Tag Archives: book

The Forest of Forever

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Forest of Forever [Bookshop, Amazon] by Thomas Burnett Swann.

Swann The Forest of Forever

Thomas Burnett Swann’s Minotaur trilogy was written and published in the reverse of its narrative chronology. By chance, I have been reading these in the narrative sequence, starting with Cry Silver Bells. But The Forest of Forever is second no matter which way you count. The book is divided into two parts, each of which is effectively a novella, titled “Eunostos” and “Aeacus,” the names of two principal characters. Eunostos is a minotaur, the last of his kind in the Land of Beasts. Aeacus is a human Cretan prince. The whole is narrated by the 360-year-old dryad Zoe, who also is the speaker in Cry Silver Bells.

“Eunostos” is largely an adventure story, centering on dryad peril, in which the minotaur plays the hero. “Aeacus” is a slower tale of affections and disappointments, circulating through a few linked households in the Land of Beasts, and reaching its climax at the royal court in Knossos. The book is typical of Swann, set in his fantasized antiquity with intelligent non-humans and a relaxed sense of happy carnality.

As with several other Swann books, this one is illustrated with line art from George Barr. The drawings are attractive and apt, but in my 1971 Ace pocket paperback edition, there has been no care to align them with the texts that they represent, or even to sequence them according to the narrative.

The Book of the New Sun

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, an omnibus of the New Sun series.

Wolfe The Book of the New Sun

I first read this book (in the four individual volumes) many decades ago in my early teens. In 2007, I picked up this omnibus edition with the intention to re-read it, and quickly acquired most of the other volumes in the larger Solar Cycle, which resulted in a large prospective reading project on which I procrastinated until the thick of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Given my intention to re-read it, I had had a favorable impression of it on my initial read, but I really felt I had not fully understood or appreciated it then. I was correct.

In fact, I am such a different reader now, and so much more capable of grasping what Wolfe has presented here, that most of this book seemed entirely new to me. I remembered the largest plot arc, by which the apprentice torturer ascends to the office of Autarch–and it’s no spoiler to say so, since that framing is well established early on–but I had forgotten the smaller twists, if I ever really appreciated them, and many of the features of the setting seemed entirely new to me on this read.

There is a great contrast in the two literary backgrounds that informed each of my reads. On my initial approach, I came to the work with what I thought was the compatible experience of The Lord of the Rings and perhaps Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga. I did appreciate that the described Urth was in our far future, and I had already encountered this sort of conceit in The Sword of Shannara, a highly conventional epic fantasy with various clues to indicate that it was set in a future after our civilization had been effaced by catastrophic warfare. To be fair to my younger self, I think this approach to Wolfe’s books was perfectly in keeping with the publisher’s packaging and expectations, and to some degree I had simply fallen for the author’s intentional misdirection.

On this recent read, I was far more informed by the reading experiences I had gathered from other works in the “dying Earth” subgenre, especially the Viriconium stories of M. John Harrison and The City and the Stars of Arthur C. Clarke. And I was further prepared by reading Wolfe’s own Fifth Head of Cerberus, which offers the sort of elliptical presentation that occurs throughout The Book of the New Sun, without the “epic” framing or red-herring fantasy tropes of the latter.

Wolfe personally adhered to the Roman Catholic confession, and critics have sometimes highlighted this fact as if it supplied a privileged interpretive viewpoint for the work. I remember being a little put off by the possible significance of “religious” elements in my first read–having been burned by the Sunday School allegory of Narnia and the rather dim messianism of Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books. But on this recent read, I thought the better comparandum would be the religions, cults, and mysticism of Herbert’s Dune, using the grist of historical religion in the mill of speculative worldbuilding–with some genuine metaphysical rumination. For what it’s worth, Wolfe’s Severian is a lot more diffident about the miracles of his story than Paul Atreides was. The “Claw of the Conciliator” relic that supplies the title of the second book is present through all four, and its demystification in the fourth has the paradoxical effect of enhancing its numinosity. The “One Ring” it is not.

Some other comparisons that failed to occur to me on my initial read: . . . [Spoilers: hover over to reveal] . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The diction of this work is notable for its baroque qualities, archaicisms, and neologisms in an archaic manner. There is a rationale for these stylistic features, which are nevertheless alienating for the reader. Also alienating is the unsympathetic protagonist, who narrates the entire story on the basis of his professedly impeccable memory. A reader might (and I’m sure I once did) miss key details while simply trying to avoid getting stuck on these matters. Wolfe deliberately uses ambiguous language in his nautical and astronautical references. Spacefarers are simply “sailors.”

There are wonderful uses of form and metafictional structure. I especially enjoyed the central play-within-the-play of “Eschatology and Genesis” in the second book, and the Canterbury Tales concatenation of stories told by the convalescing soldiers in the lazaret of the fourth. Despite appearances, these are not digressions from the main work, and they can be understood in part as instruction in how to read the larger text. There is a very rigorous pattern governing the whole, with a strong sense of cyclic completion. The “Citadel of the Autarch” in the title of the fourth book is the place where the first book begins, but its identification with the Autarch is the result of the events of the tale.

