Dec 6, 2017

The Changeling (Episode 4)


That was an awesome episode, guys. I feel after listening to that as I usually feel after reading a Wolfe story: I need to go through that again.


I found the explanation of the two frogs, the religious redemption of Peter, etc, incredibly convincing. But I wasn't quite sure you two thrashed through the basic questions of the story re: what is the relationships between Pete and Peter? Who if anyone is the Changeling? You sort of said a lot about it but didn't quite hash it out. (I have no answers as of now. But I may end up rereading the story & then relistening to the podcast, and maybe reading Aramini on it too...)


One further tidbit I'd love to get people's opinion on. "The Changeling", as you note, was published in ORBIT; Knight chose it for republication in THE BEST OF ORBIT, a selection from volumes 1-10. He quotes from a letter he sent to Wolfe about the story. He writes "I have read "The Changeling" again, and still can't sort it out into one consistent, linear, daylight-logic pattern, but have concluded 'm not supposed to, so I had better just shut up and buy it. It seems to mean something to me, although I would hate to have to explain what, & the whole thing hangs together so tightly that I can't imagine wanting you to change a word." (p. 134) So, first of all, the editor himself DIDN'T FEEL HE UNDERSTOOD THE STORY. That makes me feel better.


But here's the kicker. Knight adds: "Years later, during a slightly drunken party in Madeira Beach, Gene whispered to me, "The old man is dead, you know." And then I understood it." (Ibid.) So, ok: this is a Gene Wolfe story (about, not by, but still), so we have to look for unreliable narrators & question our premises: Did Knight hear/remember this accurately? Was Knight right in assuming that Wolfe meant *this* story and not some other one? etc. But let's set that all aside for now. Whatever happened, Knight at least *thought* that Wolfe was talking about this story, AND THAT THAT FACT EXPLAINED IT. So forget briefly about whether not it DOES explain the story. What was Knight THINKING it meant/added? (The old man has to be Papa, right? No other old man in the story. Is there reason to think he might be dead? What does it mean if he does?


I sometimes wonder if my utter inability to make sense of this particular Wolfe story is because I first read it in BEST OF ORBIT, and that that comment (appearing right before the story) over-shadowed my interpretation. Still: what does it mean?


I'm devouring these as fast as I can find the time to read the stories & listen to them. They're awesome. Thanks to you both.

Dec 6, 2017

Thank you so much for listening and for your thoughtful and thought-provoking comment! Damon Knight is right, I think, in stating that this story lacks a linear solution. I think both Glenn and I found that there was a kind of dream logic at play in the story, a logic befitting the Peter Pan/Fairy roots of the story. I'm fairly convinced, as we discuss in the podcast, that Peter/Pete are a split of the same being and that the young Peter represents Pete's life before he experiences several episodes of trauma. Somehow that young Peter is able to remain in Cassonsville, unaffected by the death of his mother and the trauma of war.

Damon Knight's later comments about Wolfe mentioning that "the old man is dead" don't quite fit with what I found in the text of the story. I would have to go back to The Changeling and look for clues. There is another story, though, that takes place in Cassonsville, that fits more closely with Knight's comments. That story is the novel Peace. I wonder if there is some confusion there around the comments.

In any event, The Changeling is a classic whose dream-logic is part of what makes returning to it so rewarding.

Dec 6, 2017

I agree that the comment makes more *sense* for Peace... but it doesn't make sense for Wolfe to say it to DK in particular (it wasn't published in Orbit or anything, I don't think). Not to mention the timing is tight (Peace came out in 75; the Best of Orbit in 76; the comment would have to have been made, and then put into a book later to be printed....). And, of course, it still leaves the question of what sense Knight (a perceptive Wolfe reader, I'd presume) THOUGHT it made of that story (even if he was wrong).


As I said, I loved your podcast — the peter pan reference is spot on, the details regarding war trauma (and the death of his mother), the frog bit from medieval theorizing — all fit really well. But I'm not yet sure if it really is *just* dream logic, or if there is some fundamental answer we can tease out about it. I'm inclined to believe the latter, since there so often is for Wolfe. But I'll admit I haven't found it yet.


One final thought on The Changeling: inspired by your episode, I just watched the short documentary "THEY CHANGED CHINA", made (by a Chinese filmmaker, Shuibo Wang) about the 21 Americans who refused repatriation after Korea. Fascinating stuff. But one thing that it emphasized for me is how the motives of most of them seemed to have been left-wing politics (in some cases, filtered through the experience of being an African American in the Jim Crow south). Given that Wolfe was, by his later testimony, a "William F. Buckley" conservative at the time, I wonder if that fact isn't worth exploring a bit. It fits right in with the themes you outline (changing, trauma, etc), but it presents his experiences as not only above-average traumatic, but also as *treasonous*. I don't know if Wolfe would have seen it so; but it's worth considering.


(In general, I tend to think Wolfe's sheer political conservatism (an ideology, FWIW, I don't share) is underrated. I, like you, loved the BOOK OF THE LONG SUN; but there are a few pages there (when Silk is considering whether to let the citizens keep the arms they got during the rebellion) where Wolfe has Silk voice a series of pretty straight-up NRA talking points. I don't say this to dismiss Wolfe—one of my favorite writers—but I wonder if readers tend to downplay it, assuming that, with his complexity of thought & writing, he's above such things. Just food for thought.)


Thanks again for the podcast. See you in Paul's Treehouse.

Dec 6, 2017

Those are some excellent points about Wolfe's early political conservatism. I have found that though Wolfe was an admitted William F. Buckley conservative, his characters and world are complex enough to allow the stories to breathe in the sense that they are not constricted by ideological preaching. That said, we definitely take in to account his admitted claims when they appear as a theme in his work (or in his characters mouths). I think in The Changeling, there is a negative connotation within the text of the story as it applies to the Americans who stayed behind. However, there is a redemption arc for Peter, which complicates a purely negative view of that group.


