The OF Blog: Fantasy Masterworks #1: Gene Wolfe, Book of the New Sun: Shadow and Claw

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Fantasy Masterworks #1: Gene Wolfe, Book of the New Sun: Shadow and Claw

We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges. When soldiers take their oath they are given a coin, an asimi stamped with the profile of the Autarch. Their acceptance of that coin is their acceptance of the special duties and burdens of military life - they are soldiers from that moment, though they may know nothing of the management of arms. I did not know that then, but it is a profound mistake to believe that we must know of such things to be influenced by them, and in fact to believe so is to believe in the most debased and superstitious kind of magic. The would-be sorcerer alone has faith in the efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all. (p. 14 US, p. 17 UK)

I have already reviewed at length the first two volumes of this US/UK omnibus (The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator), but for this series of short commentaries on the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks series, I thought I'd focus a bit on a few minor points of interest to myself. In particular, I want to focus more on the ways that Wolfe's first two volumes appear to be influenced by the blind Argentine author/poet, Jorge Luis Borges, whose motifs have been cropping up lately in several authors' fictions that I've been reading.

The first possibly Borgesian element is that of Severian's purportedly eidetic memory. When re-reading this omnibus for the fourth time this week, I was struck by the surface similarity to Borges's Funes. Now while the two authors employ the use of near-perfect memory differently in their stories, it is interesting in how each author's character have similar quirks about them. But it wasn't until near the midpoint of The Shadow of the Torturer that explicit references to Borges' signature stories begin to appear.

Severian's visit to Ultan's Library, with its labyrinthine passages and seemingly infinite number of shelves, not to mention its blind curator, is a direct homage to Borges himself and to stories such as "The Library of Babel" and perhaps The Book of Sand. Severian's conversation with Ultan bears some passing resemblence as well to how Borges would often frame his stories. Perhaps at a later time I'll go into more detail in regards to Borges' stories, but this is not the time.

Later on, in The Claw of the Conciliator, the influences are even more apparent. The section concerning Father Inire's mirrors and the fish that appears in them, are taken directly from Borges' "The Fauna of Mirrors," with the fish being at the center (China Miéville was also influenced by this short fiction when writing The Tain). The metaphysical explanation behind the mirrors and its form of travel/reality mirror similar discussions in several of the stories found in Ficciónes.

Being a fan of both authors, re-reading each for those subtle little bits leads to the accretion of semantic layers with each successive reading of the text. Whether it be discovering the multitude of ties connecting the two authors (throwing out mentions of Dr. Talos' play, Baldanders, and the like) or noting the level of skill that went into crafting these passages, Wolfe's Shadow and Claw is not only worthy of being "a" Fantasy Masterwork, it perhaps is THE fantasy masterwork of the past century. Its layers add to the re-reading experience and each successive read, for me, has led to a deeper awareness and appreciation for what Wolfe accomplished with his masterpiece. His The Book of the New Sun novels are among the most important novels of the second half of the 20th century, regardless of whatever shallow genre classifications might be used.


Mark said...

Though I'm not overly familiar with Borges, I was staggered at the levels of mythical and biblical imagery throughout these books. And it really is one of the rare books which you can re-read and discover just as many new facets each time.

Larry said...

I agree. I'm thinking about touching upon some of those elements when I read/comment upon Sword and Citadel in the near future.

Scott said...

The comparison is especially interesting because Borges is such a minimalist while Severian is so exhaustively maximal. Certainly this the voice is part of the "power" explored throughout the novels. What impressed me the most on rereading BotNS this summer is just how much suffering is depicted. The alzabo scene at Casdoe's house, for instance.

As a reader, my favorite moments of BotNS are the analogies of scale, like Father Inire's here:

"What you see here is to the means used to travel between suns as those toy fliers are to threal ones."

I don't think you should worry too much about the Borges influence. Some of the best stuff ever (Shakespeare, Melville, Barthelme) is just existing content stylishly remixed.

Terry Weyna said...

Interesting insight, Larry. I read The Book of the New Sun for the second time about 20 years ago and haven't revisited it since. In the meantime, I've read Borges. Now it's apparent that I need to go back and reread TBofNS in light of my later reading of Borges.

And what a joy that will be!

This would make a great academic paper, btw. It'd go over big at ICFA, for instance. You really oughta.

Simon said...

I;ve just finished reading the first volume of BotNS last week, and was also quite intrigued at its depth and underlying meanings. Can't wait to finish the whole series. Hey when you said
""Jorge Luis Borges, whose motifs have been cropping up lately in several authors' fictions that I've been reading.""
were you referring to just China Mieville, or to other authors as well? I know Borges has been a big literary influence on many, but which specific authors have you been reading that carry his common motifs?

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