The OF Blog: Gene Wolfe, Latro in the Mist; Soldier of Sidon

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Gene Wolfe, Latro in the Mist; Soldier of Sidon

To kill with no pain
Like a dog on a chain
He ain't got no name
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game.

Bob Dylan - "Only a Pawn in Their Game"

I choose these lyrics to serve as an epigraph for this essay because they serve to link the stories of Severian and Latro together. As I hinted at throughout the New Sun articles, Severian is in many ways a pawn in the game of the Hierogrammates, being used to help further their aim of replicating the "master race" that spawned them in a previous universe. The fact that these beings appeared in the guise of "Holy Servants" serves as a sort of parallel to Latro's story. It is because of this that I decided to write a single article on the Latro/Soldier novels before moving on to the Long Sun (and later the Short Sun) series.

In many senses, Latro is the opposite of Severian. Where Severian boasted of his eidetic memory, we quickly learn that Latro (or brigand or mercenary in the language of the times) suffers from a Memento-like memory loss, where each morning is a tabula rasa, or blank slate, for this Latin-speaking mercenary soldier who finds himself a captive in the aftermath of the battle of Plataea in 479 B.C. Serving in the Persian Emperor Xerxe's army, Latro was wounded in that battle and awakes to find that he has no sense of identity. While his language skills are intact (we learning over the course of the three Soldier novels to date that Latro can communicate in Latin, Greek, Persian, Phoenician, Hebrew, and Egyptian), he has no sense of Self. However, this injury seemingly has "blessed" him with the ability to see and to communicate with the gods of the ancient Mediterranean world. But before I continue with a concise plot summation, I want to quote a bit from the beginning in order to underscore Latro's condition:

I write of what has just occurred. The healer came into this tent at dawn and asked whether I recalled him. When I said I did not, he explained. He gave me this scroll, with this stylus of the slingstone metal, which marks it as though it were wax.

My name is Latro. I must not forget. The healer said I forget very quickly, and that is because of a wound I suffered in a battle. He named it as though it were a man, but I do not remember the name. He said I must learn to write down as much as I can, so I can read it when I have forgotten. Thus he has given me this scroll and this stylus of heavy slingstone metal.

I wrote something for him in the dust first. He seemed pleased I could write, saying most soldier cannot. He said also that my letters are well formed, though some are of shapes he does not know. I held the lamp, and he showed me his writing. It seemed very strange to me. He is of Riverland.

He asked me my name, but I could not bring it to my lips. He asked if I remembered speaking to him yesterday, and I did not. He has spoken to me several times, he says, but I have always forgotten when he comes again. He said some other soldiers told him my name, "Latro," and he asked if I could remember my home. I could. I told him of our house and the brook that laughs over colored stones. I described Mother and Father to him, just as I see them in my mind, but when he asked their names, I could tell him only "Mother" and "Father." He said he thought these memories very old, perhaps from twenty years past or more. He asked who taught me to write, but I could not tell him. Then he gave me these things. (p. 1).

It is in this child-like sense that the twenty-something Latro begins his tale. We quickly learn of his meeting with the Mother of the gods (presumably Gaia, although she is known by many names and guises, as we learn during the course of the novel) and he is directed to visit a particular temple of hers in the lands south of Riverland (Egypt) if he wishes to regain his memory. As he learns this and recovers his strength enough to escape his captivity (he is being held near Thebes, Greece), he is accompanied by a young slave girl, Io, and a black captive from the lands of the Nysa, which are rumored to be south of Nubia (itself south of Egypt). The first two books in the sequence, Soldier in the Mist (1986) and Soldier of Arete (1989) (which were combined in 2003 to form Latro in the Mist), are devoted to his travels through the Greek city-states of Rope (Sparta), Thought (Athens), Hill (Thebes) in search for answers to his identity. Along the way, he encounters the sun god (Apollo) via the prophetesses of the serpent (Python), who continue to direct his travels through Thrace (near the Bosporus) and into the Persian-controlled lands of the Levant. Near the end of the first book, as Latro reaches the city of Sestos, he has an encounter with the daughter of the many-named goddess who is directing his travels:

I turned and saw a girl of perhaps fifteen sitting on a stone behind me. Her gown was woven of somber autumn foliage, yellow, gridelin, and russet, and a stephane with an ebon gem was on her brow. Though she sat with her back to the moon, I could see her face clearly; it seemed hungry and ill, like the faces of the children who sell their bodies in the poor quarters of cities.

"Soon you will wonder what became of your book," she said. "I will keep it for you; now take it, and leave my door."

When she spoke, I was more afraid of her than of the abyss; perhaps if I had not feared her so, I could not have done as she instructed me.

"I have rolled it tightly for you, tied it, and pushed your stylus through the cords. Put it through your belt. You have much to do before you write again."

I asked, "Who are you?"

"Call me Maiden, as you did when we first met."

"And you're a goddess? I didn't think - "

She smiled sourly. "We still meddled in the wars of Men? Not often now; but the Unseen God wanes, and we are no longer lost in his light. We will never be wholly gone."

