comfortable. In other words, it’s a hierarchical description: there is a “surficial” level, such as the adventure of (say) the picaresque Severian in The Book of the New Sun. But there is also a “chthonic,” underground level, where deeper religious or metaphysical elements find their expression (here we might cite Severian’s political agenda in writing The Book of the New Sun). Readers are able to engage with the work at either level.

This is one reason why Wolfe, although dealing with some of the most traditionally “difficult” issues of literature such as love, death, goodness, evil and morality, chooses to frame them in landscapes and frameworks that are surficially exciting and unusual, such as the Commonwealth, or ancient Greece. Wolfe is sometimes asked why he chooses to write within the genre, and his plain man’s answer is usually that that’s what he would like to read himself, and that he doesn’t consciously write “to” genre (he once said he writes the “storyline,” not the “party line,” see the interview in Weird Tales, 1988). There is little doubt that Wolfe’s use of blatant stereotypes and clichés (such as giants, castles and duels), are resonantly attractive, presumably because they remind us of childhood fairy tales and stories. At the same time Wolfe pushes ever deeper into the complexities and ambiguities of real life. He uses the clichés of genre in order to transcend them and thus reinvest them with meaning.

A second response which can be made (and has been on occasion by Wolfe) is that the complexity and difficulty are there not for their own sake, but because complexity and ambiguity are aspects of life itself. In an interview in 1984 with the American Audio Prose Library Chris Merrick asked the question “Do you think you’re an ambiguous writer?” and was told,

I think I am often because I want to be. I think the writer should be clear when he wants to be clear, he should be ambiguous when he wishes to be ambiguous. But there’s a great deal of ambiguity in life, and if the idea of art is to hold up a mirror to life, then you’re going to get a great deal of ambiguity out of that art.6

Although these questions concerning an author and his reader are applicable to most of Wolfe’s work, they are most pointedly highlighted by his two novels set in ancient Greece. These books are where the separation between the surface level and the deeper structures is greatest, and where the need to be an “expert” reader is most apparent. When it came to The Book of the New Sun most readers were on the same starting line, and how far you delved into the book was largely an extent of your liking for the author and your own proclivities. With the Latro books, it is no longer so. Accusations, or at least warnings, have gone out (with justification), that if you want to go beyond the surface of these books, you have to know something about the Classical world.7 Herodotus seems to be a minimum requirement, particularly for Soldier of the Mist (hereafter Mist). It can be supplemented by modern commentaries on the Persian wars, cults and religion, Pindar’s Odes, Robert Graves on myths and legends, and for Soldier of Arete (hereafter Arete) a selection of writing about the ancient games and arete, with the entire works of Mary Renault thrown in for good measure.

Faced with such a list of required reading (the optional list goes on a lot longer) the reader is justified in balking at the task and picking up something less demanding and more entertaining. Isn’t the purpose of fiction, after all, to entertain? Even if we pare the list down to just Herodotus as the single most important influence on Mist, we’re out of luck when it comes to Arete, for it opens with the closing scene of that great historian’s work The History.

There is, in the final analysis, no escaping this condition. Nevertheless, I believe the more rewarding attitude to be not “why are these books so full of obscure references” but “look how the glory and squalor of ancient Greece is made accessible!” In other words, let us not remain at the surficial level, not matter how attractive it seems, but move “onwards and inwards.” That is surely Wolfe’s intent, and in Part Two I will go on to bring out some of those references, as well as highlighting some important themes in the books.

Who Writes?

“You are an advocate of the dead.”

“I am… nobody I ever heard talks about doing right by them … we ought to remember now and then how much of what we have we got from them.”

— Severian and Rudesind.

The Latro novels make us confront questions about the texts themselves. In front of us we have two writings that have “come down” to us, supposedly translated by Wolfe. This is a typical Wolfe ploy, and the reader will immediately be reminded of the same framing device in The Book of the New Sun, although this time the manuscripts come to us from antiquity rather than the far future. Other examples abound of Wolfe directly engaging with the text: in “The Last Thrilling Wonder Story” (in Endangered Species) for example, an author by the name of “Gene Wolfe” discusses the story’s events with the protagonist; in the sequence of stories under the general title of “Procreation” we see again a narrator called Gene literally creating a world (with an awful pun on genesis), and perhaps most remarkably of all, in The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972), Number Five, the cloned narrator, turns out to have the hidden, chthonic, name of Gene Wolfe.8 Latro’s real name, Lucius, means ‘Wolf’ in Latin. These postmodernist feints remind us of Calvin’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, Priest’s The Affirmation, or Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman and serve the same purpose; to attract our attention to the process of writing itself and in particular the writer’s relationship to their texts.

There has long been an implicit conspiracy among authors that involves a double pretence, first that they have omniscient powers over their stories and characters, and second that they, the authors, do not exist; i.e. the story is “by” someone else, namely the narrator. Wolfe I believe would take issue with both of these. He has said a few times that authors do not always control their characters as much as they think. His most famous example is that of Dorcas popping up out of the swamp, “taking” the story in directions Wolfe had not anticipated. By pretending to provide manuscripts that he merely “edits” or “translates” Wolfe presents a more realistic rationale for having a story in our hands than is commonly attempted. Both of these moves seem to “disempower” the author by initially de-emphasising an author’s role, but they are gambits which only lose position in the short term: Wolfe’s objective is to emphasise the power of the Story: its tradition and importance in human affairs. And as the person responsible for revitalising Story, Wolfe is ultimately empowered again. (Though this may be a side effect he’s largely uninterested in.) Ironically, although Wolfe is often labelled an sf writer, these ploys make him more realist than the “realists” themselves, a comment that is applicable to most of Wolfe’s œuvre.

