Sunday, April 25, 2010

the sorcerer's house: analysis, part 2

Broadly speaking, there are 2 possible interpretations to the events of The Sorcerer's House.

A.  None of the supernatural events reported by Bax are true.  Bax makes everything up in order to defraud and kill his brother and seduce Millie. I shall quote from a comment by gwern (from the Urth-list archives, an online discussion board of Wolfe's work), as a possible summary of this interpretation:

  1. Bax moves into the mansion.
  2. When he tries to regularize his squatting, he goes to Martha and using his smooth wiles on a lonely old woman, cons her into letting him stay under the perfectly normal custodial arrangement.
  3. He thoroughly searches the house, and discovers the eccentric previous owners had had valuable collections. Bax didn't lie about the gold coins, but he found many more. Gold is very valuable, after all, especially collectibles. Bax has modest needs. Alternate scheme: he takes out a mortgage.
  4. He embarks on his elaborate con/murder scheme of George.
  5. Mischief managed.
  6. He forges Murrey's will - she also had the Skotos Strip. (Why not? She seems to have tons of real estate in general.) Alternate scheme: he gets her to sign that over as well / forges her signature.
  7. Murrey vanishes like George.

B.  Many (but possibly not all) of the supernatural events within The Sorcerer's House take place.  Bax actually is the son of a sorcerer and the Black House falls upon a so-called ley line which connects our reality with that of Faerie.  Bax describes these events to his brother George in order to make him jealous and lure him into a trap.  George's disappearance could mean that 1) Bax killed George, or 2) George became trapped in Faerie somehow, or 3) George decided to stay in Faerie (possibly to conquer it).

These interpretations are obviously directly contradictory to one another.  I favor (B) but am not 100% convinced.

Evidence in favor of (A).  (I shall add to these lists as necessary)
  • Bax is a liar and a con-artist.  As such, it is quite possible that there are more "realistic" explanations for how he comes by the various properties and gets rids of George.
  • Bax's letters to Shell are devoid of explicit supernatural content.  They do, however, speak to him possessing guns and wanting to prepare for the possible murder of his brother.
  • The supernatural phenomena in The Sorcerer's House do not fall within a consistent mythological tradition.  There are vampires, werewolves, and zombies - but also Japanese kitsune.  These inconsistencies may be the result of Bax's extensive education in European history and tradition, just as he draws upon his expertise in literature to periodically make parallels to stories and characters by Dickens (see "Quilp"="Quorn").

Evidence in favor of (B).
  • The text is far too complex and intricate to merely serve as a means of deceiving George and Millie.  I suspect there are many many other ways that Bax could have lured George to Medicine Man, besides fabricating a multilayered plot involving sorcerers and fairies.  Furthermore, such a fabrication suggests that George would be particularly susceptible to a fantastical story.  Why?  With Millie, there is a clearer explanation - she is gullible, naive, and believes in supernatural phenomena (hiring a psychic, for example).  George, however, might be lured into the trap if he also possessed the genes of a sorcerer and so intuitively believed some aspects of Bax's letters.  It is possible, in fact, that George has independently discovered some aspects of their family background and is incensed that Bax is attempting to claim the entirety of their inheritance.
  • A series of unexplained killings does take place in Medicine Man, and their nature is indicative of werewolves.
  • The compiler confirms the existence of the samurai sword, at least insofar as Millie was able to describe it in detail.
  • In letter #44, "George" (Bax) says he will be returning with the fox, Winkle.
  • Supernatural happenings could explain 1) why Bax is drawn to Medicine Man in the first place, after being released from prison and 2) how he comes to easily inherit both the Black House and the Skotos property. 
  • Doris's letter #42 mentions the ghost of her dead husband, werewolves, the vampire Nicholas, and the malevolent dwarf.  If we are to believe this letter is real, it is the strongest independent evidence for Bax's story.
  • In letter #21, Bax writes to Shell and says, "There are other things I could tell you about, but you would not believe a word of it."   Not specific reference to anything supernatural, but suggestive. (Another interesting aspect to this letter:  in it, Bax asks Shell if he's ever heard of Mary King - the ghostly hitchhiker who appears in letter #25, from Bax to Mrs. Pogach.  It refers to events that took place after Bax had his meeting with the lawyer, George was arrested, and the dinner-date with Dorris - described in letters 22 and 23, possibly the most important letters in the book.  Why would Bax ask Shell about Mary King?)
Furthermore, there are easy counter-arguments to most items in the (A) list.  We need not concern ourselves with "realistic" explanations for how Bax comes into easy property, since this is Gene Wolfe and this is a piece of fantasy.  We know that Wolfe "believes" in faerie, and so oughtn't we?  Also, it is hard for me to understand how Bax comes to Medicine Man in the first place and easily acquires said properties (UNLESS he has some previous relationship with Alexander Skotos, hinted at in Shell's letters but which Bax himself seems unaware of).

The inconsistency in mythologies can be explained by acknowledging that that is how Faerie works.  Faerie is a land generated by human imagination, desire, and fear.  It is a product of our id and collective unconscious.  Therefore, it will be populated by a mish-mash of archetypes and icons from various cultural traditions.  It might also be argued that the Faerie world which Bax encounters is based upon his own personal imagination - one largely steeped in European tradition, but perhaps tinged with a slight interest in the Orient.

We saw a similar mish-mash occur in Wolfe's Castleview, which is a helpful reference point for understanding some aspects of The Sorcerer's House.  Another novel in which a sleepy Midwestern town falls upon a ley-line between dimensions, into which faerie invade and cause havoc.


    1. I came across your blog entries about this book in your review on GoodReads -- I just finished the book and I loved it, and I really enjoyed reading your theories about the book. Thanks!

    2. Hey, thank you for visiting and commenting. I adore Gene Wolfe and probably get as much pleasure out of thinking about his work as reading it. Hope you end up reading more of his stuff!

    3. Just finished the book, definitely need to think about it, and this is a great write up of some of the key 'issues'.

    4. Great analysis! I just finished this book and really enjoyed it - that last letter where Bax is (presumably) impersonating George is so creepy when you work out what is happening - it puts the entire preceeding novel into an entirely different light! Masterful craftsmanship by Mr Wolfe.

      I was strongly reminded of "Free Live Free" - Sorcerer's House feels like Mr Wolfe having another stab at a similar formula, but with greater success.

      Thanks for this analysis - I'm going to trawl the rest of your blog now for more Wolfe stuff.

    5. Thanks for the kind comment. The blog is kinda dead nowadays (my wife and I had a baby), but there's some Wolfe stuff strewn throughout. I liked Free Live Free quite a bit, although I'm surprised I didn't like it more, given that he wrote it during his "golden age" (in between BotNS and Latro). One day, a re-read is necessary.

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