A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘There Are Doors’

This is a most unusual book from Wolfe, and one I’ve always found difficult to fathom. It’s written in the third person, yet it so closely depicts the headspace of its central character, a man called Green, that it is a typically Wolfean first person unreliable narrator narrative twisted only slightly. It is as subjective an experience as anything by Severian or Latro, except that where those two gentleman’s issues were with memory, There Are Doors complicates itself by having a hero who is a nobody: deliberately so.
The meat of the story is relatively straightforward. We begin with Green enjoying a love affair with Lara Morgan, who has been living with him for a couple of days. Abruptly, she leaves him, leaving behind a cryptic letter of explanation that refers to passing through doors: not necessarily doors as such, but which lead somewhere else, which can only be left by backing out, immediately.
But Green is in love with Lara, and only wants to be reunited with her, in some way, not even necessarily as resumed lovers. He goes through a door and finds himself in a different world, the world Lara comes from, and in which she’s regarded as a goddess.
It’s a familiar world in many ways, perhaps a bit less further advanced, though Green never provides us with enough of a clear picture to decide on how, or even if, these worlds are related. It takes him a long while to understand what is referred to only obliquely for much of the way, which is that the biggest difference between these worlds is that on Lara’s world, men can only have sex once. Something in the act of sex destroys their immune system, and they die within a couple of days.
Is this real? Though by the end of the book, Wolfe appears to confirm this is so, from Lara’s own mouth after many attempts to avoid the truth, I am still unsure. Despite it’s faux-objectivity, this is still Green’s story, out of his head, and we learn fairly quickly that, in his own world, he is a quite recent mental patient, for an undefined period.
The uncertainty is further emphasised by the disjointed, incoherent portrayal we are given of Lara’s world. Green moves from place to place in dream-like fashion, rarely conscious of transitions from place to place. People he encounters keep coming and going, in different roles, with little logic. Green constantly doubts what he is seeing, feeling or experiencing, constantly making up possible explanations for what is happening to him whose common characteristic is only that what he is going through is unreal.
The deliberately flat single name further emphasises that he is a nonentity, without character, perception, ability or understanding. The centre of this book is a void, by design, and the book has to function without a centre. And, no matter how fantastic things become on Lara’s World, Green remains unphased by it, too dull to ever be properly surprised.
After a lengthy sojourn in Lara’s World, he returns to his own world, where he is a salesman. His four to five days there have amounted to just over a month at home. Without ever once convincing as an overly-enlightened and generous employer, the store insist on his not returning to work until he’s got a Doctor’s note confirming he’s fit to do so, and when he winds up back in mental hospital, they blithely cover all his expenses, with an open cheque-book.
Green returns to being a salesman for years, improves his standings, his income, his neighbourhood, but still returns to Lara’s World via his favourite Italian Restaurant, which seems to exist in ‘both’ worlds.
Once back, he prevents the overthrow of the Government by Bill North, a confusing violent character who’s also a Visitor from Green’s world, and who is a figure of outright male violence. This enables him to meet the Goddess Lara both there and here, where she’s supposed to be his Doctor’s secretary, which is how the relationship – somewhat unethically, if true – supposedly began.
But Green has become an analyst, become the figure that many of Wolfe’s central protagonists will become, sorting impressions and facts and constructing theories based upon them, which leads to Lara admitting the ‘truth’. And why has a goddess deigned to have sex with such a nobody as Green? Because, in a moment that shines through as real and authenticated, she wanted to have sex with someone who would not die as a consequence of that act of love-making.
Is this true? Is any of this true? Is this one of Gene Wolfe’s most complex games, existing only in the mind of his deliberately colourless hero, who by definition, if he can create this level of complex system, can be anything but colourless?
I don’t know. Maybe next time I will discover a clue that doesn’t have at least four edges. There Are Doors is not a book to encourage repeated reading because Green is so dull. But it is perhaps built on sand that shifts more than anything we have read so far…


On Writing: It’s All in the Mind, you know

Everyone who writes writes a different way. I don’t just mean style or technique, but the way they approach the act of writing. Mine is very instinctive. I don’t plan ahead, I don’t structure, I rarely produce synopses. I find myself to the opening line and follow that to where it goes, and I find myself saying things I didn’t know I thought, or that I couldn’t possibly have written without all the words that come before them.

