Nov 6, 2017

Trip Trap: Billy Goat 3


I had a chance to listen to your podcast on Trip, Trap - once again, nice voices, interesting points. There are a few very important things in this story that I think are essential to Wolfe's later fiction, and one of them is the creation of an objective reality which transcends the subjective viewpoints of the characters, which WE have access to. In this case, the frame source, 3 Billy Goats Gruff, informs who killed the Traki. Doctor Finch and Garth enter a spiritual space that IS MORE REAL than reality, and in it their subjective differences vanish and they become the third billy goat gestalt together, with none of the weaknesses they have apart. The warrior is subject to the influence of the Traki, but the scholar doesn't have the gumption to do what is necessary - so together they do. There is no liar here: they enter an objective spiritual communion that supercedes the subjective chasm that separates them and put aside the trap which is the I of ego. The evidence for this is the lack of stab wounds on the Traki's body: it is sliced, not pierced, because the sword lost its edge in the spirit world but not the "real" world - the spiritual is real, and objectivity found in communal resolve and action rather than in subjective misunderstanding. This is so intrinsic to Wolfe as an artist that I can't stress it enough, and is the reason I always classify Wolfe as distinctly not quite postmodern: he subverts the relative points of view over and over. They are always present but never final. I look forward to listening to more and hope to catch up soon. This story is key to that Catholic engineer's aesthetic: the objective is lurking behind everything, like a platonic (or neoplatonic) ideal, and the variations of subjectivity may temporarily separate beings from communion, but they are not ultimately true and valid. I think this is true of almost all of Wolfe's fiction. The Traki was vastly powerful in its psychic power, but it died as a lonely, pathetic troll under the bridge.

Nov 6, 2017

*I meant the sword lost its point in the spirit world -

Nov 6, 2017

Marc, thank you for these awesome insights! Your Platonic reading of the text hadn't occurred to me at all, but it works beautifully. Indeed, I've not been thinking about Plato at all while reading Wolfe, and even last night during our recording of "The Packerhaus Method" we invoked Aquinas and through him Aristotle. I'll be on the lookout for neo-Platonism from now on.

Nov 6, 2017

Yes, Marc. Thanks! I think you hit on something that is pretty difficult to discuss when discussing Wolfe. It's easy to focus on the subjective reality that he presents to his readers, but he is always pointing at something objective that is taking place as well - something that a third party observer could describe to someone who is not involved in the events taking place. Indeed trying to negotiate between the subjective and objective in Wolfe is one of my favorite things. Your points about this going on in Trip, Trap are well received. I like that you draw on the allusions and source material for the text in order to make your conclusions. I can often get lost in the text itself when doing criticism. I've been burned in the past, though, relying too heavily upon allusions to glean meaning from some of Wolfe's texts. That said, I love what your reading brings to light in this story. It really allows for us to know the story beyond the story that Wolfe is telling. I really look forward to hearing your thoughts on some of these other stories.

Nov 6, 2017

Thanks! I think one of the potentially off-putting aspects of my approach to Wolfe is the insistence that there is almost always a Truth (tm) that explains the primary mysteries of the text and almost every small detail. As far as extra-textuality, I start with what the text tells me, religious and Catholic references, and then see if it actually makes other direct references to external literature or history. For example, every Persian character in "Seven American Nights" save Gholam Gassem is named after characters in *The Adventures of Haji Baba* - a CLEAR extra-textual reference intended by Wolfe, and one I use in my reading to make sense of an otherwise difficult field of subjective screens. "In Looking Glass Castle" mentions a plethora of texts, and in what is the most unfair thing Wolfe has ever done, he mentions Guy de Maupassant without mentioning THE story he is defintely riffing on, almost reproducing entire scenes. Wolfe usually plays fair with references, but not always. The Catholic subtext is in my opinion almost always the most important.