By framing the text as translation Wolfe is once again pointing to the question of language and its reliability. Indeed, we are warned against possible errors of translation in the preface to Soldier of the Mist. Is language the simple tool of the communicator, being moulded into expressions conveying information or is it more slippery, forever eluding our grasp? Wolfe has noted himself that one can make an error in dealing with language: “the error consists of deciding (without ever really looking into the question) that one knows what the words mean, that they actually mean it, and that they cannot ever mean anything else. All of which is seldom true”.9 This directly bears upon our question of “who writes?” Is it simply Wolfe writing, or is Latro more than just a figment of his imagination? We know Wolfe’s love of the story, but when a storyteller like Wolfe does tell one, he is partly, even greatly, reliant upon storytellers of the past, letting their voices and feelings be expressed through his own mouth, like the Alzabo. (Perhaps this also explains his belief that all things living ultimately derive from all things dead, as for example Rudesind argues in the passage above, or as the Queen of the Dead says in Mist, “[i]t is the dead – trees and grasses, animals and men – who send you all you have of men, animals, trees, and grasses” [p.120].) This derivation from the past, quite literally in the case of the Latro books, does not necessarily come without alteration or misinterpretation of course. Another example is provided by Valeria in the Atrium of Time. In Shadow of the Torturer she translates for Severian two mottoes on the gnomens. In fact she mistranslates them, but close enough so that the reader without Latin, or even a Latin- English dictionary will be deceived. Why does he do this, to trick us? I think not: he is being honest, honest that is to Valeria’s character, who probably does not know her ancient languages (her family is in severe decline). Who writes here? Wolfe or… Valeria? (In the same piece quoted above, Wolfe dismisses those who think characters are not real, and recounts the surprising appearance of Dorcas.) In Wolfe’s fiction although things can be what they seem, they are not just what they seem.

Names Again.

An example of this “character writing” is the naming scheme of Mist and Arete. As a Roman, Latro cannot read Greek, though he speaks it well enough. This results in the unique circumstance of Latro attempting to translate the meanings of the Greek words into Roman equivalents, so that Plataea becomes “Clay,” Corinth becomes “Tower Hill,” and Athens becomes “Thought.”10 Names have always been important to Wolfe, as readers of The Book of the New Sun know, but some critics have argued that it is unlikely that Latro would translate in this way. We do not, for example, call Mont Blanc the “White Mountain.”

There are two problems with this. The first is that Mont Blanc has acquired a certain fixity of reference, so that although its name does mean the White Mountain, by tradition we refer to it as Mont Blanc. Furthermore, we know that. Latro, waking afresh every day with twelve hour memories has no such fixity of referents. He does have a certain way of seeing things, and relating things to his childhood memories, (which he retains), and therefore winds up calling the same place by the same name over the months.

Second, it seems to me that Latro’s condition is more extreme than the difference between English and French; it’s fairer to think of English and Chinese. If we travelled through China keeping a journal, we would have two choices when we came to a new place. We could attempt to write down the sound of its name, or, we could attempt to translate its meaning into English. We certainly cannot write it in its Chinese characters. While the former approach is most often favoured, it is also liable to vagaries of hearing and cultural mores, as, in fact, the recent renaming of Chinese places has shown.

It can be argued nevertheless that writing down the sounds of the words gives you something more immediate to refer to when your Greek (or Chinese) companions mention it. But this is exactly what Latro does with people‘s names, a fact that has not been brought out thus far in such discussions. Therefore it’s Hegesistratus and not “Leader of the Host,” Xanthippos and not “Yellow Horse,” Cerdon and not “Cunning conman,” and Io and not “Joy,” even though he is well aware of the names’ meanings.

So we have an ancient manuscript in our hands. Unlike the rest of the writings that have come down from antiquity, which are derived from later copies, this purports to be an original. With its commentary on Greek life, and even a chapter by Pindar the Theban poet in Arete, the value of such a find would be inestimable. It would be quite literally the find of the ages. This is one point against falling in with Wolfe’s pretence: it is too unlikely.11

In this section I have tried to bring into focus some central questions about Wolfe’s work that are necessary for a worthwhile interpretation; questions that I think are especially necessary in the two books we have in hand. Obviously, I have done no more than to put these questions on the agenda; there is still much that has to be done if we wish to fully engage with their implications.


“The trumpets are blowing, and the heralds shout to advance. I try to keep our hundred together, but Medes with bows and big wicker shields press through our formation… we run across the plain, the swifter outpacing the slower, the lightly armed always farther ahead of the heavily armed, until I can see no one I know, only dust and running strangers, and ahead the shining wall of hoplons, the bristling hedge of spears.”

