The Devil His Due: Gene Wolfe's Peace.

by Robert Borski

"The life and times of Alden Dennis Weer, as re-experienced by his ghost": so might we attempt at gunpoint to summarize Gene Wolfe's powerfully evocative third novel, Peace. But while admirable efforts have been made to establish a chronology for the novel (peacetimeline), or to work out some of the book's intricate genealogical and other puzzles (see Damien Broderick's "Thoughts on Gene Wolfe's Peace," in The New York Review of Science Fiction no. 91, March 1996), much of the discussion in my opinion has seemed to take on a trees-for-the-forest approach, ignoring what Peace is truly about--that is to say, the quest by several, modern, would-be alchemists to achieve the transformation of base materials into gold, if at a cost most dire, the loss of their souls. In short, as I intend to argue, Peace may well be Gene Wolfe's take on the Faust legend, with yet one essential difference--it's narrated by the Devil, or at least Wolfe's version thereof, Alden Dennis Weer. And while to some extent another lupine's earlier work will provide a secondary text by which to examine plotpoints (the model here being Johann Wolfgang von Goethe), it is one of Wolfe's own novels that provides an even better comparison, being in many respects both prequel and shadowy sister text.

The Brimstone Trail

The fact that Alden Dennis Weer may be the Devil incarnate will probably strike many as suspect, but I believe can be firmly argued from a variety of clues and suggestive passages. As always with Wolfe, a good first place to start is onomastics. Weer, as we're told by Wolfe in his Thrust interview (Thrust no. 19, Winter/Spring 1983), derives from wer and means man (later we will examine yet another meaning); often it's affixed to an animal noun and Damien Broderick has previously suggested that the protagonist of Peace is therefore a "weerwolfe." Wolves, of course, if we are to pursue the analogy, have been described as the Devil's hounds, and in Goethe's telling of Faust Mephistopheles appears in the form of a black dog. Furthermore, wolves, as we're told in the early Christian bestiary, Physiologus, will limp in order to lure unsuspecting victims; and sure enough, because of a stroke and partial paralysis, Alden limps--just as tradition has it the Devil often does because of his misshapen feet. (It's also a standard Wolfe trope, owing to the author's childhood encounter with polio.) This leads us back to Dennis and its derivation from Dionysus (Greek for "lame god"), an exemplar with horns and hooves, and whose goatlike attributes have long been appropriated by Christian iconographers to describe the Devil; Dennis also, for the dyslexic among us, is sinned backwards. And the first two initials of Wolfe's goat-man? Well, they're A.D., perhaps here signifying Anno Daemoni.

Further hellish tangents: Den, as we're told by his Aunt Olivia, "lays fires for me all the time," while the smell of burning sulphur, like Proust's cake, takes him back in time to his childhood and experiments with his chemistry set, causing him to sometimes wonder "if I have not poisoned myself with its fumes, and now, when I think myself to have lived, if I do not in actuality lie sprawled beside my candle and tiny smoking dish." At the Lorns, when he and Margie are looking for the missing Resurrection egg, Den professes indifference when it's suggested the hen-housed religious object might hatch into "something little and squirmy, with a hundred little teeth as sharp as needles." And look who actually finds the missing egg: it's Den, even as he and Margie are discussing how to circumvent the possible attack of a nearby goat--which Den pronounces as imaginary, but which he also obviously embodies. Crucially as well there's the second embedded tale in Peace, the story, related by Hannah, of the banshee, where Jack--Den's typological counterpart--refuses to name anyone, for the banshee will then kill that person. Compare Den's similar reticence with Bobby Black, who "if he can make me speak his battle is won." But when Jack (who again represents Den) asks the banshee a question, "Who's to be born?" she replies, "'Tis the Antichrist, an' you be the father of it." Den as the father of the Antichrist; fortunately, as we shall see, daughters don't count.

Then there's Weer's extended family, with its widespread infernal associations. As we learn during a Christmas visit, his widowed maternal grandfather has been consorting with his housekeeper, a woman named Mab. Mab, however, as we remember from Shakespeare and Keats, is the name of a fairy. The Fair Folk, in turn, have a number of connections with the Prince of Lies. According to The Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, "Faithful but suspicious Christians have accused solitary fairies of being in league with the devil," while another tradition has it that "Fairies embody the spirits of the dead." But even more significantly look at how Grandfather Elliot describes to young Den the just missed "visit" of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve: "Well, I guess you're late. Old Nick, he's already been here." Old Nick, of course, is a fairly well known name of the devil (hence Adam Sandler's movie, "Little Nicky").

