(urth) Short Stories 73 and 74: The Woman Who Loved the Centaur Pholus/The Woman the Unicorn Loved
marcaramini at gmail.com
Wed Jul 30 16:11:38 PDT 2014
“The Woman Who Loved the Centaur Pholus” first appared in *Isaac Asimov's
Science Fiction Magazine* in 1979; “The Woman the Unicorn Loved” appeared
there in 1981. Both are reprinted in *Endangered Species. *The summary
below also makes some comments about the poems interspersed throughout, so
might be worth perusing.
SUMMARY, CREATURE OBSERVATIONS, AND POEM PLACEMENT:
“The Woman Who Loved the Centaur Pholus”
In a tale set at the end of the 20th century or at the start of this one,
Professor Anderson is awoken from his sleep before dawn by a call from his
associate Janet and gets ready to go help her and her crew of Mythical
Conservationists. Several ordinary species have gone extinct recently and
advances in genetic engineering have allowed mythical beasts to become more
or less a reality. Because of the widespread possibility of genetic
engineering, people are making monsters and then releasing them into the
wilderness if their experiments are not successful. The army is seeking to
keep it under control, often using violence.
Anderson looks at the engineered waterhorse he keeps in an aquarium, made
for him by his colleague Dr. Dumont. It reminds him of a verse from “The
Battle of Lake Regillus” which mention the steeds of Castor and Pollux (see
Literary Allusions below – Castor and Pollux resonate throughout the first
story), and Anderson cannot recall the name of the author, Thomas
Babbington Macauley. He dresses in warm durable clothes, and thinks again
of the middle lines of the quoted portion describing the armor of Castor
and Pollux which begin “Never on earthly anvil” as he considers his
cold-weather gear and remembers the murder of a bird woman, a “weak and
frightened siren”, in the snow at the start of winter, then segues
mistakenly into a poem called “Amphitrite” (the wife of Poseidon), which he
attributes to Darwin's ancestor, regarding waves and the wife of Poseidon
steering her shell, which he possibly thinks of because of the line about
drinking from an earthly stream in the Macauley poem.
During his drive to meet Janet, Anderson thinks that the taillights of the
cars in front of him resemble the red eyes of beasts, which brings to mind
an Assyrian named Nin who was also murdered (certainly a Shedu man-bull, a
male version of the lammasu, a protective winged deity with the body of a
bull – one of these was also found in Aslan's army in C.S. Lewis' Narnia
books.) The wings of the Shedu remind him of the siren again, and he says,
“They sell everything but Odysseus' wax, but then I don't need Odysseus'
wax” - referring to the scene in the Odyssey where Circe gives Odysseus
earwax so that the wail of the sirens will not tempt his men. (It does seem
that Janet in some ways represents a siren's call for Anderson throughout
Janet contacts him on CB, identifying herself as Sombelene, a reference
Anderson does not recognize (it is from Lord Dunsany's “Bride of the Man
Horse” – see Literary Allusions below) and Anderson as Peirithous (again,
Literary Allusions below). She tells him where to meet them (they
ostensibly use pseudonyms to hide their actions – working somewhat against
the army who seeks to “clean up”/annihilate rogue man made mythic beasts).
An army helicopter passing overhead puts him in mind of a poem called “The
Cranes of Ibycus”, where Ibycus praises the birds as companions. In
reality, the cranes serve as an evil omen for the soon to be murdered poet
Ibycus, and the helicopters bode ill here as well. Anderson sees a
billboard praising the river sternwheeler *Apollo 2 *and turns off the
road, thinking of lines from the “Hymn to Proserpine” by Swinburne which
begins “Will thou yet take all Galilean?” (concerning the lack of joy the
speaker sees in the deaths of the Roman gods and the ideological dichotomy
between the pagan revelry and the somber sinless but still moribund one of
the Judeo-Christian God, no doubt stirring the idea of a battle about to
occur between the modern world and the ancient brought to life in the
story) and knows that he is going to a fight. Anderson also thinks that the
most important thing is to fight the good fight rather than win.
A bearded man working with Janet who is later named Paul says that there
are more than one type of engineered beast out there, and their existence
“makes one feel like Adam” in discovering new life. Anderson says they
sense where natural life is dying out and migrate to those areas.