– – Latro describing the battle of Plataea

In this section I shall perform an “investigatory” reading to clarify the story by pulling out Wolfe’s Greek references. After briefly setting the larger scene in Greece, I shall place Mist and Arete within this context. Then I will go beyond the investigatory reading by considering several important aspects of the books: the role of the gods in Latro’s life, the oracle in Mist, and finally the concept of arete itself. Understanding the Greek context of these books allows us to move from what I have been calling the surficial level of Wolfe to the chthonic levels, and incidentally to get vicariously caught up in the glory and squalor of ancient Greece. Discussion of Wolfe’s themes will help us understand his “vision” of the world as put forward in these books, and our role in it.

The political and social context

In 479 BC, when the Latro novels begin, Greece (or Hellas as its inhabitants – then and now – call their country) was on the verge of entering its Classical period. It is probably this period that we most associate with Greece, a time when the great philosophers such as Plato, Socrates and Aristotle were to come, and when playwrights such as Aristophanes wrote their best work. Herodotus the “Father of History” was travelling around Greece and Egypt collecting material for his work The History (written circa 450 BC). In art perspective was being discovered, and Pheidias was sculpting the Parthenon (“the virgin’s place, i.e. Athena, goddess of the city).

But most of all, this was the time when Athens developed that system of government called democracy (from demos meaning ‘people’ and kratia meaning ‘rulers’) associated with the likes of Pericles, Cimon and Themistocles. It was not truly democratic, since large segments of the population were disenfranchised, namely the women, who were usually not allowed out of the house – hence their rather pale skins on Greek pottery, and of course the slaves, most of whom may not even have been Greek, being prisoners of war and the like.

This democracy was geographically limited too. Greece was not one nation, but a series of poleis, or nation-states loosely identifying themselves as Hellene. Each polis had its own government, issued its own coins and favoured its own gods. They might even, like Thebes during the Persian Wars, side with the “enemy” (the invading Persians). Sometimes government could differ widely from polis to polis. For example, the Lycurgan Spartan government has been called an “exercise in elitist communism”,12 an image not normally associated with Greece. Spartans were Dorians, settlers from the North, displacing the original inhabitants of the Peloppenesus, those people responsible for the Mycenean civilisation, and bringing new gods (Artemis) to replace the old ones (Gaea). Spartans made Laconia a class-based society: only the Spartan elite (the homoioi or “equals,” about 8000 in 480 BC) were counted citizens. Below them were the peroioikoi, “those who dwell round about” (or “neighbours” as Latro calls them) consisting of the artisan class (no Spartan would ever be a merchant), and below them the helots or slaves. Sparta was nominally ruled by two kings (keeping each other in check, argues Pausanias) supposedly descended from Heracles, but the power resided in the Senate of gerousia or old men, advised by the ephors or judges.

How different all this is from the burgeoning “democracy” of Athens. Early on, in the seventh century, the monarchy was overthrown, and although suffering through long periods of “tyranny” it moved toward more democratic institutions, especially after Solon’s reforms (early sixth century). Here there were no reasons of class why you could not take part in the decision-making process of the Assembly (again, provided you were neither woman nor slave, and that you lived within one day’s travel of the city, all this amounting to less than real democracy, despite advocates such as I.F. Stone in an otherwise exemplary book).13 In the twenty-sixth chapter of Arete Wolfe, in a brilliantly sustained piece of imagination, introduces us to some of the political leaders of Athens, such as Cimon, Xanthippos and Themistocles. We see the two parties, the “shieldmen’s party” (the Aristocrats) headed by Xanthippos and Cimon, and the “naval mob” (the Democrats) headed by Themistocles. The latter plays an important part in Arete because he comes forward to sponsor the Amazon Hippephode in the chariot race. He also, according the history books, became associated with Pausanias at this time, and possibly colluded with him in negotiating with Xerxes. Gradually falling out of favour, and accusing of medism, he was ostracised in 470, fleeing to Persia where he later died. Another curious point is that he came from the family of the Lycomids, a word which may be related to lukios, meaning wolf.

His opponent in politics, Cimon, became strategus (magistrate), a position of power politically and militarily in the year Latro meets him. He was responsible for the downfall of Pausanias just two years later, though he was the kind of man to desire peace with enemies, rather than constant war.

Soldier of the Mist

We first meet Latro near “Clay” (Plataea) in 479 BC with the “Great King’s” (Xerxes) army, which has just been beaten by Sparta and Athens. This proved to be the decisive land victory for the Greeks (the decisive sea battle was at Salamis). Latro must take the word Plataea and relate it to platus, i.e. a plate – which are made of clay. A related word is platon, meaning broad (hence plateau).

The Persian king Xerxes has decided to deal with the uppity Greeks (Ionia, now Western Turkey, was rebelling under Persian control, or “satrapy”). Xerxes’ predecessor was Darius, who himself attempted to invade Attica, called the “Long Coast” by Latro. He sent his commander, Datis, to land at Marathon where he was soundly beaten by the hoplites (shieldmen) of Athens (490 BC). A hoplon is an oval shield carried by the heavy infantry. These shields allowed the Greeks to form their famous phalanx (a word possibly deriving from the bones of fingers and toes).

The Spartans arrived at Marathon after the hot work was over, but probably not on purpose – they were celebrating a festival – and they did actually set out before they received news of the victory. Spartans were very devout (they “well knew who ruled the land,” as Wolfe points out in the foreword) even if they were touchy about their tardiness. Wolfe has Pausanias the Spartan Regent say to his men, “you know how we were late to Fennel Field” (Mist, p.206, i.e. Marathon) and urges his men to aid the Athenians in the siege of Sestos: “I ask you, shall we let them say they took Sestos alone?” “No!” cry his men.