Similarly, but drawing upon classical mythology, Evadne--the dead grandmother replaced by Mab--is named after the Greek wife of Capaneus who committed suttee, throwing herself on her husband's funeral pyre. (Capaneus himself has been electrocuted, struck down by Zeus's lightning.)

But more than anyone else it's Weer's beloved paternal aunt, Olivia, who most embodies the fire-and-brimstone connection. She is for starters an admirer of anything Chinese, but in a politically-incorrect age where Asians in general were often referred to as "yellow devils"--a phrase not only utilized by the ordinary man-on-the-street, but also by writers as prominent as Rudyard Kipling and Ambrose Bierce. Adept at painting on pottery, her favorite image (modeled after the labels on Chinese fireworks) is the dragon--a frequent Christian symbol of the Devil. (Later too we will read how, when Den produces his "secret sword" of a Boy Scout knife for Lois Arbuthnot, he tells the librarian, "I'm afraid it hasn't killed many dragons.") By selective breeding of her Pekinese, "Vi," as she's known to her friends, hopes to bring back the guardian lion-dogs of the T'ang dynasty--statues of which have always featured a horned head to distinguish them from the lions with which, at least since the Heian Period (794-1185), they are usually paired. Weer's aunt also smokes, which most ladies did not do at the time, and utilizes a "tooth-of-the-devil" cigarette holder. And finally when she dies, run over by Professor Peacock (as Broderick correctly speculates), this makes sense on more than a spurned suitor level, since peacocks, in the western tradition, are held to be slayers of snakes.

Finally, on the modern side of the Weer family tree, there's Doris, who's almost certainly the daughter of Sherry Gold and Den Weer. (Just as we understand that merchant James Macafee is meant to represent the suitor from the sea in the tale of "The Princess and Her Three Suitors," the first three letters in Doris mean "of gold.") Doris's tale, as related by Charlie Turner the Dog Boy (another wolf/devil avatar), reprises, with its carnival versions of abusive stepmother and evil stepsisters, the story of Little Cinder--that is to say, Cinderella--whose prince, alas, does not come in time to prevent her from being electrocuted. Like the princess in the aforementioned tale, but in a different context from her great-aunt Olivia (who marries alchemist Julius Smart), she too--like Evadne, like Capaneus--has been "won by fire," symbolizing not only her death, but also perhaps her homecoming. ("There's no way of really knowing what was meant by 'fire' in the rhyme," Den has told us earlier.)

Small wonder the Weer family bible is, as Den describes it, "old, falling apart," and "unreadable."

But if by now all this talk of an infernal family hasn't reminded you of anything, let me attempt to further jog your memories. The boy with the strange almost incestuous pattern to his heritage (Alden Dennis, son of Adelina, grandson of Evadne), whose secret name might also be Wolfe; the absentee parents (fled to Europe after the death of Bobby Black); the beloved aunt with her scientific proclivities; the guardian dog. Doesn't, in fact, much of this connote the world of Wolfe's 666 Saltimbanque clan in The Fifth Head of Cerberus? I've always thought so, and in my original notes to Peace, I've scrawled in the margin, "Aunt Vi = v + i, the sixth head of Cerberus." Moreover, far from this being either a superficial or facile resemblance, I believe that Fifth Head informs a good deal of Peace, and is crucial to an understanding of the latter's thematic crux, as well as its ending. Let us keep that in mind as we work our way through, if in roundabout fashion, other aspects of this most ingenious novel.