The titles of the four component volumes highlight the riddles posed throughout. What is the shadow of the torturer Severian? . . . [Spoilers: hover over to reveal] . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . What is the Claw of the Conciliator? . . . [Spoilers: hover over to reveal] . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . What is the value of Severian’s sword? . . . [Spoilers: hover over to reveal] . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . And what is the Autarch? . . . [Spoilers: hover over to reveal] . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Reading The Book of the New Sun is not like watching a Hollywood movie or even reading a mystery novel. If you let it carry you along, you will be left wondering why you bothered. But there are amazing rewards for the reader who is alert to the increasingly distant voice of the narrator and who works to recognize the features of the story that are left tacit. Not only do I hold this work in high regard for its own sake as a literary accomplishment, it has taught me about reading and storytelling.

Three-upmanship

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Three-upmanship: The Theory & Practice of Gamesmanship; Some Notes on Lifemanship; One-upmanship by Stephen Potter.

Potter Three-upsmanship

I first read Gamesmanship at the tender age of six or so. I knew it was supposed to be funny, because the way I had found it was by browsing the humor shelves of the public library. (At six I was already exploring out well beyond the confines of the library’s juvenile sections.) It probably had a salutary effect on me, in terms of making the gamesmanship in which it purports to offer instruction seem utterly repellent, albeit curiously arresting.

Potter often describes the complex and antagonistic relationship among the three factors of sportsmanship (constructive sociability in the game context), skill (mastery of game-specific processes and contents), and gamesmanship (exploitation of socio-psychological factors to defeat opponents). In fact, gamesmanship turns out to be not so much about the “art of winning” (note the sparse and apologetic chapter on “Winmanship”), but the art of precipitating losses in rivals.

Some of the best bits of the book are the elaborate (and often pointless) diagrams, and the end-matter: especially “A Queer Match” in the “Gamesmanania” section (105-107). Appendix II, a “Note on Etiquette” betrays the essentially esoteric character of gamesmanship, which may account for the fascination it once exercised over me.

Demian

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth [Bookshop, Amazon] by Hermann Hesse.

Hesse Demian

This year I have read several works of fiction set in the years approaching the Great War more than a century ago. There was Pynchon’s Against the Day and Buchan’s The 49 Steps. More than either of those, Hesse’s Demian is known as a defining work of that time–and yet my appreciation for it is set well outside of its historical framing.

There’s no question that Demian has esoteric dimensions. The mental powers and Cainite heresy of Max and the deviant Gnostic hieraticism of Pistorius–even the pathetic asceticism of Knauer–are redolent of occult initiation. But more particularly Max Demian and Eva Demian are the embodiments of the protagonist Emil’s two critical tasks in coming to himself: embracing his genius and overcoming his personality.

I first read the opening chapter of Demian in German when I was doing language study in high school. I have an initiate’s guidance to thank for my return to it some forty-four years later, after I have subsequently read Hesse’s later major novels. It is as compelling and significant as they are, and on many counts, more accessible.

one precaution is necessary, failing which it were better to leave untrodden all steps on the path to higher knowledge. It is necessary that the student should lose none of his qualities as a good and noble man, or his receptivity for all physical reality. Indeed, throughout his training he must continually increase his moral strength, his inner purity, and his power of observation.

Rudolf Steiner, How to Know Higher Worlds [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher]

Hermetic quote Steiner To Know Higher Worlds necessary that the student should lose none of his qualities as a good and noble man

“The other self, the anti-self or the antithetical self, as one may choose to name it, comes but to those who are no longer deceived, whose passion is reality”

Susan Johnston Graf, W.B. Yeats Twentieth Century Magus: An In-Depth Study of Yeat’s Esoteric Practices and Beliefs, Including Excerpts from His Magical Diaries [Bookshop, Amazon]

“Yeats explains what he meant by ‘passion is reality’: ‘… for the awakening, for the vision, for the revelation of reality, tradition offers us a different word-ecstasy’ … Immersion in the anti-self brought about a ‘revelation of reality,’ an ecstatic state that enabled the artist to create works of genius. … Only when he became the anti-self could he become a totally subjective individual, overcome the illusion of duality, and find a ‘revelation of reality.'”

Hermetic quote Graf W B Yeats Twentieth Century Magus to those who are no longer deceived whose passion is reality

“This,” I said, “is contrary to all the doctrines of our science, which teaches that we can see nothing whatever unless it has a shape of some kind.”

“The eye of science sees only the outward form,” answered Adalga; “but the eye of wisdom sees the reality itself.”

Franz Hartmann, Among the Gnomes

Hermetic quote Hartmann Among the Gnomes the eye of wisdom sees reality itself