A colonel approaches Anderson, and is surprised that he teaches classical
literature. He mentions a cat the size of small dog with the head of a
snake was killed yesterday, and Anderson speculates real wild cats must be
much more dangerous than that one. The colonel has been ordered to clean up
the mess of these unnatural creatures, and the Mythic Conservationists are
in the way – he assumes Anderson is in charge because of his height and
male gender, but Anderson says the colonel is wrong about many of his
When the media arrive, they hone in on Janet as the leader, and she
indicates that these creatures are people. Dumont asserts that this
“life-shaping” is moral and that the products of the work should be
protected as animals are. Janet says it is done to finally see the “friends
our ancestors dreamed of” while the bearded man, Paul, speaks in more
religious terms, saying man has the authority to name, and to name was to
They go on the hunt, with the conservationists given orders to stand
between the army and the beasts so none are killed. Anderson gets lost,
then sees Janet in a red ski suit, thinking of the lines from The *Iliad*
in which Thetis begs Zeus to grant her one desire (to give honor to her son
Achilles). Dumont, Janet, and Anderson convene, and soon a wounded young
faun appears. Contrary to their initial assumption, another genetic
modification has bitten him and he has not been shot, as Anderson knows
from his experience with gunshots in the Marines. The faun reveals that
there was a “dead twin”, bear-like footprints in the woods, and terror.
They realize someone has created real monsters, like werewolves or Anubis
and Set, even “Narashimha, the lion-man of the Vedas” (who is an avatar of
When Anderson admits that they must lead the soldiers to the dangerous
created monster before humans are killed, Janet is enraged and runs off,
where her centaur appears to carry her away in his dark enormity. Janet
chooses the engineered myths over humanity of the 20th century, and
Anderson walks back with the faun, thinking of Shelley's “Adonais: An Elegy
on the Death of John Keats” and the last visitor who comes to mourn for
Adonais. “The road and the cars, all the relics of the dying twentieth
century except himself, would be in the direction opposite the one Pholus
had taken. Anderson trudged towards them.”
“The Woman the Unicorn Loved”
Anderson is in his office, and sees a unicorn comes trotting between
fragrant pines and the “river of steel and rubber roaring out of the heart
of the city”. The unicorn is white, with dark red hooves and a bull's tail
seen in heraldic beasts, with a horn as long as a man's forearm. When the
unicron is crossing traffic, Anderson thinks of merciless Pluto in a quote
from book 9 of the Iliad – death being the only god unmoved by offerings.
Anderson goes down to meet with Dumont and pushes through the crowd
surrounding the unicorn. (Knowing only virgins can touch a unicorn, some
students push a cheerleader towards it).
Anderson runs past it as Dumont tries to feed it, and warns the group not
to antagonize the modified horse. Anderson wonders if the conservationists
or the army will arrive first, and a female graduate student takes the
white bread of Dumont and offers it to the unicorn. Anderson fears she will
be killed, and he quotes Revelation: “Behold a pale horse: And his name
that sat on him was Death.”
The horse takes kindly to the girl and eats the bread and lets her stroke
its horn, before the police arrive in a gunship and gas the area.
Anderson returns to his office to clean up after the chaos, and finds the
graduate student, named Julie Coronell, already there. She indicates she
wants help finding the horse, and tells the story of the derivation of the
name pumpernickel for the bread she has brought for it – a french general
saving German bread for his horse Nicole at the time of Napoleon, saying
“pain pour Nicole.” She asks about the origin of unicorns and Anderson
reveals them to be Indian in nature, a misunderstanding an mistranslation
of a description of an Indian rhinoceros. Anderson mentions Chesterton,
saying that unicorns were always real - “to think of a cow with wings is
essentially to have met one.” He says the unicorn is a symbol of masculine
Dumont calls saying the unicorn was spotted on the far side of the practice
field. Anderson needs him to get a hold of the tranquilizer gun or they
won't be able to do anything.
Anderson indicates many people are making these genetic conglomerations in
the city, but the horse is too big and must be from a rural area. They
speak of his seahorse at home and he explains that Balios and Xanthos were
Poseidon's steeds, but that the waves were his herds, the whitecaps a
symbolic mane for his horses. He goes on to demonstrate that most of the
creatures she would create have already been thought of in myth, such as
the roc and Pegasus.
Dumont arrives and Anderson reveals he knew that Julie has hidden the
unicorn herself or she would be more urgent instead of engaging in all that
small talk. She says it is hidden in the library, in the fantasy section.
The watchman was complicit with her, and soon, amidst discussion of the
nature of fantasy fiction and its relationship to classical literature,
with mention of Cabell, Gardner, Oz, and the Overworld (of Vance?) they
come across the dead body of Bailey the watchman, gored by the unicorn. (He
was called Beetle after the cartoon strip of the lazy Beetle Bailey, no
Anderson reasons that even without advanced intelligence his sense of smell
led him to feel abandoned by Julie. He knows that with the doors closed the
horse must still be there, and he plans to goad the unicorn outside by
opening the doors and tempting it with freedom while Dumont waits with his
tranquilizer. He quotes Aiken's “Semlin”, which states that unicorns “come
down to the sea” in the moonlight.
