Sunday, May 16, 2010

the sorcerer's house: analysis, part 3

In this 3rd installment of my (admittedly mediocre) analysis of Gene Wolfe's The Sorcerer's House, I'm going to take a close look at letter #31:  "Get Out - And Got Out".  I find this letter particularly interesting because it involves one of the more mysterious characters in the book:  the malevolent dwarf, Quorn.

First, note that this is a letter addressed to Millie from Bax.  As such, we should be suspicious of its content.  Bax paints himself to be extraordinarily brave, powerful, and heroic (even referring to himself as such, via Doris), and may be doing so as part of his plan to seduce his brother's wife.

A brief synopsis (assuming truth):  Bax returns to his house from his Chinese dinner with Jake and Dorris (described in letter #28), prompted in part by a phone call from Winkle.  Winkle tells Bax that a fat blond girl had arrived, started exploring the house, and now was lost.  This girl is the newspaper reporter, Cathy Ruth, whom Bax had agreed to meet that night for an exploration of the house's cellar.  Doris and Bax enter the cellar and begin looking for Cathy.  A rat "that looked larger than her head" attacks Doris (or, at least, is "clutching her hair") and Bax clubs it away with his flashlight.  They attempt to back-track to leave the cellar but fail to discover the original staircase.  They come across a different staircase and hear a dog yapping (Toby) and a woman scream (most likely Pogach).  Bax busts down the door and they see Quorn grappling with Pogach.  Bax commands Quorn to leave, and the dwarf complies.  They find Cathy also in the room, who has been raped by Quorn.  Winker appears and presents an ancient sword to Bax.  Winker leads them back through the house.  Doris decides to take Cathy to the hospital.  George suddenly arrives, thrusts open the trunk on the back of Bax's limousine and releases the vampire, Nicholas.  Nicholas, with George in pursuit, runs into the house and disappears.  Bax ends the letter to Millie by saying that he searched for his brother for hours, could not find him, and eventually went to bed.

An action-packed letter to be sure.  I assume the title of the letter refers to the following events:

  • "Get Out" - part of Bax's command to Quorn.
  •  "And Got Out" - the escape of Nicholas from the trunk.
  • (however, it is possible that "got out" refers to George getting out of jail)
If we view Bax's house as a ley-line between our world and that of Faerie, than I think there is something to be gained from analyzing these events symbolically.  A descent into a cellar, for example, might more broadly be viewed as a descent into the most dangerous and evil aspects of Faerie.  What do Bax and Doris encounter in the depths of the house?  Heaps of "objects veiled in dust," "hairy spiders as large as saucers," and a gigantic rat.  Not particularly enlightening, and this aspect of the letter makes me believe that it is, at least in part, a Bax confabulation designed to scare and impress Millie using stereotypical horror-genre tropes.

The cellar may also serve as a crossing point between worlds, much like the window in Bax's bedroom.  When Bax and Doris climb the 2nd staircase and confront Quorn, they could be within Faerie at that point.  Could this be relevant?  Perhaps.  It might explain why Quorn reacts so strongly to Bax's command, after his initial disdain.

When Bax first confronts Quorn, the dwarf is unafraid of his gun.

"They call me Ironskin."  He advanced, still grinning, and I pulled the trigger.

Perhaps Quorn knows that, in Faerie, he is invulnerable to the weapons of our world.  Bax drops his useless gun...

... and pointed both index fingers at him as though I held modern revolvers.  I intended to shout, but perhaps I screamed - I cannot be sure.  "Get out of here, you devil! This is my house! Out! I don't want you here!" With much, much more in the same vein.

The blood drained from his face, leaving it a dirty gray.  He backed away.  "Sorry, sir! I meaned no harm! No harm at all!"  He took a few more steps backward, knuckling his forehead, and fled.  I ought to have been amazed, but I was raging and there was no room for it.

In Faerie, Bax's wizardly powers emerge, especially since he wields magic rings ("weapons of sorcery").  Recall that in letter #41 ("The Riverman"), Martha tells Bax, "Magic is diplomacy.  It isn't just saying the words.  It's who says them, how he says them, and when he says them."  The voice of command that Bax adopts, in his rage towards Quorn, is imbued with mystical strength - Quorn instantly recognizes Bax as a legitimate sorcerer and a dangerous man.

Quorn's role in The Sorcerer's House is vague, at best.  We first encounter him "chained to a staple in the door frame" of Ieuan's room in letter #17 ("A Tramp").  I suspect that Quorn may serve as Ieuan's familiar.  At least two other characters within the narrative have familiars:  Bax has Winkle, and Old Nick/Zwart has Toby.  Interestingly, in both of these latter cases, the familiars are shapeshifters.  Does this suggest that Quorn also is a shapeshifter?  Does he make another appearance in the book, as an alternate character?  I can't think of a reasonable possibility, off-hand.

Symbolically, this scene could simply serve as evidence that Bax's powers are evolving and that he has vast potential to become a powerful force in Faerie, like his father.  I suspect it is his father, in fact, who sends Winker into the room soon after this confrontation with the magical samurai blade.

"This is a new reign.  There's a new emperor now.... Once in each reign we present the Fox Sword to a hero friend."