Cold Heaven

Referring at one point to his failed relationship with Margaret Lorn, Weer asks himself, "What went wrong? Margaret and I loved one another deeply." Earlier, however, when just beginning to take a romantic interest in her, he's stated that up until high school they've "been kept apart by destiny." But far from allowing us to think that simple destiny or the mere vicissitudes of life have been the cause of this missed connection, Wolfe sets up Margaret and her family to represent the antithesis of the hell-based Weers, utilizing both their religiosity and images of contrasting cold. Carl Lorn, for example, is a preacher, while his wife, Emerald, is the descendent (if not doubly so, for her parents are second cousins) of missionaries; emeralds, according to medieval gemology, originated in hell, and were therefore thought to be particularly efficacious in warding off diabolical influences, but when asked by OliviaWeer if she would like to do missionary work in China, as her parents and grandparents did (China as hell, where emeralds are born), Mrs. Lorn shakes her head. Nor do husband or wife actually wish the Resurrection egg to be sold--the former not at all (hence the hen-house ploy), the latter not on Sunday, since this in her view is simony (although she will use the money to buy a sewing machine so she can make clothes for missionaries). As for their children, Margaret's brother Samuel has died young (Samuel = Hebrew for "Name of the Lord," in the letters of which you will also find, if anagrammatically, the nested lorn), while Margaret herself is almost certainly named after Faust's Margarete--a true loving innocent and typically cited as Mephistopheles' foil. Farmers, the Lorns raise tobacco, but as Emerald tells Vi, "we don't either of us smoke." And their house, since it "lacks the cellar-ruling octopus of a coal furnace," has an "icy, clammy 'company' dining room." So given these various antitheses--holy winter versus torrid hell--we should hardly be surprised that Den Weer and Margaret Lorn are never able to work things out.

Note: this hot-cold polarity may intentionally invert Goethe's more traditional imagery, where light represents the Divine (Faust is replete with solar imagery) and darkness its opposite; hence the malign undertones of Faust's cell, Auerbach's cellar, the Walpurgisnacht festivities, etc., etc.--plus Mephistopheles first approaches Faust at sunset, just as the episode of the Chinese egg takes place at dusk. Another inversion that's important: Margaret remains uncorrupted in Wolfe's version, unlike her namesake in Goethe.

A Little Knowledge

In his entry on alchemy in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, Brian Stableford writes, "Alchemy is traditionally associated with two particular quests: for the Elixir of Life and the Philosopher's Stone," but then adds, "More recent revisionist historians tend to argue that these objectives ought to be construed metaphorically, and that alchemy is better regarded as a quest for spiritual enlightenment." Be that as it may, given that the two would-be alchemists we encounter in Peace--Louis Gold and Julius Smart--wind up losing their souls in exchange for metaphorical versions of the Elixir of Life and the Philosopher's Stone, there obviously can be little spiritual enlightenment, and in no way does Wolfe more effectively symbolize this than with his use throughout the novel of apple imagery. Malum, in Latin, means both 'apple' and 'evil'; and in its biblical connotations is associated with both knowledge-as-forbidden-fruit and the Primordial Fall. Thus it's with some irony we observe that if Bobby Black gains the top of the stairs he will "throw apples that, striking the walls, will break, spattering picture and floor with crisp, fragrant, tart fragments." Bobby, of course, doesn't, and is crippled, and later dies as a result of the fall Den precipitates. Like Den's boy-uncle Joe--dead at the age of five--and whose unhung portrait "smells of apples, from having been stored so long with them," he symbolizes premature death, with its concomitant loss of life and soul. Later, Julius Smart, whose grandmother is named Rebecca Appleby, will convert potatoes--or as the French call them, pommes de terre; literally, 'apples of the earth'--into both financial assets and the breakfast drink "Tang," but at a similar cost (lacking a soul we are as good as dead); just as Sherry Gold, whose hair is so fragrant that Den might have been thrusting his "face among the boughs of a blossoming apple tree" (the Devil corrupting Eve), will lose the daughter of their unlawful carnal liaison to wire-bound lightning. As for her father's counterfeit books, Den sniffs the binding thereof, "to see if [they] smelled of apples," while in another forgery, at least selon Gold, the unbroken Venus de Milo is holding up the Apple of Discord, which will go to Helen, instigating the Trojan War. Finally, we have the tale of Deirdre and her two brothers, who "though their cheeks were red as apples, their hair was white as frost, for they had outlived their time," suggesting yet another form of forgery and false youth (the only kind likely to be brought on by the Elixir of Life). Clearly, given these examples--the forbidden apple as agent of destruction, falsity, and/or early corruption--Pope's dictum about a little knowledge applies, and yet sadly both Louis Gold and Julius Smart are unable to resist the Devil's offer of more.

