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The Urth of the New Sun

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Urth of the New Sun [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Gene Wolfe, book 3 of the New Sun omnibus series.

Wolfe The Urth of the New Sun

I bought this book in the twentieth century of the vulgar era, and moved it with my library about eleven times over the succeeding twenty-two years before I finally read it. Somehow that seems fitting. The Urth of the New Sun is the fifth of four volumes in Wolfe’s autotheography of Severian the Torturer, a.k.a. Severian the Great, a.k.a. Severian the Lame, Autarch of the Commonwealth, Epitome of Urth, and incarnation of the New Sun. It first recounts his voyage to and from the neighboring universe of Yesod. (Qabalistic Hebrew is strangely conscripted throughout the book.) Then it details his salvific manifestations on Urth and its successor world Ushas.

There are roughly as many plot arcs and riddling enigmas in this book as in the four previous ones put together, and there is hardly a person or a place in the earlier stories that is not subjected to some sort of revisitation in the sequel. These seem to assume their “proper” dimensions so that it is difficult to believe that the author did not secretly understand them this way from the beginning. There is less here than in the earlier books in the way of nested narrative and storytelling set-pieces; for a book chock-full of the vagaries of time travel and transcendence of space, the tale is surprisingly linear, keeping to Severian’s subjective experience of events.

I did not find this volume as difficult of access as I had its predecessors when I first read them in the 1980s. But there were still bits of it that resisted my full understanding, including the unspecified “plausible speculation” with which Wolfe teases his readers in the afterword on “The Miracle of Apu-Punchau.” I expect that a re-read would yield perceptions that were withheld from me on this pass. But my aim is first to proceed on through the seven further volumes of the Solar Cycle.

Only Begotten Daughter

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Only Begotten Daughter [Bookshop, Amazon] by James Morrow.

Morrow Only Begotten Daughter

Only Begotten Daughter is an enormously clever religious satire, much more incisive than Morrow’s routinely lauded Towing Jehovah. But I’ll probably never re-read it, because the story is just too goddamned sad.

The Hippopotamus Pool

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Hippopotamus Pool [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Elizabeth Peters, book 8 of the Amelia Peabody series.

Peters The Hippopotamus Pool

This eighth novel of the series is set on the cusp of the twentieth century. It is an almost paradigmatic Amelia Peabody tale, with the highest stakes in conventional Egyptology of any of them so far: the tomb of a queen with a sarcophagus unopened since antiquity. The whole multigenerational Emerson-Peabody clan is involved, and the children Ramses and Nefret (along with newcomer David) are now teenagers.

Peters disappointed me by showing some sloppy research: she called a copy of Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled a “slim volume”! (It’s hardly such a scarce commodity that she couldn’t have found out firsthand the beefiness of its two volumes.) 

Again, as in the previous book, a couple of useful maps are included–but at arbitrary points in the text which are not noted in any apparatus. A new feature is a dramatis personae list with descriptions prefaced to the novel. For those who resent spoilers (most mystery readers, I would presume), I recommend not reading this list at the outset, although I suppose it might be useful to those coming to the book without having read earlier volumes of the series. Did the author doubt her own efficiency of exposition with respect to the recurring characters? Still, it’s hard for me to see the value of “Characters Appearing or Referred to in The Hippopotamus Pool,” and I will certainly skip any similar offerings in later books. 

The chapter titles are all quoted from the text, and they give a good sense of the witty tone, from “The Trouble with Unknown Enemies Is that They Are So Difficult to Identify” to “No Mystery Is Insoluble–It Is Simply a Matter of How Much Time and Energy One Is Willing to Expend.”

Eternals

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Eternals [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by John Romita, Jr.

Gaiman Romita Eternals

So, here’s Neil Gaiman’s take on Jack Kirby’s Eternals, in which alien space gods have created humanoid super-custodians for terrestrial life, themselves understood as deities by traditional polytheistic cultures. Readers could be forgiven for assuming that American Gods author Gaiman would focus on the characters’ altar-egos (that’s a pun, not a misspelling) as the gods of Olympus, Valhalla, etc., but that’s exactly what he doesn’t do. Instead, he creates a “reboot” scenario in which the Eternals have been deceived into thinking that they are human, and have forgotten what they knew about the Celestials and the deep history of Earth; and then he uses their process of anamnesia to portray a spectrum of attitudes from the conflicted human to the puissant and impeccable Eternal.

Gaiman cleverly works in a fair amount of Lovecraftian lore, in a hybrid with Kirby’s von Daniken plot-basis, and he gives the Deviants some self-respect as the “Changing People.” The plot integration with Marvel’s Civil War cross-title “event” was a little annoying to me, but part of Gaiman’s challenge was to integrate the outlier Eternals with the “Marvel Universe,” and he seems to have succeeded, at least as far as he took it.

The art by John Romita Jr. (JRJR) is often anatomically obtuse–a good example comes in a page-top panel toward the end of the book, in which Thena’s right foot looks like she’s wearing a clown shoe. But that’s actually in keeping with the Kirby spirit. As Gaiman observes of Kirby in an appended interview: “My little ten-year-old brain would go, ‘Fire doesn’t look like that!” and then you look at his women and go, ‘Women don’t look like that!'” So, like what Gaiman calls the “Kirbyverse,” JRJR manages to offer a coherent visual idiom with its own power. His panoramic images of prehistoric epic are especially fine.