Eleven years later Xerxes is doing just as badly because he is losing at Salamis. He is sitting on a rock watching his ships smashed in the narrow channel. The Greeks loved this victory: it was apparently more famous in Greek history than the defeat of the Spanish Armada in English history (Simonides, the famous Athenian poet who appears in Arete called it “that noble and famous victory”). The standard story is given in Plutarch (Themistocles) and Herodotus. Latro hears the story from Hypereides the leather merchant and captain of the Europa in Chapter seven of Mist.

Although Athens and Sparta fought together in this battle and at Plataea, they were “foul weather friends”: they only talked to each other when their lands were in danger. This could lead to misunderstanding: at Plataea, for example, everything nearly went wrong when communications between the two allies became strained. The Athenians and their allies were pulling back, but Amompharetus, a Spartan general, didn’t want to retreat without even engaging the enemy (or perhaps he never got Pausanias’ message) and refused to comply. This event is described by Basias in Mist (pp.149-150). The Persians attacked the straggling Spartans who formed up and crouched behind their shields under intense enemy fire (which says something for their discipline). Then the Greek reinforcements came up and the retreat turned into an attack, just as if an animal at bay had turned on its pursuers. That must have made quite a strong impression on both sides as both Plutarch and Latro mention it: Latro says, “[t]hey were retreating — we had so many more than they – and it seemed as though a good push would end the war. Then they turned like an elk with a thousand points” (Mist, p.152).

We would do well to note that such comments indicate that Latro has not lost all his memory, as some reviewers have said,14 only his short-term memory. As Basias says, “[i]n the morning he remembers everything after we camped. But it goes. By noon he won’t remember anything before he woke.” (Mist, p.161.) Quite obviously he still remembers how to speak both Latin and Greek, as well as having memories of his childhood in Italy, and the battle of Plataea (although he doesn’t seem to recall Salamis, in which he also fought). In Arete, with the help of Simonides he even begins to overcome his loss of short-term memory through the use of mnemonics – Simonides being a well-known teacher of memory improvement techniques.

Soldier of Arete

After Sestos falls, Latro (who verifies on the first page that his name is Lucius) is still in the city. No appreciable amount of time has passed. Themistocles, the Athenian commander, decides that he Persian satrap Artaÿctes and his son should be put to death, as is recounted in Herodotus (9.120). However, Oeobazus, who had made the bridge of boats Xerxes used to cross from Asia into Europe escapes. Although the Greeks had broken down the bridge and captured its chains, they decided that having Oeobazus as a prisoner of war would prove even more popular at home. Themistocles sends Hypereides and Latro after Oeobazus, who has fled into Thrace. As they travel the group meets a small band of Amazons, who appear as their name suggests, missing the right breast where the drawstring of their bow would cross, as the Greeks themselves thought. Latro falls in love with one of their number named Pharetra.

The Amazons are on a mission to steal some of the famed horses of Thrace. The reason for this, we find out later, is so they can to win the chariot race in the Games at Delphi. Needless to say, the mission goes awry and Latro returns to Greece. In a manumission ceremony at Sparta he is freed, although he must take part in the same Games in an exchange arranged with the connivance of the Athenian leaders. Pasicrates hasn’t yet forgiven him for cutting off his hand, and his constant hate seems to drastically depress Latro, who is already grieving for the dead Pharetra. At the Games he is reunited with Pindaros and some Phoenician prisoners who know him. After winning his events in the Games, Latro makes off with the prisoners, gains their ship and sails for Rome. The last chapter of the scroll is written by Pindaros, who also becomes guardian of Io and another child they met along the way.

This is the surface story of Arete (or some of it). Of course much more goes on below the surface. For example, the other child, Polos, is in fact a centaur sent by Gaea, or so Wolfe tells us in the Glossary. Latro gets involved in political manoeuvres on his return to Athens: Themistocles and his party agree with Cimon and his party that Latro ought to go to Sparta to be freed by Pausanias. These manoeuvres are somewhat confusing, and because Wolfe keeps Latro’s entries in the scroll realistic, we only learn of their importance incidentally.

The Involvement of the Gods

It is clear from the outset that the role of the gods in the Latro manuscripts is central to the plot and the actions of some characters, especially Latro. In this section I shall examine some aspects of that involvement.