We have just begun to record our coverage of Operation:ARES. In it, we take a much closer look at Wolfe's political views as they are a major theme of the novel.


Thanks again for listening. I look forward to your comments on Paul's Treehouse!

Dec 7, 2017

Stephen, wow, these are some great comments -- thank you!


Regarding they mystery and confusion of the story, you are right to say that we skirted the issue a little bit. I hate shrugging my shoulders in defeat, but I just don't have a hard line on it. That said, if I had to pick I side, I would side with Joan Gordon who suggests that the confusion rests with the narrator himself, not with Peter. That doesn't solve all (or probably even most) of the problems, but it satisfies me emotionally at least.


That Damon Knight comment is interesting. It absolutely has to be about Peace, because, well, that's the mystery in that novel. That said, I like your idea of trying to figure out what Damon Knight thought Papa's ghostliness does to make sense of the story. My suggestion would be that this is a parallel with the first thing we learn about the narrator -- his father is dead. Perhaps Knight sees that as some proof that Pete and Peter are two halves of the same person?


That's also a really great question about the politics regarding the soldiers who remained in China. I read Wolfe as being sympathetic with his narrator in this story, and I think that Christian compassion is a central theme of the piece. That Christian compassion really shows in many of these early stories, and I think is where Wolfe's politics become hard to really pin down. As Brandon says, we're recording Operation ARES now, and it's quite political, so I imagine that we'll be addressing that more, and I'm looking forward to it. Paul's Treehouse is also in some part about political ideologies, and I'll look forward to what you think of it.


And thank you for your kind words. We're so glad to have you reading along with us.

Dec 8, 2017

Never feel defeated when you have Aramini! I solved this one and mark it my first success with the short stories. I strongly recommend reading everything I ever wrote on Wolfe. First off, there is always an objective solution in Wolfe, and often it hangs on objective facts or creeds. We know he was in 4th grade circa 1944 because of what was happening with Korea when he moved away. However, the events which supposedly occur in 1949 have him in the military ... at 15! This is a three year discrepancy ... Maria is 3 years older than him, and Peter Palmieri first appeared when she was a kid. Pete and Peter were switched at birth when Maria was a kid (Immaculate Conception refers to Mary, not Christ, so the magic happened when she was young). Pete Palmer was a real life actor born in 1931 (not 1934) like Gene Wolfe, and he played Li'l Abner, a notorious oaf - the etymology of the word oaf was orginally to refer to a boorish elfin changeling - thus the title. They were swapped at birth in 1931, and this is a fantasy story. Pete Palmer was in the 7th grade not the 4th, but wrestling his changeling, who is always in the 4th grade, messed with his memories. I will never pull out Wolfe again as confirmation, but when I sent this reading to him, this was his response in personal email circa 2012: "There's a special mass tonight for Holy Thursday ... I've lways liked Li'l Abner. Not Fearless Fosdick or any such stuff, but the real thing: Abner, Mammy (Pansy Yokum), Pappy (Lucifer Yokum), Daisy Mae (Scragg), Moonbeam (McSwine), Stupfyin' Jones, Ol' Man Mose, Nightmare Alice, Hairless Joe, Lonesome Polecate, Eddie Ricketyback, Earthquake McGoon, and, well, on and on. The cast was huge, and always full of interest" So ... even though L'il Abner does not appear in the story, the objective details about the star playing him inform our CORRECT reading of what happened: an elfin and regular family, and a switch performed in 1931, with altered memories from the wrestling in 1934 to explain the missing picture (he was in the 7th grade then) and how he can be in Korea when he is supposedly too young. The takeaways here: Wolfe writes puzzles that can be solved logically. (And never give up until you have read Aramini, whose arrogance is only exceeded by his rightness).

Dec 8, 2017

Sorry if that was too overbearing guys - getting in character as Sol Invictus, Tyrant of America. Confidence is everything.

Dec 8, 2017

The other philosophical point under discussion for the validity of my reading involves the extra-textual nature of the evidence. I started with a problem - three years and a missing yearbook picture, and two possibilities - a split or a switch. The split was the favored reading. However, the title, The Changeling, definitely indicates a more traditional fey kind of story, given the weird father figure who dies but once had the strength to bend nails. So I was left with the suspicion that Peter Palmer was born in 1931, but how to prove it? Only the objective facts of history could do so, and external creeds (the Immaculate Conception is a mystery innately tied to Mary). So ... for the sake of discussion, I think sometimes Wolfe's texts cannot be objectively understood without being grounded in facts of our own external reality. Those who think everything must be directly rather than tangentially referenced in the text might not always have enough information to solve it. I suspect those suspicious of my reading here would also be suspicious of the very nice evidence outside of Seven American Nights which corroborates a particular reading - but luckily there are several allusions to one source - here we only have the name Pete Palmer as a tie in to a potential source the story itself. However, it solved my textual problems of three years by granting external fact as a fact in text: Peter Palmer is born in 1931 in reality. So, title, resolution of a plot hole and the missing three years as well as the missing yearbook picture, and extra-textual corroboration via objective fact and biographical detail from Wolfe (also 1931 birth) and perhaps a meta-textual interest in the actor Peter Palmer in my opinion provide some level of logical closure here. Sorry if the previous post struck the wrong note.

Dec 8, 2017

No worries Marc! Always glad to hear your point of view, especially given the amount of time you've given to studying and corresponding with Wolfe. Your post about the confirmation you received from work interests me insofar as it speaks directly to authorial intent. But I think there are additional themes to develop besides the puzzle Wolfe leaves us with. To be perfectly honest, I completely missed the time shift in this story, which means I need to revisit it. This definitely opens up new possibilities for the answer to the puzzle about Peter Palmer's identity. Your solution must be correct. Thanks again for your awesome insight. You're a luminary in the field!

