Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Male names in The Book of the Long Sun

Naming is central to Gene Wolfe's writing, and we can often learn a lot about his characters from the history and etymology of the names he assigns them. For instance, in Michael Andre-Driussi's Lexicon Urthus, entries for character names are comprised not only of the role the character plays in The Book of the New Sun, but also the name's importance to history and ancient mythology.

In The Book of the Long Sun, the inhabitants of the city of Viron follow an unusual naming custom: boys are named after animals or animal products; girls are named after flowers or plants; and chems (mechanical people) are named after metals or stones. Hence, boys will receive names like Horn or Silk; girls, names like Mint or Hyacinth; and chems, names like Marble or Sand.

In this post I'm going to undertake a brief, cursory examination of some of the names of major male characters in the series. I will look at why they have been given these names and how their names either tell us something about the character, or serve as the source of some irony. Spoilers follow, for those who have not read the series.

Patera Silk - Our protagonist's name refers, of course, to the luxurious fabric produced by moth caterpillars. I believe the naming Silk is one of the most interesting in the series. It turns out that Silk is the adopted son of the previous caldé, and hence comes from a family of wealth and importance. However, when we first meet Silk he is the sole augur of an old, run-down manteion in the poorest quarter of Viron. The ever humble Silk presents us with something of a paradox - when forced to wear Remora's robes, Silk finds their suggestion of luxury detestable. In spite of its fineness, silk is actually quite tough, and this too fits our protagonist, who (miraculously) survives an ever-increasing number of injuries: a gash on his arm, a broken ankle, several savage beatings, being shot in the chest with a needler, being buried alive, and so on.

Caldé Tussah - We are not told the name of the previous caldé until it is quite clear that he is Silk's father, since his name is a dead giveaway. The Chinese Tussah Moth, or Antheraea pernyi, produces tussah silk (wild silk). Hence, Tussah is the progenitor (father) of Silk (though he is not biologically Silk's father). This also, of course, connects Silk to wild silk, which is stronger and more durable than other forms of silk. Tussah's connection to the Tussah Moth, commonly found in the wild in the tropics of Asia, adds to my suspicion that he is, in fact, an inhumu (a alien vampire-like creature from the forest planet Green). Further evidence of this is the mention that, like Quetzal, a known inhumi, Caldé Tussah used to wear makeup and powder his face - perhaps, as in the case of Quetzal, this was done in order to hide the fact that he wasn't human? (I just found out that this has been argued against on the mailing list, though I'm not fully convinced, because Chenille could either be born of another frozen embryo or another man, with Tussah as her father in the same sense that he is Silk's, and the woman who bore her still her biological mother, though her genetic parents could be different).

Chinese Tussah Moth. Image from

Patera Quetzal - As just mentioned, Quetzal is an inhumu from the planet Green. He is appropriately named after quetzal birds, which are brightly coloured and live in forests, preferring a humid climate (like that of Green, explored in The Book of the Short Sun). The inhumi's ability to fly also makes the selection of a winged creature appropriate. Others have also connected Quetzal's name to Quetzalcoatl, meaning "feathered serpent", a Mesoamerican deity central to the Aztec pantheon. The quetzal itself was sacred in ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures.

A resplendent quetzal. Image from the National Geographic website.

Patera Remora - This groveling and self-interested augur is well suited to his name, which is taken from the remora fish, or suckerfish as it is also called. Remoras attach themselves, like leeches, to larger sea animals, such as sharks. According to Wikipedia (and shame on me for writing those words), "The host they attach to for transport gains nothing from the relationship, but also loses little." This is certainly representative of the ambitious Patera Remora, and makes his naming quite ironic.