A Little Knowledge II

Very early in Peace, Den tells us about the Dresden figure of Napoleon that Julius Smart has purchased for his aunt. Then he goes on to say: "Visitors often wondered aloud why he kept one hand thrust into his waistcoat. As it happened, I knew the cause, having read it a year or two before--I believe in Ludwig's biography of him." This knowledge, however, is usually not well received by those Den tells ("...the innocent remark invariably offended"). But why? At first I thought that Wolfe might be suggesting the information imparted by Den was off-color, perhaps priapic or suggesting that Napoleon had supernumerary nipples. But in all of Emil Ludwig's Napoleon, no specific reason is ever spelled out why the little general kept his hand inside his waistcoat, although it certainly does suggest the reason was related to his lifelong gastric difficulties. (I also note how Ludwig uses epigraphs from Goethe to open each chapter--another tip toward the Faustus connection perhaps?) Is therefore the reason people get upset when Den reveals what he thinks he knows have more to do with him being a precocious child upstart rather than anything unseemly he reveals? Or might it have to do with the concept of esoteric knowledge, à la various secrets of alchemy, and Den as a purveyor of them--a juvenile Mephistopheles? For obvious reasons I prefer the latter.

Foolish Gold

When Den visits Louis Gold at his home, and confronts him about his forgeries, the European émigré responds by claiming that many of the world's great books may be similarly inspired. Claims the old German: "There are a great many more of us than you think, Mr. Weer. And we go back a long way. Many of the old books you accept as genuine because you see them everywhere are actually reprintings of the original efforts of people like myself--some of them working many hundreds of years before." Thus Gold has found his own perverse way of living forever: not through his children, but through his forged books, some of which may, many decades hence, assume the patina of genuineness; just as he's discovered how to turn base paper, ink and binding into gold. But far from attempting to pass off great lost works of literature--Shakespeare's Love's Labor Won, say, or further additions to the Pseudepigrapha--and further ensuring his longevity in a "legitimate" fashion, Gold has tended to concentrate on rather pedestrian texts: the hackneyed, obnoxiously alliterative Amanda Ros, the imaginary eldritch books coined by H. P. Lovecraft & company, and local Cassionville diaries. Granted, he's paid handsomely for what he does (the fake Ros tome sells for $200 in 1954); but this will hardly ensure his long-term literary posterity. Moreover, once he's found out by Den, Gold stands a good chance of going to jail, with his family's name forever tarnished. Fortunately, he's allowed to continue in his criminal activities because his daughter, Sherry, will bribe Weer, giving herself carnally to the man and, er, his serpent. Too bad the biological result of this encounter--Doris, a granddaughter who might yet ensure the long-term survival of the Gold line--dies relatively young and after much abuse from her carnival stepfamily. Not that it probably matters much to perjured scholar Louis Gold; alone in his bookstore, he's still allowed to pursue his goal of spurious immortality and collect his pyrite fees, having quite some time ago already mortgaged his soul, his virtue and his integrity.

The Three Suitors

Before we discuss Julius Smart, perhaps it's prudent to examine the reasons why OliviaWeer, like the princess in the tower, rejects her first three suitors, drawing on the symbolism Wolfe invests in each of the trio. (The quartet as a whole obviously symbolizes the four traditional elements of Renaissance alchemy.) Professor Peacock (the suitor from the air) may indeed be too proud, like his avian namesake, but I think a better reason for rejection can be found in the alchemical significance of his name: in one context, the iridescent tail of the peacock (caudo pavonis) refers to steps taken in the process of transmuting base metals to gold, but in another it refers to a failure in the process, one where only dross (caput mortuum, the death's head) is produced--not only is he an alchemist manqué in other words, but he later kills Olivia. As for rich banker Stewart "Bacchant" Blaine, perhaps like the biblical Dives he's already destined for hell. But there's also his lesser status as bacchant--a mere votary of Bacchus, as opposed to Bacchus/Dionysus himself--plus the meal he serves to Den and Vi, where "every edible thing not silver was the color of snow or of ice"--the cold heaven motif again, and perhaps constituting one of Wolfe's more atrocious puns (chill blaines: oy!). Finally, there's James Macafee, whose rejection may hinge on the fact that he ended up with the Chinese egg, or the notion that his nickname, "Roscoe," implies a tendency for violence (Roscoe meaning gun in gangster parlance); or that perhaps Roscoe, like Amanda Ros, will prove to be dreadfully repetitive. But the explanation I like best revolves around his status as the suitor from the sea, in that merchant Jimmy Macafee represents water, the antithesis of fire, and is therefore ill-suited to be the husband of hellbride OliviaWeer.