Dec 8, 2017

I definitely agree there are many, many themes that can be fruitfully explored even ignoring the puzzling nature of his identity - I would just emphasize that I think Wolfe always plots his puzzles like word problems, with a rigorous web of semiotic slippages and logical substitutions. It is perfectly valid to forego solving the mysteries and talk about the other important plot elements, but I think Wolfe always intends there to be a solution to these kinds of identity problems if one is crazy enough to seek it out. There are a handful of times when he and I have shared a joke about subtext, but despite the fact that I come on so strong I don't want to kill the autonomy of discussion. This one is so out there that I feel we need confirmation that Wolfe knows L'il Abner intimately, as it is almost unfair - but it establishes precedent for the way he does allusions. So that will be the only time I ever tromp Wolfe out in discussion - though there is one other notable moment in our correspondence when he corrected me in a way I immediately knew was the truth - but that is for a far more important work than The Changeling, so I would rather let my argument carry that one even if no one but Wolfe and myself believe it.

Dec 8, 2017

Marc, I have to confess a complete ignorance on all matters Abner, L'il or otherwise, but I find this solution really intriguing. If you are right, then we know what happened, but I still wonder what Wolfe wants us to do with that information.

Dec 8, 2017

I hate to reduce this to a theme, since for me part of the glory of Wolfe is simply solving the puzzles (that mock subjective points of view) but I think if you pressed me I would say the story is very much about ceasing to believe in the magic of childhood and the soul after being forced to live the life of an adult: war, failure, betrayal, violence - all things which darken the spirit and deny its mystical and elevated nature. Here, we see an example of a thing of magic - but it is the HUMAN who is the boorish villain, not the magical changeling, the being of spirit, who is unharmed by the father's holy water and lives on innocently and purely. I think Wolfe is playing with ideas of innocent Jesus as a changeling, and the spiritual sundering that goes on in the modern world - just because we don't understand the mystical doesn't mean it isn't real, and that it isn't innately involved in our own personal story, though we lack the necessary perceptions to understand that the mysteries we see have everything to do with us, and no war, no denial, can ever change that reality. Perhaps childhish belief is immortal and unchanging, and very much the best part of us that endures.

Dec 9, 2017

I think that's a really nice reading that integrates the puzzle with the emotional trauma of the protagonist, which is what spoke to me in this story and made me fall in love with it so much.

Jan 7, 2018

Hey all,


First, I'm sorry I'm very far behind, as I'm just now making my way through all the reading and podcast content. Second, I'm so glad to have found this podcast, as I've been a big Wolfe fan for a number of years and am greatly enjoying your commentary and rapport.


On to the good stuff. I know Marc has so helpfully pointed out the primary mysterious elements we were missing, but I'm still a bit confused about how Peter would ever have been significantly older than Maria in that timeline. He's certainly described as such by Papa, but perhaps this is tied to the theme of memory in a manner I can't identify yet, as there clearly are many lapses or distortions in Pete's throughout. Maybe this is addressed in the full explanation in his book, but I haven't read that yet. Another topic I wanted to discuss a bit was the presumed fairy-ness (or whatever they are) of the Palmers. I'm wondering if there's any hint as to what occurred to Pete's (adopted sorta?) mother and to his father if their true child lives at a single age in perpetuity. I hadn't actually thought about the ability of the father to bend large nails as a fairy-strength ability until one of the above posts, but it got me thinking about what gives them (or just Peter) their immortality. I had the idea, though no proof that perhaps this island somehow was a source of power and that Peter staying there for many years was perhaps linked to that. It's completely a shot in the dark, but I was so busy thinking about the effects of trauma after listening to you guys talk about it that I forgot to examine the story for any clues about the actual magic occurring.


A totally trivial addition, every time you guys said the name Palmieri, it sounded like 'Paul-Mary' to me, which immediately got me thinking that Peter, as the good version of Pete (if a split theory applied), was some sort of trinity, Peter-Paul-Mary. I know this was me just having fun and probably not the intention, as that's not how I pronounce the name anyway.


Anyway, I'm excited to be along for the ride and will be reading along with everything as best I can. Not sure exactly what the time-table is for Operation Ares, and while I'm trying to read along with the podcast, I'm also just reading The Book of Days through right now and might be doing that with the other collections. If there's any way to post a schedule ahead of time, that'd be amazing. I do know that listeners are helping to pick the stories though, so it may not make much sense.


Keep it up, gentlemen!



Jan 8, 2018

Robby, thanks for your comments. I love this story in part because it still challenges me. I'm not sure that I'll ever feel satisfied by any answer to the puzzles and mysteries, yet the story is so thematically strong and has such rich characters. You ask some great questions, and I your observation about the island is wonderful. That's how Neverland functions in Peter Pan, right? Time is wonky there, relative to our own world.


And I don't think that it's trivial to point out the homonym in Palmieri and Paul-Mary. We know that Wolfe loves language -- and especially puns -- and I'm certain that he knew what he was doing here.


A final thanks for your kind words and for joining us on Patreon -- we're so grateful for the support and we're glad to have you along for the ride. You raise a great point about how we're going through the stories. This first batch, especially the first ten, were a little ad hoc. We read the stories chronologically by year, but we then read all of the stories from 1968, for example, without a system. Our plan in the future is to continue to group the stories by year, but then group them by collection. That won't matter too much for our next batch when we're only reading five stories, but the next batch after The Fifth Head of Cerberus will be a LOT of stories, so we'll be more organized and hopefully reader-friendly. Moreover, you'll see in the poll that goes out today (coming from Survey Monkey) that we've included which collection each story is in, as we expect that will motivate some choices. We're really excited to see which stories you want to cover!

I would not have spent the time thinking about this story if it were not for your podcast.


I don't think that “The Changeling” is a science fiction or fantasy story. I think the title is misdirection by Wolfe, since a story with a title from folklore written by a writer known for SFF is going to predispose the reader to look for a literal changeling.