Generalissimo Oosik - I must admit, this one made me laugh out loud. The Generalissimo, leader of the Vironese army once Silk has become caldé, derives his name from the massive penis bone, or baculum, of the walrus, seal, sea lion, or polar bear. This bone, called an oosik in Native Alaskan cultures, can be as long as 60cm - the largest on record is a 1.4m baculum from an extinct species of walrus. The association of a military leader with such a phallic name is very ironic - since war is often regarded as a testosterone-fueled display of manhood. It also adds irony to his competitive relationship with the female generalissimo of Trivigaunte. His name could also be related to the fact that he has been sexually involved with Hyacinth, Silk's love interest.

A 56 centimetre (22 inch) walrus baculum (oosik). Image from Wikipedia.

 Auk - Silk's underworld friend is named after a seabird called the auk (more here). Somewhat like penguins, auks spend most of their time in the water, coming ashore to lay eggs and raise children. Auks, with the exception of the recently extinct great auk, are capable of flight. The character's connection to his name may be due to his connection with Scylla, the goddess of water, who possesses Chenille for a short while. Auk's dead brother, Bustard, is named after the land-dwelling bustards - birds that prefer drier climates.

Master Xiphias - Another ironic naming, as this master swordsman takes his name from the xiphias gladius, the swordfish! Silk has two training lessons with Xiphias (one willing, one not so much), before Xiphias appoints himself Silk's bodyguard.

Patera Incus - I'm not really sure what the significance is, but this little priest takes his name from the tiny incus or anvil bone found in the middle ear. Perhaps it is just that they are both rather small?

Patera Gulo -The gulo gulo, or wolvarine, is a small and stocky animal, capable of much greater strength and viciousness than its size would suggest. Likewise, Patera Gulo, the augur assigned to the Sun Street manteion to spy on Silk, starts off appearing to be the weak pawn of Patera Remora, but soon stands up to his superiors and becomes a fierce supporter of Silk's, and a fighter for Mint's ragged army of volunteers.

A wolverine. Image from Wikipedia.

Blood - This naming choice is explained in Caldé of the Long Sun: the son of Maytera Rose (and, according to a Q&A with Wolfe, Patera Pike) was said to be "born in blood", and for that he was named. His name becomes even better suited to him as he rises to power in Viron through criminal activity - as Silk realises shortly before he kills him, Blood is one of the most evil people he's met, and presents a great threat to the future of the city. He is also responsible for the shedding of many people's blood, not least of all his adopted daughter, Mucor.

Musk - Blood's male lover receives his name from the odor of a unique gland in the male musk deer. The fragrance, musk, is commonly used in perfume (though natural musk us hardly used any more, with synthetic musk being cheaper and easier to obtain). This naming choice is probably based on the descriptions of Musk as effeminate.

Horn - One of Silk's pupils, and the co-narrator / co-author of The Book of the Long Sun, named after the animal horn. The significance of this may be connected with animal horns, historically, being made into musical instruments, such as the shofar. The character Horn, who has a propensity to imitate Silk, is shaped into a vocal proponent of Silk's. He even decides to write "The Book of the Long Sun" about his old mentor, and gains fame for it on Blue, where many from the Whorl settle at the end of the series. In a way, he becomes a 'horn' himself, loudly proclaiming Silk's greatness.

A horn made from an animal horn. Image from aeiou.


  1. Interesting post.

    I'm not sure that the Ramora, Oosik, and Xiphias are ironic names; the meaning of those names is not the opposite of the expected.

  2. Very interesting. I had no idea what Oosik, or Gulo, or several others meant. I liked the detail about relatives having related names, like Chenille and Silk, and the Lemur, Loris, Galago, Potto and Tarsier family. The fact that the lemur is the biggest and strongest of that animal family fits too.

    I'm curious about this sentence: " Silk realises shortly before he kills him, Blood is one of the most evil people he's met, and presents a great threat to the future of the city."

    Could you elaborate on that a bit? I thought Silk realized Blood's evil early on, and that Silk was (as he does with most people) seeing more good in Blood as their relationship progressed. The gangster was just being his usual selfish self when he was trying to negotiate immunity for operations near the end there. He didn't try to kill Silk until he heard about Musk's death. But of course I may have missed something or misunderstood that scene.

