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Articles and essays about the fiction of Gene Wolfe

Posthistory 201

In this new study of how human history is measured and portrayed in Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle, Michael Andre-Driussi reassesses the subject of his earlier essay “Posthistory 101” (originally published in Extrapolation, Vol. 37, No. 2,1996) and examines the textual evidence for estimating the duration of the Autarchy.

1: A NEW MODEL

Let me propose the following model for the underlying structure of Urth history as depicted in Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle:

  • Prehistory (before starflight)
  • History (Urth’s galactic empire)
  • Posthistory

The text gives us starting- and end-points for the this tripartite structure: Apu-Punchau at the beginning and the Deluge at the end.

Most of the details available are either prehistoric (from Apu-Punchau to the picture of the Apollo astronaut on the Moon) or posthistoric (Era of the Monarch Typhon and the subsequent Age of the Autarch).

The historic period of galactic conquest by Koreans includes the terraforming of Mars, Venus, and the Moon into Verthandi, Skuld, and Lune. It has a decline and fall, I believe. In any event, Typhon plans to create or recreate a galactic empire.

Jonas now shines for me as the man of history, in the Urth sense described above. Previously I had grasped that he shared common threads with us prehistoric readers: he has read Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, he knows the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, and he is accurate in his comments on the European Middle Ages. In this respect he is our stand-in, our surrogate in Severian’s Commonwealth.

But now I see Jonas was there at the beginning of history: he saw Citadel Hill when it was the bustling Port of Urth, he knew Nessus under its earlier name, and he knows why the Wall was built (probably as a containment device to keep hazards in, rather than as a protection against things from outside). Jonas went up in his rocket ship and participated in the galactic expansion, but when that same ship came back, history was over, there was no longer a port on Urth, and they crash-landed the rocket somewhere in the Commonwealth.

I now believe that the enigmatic Kim Lee Soong was the navigator of his ship, and the poignancy is that Jonas has found the long-time descendants of his old friend imprisoned in the antechamber of the House Absolute.

The text often emphasizes the similarities between Jonas and Hethor, and I believe they are contemporaries, but Hethor went onto the Big Ship and adapted to starsails, whereas Jonas stayed with rockets.

When Jonas says the city was not called Nessus yet because it did not poison the water, it now seems crystal clear to me that the poisoning of the water is a direct result of technological decline. That is, it was a metropolis of the high population density only possible through 20th century technology for water treatment. The technology fell until finally the city had to move upstream to avoid its own filth.

2: THE AUTARCHIAL TIME

2.1 Overview

In “Posthistory 101” and Lexicon Urthus I stated that the time from Ymar to Severian was about a chiliad. Recent reading suggests that the range is actually between one thousand and thirty-thousand years, most accurately “many chiliads,” which means “more than three chiliads” and yet it is probably unknowable beyond that.

2.2 Revising my estimate
I had been working on a chapter guide to The Book of the New Sun for many months, and thus I was engaged with the text again.

Nigel Price and I were chatting in email about the timespan of Urth’s history. We agreed with the basic principle that Severian’s post-historic vantage point means that all time is vague. In this Wolfe goes against the Vancean grain of numbered Aeons known as history by the grubbing wizards of the dying Earth, as in the following examples from Rhialto the Marvellous (1984):

During the 17th Aeon, a land-bridge rises across the Straits of Garch…

And:

For double security I reverted the object to the 16th Aeon…

Then Nigel asked the simple question of why I was so certain that the Age of the Autarchy was about a thousand years. This proved surprisingly difficult to answer, because it turns out I had not adequately cited the source text for that detail in my essay “Posthistory 101”.

After putting in some research, it seems that my millennium autarchy (hereafter “1K”) was following the model put forth by Vodalus in his recruitment pitch to Severian:

“Has it never struck you that mankind was richer by far, and happier too, a chiliad gone than it is now?” (II, chap. 10)

This statement strongly implied to me that the autarchs had reigned for about a thousand years. For more context, I assumed that the exultant Vodalus was as well-educated as Thecla, so he might plausibly know such a thing. Furthermore, Vodalus was not presenting himself as a “reformer” but as a revolutionary who would restore Urth to a former glory of pre-Autarchial times.

