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From: "Roy C. Lackey" <rclackey@stic.net>
Subject: (urth) Flowers
Date: Sat, 17 Jul 1999 10:05:09 

Some time ago I mentioned posting something about florigraphy in
the Urth Cycle. What follows is not what I originally intended to write
about--the message Wolfe intended to convey by the three flowers placed on
the graves of Sev and his fellow "gods" at the very end of URTH. Instead,
I will here concentrate on the subject as it pertains to Dorcas, which is
more extensive. There are dozens of references to flowers in the five
books, and much more could be written on the subject, but if it has been
done I am not aware of it

Florigraphy is the language of flowers. While particular flowers
have long been associated with particular human sentiments, e.g. roses
with love, in recent centuries those simple associations evolved into a
more complex "language", whereby fairly sophisticated messages could be
exchanged solely with floral arrangements. The choice of flowers, the
particular orientation of them, time and method of delivery, etc., all
combined to convey a message, usually, but not necessarily, romantic in
nature. Florigraphy reached the apex of its popularity during the
Victorian era, and entire books were devoted to the subject. 

I do not claim that Wolfe researched the subject that extensively,
or know what sources he used, but that he has some knowledge of it is
certain. Doubters have only to read a single paragraph in chapter 2, p.
51, of CALDE to satisfy themselves. Readers of Wolfe will have noted the
mention of roses in nearly everything he has written, (his wife, of
course, is named Rosemary) and the Urth cycle is no exception, but many
other flowers are mentioned as well. As is the case for mythological
authorities, any two given sources for the meaning(s) of particular
flowers will not necessarily agree in all the particulars. Also, the
meaning given to the same flower sometimes changed over the course of
time, so that there cannot often be definitive answers. This makes the
task of deciphering Wolfe's intentions all the harder, but that's typical.
The problem is further complicated when he names a flower in a given
context but neglects to mention the color of it. Any given flower, e.g. a
daisy, may have a generic meaning, but another meaning if of a certain
color, still another if it is a subvariety. 

From her first appearance in the NEW SUN to her last, Dorcas is
sending a series of signals with the flowers she puts in her hair. Most of
these signals, whether sent consciously or unconsciously, have to do with
Sev, but he, of course, is oblivious. I can only conclude that Wolfe
intended the reader to decipher them for themselves. 

1) When Dorcas, Agia, and Sev are being rowed across the Lake of
Birds (I, XXIV) by Hildegrin, Dorcas plucks a blue water hyacinth from the
surface of the lake--a place where flowers do not exist--and places it in
her hair. The water hyacinth is most often associated with "constancy".
The chapter title "The Flower of Dissolution" refers, of course, to the
avern he is there to pluck. The water hyacinth is mentioned in the first
line of the chapter; the avern in the last. The avern represents the
dissolution of death, obviously, and is presented in contrast to the water
hyacinth. While Sev is speculating about where the hyacinth came from his
thoughts turn religious, noting the contrast of life and death, light and
dark, order and chaos, etc., concluding, to state it simply, that the
negative halves of these pairs of opposites is where God isn't. 

I am aware of the use of the hyacinth in T. S. Eliot's "The Waste
Land" as a symbol of resurrection, which would fit perfectly in this
context, and Wolfe well may have had this poem in mind when he wrote this
scene, but in the sources on florigraphy that I have seen, resurrection is
not the meaning assigned to the hyacinth. While the language of flowers
and the symbolic use of flowers certainly overlap, they are not entirely
congruent, and I make no pretense of being an authority on the subject. 

2) On the day after the contest at the Sanguinary Field, after
Sev's visit with Agia and Agilus in the latter's cell, Sev arranges for
temporary quarters for the night for himself and Dorcas. The couple then
goes for a walk. (I, XXX) "Dorcas had found a daisy for her hair; but as
we walked about outside the walls ... it folded its petals in sleep, and
she plucked instead one of those white, trumpet-shaped blossoms that are
called moonflowers.". They soon return to their room to make love for the
first time. It is unclear from the text where Dorcas obtained the daisy
(yes, it matters), and its color is not specified. The meaning of the
generic daisy is "innocence"; the same for the white daisy. Since they
were at a military compound, it seems safe to disregard the garden daisy.
The wild, or single field daisy, however, means "I will think of it".
Either of these two meanings could apply to Dorcas. She has a child-like
innocence and is struggling to recall her past. The change of flowers is
significant and has a clearer meaning. 