Julie begins to cry and Anderson quotes Walter Scott's “Twist ye, twine ye”
about the inextricable nature of suffering and happiness, and, according to
Anderson, “That this isn't the end. Not for men or women or unicorns.
Probably not even for poor old Bailey. Threads are long.” She kisses him
and the unicorn attacks in jealousy. His reaction is just quick enough to
escape with a belly wound as he is knocked down. He grabs onto the horn and
is dragged and kicked, eventually realizing his leg is broken.
Knowing that stallions don't kill if the other lies down and surrenders, he
does so and sees “the white head … silhouetted against the twinkling
constellations now, the colors seemingly reversed as in a negative, the
longsword horn both new and ancient to the sky of Earth.”
The horse spares him and he remarks that the unicorn is heading to the lake
shore, and that he was “a superhorse … armed, with size, strength, grace,
and intelligence all augmented.”
Julie ends the story with a nursery rhyme about England and Scottland: “The
lion and the unicorn/were fighting for the crown/The lion beat the unicorn/
And sent him out of town”. She remarks that it all came true, except for
the last part of the rhyme, which concerns plum cake, and Anderson denies
that there was a lion at all.
The juxtaposition of classical poetry and action shows us a pretty clear
theme: those who understand the past and the mythical dreams of mankind
know important things about not only contemporary humanity but also have
useful knowledge about how those dreams are being explored. Anderson is
perhaps the most erudite of Wolfe’s heroes, with his Marine background and
PhD in classical literature, and the third person limited point of view
tied to his perspective seems to be reliable.
While the story is a fairly simple exploration of genetic engineering
(re?)creating the mythical creatures of yesterday, the classical poetry
throughout grants immense allusive depth to an otherwise straightforward
tale and lets us see that the dreams and fancies of humanity have not
changed unrecognizably – old knowledge is still useful. Since we are in a
metaphysically simple situation in these stories, the third person
narration is much easier to parse than in works such as “To the Dark Tower
Came” or “The Eyeflash Miracles”. While the quoted poetry usually only has
a tangential or imagistic relationship to its surroundings, any look at
these stories must examine the placement of the texts and see if the
overarching poetic themes of the poems and quotations are relevant
thematically as well.
When Anderson sees the small waterhorse, he remembers a verse from the
Battle of Lake Regillus where the Romans and the Latin League of the
Tarquins fight, and Castor and Pollux mysteriously arrive to fight for Rome
on twin steeds. Historically this was the final bid of the once powerful
Tarquins for power in Rome. The Tarquin's struggle has little to do with
battle in Wolfe’s story and instead invokes Anderson’s strange feelings
about his tiny watery steed, which has never been in nature. The water
horse is of course associated with the kelpie, and the myths are mixed a
bit – some malevolent, some benign. However, the presence of Castor and
Pollux is no accident, as they will feature in the story of Perithous, the
code name Anderson has chosen, whose betrothed is abducted by centaurs. The
battle between centaurs and Perithous is mirrored in another mythical
account, that of Pholus, the only civilized centaur besides Chiron, who is
actually of semi-divine origin. When the centaurs anger Heracles, he slays
them with poisoned arrows, and both Chiron (the divine centaur) and Pholus
(a friend of Heracles) die in this fashion. We will return to this in
Literary Allusions below.
The second story has another thesis: that fantasy is a natural outgrowth of
classical literature, and, furthermore, that many of the fantastic beasts
are misunderstandings or mistranslations of nature. The root of
Pumpernickel as folk etymology, starting as bread saved for a horse named
Nicole, as well as the exploration of a unicorn being a mythical outgrowth
of a real description by Pliny of a “monoceros” or an Indian rhinoceros,
with its traditional horn based off of a narwhale's. Thus myth and reality
are strangely interwoven here, and it is the understanding of the
stallion's nature that allows Anderson to avoid being killed.
The old thesis that fantasy and science fiction are the real heirs of the
ancient classical literature so respected by the literary establishment is
once again put forward by Wolfe in the second story quite forcefully in the
library scene, and the relative paucity of classical poems in this section
speak to its more modern theme. The character Ed says, “That's what fantasy
is – classical lit that's still alive. When the people who wrote those
stories did it, their books were called fantasy.” Wolfe of course has his
classical scholar Anderson agree.