My reading of “The Changeling” is that Peter Palmieri had killed some boys just before fifth grade began. To avoid the law, Papa Palmieri flees with Peter to to Buffalo, NY, and changed their last name to Palmer and began calling his son Pete. Mama Palmieri allowed Papa Palmieri to flee with Peter because “she regarded him as infallible in every crisis.” (This was in 1944 or 1945, when moving even one state away and dropping a vowel from your name would probably be good enough to start over.) Peter learned to run away from things, which is what he continues to do throughout the story.


Pete's dad had “hard, brown cheeks” and the coffin “crowded his working shoulders.” That sounds like someone who could have worked at a brick works, as Papa Palmieri did. Pete's dad died between Pete being notified and being able to get back to NY. The life expectancy for extensive small call carcinoma (a type of lung cancer) today is only 8-13 months and I imagine it was much lower in the 1960s. Papa Palmieri chainsmokes cigars when talking to Pete.


If that is true, then it follows that the Papa Palmieri Pete talks to when he returns to Cassonville is either a ghost or a figment of his imagination. Evidence for this is that no one except for Pete sees, hears, or acknowledges Papa in any way. When Pete, Paul, and Papa sit outside and have some beer, Papa does not speak until Paul leaves. When they talk, they, “pitch their voices lower than usual,” as if to hide the fact that Pete is talking to himself.


Papa Palmieri goes back and forth between present and past tenses when talking to Pete. He only has a “trace of an Italian accent,” so it can't be that his English is poor. It is as if Papa is confused, because he is talking to Pete about Peter and knows on some level they are the same person. (Or, really, that Pete is talking to himself about himself as Peter and hasn't worked it all out yet.) Everything Papa tells Pete makes sense if there was not a Pete Palmer at the time, but only a Peter Palmieri.


“Mama Palmieri surprised me by recognizing me at once and smothering me with kisses.” That seems much more like Mama greeting a long-lost son than Mrs. Palmieri greeting a friend of her children's she hasn't seen since he was in fourth grade.


Pete was a violent boy, killing frogs. We know adult Peter still has a temper because of his interaction with the nuns at his old school. We also know that Army Peter was put on trial and convicted and we know that none of the real American defectors were tried. I think everyone assumes he was tried for desertion. Peter only says, “I was also one of the ones who had to stand trial; let's just say that some of the men who had been in the prison camp with me remembered things differently. You don't have to like it.” I believe he killed a fellow American prisoner, but tried to justify it somehow. The other Americans who saw it contradicted his account and they were believed, not Pete. He is convicted of manslaughter or murder.


The killings. Peter killed at least two boys on the island before fifth grade. When he returns to the island with Paul, the wooden swords are already stuck into the ground like crucifixes yes, but like gravestones. None of the boys except young Peter speak, and young Peter is a figment of adult Pete's imagination. And they are “Sulky, angry at having their game interrupted.” The game of life. They are ghosts that Peter imagines. The only one of the four boys who could be real is the one who rowed the skiff over to them. But I think he was there to make us think of Charon and the River Styx.


Pete is looking for mentions of Pete Palmer in the local newspaper's “morgue,” when it was Peter Palmieri who “died” when they left for NY. Any mentions of Pete Palmer staying in China in local papers would be in the Buffalo papers, not in Cassonville.


More running away done by Pete. He initially stays in China to avoid a court-martial. For some unknown reason, he leaves China. I don't think it unreasonable to imagine he got into some trouble there. When at Cassonville Tourist Lodge (his family's current home), he flees to a cabin instead of staying in Maria's room. It is not yet dark when he sits on the porch with Paul, but he stays out there alone (with imaginary Papa) instead of going inside to be with his family he hasn't seen in 20 years. He flees into town on Sunday morning instead of going in with his family. He flees from the nun after their confrontation, “I don't know what I said to Sister Leona, or how I got out of the convent. I only remember walking very fast through the almost empty Sunday-morning streets.” After the newspaper office, he flees to the island. (He goes to get his bag, not his AWOL bag, as earlier, so maybe he is going to the island to begin his penitence, not feeling to it.) It is even implied he fled Buffalo, NY to join the army at 15. (If his age in fourth grade was the usual, he couldn't have been more than 15 or 16 in 1950, and he was in Korea before the war, which began in 1950.)


The only prediction Papa makes is that Peter will soon be “too young to belong to Mama and me, and then he'll leave, I think.” At the end of the story, Pete says, “Papa was wrong,” as if to say that Peter didn't leave or stay too young, but then he says, “Peter still has the same last name as always,” as if Papa Palmieri had said something about Peter's last name changing, which in the story he doesn't. But if he did skip out of town with Peter, he did change his name and now Pete has taken it back. So, Papa Palimieri was wrong to flee with Peter and Pete is now flagellating himself by living with the ghosts of the kids he killed 20 years ago. (“The boys still come, of course” is referring to the ghosts. No parent, even in 1968, would let their young kids play miles from the road on an island with a hermit. )

Jul 22, 2018

"The Changeling" is probably the most challenging and contentious story that we've covered so far, as evidenced here on the forum and elsewhere. I've personally never been satisfied by anyone's reading of the story (including any that Brandon and I offered here or on the podcast). I find your interpretation very interesting. The idea of the swords as crosses not just being a metaphorical description but a literal description of grave-markers is compelling. But I think what I like most about your reading is that it is the only one that takes Damon Knight's account of Wolfe telling him the secret to this story as true, rather than as a misunderstood statement about the novel Peace, which also takes place in Cassonsville.


I'm glad to have this reading of the story, and I'm glad our conversation (and our confusion!) inspired you to think so carefully about it.

Aug 6, 2018

I just listened to your very enjoyable podcast on "The Changeling" . Once again, a great way to spend an hour, especially as the meaning of this story has long perplexed me.


