“My definition of good literature is that which can be read by an educated reader, and reread with increased pleasure.”
Gene Wolfe
Locus, September 2002

In thirty-six years of mutating, inverting and flaying the boundaries between every sort of fantastic literature, Wolfe has not violated his dictum. Neither has he done much to limit the requirements for his rereader’s cognitive toolbox. His finest short stories deceive us the second time through, startle on the third, dumbfound by the fifth, and unfold with revelation and paradox by the time we’ve almost memorized them. There’s no convenient how-to-read-Wolfe, but carefully is a fair place to start.

As is The Old Woman Whose Rolling Pin Is The Sun, a dense and devious garden of allusion camouflaged across four pages of campfire story. Using razor-precise ambiguities of description and an immaculate ear for mythological reference, he evokes a massive and rich alternate reality (barely hinted at in the story’s text proper, no less) while wholly deranging my ability to distinguish the archetypal from the concrete.

To wreck a work of genius with quick-and-brutal condensation, the first-person narrator is an unnamed tribal elder speaking to his granddaughter, the “most cherished Becca”. In a seemingly innocuous mythical bedtime-story, he explains the night sky as a farmer’s field “of the best black land” and each star a sown seed. The seeds grow to plants, and the farmer’s wife grinds their fruit to meal before every sunrise; she makes the powder into dough, which she uses to “roll out the world on her blue baking stone”. Her rolling-pin, of course, we call the sun.

Things get peculiar quick. Becca interrupts the narrator’s rambling account of constellations to ask if the night-farmer’s wife is herself a constellation. “One does not see her in the sky, though there are other women”, says her grandfather; but she interrupts again, shocking him with the admission that she’s seen that very goddess appear from the sky and introduce herself as “Fauna”.

“An old name of hers”, says the dismayed grandfather; “a name I would have said that all but I had forgotten”. He takes her revelation as an indubitable coming-of-age symbol, and begins to earnestly warn her against the menacing Capricorn, suddenly treated as far more than a constellation: “Him, too, you may meet in wood or field, most often at noon”.

Falling asleep, Becca asks her grandfather the name of the night-farmer himself. He refuses: “Neither now nor ever. You will learn it soon enough”. The story concludes with the narrator whispering to himself. “I am glad... I shall not be present when you find it out at last”. By this point in my first read I was thoroughly mixed up in Wolfe’s snaking narration. With subsequent readings, patterns rise from this seemingly inexplicable vignette; forgive me if I spend overlong just analyzing how he brings me to this puzzled state. After twenty readings, I’ve picked up maybe half his clues, tricksy son-of-a-bitch this Wolfe is.

Becca’s grandfather begins his fable with a straightforward allegorical description of the night sky, which moves toward the puzzling when he refers to clouds eventually covering the “field” of the sky; it’s not too much brain-sweat figuring out that means sunrise, but soon the old woman goes to “the birch” and “cuts a new, white pestle and pounds it across the sky”. The imagery is dense here, and the narration quick and sure; it’s far harder to identify the pestle as the moon, and even then, the moon might well be “her bakestone” instead.

By now I’m primed to look for one-to-one correspondence between the symbolic and the actual. In particular, the narrator ascribes some straightforward and unambiguous identies to constellations; he accounts for winter as the star-hounds “Asterion and Chara” “making off with the old woman’s rolling pin”. This is coupled with personifications of “the Hunter, their master”, “the Great Bear”, and an unnamed goat-riding child in the stars. I assumed the constellations were only imaginary players in a bedtime story, but Becca’s vision of the farmer’s wife subverted that view completely. Not only does the goddess speak (other constellations remain mute), but she’s described as “taller than the trees” – not an relevant measure for a group of stars. The titular giantess could only have appeared physically to Becca.

A crucial part of the story’s metaphysics has resolved itself; things in the sky might be real as the land. And as this is good literature, a repeated reading means a new viewpoint. For instance, I read at first that “the old woman moistens her flour with water dipped from the lake”, and only noted a passing reference to the Big Dipper. Now the lake beguiles me. The text offers no real-world referent for a body of water’s presence in the night sky, yet it could now be as real as the farmer’s wife, or the narrator himself. By extension, the constellations could literally be hounds, hunters and swans, and the sun an actual rolling-pin.

The story’s only sure aspect has suddenly dissolved, but that heightened uncertainty counts toward a fuller understanding of its world. No paradox: Wolfe’s puzzle isn’t a jigsaw, a problem to be solved. It leads us toward interpretation, but no ultimate solution. He gives us the corners of a world, causing a greater story to accrete in our imaginations.