I’ve spoken of this many times. The work, the real work of writing, for me, is done in the subconscious, in an area of my mind to which I have no conscious access, over which I have little or no influence.

Case in point: the Gene Wolfe blog published earlier today. Writing about Wolfe is difficult, because he is so good and so clever, and I constantly feel inadequate reading him. It’s actually a couple of weeks since I re-read The Urth of the New Sun for the purpose of blogging it. During that time, I’d made a number of attempts to get my thoughts down on paper, explain my reaction to the book, sometimes managing no more than a couple of paragraphs at a time. It wasn’t going well.

I’m currently off work for ten days, my traditional birthday time-out, a chance to just switch off, do nothing, recharge. It’s also a lot of time in which to tackle writing that gets put off when I’m working 1.00 – 9.00pm five work days a week, and I’m finding the unaccustomed opportunity to write without having a deadline to go to work or to bed to be very useful.

The Wolfe blog was on my list of things to do this week. Tuesday was Deep Space Nine Day, and it was a good episode and gave me a lot to think about. I had a buzz in my head, the kind of sensation that I now easily identify as meaning that I have words there, words and the mental energy to use them, persist with them, concentrate.

So I started the Wolfe blog. From scratch. Ignored everything I’d already written, started from the same opening point but in new words, and just let my sense of engagement, my subconscious, pull me through. You’ve read the outcome earlier.

It conveys all the things I thought whilst I was reading the book, my reservations about why I found it so much easier to pick up and put down to do other things. And this after not just DS9 but also completing the latest of the Lone Pine books I’m re-reading so I can revise the series of blogs I posted on them earlier this year.

I knew I had the flow just waiting to be turned out. I knew that these Lone Pine rewrites are equal parts re-writing and editing, and that the energy I felt was more suited to a flow of words, not the finnicky work of piecing existing work together.

And I was right.

This is my way of working, as it’s evolved over the years since 1994, when I first started to write my response to Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch that became the first completed piece of extended writing I first achieved: twenty years on from first trying to put words together and finally feeling like I knew what I was doing. You may call it winging it, and to some extent, that’s what I do. But the odd thing is that I can only wing it once: once they’re out of my head, I can’t reproduce them.

So when I feel the energy, when I feel fecund, as I call it to myself, I try to take advantage. If you’re interested in the process of writing, you may recognise something in this, or you may be aghast with horror and think that nothing of the slightest worth could ever possibly come from this kind of thing.

Maybe you already think that nothing of the slightest worth has ever come from my pen and this just proves it to you. But this is how I work. And if you’re one of those who, as I was twenty-odd years ago, plans and prepares and synopses the hell out of it, maybe trying throwing caution to the wind one day and see if that gives you something you haven’t had before. And if it doesn’t, then you can damn me.

The Lord of the Rings Redux

The shouting has already begun, and it’s going to go on for a long, long time.

My cards are on the table: I have loved J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings since first starting in in 1973, and it has been one of the biggest influences on my reading habits. I have the pretty much complete Tolkien ouevre (this does not include Mr Bliss, The Father Christmas Letters or some of the most recent reconstructions but it does include the entire History of Middle-Earth series in hardback, all First Editions). I saw the Ralph Bakshi animated Lord of the Rings (first half) the day it came out, despite being on holiday in Wales at the time, I have seen all the Peter Jackson films and I unashamedly like The Hobbit trilogy. And, guess what, last time I looked, not a single page of the book had changed.

No, you can call me a Tolkien fan, and I’m not bothered about what the means to you.

Earlier this week, Amazon announced that it had secured the rights to do a The Lord of the Rings TV series. It is intended to be ‘multi-season’. And it is not another adaptation of the book: it will tell primarily untold stories from the period between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

The response has, frankly, not been good. This piece of shit… sorry, whimsy and wit from the egregious Stuart Heritage in the Guardian, not to mention the BTL comments, seems to be typical. Condemnation, right out of the gate, assumptions of malign intent, a conviction that before anyone has done more than sign the contracts it will all be shit: well, I could understand it if we were talking about Heritage’s next thousand articles, but the one thing everyone seems to have overlooked in the rush to heaps coals and execrations on the heads of everyone involved is, it hasn’t happened yet. No scripts have been written, no actors auditioned. The Tolkien estate approves of it.