I find your interpretation that the story is primarily about returning home from war (and persistent chaotic change) and trying to find a sense of peace and reintegration resonates with me. Wolfe's comment that he found this reintegration through his conversion (by way of his marraige to Rosemary) seems to explain much of the persistent religious, and specifically (I think) the Holy Week allusions in the story. (Holy Saturday, during the Easter Vigil, is when adult converts to Catholicism, as Gene Wolfe was, are inducted into the faith and are baptized (if they have not already received Christian Baptism in another denomination.)


“Palmieri” could certainly be a pun on Peter-Paul-Mary, either for the religious connotations of the names (or the folk-song group (who were quite popular as of 1968, when the story was published); but the surname itself has the meaning not only of a pilgrim, but one who carries palm branches in processions (at least according to one source,, and seems to reference the event and holiday which initiates Holy Week (Also interesting that in Wolfe’s letter to Marc Aramini in response to his inquiry about the L’il Abner connections, Wolfe saw fit to mention another event in Hoy Week, Holy Thursday (also known as Maundy Thursday) -in the story, the narrator does sit down with the Palmieris for a group dinner at one point (although on a Friday). The presence of the cross-like wooden swords planted on the island which the narrator visits the next day (Saturday) seems to continue the allusions.both as crucifixes and grave markers. Wolfe appears to be delineating the island, which he describes as having a “high point, like a hill”, and which he seems to be drawn to, as Calvary.


After his terrifying conversation on Saturday night with Papa Palmieri where the truth is revealed about the unchanging, unaging Peter (which knowledge could be his own version of Christ's descent into Hell on Holy Saturday, the "Harrowing of Hell"), he wakes up on (Easter?) Sunday and refuses to go to Mass. Instead he goes to Church of the Immaculate Conception where Sister Leona shows him the photo, then to the newspaper "morgue," where he learns there is no record before 1945, but also no stories about his collaboration in China or his trial and conviction, as would be expected. He returns to the island and seeks shelter in the cave, or tomb, a form of rebirth or resurrection from the weight and sins of his past life, which no longer apparently exist, and reintegrating himself in solitude, much like the Stylite hermits, who survived on the offerings brought to them.


I don't know if this framework of the story as being somewhat modeled on the events of Holy Week, which for Wolfe would probably resonate with the date of his initiation into the Catholic faith after his return from war, is worthwhile, but I'm going to re-read the story a few times and see what I can see. I don't think the narratior himself is intended as a Christ analogue. As a professor once told me at the university, "EVERYTHING can't be a Christ-symbol!"


As the form and effect of the story seems to be a horror story on first read, which perhaps trasnmutes into a story of faith, it would be interesting to compare it to a story with a similar structure but whose telling is less opaque, 1980's "The Detective of Dreams".


Not only does the narrator (Pete or Peter) find his home in a cave, like Christ's tomb, but he notes at the beginning that he pages of the story itself is placed in “the gut of a dry cave” under a stone, (as was Jesus).


There may be something to a reading of the Palmieri family as representing the Catholic Church in whose teachings the author found a home on his return; the large “EAT” sign outside the hotel, representing the gastronomic nature of the Church’s sacrament of Communion; Mama (the Church is identified as feminine in nature in Catholic symbolism); Papa or the Pope, whom Wolfe tellingly informs us is regarded as “infallible” by Mama; the youngest (chronologically) Paul, representing the driving force behind the post-crucifixion nascent Church; and Peter, of course, the first Pope and chief disciple, who hangs out with a “gang of kids”.


Wolfe’s comment to Damon Knight that the old man is dead is curious, especially if it does refer to “The Changeling”. (I think it probably does not, but would of course have loved to learn how Knight felt it explained the story.) The narrator refers to his father as having died while he was in Korea, of course, so it would seem to refer to the only other old man (excepting the newspaper editor, of course), Papa Palmieri. If he is the old man who is dead, and is the only other person than the narrator (Pete) who can perceive Peter’s true nature…what does that tell us about the ontological nature of Pete?


Is Pete dead as well? Did he survive Korea, or are his trials since (as a POW, what is implied to be am austere life as a factory worker in China, trial and disgrace and imprisonment upon return to the U.S.) levels of existence in Purgatory…or Hell? Or is Pete simply metaphorically dead?


This would help explain Mr. Palmieri’s cryptic comment to the narrator…”You know all about it.”. He knows that the narrator knows about Peter Palmieri because they are both dead, and the remembered bits of the narrator's past, like the concrete evidence of his existence in the old school photo and the nun's memory of him are disappearing as he realizes that fact.


But there's too much textual evidence against that reading, I think. Although I think a metaphorical death might be possible.


Although another Wolfe famously said, "You can't go home again", and the lost nature of the past is a consistent theme with Wolfe, I suspect, as you have suggested, that this is an intensely personal story for Gene Wolfe, on the return from war to one home or another, and the attempt to find some kind of balance and integrate the halves of our nature.

As an aside, "The Changeling" may have had some influence on later stories by Harlan Ellison like the 1972 “Basilisk” - in both stories, a former POW is released and returns to the small town in which he grew up and from which he is now alienated. Ellison has also used the motif of the non-aging child in the story “Jeffty is Five”, although in both cases with different dramatic and thematic intent.


Just some thoughts that boiled up after hearing the podcast that I'm trying to put in some kind of semblance of order. Once agaiu, great job on the podcast!


Aug 6, 2018

There's a lot of synchronicity going on in Wolfe world the past week. I taught the Changeling in class last week, and one student kept coming back to the island (which I make a point of comparing to death, since it seems closer now that he is older, and further away from the shore when he is on it.) I have become more sympathetic with James Jordan's religious reading given the mention of infallibility. Here is the email I sent the student after class. I think the rock tied to the frog and the rock hitting Maria might be criticisms of the church with Pope Peter serving as its rock. Rather than go on a pilgramage to the holy land, our Palmer goes to human war, which speaks to the difference between human flesh and ideal spirit. (At the back of my mind, I still think Jesus is a Changeling in a way, foisted upon the righteous but unsuspecting carpenter Joseph. What can you do but teach him to work wood?)