While both stories have “Woman” and “Love” in the title to show that they
are part of a series, of course the women are different.
Anderson's name, son of Andrew, also implies Son of Man. This Christian
imagery is not overt but is reinforced by a few associations in the second
story especially – when Julie reveals that her specialty is 20th century
fiction, he says that his focus is 2000 years earlier – pretty close to the
time of Christ's birth on the cusp of the change from the pagan world view
to that of Christianity, which so many of the poems address. In addition,
the final poem leaves with the image of the lion defeating the unicorn –
while winged lions signify St. Mark, lions without wings represent Christ
(according to the fairly contemporaneous “The Eyeflash Miracles” by Wolfe).
Julie identifies Anderson as the lion, who “defeats” the unicorn by
ironically surrendering and recognizing its beast with his superior
foresight – it does not kill as men would.
In addition, while the first story almost entirely references poems set in
the classic mode with a very few biblical statements concerning the
beginning (Adam and “the word”, for example), the second story features
some Christian apocalyptic imagery: “Behold a pale hose: And his name that
sat on him was Death.” The large, tawny haired Anderson is certainly hinted
to be a lion by Julie, who says every aspect of her final rhyme came true
save the plum cake: “The lion and the unicorn/ Were fighting for the crown;
/The lion beat the unicorn/ And sent him out of town.” While his tawny
large frame is not directly mentioned in the first story and Anderson
denies being the lion, the Dunsany quote below in literary allusions does
make a rather memorable statement about Sombelene and lions who fear to woo
While there is perhaps not much to Anderson's association with this
imagery, the second story seems to show the difference between man and
beast, almost an inversion from the conclusions of the first one, that show
the anger of Pholus and perhaps hint at a war between the world of man and
these new beasts in much the same way that the pagan and Christian
worldviews clashed. Anderson's knowledge of myth and the instincts of
creatures allows him to triumph in the second story, but it is not certain
that he does so in the first.
The name Sombelene which Janet uses for her handle comes from Lord
Dunsany's story, “The Bride of the Man Horse” - for this reason, the more
classically educated Anderson does not know it's source. There is a very
telling line in Dunsany's story that I think resonates with Wolfe's
reference as well: “Not all of us have sat at historians' feet, but all
have learned fable and myth at their mothers' knees.” Of Sombelene, who a
centaur who has just become an adult goes to woo, it is written:
Her father had been half centaur and half god; her mother was the child of
a desert lion and that sphinx that watches the pyramids; -- she was more
mystical than Woman.
Her beauty was as a dream, was as a song; the one dream of a lifetime
dreamed on enchanted dews, the one song sung to some city by a deathless
bird blown far from his native coasts by storm in Paradise. Dawn after dawn
on mountains of romance or twilight after twilight could never equal her
beauty; all the glow-worms had not the secret among them nor all the stars
of night; poets had never sung it nor evening guessed its meaning; the
morning envied it, it was hidden from lovers.
She was unwed, unwooed.
The lions came not to woo her because they feared her strength, and the
gods dared not love her because they knew she must die.
The man-horse grabs her by the hair and takes her, ironically to be her
servant, though she shows no animation or life in any of the narrated
This last lion reference is interesting in light of the final image we are
left with of Anderson in the second story, as mentioned above.
Anderson's handle of Perithous is also interesting: Perithous and Theseus
became friends after Perithous challenged Theseus' heroism. During his
wedding party with Hippodamia (whose name means horse tamer, roughly), the
centaurs became drunk and unruly and carried her off. The battle with them
resulted in victory for Perithous. Later he attempts to steal Persephone
from Hades after Theseus steals Helen (whose brothers, Castor and Pollux,
steal her back when Theseus and Perithous are captured in Hades by the
Furies – then Helen can be taken and start the Trojan War) . Heracles fails
to save Perithous from Hades, but Heracles' friend the civilized centaur
Pholus, along with the more divine centaur Chiron, will die from the
poisoned arrows Heracles will use to slay the bestial, uncivilized centaurs.
Given the prominent position of Castor and Pollux and the types of poems
selected by Wolfe, his primary source was probably Bullfinch's *Mythology*
and the accompanying *Poetry of the Age of Fable*, which is the only source
that Darwin's poem about “Amphitrite” is readily and easily accessible (no
doubt Wolfe appreciates the irony of quoting Darwin's ancestor in a text
about the manufacturing of entirely new - but already conceived - species
through science). Macauley's poem is listed under the Castor and Pollux
heading in Bullfinch as well, primarily the section of the poem Wolfe
quotes, and not far from there are references to the poet Ibycus and his
story: believing that cranes are a good omen, he is robbed and killed on
the road, and the cranes serve to identify the murderers so that justice
can be maintained.