Ok, I’m a fan. I’m naturally well-disposed to the idea. And as has already been pointed out BTL, the life of Aragorn has got a lot of meat in those barely hinted at appendices.

Some things are obvious: this is nakedly a bid for the Game of Thrones market, and whilst it’s clearly arguable that it may have been better to go for a less familiar ‘property’, The Lord of the Rings is very much the kind of story that could achieve GoT levels of success.

And whilst I’ve never watched GoT, I work alongside loads of people who do, and they seem to be impressed.

So, as I tend to think at moments like this, why don’t we just calm down, wait for the thing to be made, and then kick it’s arse if it’s fucking crap. Because, trust me, that’s what I’m going to do if it is fucking crap. Until then, I have no idea what it’s going to be like. And I’m not rushing to judgement.

I’m surprised that I have to point things like this out to people (no, I’m not. Sigh.)

A Lycanthrope in Wolf’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Urth of the New Sun’

There’s a point in one of his discussions about his career when Gene Wolfe reveals that he had something of an argument with his then-editor over the end of The Citadel of the Autarch. This editor argued passionately for the inclusion of a paragraph or two explaining that Severian did undergo the trial for which the whole of The Book of the New Sun was meant to prepare him and that he did succeed in bringing the New Sun and restoring Urth, and Wolfe was insistent that after the quarter of a million words he’d so carefully compiled, the audience were going to be pretty sure that they hadn’t been following the adventures of yet another failure.
But editors are editors, and in order to avoid having to undermine the vast subtlety of so major a work, Wolfe agreed to write a sequel in which the whole story would be told.
The Urth of the New Sun was published in 1987, three years after The Citadel of the Autarch. I welcomed it then and I enjoy it still, but there is no denying that it is a book of an entirely different order and purpose, and although it is an official adjunct to The Book of the New Sun, and that there is much in it that is wonderful and strange, I estimate that I have probably read it no more than once for every four to five times I have read the parent work.
Amusingly enough, if there had to be a sequel, Wolfe elects to start it from the very moment Severian the Lame, sometimes called Severian the Great, lays down his pen after copying, out of his infallible memory, the book about his rise to power, authority and influence, and to make Severian’s act of hurling this manuscript into the vortex of time from which, someday, it will emerge into the hands of Gene Wolfe the catalyst for the start of his new adventures, which in themselves are, unknowingly, the beginning of his Trial in the higher universe of Yesod.
For Severian is travelling on the great ship that sails into and out of Time and Space, a things of impossibility, with its multitude of decks and masts, sprouting at all angles until I wonder if its best conceptual image is that of a curled-up hedgehog, all spread with canvasses beyond sizes we can imagine, turning to catch the solar wind. Almost hypnotised by the sight, and by the fact that his lamed leg is no barrier to jumping vast distances, Severian seeks to hurl his manuscript from the highest mast, but overshoots it and is about to be equally lost in Space, until the act of hurling the chest produces the equal and opposite reaction that sends him flying back into the forests of masses and vines of riggings, and he is back aboard, in a different part of the ship, where he is mistaken for crew and begins a hunt for a supposedly dangerous apport (any creature who emerges from time, drawn by the solar sails).
From here, the story progresses through three basic phases: Severian’s adventures and encounters on the ship, where there are those who wish to kill him, to prevent the coming of the New Sun, because they know and fear the cataclysm it will entail, the formal element of his Trial, in Yesod, and the rather unusual but ultimately satisfying (in a subtle way) the New Sun is generated, and lastly Severian’s return to the Universe of Briah, long ago, and his and the star’s progress towards the present day, and the washing clean of Urth so that it might be renewed as Ushas.
What form that cataclysm takes is foreshadowed in typical Wolfean fashion, though it is not until destruction comes, in the form of a new and even more comprehensive Flood (Wolfe is nothing if not Catholic), that the unwary reader on his first outing discovers just how thoroughly everything is destroyed, and that Severian’s quest to renew ultimately demanded Destruction, to leave an Urth uncorrupted, just as the star with which he is identified is a White Fountain that will remove the corruption created by Typhon’s Black Hole.