  3. Nate - ironic was the wrong word. Hmm... I can't seem to think of the right one though. What means humorous because it is *exactly* what's expected?

    Elliot - Oh, yeah. I forgot all the councillors. They're names are kind of funny, too, since they're so closely related.

    Regarding Silk and Blood: throughout _Nightside_, _Lake_, and most of _Caldé_, Silk tries to make excuses for what Blood does. He thinks that he is really a good person, like Auk, misunderstood and steered in the wrong direction by people like Musk (who signed the actual deeds to his manteion).

    Towards the end of _Caldé_, however, Silk says to Quetzal and others: "I remember thinking how horrible it would be if Musk were the real owner [of the manteion] and clenching my teeth——pulling myself up with courage I've never really had and telling myself over and over that I couldn't allow it to happen. ... I was wrong. Badly mistaken. Musk wasn't the danger, was never the danger, really. There are scores of Musks in the Orilla, and Musk loved birds. ... Blood, with his money and his greed for more, has done Viron more harm than all the Musks. Everything I've done has been trying to pry bits of the city from Blood." (_Epiphany_ p. 268)

    It is probably this epiphany that allows him to kill Blood when he has to. Blood wasn't trying to kill him though, he was going for Maytera Marble/Rose, who he just discovered killed his lover, Musk, by burning him on an altar (though she was possessed by Echidna at the time).

    Perhaps, too, Silk was desperate to like Blood because he looked and sounded like his father (

  4. Hmm, yes, the quote rings a bell - I hadn't made that connection between that and the death of Blood. I saw it more as the realization that white-collar greed, so to speak, can be much more damaging to a society than low-level thuggery. At the end of that passage he says "And yet I like Blood, or would like to like him." But I can see how Silk's thoughts here, coupled with Blood's demands to keep his operations intact, set the stage for Blood's death as an unrepentant criminal, even though Silk's act was supposedly an unconscious reaction.

    I think one of Silk's qualities, as a near-saint, is seeing the good in everyone, and inspiring more good in them. As with Auk, or even Hyacinth. I think that was happening with Blood, up to a point.

    "Blood wasn't trying to kill him though, he was going for Maytera Marble/Rose" - Oops, yes, you're right, I misspoke. Mis-typed. Whichever!

  5. "Perhaps, too, Silk was desperate to like Blood because he looked and sounded like his father."

    This confused me for a bit, until I realized you meant Blood looked like HIS father, Pike. I just learned that now from reading the Q&A! But it makes sense, as young Pike would be the most obvious partner for Rose...

    I feel a bit relieved that the rest of Wolfe's answers more or less fit with my understanding of the book. Some critics' theories about it (ie, Hyacinth was a chem!) strike me as absurd, but with Wolfe you just never know. So it's nice to get a little confirmation, especially since Wolfe usually plays his cards close in interviews.

  6. I agree with what you say about Blood - Silk always looks for the best in everyone. I do think that he spends most of the first three books thinking that Musk is worse than Blood, but realises this isn't true towards the end of _Caldé_. He could probably have disarmed Blood (in either sense) without killing him, if that was what he wanted to do.

    Sorry that the line about Blood's father sounded ambiguous. I, too, had no idea that Pike was Blood's father upon my first reading, but having read Wolfe's Q&A and re-read the series, it make good sense, and I can see where the clues are (Rose lamenting Silk spending time with Marble, etc).

    And I agree that many of the critics' theories seem absurd, especially the Hyacinth as male chem one. I can't see how she's either, and the "evidence" in its favour doesn't seem to be evidence at all. Mostly it's predicated upon the idea that Hyacinth, as a woman, would be unable to overpower the pilot of the Trivigaunte airship, which doesn't seem very fair to me.