(urth) Soldier of Sidon writeup
dstockhoff at verizon.net
Sun Apr 1 18:10:51 PDT 2018
Marc, I'm working through your write-up for Latro in the Mist. I've
barely scratched the surface, but your voice is authoritative, your
writing is clear, and your arguments are logical and yet sensitive to
all the mysteries and motivations of Wolfe's story and characters. It's
more than solid---it's definitive. I stand in awe!
You note, regarding the Great Mother's aversion to iron, that "Beyond
the fairy tradition, it does not seem that a clear reason for the
aversion to iron is ever given..." This issue has always bothered and
fascinated me---the reasoning behind the fairy tradition and how it is
(inconsistently) used in literature as well as specifically how it works
here. Why would the Mother behave like a fairy, and why would Ares
behave like a human? If this is the case, is either entity diminished or
enlarged by this treatment? Does it reveal basic assumptions about gods,
or is it a forcing of categories necessary under some strict Wolfean
scheme, or merely a convention?
The question of why fairies dislike iron may be one of those that can't
ever satisfactorily answered. All sorts of arguments have been made,
including contradictory ones. For example, (1) "Iron has magical
properties" such as magnetism; it was first known and used in the form
of meteoric iron (literally, "sky iron") and was used in lightning rods
on church steeples (2) "Iron signifies ironworking and other human
skills" that are naturally inimical to fairies, who only use "natural"
materials or magic and can't even tie shoes (3) "Iron is from the earth
and fairies are sky creatures."
These principles can be applied to good effect in fairy stories that
address a limited aspect of the magical world (e.g., the meteoric
elf-armor-slicing sword in /The King of Elfland's Daughter/, or the
glamours of /Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell/). But theories #1 and #2 are
generally negated by the fact that fairies (and gods) can be both
skilled ironworkers */and /*masters of magic. And #3 is just lazy new
Comprehensive discussion of fairies---and hot babes---here:
I'm not sure we actually know anything concrete about historical worship
of the Great Mother. Maybe Wolfe is just applying Occam's Razor to fill
in a gap where it serves his plot. But somehow the Mother's aversion to
iron has to fit with both the universal folklore tradition about the
(un)dead and the worship of Pleistorus as you describe it: "the War God
of the Thracians receives sacrifices to an iron sword planted in the
ground which represents him both in Herodotus and in *Soldier of Arete*."
How can the natures of the Mother and Pleistorus be so fundamentally
incompatible that they respond differently to the same elemental
material? Or is this something operating above the level of elemental
divinity? Perhaps it makes sense to assume an opposition of the divine
female principle to the male, but (a) why represent this opposition with
iron blades (b) why force Ares into representing the male principle just
because he wields a sword?
Three lines of thinking could apply to both fairies and the Great
Mother, and I think they are instructive.
First, iron can symbolize the life force, because it channels lightning,
smells like blood, and can be reshaped, meaning that fairies, being
originally dead (originating in ancestor worship, are hurt by it. When
Tolkien's blades are forged and reforged, this is in part iron/steel
being used to represent the life force (though it can also signify the
death force in the form of "satanic mills"). Because iron has "life" in
it, it can be used to bind the spirits of the dead. This belief
underlies iron cemetery fences, knives under the cradle, and iron-bound
coffins for detested (i.e., vampiric) individuals.
But Wolfe probably would not go for this explanation, since his gods
(unlike the Nazgul) are actually positive forces who reflect the true
God. It also seems like a later, rationalizing response to technological
development and the Carolingian relegation of the pagan gods to
superstition, rather than true Iron Age belief. However, this principle
would allow life-sucking undead entities to be weakened by or have
reason to fear iron.
Second, iron's best-known feature is that it can be made sharp (sharper
than stone or bronze) and tough and thus is (obviously) associated with
war. War means constant use of weapons against armor: constant repair
and sharpening of swords, as contrasted with the ongoing making of new
slingstones and spear and arrow heads. The fact that Pleistorus is
represented by a sword is telling. In fact, in Hellas it might
especially be associated with the Doric invaders of the Iron Age, some
of whom became the warlike Spartans, whose slaves tell Latro (as noted)
about their worship of the Mother and the Spartans' destruction of her
forests. Unlike spears and arrows and bronze daggers, which feed people
(iron plows came later, with the Romans), swords are purely instruments
of war (like an AR-15 vs. a "hunting rifle").
On the other hand, it seems likely that a goddess of harvest and hunting
would deeply prefer her sacrificial victims to be offered up
intentionally as a gift of value rather than as waste. The Mother would
not want battle corpses piled on her shrines or to be offered victims
killed in anger. But then, she is not in fact made weak by iron, like a
fairy, but simply "refuses to drink the blood of any sacrifice which has
touched iron." Indeed, she could reasonably abhor all violence other
than that needed to gather food, since it diminishes her worshipers and
their reliance on her, or sanction only violence that does not shed
blood (such as strangling).
This theory seems to support your overarching thesis of beating Martian
swords into plowshares, without necessarily relying on traditions of
fairies or the dead. But it resonates with these traditions because they
tell us both the gods and the dead are sensitive to such matters.
Furthermore, the methods of killing men in war are also quite different
from those used to kill animals; similarly, methods of corpse disposal
are different for honored humans as opposed to hated ones, criminals, or
Regardless of how the gods felt about it, ironless animal and human
sacrifice was real. Forensic archaeology suggests that when humans were
ritually executed and committed to the bogs in northern Europe, they
were neither drowned (despite the obvious convenience of that method)
nor burned (even though that was the norm for that time and place), nor
killed with swords (perhaps too noble a death?), but were instead
strangled, hit on the head, axed, and/or had their throats cut. Cutting
throats does not need a strong blade that cuts through bone and remains
Their deaths were highly intentional, in other words, and resembled
animal sacrifice; they were performed with full knowledge of an
audience, whether human or supernal/infernal, and whether being killed
in this way was honorable or dishonorable. This seems to fit with the
traditions regarding fairies and the undead, but it's not obvious what
the underlying logic might be. If the spirits of the dead were feared
enough to need fending off with symbolic iron---but never with
swords---this might be explained by the "life force" theory. Perhaps
iron swords sent the warrior's spirit directly to the afterlife without
the gods' devouring it, while iron's life-affirming properties denied
the restless dead a return to this plane. Maybe the sacrifice part was
simply forgotten in folklore, for obvious reasons.
Personally, I am skeptical that human sacrifice to gods or elements was
routine, or that it occurred other than in times of famine or other
crisis. I suspect that at least some of these people were hated and
feared as malevolent beings (rightly or not) who required denigration
and treatment as animals. Whereas respected people might be killed in
battle and burned or buried with their retinues, the "staged violence"
and location of the bog peoples' deaths must have been meant to deliver
them and their spirits to the underworld in such a manner that their
spirits were destroyed, while others' spirits were welcomed whole into
the underworld. If that was the case, then it could not have been the
sacrificial victims whose spirits were feared, but everyone else's,
because the power of ritual was strong.
And that is why the restless dead fear iron, water, and fire and not
string, clubs, or bronze (and it has nothing to do with "life force").
(Other evidence suggests a similar logic for decapitation.)
On 3/24/2018 4:11 PM, Marc Aramini wrote:
> Here are the write-ups for Latro in the Mist and Soldier of Sidon.
> They are very long because they are meant to serve as annotated
> commentaries in the absence of annotated editions.
> Latro in the Mist
> Soldier of Sidon
> Urth Mailing List
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