Nov 6, 2017

I couldn't agree more that digging into the Catholic sub-text is crucial to understanding Wolfe. For the record, I've never been put off by your typically excellent criticism of Wolfe. I'm excited to dig into some of the extra-textual references once we get to Seven American Nights.

Jan 5, 2018

I'm a little late to the party, but just to underline Marc's point - and to add some context from other stories - I wanted to mention these two beautiful little passages from Fifth Head:


> In my dreams that night I saw the little boy scampering from one activity to another, his personality in some way confused with my own and my father’s so that I was at once observer, observed, and a third presence observing both. (p. 16 of the SF Masterworks edition of 5HC)




> The drug my father had given me did not, as I had imagined it would, lessen its hold on me as the hours passed. Instead it seemed to carry me progressively further from reality and the mode of consciousness best suited to preserving the individuality of thought. The peeling leather of the examination table vanished under me, and was now the deck of a ship, now the wing of a dove beating far above the world; and whether the voice I heard reciting was my own or my father’s I no longer cared. It was pitched sometimes higher, sometimes lower, but then I felt myself at times to be speaking from the depths of a chest larger than my own, and his voice, identified as such by the soft rustling of the pages of his notebook, might seem the high, treble cries of the racing children in the streets as I heard them in summer when I thrust my head through the windows at the base of the library dome. (p. 24/25)

Jan 5, 2018

These passages are fantastic, nrosalino. These are cut from the same cloth as "Trip, Trap," and definitely clarify what is happening in the traki's cave.


We're going to get to Fifth Head in the spring, and we're so excited for it!

Jan 5, 2018

Hi nrosalino! Thanks for sharing those passages. They definitely help shed some light on what Wolfe is working on in Trip Trap.

Feb 12, 2018

Hi, I don't have much to add, just wanted to say that I really enjoyed the podcast. I especially like the theory that the troll is a type of artificial intelligence, and now I can only think of it that way. One of the fun things about this story is that I actually felt I (more or less) knew what was going on, which is somewhat rare for a Wolfe piece. Also, I felt there was a fairly strong humorous vein running through most of it. Lots of fun hearing you guys dissect the story!

Feb 12, 2018

Thanks, Michael -- we're glad you enjoyed "Trip, Trap" as much as we did! Wolfe is a great writer in almost any mode, but I do think that he shines the most when he is writing with that subtle and wry humor.

A few things I noticed that I don't think you mentioned or were mentioned in the Urth newsgroup.


Traki is the Latvian word for crazy.


Beowulf stuff:


The two heroes who are said to have defeated trolls are Gerhelt and Tressan his son. Ger = Spear and helt = hero, so Gerhelt = Spearhero. Hrothgar's tribe are called Spear-Danes and were unable to defeat Grendel. Seems like the father, Gerhelt, may not have defeated a troll and his son Tressan had to go beyond mere cunning and strength to revenge his father, which is what Garth and Finch must do.


St. Tressan was an illiterate Irishman who, in the 6th century, went to France and became a swinehered. He was pious and would peak into the church during services to try to learn. God rewarded him with the gift of literacy. After he became a priest,


"he sat down on the side of a dry hill, from which water had never flowed. Fixing his staff in the ground, the wearied saint fell asleep; but, on awaking, he found the staff had grown into a tree, which was covered with a bark and green leaves. At the same time, a fountain of most delicious water ran from the root of this tree, to the very foot of the mount. When the holy priest, Tressan, witnessed this, he drank from the well, and he asked of the Almighty, that no injustice or t urpitude should there occur."


Garth mentions swineherds on the way to the bridge. Finch can not read the language on the bridge, but sets about learning it. In the spirit world, Garth's sword is transformed into a sapling, which is the inverse of what happens to Tressan in the physical world.


