And a Sword in the Last

Below is the introduction I wrote to Marc Aramini scholarly work examining the themes and symbolism in the early fiction of Gene Wolfe, Between Light and Shadow. published by Castalia House in July of 2015. I reprint it here in hopes of encouraging interest both in the work of Mr. Aramini and of Gene Wolfe.


By John C Wright


Allow me to introduce this collection of commentaries on the work of Gene Wolfe by saying how I was introduced to his work: I was introduced by not knowing I was.

I have a small collection of science fiction magazines gathered from the days of my youth on a high, dry shelf in my basement, where they have stood for decades, untouched. Once, not long ago, my eye fell upon the two issues I kept of Galaxy Magazine from 1974 that contained Sign of the Unicorn by Roger Zelazny, at the time, one of the biggest names in the science fiction field. However, I dimly remembered reading at ten years of age or so an odd, haunting, and cryptically closed-mouthed short story that preceded it.

This yarn stuck in my memory for forty years or more because of its unusual and anachronistic elements. It concerned a troupe of hot-air balloonist mercenary soldiers armed with odd spring-loaded weapons, such as a combination of mace and lazy-susan tongs, that one readied by pounding them on the ground.

The story itself, one of many discussed in this volume, in the opening line, says it is about the first time the narrator killed a man; but the actual battle is not on stage. Neither is shown the act of cannibalism which the starving soldiers performed just before the narrative begins. The story is elliptical, beginning with an omen the narrator ignores (a flight of geese shaped like an pike head, a sign of war) and ending with an omen the narrator fails to understand (smoke in the distance of roofthatch burning, a sign of war), with all the events surrounding the unnamed narrator’s traumatic core event of his life described, but the core itself is left for the imagination of the reader to surmise.

The inability of the story to be placed comfortably either in fantasy, post-apocalyptic science fiction, or alternate history was mentioned in the one-line editor’s introduction. The title also remained in my memory like a bit of straw wedged between one’s teeth.

Imagine my surprise when, forty years later, haunted by the dim memory of a tale I had not understood at the time, my eye fell upon the author’s name which I had not remembered. It was written by Gene Wolfe. I was so thunderstruck I laughed aloud.

In 1974, few knew his name. But by 1998 his Solar Cycle had receive a triumph and an ovation, and those who did not know his name were few.

He was the only author I admire without ever daring to emulate, because his skill exceeds my own too greatly. I boldly claim that he is not the greatest living science fiction author, only because he is the greatest living author writing in any genre. In scope, in craftsmanship, in capturing nuances of dialog, in skill of approaching the central mysteries of the human condition, and of putting into words what never can be put into words, he had no equal, and, save perhaps for Cordwainer Smith, no serious competitor. He is that skilled.

One line is sufficient to show the subtlety of his writing: “The great question…is determining what these symbols mean in and of themselves. We are like children who look at print and see a serpent in the last letter but one, and a sword in the last.” At the risk of spoiling the jest, I direct your attention to the last letter but one in that sentence, where you can see a serpent in the s, and a sword in the t in the last. His whole work is as cunningly contrived.

One line? One name. To pick one trifle out of the treasure house, is anyone else amused that the fencing master in the city of Viron, where all men are named for living things, is called Xiphias? Xiphias is the archaic name for swordfish.  What other fish does one name a fencing master after?

Oddly, my favorite bit of writing by Gene Wolfe was a nonfiction essay on Tolkien called The Best Introduction to the Mountains. In it, Mr. Wolfe is entirely candid about the meaning and affect of Tolkien’s writing, and how it condemns the shallowness of the lawless and heartless modern world. Ergo this was too politically incorrect for the essay to be included in the anthology for which it was written.

For a reason I will not mention here, this essay always bring a tear to my eye and a quiet to my heart when I read it, especially when he speaks of how his upbringing had not prepared him for the cruelties of life, and of the oasis of fairytales in the wastelands of modernity. And, again, even here, Mr. Wolfe shows unexpected (even playful) depths to his use of allusion. Rereading the essay years later, I was dumbfounded to discover I had not recognized the meaning of the title: it is, of course, the last line of Leaf by Niggle, referring to those works of human art which introduce us to divine creation.

Let me also mention my first introduction to Gene Wolfe the man. When I went to World Fantasy Convention 2005, all the authors were invited to an autograph session, and we were seated alphabetically. As a wordwright named Wright, I was elbow to elbow with the Wolfe. His books share the same shelf of the library as mine. Then as now, the only one in line to have a book signed by me was my wife. Then as now, Mr. Wolfe had a line of fans reaching back past the doors, and no doubt ringing the block, some of whom had forklifts carrying crates of books for him to sign.

Note this: he was genial, friendly, and, above all, grateful to his fans from first to last, and he stayed until the last book of the last fan was autographed, with as broad a smile and as gentle a joke as was offered to the first so many hours before. That is a true professional. That is a true gentleman.

I also had the privilege of going to Mass with him after my conversion. If he and Tim Powers and I should ever form a secret cabal of Catholic Science Fiction authors, we will not tell you, because then it will not be secret. There are some things that cannot be spoken of directly. He wore a tee shirt with a huge image of a wolf on it: another self-referential jest. I will not tell you the name of the unnamed narrator in Fifth Head of Cerberus, but I will say his name is found in same shelf of the library as mine.

I should mention that the forgotten and rediscovered anachronistic story about the balloonist freelancers had grown and deepened in the years between reading in a fashion that I cannot otherwise account for. Mr. Wolfe must have come to my house at night and added passages, nuances, and wiser words and sadder that were there in 1974.

Certainly he did that with his masterpiece Fifth Head of Cerberus. When I first read that tale as a shallow youth, I did not notice how utterly morally bankrupt the viewpoint narrator and all the men of St Croix were, how empty, how like ghosts. The institutions of cloning, gene manipulation, gene wolfing, and slavery had robbed the narrator of his ability to see right and wrong in much the same way a fish does not know it bathes. That story grew as I aged until its roots went all the way to the dark core of the human condition. I am puzzled that Mr. Wolfe continues to enter my house at night and rewrite the passages in my copies of his books and make them wiser and deeper. I hope he does the same to you, and I hope this present volume will aid that process.

This anthology covers Mr. Wolfe’s less well know novels and short stories from between 1972 and 1986, his most prolific period. Of the richness and strangeness of his writing I have spoken, and the exquisite craftsmanship. But he routinely writes of the deepest measures of the human soul, both the mystery of sin and the mystery of salvation, things that cannot be spoken of directly because they are beyond words.

Like the trauma and drama of the first man you ever killed, or the first woman you ever loved, the only thing that can be mentioned are the omens and rites that surround its coming, the events before and after. And, sadly, we may not know what these omens and symbols mean.

I introduced the young lady who was later to be my wife to Gene Wolfe’s writing just when CITADEL OF THE AUTARCH was published: the first book I ever bought in hardback —a ruinous expense for a penniless college student.

My wife introduced herself to Mr. Wolfe (the man, not the work) at a convention that same year. Enthused, blushing, and bubbling, she told him that she had read the four books of the New Sun in the space of five days (URTH OF THE NEW SUN had not yet been printed). She meant it as flattery, saying that the words were so absorbing that she hardly paused for rest or food at any point on Severian’s journey.

But the cunning old wolf smiled wryly, seeing the jest, saying it had taken him five long years to write what she consumed in five short days. The great question is determining what these symbols mean in and of themselves.