I bowed my head. "How may I serve you, Maiden?"

"First by taking your hand from your sword hilt, to which it has strayed. Believe me, your blade is powerless against me."

I dropped my hands to my sides.

"Second, by doing as I instruct you, and so relieving me of the necessity I laid upon myself for Mother's sake. You recall nothing of this, but I have promised to reunite you with your comrades."

"Then you've been kinder than I deserve," I said, and nearly stammered from the joy that flamed in my heart.

"I act for my mother, and not for you. You owe me no thanks. Nor do I owe you any. If you had accepted your beating like any other slave, my task would have been easy."

"I am not a slave," I said.

She smiled again. "What, Latro? Not even mine?"

"Your worshipper, Maiden."

"Smooth-tongued as ever. No man outreaches his gods, Latro, not even in falsehood." (pp. 299-300).

This scene serves to highlight just where Latro, virtually helpless in his shell of amnesia and near identity loss, stands in relation to the gods and goddesses of Ancient Greece. He is not an equal, he is but a slave, a pawn to whatever game they wish to play with him. After all, no man "outreaches his gods," and it is this sense that Fate or Higher Powers or whatever label these forces might wear are the ones in control in a unilateral power relationship that serves as a major thematic element in this series. After all, what can a single man, bereft of even of his sense of Memory, do when such elemental forces manipulate him? And when this manipulation is reinforced by the subtle and not-so-subtle machinations of those who travel with him, is it any wonder that most feel a sense of pity for Latro, similar to what one might feel towards the destitute that we meet on our own travels in life during our own searches for understanding and clarity in a world full of mist?

It was not given to men to escape death, Themistocles said, but to the immortal gods alone; for a man the sole question was whether his death brought good or evil to his fellows. (p. 557).
This quote from Soldier of Arete touches upon a second theme embedded within the Soldier series; that of how does one live honorably in a world where failure and deceit abound and that death seems to be the only end for both good and evil men alike? As we watch Latro deal with his companions, we see that for the most part, he treats them much more honorably than he in turn is treated by them. While Latro does not make this explicit in his writings, a judicious reading of the chapters and the descriptions of his interactions with a few in his party reveal that while Latro forgets ever anew the sources of disagreements and distrusts, his companions often use this guilelessness as a weapon against Latro. But in the end, this quote of Latro's defines himself well against the machinations done using him:

A man's life is indeed short, ending in death. If it were long, his days would be of small value. If there were no death, of none. Let him fill each day with honor and joy. Let him not condemn himself or another, for he does not know the laws of his existence or theirs. If he sleeps in death, let him sleep. If while sleeping he should meet a god, he must let the god decide how well or ill he lived.

The god he meets must rule upon a man's life, never the man himself. (p. 612).
In many ways, Wolfe's narrative has shown how it isn't what a person knows, but rather what that person does that defines that person's identity. It is a point that is reiterated in the third volume, Soldier of Sidon, where Latro has traveled from his homeland (Italy, which is the hinted destination at the end of Soldier of Arete). Along the way down the Nile, where he has been directed to go by both the Persian satrap (governor) and his mysterious divine patroness, he experiences the Egyptian underworld judgment:

"You stand before your judges," the bleeding man said. He was the chief judge of that court, a handsome man sorely wounded. He wore a white crown with two plumes. "We shall question you, and you will answer us honestly. You cannot do otherwise."

We nodded. "We cannot." We knew as we spoke that it was true.

"I am Strider of Annu," sid a god. "Have you done iniquity?"

"I have not!" We all said this.

"I am Burning of Kher-aba," announced another. "Have you robbed by violence?"

"I have not!" we said.

"I am Fenti of Khemennu, "declared a third. "Have you broken the nose?"

"Yes, as a boxer," we said.

"I am Am-bhaibitu of Qereret," said a fourth. "Have you stolen?"

"Yes," we said, "we took the Horses of the Sun, doing the bidding of the Lady of the Beasts." This theft has left my mind now, yet I must have known it then. (p. 94)

And so it goes through 42 Egyptian gods until the bleeding one (almost certainly Osiris, who was murdered by his brother Set(h) and then resurrected) ends the questioning:

"You are not without sin." The bleeding man rose. "But not without merit. Go to the scales."

We did, and he came after us. Sesostris was waiting there with the monster-woman Ammut. A baboon crouched beside them, holding a reed pen and a tablet.

"Will you bless him?" the bleeding man asked Sesostris.

"I will," said Sesostris, and gave us his blessing. It filled us, and we knew them that we had been empty.

"He has been blessed by Sesostris," the bleeding man told the gods who sat in judgment. "Shall he be subjected to the ordeal? Stand."

Five rose. They were the faceless god, the god of the Underworld, the Eater of Blood, the Eater of Entrails, and Neb-hrau.

"Osiris will take your heart for the weighing," Sesostris explained. "Do you see the feather in the other pan?" His hand directed our eyes to the scale.

We did, and said that we did.

"It is Maat, the Law of Ptah," Sesostris told us. "If Maat rises above your heart - "

Ammut said, "I get it and you," and licked her lips.