We might begin with Pausanias, the Spartan Regent, who, according to the history books had plans to collaborate with Xerxes (we see this firsthand in chapter twenty-seven of Mist). According to the Latro manuscripts Pausanias has been sent a dream by Kore that involves Latro. Pausanias has Mother Ge/Demeter’s favour because of this collaborationist line: recall the sacrifice scene in chapter thirty-one, where she promises to make him king of Laconica. He himself wants to rule that land until they came, bringing with them Artemis, their preferred goddess, who she calls the “usurper” (Arete, chapter sixteen). This also explains why Artemis is helping Latro: since her enemy took away his memory, by advancing his cause she wounds Demeter. Thus, for example, she tells Latro and Hegesistratus in chapter six of Arete that soon they will meet a queen, meaning the queen of the Amazons, who will ride a chariot at Delphi in the games, supported by Themistocles, “but when the moment comes, the slut must lose.” I believe this to be because of Themistocles (the boar she mentions) who will come forward to support Hippephode, who as a barbarian cannot legitimately take part in the games, and that he must be discredited (as Hegesistratus observes in chapter forty-one of Arete) before he allies with the Spartans. Artemis would like to see Latro win, on the other hand, because the Amazons, as priestesses of Ares are the “granddaughters of Demeter, which is why Hegesistratus is so upset later when he rides off to the Phoenician ship (chapter forty-three). It is not clear why, but Latro’s actions serve to elevate Pausanias’ cause (he is “twice a hero”) due to Latro’s desertion. Much of this is still unclear and may be elaborated if the long-projected Soldier of Sidon is ever completed..

Latro claims to be able see these gods. He provides many examples of conversations and encounters with them. While there is a “rational” explanation for this, the head wound he received at the battle of Plataea (e.g. Kichesippos the Spartan Healer speaks of “hallucinations”, Mist p.174), going beyond this is more interesting because it allows us to see what Wolfe is up to. In the foreword to Mist Wolfe notes that Latro “reports Greece as it was reported by the Greeks themselves” (p.xiii), i.e. complete with reference to the gods, The theological system means the gods are dependent to some degree on humanity, so that when the Great Mother appears to the helots in Mist for example, she is old, although she rightly points out that for others she is younger because they haven’t been worshipping her as long. The extent to which we worship the gods affects their power, and though immortal, they may disappear or be replaced by gods whose powers are waxing, This is very different from the monotheistic Christian perspective, with its all-powerful deity upon which we depend. Although some people may be offended by the theological system in the Latro manuscripts, not only is it faithful to the Greeks, but it could be very attractive to those who might currently describe themselves as atheists.

The reason for this is because it places humanity at the centre of the system, instead of being dependent on a deity whose intent we strive to understand. Greek gods represent an interesting approach to religion: that it is there when you need it. This attractive vision is supplemented by the fact that since there were many gods and goddesses, some of whom represent the earth, rivers and the sea, we would increase our respect for the environment. As I write this, for example, the Exxon Valdiz has caused one of the biggest oil spills ever in the Alaskan sound. Perhaps the Greek gods offer us a lesson in environmentalism we have too soon forgotten.

There are other versions of why Latro can see the gods. Apollo explains to him that only the solitary see the gods, and without friends, home or memory this certainly describes Latro’s condition. Long after he has forgotten Apollo, Latro is thrown into “water” (the Aegean) by Pasicrates, Pausanias’ message runner. There he meets Thoe, one of the daughters of Ocean. In events that echo those between Severian and the undines, she takes him headfirst down in to the blue depths, so that “the blue water was all about me, a darker blue above, a paler, brighter blue below, where a great brown snail with a mossy shell crawled and trailed a thread of slime” (Mist, p.224). She tells him that children too are permitted to see her, although men are not, unless they soon die, because “they forget the way you do” (p.225).

One of the most important and lasting encounters with gods that Latro has is in Mist, when he receives the oracle from Apollo. I wish to turn to that in some detail now.

The Oracle at Thebes

Soldier of the Mist begins with an encounter with Apollo, god of prophecy, wolves and light. The appearance of Apollo in Wolfe’s books should not be dismissed as trivial: Apollo’s epithet was Lukeios, which although ambiguous (it could mean “wolf-slaying,” “the Lycian god,” or “the god of day”) is probably derived from Greek lukos (wolf). In an essay on Greek wolf-lore, Eckels points out that Apollo was a pastoral god, and a “protector of the hers, and hence the enemy and slayer of wolves”.15. Apollo’s oracle is given twice, once by Apollo himself and once through the sibyl. Unfortunately space does not permit me to discuss all the references in the prophecy here but I will comment on the more important lines. First, here are Apollo’s words:

I am a god of divination, of music, of death, and of healing; I am the slayer of wolves and the master of the sun. I prophesy that though you will wander far in search of your home, you will not find it until you are farthest from it. Once only, you will sing as men sang in the Age of Gold to the playing of the gods. Long after, you will find what you seek in the dead city.

Though healing is mine, I cannot heal you, nor would I if I could; by the shrine of the Great Mother you fell, to a shrine of hers you must return. Then she will pint the way, and in the end the wolf’s tooth will return to her who sent it…. Look beneath the sun… (Mist, 10)

Apollo’s last line is recast by the sibyl (“Look under the sun, if you would see!”). Pindaros says it means the light of understanding comes from Apollo (the sun), but this may be too hasty. Latro is told later (by Demeter) to “look beneath the sun,” when he is to steal the Royal horses of Thrace (Arete, chap. 16). The sun is guiding him to something which will appear below it. Or again, Latro, standing on the walls of Sestos, sees the sun, not as a shining fireball, but as Apollo racing across the sky in his chariot (Arete, chap. 1). Seeing that it does not slow as it approaches the horizon Latro speculates that it passes beneath the Earth to come up on the other side: a brilliant deduction made nearly 140 years before Aristotle concluded the Earth was a sphere in On the Heavens.16 Latro has two explanations: that he ought to read his scroll, an activity best performed by daylight (Mist, p.13) and that he should look to the past, where he will indeed see (Arete, chap.seven).

