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Inheriting Tolkien pt. 2: Gene Wolfe

October 28, 2011

[See this post for introduction to series.]

Gene Wolfe is a contemporary speculative fiction writer, to my mind one of the best currently writing. He is most well known for his Book of the New Sun tetralogy, a bewilderingly complicated account of the adventures of a Christ-manque figure living in what appears to be a distant future in which the sun has faded out to a dull red. His typical techniques, all used in the New Sun series, are: presenting his work as a transcription/translation of a manuscript, often a diary, with all the issues of unreliable narration and lack of explicit description which that entails; ab/using complex syntax and words obscure and obsolete (though never made up); building his plot around seemingly unrelated sequences of events and populating them with a small cast of recurring characters with murky connections between most of them; using gods, God, and extremely advanced technology, and making it difficult to tell which is which; including numerous stories-within-stories to further flesh out the secondary world.

Many of the above techniques are quite foreign to Tolkien’s work. Others are quite familiar. Those that are foreign to Tolkien owe a great debt to Jorge Luis Borges (whom Wolfe often references), and Wolfe can fruitfully be seen as a hybrid of the two.

So much for Gene Wolfe. (I only include this much background because many of my readers are likely unfamiliar with him.) I should also mention that Wolfe was both one of my first exposures to psychologically “realistic” fiction (cf. unreliable narrator) and (in the following quotations and others) provided me a scheme for interpreting Tolkien that I clung to for some time, and that I think Wolfe offers a justification of Tolkien typical of those from within the sci-fi/fantasy community (differing only in their embrace of Tolkien’s politics). Here is what Gene Wolfe wrote in his essay describing his love of J.R.R. Tolkien:

There is one very real sense in which the Dark Ages were the brightest of times, and it is this: that they were times of defined and definite duties and freedoms. The king might rule badly, but everyone agreed as to what good rule was. Not only every earl and baron but every carl and churl knew what an ideal king would say and do. The peasant might behave badly; but the peasant did not expect praise for it, even his own praise. These assertions can be quibbled over endlessly, of course; there are always exceptional persons and exceptional circumstances. Nevertheless they represent a broad truth about Christianized barbarian society as a whole, and arguments that focus on exceptions provide a picture that is fundamentally false, even when the instances on which they are based are real and honestly presented. At a time when few others knew this, and very few others understood its implications, J. R. R. Tolkien both knew and understood, and was able to express that understanding in art, and in time in great art.

And here are some things he has said about science fiction/fantasy in general, from this interview:

I’d argue that SF represents literature’s real mainstream. What we now normally consider the mainstream—so called realistic fiction—is a small literary genre, fairly recent in origin, which is likely to be relatively short lived. When I look back at the foundations of literature, I see literary figures who, if they were alive today, would probably be members of the Science Fiction Writers of America. Homer? He would certain belong to the SFWA. So would Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare. That tradition is literature’s mainstream, and it has been what has grown out of that tradition which has been labeled SF or whatever label you want to use.


It’s the hackneyed notion: “The medium is the message.” As I work on a story, the subject matter often seems to become an appropriate means of telling it—the thing bites its tail, in a way—because subject and form aren’t reducible to a simple “this or that.” “That” and “this” are interacting throughout the story. That’s what I meant when I said I’m trying to show the way things really seem to me—my experience is that subjects and methods are always interacting in our daily lives. That’s realism, that’s the way things really are. It’s the other thing—the matter of fact assumption found in most fiction that the author and characters perceive everything around them clearly and objectively—that is unreal. I mean, you sit there and you think you’re seeing me and I sit here thinking I’m seeing you; but what we’re really reacting to are light patterns that have stimulated certain nerve endings in the retinas of our eyes—light patterns that are reflected from us. It’s this peculiar process of interaction between light waves, our retinas, and our brains that I call “seeing you” and you call “seeing me.” But change the mechanism in my eyes, change the nature of the light, and “you” and “me” become entirely different as far as we’re concerned. You think you’re hearing me directly at this moment but you’re actually hearing everything a little bit after I’ve said it because it requires a finite but measurable amount of time for my voice to reach you. Fiction that doesn’t acknowledge these sorts of interactions simply isn’t “realistic” in any sense I’d use that term.

And from another interview:

Because fantasy is nearer the truth, that’s all. Realistic fiction is typically about a married couple, both college teachers. He’s cheating on her with a student, so she cheats on him with whoever’s handy. Angst abounds. How true is that story for the bulk of humankind? Realistic fiction leaves out far, far too much. How old is realistic fiction? How old is fantasy?