Grendel's mother is the one who pulls Beowulf into her underwater den; traki is called a he, but is naked and there is no mention of genitals, but his “swag belly” is mentioned (Is traki a pregnant she?*), Beowulf's sword can not penetrate her so he uses a magical sword he finds in the den to slay her, by severing her spine; Garth's sword tip breaks and he has to magically merge with Finch to slay the traki, with slashes only. The sword Beowulf uses is one that had never been used by a “mere” man; the sapling/sword is unlike any other and the Garth/Finch union is no mere man. Then "even as from heaven comes the shining light / of God's candle"; Garth finds Finch's illuminator, which he does not believe is Finch's, just as traki did not. Beowulf decapitates Grendel's mother and brings back her head as a trophy; Garth takes the diadem as a trophy.



*Women on Carson III. All characters are men, no matter how minor. The only mentions of women are the following.


When setting out from the city, Finch writes to Beatty, “but I fear it also bore a certain resemblance to the Gardenia Day festival at dear old Edgemont—all it lacked was a few semiprofessional undergraduate beauties on floats.”


Garth's only mention of women is in the spirit world: “memories that were not mine came rushing into my mind, and I seemed to see naked men and women and children rent to pieces as if by thunderbolts.” Also in the spirit world, when he finds the piece of red glass, “yet before I could reflect on what I did I had snatched it up and thrust it among other such litter in a bag of knotted grass I had slung about my shoulders. I cannot tell why I did so foolish a thing or why I felt so vain about it, like a country wench with a new ribbon.” The grass bag is not his, so is the memory of a country wench his?


Are women only in the past? Were the traki a single-gendered species?

Jul 19, 2018

Thank you for these awesome observations. Your question about women is fascinating, but I suspect that it is simply that Wolfe (or the two narrators) simply isn't interested in women or domesticity (save for the kitchen staff) in this story. We might point to The Hobbit as a similar case of a fantasy tale in which women are only mentioned in the past and never appear in the present narrative. Speaking of Tolkien, I read the Traki and its cave as a riff on Shelob and her cave -- in part because of the shared mention of bellies (bloated in Shelob's case). I don't think it's out of the question that the Traki is a female -- or even that Traki gender is completely alien from mammalian gender.


I'm really excited by your invocation of Tressan. I work on fifth and sixth century hagiography for my day job as an early medieval and late antique historian. Tressan was connected with Remigius, a figure important in my work for his relationship with the Frankish rex Clovis. When I was determining the scope and parameters of my investigation, I looked at the edited and printed text of Tressan's vita in one of the Bollandist volumes. To my ear, at least, the text itself was from the tenth or eleventh century, so I discarded it -- but it's a fun tale. I had no idea that his story had circulated in an English-language collection in the seventeenth century. There is also another Tressan from medieval literature: the giant Tressan whom Wolfdietrich fights in the Heldenbuch. This story is retold in Illustrations of Northern Antiquities, which has Sir Walter Scott's name (among others) attached to it. I can't find it in WorldCat, but my local library had an illustrated kids version of this book back in the late 80s that I read more times than is probably healthy. The original is now online here.


"Trip, Trap" remains one of my favorite stories we've covered so far, and I'm glad for the opportunity to revisit it this morning!

Aug 5, 2018

Just a note to say I recently found your podcast, and as a long-time Gene Wolfe fan, I am delighted and working my way through the podcasts to date (and rereading some stories I haven't read in a long time). Your scholarship on things Wolfeian is wonderfully balanced by the obvious pleasure you take in his writing.


Odd that you both first read Gene in the Army - so did I, finding the just-released paperback of Shadow of the Torturer one afternoon at a PX in Fort Bragg and diving in...

Aug 5, 2018

Thank you so much for the kind words, and we're excited to have you reading along with us. When you get there, we'd love to hear your thoughts about "The HORARS of War" and "The Blue Mouse," and specifically which of them you prefer.


I recently came across my tattered Terry Goodkind mass-markets purchased at the Fort Huachuca PX. They're in terrible shape and I can't read the small print anymore, but I couldn't bring myself to get rid of them.

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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