The moonflower is the common name for a member of the twining or
creeping plants, such as the morning glory, which are part of the family
called ipomoea. The meaning given to ipomoea is "attachment; I attach
myself to you". In context, the meaning is clear enough, both literally
and figuratively. 

3) After escaping from the antechamber Sev rejoined the thespian
group. An interesting side note is that, when he found the group, Dr.
Talos was striking the heads from flowers with his cane, just as he did
the night, near the end of SHADOW, when Sev and Dorcas came upon his
encampment, the same night that the eidolons Malrubius and Triskele
appeared to him. Make of that what you will. At any rate, after a nap, Sev
and Dorcas wandered away onto the grounds of the House Absolute to be
alone and talk. (II, XXII) They passed through a grove of plum trees in
bloom, and Dorcas put a twig of the white blossoms into her hair. Sev
draws the distinction between the plum trees he and Jonas passed through
on the way to the antechamber, which he judged to have been planted for
ornamentation, and those he and Dorcas passed through, which he thought
had been planted for the fruit. The distinction would be absolutely
pointless but for the difference in the meaning attached to them. The wild
plum tree means "independence", but the generic plum tree (presumably
domesticated, cultivated for the fruit) means "keep your promise" or

Genius is not a term that can be associated with Sev, and probably
not with Dorcas. If we are to assume that Dorcas is the author of the
messages being sent via the flowers, then the interpretation of their
meaning would not be the same as their interpretation if Wolfe is sending
a signal to the reader. Sev has made no explicit promise to her that he
must keep, although he will shortly break faith with her by ravishing
Jolenta. She doesn't know that, though she must see the potential. Her
tortured dreams and returning memories of her life before her death may be
reawakening promises made to her husband and family. 

Near the bench where they are sitting in a long-forgotten garden
are a few beds of simple flowers and herbs--"rosemary, angelica, mint,
basil, and rue", meaning, respectively, "remembrance", "inspiration",
"virtue", "hatred (or "give me your good wishes")", and "disdain". [N1]

4) In Thrax, on the morning of the last day of her life with Sev,
Dorcas cut her hair short and left their rooms after putting a white peony
in her hair. (III, II) There are several meanings for the white peony: 
"anger", "bashfulness", "shame". Anger and shame are both indicated here.
The book opens with Dorcas-- who fears and avoids water--recounting
standing under a waterfall in the women's bath, trying to wash the stench
of the prison tunnels out of her hair. She is angry with the women she
heard talking about her, the paramour of a torturer, and the things they
say about Sev. She is also angry with Sev, because she realizes what the
women are saying is true. She feels shame for herself for putting up with
it, for going to bed in a room atop those very tunnels. While listening to
Dorcas air her feelings (III, I), Sev likens the yellow lights of the city
below to a jonquil. The jonquil means "I desire a return of affection".
Tough luck. 

5) When Sev last sees Dorcas, it is in the ruins of lower Nessus.
Traveling up the Gyoll aboard the _Samru_, Sev spies "...a little boat,
newly built, tied to an ancient pier." What follows is either an
absolutely astonishing act of intuition or the one instance in the entire
Urth Cycle when slow-witted Sev is smarter than the reader. He asks to be
put ashore alongside the boat, and there reveals what else he saw from the
deck of the ship; "...a wilted scarlet poppy left lying on the single
seat." (IV, XXXII). By means inexplicable, he finds his way to the
long-deserted shop where Dorcas had lived with her husband and child.
"Perhaps it was no more than the perfume of the blossom she wore, because
when I saw her she had an arum, freckled white and sweet as Dorcas herself
had always been, thrust into her hair. No doubt she had brought it there
for that purpose, and had taken out the wilted poppy and cast it down when
she had tied up her boat." What purpose? As the text reads, it means the
purpose of guiding him to her in the shop via the scent of the arum. Yet
there is no way for her to know or even suspect that Sev is anywhere near
Nessus. He enters the rear of the shop through "a narrow door hidden under
ivy". The ivy vine means "matrimony, marriage". Inside, with her back to
him, she is kneeling before a bier on which is the dead body of the old
boatman, her former husband. Beside her is a basket "not small yet not
large either". 

