Post #39: Between Historical Fiction and Fantasy in SOLDIER OF THE MIST
“Although this book is fiction, it is based on actual events of 479 B.C.” --epigraph to Soldier of the Mist
Last month saw the publication of the volume Once and Future Antiquities in Science Fiction and Fantasy by Bloomsbury Academic Press under the expert guidance and editing of Dr. Brett Rogers (University of Puget Sound) and Dr. Benjamin Eldon Stevens (Trinity University). My contribution, “The Gods Problem in Gene Wolfe’s Solider of the Mist (1986)” analyzes a novel by the widely-praised genre author Gene Wolfe. As the novel’s epigraph (quoted above) indicates, this work is marketed as historical fiction--it takes place in ancient Greece (the early fifth-century B.C. to be exact) and features several “real” characters from history: the Theban poet Pindar, the Athenian general Xanthippus, the Spartan ruler Pausanias, and others.
The novel opens just after its central protagonist, Latro (a nickname that means “robber” in Latin), receives a head wound in the Battle of Plataea. Plataea was one of the last major battles between Greek and Persians forces that took place near Athens in 479 B.C. We learn during the course of Soldier of the Mist that Latro was hired as a mercenary for the Persian forces.
Because of his injury, Latro suffers from two kinds of amnesia, retrograde and anterograde. This results in him not being able to recall the details of his own past (where he’s from, his family, etc.), but also in him losing his short-term memory--everything that happened the previous day--with each sunrise. Latro copes with his condition by writing in a scroll every day so that he can read it each day and understand what’s happening around him.
In my chapter, I discuss how Soldier of the Mist embodies the tension in Gene Wolfe’s work between the supernatural (often labeled as the fantasy genre) and the rational (often labeled as the science fiction genre--or in this novel’s case, the historical fiction genre). Gene Wolfe is commonly heralded as a science fiction writer. For instance, Ursula K. Le Guin, who’s a celebrated science fiction author in her own right, proclaimed the following of Soldier of the Mist: “Every time Gene Wolfe writes a new book, we need a whole new definition of ‘science fiction’” (figure 1).
Science fiction genre stories are often rationalized--that is, science fiction stories are often premised on what scholar Darko Suvin has called “the novum,” a plausible element or scenario based on what seems possible based on contemporary science. By contrast, the fantasy genre is typically concerned with mystical/mythical elements, in the sense of phenomena that are not explained in a rationalized way.
Much of Wolfe’s output is more accurately described as “fantasy”, which Peter Wright argues for extensively in his 2003 book Attending Daedalus: Gene Wolfe, Artifice and the Reader. Soldier of the Mist, though, is a mixture of fantasy and historical fiction. On the one hand, Latro sees and interacts with supernatural beings of all sorts on several occasions. This is of course an aspect of ancient Greek history, since the ancient Greeks, to varying degrees, did believe in the Olympian gods and the supernatural. Even more “sober” writers like the ancient Greek historian Herodotus (to whom Wolfe dedicated Solider of the Mist) included divine encounters in their writing. For instance, in Herodotus’ Histories(6.106) the messenger Pheidippides meets the god Pan on his journey to Sparta with a request for aid in the face of the Persian approach in 490 B.C. (see figure 2). But it’s one thing to represent the ancient Greeks inhabiting a world in which the reality of the divine sphere is taken seriously, but quite another to represent the supernatural as interacting with human characters. So, when recounting Pheidippides’ meeting with Pan, Herodotus reports that the messenger told people that he met the god--the historian does not independently state it as fact. Wolfe channels this mix of belief and skepticism in Soldier of the Mist, making readers wonder whether the divine beings that Latro sees and interacts with throughout his travels are real or whether his injury has caused him to hallucinate.
Mark Harrison’s illustration for a cover of Solider of the Mist also demonstrates the fantasy-historical fiction split in Wolfe’s novel (see header image). Harrison’s illustration appears on the cover of first UK edition of the novel published by Gollancz. I have been unable to find any commentary on this illustration, but I will talk about it here as a combination of various elements from the novel (rather than as an illustration of a specific scene).
We’re probably supposed to interpret the kneeling, armored figure with bowed head as Latro, his hands apparently clasped in prayer. He’s praying to a female figure standing above him. It’s unclear whether this is a statue of a divinity or is the deity herself. In favor of the statue interpretation is the round plinth (pedestal) on which the figure stands. Ancient Greek sculptors often supported their creations with plinths (see figure 3). On the other hand, the figure emits a golden glow, which is characteristic of gods in the novel, as when Latro encounters Apollo, whom he describes as “a golden giant” (chapter II). The figure’s head is angled downward towards Latro, which is an unusual pose for a cult statue. It is unclear who this divinity is precisely--it could be any of the goddesses that Latro encounters in the course of Soldier of the Mist--Artemis, Eos, Aphrodite, Persephone, or Hecate. The most likely candidate is Persephone, since Latro kneels before her in a temple to her mother Demeter in Eleusis (chapter XIX)--though the details of that meeting do not match Harrison’s work. In any case, the precise identity is unimportant. What matters is that Harrison has depicted the nature of her real-ness ambiguously. Does she exist independently of Latro’s mind? As viewers of Harrison’s art, are we seeing an extension of Latro’s injured mind, or are we seeing an external “reality”?
To the right of the kneeling Latro is a partial cityscape with what looks to be a temple and a sea in the background--perhaps Athens (called “Thought” by Latro). the sea with a ship sailing over it, above which is a bank of clouds in the shape of a woman’s head. This is perhaps a representation of another one of the goddesses that Latro encounters, or even the unseen Demeter, the cause of Latro’s troubles. Another symbol of Demeter appears in the wolf at the left side of the temple, an allusion to a Theban oracle’s prophecy (recounted by Io in chapter III): “The wolf that howls has wrought you woe! / To that dog’s mistress you must go! / Her hearth burns in the room below.” This is the oracle’s advice about Latro can fix his amnesia: he had offended “that dog’s mistress”, Demeter, when he fought against the Greeks in her temple at Plataea, and to restore his memory, he visits Demeter’s temple in Eleusis.
Harrison has designed his illustration in such a way that it allows the reading audience to see both interpretations of Soldier of the Mist. On the one hand, it’s a work of historical fiction, with the plot set in a realistic ancient Greece of the early fifth century B.C. On the other, the novel is an entry in the fantasy genre, with supernatural entities who are central to the narrative. It encapsulates Wolfe’s epigraph perfectly as both a work of “fiction” that also emulates “actual events.”