For instance, early on Becca hears that “our own longfather” walked among the blossoming stars of the field. Although the narrator’s culture seems primitive and nomadic, I know these “men and women understand all the things that are above the air”. The natural conclusion’s that they come from a starfaring tradition no longer practiced. Supporting evidence here includes their scientific knowledge of magnification (although they use no technology: the lens is “a single drop of clear water”) and the narrator’s use of the term “Spiral Nebula” – certainly no part of the naked-eye astronomer’s vocabulary. But what’s a longfather? How are the stars “many-colored” from close up? I can only conjecture. Knowing Wolfe’s continual fascination with puzzles of simulation and identity, a longfather could be the original stock from which clones are taken. The story’s characters might be subtly nonhuman, with weird visual modalities tuned to the stellar spectrum. The quality of Wolfe’s narration demonstrates the story’s its own reward, but he’s kind enough to lead us toward more tales.

Ursula K. Le Guin (who once called Wolfe “so good he leaves me speechless”) lays profound groundwork for a deeper analysis in her essay Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction, to be found in the 1979 collection The Language Of The Night. She writes that “true myth arises only in the process of connecting the conscious and the unconscious realms”. (Here, she associates the conscious with the rational. It's because she's distinguishing types of thinking, not just the difference between the parts of the mind we experience and those we don’t.)

Le Guin argues that an over-rational approach to mythology typically uses ancient symbol in “a posturing, showy way”, which “does real disservice to the original, by trivializing it”. Such an approach renders the story vacuous, “exposing the shallowness of its origin” – an appropriation of pre-fashioned tropes, motivated by that cleverness inimicable to wisdom.

Wolfe’s miniature and multivalent fable ranks among the prose poems of Borges as one of the subtlest, deepest things I’ve ever read. Yet it contains a deeply rational stripe – after all, Wolfe’s so-called educated reader is one who’s developed the conscious, reasoning aspects of her mind. If you want to develop your subconscious, you don’t get an academic education, you spend some quality sweeping-time in a monastery. The Old Woman makes heavy demands on both the rational mind and what comes beneath it. It demonstrates Le Guin’s point; it deals in “true myth”, and the demands on consciousness and the subconscious are ultimately inseparable.

Wolfe’s writing represents an apparatus for transmuting rational analysis into the trans-rational level of archetype. Because so much of the story is initially baffling with regards to its narrative relevance, it invites, even demands analysis – yet one of the story’s principal goals is to subvert the analytical approach. Wolfe predicted the course of my rational investigation, and set some major trap-doors accordingly.

The story certainly seems to be allegory of the sort Le Guin decries; it works openly with a full cast of mythological figures such as the personified constellations. Wolfe’s narrator focuses deeply on naming (“Cor Caroli, La Supera, the Spiral Nebula... all these names I shall teach you when summer comes again”), leading me to believe the constellations are set and fixed by their names – fully known things, with a specific and clearly defined function in the mythological landscape. But as naming invites this interpretation, naming breaks it down. The ancient goddess appearing to Becca demands she use an “old name”, and soon I learn this goddess has at least three names: she’s “Fauna” and “the Bona Dea”, both fertility goddesses from Roman mythology, although the narrator prefers to call her “Nature”. That’s itself a universal mythological term – the concept of “Mother Nature” is old as humanity.

These first two names were historically used to describe the same goddess, and the third is extremely general. But Becca also heard “the roaring of her lions”. Only one Roman goddess has a leonine aspect: Cybele, the earth-mother. With this fourth name, the two goddesses blend inextricably, keeping me from ascribing one name to one object; what Le Guin calls the symbol's "living meaning" permits us no such easy classification, and I’m reminded that the goddess’ farmer’s-wife aspect is primary. She then flickers physically into the story, described simply as “bent and stern” – not so much a vague image as utterly universal. After so much detailed emphasis on the old woman’s fascinating task of baking a fresh world each day, such a description is more awesome than any fully concrete one. The archetype leaps from the page, stuns me, and returns to the sky.

It took me research and sustained thought to connect Fauna to the Bona Dea, or understand the reference to Cybele’s lions. You can’t participate in much of this story’s symbolic-archetypal meaning without rational contemplation. But as Le Guin makes clear, myths are protean, inexhaustible: “the real mystery is not destroyed by reason". When she calls symbol “an indicator of something not known and not expressible otherwise”, she underestimates the scope of her word “known”. What she means is that symbols reference that which is incomprehensible, yet knowable. They can’t be operated on by conscious reason, because they comprise its necessary ground, and their literary evocation speaks directly to capacities beyond reason itself.

I can’t wholly distinguish the rational, the archetypal, and the shades between in this story -- I don’t know how many allusions and subtle interconnections I’ve missed. The tribe’s historical identity has managed to stay mysterious, like its relation to Rome; and although you can conclusively identify the night-farmer as Pan, I can’t say why Pan terrifies Becca’s grandfather.

I’ll surely return to this story, but it’ll be to unshackle my reason as much as to exercise it; Wolfe’s positioned what Le Guin calls “the real mystery” of mythology behind seemingly soluble textual mysteries. Wonder can’t be written down, but somehow it’s still here.

illyrion

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