Mention of Typhon leads me to confirm that many of the characters of The Book of the New Sun do return within this sequel, though none play more than a cameo part, significant though some of these may be. And this is an indication of the sheer skill of Wolfe. The Book of the New Sun was a complete work, containing everything and resolving everything within it. Wolfe wrote it without the lightest thought of a sequel, leaving no lacunae out of which a return visit might spring.
But The Urth of the New Sun, despite spending almost every page of its length away from the settings with which we were so familiar, despite offering a completely different atmosphere and a completely different book, is so completely intertwined with its parent, slips so seamlessly into interstices that you never realised existed, that it is unbelievable to think that Wolfe did not have all of this planned for the day he completed that first detailed synopsis of what he was going to write.
I confess that I don’t enjoy this book anything like as much as I do the original tetraology. Though this is still Severian, and he still can’t forget and he still talks as he did, this is not the same man who wrote The Book of the New Sun. That was a journey-story, a boy-becomes-a-man story, a picaresque journey by a man not entirely formed but moving towards transformation. This Severian may only be ten years older, but they have been ten years of authority and responsibility, ten years of concentrating oneself to become a fixed thing, and someone without freedom, with a fixed role.
This Severian does not draw me in quite so much, especially once he becomes all but superhuman. I remember an old friend remarking on this aspect the year the book was published, and I have only become more conscious of it as I re-read onwards.
It’s more overt as Severian bodily travels across time on Urth, becoming successively figures out of his own past, incarnating himself over and again. He may be captured, he may be beaten, so badly that an ordinary man would die, but he and the slowly-approaching star are one, and Severian can draw energy, instantly, from his astronomical self, to restore his bodily self, over and again. And in the end, even after Urth is flooded, after the White Fountain has cancelled out the Black Hole and no longer exists to sustain Severian, he can still live and breathe underwater, indefinitely.
The Undine offered him that in The Claw of the Conciliator, but only if he would die first. You might think that this gift has ultimately come at a higher price, though not necessarily a personal one, but that’s not entirely true. Severian does die before receiving this gift. Except that he dies very early on, in the first phase of the book, in a sequence that is incredibly confusing as written – deliberately so – but which Wolfe does empirically explain a long way on in the story.
How can Severian die, yet be alive to complete his journey, and to once more spend time committing himself to recording his life with such thoroughness? I won’t give that explanation, even though Wolfe does: you must read for yourself and then ask the questions that I now ask myself: in what way thereafter is Severian really Severian? In what way does his passing of the test really represent Redemption for Urth?
Or is Severian’s realisation of the basis for his continued existence another false flag?
For in The Book of the New Sun our favourite mnemonist displayed both an eidetic memory and a near total inability to comprehend the reality that he sees around him. This latter ‘quality’ is almost completely absent here, but what if Severian’s conclusion is that misunderstanding reasserting itself? If that is so, then I confess that I have no other explanation for his survival, or rather his re-creation, and I’ve never heard anyone else debate this point.
But Severian is destined to become the Conciliator, and we are all easily aware which figure he is meant to represent, and thus a prior Death and Resurrection is only to be expected. Where is such a Resurrection to come from?
In complete contrast to my review of The Book(s) of the New Sun, I’ve gone into almost no detail of the story, which was not a conscious choice but rather an instinctive response to the differences between the books. It’s trite to say this, because it’s true of every single sequel there’s ever been since man started drawing stories on cave walls, but The Book of the New Sun could exist with The Urth of the New Sun without anyone ever suspecting a sequel existed, but The Urth of the New Sun would be meaningless without its distinguished predecessor, and beneath the surface, beneath the care, the exceeding cleverness, the wit and the wonder, there’s the faintest hint to me of a book that was written because someone else insisted upon it, and not because the book itself demanded it.
Which always makes a difference.