"But if your heart rises above Maat," Sesostris continued, "it will be returned to you, and I will conduct you to the Field of Reeds."

No sooner had he finished speaking than the man called Osiris motioned for Shade, Name, and Ka to stand aside and thrust his bleeding hand into my chest. For a moment I felt my heart fluttering in his hand like a captured bird.

When it was gone, I was empty of life. I had not known that a man might be emptied like a wine skin, but it is so; I longed to be full once more, and feared I would be cast aside.

Laid upon the scale pan, my heart sank. It had no sooner done so than it rose, higher than the feather by the width of my hand. At once it sank as before, only to rise once more.

"He still lives," the bleeding man declared to all the gods, "and should not be here." Picking up my heart, he returned it to me and spoke further, but so overcome with joy was I that I did not hear him. Only my delight remained. (pp. 98-99)
In this scene, we see just how Latro's life is judged by his actions and not by his memories or sense of guilt or innocence. While he is released due to still being alive, the reader is left with this impression that perhaps underneath his apparent loss of memory and identity, that perhaps in the end it is a matter of what one does with his or her life that determines the shape of one's life. Since this series is still incomplete, one can only speculate as to which direction Wolfe will take this train of thought.

Also, there are hints in the series that Latro is a werewolf. I saved this for the last because it too is something that is left unresolved due to the incompleteness of the Soldier series. But there are a few hints buried within the text that allude to this possibility:

"Look under the sun, if you would see!
Sing! Make sacrifice to me!
But you must cross the narrow sea.
The wolf that howls has wrought you woe!
To that dog's mistress you must go!
Her hearth burns in the room below.
I send you to the God Unseen!
Whose temple lies in Death's terrene!
There you shall learn why He's not seen.
Sing then, and make the hills resound!
King, nymph, and priest shall gather round!
Wolf, faun, and nymph, spellbound." (p. 33)
This bit that a sibyl (yet again a recurring motif in Wolfe's novels, as recalled by the one that appeared in The Claw of the Conciliator) prophesied about Latro is reinforced near the end of Soldier in the Mist in this scene:

I knew too that it was a man. Beneath the wolf's snarling mask was the face of a bowman; the paws that held the woman were hands even while they were paws. ravening, the wolf dragged itself toward me. Yet I did not fear it, and only fended it from me with the point of my sword.

"More than a brother," it said. "The woman would have robbed me." It did not speak through its great jaws, but I heard it.

I nodded.

"She had a dagger for the dead. I hoped she would kill me. Now you must. Remember, Latro? 'More than brothers, though I die.'"

Beyond the wolf and the woman, a girl watched me - a girl robed with flowers and crowned. Her shining face was impassive, yet I sensed her quiet pleasure. I said, "I remember your sacrifice, Maiden, and I see your sigil upon it." I took the wolf by the ear and slit its throat, speaking her name.

I had come too late. The woman writhed like a worm cut by the plow, her mouth agape and her tongue protruding far past her lips.

The Maiden vanished. Behind me someone called, "Lucius...Lucius..."

I did not turn at once. What I had thought the woman's tongue was a snake with gleaming scales. Half-free of her mouth, it was thicker than my wrist. My blade bit at its back, but it seemed harder than brass. Frantically it writhed away, vanishing into the night and the mist.

The woman lifted her head. "Eurykles," I heard her whisper. "Mother, it's Eurykles!" With the last word she fell backward and was gone, leaving only a corpse that already stank of death.

The man-wolf was gone as well. The man lay in his place. When I touched him, his beard was stiff with blood, his bank bent like trampled grass. His hands thanked me as he died.

"Lucius..." The call came again. It was only then, too late, that I sought for him.

I found him beside the broken eagle. He wore a lion's skin, but a spear had divided his thigh and a dagger had pierced his corselet of bronze scales. THe lion was dying. "Lucius..." He used my own speech. "Lucius, is it really you?"

I could only nod, not knowing what to say; as gently as I could, I took his hand.

"How strange are the ways of the gods!" he gasped. "How cruel." (pp. 315-316).
Not only do we get the "more than a brother" reference from the man-wolf towards Latro to signify his probable affliction, but a knowledge of the Greek historian Herodotus (whom Wolfe dedicates this series) and his reference to "Eurykles" will reveal quite a few more shades of meaning to this narrative. Combine this with the mysterious slaying at the end of Soldier of Sidon (which I do not cite in part because I need more time to process that scene, preferably with more information from a hopefully forthcoming Soldier novel in the near future), and one begins to see so many layers of story/thematic meaning here that one cannot help but to wonder if or when Latro will escape the horrible manipulations of these conniving gods of antiquity and be free to live a happy life. Perhaps the arrival of his "wife" (perhaps Io, perhaps his original wife from Italy; the story doesn't specify) at the end of this third volume will lead us into new lands and new gods or perhaps the Unseen God who looms large in the background. One can only hope...and ponder, just what it means for Latro (and maybe ourselves) to be just only a pawn in their game.

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