Sunday, June 21, 2009


As I do every summer, I am working my way deeper into the Gene Wolfe oeuvre and having just finished Castleview (1990), I felt motivated to offer some thoughts. Like his other works, Castleview offers both a thoroughly compelling and frustrating first read. Mysterious events abound, and many are left unexplained but for random clues, vague connections, and hunches. Mixed mythologies are front and center; this time, as in The Wizard Knight, the story is infused with icons and characters from both Arthurian romance and Norse legend. Vampires, trolls, and a werewolf make appearances, and under some readers' interpretation, an alien as well.

Unlike The Wizard Knight which is set predominantly in a fantasy world, Castleview is seated firmly on our own terra, within a small upstate Illinois town so named because many of the residents have seen (or hallucinated) towers of a ghostly Medieval castle on the distant horizon. Within a few chapters, it becomes clear that Castleview is a ley line, a place where the boundary between human imagination and postmodern reality is relatively weak. Nowhere is this more clearly exemplified than in the character G. Gordon Kitty, a walking, talking Puss 'n Boots who has been made real, at least in part, through the imagination of small child, Judy (who apparently has decided that her cat is both an FBI and CIA agent). In general, Wolfe uses Castleview to play around with the relationships that we humans have with our cultural mythologies in an era when ritual and myth and symbol are judged to be as fundamentally meaningless as dreams or childhood fairytales. I should also say that this was the most frightening of Wolfe's novels I have read (with, perhaps, In Green's Jungles exempted), and at times it read like the very best of bump-in-the-night horror mysteries.

Ultimately, two mythological threads weave through the text. First, there is seasonal cycle of rebirth. This crystallizes only in the final chapters. The Green Man, who also appears as Odin upon Sleipnir, is ritually beheaded by the aged King Geimhreadh and soon, snow falls in upstate Illinois. Just prior to his sacrifice, the "green-cloaked giant" says, "Strike me, as in time I shall smite you." This heralds the slaying of the frost giant Ymir by Odin, symbolically representing the the death of winter and the eventual return of spring.

(Odin upon 8-legged Sleipnir)

But this ritual of seasonal renewal forms only a superficial layer of mythology upon which Castleview rests. Just prior to his sacrifice, Odin rides the Wild Hunt through Castleview, perhaps in an attempt to drive the undead inhabitants of the town into Hel. More importantly, the Wild Hunt foretells apocryphal events, like war or plague. We know that something larger and more meaningful is brewing.

(the Wild Hunt)

More important is the battle between the forces of Viviane Morgan/Dr. Rex von Madadh/et al. and the good midwesterners of Castleview. Viviane Morgan, who primarily seems to channel Morgan le Fay leads the fey in malicious pursuit of King Arthur's descendants. Something hangs in the balance. They focus their villainous efforts, at first, upon "Wrangler" Arthur Dunstan who they believe carries the blood of the king and may be his modern reincarnation (recall that Arthur is borne away to Avalon where he may heal and possibly rise again when needed, as many mythological heroes and kings tend to do). Lucie, one of the young women at Meadow Grass camp (and a pseudo-vampire), drinks a great deal of his blood, and Morgan enchants Hwan Lee to attempt an assassination while Wrangler recovers at the hospital.

Wolfe, in discussing Castleview, has joked that all of us are Arthur's descendants - and so perhaps the fey are embarking upon a futile endeavor:

"Okay, if there really was an Arthur and there was because he is mentioned in ancient chronicles and he left a number of descendants, which is at least plausible, then we are probably all descended from Arthur. And what Morgan LaFay is looking for is a descendant who is a satisfactory Arthur figure for her. But not only is Wrangler descended from Arthur, and Will Shield is descended from Arthur but Bob Roberts is descended from Arthur and Ann Findler is descended from Arthur because we all are we all derive from this." (GW)

Perhaps Morgan is seeking an Arthur figure for the same reason that Green Man must be sacrificed to Winter: Arthur is part of a mythological cycle that maintains a heavenly order and, to some degree, prevents Armageddon from occurring. Without a ritual sacrifice of Arthur every few generations, perhaps the land of fairy itself (and its Queen, Morgan) will disappear forever into the mists of fantasy.

Regardless, in the climatic final battle between "good" and "evil," William Shields steps forth (instead of the injured Wrangler) to battle the fey champion and possible werewolf, Rex von Madadh. Like Arthur at the Battle of Camlann, Shields falls. Von Madadh's voice rings out: "The king is dead! The king is dead - and the world lives! The end is not yet!" At first, I imagined him a Fenris, howling in despair that the Ragnarok had not come. But the more I think about it, the more I believe that Arthur's/Shield's death is ritual, necessary, cyclical, and Von Madadh's voice echoes with victory and joy.

In the closing epilogue, we see Shields being taken away to Avalon under the watchful eye of his sister. It is a surprisingly satisfying ending, given the rapidity of the climax and the aura of failure that hovers over the final battle.

(Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon, by Burne-Jones)

Yet, because this is Wolfe, so many questions and loose ends remain:
  1. Who or what is Liam Fee, and why is he so fixated on buying the Howard home? He only enters the house following an invitation, has a tendency to break mirrors, can dissipate into smoke, and at one point seems to be drunk on blood. Ergo, vampire. However, when he confronts Lee in his prison cell and Lee kicks his ass, he appears as a 3-eyed monster or alien. Various mentions in the text of Excalibur being formed of meteoritic stone from another world suggest a sci-fi intrusion to the plot. Wolfe does have a fancy for alien technology and influence, as can be seen in his other works. Indeed, alien vampires (the inhumi) figure prominently in his Book of the Short Sun series.
  2. What is the small brown leather book that rests under Excalibur when Judy pulls it from the cabinet? Merc picks it up and Wolfe never mentions it again.
  3. Who is the group of troublemakers that lurk in the background of the text (and kidnap Bob Roberts) but never make a formal appearance? Are they simply trolls and fairies, followers of Morgan? Are they aliens from Minnesota?
  4. What exactly is Jim Long (Long Jim)? A zombie?
And so on. If previous experience with Wolfe proves a useful guide, much will be gained from a second reading. As always, highly recommended if you have the patience and diligence to ponder and research while reading. Many thanks to various contributors of the Wolfe reader archives for providing ideas, clarifications, and explanations for many plot points.

No comments:

Post a Comment