Uncollected Thoughts: Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier, by Mark Frost

If for nothing else much good, I’m going to remember 2017 as the year that Twin Peaks came back, against all my expectations, against all my life experiences. It came back, it didn’t so much exceed my hopes and expectations as completely bypass them, unconcerned for fidelity or the notion that you might even consider going back twenty-six years to what and where we were when we were other people. It provided me with a television episode, in episode 8, that more thoroughly exploded the notion of what an episode of TV could be than anything I have ever seen since the final episode of The Prisoner. For seventeen weeks in the middle of the year, it provided me with a reason for enthusiasm and a source of utter frustration: at work, I was the only person watching Twin Peaks: The Return and the only person not watching Game of Thrones: not having anyone I could talk to about this, share interpretations and predictions was horrendous.

Today’s my birthday (no applause please, just throw money) and the start of ten days off work. I have been stockpiling ‘gifts’ for myself this last three to four weeks as I am now the only person left to ‘celebrate’ that I have survive to start a sixty-third year. Most of these ‘presents’ are books: unsurprisingly, the first choice was Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier.

Frost, the co-creator of the series, produced a similar, thicker book last year, Twin Peaks: The Secret History, which was a Xmas ‘gift’. That was presented in the form of an FBI investigation into a curious dossier that delved into the town’s history as far back as its (possible) discovery during the famous Lewis and Clark expedition in the very early Nineteenth Century. The Dossier was, at the end, determined to have been compiled by Major Briggs, and the investigating Agent was Tamara ‘Tammy’ Preston, who would be played by Chrysta Bell in The Return.

Though it’s presented as a history, and it weaves in as much real-life history as possible, including the still-debatable issue of Lewis’s death, building towards a more detailed town history in the Twentieth Century, until it absorbs the Laura Palmer murder that, wisely, Frost did not elaborate upon.

One to lead into, now one to fill in the gaps. Both books are formed as dossiers, but both state (in small letters) on their partial dust-jackets, that these are novels. The Final Dossier eschews the detail-heavy original documentation and marginalia in favour of a series of mini-dossiers, each relating to a single person, or occasionally a family, presented as summaries by Tammy Preston, left behind to try to make sense of what has happened in The Return.

Though the closing pages of the book make reference to the events of the third series, and even attempt to lend a degree of real-world clarification to the final pair of episodes, the bulk of the book is aimed at doing for the fan what the series decidedly refused to do. Instead of The Final Dossier, this could have been subtitled The Missing Twenty-Five Years or What Happened between Season 2 and Season 3.

The Final Dossier makes concrete what we had to guess at on the screen. Season 3 came in at Day 1 and left us to try to work out how each returning character – who were, after all, in the minority – had got from there to here, and which, except in one specific instance, gave us nothing as to the fates of those who did not feature all those years on. If that were all it did – Annie’s story is especially heart-breaking – it would be invaluable, but it also confirms that many of the conclusions drawn during the series’ run were pretty much on the mark.

Frost doesn’t tie-up every loose end, not even by implication, but he provides a sound, concrete footing. Should this have come out before the series? Would we have enjoyed, or understood, season 3 better for knowing this? My answers are Hell, no! and Understood yes, but being dunked underwater with no idea which direction was the best way to deal with Twin Peaks.

Is this the end? I’ve reacquired Jennifer Lynch’s The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer in its original edition but, unless it too is republished, Dale Cooper; My Life, My Tapes is going to be beyond my means for any foreseeable future. Lynch has admitted that there may, possibly, be a fourth season but, if that is so, it’s at least four years off, four years that I have to consider may be beyond me. It’s already beyond a number of the actors who appeared in season 3.

No, I suspect that the current Twin Peaks buzz, invigorating as it’s been, will not o much further. The DVD of the series is due out in December and is already pre-ordered for a Xmas ‘present’ but after that, I don’t foresee much or anything else that’s going to be new. This is, after all, The Final Dossier so, unless that’s Final in the tradition of Frank Sinatra’s Final Tours, nothing else is left to be said unless Lynch and Frost uncharacteristically decide to derail everything Twin Peaks has ever been about and authorise The Concrete Explanation of Every Mystery, this is the final, but still very welcome terminus.

