Thursday, 13 January 2011

The influence of G. K. Chesterton's writings on Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun

It's been a while since I've written anything substantial on this blog, so I thought I'd post some of what I wrote for my honours thesis last year (I'll do a post soon on how it all went). As I was researching Wolfe and the role of religion in his epic science fiction tetralogy The Book of the Long Sun (1993-1996), Chesterton's influence on Wolfe's faith and writing kept coming to the foreground. Most of what I wrote on Wolfe and Chesterton was originally incorporated into the main body of my thesis, but when I was faced with being about a thousand words over the word limit, I reluctantly moved the Chesterton material to an appendix, which, for some reason, doesn't contribute towards the total word count. Although most of these connections have been made before, I still thought I would post it here as it might be of interest to others who, like me, are fascinated by the literary and spiritual influences on Wolfe and his work.



The Best of Gene Wolfe (2009) reprints two of Wolfe’s most overtly Catholic short stories, “Westwind” and “The Detective of Dreams,” each of which is followed by a short afterword referring readers to Chesterton. The first attests to Chesterton’s literary influence on Wolfe, who cheerfully acknowledges The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) as a precursor to his own story. The second reveals Chesterton’s influence on Wolfe’s Catholic faith: “I will not lecture you on Jesus of Nazareth,” writes Wolfe, “but I advise you to find Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man” [1]. Both kinds of influence, literary and spiritual, are evident in The Book of the Long Sun, particularly in the characterisation of Patera Silk, the story’s protagonist.

Wolfe himself has pointed to Chesterton’s Father Brown as an inspiration for Silk and there are numerous similarities between the two characters. Martin Gardner, the scholar behind The Annotated Innocence of Father Brown (1987), believes Brown to be “the second most famous mystery-solver in English literature,” after Sherlock Holmes [2]. Although both are highly observant and intelligent, Brown stands apart from Holmes because his deductions are more frequently based on intuitive leaps than the stringent analysis of scientific data. Silk also uses this mode of detection in a number of scenes in The Book of the Long Sun, most noticeably during his investigations of the possessions and murder at Orchid’s brothel in Nightside of the Long Sun, which Nick Gevers has rightly identified as a detective story pastiche [3]. In fact, throughout the entire series Silk shows remarkable intuition, frequently piecing things together before the other characters, or even the readers, have a chance to do so. In addition to their obvious vocational similarities (both Brown and Silk are clergymen), the two characters also have reformed criminals as sidekicks: Flambeau and Auk, respectively. These parallels demonstrate Silk’s connection to Father Brown and establish him as Wolfe’s homage to Chesterton’s famous detective.

Christopher Beiting has also observed parallels between Silk and Saint Francis of Assisi, since both are given a divine command they interpret “in the most literal—and wrong—way possible” [4]. The connection seems intentional on Wolfe’s part and was most likely inspired by Chesterton’s St. Francis of Assisi (1923), in which particular emphasis is placed on what Chesterton identifies as a defining moment of the saint’s spiritual journey:
The story very largely revolves around the ruins of the Church of St. Damian, an old shrine in Assisi which was apparently neglected and falling to pieces. Here Francis was in the habit of praying before the crucifix. … As he did so he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Francis, seest thou not that my house is in ruins? Go and restore it for me.’ [5]
Likewise, the god called “the Outsider,” who is surely none other than Wolfe's Catholic God, gives Silk an important mission during his initial enlightenment, one that is remarkably similar to St. Francis's: “There’s only one thing that the Outsider wishes me to do,” he explains to his students, “I am to save our manteion” [6]. Chesterton continues his narrative with St. Francis’s response to this calling:
Francis sprang up and went. To go and do something was one of the driving demands of his nature; probably he had gone and done it before he had at all thoroughly thought out what he had done. … In the coarse conventional language of the uncomprehending world, he stole. [7]
Similarly, when Silk becomes aware that his manteion (church) and its adjoining palaestra (school) have been sold to the crime lord Blood, he, like St. Francis, acts immediately, though irrationally, infiltrating Blood’s villa and attempting to steal the deed for the buildings. He fails, however, when he falls from the villa’s roof, breaks his ankle and is apprehended by Blood’s guards. Silk is then forced to agree to Blood’s demand for 26,000 cards (the currency of the city) for the property, double what Blood claims to have paid, although we later discover he only paid thirteen hundred: “Only when I’d talked to him a little, I made it thirteen thousand,” Blood boasts, “because he really thought those old buildings in the middle of that slum were priceless” [8].

According to Chesterton, after St. Francis’s release from jail for the theft and resale of some of his father’s possessions, he took to the streets and begged for bricks, which he used to repair the Church of St. Damian. Only later did he realise that:
he was labouring at a double task, and rebuilding something else as well as the church of Saint Damian. … something that has often enough fallen into ruin but has never been past rebuilding; a church that could always be built anew though it had rotted away to its first foundation stone, against which the gates of hell shall not prevail. [9]
Likewise, Silk labours under the misapprehension that the Outsider wishes him to save the physical buildings of his manteion, and many of his actions in The Book of the Long Sun seem to be directed to this end. Only at the close of the final volume, Exodus from the Long Sun, does Silk finally realise what the Outsider truly meant: “I have done it,” he tells some of his followers, “saved it from the dissolution of the whorl. Or at least I will have when we reach the new one. I was to save our manteion; and that is the manteion, all of those people coming together to worship. The rest was trimming, very much including me” [10]. At the end of the tetralogy, Silk realises how drastically he misinterpreted the divine command—that he was meant to save the manteion’s congregation, not its buildings.

Silk’s gradual reassertion, throughout the series, of a distinctly Christian monotheism also seems to echo Chesterton’s declaration that the true church, the spiritual church, can always be rebuilt, even if it seems to have rotted away almost entirely, as is the case in Silk’s world. Thus, Chesterton’s distinctive retelling of St. Francis’s story, with its own emphases and commentaries, seems to have influenced Wolfe’s own understanding of divine calling and his portrayal of Silk’s enlightenment, motivations and actions. Wolfe’s debt to Chesterton, particularly in his characterisation of Silk, places The Book of the Long Sun firmly within a distinctively Catholic literary tradition.


[1] Gene Wolfe, The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Definitive Retrospective of his Finest Short Fiction (New York: Tor-Tom Doherty, 2009) 346.
[2] Martin Gardner, Introduction to The Annotated Innocence of Father Brown, by G. K. Chesterton, with introduction and notes by Martin Gardner (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987) 1.
[3] See Nick Gevers's two brilliant articles on The Book of the Long Sun: http://www.ultan.org.uk/five-steps-towards-briah/ and http://www.ultan.org.uk/the-reader-as-augur/
[4] Christopher Beiting, “The Divine Irruption in Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the Long Sun.” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 11.3 (2008): 92.
[5] G. K. Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi, 1923 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1943) 62-3.
[6] Gene Wolfe, Lake of the Long Sun, 1994, in: Litany of the Long Sun (New York: Orb-Tom Doherty, 2000) 281-2.
[7] Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi, 63.
[8] Gene Wolfe, Caldé of the Long Sun, 1994, in: Epiphany of the Long Sun (New York: Orb-Tom Doherty, 2000) 283.
[9] Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi, 68-9.
[10] Gene Wolfe, Exodus from the Long Sun, 1996, in: Epiphany of the Long Sun (New York: Orb-Tom Doherty, 2000) 702.
 

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