So here’s the thing. I find a lot in the above quotations I want to agree with, but also a lot I vehemently disagree with. I’ll go through them from end to beginning.

In that last point about realistic fiction–a synecdoche for “the modern novel”–I see a description of the sorts of things I’ve seen in novels by Ian McEwan, J.M. Coetzee, Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, and it has always bothered me there. I get a sense from many contemporary novels that it’s just professors writing about professors writing about professors all the way down. If we want to call novels about this subject “realistic fiction,” then I agree–realistic fiction is unnecessarily parochial, though it can still come to deep insights.

But take that second-to-last quotation. Wolfe basically accuses realistic fiction of not taking into account various issues of imperfect perception, radical subjectivity, etc. But those are the very kinds of things that the modern novel introduced to literature. Dante wasn’t writing about that. Homer wasn’t writing about that. James Joyce and William Faulkner were writing about that. Does Wolfe see himself as their heir? Perhaps–but they never wrote science fiction. Did they?

So we come to the third-to-last quotation, in which Wolfe calls Dante a writer of science fiction–elsewhere he has written that his science is “theology.” Fine, if what he means by that is that Dante is writing a fiction, something that is not true but could be, based on the science of theology. But my impression is that he means something different: he is writing based on a fictional science, making up an internally coherent system that resembles true science but is itself false and basing his fiction on that. (I base this on what he said about eyes in the previous quotation.) There is a world of difference between these two, a difference too complex to explain here, having to do with the nature of literary imitation, that is, mimesis (a good though highly technical book on the subject is Stephen Halliwell’s The Aesthetics of Mimesis). I can’t go here into why I think Wolfe’s way is inferior, but I need only make the point that it is different. And the difference centers on the fact that Dante (presumably) actually believed that what he wrote might happen given the current structure of reality, whereas Wolfe believes that his fictions would be possible only if the nature of reality itself were changed.

And so we get to Tolkien. Wolfe appreciates Tolkien for two reasons: first, he agrees with Tolkien’s aesthetic–his traditionalist quasi-distributist politics and love of the early Middle Ages–and credits Tolkien for illuminating them for him. (Let’s set aside this aesthetic, which is another reason I find Tolkien’s legacy problematic.) Second, he says that Tolkien showed him how, as he says later in that interview, “It need not be so”; how the world could be different than it is.

And of course it could be. If all Tolkien did was show us how our society could be more like the “Dark Ages” and less like the present Dark Age, then in principle there would be no need to change the very nature of reality. But Tolkien did change reality in his fiction, and therein lies the problem. Did Tolkien believe in his elves, orcs, and dwarves, the way Dante did? Perhaps not, but he did desire to believe in them. He saw his work as creating a new mythology for England; he even described his work, in a kind of Neo-Romanticism as “mythopoeia”; and he knew that myths had to be plausible. He took great care to make clear that Middle Earth is not an “alternate reality”–it is our earth. Tolkien has narrated the first three ages of its history; we are living now in the seventh (which presumably began with the birth of Christ). And Wolfe usually does the same thing; The Book of the New Sun, in my reading, takes place in a previous iteration of our universe, which is repeating itself over and over so as to perfect itself (so, Severian is not a Christ manque, but a Christ precursor).

But Wolfe’s attempts to place his work “actually” in the real world sometimes strike me as only emphasizing their foreignness. It’s not exactly that Dante believed in his world and Wolfe does not believe in his. It’s more than the level of fiction Dante demands is smaller; Dante demands only that we accept that an individual had a spiritual vision of the sort men are able to have, that he remembered it in great detail, and that he wrote it down in perfect terza rima. Wolfe demands that we accept that the universe has went through multiple iterations and that in a previous iteration there existed a society of a type never before seen as well as many fantastical technologies and that a man wrote down the story of his life and threw it through a rupture in space-time and it found its way to the present day and that he has translated what it said. For all intents and purposes, the latter might as well not take place in this world; and many (lesser) works of fantasy that see themselves as “inheritors of Tolkien” in fact make up their own worlds, not caring for any semblance of realism.

