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From: "Robert Borski" <rborski@coredcs.com>
Subject: (urth) White Wolves
Date: Mon, 22 Mar 1999 00:52:56 


After Severian manages to extricate himself from the antechamber where he
and Jonas have been imprisoned, and goes looking for Terminus Est, he
accidentally discovers Hethor's friend Beuzac hiding in a loft. Later, when
he returns to the same closet, he discovers Beuzac has crawled out a hole
in the back. That prompts this response: "It is said that in the House
Absolute such recesses are inhabited by a species of white wolf that slunk
in from the surrounding forests long ago. Perhaps he fell prey to these

Still later (and we must remember Severian is writing his memoirs at some
future remove, so the time frame involved is much longer), Sev has this to
say about apocryphal lupines lurking about: "In wandering [the Secret
House's] narrow corridors, I have seen no white wolves."

Gene Wolfe, of course, frequently inserts these sorts of punning references
to wolfes in his works--they're the literary equivalent of cameos, and very
similar to the appearances director Alfred Hitchcock made in his films. But
other than this, and playing off a rather prominent urban legend (i.e.,
albino alligators in the sewers of New York), do the white wolves have any
special significance? And why are they no longer present in the House
Absolute? Thecla, at one point, remembers coursing them [1], so apparently
there is some truth to Sev's statement.

Two separate possibilites occur to me. Although interestingly, each plays
to the same notion.

The first involves the alzabo. While Gene Wolfe no doubt based part of his
alzabo on Borges, a significant part also draws upon Pliny's Naturlis
Historia. Michael Andre-Driussi mentions the latter in his Lexicon Urthus,
but neglects to mention that Pliny also writes of another fabulous beast
called the leucrocota, which translated from the Greek means "white
dog-wolf." (Actually, Pliny borrows heavily upon Ctesias the Cnidian's
Indica, where the creature is known as a crocotta, kynolykos, or cynolycus,
"dog-wolf"). At any rate both the cynolycus and the leucrocota are likened
to be a species of hyena with a special facilty of imitating the human
voice, just like Wolfe's alzabo. Does this mean that at one time there were
alzabos running around the House Absolute? Possibly. Keep in mind that
Wolfe has always portrayed himself as a translater of the New Sun
manuscript, and that one of the perils of translating is choosing the right
equivalent word in the second language.[2] One translator's leucrocota
might therefore be another's alzabo. And to some extent having alzabos in
the House Absolute, or access thereto, makes sense, because it would allow
a steady and fresh supply of analeptic to be on hand, in case of dire
event. As for why they are no longer around after Severian the Great takes
office, there's no need for them--Sev is the last of Urth's autarchs, the
redemptive New Sun. 

The second possible meaning of white wolf has its origins in alchemy.
Antimony--which is brittle white in color--was known medievally as lupus
metallorum, owing to its use in purifying gold. As Joannes Agricola in his
Treatise on Gold puts it [3], "The Grey Wolf must eat the Lion, which must
be devoured by it three times, after first purifying itself and cleansing
its eyes with the Wolf's blood, so that they shine brightly. The Wolf is
the antimony; the Lion, however, the pure gold." Again, since Sev is the
true New Sun--symbolically, pure gold--there's no need for any purifying
reagents--hence no white wolves in the House Absolute.

[1] This sounds like a dangerous activity. Then again, look what happens
every year during the Feast of San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain.

[2] Mistranslations, of course, are part and parcel of all such work. E.g.,
lukos--wolf--has often been mistranslated as leukos--light. While a more
pertinent example has Sev pondering over the constellation called The
Eight, which curiously has only three stars. The constellation he's talking
about is our Octans, meaning octant--an eighth of a circle--which is
triangular-shaped. Hence someone in the future, in compiling his or her
atlas of the sky, has mistranslated Octans as The Eight.

[3] Agricola here is actually commenting on a passage found in The Twelve
Keys, a famous alchemical work written by Basil Valentine, a Benedictine
Monk of the 15th century.

Robert Borski

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

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