>I didn't want to go into a lot of the religious stuff in class, but I feel that the island retreat is tied to a very particular religious symbol. The three children there have toy swords which they plant into the ground, which resonate with the crosses of Christ and the two thieves executed on Golgotha, the place of the Skull. The inn owned by Mama and Papa Palmieri has more resonance with the Catholic church, given the claim that Mama views Papa (what the pope is often called) as having infallibility, a claim made about the Catholic pontiffs - when necessary, they can supposedly speak infallibly. While the Changeling swap explains the age, the knowledge of "Peter" that people outside the immediate family have way back in 1931, the absence of Pete Palmer from the photo, and his ability to fight in the war in 1949, it does not explain the significance of the island, which has resonance with death, Neverland, and Golgotha all at the same time. It also does not account for the metaphorical significance of the story.

>Retreating to a place which resonates with the crucifixion says something about the death of the body, but the ageless spiritual boy can frolic there and return as he always was, free from the stains of human change and the desires of brutality and viciousness. I think there is certainly a metaphorical level in which the two Peters are very much a part of one whole, though one seems to be spiritual and innocent and the other fleshly and carnal. Certainly there is an allegorical connection between Pete and Peter, and, perhaps more symbolically, the name Peter means "rock" - Christ said to Peter, you are the rock upon which I will build my church. However, in this story, the rock strikes Maria and Peter has grown wild and vile. Eventually he retreats from humanity entirely. Is this a criticism of Vatican II policies, which vastly changed the church, changing its language and its penance (before, mass was held in Latin - afterwards, in vernacular languages, just as the name Peter Palmieri becomes Pete Palmer through anglification. (Of course, Pietro is the true Italian form of Peter). 

>I don't know if that helps or just muddies things further, but I think there is definitely a religious slant and a criticism of a bodily understanding of the self, given that war, brutality, murder, and other negative things seem to stem from the needs of the flesh which the narrator may or may not abandon. Fairy tales, the spiritual, and other artifacts of youth, which can play amidst the wasteland, are presented far more positively for both their escapist qualities, and, in this story, their "truth."

You looked a bit perplexed at my explanations in class, so I thought I would expand on some of the religious themes I really didn't feel like going over in the classroom.


She asked me about whether I felt there was one solution or the texts were designed around what people brought to it, and I had just had that conversation with the Alzabo Soup guys last week. (We know where I stand, eh?)

Aug 6, 2018

What a great way to start my morning. I love teaching my military history classes, but, Marc, I'm envious of your opportunities to have students read Wolfe. Maybe someday I can slip Latro into a class on Herodotus. At any rate, I would love to know more about what you did in class and how your students responded to it.


Mick, your comments are wonderful. As you'll discover shortly, I always like to ask if someone is a Christ figure. I'm doing it now mostly to get a spit-take out of Brandon, so I hope your professor won't be too disappointed. I didn't know that adult converts were baptized only during Holy Week, and I think that lends a lot to the idea of this story as a conversion narrative. I do still think that Wolfe was talking about his novel Peace when he made the comment about the old man being dead, but I really like your attempt to meet the challenge that Stephen gave us. It'll be a while before we get to Peace, but I look forward to revisiting this question when we do. I've also just made a note next to "The Detective of Dreams" to compare it to "The Changeling," though it will be even longer before we get there.

Mar 20

Coming back to this story after I read Kim Stanley Robinson's perceptive essay on Gene Wolfe, a version of which appeared in "The Very Best of Gene Wolfe", in the New York Review of Science Fiction" ( Robinson does a nice job of examining Wolfe's Korean War experiences as perhaps a less-examined factor in his writing style, I think especially in "The Changeling": "I think it possible that it also had a lasting effect on some features of his style, including irony, understatement, reticence, sidelong information, and the urge both to conceal and to reveal at once. I say this because all these characteristics, frequently mentioned by readers of his fiction, are evident in the letters he wrote to his mother during the war, which were published in the book Letters Home. In these it appears he wants to be able to tell his mom what is happening to him while at the same time wanting to protect her from any too vivid knowledge of the worst of what he is facing. He wants both to tell and not to tell." Robinson's comments that "The Changeling" may not be fully understandable because its subject - the individual's firsthand experience to war, and the transition back to life at home - may not be fully understandable, or articulable: "It must have been a strange period, and in his autobiographical essay in The Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 9, he wrote, “My parents and I agreed that I should live at home and attend the University of Houston. The fact that I still showed a marked tendency to drop to the floor at a loud noise may have had something to do with it.” Not much more was ever written by Wolfe about this period, but in 1968, two years before “HORARS,” he published “The Changeling,” a story that reads like a Nick Adams story looped back into itself like a pretzel or a Klein bottle, so that if you try to pull the scenes apart into a chronological order, you can’t do it. It resembles one of the striking idea stories of Borges but is more emotionally intense; these are feelings rather than ideas that are being pretzeled into a pattern like a Celtic knot. I remember Damon Knight saying about this, “It was when I understood that I couldn’t make sense of it that I knew I had to buy it.” Wolfe went on to invent more formal innovations to make an emotional point, but this one is surely one of his best."

We've just recorded three episodes on Hour of Trust, in which Wolfe expresses some real rage about the callousness with which industrialists and politicians send unsuspecting soldiers to their pointless deaths. I'm not sure we did this story justice (in fact I'm sure we didn't), but we noted a sly reference to "The Changeling" in the name and hometown of one of the characters. If "The Changeling" is at least emotionally autobiographical (and I think we all agree on that, including Robinson), then perhaps Hour of Trust is, too, in some way. I'll look forward to talking more about that in a few months.


We're also going to read some of those letters for our November Patreon episode, and we're really excited about it.