The reference to wandering far from home does not appear in the sibyl’s version, but presumably refers to the vision of home that Elata gives him in the fifth chapter of Arete. While physically far away (in Thrace) he “visits” his home in Italy, seeing his father ploughing, and then speaking with his mother.

Apollo says, “Long after, you will find what you seek in the dead city” and since what Latro is seeking are his friends this must be the scene in Sestos at the conclusion of Soldier of the Mist. The Athenians besiege the city and murder the Persian satrap (Herodotus 9.120 and the opening scene of Arete). Latro finds his long-lost Roman friend that he was with in Xerxes’ army (his name may be “Cassius,” see p.231 of Mist). As Kore warned (p.121), Demeter has a finger in Latro’s decision, so he finds him only moments before he dies, but here, on the last page of the first scroll, he finally learns his name is Lucius.

“Though healing is mine, I cannot heal you, nor would I if I could; by the shrine of the Great Mother you fell, to a shrine of hers you must return.” (p.10) Pindaros says, “here, in my humble opinion, is the single most significant line in the whole business” (p.14). Apollo says that Latro can only be healed by the one who hurt him, that is, the Great Mother “whom we worship under so many different names, most of which mean mother, or earth, or grain-giver, or something of that sort”(p.14). This is correct so far, although at first Pindaros tries to guide Latro to the wrong shrine. Who is this Great Mother? In the thirty-first chapter of Mist the Great Mother is the goddess the Spartan helots want returned to the Pelepponesus and she speaks of her daughter Kore. Kore was Demeter’s daughter, described as Gaea’s daughter in the glossary. In chapter six Cerdon implies that Demeter bore the “Fingers,” i.e. the Dactlys, a set of dwarfish offspring, although again in his glossary Wolfe implies that it was Gaea who had them. The point is that Wolfe is showing us that two very old goddesses, Demeter and Gaea, who have very similar attributes (fertility, earth etc.) are actually aspects of the same divinity. We are reminded of this by the priest in chapter four, who tells us (by way of telling little Io) that the gods go by the name that is most appropriate to the time and place they are addressed, so that they can have many names. There may be “many gods, but not so many as ignorant people suppose” (p.19).

The “Great Mother” and the “Earth Mother”, Demeter (her name was thought by the ancients to mean that, from de earth and meter mother) and Gaea (Earth) are the same goddess. Pindaros says himself when he realises that Latro must got to Eleusis (Advent) and not Lebadeia, “[t]he Grain Goddess is the Great Mother, and the Great Mother is the Earth Mother, who sends up our wheat and barley” (p.109).

The last lines of Apollo’s prophecy are particularly interesting. The first part, “[t]hen she shall point the way…” (p.10), refers to the Maiden in chapter nineteen, who gives him the Lupine, the “wolf-flower,” which he rolls up in his scroll. By doing this he is sent to Sestos by Pausanias, so indeed the flower is acting as a pointer. Apollo continues, “…and in the end the wolf’s tooth will return to her who sent it.” Note Kore’s words later: “[h]ere is the wolf-flower for you, who bears the wolf’s tooth” (Mist, p.120). This may refer to Latro’s ancestry: as a Roman he is supposedly descended from Romulus and Remus, who were suckled by a wolf.17 Alternatively, if the tooth is interpreted as a “mark,” or “sign,” it could be a reference to Latro’s real name, (Lucius), which as we have seen means “wolf.”

Demeter/Gaea has taken away his memory because of an as yet unidentified offence. At Plataea, the fighting came close to one of her temples (Latro remembers its white walls, Mist, p.153), and Herodotus notes (9.65) that strangely no bodies were found in its precincts. Herodotus though this was because the Persians had angered her for burning another temple and “would not let them in,” while modern writers note that the fleeing Persians were faced with the uphill lay of the land (with the temple at the top), guiding them around it in the stream valleys.

Latro at least may have gone into the temple. Kore the Maiden remarks that he is no longer as stubborn as he was with her mother (Mist, p.120) which seems to hint that he at least talked with Demeter, and perhaps insulted her. It is interesting to speculate that perhaps his comments had something to do with memory or forgetting, which gives his punishment a kind of divine justice. Latro is a proud early Roman, as we see when his heart nearly bursts when he sees the Roman Eagle in the battle of Sestos, although he doesn’t even know why, so it is possible that he denigrated some Greek ideal, or championed a Roman god. Wolfe uses a quote from Herodotus referring to the fight and the temple as his epigraph to Mist.

As I mention above, it is impossible to examine every aspect of Greek life that Wolfe refers to in these books, but through looking at the prophecy we can at least find some rationale for Latro’s more significant encounters with the gods and goddesses.

Loyalty and “Arete”

“Old Ares isn’t some kind of monster, see? Think of him as a plain man that wants to win the war and get back home to Aphrodite. He’s for training, discipline, and fair play with the men. And he whistles when he loses just like he whistles when he wins.”