Apples and Oranges

So at last we come to Julius Smart, about whom at one point Den writes, "It has suddenly struck me, after scribbling for days here, that Julius Smart, who will scarcely appear in it again, is actually the central character of this book." This, in conjunction with an earlier remark, "[Smart] did not strike me as a powerful--much less a symbolic--figure," leaves little doubt of his role in Peace--that of the Faustian alchemist in search of the Philosopher's Stone, who, at least in Wolfe's version, enters into a nefarious bargain with the Devil, as represented by narrator Alden Dennis Weer and his family. Smart, a friend of Professor Peacock's, first appears in the book at James Macafee's birthday party, where he tells his macabre story about Mr. Tilly the pharmacist; but once it concludes (and it's pertinent to note that Tilly's tale is the longest one in Peace, occupying most of the book's middle portion), he is seldom seen again, except as a very reduced presence: a "shrunken figure" with "thin white hair" which is "always tousled," and who is rumored to buy "boys' shoes for his tiny feet" (think hooves). But it's when he is in his glory, untainted by his association with the Weer clan, that he narrates the story of Mister Tilly, a pharmacist who, by prescribing various teratogenic compounds, is able to cause physical malformations in his customers, enabling them to earn decent livings as sideshow freaks. These are not unwilling victims, mind you: all of them understand what Tilly's compounds are doing to them, and among the carnival folk we meet are Charlie Turner the Dog Boy and his mother Cleopatra, who has no arms, but whose hands are attached to her shoulders. (Wolfe may be attempting another inversion here, that of Goethe's Helen, "the most beautiful woman in the world.") But what apprentice Smart will also find out ( for Smart, fresh out of pharmacology school, has come to Tilly looking for a job) is that Tilly--or as he's referred to in the tale, "Mr. T.,"--is slowly dying, his internal organs turning to stone, calcified by a potion being slipped--so Tilly claims--into his food on a regular basis by the ghost of his dead wife. The mythic parallel here, of course, is King Midas, but one whose golden touch has been subverted (it's also Dionysus in classical mythology who confers the touch); and as we later learn, Tilly's wife has also been transformed, if albeit malignly, her grotesque body being found by Smart in a tank of alcohol after the pharmacist's death. Given that the middle initial of Julius Smart's full name is "T" (a fact we do not learn until near the end of Peace), we're almost certainly meant to see Smart as, if not literally Tilly (his story being disguised confession), then his real-life proxy. And indeed there are parallels between the circumstances of each. Smart--the alchemist whose factory alembics will transmute potatoes into golden Tang--marries Olivia Weer, but probably, I suspect, because she has money; her brother John will also soon die and it seems likely he will leave something of the sizeable Weer family fortune to his only sibling, just as he's been instructed in his father's will to "do right by Olivia" for her wedding. This provides Julius with the venture capital to start up his orange drink company, after which his enthusiasms for "Vi" harden (need I say it? Like Mr. T., his heart has turned to stone). Olivia, meanwhile, takes to overeating--a classic symptom of rejection--gains, as Den notes, quite a bit of weight (like Mrs. T., she's transformed), and is run over by her former suitor Professor Peacock, perhaps unable to waddle out of the way of his approaching motorcar. We know that Smart refuses to speak to his nephew for the next twenty-five years; is it possible that Den, somewhere in the grief process, accuses Julius of indirectly or directly causing his aunt's death--thereby precipitating the-quarter-century-long-breech between them? And yet who does Smart leave the assets of his company to when he dies? Alden Dennis Weer; because as Broderick quotes Gene Wolfe, "he's Aunt Vi's heir and thus crabby old Julius Smart's." But yet another reason may be that Julius Smart has entered into a bargain with the Devil, and in exchange for start-up money (or Den's silence if he suspects that Smart is murderer Tilly), Julius T. has mortgaged his soul. And unlike Goethe's Faust, who believes in the community of man and is still able to enter Heaven, he dies on a less than triumphal note, as almost a non-presence.