Wolfe certainly has a fondness for magic swords in his novels.  Severian had Terminus Est,  Able quested for (and lost) a magic sword, Latro discovers a magic sword in a river within the first couple chapters of Soldier of the Mist, etc.  In part, I believe, this is because Wolfe likes to utilize (and play with) genre tropes.  Heroes in fantasy novels have magic swords.  They're fun.  Period.  But also, these swords tend to serve symbolic purposes in the text.  What is the narrative function of the Fox Sword?  Bax wields it in the final battle (described in #41) on the Skotos strip against the werewolf, Lupine, and her pack.  The strip, like Bax's house, falls on a ley-line and is another location where his magic powers can make themselves evident.  If we assume his father granted him this sword, it is given to both aid in victory and help secure the continued dominance of the Black family line.


  1. > I suspect that Quorn may serve as Ieuan's familiar. At least two other characters within the narrative have familiars: Bax has Winkle, and Old Nick/Zwart has Toby. Interestingly, in both of these latter cases, the familiars are shapeshifters. Does this suggest that Quorn also is a shapeshifter? Does he make another appearance in the book, as an alternate character? I can't think of a reasonable possibility, off-hand.

    If Quorn is a shape-shifter, then his dwarfish form is presumably his 'human' form and not his animalistic form. Offhand, I can't think of any odd animals after his release, either.

    But Toby seems to respect/love his master Zwart, and Winker *cough* loves her master too; Quorn on the other hand execrates Ieuan. Evidence against?

    Another interesting question: who is the new emperor and what occasioned his reign? It seems unlikely that the old emperor abdicated/died *right as* Bax needed a weapon. Was the old emperor related to Goldwurm & Ambrosius, or Zwart?

  2. I've read this book and may read it again. In skimming reviews and comments about the book, there is an insistence that the story is more elaborate or esoteric than just a rollicking sorcerer's adventure story (because it's Gene Wolfe!!).

    That's not to say I didn't enjoy your comments.

    However, I think this book, despite all of its apparent sorcery, is what it appears. And it appears to me, that Gene Wolfe was having a world of fun with the letter writer, Baxter Dunn and the novel becomes about his character (charismatic, fraudulent, meticulous, circumspect, erudite, and sadistic).

    It's the sadistic part that's most interesting, of course. I like the scene at the Lake Shore restaurant (after he shoots the werewolf) where he meticulously records the waitress/diner dialogue. And then he says this must be torture to read (or something like that). Indeed. Haha. The letters have at least two purposes: to torment George and to tell the story.

    The question with respect to does B. repent at the end? Has he become less sadistic? I think so. He and his brother worked out their problems as their sorcerer father wanted them too.

  3. "The question with respect to does B. repent at the end? Has he become less sadistic?" A tough question. Unfortunately, we don't have much information to go on - just that final letter in which it appears as if Bax is impersonating his brother. I'm not sure how we can reconcile that act of abject evil with an interpretation of repentance. Is there anything in the text that makes you think this? The other twins (Emlyn and Ieuan) seem to have formed somewhat of an alliance by the end of the climactic battle, but I'm not sure about Bax and George.

  4. There is something exceedingly odd about Bax's voice/style that I am tempted to believe Wolfe intended. Specifically, Bax supposedly has 2 PhDs, including one in English literature. However, Bax does not write like a PhD in English literature. Yes, he uses big words and fancy diction, but he does so clumsily, as a schoolboy who is impersonating a teacher might. Had the book been written by someone other than Wolfe, I might have attributed this stylistic "flaw" to the author's lack of skill. Wolfe, however, is a master of style. Anyone who has read the Sun books will recognize that he has a command of the English language that is pitch-perfect. Bax, however, does not. His diction and usage are inept at times, overbearing at others, and never truly Wolfian. Thus, I can only assume that he is lying about the PhDs, or, alternatively, that he got them by correspondence or at less than prestigious institutions (remember, he never says where they were awarded). This opens a new set of questions about Bax, and makes me tend to think that much of what he says is a lie (i.e., your version "A")...

  5. Further to my last comment and the naive style in which Bax writes, maybe Bax IS only a boy. He and George certainly ACT like children (temper tantrums, fantasizing about sleeping with every woman they meet, etc.) Perhaps Bax/George are really Emlyn/Ieuan, and one of the boys has written the letters pretending to be the adults?

  6. @ Conocimiento: Your comments are very interesting. I agree that Bax is very childlike and immature in some ways, and Wolfe is clearly making parallels between Bax/George and E/I. However - and I hate to admit this - Wolfe's style as of late *has* gotten less "literary", if you will, and more simplistic. Perhaps more Hemingway-ish, if one's feeling charitable. Lazy, if you're not. Also, Wolfe is infamous for making his male characters sexual predators (consider Severian) and his female characters somewhat vapid (consider Cassie in An Evil Guest). So I'm not sure if Bax's womanizing is particularly informative.

  7. I haven't seen this mentioned before, but has anybody noticed that the main character is nicknamed "Bax" (short for his surname Baxter), and that Arnold Bax was an early 20th Century composer who based several works on the writings of W.B. Yeats. Of particular note (in this context) are "In the Faery Hills" and "The Garden of Fand". Both were re-released on a Naxos CD a few years ago. Perhaps an inspiration for Wolfe?

  8. Maybe I'm alone in this, but part of me really just wants to enjoy the surface story this time. I know that with Wolfe's books there is always a deeper layer for which we immediately start digging.

    But Millie didn't need (and probably couldn't appreciate) all the subtleties and nuances of faerie as Bax presented it; not just for a simple con. I think the story happened as is, with the ending switch of identities occurring as a mutual benefit: George gets to explore/conquer faerie and Bax gets a peaceful life with an (eventually) adoring wife.

    I'm probably the least cerebral of Mr. Wolfes fans, though, and don't doubt others can come up with dozens of arguments against my theory, nevertheless in my mind it's a (somewhat)simple/happy ending.