– – Diokles

It is noticeable that some of the characters develop between the books. Sometimes this results in our examining motives and features such as loyalty, which appeared settled. A case in point is Hypereides. While apparently working for Xanthippos he promises to free Artaÿctes the Persian satrap of Sestos, and further, he knows him well. As a major trader Hypereides presumably has occasionally met Artaÿctes, and is the kind of person who puts personal loyalties above those of the state. Most states could probably do without this kind of “loyalty,” but Hypereides has been presented to us as such a gruff, likeable chap (like Severian’s father, he is a “stamping good man”) that we are obviously meant to sympathise, rather than condemn his actions (I sometimes think rather irreverently that Hypereides is the person Wolfe himself might most identify with). Hypereides is an independent thinker, who does not just take what is handed to him in life, but tries to work out for himself an acceptable system of justice. We can see this in his very fair treatment of Latro, despite his “slave” status, especially when he releases him from the prison in Corinth.

This raises the larger issue of loyalty as a concept in more general terms. For example, although a Roman, Latro is generally seen aiding the Greek side in Mist (sometimes against his will, as with Pausanias). In this section I shall examine the concept of arete as found in Greek writings, and see how Latro shows his arete in the face of memory loss.

The concept of arete taps into a strong Greek passion for the noble, excellent and “manly” virtues that are best exemplified in their athletic games. As Miller says “[I]t existed, to some degree, in every ancient Greek and was, at the same time, a goal to be sought and reached for by every Greek.”18 Such ideals were not limited to athletics however: as the word implies, arete can also occur on the battlefield (from Ares, the god of war), and in fact athletics often feature events useful for military occasions, such as running in armour (the hoplitodromos), the discus (originally throwing a rock at the enemy), the javelin, running various lengths, and so on. Plato occasionally uses athletic metaphors to illustrate military practices, as for example in Laws (830a-c) where he argues that the military needs practice for war like boxers need it before competing. Indeed, Wolfe defines arete as “the virtues of a soldier, ranging from cleanliness and love of order to courage in the face of death” (Arete, Glossary).

The word arete also means “achievements, acts of valour and gallantry and championship: aretas, related of course to aristos, and in English to aristocracy” which is itself related to the athletic event called the pankration, or “all-power,” consisting of boxing and wrestling.19 Latro competes in this event, as well as boxing itself and the chariot-race. When Latro wins in his events, he exemplifies the ideal Greek, at once strong, virtuous and self-aware, but he was not always so. In chapter nineteen of Mist for example, Kore reminds him that he was once more “stiff-necked”; perhaps the pride that got him into trouble with her mother, who ironically notes later that Latro is “learning wisdom” (Mist, p.191).

The concept of the ideal has found its most famous expression in the philosophy of Plato and his Ideas: generalised images and forms by which we are able to understand the world by being able to categorise it. Categories are essential to our thinking. If we had to use a specific word for each object language would become impossible so instead we express meaning through classes of objects (e.g. “table” can refer to all tables). The category itself is an ideal thing, not objectively perceivable, but real to thought. As Durant (1939) observes, “[m]en are born and die, but man survives”.20 As the quotation from Miller above hints, we ourselves are not perfect (though as members of the category we do contain some arete) and we constantly aspire toward that ideal type of human so well expressed in Greek thought by the concept of arete.

Nevertheless, there were dissenters in Greece who thought that athletics championed the wrong attributes, that wisdom and “goodness” were better than the “dreadful struggle which men call the pankration,” as Xenophanes puts it.21 Euripides expresses similar concern a century later, calling athletics a Greek “evil”.22 Both these men were concerned that athletes were useless for defending the state, or in improving its lot. But Themistocles would argue that these dissenting opinions are at least democratic: as he says in Arete, the Greeks always make sure all sides have their voices fairly represented. (chapter twenty-six)

But the voice we hear most eloquently concerning the Games is that of Pindar, labelled by Wolfe as perhaps the best Greek poet after Homer (Arete, Foreword). Pindar was especially concerned with how athletic arete could exemplify the total commitment and toil necessary to succeed in life, as much as in the Games. As he says in Olympian, success without risk is not honoured” (6.9), or most forcefully in Nemean,

he who rates too poorly his strength,
Lets the honours within his reach
Slip from his hand,
Plucked back by his unadventurous heart. (11.31-2)

Effort must be made to overcome difficulty, like the story Diokles tells in Arete chapter thirty-nine about the cart in the ditch. As he says, “[t]here isn’t any god going to do that for you. Not the way you are.” Lee argues that in Pindar, “there is the crystal-clear perception of the human condition, of man who is mortal by essence… whose life is subject to the ups and downs of fortune.” He quotes Pythian 8.91-99:

In a brief moment, the happiness of men will grow, even so it falls to the ground. We are creatures of a day. What is man? What is he not? He is the dream of a shadow. But when the god sheds brightness, a shining light is on men and life is sweet as honey.23

This viewpoint could account for the structure of Arete, in which Latro suffers from a deep depression caused by the enmity of Pasicrates, and possibly the unconscious memory of his dead lover, Pharetra. In the end, he overcomes his troubles, winning his events in the Games, and even plotting and escaping on the Phoenician ship. On more than one occasion Latro shows his arete by overcoming adversity and showing courage when things are bad, rather than just rolling over and accepting the difficulties.

