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From: Nigel Price <NigelPrice1@compuserve.com>
Subject: (urth) Wright Rebuttal
Date: Wed, 16 Dec 1998 19:29:29 

(Sorry, there is some lupine comment in this posting, but there's a bit of
scene setting to be got through as well first...)

I recently sent off to America for Mantis' splendid collection of lupine
booklets.  He responded very quickly to my order, and the booklets arrived
here in Wiltshire, England, in yesterday's post.  Since then I have been
studying them with a great deal of pleasure, and accordingly decided to
write an e-mail to Mantis to thank him for being willing to share his
scholarship with other Wolfe enthusiasts in this way.

My message began as follows:

        Hi Michael!

        Just to let you know that your consignment of Gene Wolfe
        booklets arrived safely in yesterday's post and I've been
        greedily devouring their contents ever since.  Thank you
        for making the fruits of your long labours available to
        others in this way.

        I was particularly impressed by your synopsis of TBotNS
        and TUotNS.  Reading it all through brought back a little of
        the sheer joy and wonder of Wolfe's convoluted, and, indeed,
        involuted narrative.  Time and again, my reaction was 
        something along the lines of, "So *that's* what happened  
        - that's what I *thought* happened, but it seemed so strange
        that at the time I read it that I wondered whether I'd 

        I have recently been corresponding with <very kind and
        scholarly member of the Urth and Whorl lists> and he has
        been kind enough to send me copies of various reviews
        and critical essays on Wolfe, and amongst these was a
        copy of your piece in Foundation 66, entitled 
        "Gene Wolfe at the Lake of Birds".  I very much enjoyed 
        reading this, and found your tracing of the various 
        interwoven references and allusions in "The Shadow of 
        the Torturer" most illuminating.

        In contrast, I found the two extracts from Peter Wright's 
        thesis on Wolfe that were published in the same edition 
        of Foundation much more problematic...

Ever prompt, Mantis replied this evening as follows:

        Thanks for all your comments on "Lake of Birds" and 
        Peter Wright's essays!  Please consider posting them to 
        the list, especially the Wright stuff, since more-than-you-
        might-guess have read those essays (and =everybody= 
        should have a copy of "Foundation No. 66," yet
        without a doubt there are some who know not of its 
        existence) and who knows, they might be prodded into 
        coughing up some sort of dialog.

        Since you've already done the writing it is easy to upload,
        and you can share your work.

OK, this is what I wrote:

        In contrast (to Mantis' essay on The Lake of Birds), I found 
        the two extracts from Peter Wright's thesis on Wolfe that 
        were published in the same edition of Foundation much 
        more problematic.  Although there was much to admire, 
        especially, for instance, in his discussion of the way that 
        Severian's "perfect" memory serves to overwhelm 
        significant information with an excess of circumstantial 
        and associative detail, I was ultimately unconvinced by 
        his theory that the book is a disguised account of a 
        cosmic evolutionary conspiracy.  Clearly, he is right to 
        emphasise the role of the hierogrammates and their 
        plans as shaping forces behind many of the events of 
        Severian's narrative, and I agree that the references to plays 
        and puppetry throughout the narrative are highly 
        suggestive of the covert manipulation going on.

        For all that, Wright's analysis seems far too reductive.  
        In stressing Severian's suitability for becoming the 
        progenitor of the New Sun because the hieros 
        produced the hierogrammates by "torturing" other 
        species, he seems to ignore the fact that Severian was 
        a failure as a torturer.  That, after all, was why he was 
        exiled from his guild in the first place.  His life is 
        characterised by humanity as well as rigour, and surely 
        it is this balance that ultimately qualifies him for both 
        the office of Autarch and his ultimate destiny as bringer 
        of the New Sun.

        Again, Wright correctly emphasises that the coming of 
        the New Sun results in Urth's destruction through 
        inundation, but ignores both the terminal decadence 
        and decline of Urth society and the fact that it is in any 
        case doomed to imminent extinction anyway when the 
        old sun finally dies, as the view of the "Ragnarok" 
        timeline from the Last House makes clear.  Wolfe has 
        spoken in interviews of Urth's decline as brought about 
        by a failure of ambition, energy and moral courage.  
        Urth of the Commonwealth is a society in the grip of 
        social as well as physical entropy.