But every single word of this is an unimaginable bonus that, twenty-five years ago, I would have committed grievous bodily harm to have had.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of the Mist

Soldier of the Mist, the first of, ultimately, three books featuring the character, Latro, represented an inversion of the situation in The Book of the New Sun. From a series set in the distant future, narrated by a hero who could not forget, Gene Wolfe deliberately turned to a series set in the distant past, narrated by a hero who could not remember.
Wolfe had form for this sort of thing. In the early Seventies, he had written a brilliant short story feeding off H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, under the title ‘The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories’ (itself the title story for a collection published as The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories: Wolfe loves his word puzzlery). When this story was misannounced as having won a Nebula Award (the actual result was No Award, but Wolfe’s story had received the highest number of votes in its category), its title was mangled. Taking this as a cue, Wolfe wrote a story under the title ‘The Death of Doctor Island’, followed by ‘Death of the Island Doctor’ and, when these three were collected as The Wolfe Archipelago, added for the collection, ‘The Doctor of Death Island’. All four stories are radically different).
So turning Severian on his head gave us Latro. That’s not his name, merely the one by which he is known. Latro, the very epitome of an unreliable narrator, is a mercenary, seemingly Roman in origin, in what will become Greece during the Pelopponnesian Wars. When Soldier of the Mist begins, Latro has just received a head wound that has deprived him of his memory: henceforth, his past will disappear behind him, as he is unable to remember anything for more than twenty-four hours.
In order to maintain any continuity of memory, Latro must write down his life every day, on one of the scrolls he carries with him for this purpose. What he does not write down effectively does not happen. Each morning, he must be reminded to read his scroll, so that he will know who he is.
There is one other aspect of Latro’s condition. As a consequence of his head wound, he can now see, hear and talk with the Gods.
In further, but inevitable contrast to Severian, whose prose was rolling and convoluted, Latro’s writings are clipped and contained. He is, of course, writing things down on a scroll, using a stylus that makes tiny marks, and he is trying to make the maximum amount of use of the surface area of the scroll. The conceit of the books is that the recent destruction of a pair of Ancient Grecian earthen jars brought the scrolls to light, and Wolfe’s position is that of translator, just as it is with Severian’s future opus.
Latro, as I said, is not a name. It means Soldier, Mercenary, Brigand and other terms not especially reputable. He is, though this has to be determined from the situation, an enemy, a mercenary with the invading Persian army that, throughout the course of the first scroll, is being forced back. Latro’s first writings concern the healer who has bound his head injury and supplied his scroll and stylus, but inevitably Latro has lost him by the second day.
He has regained his oldest ‘friend’, a black man who never speaks any of the local languages though he understands more than appears, and a small group quickly coalesces around him, though almost each day Latro mistakes the members of that group and everyone’s relationship.
These are Pindaros, a poet, imposed on Latro at the shrine of the Great Mother, to lead him to another shrine where healing might be found (Latro’s wound is sustained at or by such a shrine and his affliction is attributed to his having offended the Goddess), Io, a ten-year old girl who becomes a devoted slave to Latro and almost an exterior memory for him, and Hilaeria, with whom we are led to assume Latro has slept, and whose background we never quite learn.
Needless to say, in a land at war, this little band is soon taken captive, and for most of the book, Latro is a slave, moved between masters, a condition he accepts as a practicality but which he never allows to make him feel a slave.
In the context of the War, it is little surprise that Latro’s band is soon captured, and become slaves, transferred from one master to another. First, there is the jovial Hypereides, who in civilian life is a master of leather and who has transferred his skills and his speciality to captaining vessels for his city.
He in turn transfers Latro, Pindaros and Io on to Kalleos, who is basically a madam, though he keeps the black man. Latro becomes a ‘fancy man’, or a whorehouse enforcer.
Whilst with Kalleos, Latro encounters Eurykles, a prolix blowhard who claims to be able to raise the dead. It should be a con, especially as it is one of Kalleos’ women who will play the part, but Latro is instructed by the God to touch the dead body that has already been exposed, and she actually comes back to life!
This episode comes to an indeterminate end soon after, when Kalleos wants Latro for her bed: though she falls asleep before requiring his actual services, the experience leads to Latro ceasing to record is daily experiences, and in effect ceasng to exist as far as we readers are concerned.
In this manner, Wolfe splits his book up into four parts, each separated by lacunae that sees Latro and his little band leap astonishing distances to new sites. Such movements are complex, and each time the reader needs to re-orient himself as much as does Latro, especially as Eurykles joins the party before transforming – of which Latro seems to be the first to perceive – into a woman first ugly then glamorous, who takes the name Drakaina and who seeks to seduce the mist-driven soldier.
Add into this that Latro is writing, and presumably thinking, in a language different to that spoken around him, and that he gives place names with which we would be familiar as the translation of their name: Rope (Sparta), Thought (Athens), and the story becomes even more of a jigsaw puzzle to translate to follow, a jigsaw puzzle with a great many pieces that the reader has to draw for himself.
For a long period, the account is driven by Latro’s new ‘master’, Pausanius, who has been charged with besieging and taking Sestos and who has had a dream that Latro will bring him success. Pindaros has been allowed to return to his city by this point, his role having been taken over by Drakaina.
Nearing the end of the first scroll, Latro comes to a temple of the Great Mother where he is taken below ground by a Goddess. She gives him various options, and he chooses the one by which he will be reunited with his friends. Having broken with Pausanius, and having come once again into the company of Hypereides and the black man, this promise is fulfilled in the worst of fashions, evidencing that the Gods choose to honour their commitments in their own way: Latro is now in battle in Persia itself where he comes across a Roman mercenary who knows him, who names him ‘Lucius’. But this friend is mortally wounded, and dies almost on the instant.
Soldier of the Mist is a superb example of historical fiction. Wolfe has researched its details thoroughly, and depicts life as it was lived in this era without fanfare but with complete conviction. You can read the book solely from this perspective if you wish, and get a great deal from it, but it would take an incurious mind to ignore Latro’s predicament, the secret of who he really is – if this has any real relevance to the story unfolding – and the question of whether the Gods can override the medical science we know exists, and restore Latro’s memory to him in any significant sense.
Those who remain fascinated by this question would eagerly await the next book in the series. It would not be Wolfe’s next book.