In addition to that line from Vodalus, I was perhaps unduly influenced by a statement from Gene Wolfe in a 1983 interview by Robert Frazier, where two lines near the end go as follows:

RF: Perhaps we could end this by telling something about Severian which doesn’t end up in the books [The Book of the New Sun].

GW: There was a time when Severian encountered assassins in the Secret House who had come to kill Ymar, an autarch a chiliad dead. (Peter Wright, Shadows of the New Sun, p. 55)

Based, then, on Vodalus’ and Wolfe’s comments, I took the 1K model as being solid beyond reasonable questioning.

But then I found another timespan model, this time coming from Agia, of all people. She is a commoner, with no education. As she walks toward the Botanic Gardens she is larking along in flirtatious banter with Severian, but it turns out in hindsight that many of her statements are prophetically true.

At one point she says about the Conciliator: “Then there is nothing to prevent him, from a position, say, of thirty thousand years ago, coming into what we call the present” (I, chap. 19).

This is highly specific. She is saying that the era of the Conciliator was thirty chiliads back (hereafter “30K”).

Initially there is no solid link between the time of the Conciliator and the era of Typhon. This changes in The Urth of the New Sun, where it is established that the Conciliator met the Monarch.

2.3 Narrowing the range

The range in these two models is from one to thirty chiliads. In an attempt to narrow that down a bit, I set upon a brute force method of searching for the terms “chiliads,” “thousand years,” “ages,” “aeons,” and “eons,” in order to sift for further clues. (A trivial task now, with e-text.) My results are summarised in the following section.

3: THE LANGUAGE OF TIME

CHILIADS

  1. Jonas to Severian: “Once I read a history. I don’t suppose you know anything about it. So many chiliads have elapsed here” (II, chap. 16). This statement is generic. Jonas is probably referring to the “post-historic” nature of Severian’s culture, and/or the technological decline evidenced by the fact that Urth’s “(space)port” was missing.
  2. Cyriaca to Severian about her uncle at the Library: “It was a book no one had opened, as he believed, for a chiliad” (III, chap. 6). Since the Library was formed by Typhon, then this line can be read to support the 1K model, but of course it supports the 30K form as well.
  3. Severian to Typhon on the Conciliator: “He has been dead for many chiliads” (III, chap. 25). This might be honest, perhaps based on what Agia had said, but there is a strong case for dissimulation here.
  4. Severian on Typhon: “The heart that had not served him for so many chiliads ceased to beat” (III, chap. 26). An attempt at dissimulation would not work against Typhon at this point so this one cannot go into the 1K pile. It is too non-specific to go into the 30K pile, however. (Too bad Severian did not use “several,” since it seems that he always means “three” in that case!)
  5. Severian as Conciliator to his followers: “To the ice of ten chiliads will be added the ice of the winter now almost upon us” (V, chap. 27). This line is ambiguous for bringing in ice time. On the positive side, he definitely knows he is early in the Autarchy at that point, I think.
  6. Severian returned to the House Absolute, presumably at the eleventh year of his reign. Looking at the dead assassin, he is tempted to “replace the knife I had lost so many chiliads ago” (V, chap. 41, 292). Since he had just come from the Typhon Era, the knife he refers to is the one he drove into Typhon’s table (V, chap. 39, 275). This item cannot go in the 1K pile.

THOUSAND YEARS

  1. Agia to Severian on the Conciliator as quoted above: source of 30K model.
  2. The aquastor Malrubius regarding the second time ship: “its range is but a few thousand years” (IV, chap. 31). Since this likely means that the mausoleum builder is alive in that time frame of a few thousand years in the past, it implies that the mausoleum builder’s era is there, which would require the Autarchial Age to be many chiliads. These speculations suggest it cannot be added to the 1K pile.