New Posts
  • Damn that was a good story. I last read it in the 1970’s before I went to medical school (I am now an internist and geriatrician). It didn’t make much of an impression on me then, but it sure does now! I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but am looking forward to doing so. I will share my thoughts about the medical aspects of the story. There are some spoilers, so read the story first. Medical schools are adding close reading of literature and patient narratives to their curricula. (1) This would be an excellent source for that. I’ll show how that might be done. Page numbers are from the 1st Orb edition of The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories. Page 80 - ‘a stubble of brown hair threatened to erase the marks of the sutures; with dilated eyes…he paused’ The boy has had head trauma and/or brain surgery. A drug or toxin is likely responsible for both eyes being dilated. A unilateral dilated eye would indicate acute brain damage. Page 86 - ‘his head swaying from side to side as he walked, like the sensor of a mine detector.’ He probably has a visual field defect, possibly related to the brain surgery/trauma. Page 86 - “I set fires to things.” Could the surgery have been a lobotomy to control his behavior? Page 88 - “and cut all the way through my corpus callosum.” Nick’s brain surgery was a corpus callosotomy. (2) This surgery is usually done in patients with difficult to control seizures. The main side effect is problems with speech and alien hand syndrome—control of the non-dominant hand. (3) Nowadays, newer medications and other neurosurgical procedures have mostly supplanted callosotomy. Page 88 - “I only see what is on the right of what I’m looking at, and the other side…only the left.” This is known as a hemianopsia (4) and is a result of the callosotomy. The ‘I’ is the speaking half of Nick—the left side of his brain -or- “left-brain Nick.” Page 89 - “He had uncontrollable seizures.” “Did you?” the girl asked. “I had visions.” We find out the reason for Nick’s callosotomy. He had visual auras before the seizures when he would “see things.” Nick seemed to enjoy these auras and was probably upset when they ended. Page 91 - “there’s something you ought to know about Diane, she gets confused sometimes, we’ve had her to doctors, she’s been in the hospital…try not to get her excited.” Diane has some major Issues. The most likely conditions to cause a 19 year old to be hospitalized would be major depression, a debilitating anxiety disorder like OCD, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Although Diane is skinny, anorexia nervosa is unlikely because the treatment certainly wouldn’t be stranding her on an island with no food! Page 92 - Diane said, “I feel better when it rains.” “That should help you to understand yourself.” Is Dr. Island using cognitive behavioral therapy? (5) Although this is a rather expensive way of doing it! Page 94-95 - “Sickness is…relative” “Diane was not functioning…you were not functioning either.” This is a major motif of the story; illness, specifically mental illness, is defined by society. In our society, a schizophrenic person may take a night job at the post office working alone, then go home to their one bedroom apartment and pull the shades to keep out the world. They would watch TV, eat dinner, go to sleep. They are content and even happy with this routine. They are contributing to society. Are they mentally ill? Page 96 - “We have treatment for disturbed persons…but we have no treatment for disturbing persons.” “Disturbing persons” - people with personality disorders? The best you can do is place limits on people with personality disorders and teach their families/friends how to cope with them. If they become unmanageable, societies tend to place them in prison. Could Dr. Island be a prison? Page 97 - ‘He noticed…that she was looking at him oddly, then realized that his left hand had risen to touch her right breast.’ Alien Hand Syndrome! (3) “Right-brain Nick” is acting inappropriately. Page 98 - “They kept me locked up because I kept burning stuff…I bite people.” Again, “right-brain Nick” is causing all these problems. Page 98 - “Then they stuck me full of Tranquil-C.” That is why Nick’s eyes were dilated. Page 98 - “I still think you’re angry somewhere, deep down.” Taking away Nick’s auras (visions) could be the root of his anger. Perhaps the visions occurred in “right-brain Nick” and that’s why he burns things? Or is "right-brain Nick" just frustrated at his lack of control? Page 101 - “My knees are rough…when I came here they were still smooth…I used to put a certain lotion on them. Because my Dad would feel them…Mum wouldn’t say anything but she would be cross after.” I don’t know Diane’s diagnosis yet, but we have a good idea what may have caused her decompensation. Page 104 - ‘There was no reply. The girl sat staring at the ground in front of her…she did not move when he touched her. “She’s catatonic isn’t she,” he said. “Catatonic schizophrenia.” We now know Diane’s problem; she has schizophrenia. Catatonia is no longer consider a subtype of schizophrenia and is more a part of the symptomatology. (6) Schizophrenia affects young adults and is a chronic condition. Some do well, but many others have major disabilities and suffer from problems with functioning and socializing. It seems that Diane is quite disabled and has a poor prognosis. It is possible that her decompensation was caused by an abusive father. Page 104 - ‘The doctor had been a therapy robot, but a human doctor gave more status. Robots’ patients sat in doorless booths…and talked to something that appeared to be a small, friendly, food freezer.’ I have never heard of Amana being involved in cognitive behavioral therapy. Page 104 - “What is the cause? I mean for her?” “I don’t know.” “And what’s the treatment?” “You are seeing it.” “Will it help her?” “Probably not.” With all their space bending technology, it seems that the prognosis for schizophrenia hasn’t changed much in the Wolfe-ian future. Page 113 - “Your record shows no auditory hallucinations, but haven’t you ever known someone who had them?” “I knew a girl once…she twisted noises.” Auditory hallucinations are very common in schizophrenia. Ambient background noises are screened out by the normal brain. People with schizophrenia are unable to ignore them and experience the noise as voices saying bad things to/about them. The voices could also be internally produced by the brain.