For this reason, rather than believing that the poems are randomly
assembled, I think that the story of Castor and Pollux was one of the
starting points for Wolfe's research into the story rather than a
coincidence, and I do expect that there should be some “twinning” going on,
though of special note is that Castor is normally considered a mortal,
while Pollux is of more divine origin.
On a different note, with Anderson's thoughts of the Sirens, it does seem
that he is tempted to join the wilderness by Janet's pleas, and Darwin's
poem of Amphitrite also mentions water spirits:
Fair Amphitrite steers her silver shell ;
Her playful dolphins stretch the silken rein,
Hear her sweet voice, and glide along the main
As round the wide, meandering coasts she moves,
By gushing rills, rude cliffs, and nodding groves,
Each by her pine, the wood-nymphs wave their locks,
And blue-eyed Naiads peer amid the rocks.
The final stanza that closes “The Woman Who Loved the Centaur Pholus”
describes a lonely stranger comes to mourn for the passing of Adonais, from
Shelley's elegy on the death of Keats. The first part of that elegy laments
the sadness and loss of all the joyous, natural things in pretty explicitly
pagan cosmology. The stanza referenced is a turning point, however, in
which this stranger, probably the poet Shelley himself, appears, and the
tone of the poem shifts to one of the celebration of life even though
Adonais/Keats is gone. However, the somber tone of the “The Woman Who Loved
the Centaur Pholus”' ending, and the separation between the resurrected
mythic world and the “dying” world of the 20th century, seems to maintain
the tone of the first half of the elegy.
Of special note is the idea that the Christian world and birth of Christ
brought about the death of Pan, associated with Fauns, and here, at the
conclusion of the story, we have a wounded faun returning to the world.
The second story has far fewer classical illusions, referencing the Iliad
and the Bible, but by far the strangest reference is the Aiken's “Senlin”,
a series of vignettes in which the main character undergoes several
metaphysical shifts, becoming the things that the thinks about, whether
they be trees, his city, or other abstract concepts as he unearths the past
into the light of day, finally becoming something of a dream. The section
dealing with unicorns going down to the sea is rather oddly taken as
incontrovertible fact – the unicorn is assumed to be heading to the water
based on the passages from “Senlin”.
The brief vignette from Osenso that begins “Pity the Unicorn,/ Pity the
Hippograff,/ Souls that were never born/ Out of the land of If!” simply
serves to ground the fantastic premise of a unicorn lingering in the
fantasy section of a library.
It ends with a nursery rhyme which actually concerns the relationship
between Scotland and England, since they are symbols of the United Kingdom.
With the pairing of Castor and Pollux (one human, one divine) and the
historical blurring of Chiron and Phollus (one centaur, one divine) into
one creature, is it possible that the final centaur is a twin? “Only once
before had Anderson seen him. Then he had thought him roan, the human
torso, arms, and face, Caucasian. Now Pholus looked black, bigger than any
horse, immensely bigger than any man, muscled like a giant.” Or is this
change in appearance simply a symbol of his rage and rebellion against
mankind and ideological separation from Anderson? The faun speaks of “the
dead twin; the footprints like, but not quite like, a bear's; the terror in
the winter-wrapped woods.”
We have already mentioned the mythical names and how Anderson can imply Son
of Man, another name for Christ, but in light of the limerick about the
lion and the unicorn, Julie Coronell's name must certainly imply she is the
crown that the lion and unicorn are fighting over. (Even though her name
more accurately means column, though the change to -r- in the name implies
Are the roan and then black centaur really one individual, the same Pholus?
Is the bearded man named Paul who quotes scripture in the first story just
what he appears to be, a normal person involved with the Mythical
Conservationists? Given the presence of the Castor and Pollux allusions and
the conflation of Chiron and Pholus in some ancient documents concerning
centaurs, it almost seems that the twin theme is quite deliberately
repeated in the references Wolfe selected. There is a version of the Castor
and Pollux myth in which they are given alternate times to live, sharing
the immortality of Pollux.
Why is the man-bull shedu named Nin, which, in Assyrian, probably implies
CONNECTION WITH OTHER WORKS:
I feel this is the science fictional version of Wolfe's Nebraskan stories.
The main character seems to be a bit more astute and well-informed than
many of Wolfe's other protagonists, who are at times deliberately obtuse,
but the future coming to resemble the imagination of the past summons New
Sun as well.
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