AGES

  1. Severian about the Atrium of Time: “No doubt because the frost of these latter ages entering the tunnel below had heaved its foundations” (I, chap. 4). Interesting that the “ages” here are shorter than the autarchial age.
  2. Agia about the Wall: “it has stood through a dozen ages” (I, chap. 25). Too ambiguous for use, but does use a figure (12!).
  3. Severian on duelling: “Those ages that have outlawed it (and many hundreds have, by my reading) have replaced it largely with murder” (I, chap. 27). This case seems to conflate “ages” with “societies” or maybe “reigns.” For example, we look to Wikipedia under “Duel” and see that Italy outlawed it in 1215, and the Holy Roman Empire outlawed it in 1650, etc. Still, he is talking about many hundreds of units here, whatever their actual duration.
  4. Jonas: “what they called the dark ages” (II, chap. 16). Based upon the points he gives, this is an anchor to the early middle ages (AD 500 to 1000), a span of 500 years. Hmm, so with the plural, each “age” of the dark ages might be 100 years? Hard to say!
  5. Severian: “costumes drawn largely from remote ages” (II, chap. 23).
  6. Severian on towers: “of metal so closely fitted that they had, ages ago, diffused into one another” (II, chap. 30). Another case where the multiple “ages” are tucked within the Autarchial Age.
  7. Merryn on the Cumaean and the stone town: “She is very old, but this city was devastated whole ages before she came to be” (II, chap. 31). The Stone Age/Bronze Age stone town seems to be a far point in time from the Autarchial Age, but “whole ages” seems (to me at least) less than “dozens of ages” or “hundreds of ages.”
  8. Appendix to Volume II: “An age is the interval between the exhaustion of some mineral or other resource in its naturally occurring form (for example, sulfur) and the next” (301). This note slyly shifts from the standard models of “materials of use” (Stone Age, Iron Age, Steam Age) to the 1970s concern for “resource depletion” (petroleum, uranium, etc.). While the Bronze Age lasts something like 2,000 years and the Steam Age around 145 years, the depletion schedule remains only theoretical. The text is plain that the citadel wall is made of unsmeltable metal, and that some things called “metal” are really more like cloth, etc.
  9. About seeds that “sink to the bottom of Gyoll and remain there for whole ages of the world” (III, chap. 11). Too vague for my task.
  10. Severian about his narrative: “I shall call it The Book of the New Sun, for that book, lost now for so many ages, is said to have predicted his coming” (IV, chap. 38). Could be used for 1K pile or 30K pile.
  11. Conciliator to Typhon: “and whole ages of the world will stride across it before my coming reawakens you to life” (V, chap. 39). “Whole ages” being equated with 30K, or at least “many chiliads.”
  12. On the estimated time of arrival for the White Fountain: “no matter how fast I drew my star to me, it was so distant that whole ages of the world would pass before it reached us” (V, chap. 40).
  13. Vulcanism: “In ages when men were only higher beasts, there were indeed such mountains” (V, chap. 42).
  14. “After ages of Urth, a bold man forced his way into that temple” (V, chap 47).
  15. The three Hierodules to Severian in the House of Day: “Whole ages of the world have passed since we’ve seen you” (V, chap. 50). The span they refer to is from Severian’s first year to the era of Apu-Punchau. The usage here resembles that in the earlier example involving the Cumaean.
  16. “Age of the Autarch” is used by Wolfe only in his article “Cavalry in the Age of the Autarch.”

So “ages” are all over the place, which is especially confusing when relating to governments or reigns or something like that.

4: INDICATORS OF TIME

Here are some more terms (given in upper case) and concepts relating to the passage of time which Wolfe uses in The Book of the New Sun and related texts:

Chain of civilizations: Wolfe writes, “in Severian’s time for the scholar-heirs of a sequence of civilizations that may be over a million years old” (“Books in The Book of the New Sun,” Wright’s Shadows of the New Sun, 195). Note that a million years = 1,000 chiliads.

Fossilization time: minimum 10,000 years. (Regarding the cliff-exposed city as a natural fossil.)

AEONS:

  1. “pounded to powder by aeons of tumbling in the…sea” (I, chap. 16).
  2. “the world is ordered to some plan…or one derived during the billion aeons of its existence” (III, chap. 27).
  3. “Ages are aeons to us” (III, chap. 33). [Good to know that aeons are greater than ages!]
  4. “for so many aeons” (V, chap. 21).
  5. “among the fallen towers [of the undersea city]…treasures…had withstood the passing of aeons” (V, chap. 48).