(7) Page 115 - “Let Ignacio tell you a story…” After unpacking Ignacio’s tale, it seems that he is a feral child. Unlike other feral children, he was taught language and self-care skills. His only lack was human contact and learning how to interact with others. Feral children have a lot of problems becoming socialized and integrating back into society. They usually aren’t homicidal. (8) Perhaps being a “high-tech” feral made him violent to others. Page 119 - “Did I tell you about the bird, Nicholas?” She had been not-listening again. “What bird?” “I have a bird. Inside…She sits in here. She has tangled a nest in my entrails, where she sits and tears at my breath with her beak. I look healthy to you, don’t I? But inside I’m hollow and rotten and turning brown, dirt and old feathers, oozing away. Her beak will break through soon.” Okaaay, as Nick would say. This dispels any doubts that Diane has schizophrenia. She has a somatic delusion, which, while not as common as paranoid delusions, are frequent in schizophrenia. “Usually the false belief is that the body is somehow diseased, abnormal or changed.” (9) Page 119 - “I have been trying to drink water to drown (the bird.) I think I have swallowed so much, I couldn’t stand up if I tried…” Diane has psychogenic polydipsia, which is common in schizophrenia. They can drink gallons every day—so much so that they disrupt their electrolyte balance and develop very low serum sodium levels. (10) Page 125 - “About 100 years ago, Dr. Harlow experimented with monkey’s who had been raised in complete isolation.” Harry Harlow is a real person who did indeed perform these experiments as Dr. Island has carefully outlined. Harlow was a Professor of Psychology at University of Wisconsin-Madison. (11) Many of those experiments are now considered an unethical treatment of animals. I suspect that the inspiration for The Island of Dr. Death came about when Wolfe read about Harlow’s research. You might consider Dr. Death to be a 2150 version of Harlow. ================Major Spoilers================== Page 129 - “Nicholas, you are upset now because Diane is dead—” “But you could have saved her!” “—but by dying she made someone else—someone very important—well. Her prognosis was bad; she really only wanted death, and this is the death I chose for her.” This is the death I chose for her. Those words are the core of the story; did Dr. Island have the right to sacrifice an individual for the greater good? In medical ethics, this encapsulates the conflict and tension between the ethical models of deontology and utilitarianism. (12) It seems that Dr. Island is a firm believer in the later. This is why The Death of Dr. Island would be a great source for a close reading of literature. It is a natural jumping-off-point for a spirited discussion of medical ethics. Page 130 - “Nicholas, who was the right side of your body, the left side of your brain, I have forced into catatonia.” Dr Island has essentially killed “left-brain Nick,” the person who has been our view point for the entire story. This is the death Dr. Island has chosen for Nick. Did he have the right to do so? REFERENCES 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12.
  • My wife and I listened to this episode on the long drive back from a music festival this weekend. The podcast caused great discussion in the car, making the miles go that much faster. Jessica thinks that Wolfe didn't have the new messiah being born to one of Zozz's people because it would have overly complicated and lengthened the story. I agree. It got me to thinking about what Wolfe's inspiration might have been. Then I remembered that National Lampoon had an infamous cover of an alien crucifixion done by Frank Frazetta. The question is, when did it appear? A little research showed that it it was probably on the streets in May 1972. La Befana appeared in the January 1973 issue of Galaxy; probably too soon after the Nat Lamp issue for it to have been an inspiration--unless Frazetta let Wolfe see it before publication. Nah. Here is the National Lampoon cover.
  • Hello, from indecisively sunny Tasmania! This is my first post, so I'd just like to say first and foremost that I am really enjoying the Wolfe podcast, which I started listening to after The Fifth Head of Cerberus enraptured me (It's quickly become one of my favourite books), and which I'm now darting in and out of as I read his Book of Days . Anywho, I can't fully recall the episodes on 'A Story by John V. Marsch', so forgive me if you mentioned it and this is a redundant post. But I was just paging through Jack Vance's Dying Earth , which is a known inspiration for BotNS, and noticed that in the chapter on 'Mazirian the Magician' the title character spends some time trifling with 'Thrang the Ghoul-Bear', and it struck me as intensely likely that this inspired the creature in the aforementioned novella, not just for the name but a particular sentence within the passage he appears. The passage reads thusly, though of course this spoils the Ghoul-Bear in that story, not that he plays a large role: "Thrang's lair was an alcove in the rock, where a fetid pile of grass and skins served him for a couch. He had built a rude pen to cage three women, these wearing many bruises on their bodies and the effects of much horror on their faces. Thrang had taken them from the tribe that dwelt in silk-hung barges along the lake-shore . Now they watched as he struggled to subdue the woman he had just captured. His round gray man's face was contorted and he tore away her jerkin with his human hands. But she held away the great sweating body with an amazing dexterity. Mazirian's eyes narrowed. Magic, Magic! So he stood watching, considering how to destroy Thrang with no harm to the woman. But she spied him over Thrang's shoulder. "See," she panted, "Mazirian as come to kill you." Thrang twisted about. He saw Marizian and came charging on all fours, venting roars of wild passion. Mazirian later wondered if the ghoul had cast some sort of spell, for a strange paralysis strove to bind his brain. Perhaps the spell lay in the sight of Thrang's raging gray-white face, the great arms thrust out to grasp. Mazirian shook off the spell, if such it were, and uttered a spell of his own, and all the valley was lit by streaming darts of fire, lashing in from all directions to split Thrang's blundering body in a thousand places. This was the Excellent Prismatic Spray-many-colored stabbing lines. Thrang was dead almost at once, purple blood flowing from countless holes where the radiant rain had pierced him." I personally think Thrang comfortably shares the same attributes as Wolfe's Ghoul-Bear: huge, thick-limbed, and stinking (sweat rarely smells pleasant). Maybe I'm reading too deeply, but a tribe that dwells in silk-hung barges along a lake shore sounds at least superficially similar to the Marshmen. Further, the specific lake they dwell next to is called 'Sanra Water, the Lake of Dreams', which you could perhaps posit has something in common with the plan to kill Sandwalker and have his soul flow into the sea and out to the stars. I'm no literary buff, but I think there's enough textual evidence to cite a clear connection between the two, especially as Jack Vance so influenced Wolfe's later work. In any event it made me feel very big-brained.

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