Thursday, 10 June 2010

Review: The Sorcerer's House (2/2)

In part one of my review of Gene Wolfe's The Sorcerer's House I gave my first impressions of the novel. This second part of my review focuses on the questions raised in the book and by the book's ending—ones that I found particularly interesting or perplexing—and my own interpretations of them. Many spoilers follow these pretty pictures...

Tor-Macmillan, 2009.PS Publishing, 2009. (Limited Edition)

[[spoilers follow]]

The final letter of the The Sorcerer's House, which purports to be from George to his wife Millie, is surely misdirection. It seems fairly certain that Baxter is the letter's real author and that he has assumed George's identity—the style of the letter matches Baxter's, and it seems unlikely that George would have such a dramatic change of character. The question remains, then, what happened to George? Did Baxter kill him, or let him live in faerie? Given their conflict, and Baxter's jealousy over his brother's wealth (and wife), the former seems more likely.

I am also fairly certain that Ted, Doris's (presumably) late husband, holds some significance. It seems probable that he is the sorcerer Ambrose, whose ring Baxter comes to possess early on in the story. It would also explain the initials on the handkerchief Ted leaves for Doris at the end: TAG - Ted Ambrose Griffin. I am far from certain of this interpretation though, and there are other ways in which Ted could be significant.

For a while I was quite perplexed by the sheer number of identical twins in the book. One character claims that twins run in families, though this is only true for fraternal twins, not identical twins. Wolfe surely is aware of this, because the occurrence of fraternal twins in The Book of the New Sun hints at the blood relationship between Severian and Agia. It seems likely, therefore, that some form of magic is at work in The Sorcerer's House which has caused so many identical twins to be born. We are told that Mr. Black likes twins, so perhaps it is for this reason that he marries Margaret (a twin), and then somehow, magically, ensures that the children she bears him are also twins. I also found the use of the 'evil twin' idea quite amusing, and I spent a good portion of the book trying to figure out whether Baxter or George was the 'evil twin'.

The theme of pairing is surely significant, and it has been discussed on the mailing list that the 44 chapters of the book seem to mirror each other (1 to 44, 2 to 43, 3 to 42, etc.). The occurrence of threes is also frequent, usually because of the triannulus, which brings Baxter three fish (three times?), three sources of money, etc. Numbers certainly seem to play a major role in the text. Now I feel I have to re-read it, counting everything!

The book's biblical references were very interesting, and they suggest another layer of meaning to interpret. According to a local folk tale, Nicholas the Butler is the servant who brought Herod the head of John the Baptist. The name "Mary King" also rings with Catholic significance. I haven't been able to figure out what it all means though, or what, if anything, Wolfe is trying to say by it.

Overall, The Sorcerer's House definitely calls for a re-reading, and that is one of the reasons I found it so enjoyable. For now, however, my time is being chewed up by reading for my thesis, so my further investigations into The Sorcerer's House may have to wait till the end of the year.


  1. Interesting points. I thought George's final repentant/reformed letter could be genuine. It seemed like a validation of Baxter's repeated insistence that George was not as bad as everyone said he was. An example of Christian redemption and reconciliation.

  2. I don't see it, Elliot. The number of clues that the final note is by Bax is staggering. (I was actually a little disappointed; Wolfe usually doesn't make this mistake.) Sure, George could have become repentant. Would he also have taken up a sudden interest in 19th-century English literature? (See the paragraph on his community service reading stories to kids.) Would he have become deeply interested in Greece? (See the section on travel.) Would he have taken possession of the Sword of the Fox, which Bax surely would have wanted to take with him into faerie? Also keep in mind that, in his discussion with Zwart, Bax nodded at the suggestion that he should spend some time living in the mundane world before retiring to faerie. Why would he change his mind?