        Wright's interpretation of Severian's story is that it shows 
        how religious and mythological narrative and imagery are 
        cynically exploited by an alien race who use Severian as 
        their puppet and destroy Urth in order to ensure their own 
        creation.  I would say that the narrative is much more 
        ambiguous than that.  Part of Wolfe's achievement seems 
        to be to show how religious and mythological structures 
        can be embodied in rational structures of physical cause 
        and effect without losing their mythical or religious 
        significance.  If Severian ensures the existence of the 
        hierogrammates, he does also save the Urth from heat 
        death and extinction.  If the "second coming" of the 
        Conciliator is the result of time travel, then it is still a real 
        parousia, and genuinely results in a judgement and the 
        effective creation of a new heaven and a new earth - or 

        <Spoiler warning for anyone who has not yet read the
        Long Sun series!>

        In so far as Wolfe's other works can, as Wright asserts, 
        be regarded as commentaries on Severian's story, then 
        it seems significant that in the Long Sun books, while 
        Silk discovers that the religion that is so important to him 
        is as manufactured as the world/Whorl in which he lives, 
        he also receives enlightenment from The Outsider, who 
        may well be the "real" God of Christian belief.  The Book 
        of the Long Sun is about a false and corrupt religion and 
        its use to manipulate the populace who form the Whorl's 
        "cargo".  But it is also about real faith, and Silk's role in 
        "saving" his people and bringing them to a better place.  
        The mythical and the literal themes exist in constant 
        juxtaposition, but rather than subvert each other, they 
        reinforce one another.  In Wolfe's fiction, reality is shot 
        through with the significance that it gains from its mythic 
        resonances, while those same myths are in some 
        sense realized and fulfilled in the everyday events of the 

        That's certainly how I regard The Book and The Urth of 
        the New Sun.

        Stressing the obfuscatory role of Severian's memory also 
        fails to give credit to the sheer power of the naturalistic 
        dimension of Wolfe's narrative.  I've always found his 
        attention to describing the small and most mundane 
        details of ordinary life deeply moving and strangely 
        humane amongst much that is often alien and bizarre in 
        the extreme.

To all this, Mantis commented:

        Wright's work is good.  I think I agree with you in differing 
        with his vision of the whole, and in some details, but he 
        presents it well and backs up everything with text (which 
        means our differences of opinion often arise out of the 
        vexing morass of "interpretation").  He seems to steer the 
        Urth Cycle into the Machievellian territory of Herbert's DUNE 
        series (but maybe that only came to mind because there
        was an essay in the same issue about Herbert's 
        Machievellian themes!) rather than, say, the PK Dick 
        region of "Gnostic Truth breaks through."

        (Oh look, another Synchronicity Wave is breaking--
        vizcacha is suddenly talking about Clute's "Catherine the 
        Weal"--good time to act, now.)

        Plus you really ought to post a list of your recent readings in
        essays on Wolfe, just to spread the info on what is there, and help
        prod those people (other than myself, honestly!) who desire to
        compile annotated bibliographies of secondary material.

        Keep up the good work!

Thus encouraged, therefore, I have posted the above for general
consideration, and give my recent lupine reading as follows, with due
thanks to generous photocopiers of reviews and articles (they know who they

        Mantis' (Michael Andre-Driussi) "Lexicon Urthus"
        and three individual pamphlet volumes of 
        "Additions, Errata &cetera"; his indispensible
        "Synopsis of the Narrative of Severian the Great";
        his two booklets "Languages of the Long Sun Whorl"
        and "Characters of the Long Sun Whorl"

        Colin Greenland's review of "The Shadow of the Torturer" 
        and "The Claw of the Conciliator" in Foundation 24.

        Douglas Barbour's review of "The Sword of the Lictor"
        in Foundation 26.

        Paul Park's review of "Nightside the Long Sun" and
        "Lake of the Long Sun" in Foundation 60.

        Michael Andre-Driussi's essay (Mantis again!)
        "Gene Wolfe at the Lake of Birds" in Foundation 66.

        Peter Wright's essays "God-Games: Cosmic
        Conspiracies and Narrative Sleights in Gene Wolfe's
        The Fictions of the New Sun" and "Grasping the
        God-Games: Metafictional Keys to the Interpretation
        of Gene Wolfe's The Fictions of the New Sun" in
        Foundation 66.

        John Clute's collected essays on Gene Wolfe in his
        his book "Strokes"

        Larry McCaffery's essay and interview with Gene Wolfe
        in "Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with
        Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers"

        And, newly arrived from Amazon this morning...
        "Gene Wolfe: Urth-Man Extraordinary: A Woking
        Bibliography by Phil Stephensen-Payne and
        Gordon Benson, Jr."

I've also been downloading various interviews and articles from the web,
but I need to compile a separate list for them.  The "Cave Canem" site has
been a fascinating source of essays and lexicographical information on "The
Fifth Head of Cerberus".


Nigel Price
Minety, Wiltshire

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

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