But even in the glow of victory, one must practice sophrosyne, or moderation and temperance by which one avoids hybris. One of the most important ways this must be done is to recognise that the gods had a role in your success. As Lee says, “for the epinician poet piety demands that the gods be acknowledged”.24 Again, this finds its place in Wolfe’s books, quite explicitly in the case of Artemis’ involvement, as well as generally throughout the story, where gods and goddesses seem to be as involved in human affairs as today’s politicians, and like them often have self-promotion at heart. Ignore the gods at your peril and exercise euergesia (munificence) in victory is the moral to be gained here.

These themes – the question of arete, the oracle at Thebes, and Artemis and Demeter’s role in Latro’s life have, in their turn, on common element. This is the presence of the divine in human affairs, but a presence that is predicated on continued human worship and respect, which if removed, causes the decline of the gods. As more eloquent atheists than I have put it, “there is something profoundly spiritual about it, and as a non-Christian critic I say this a little uncomfortably”.25 So let us hope that our of our welcome discomfort we can, with the help of arete, celebrate further understandings.

* * * * * *

References to Books by Gene Wolfe:

The Fifth Head of Cerberus. New York: Ace, 1972.
The Book of the New Sun, four volumes:
The Shadow of the Torturer
The Claw of the Concilator
The Sword of the Lictor
The Citadel of the Autarch. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980-2.
Soldier of the Mist. New York: Tor, 1986.
Storeys from the Old Hotel. Worcester Park, Surrey, Kerosina, 1988.
Endangered Species
. New York: Tor, 1989.
Soldier of Arete. New York: Tor, 1989.

* * * *

This article was originally written in the late 1980s (I think in 1988) as a contribution to a proposed book on Wolfe to be edited by the sf critic John Clute. At that time I had been reading Wolfe for some years (I remember the excruciating anticipation I suffered waiting for Volume 4 of the Book of the New Sun to be published, whilst I was an undergrad at Liverpool University, and in fact can still also remember reading that first page in the hardback where Severian talks about the importance of terrain in war). Clute’s book Strokes had come out a few years earlier which included some groundbreaking work on Wolfe, and as an active sf fan, I had bumped into Clute at a con somewhere and later shared a nice pint of beer in his neighbourhood in Camden. In the event, Clute’s project never materialised and this Web appearance is the first time the article has been published. I had a lot of fun doing it, and Wolfe was generous enough to ask his publisher to send me a photocopy of his manuscript for Soldier of Arete, which would not be published until after my deadline. Coming full circle, that manuscript was donated to the SF Foundation at Liverpool University. I’m glad to be able to thank Wolfe here


1. Edward Said, “Opponents, audiences, constituencies and community,” in H. Forster (Ed.) The Anti-Aesthetic. Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, 1983.

2. James Gunn, “Science fiction: The Shadow of the Torturer,” in Book World – The Washington Post, May 25 1980, p.8.

3. D. Lane, W. Vernon & D. Carson, The Sound of Wonder, interviews from “The Science Fiction Radio Show.” Oryx Press, 1985.

4. John Clute, Strokes, Seattle: Serconia Press, 1988. p.159.

5. Irving Howe, “The Treason of the Critics,” New Republic, June 12 1989, p.28.

6. C. Merrick, [Interview with Gene Wolfe.] Columbia, MO: American Audio Prose Library, 1984. [Tape medium].

7. See Feeley’s review of Soldier of the Mist in Foundation, 37 (1986), 69-71.

8. First pointed out by John Clute in Strokes.

9. Gene Wolfe, [untitled] in R. Jackson (Ed.), Frontier Crossings, Conspiracy ’87, London: Science Fiction Conventions, Ltd, 1987. p.119.

10. The rationale behind “Thought,” and “Rope” at least was explained by Wolfe in an interview for Weird Tales, Vol. 50 (1), Spring 1988.

11. Wolfe would derive great pleasure in telling us that it is not impossible however, especially if the scrolls were stored in a dry place, such as Egypt, which seems to be the case here – – they are “possibly the stock of an Egyptian stationer.” But the media coverage and presumable sale through auction of such scrolls would be world news, and not all possible things are likely.

12. F.J. Frost, Greek Society. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath & Co., 1987.

13. I.F. Stone, The Trial of Socrates. Boston: Little, Brown, 1988.

14. Feeley says in his review that Latro can “remember nothing”.

15. R.P. Eckels, Greek wolf-lore. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1937. p.60.

16. S. Hawking, A Brief History of Time. New York: Bantam, 1988.

17. Wolfe partially retells the tale of Romulus and Remus in “The tale of the boy called frog” in The Sword of the Lictor.

18. S.G. Miller, Arete. Chicago: Ares Publishers, 1979. p.105.

19. P. Levi, The Pelican History of Greek Literature. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1975. p.122.

20. W. Durant, The Life of Greece. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1939. p.515.

21. Xenophanes, fr. 2, ca. 525 BC.

22. Euripides, Autolykos, fr.282. See Miller for these references.

23. H. Lee, “Athletic Arete in Pindar” in The Ancient World, 7 (1983), 31-37.

24. Lee, p.33 Original emphasis.

25. P. Nicholls, Review of The Urth of the New Sun, in Foundation, 41 (1987), p.96.


Five Steps towards Briah: Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the Long Sun

1 Comment

  1. Pope Brak

    Thanks very much for publishing this excellent article online. As a classics student, I find it quite refreshing to read a serious academic assessment of these works. I very much appreciate your insights.

    Pope Brak

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