(urth) The Waif

Mike Legedza mike.legedza at gmail.com
Tue Mar 3 12:39:23 PST 2009

Hi everyone.

I've been a huge Gene Wolfe fan for over 5 years now, reading as much of his
stuff as I can.

I'd love to start a very specific discussion topic about one of his short
stories.  The short story I'd like to have a discussion on is "The Waif",
which appears in the collection "Innocents Aboard."  There's been a bit of
discussion of the story on the board before, but not enough, I think.

This is one of those stories that is haunting, beautiful, and like most
Wolfe stories is subtle, complex, understated...but in a bizarre way rather
simple (which is perfectly exemplified in Bin's question to his teacher
about how if it's so terrible to burn someone alive, why don't they just not
do it?).

However, the story does leave the reader to do a LOT of work, so I'd like to
introduce some questions or comments that I hope everyone here might like to
discuss and perhaps help me better understand the story.

Here goes...

1) Maybe the biggest question of all ... Who ARE the Flying People?
Ariael's name suggests he might be some kind of angel...or at least
instructs us that we should view the Flying People on the same terms as we
would angels ... but the story is light on evidence as to who exactly the
flying people are supposed to be, whether they are somehow alien, or a part
of humanity that left Earth and survived the apocalypse, or literally
angels.  Does anyone here have any other theories that fits with any
evidence the text gives?  Ariael is described as being fair skinned and
almost androgynous looking, which is in keeping with the idea he is an
angel...but I don't know how eager a real angel would be to beat Gid with a

2)  Niman Pryderi's description as to why their community doesn't tolerate
the flying people is perhaps intentionally confusing.  I've read his logic a
dozen times now, and still can't really figure out how it works.  From what
I gather, he is saying that humanity can't rebuild as long as the flying
people are present, because their presence continually makes us feel shame
for the way we destroyed our own world.  So essentially, we can only rebuild
once we have freed ourselves from the constant reminder of our sins.  This
logic doesn't really make the connection between the flying people and us
wanting to burn each other alive...but maybe I'm missing something vital.
Does anyone here a lot smarter than me have a better explanation for what is
going on here?

3) Speaking of Niman Pryderi, his description as to why people call each
other Niman seems to come out of nowhere.  Bin doesn't really say anything
that compels him to give this bit of exposition, or at least nothing readily
obvious.  The only clue as to what the motivation for this bit of dialogue
is might be how Niman Pryderi is described as having a "bitter smile" while
he says it.  I think perhaps Niman Pryderi sees the ridiculousness of the
logic - that somehow calling someone Niman instead of Neighbour will make it
okay to burn them alive - but maybe he feels like he is powerless to stop
it.  In fact, the society has become so perverted that it seems the only way
to save someone is to hurt that person severely (Niman Joel must be burned
alive so he can be saved and go to heaven; Gam must burn Bin's hand on the
stove so that he knows how it feels in the hope that it'll prevent him from
doing anything that might cause him to get burned alive by the town; and
Niman Pryderi can only save Bin from his classmates by whipping him badly).

4) Just what is Ariael trying to achieve by befriending Bin?  What's his
agenda, because he seems to have one.  At one point when Ariael asks Bin for
his boots, Ariael says that he was just testing Bin.  Is this whole thing
meant to be some kind of test?  Is he testing Bin's compassion?  But to what
end?  I've read a bit of discussion that says Ariael is taking advantage of
Bin's good nature, but I'm not sure I understand that.  Yes, Ariael seems to
attract attention to Bin and Gam on purpose (a person who can so easily make
himself invisible seems to allow himself to be seen by everyone who bothers
to look) resulting in them getting captured and persecuted by the town...but
is he intentionally trying to get them burned at the stake?  And something
happens at the very end that I think challenges the idea that Ariael's
intentions are malicious.

5) Speaking of the ending, does anyone have any thoughts as to the
significance of the rain falling at the end?  I'm assuming that the downpour
was powerful enough to put out the fire that was burning, and that Ariael
caused the downpour, saving Gam and Bin.  I think it's also possible to
relate this event to what Nyman Pryderi says about saving Bin by raking him
out of the fire.  Ariael instead puts the fire out, which I guess is a far
more effective way to save someone from being burned.  I think this whole
thing is saying something significant about the nature of love, although
what specifically I'm a bit unsure on, but I'd love to hear what anyone else
might have to say on it.

I guess that's enough for now...I've definitely left out a lot of things
that could be discussed, so if anyone wants to talk about anything else in
the story that I didn't mention, I'd love to hear it.  I just want to better
understand what's going on in this story and any help anyone can offer, I'd
appreciate it.  And if any of you think I'm WAY off base with any of my
readings of things, please correct me!

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