The production values for this edition are positively splendid: a nearly folio-sized hardcover with a sturdy dustjacket, full-process color on glossy paper, and a set of appendices including the aforementioned interview, alternate cover illustrations, preliminary character sketches, Gaiman’s proposal for the series, and an essay about the original Eternals title.

Eyes Wide Shut

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Eyes Wide Shut [Amazon] by Stanley Kubrick and Frederick Raphael, which includes the screenplay and its inspiration, the novel Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler, translated by J M Q Davies.

Kubrick Raphael Schnitzler Davies Eyes Wide Shut Dream Strory

The screenplay for Eyes Wide Shut in this volume seems to exactly correspond to the film as released, which makes me suspect that the text was actually conformed to the final cut of the movie. Of course, since Kubrick was the director, he was in a position to “enforce” the screenplay, but in any case, those curious for unscreened ideas from writers Kubrick and Raphael will be disappointed. 

The script is bound with Arthur Schnitzler’s novel Dream Story, of which it is in fact a rather faithful adaptation, transposing the narrative from its original setting of Vienna in the 1920s to New York City in the 1990s. There is no editorial apparatus or commentary to assist the reader in any contextualization or comparison of these two documents.

Schnitzler’s novel has been alternately viewed as an precocious piece of Continental modernism, or as an advanced item of Viennese decadence, and it has features to credit either classification. It is certainly informed by the ideas of Freud, with whom Schnitzler had a significant dialogue. The doctor Fridolin (Bill in Eyes Wide Shut) is furnished with ample realism in the details of his medical practice–easily written by Schnitzler who himself had had a career as a physician before dedicating himself to writing.

Schnitzler’s story is more explicit about the protagonist’s confused hostility toward his wife, whereas the screenplay does a better job of communicating a pervading atmosphere of menace. The endings of the two versions also strike somewhat different notes, with a greater sense of closure in Schnitzler’s original–not necessarily to its credit. The dream element is certainly more significant in Schnitzler, and the Freudian tone is overt in the characters’ recurrent trepidation that “no dream is altogether a dream”: that the play of fantasy always provides evidence of a self which is masked by waking responsibilities.

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.

Repression of Heresy in Medieval Germany

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Repression of Heresy in Medieval Germany [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Richard Kieckhefer.

Kieckhefer Repression of Heresy in Medieval Germany

Kieckhefer’s Repression of Heresy in Medieval Germany is only incidentally concerned with heresy or heretics; it is focused on the activity and social apparatus of repression. His reason for not calling it Iniquisitors and Inquisition in Medieval Germany was doubtless twofold. On the one hand, he focuses here chiefly on heresy as the object of inquisitional proceedings, as opposed to witchcraft, blasphemy, or or other possible crimes. On the other hand, it is his thesis that while there were instances and episodes of inquisition in Medieval Germany, there was no Inquisition as a durable institution that could either support or constrain individual inquisitors. It is this lack that Kieckhefer foregrounds as the reason for the relative failures of medieval inquisitors to eliminate or control heresy and its spread in Germany. This explanation is counter to the longstanding prior assumption (credited chiefly to Henry Charles Lea’s 1888 History of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages) that inquisitors were hampered by local powers jealous of their prerogatives and jurisdictions.

In the absence of a durable institution, inquisitors had two possible sources of authority: bishops or the pope. The former would necessarily be aligned with the diocesan clergy whom they supervised, and the latter typically appointed Dominicans. Still, cooperation between papal inquisitors and local bishops was the rule rather than the exception, according to Kieckhefer’s account. The lack of institutional grounding made inquisitorial proceedings both less effectual and more prone to abuses than they would otherwise have been, and where there was genuine resistance of local authorities, it tended to arise from concern over the fairness and accuracy of the proceedings.

The book is organized chronologically, with different conspicuous heresies serving to characterize its periods: the rise of Waldensianism, the Free Spirit, beghards and beguines, the Waldensian “crisis” of the late fourteenth century, flagellants, and Hussites. Kieckhefer is careful to point out that his treatment of these heretics is far from comprehensive, being limited to the details bearing on his study of the inquisitors and their work, along with some general information for contextual purposes, and he refers the reader to other books for purposes of studying the heretical movements themselves. (Repression of Heresy is a scholarly work with a full apparatus, and the endnotes and bibliography are more than a third of the length of the body text.)

Although this book is now nearly forty years old, I suspect it has yet to be superseded with respect to its central focus. (For one with a somewhat wider geographic and conceptual scope, restricted to the earlier periods treated in Kiekhefer’s study, see Moore’s Formation of a Persecuting Society.) As Kieckhefer remarks at the outset, the study of medieval inquisition has traditionally drawn much of its impetus from “Protestant-Catholic polemics” which have been undermined by Christian ecumenism (ix). The relative lack of inquisitorial achievement in Germany means that it has not been an attractive object for study. The explanation proposed in this book, taking institutional development as its index, is one that might be applied to other historical problems. But in his closing, the author cautions that the relationship is unlikely to be a simple one, and that while too anemic an institution could lead to failure and abuse, overweening institutional development might do so as well, and the latter might be a more fitting consideration for our own time.