EONS:

  1. “to have walked among us eons ago” (I, chap. 29).
  2. “perhaps, [he is separated from his readers] by the abyss of eons” (II, chap. 4).
  3. “the eons [for the manapes] of struggles in the dark” (II, chap. 6).
  4. “In the earliest eons he [Apu-Punchau] had appeared” (II, chap. 31).
  5. “substance of the tiles [cliff city] in eons past” (III, chap. 14).
  6. “but during the eons of its existence [telecommunications], it laid upon him a spell” (IV, chap. 26).

The first instance of “eons” is especially interesting. This is Severian talking to Agia about the Conciliator, where he uses “eons” and she replies with “thirty thousand years,” which suggests that an eon could be around ten thousand years.

5: JONAS

When Jonas refers to “the dark ages” (II, chap. 16, 137), I am unsure as to his context. Still, he is talking very specific points:

  • king elected at Marchfield (AD 509).
  • counts appointed by kings (AD 450-751).
  • “baron” only a freeman of Lombardy (Old High German 750-1050).

Jonas seems to be highlighting that the Early Middle Ages, or “the Dark Ages”, were only five hundred years, and had these meritocratic qualities, whereas the High Middle Ages and Late Middle Ages, lasting 250 years each, showed improvements in some ways but positions became inherited. So the context seems to be, “I am shocked to find that this Autarchial Age has lasted longer than the Middle Ages,” which would move the scale from the one thousand years to the multi-thousand years model.

Urth cannot climb up out of the pit of its own “Middle Ages” because resources have been so comprehensively depleted.

6: POSTHISTORY

What can we conclude from this survey? Does the period that I have described as “Posthistory” have a precise duration?

My sense is that the autarchy is entirely within the posthistorical phase of Wolfe’s time scheme, but it probably started before then. Typhon had come in, made Urth his capital, and tried to conquer the galaxy, but it seems that Urth had already been fallow for some time at that point.

 

 

Ancient Greek Temple of Poseidon

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.

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.

Proving Veil’s Hypothesis: Variance Reduction Techniques, Larval Life Cycles on an East Wind, and Shadow Children Riding Mars(c)hmen in The Fifth Head of Cerberus

Marc Aramini

“I am exempt by reason of being a child and by reason of being an animal…” (“Marsch” on his unjust incarceration in the “V.R.T.” section of The Fifth Head of Cerberus, p.181)

In the wake of the postmodern explosion that decentralizes absolutes and puts universal meaning into question, it is at times difficult to approach Gene Wolfe’s work with the actual scientific rigor it demands.

Gene Wolfe’s time at Plant Engineering

After his time as a process engineer for Procter and Gamble and before becoming a full-time science-fiction writer, Gene Wolfe worked (1972 – 1984) as an editor for the technical magazine Plant Engineering. He is usually described in biographical sources as “the editor” but, as he explained to Lawrence Person in an interview published as long ago as 1998, he was actually “an editor” rather than the sole or chief editor of the magazine:

LP: For quite a while you were the editor of Plant Engineering magazine. Do you think that doing so gave you any special insights into how the pace of technological change is reshaping society?

GW: Yes, I was an editor, actually, on the staff of Plant Engineering magazine. I was lucky enough to be the robot editor, so I got to work with modern, real world robotics. I actually have two diplomas from robotics schools I attended. So that was very nice. I guess I’m branching off into other things, but I also got to be the Letters to the Editor editor, which was good and fun and taught me a lot of stuff, and I was the cartoon editor. (laughs) Basically I had a real good job.

This interview, entitled “Suns New, Long, and Short: An Interview with Gene Wolfe”, was originally published in the Fall/Winter 1998 edition of Nova Express. It is currently available on the web here. It is also reprinted in Shadows of the New Sun: Wolfe on writing/Writers on Wolfe, edited by Peter Wright (Liverpool University Press, 2007), where the above quotation may be found on pages 173-174.