Now, Wolfe cites Shakespeare as a member of his ideal SFWAA, and he serves as an interesting liminal case. Did Shakespeare believe that the events of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Tempest were actually possible? Doubtful–but he also for the most part avoided fantastical elements. In fact, I’ve seen him cited as (one of) the beginning(s) of realistic fiction. But perhaps he also serves another role: a beginning of a tradition of non-realistic fiction, that is, fiction incorporating events that are not presented as possible; events that are intentionally impossible. Shakespeare is of course an arbitrary choice, and an earlier or later one could be argued for, but I think he serves well, especially given his historical importance. In a way this is a divide that goes back to Aristotle, who talked about plausible impossibilities versus implausible possibilities. But with Shakespeare, I think, the divide begins to widen; and with 20th century literature, it bursts open as never before. And my point with these remarks has been, this isn’t just an aberration on the part of “realistic fiction”; “fantasy” fiction is equally aberrant.

It’s interesting to note that Tolkien disliked Shakespeare, primarily because he promised fantasy and then retracted it–Tolkien wanted Great Birnam Wood to actually come to high Dunsinane Hill. But if it had, would he have believed it, or only desired to believe it? Perhaps for Tolkien the difference was less important, but for moderns, the difference is paramount. And when Wolfe incorporates the legacy of modernism–essentially, when he incorporates Jorge Luis Borges–he makes it implausible that he could have found it unimportant. Borges is a writer firmly on the unrealistic side of fiction, and comfortably so. For this reason, I suspect, he writes only short stories: the alternative to realism becomes thought-experiment, and thought experiments can only go on for so long before they grow tiresome. Wolfe tries to straddle the divide, and, I think, fails, though much of his work is well worth reading. But Tolkien–where is Tolkien here? In the place of Borges, or of Wolfe, or did he somehow manage to possess the only medieval mind of the 20th century?

There are certain omissions, and perhaps contradictions, in the above remarks, and I do not feel I have done justice to Tolkien’s concept of “mythopoeia,” which is more sophisticated than I make it sound. But I have, I hope, articulated why I can’t swallow whole Wolfe’s narrative of how Tolkien and he are the representatives of the mainstream branch of literature, and how realistic fiction is an aberration. Here’s a summary: Wolfe complains that realistic fiction ignores certain physical and psychological realities, and that fantasy fiction can present them better, but in fact modern “realistic” fiction does capture those realities (cf. Faulkner, Joyce) and, while he does so as well, his inclusion of fantastical elements has a tendency to reduce his work to a thought experiment, thus harming, rather than helping, his realism. In attempting to align Tolkien with his own project, he both makes Tolkien overly scientific (as opposed to mythological) and thought-experiment-like, and implies that Tolkien’s project was a psychological realism akin to that of his own writing and 19th-20th century fiction more broadly, neither of which are true.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ross permalink
    April 5, 2013 6:35 pm

    Interesting. I’d say that Wolfe isn’t really talking about modernist fiction when he is bad-mouthing “realist fiction.” Although I don’t have an interview to prove it, Wolfe to me seems so heavily influenced by literary modernism that it is difficult for me to swallow that pill. Fantastic and enlightening article by the way.

  2. April 5, 2013 10:44 pm

    I completely agree, but I don’t see how Wolfe’s argument against realist fiction doesn’t also apply to modernist fiction. “Ulysses” may have been written according to some sort of “mythic method,” but that doesn’t mean it’s not dedicated to the realist project of talking about the world “as it actually is, not as we imagine it could be” in the quotidian lives of its inhabitants. It’s subject matter, after all, is nothing more than a single day in the lives of a jaded college student and a Jew going through a midlife crisis–about as far from epic speculative fiction as you can get. What makes it great is that it still does everything Wolfe wants, highlighting the wonderful strangeness of consciousness, perception, physical reality, etc. If doing that really has nothing to do with how speculative fiction invents alternate worlds, doesn’t Wolfe’s argument fall apart?

    But you’re right–what’s fascinating about Wolfe is that his fiction IS so clearly influenced by high modernism while at the same time being all about witches and wizards and outer space and theophanies. Sometimes I think what Wolfe has accomplished is to show that, strange as these things are, real life is stranger. He helps us move from being fascinated with WHAT his characters see and do to being fascinated with THAT they see and do (anything). But then science fiction becomes less a way of talking about “more” than realist fiction and more a kind of ostranenie/estrangement/alienation effect, on a level with Joyce’s formal experimentation. Which makes it a valid artistic option, but certainly not a mandatory one, and one that, just like formal experimentation, can easily be fetishized into an end in itself. I might make a post about that.

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