The Hobbit at 80

I’m indebted to the Guardian for the news that today is the eightieth birthday of the publication of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, a hitherto obscure Oxford Don. Which makes tomorrow the birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, but let that pass.

There’s a lot of hostile BTL comments, directed at The Lord of the Rings as a book, and The Hobbit as a three-film extravaganza, absolutely none of which I can concur, but there is also frequent mention of the ill-chosen description of the book as a prequel to LOTR. The films are prequels, but the book of The Hobbit came first, by the best part of twenty years.

I have mixed feelings about The Hobbit. I recall my first hearing of it, in a First Year English Class at Grammar school, discussed one late and lazy Friday afternoon near the end of the year by our English teacher and Form Master, Mr Bassett. He talked about the famous first line, which sticks in my memory, though nothing else does.

It didn’t inspire me to search out the book, not in 1967. I was still in the Children’s Section of the Library, and if Tolkien was there, as he must have been, I don’t recall even seeing the book. And whilst I vaguely remember LOTR being discussed at school, no doubt in another English class, I have no memory of when, or which teacher first put that book into my consciousness. It did not suggest anything that would appeal to me then.

I finished school in 1973, proud possessor of enough A-Levels to get me into Manchester University to study Law. This was the long summer of cricket I’ve referred to before, but cricket didn’t blot out reading, and I was at Didsbury Library at least once a week. I had eight ticket, and it was a point of honour to get out eight books every time.

One afternoon, I was carrying seven books around, and scratching for an eighth. Nothing appealed. Eventually, I ended up in front of Tolkien. I remembered The Lord of the Rings. I was not enthused, but I had already been there ages and I couldn’t leave with only seven books, so I borrowed ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, just to see.

I left it till last, a sunny Tuesday afternoon. I read it before bedtime. At 9.00am, on Wednesday, I was at the Library, returning my eight completed books and heading straight for the Ts for ‘The Two Towers’ and ‘The Return of the King’. They had the first of these, which was frustrating. I carried it home, flung myself down on my bed, and finished it by mid-afternoon.

All I needed was the third volume. I was desperate to know the end of the story. But it had vanished from Didsbury Library. For the next two to three months, I kept going in every two to three days, hoping that a copy had been returned, but eternally frustrated.