Intrigued to know more about this “real good job”, Ultan’s Library co-editor Nigel Price recently asked Wolfe about his time at Plant Engineering and the persisting description of him as the magazine’s editor. Wolfe replied as follows:

There is no revising print. When it’s out there, it’s out there for all time. I have never been able to catch and correct the assertion that I was editor of Plant Engineering. I was actually a senior editor on the staff. Senior editors had to supply cover articles, “supply” meaning write the articles and take the pictures, including a cover picture that could make it past the art director. Two or three of those a year, depending.

We had other responsibilities as well. I was the editor for power transmission (hydraulics, gears, pneumatics, belts, et cetera) and fastening and joining (welding, glue, screws, et cetera), and also the editor for cartoons and letters-to-the-editor. There was an electrical editor, a construction editor, a materials-handling editor, a maintenance editor, a safety editor, and so forth. It was hard at times, and easy at others.

Oh yes… How in the world did I forget this? I was also robot editor. I went to robot school twice, once for hydraulic ‘bots and once for all-electric. And I wrote or developed the robotics articles.

The revelation that Wolfe was once robotics editor for Plant Engineering provides an interesting insight into the background of the creator of Ossipago, the chems and taluses of the Whorl, and all the other various robots, androids and automata which we encounter in the Solar Cycle and elsewhere in his writing. Those wishing to read Wolfe’s non-fiction articles, however, will have a hard time finding them, unless they have access to back issues of Plant Engineering, as the author confirms that…

To the best of my knowledge none of my magazine articles have been reprinted anywhere. Sorry to disappoint you, but very happy to find that you will be disappointed.

The Religious Implications of Gene Wolfe’s The Book Of The New Sun

Stephen Palmer

This is an amended version of an article I wrote almost twenty years ago for the British BSFA magazine Vector.  The original version was entitled Looking Behind the Sun: Religious Implications of Gene Wolfe’s “The Book of the New Sun” and was published in the August 1991 edition.

The Book of the New Sun is one of science fiction’s greatest achievements, and it is generally recognised that the book conceals rather more than is initially apparent. Wolfe, a Catholic, uses his faith to underpin a monumental work. This article looks at some of the religious implications, and hopes to draw comment from other readers.

Japanese Lexicon for The Book of the New Sun

by Michael Andre-Driussi

In the fall of 1987 I found myself with a new job in a rural town, where one Sunday I visited the local shopping mall, and there in a dump of used paperback books I found a copy of The Shadow of the Torturer. It was auspicious, I thought, to find an old friend in a new place, especially since it was a Japanese edition. But then again, I was living in Japan at the time.

To be clear, I couldn’t read Japanese very much at all, but I could spot the “Sci Fi” symbol on the book’s spine (a planet Saturn), and I could read the phonetic writing they use for foreign words and names, such that “Jiin Urufu” is Gene Wolfe.

The Book of Gold… returns to Ultan’s Library

A few years ago Ultan contributor Jeremy Crampton offered us the chance to host PDF (Acrobat) copies of his old fanzine, THE BOOK OF GOLD.

Jeremy published 2 issues of the fanzine, focussing on Wolfe’s two books about Latro, SOLDIER OF THE MIST and SOLDIER OF ARETE. There’s some really interesting commentary on Latro, which nicely supplements the articles Jeremy has written for Ultan’s Library.

The Death of Catherine the Weal and Other Stories (1992)

by Michael Andre-Driussi

This essay was written for John Clute’s proposed book of essays on Gene Wolfe’s fiction. Back in the early 90s, before the Internet as we know it existed, I was posting messages on the Gene Wolfe topic at GEnie (it was a message board system). Before long, Gregory Feeley kindly suggested that I write an essay for John Clute’s proposed anthology of Wolfe criticism. It seemed at the time that the book would be published by 1994. It may well be that my essay killed the whole project with its leaden prose. I once read it aloud at a bookstore and literally put people to sleep–good people, I might add. [Jeremy Crampton’s essay, Some Greek Themes in Gene Wolfe’s Latro novels, was also written for Clute’s collection of essays]

Lions and Tigers and Bears . . . of the New Sun

by Michael Andre-Driussi

1. The Strange Bear Man at the Threshold

The first time I read The Urth of the New Sun, one scene tantalized me more than any other. I could see just enough to know that there was a great deal I could not see yet. The symbols were there, I just could not understand them.

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