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From: "Robert Borski" <rborski@coredcs.com>
Subject: (urth) To the Dark Tower Came
Date: Wed, 8 Jul 1998 21:34:14 

"To the Dark Tower Came" seems interpretable in several different ways, so
I'm hoping others will post their interpretations. mantis has already
linked it to "At the Point of Capricorn" and I'm sure born-again poster Jim
Jordan could wrangle some Christian symbology from it. Anybody else care to
wade into the fray?

Me, I see TtDTC as being primarily allegorical--as befits a story
literalized from a vivid dream, I suppose, since this is how apparently the
story came to Gene Wolfe. 

The tower represents knowledge; more specifically, the knowledge that has
been accumulated during one's lifetime. One of its commonest names is Spire
Sans Summit; you never stop accumulating knowledge while you live, and you
can never acquire all that there is. There's also no up or down in the
tower; knowledge can be pursued in any direction. There are lots of "throne
rooms," perhaps symbolizing kingdoms of knowledge, i.e., interests special
to one's livelihood or avocation, where one is at least a localized
authority. Occasionally, the body of knowledge has a grander scale and
perhaps might be deemed a universal truth or dictate of science; this might
be the orrery encountered.

Kent and Gloucester are Youth and Learning, respectively--GW tells us this
himself. (Also note Kent's association with his comic book namesake, the
ubermensch). The two might also be Astolpho and Oliver from The Song of
Roland.  They are knights aspirants (the child-ren of the epigraph), or
courtiers in service to the king, who for obvious reasons I'll call Lear.
Lear symbolizes the brain, and he may be senile; but the etymology of
'senile' is given an alternate spin by Gloucester, suggesting it may relate
more to antiquity (i.e., while the neocortex is recent, it sits atop a much
more primitive brainstem that we've inherited from our animal forebears)
than madness. Senile doesn't necessarily have to mean decrepit of mind
here, although by the story's end it sure seems to.

Gloucester and Kent have a semi-silly argument about whether what they're
seeing outside the window is fog or clouds ("It's a tv!" scream I. "No, it
isn't!" screams everyone else), at the conclusion of which Kent says, "I
believe in intellectual democracy; I know that I am right, but I concede
the possibility that you're right too." Perhaps Gene Wolfe is trying to
tell us here that various intrepretations of his work are possible and each
may be valid. Witness the two different etymologies for 'senile.' Also
this, from the intro, in reference to Westwind: "When I wrote this
particular story, I was speculating upon what God might do if only He had
the technology. Or at least that's what I believe now. Others have found a
great many other things in there, and sixteen years is a long time."
Perhaps this "democracy of ideas" explains why Gene Wolfe is so reluctant
to answer specific questions about his work. Or as Gloucester asserts: "I
won't argue definitions with you."

The ivy-climbers outside the tower conflate a number of ideas for me: they
are the jack-and-jills who climb the beanstalk hoping to find gold at the
top, in the giant's castle, as well as perhaps Ivy Leaguers or Iv[or]y
Tower aspirants. Is Wolfe saying these people are pursuing false goals and
that smugness of intellect (or the assumption of exclusivity) is as foolish
as staking one's future on a handful of magic beans? Are academics more
interested in salaries and tenure than teaching people to think? Is the
vampire bat--"shamed by its own malignancy"--the student populace who wish
to absorb intellectual nourishment from the faculty rather than nourish
themselves through self-development? (Note how the spittle of Kent/Youth
resembles the skull of the vampire.) Both climber and bat seem contrasted
with those who *truly* attempt to improve the lot of mankind, but are
assassinated (Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, et al). 

[The bat might also represent the harpies Astolpho rescues Prester John
from in Song of Roland.] 

Accumulating knowledge is also difficult and sometimes tiring, Wolfe seems
to imply. Note how both Kent and Gloucester wish "to courtier no more." The
pursuit of knowledge may take one as well into labyrinthine realms, where
the maze is as much vertical as horizontal (cf. the tower as abyss) and the
dark minotaur waits--in TtDTC this may be the zodiacal talking bison, who
represents the dark side of Daedalean knowledge. (Einstein, seeking to
unlock the universe, paves the way for atomic weaponry; "A little knowledge
is a dangerous thing," etc., etc.)

But perhaps the chief danger to an individual's pursuit of knowledge is
time itself, and biological aging--symbolized by the rats of the story. Not
only do they kill Kent/Youth, but they're eating away at the foundation of
the tower, and when Lear appears at the end of the story, he may be truly
senile in the conventional sense, having reverted to childhood, attended by
bacchantes who might serve his physical needs, but whose eyes are votive
candles lit to a life no longer possible. 

As for the psychoanalytical angle mentioned by Wolfe in his intro, while a
Freudian might guess the dream symbolized a fear of impotence, my best take
on it is that Gene Wolfe fears the knibbling of rats at his brain and the
diminishment of his mental capabilities over time. 

Any of you yet experiencing tip-of-the-tongue phenomena, where the name or
the title you're seeking lays just beyond mental grasping and it's driving
you crazy? 

Hi ho, the dairy-oh, the rat eats the cheese.

Call me Gorgonzola.

Robert Borski (Emile's brother)

*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

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