Mandelbrot Hell

How best to approach the ending of Peace, with its reinvocation of the enchanted Chinese headrest and Den's Aunt Vi calling him over the intercom? I think the answer can be found earlier, in the bookstore of Louis Gold. It's here, among the other forged books, including the Necronomicon of mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, that Den notices and picks up another book associated with the Cthulhu mythos: Morryster's The Marvells of Science. Both books are first mentioned in H.P. Lovecraft's 1923 short story, "The Festival," but unlike the Necronomicon, which is invented by Lovecraft, The Marvells of Science has been appropriated from Ambrose Bierce's short story, "The Man and the Snake" (contained in the author's 1891 seminal collection, Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, which also includes "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and "An Inhabitant of Carcosa"). By now I shouldn't have to explain to you the relevance of Bierce's title, except to say it could easily be the subtitle of any work about an alchemist and the Devil; but I will include the lone sentence from Morryster that Bierce invents to kick off his tale: "It is of veritabyll report, and attested of so many that there be nowe of wyse and learned none to gaynsaye it, that ye serpente hys eye hath a magnetick propertie that whosoe falleth into its svasion is drawn forwards in despyte of his wille, and perisheth miserabyll by ye creature hys byte." This, of course, rather neatly summarizes the lure and consequences of evil, making both seem inevitable. But far from allowing this single sentence to function as off-stage commentary to Peace, Wolfe has Weer peruse a bit of Morryster's Marvells Thus Den learns that "though it was a mortal sin to do so, the man who wished might, if he knew the procedure, summon devils or angels." Moreover: "That Heaven is (by the report of the summoned angels) a land of hills and terraced gardens, with cold, blue freshwater seas; that it is shaped like an angel--or, rather, like many, for (like Hell) it repeats itself over and over again, always different and yet always the same." [Italics mine.] This notion of a cyclical Hell, however, is hardly new to Wolfe, and very much underscores the titular novella of The Fifth Head of Cerberus, where the Sainte Croix line of diabolical clones is doomed to repeat itself over and over. Like the alchemists of Peace, Maitre and his family have experimented with ill-gotten knowledge; and like the endless stairway Faust sees in Goethe's final scene, there may be no exit ramp. But here too we see another inversion: in Goethe's work, Faust will lose his soul if he ever experiences something he wishes will last forever ("When to the moment I shall say,/ "Linger awhile, so fair thou art!"/ Then mayst thou fetter me straightway,/ Then to the abyss will I depart.") But in Wolfe's version, the Devil, who has no soul, has been condemned to a cycle of permanent repetition, with no other choice. This also helps bring the tale of the Chinese pillow into further clarity; as originally told by none other than firebride Aunt Vi herself, it reads very much like an Asiatic version of Lucifer's rebellion, as might we expect given the symbolism associated with her. Late in his life, the soldier whose every wish has been granted to him by the enchanted headrest, paraphrases Faust's second line above, saying "If only I could have that one day over again" (meaning the day he's first given the pillow, with all of his life and attainments still to come.) To which his benefactor--symbolically Milton's Old Testament God--utters, "Fool! I have granted your heart's desire, and for it I receive your ingratitude." Whereupon he dashes a kettle of scalding tea water at the soldier (think casts down into hell), and the soldier reawakens in the hostel where he originally met the old man, about to begin everything "all over again"-- which is what now, we may finally reveal, weer means in Dutch. Hence also the nature of the book's many unfinished tales: they're stories waiting always to be told, never concluded. This then may be the novel's ultimate irony: that Den Weer, summoned by his Satanic relative, will wander through the corridors of his life, never to know Peace, forever trapped in recursions of his own memory.

And yet even more than the onomastic tie-in, and apart from the punishment angle, with its Sisyphean entrapment cycles, might there be quite another reason Peace ends the way it does? I believe there is and that it relates to the book's hidden schema--one wherein the master alchemist is neither Johannes Faust nor Julius Smart, but Gene Wolfe himself.