There are several other things very wrong with this scene. When,
where, and how did the boatman die? The shop is more than two full days
and nights of travel by the _Samru_ from the Citadel. Did delicate little
Dorcas--who is mortally afraid of water--not only buy a new boat, but also
navigate it down the Gyoll to her old home? I don't think so. Why was she
there at all? How did the old man's body come to be on a bier on the
second floor of the shop? Did little Dorcas put it there? I don't think
so. Sev specifically states that the reason he didn't speak to her was
that she had just arrived. She is quite a busy girl. He also says that her
hair "...was the same--unchanged since I had seen her first in the Garden
of Endless Sleep." Nonsense. She cut her hair so short in Thrax that "she
almost seemed a boy". From the time Sev left Thrax until that moment,
perhaps two or three months had passed. Hair doesn't grow that fast. And
if there is a baby in that basket, then someone has been playing in the
Corridors of Time. 

The generic meaning of a poppy, or of a red poppy, is
"consolation", but that of a scarlet poppy is "fantastic extravagance". I
don't know if Sev can tell the difference between red and scarlet. If
taken literally, fantastic extravagance may refer to the expense of the
"newly built" boat, a boat she will have little more use for. The arum has
two meanings, "ardor" and "ferocity and deceit".[N2] I think the first of
those meanings can be dismissed, given her circumstances. The spotted arum
means both "ardor" and "great warmth". As for "ferocity and deceit", that
depends on exactly what has been going on. There are lingering questions
about exactly how she came to be in the Lake of Birds, but more and more
of her memories had been coming back even before she left Sev. She may
have remembered how she got there, which may relate to the old boatman's
timely demise. Recall that in the same conversation that Sev and Dorcas
had in the gardens of the House Absolute that I mentioned above, Dorcas
objected to Dr. Talos having labeled Sev as Death, that he wasn't really
like that. Sev called it a metaphor, and Dorcas said it was a bad
metaphor. In the last paragraph of that chapter Sev wrote: "...it occurred
to me to wonder whether Dr. Talos's calling Dorcas "Innocence" had not
been a metaphor of the same kind." 

Determining what Wolfe intended in this enigmatic scene remains
difficult, even with the added gloss of the flower language. 

The meanings given to the flowers that I have related here have
been largely gleaned from various internet sites devoted to the subject,
so anyone interested has access to the same resources. If anyone here has
more knowledge of the subject than I, speak up. 

[N1] "...twined lupine, purple loosestrife, and white meadow rue." are the
wildflowers that deck the bowers of Sev and his fellow gods. Lupine (very
Wolfean) means "voraciousness; inspiration; dejection". Loosestrife
(lysimachia vulgaris) means "pretension". Lysimachia is Greek for "ending
strife". Purple loosestrife (lythrum salicaria) derives its color from
lythrum, a word from the Greek "lythron", meaning "blood". I don't know if
the qualifiers "white" and "meadow" charge the meaning of white meadow rue
(thalictrum aquilegiifolium 'album') with any meaning beyond the typical
meaning for rue of "disdain". 

[N2] Dragonwort is another name for the common arum, as is wake-robin and
snakeweed. Dragonwort means "horror" (as does mandrake) in the language of
flowers. It is mentioned in the OED that those who carry the leaves and
roots of the dragonwort are protected against vipers and serpents. In
chapter XXVII of CLAW Dorcas likened the stream that she, Sev, and Jolenta
camped beside to a big snake. Given her fear of water, she may have
carried the arum in the boat with her down the Gyoll to ameliorate her
fear of the river. 


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

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