In the end, Xmas passed, and January 1974 arrived and one Saturday my family found themselves in Stockport. We were on the bus, something needing repair on the car, and we had to get to Droylsden by 1.00pm, for the usual Dinner and talk and tea. I had long since been getting money for birthdays and Xmas, to enable me to select presents for myself (I was an awkward bugger when it came to taste even that far back), and inevitably some money was left over after the day, to be used up.

In W.H.Smiths, I discovered the one-volume paperback of the collected LOTR, sans Appendices, with the wonderfullly evocative Pauline Baynes cover. It cost £2 for a book of over 1,000 pages, and I had £2 of Xmas money left over. Unless forced to enter into conversation, like at the Dinner table, I was lost to my family for the rest of the day, even on the bus here I wasn’t supposed to read because of what it could do to my eyes (big deal: I had been wearing glasses for over a decade by then anyway). I was straight into Book 3 and immersed until I finally got to the end.

And on my next visit to Didsbury Library, ‘The Return of the King’ had been returned to the shelf. Of course.

Just as Justice League of America 37 had done, almost ten years before, LOTR changed my life. Having read and loved this epic, immense fantasy, I wanted more, more of the same. I began to haunt the SF/Fantasy section of the Library: not just Didsbury, but the even more massive selection at Central Ref. For the next twenty years or so, this was my primary genre of reading, and I owe it to that afternoon’s frustration in Didsbury Library my absorption in Gene Wolfe, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Gene Wolfe, Ursula Le Guin, and the irreplaceable R A Lafferty, not to mention those other authors in whose work I have been, sometimes fanatically, interested down the years.

Naturally, once I had completed LOTR, I was enthusiastic to read The Hobbit, and I was barely back at University for the Spring Term before I was picking up the paperback in Boots. And boy, was I in for a shock.

Based on reading LOTR, and based on its references to event in The Hobbit that formed part of the overall story, I expected a similar book, despite the massive difference in style. I got a children’s story, some elements of which I would have found embarrassing had I been half my then age.

I still have The Hobbit, though I’ve long since up-graded to an anniversary hardback, and I also have John Rateliff’s two-volume history, analysing how the published version was built up from the original drafts, the equivalent of Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle Earth series. But I rarely read the book.

I’ve always wondered how my opinion would have been affected if I had read The Hobbit first, and at an age nearer to that of it intended audience. There is a lot of adult support for the book as being infinitely better than LOTR, and a lot of that comment does command the book to an adult audience. I agree that the story gets progressively darker and more serious as it goes on, but this is as soon as Tolkien begins to attach this kiddie story about a jolly Hobbit on an adventure to the larger, and higher matters of the Silmarillion mythology he had been developing for twenty years already.

But I came with expectations of something high and adult and serious, and the actuality was a shock. I was eighteen, and just in the process of my first literary adult literary enthusiasm, and my response to Tolkien’s first book is permanently coloured. I cannot see past the childish tones and the silly song.

I’ve already given my opinion in respect of The Hobbit Trilogy. This is a prequel, unlike the book, coming after the LOTR Trilogy. It’s easy to understand the objections of those who love the book: turning a novel of that size into three epic films, totalling some seven and a half hours before you look at Director’s Cuts, and completely rejecting the style and tone of the source novel can be hard to understand for someone who loves the book.

But I don’t love the book. I love LOTR and the films came after that and were part of the same world, and the film Trilogyhad to reflect the tone and style of LOTR. And, despite the flaws, especially in the various story changes made in Part 2, I did and still do love the LOTR films.

There’s no escaping the fact that, without The Hobbit, none of this would ever have happened, and thousands of book, many of them crap but a great number of them beautiful, elegant, thoughtful, mind-expanding and immensely involving would never have been written. Having read The History of Middle Earth, I see almost no possibility of Tolkien’s earlier and higher mythology ever being published, or finding anything greater than an esoteric audience.

And without The Hobbi there could have been no Lord of the Rings, and without that book, what would or could have opened my eyes the way that did?

So Happy Eightieth Birthday to The Hobbit. I am in the middle of so many other things at present, so I can’t mark the day by digging you out again, but I promise to re-read you as soon as is possible. I may not enjoy you much, but I owe you, big time.