The Book of Gold

Shortly after the elm tree planted by Eleanor Bold falls in a storm, liberating the ghost of Den Weer, Den finds himself back in the waiting room of Dr. Van Ness, along with four other patients: Margaret Lorn, Abel Green, Sherry Gold, and Ted Singer. (The scene may or may not intentionally recapitulate Faust's opening, where Goethe reconvenes his cast of characters: "Dim forms, ye hover near, a shadowy train,/ As erst upon my troubled sight ye stole./ Say, shall I strive to hold you once again?/ Still for the fond illusion yearns my soul?") Looking for some sort of link among these five characters--why, for example, does Wolfe bring this particular pentad together at the beginning of Peace as opposed to any other group--I was struck by how readily one could assign colors to four of them. Den, for example, who's just been freed from the grave, represents black; but he's also the killer of Bobby Black, which takes place in the first chapter, entitled "Alden Dennis Weer." Margaret Lorn--whose family is the antithesis of the Weers--represents the opposite white; plus she's involved with the white Resurrection Egg in chapter two, "Olivia." Farmer Abel Green is the obvious green; and may represent Julius Smart, who's the subject of chapter three, "The Alchemist," while patient Sherry Gold represents chapter four, the eponymous "Gold." That left only Ted Singer to figure out.

This then became my first attempt at looking at Peace's overall organizational structure, with each character met in Van Ness's waiting room corresponding to a chapter in the book, along with a representational color. And then something else occurred to me: isn't a certain progression of colors or tinctures, as the material in the flasks goes through its various transformations, seen in the ideal alchemical reaction? Traditionally, there are a number of such schemes, with a four constituent cycle being most frequent: nigredo, albedo, citrinitas, rubedo. To fit Peace into such a scheme, we need only to introduce a single color from the alchemical secondary palette into the middle: viridis. This then makes Wolfe's organizational schema look like this:

  1. Black
  2. White
  3. Green
  4. Gold
  5. Red
Furthermore, we can take each one of these steps and apply to them additional elements of significance. Often, for example, a symbolic animal is associated with each color, with the alchemist being said to meet with the animal along the way in his journey to spiritual enlightenment. Ditto for various steps in the life cycle, from birth to death, as well as sacramental components incorporated from Christianity. But always important to remember is that the entire process is meant to be seen as a cycle. This is why one of the animals traditionally associated with the final step is either the Ouroboros--the snake holding its tail--or a winged dragon doing similarly, symbolizing not just the union of polarities seen in the various transformations, but the process readying itself to start all over again. As does indeed Gene Wolfe's extraordinary book of gold, the alchemical novel known as Peace.

Novel Sections and Their Alchemical Associations
1: "Alden Dennis Weer" 2: "Olivia" 3: "The Alchemist" 4: "Gold" 5: "President"
Patient A. D. Weer Margaret Lorn Abel Green Sherry Gold Ted Singer
Color Black White Green Gold Red
Animal Dragon Unicorn (ML); Winged Dragon (OW) Green Lion Phoenix Pelican nourishing its young with its own blood (TS); Dragon/Ouroboros (ADW)
Process Putrefaction (death) Conception (birth) Generation (growth) Quintessence (final transmutation) Death/Rebirth
Sacramental Component n.a. White host Bread as Eucharist Ciborium/transubstantiated host Wine
Notes n.a. Chinese "yellow devil" egg merges heaven and hell symbolism, and we will later see a union/neutralization of these same polarities in Red. Farmer Green is Julius Smart's proxy, the simplest form of alchemist, who wrests from base dirt the prima materia (potatoes) which will later be turned into gold. The process implies an end stage, death, then rebirth. And remember that daughter Doris--the phoenix reborn--is electrocuted. The pelican has a rich history associating it with Christ, mainly due to the medieval belief that it fed its young with its own blood; while another symbol of this process is the appearance of the so-called Red King in the alchemist's flask. If Ted is therefore a Christ analogue, he (or more likely his father) may be the one killed in the Coldhouse Prank, which allows for resurrection of dragon A. D. Weer--starting the entire cycle anew.

About the Author

Robert Borski has created "Cave Canem," a website devoted to The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Gene Wolfe's science fiction novel-of-three-novellas. Many of his essays have appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction, and he also contributed material for the "AE" series of chapbooks following the Lexicon.

"Cave Canem" includes a concordance and many essays.