Soldier of the Mist
reviewed by Graham Thomas Wilcox
The Great King has invaded the land of the Hellenes. Yet, after a string of victories, he has found himself stymied at a place called Clay, where the cities of Thought and Rope banded together and broke his armies. Later, he will be overthrown (so Ctesias tells us) by the commander of his bodyguard and a enunch.
But Soldier of the Mist is not the Great King’s story. Nor is it the story of Thought and Rope, though citizens of Thought and the Rope-makers play a large part in the book itself and its sequels. Rather, it is the story of the eponymous soldier: Latro, whose name, indeed, means “Soldier” in his native Latin. Our protagonist sustains a headwound at the battle of Clay in service of the Great King. Afflicted with what we might recognize today as both anterograde and retrograde amnesia (the inability to form new memories, or remember recent ones), Latro wanders the length and breadth of Hellas in search for an answer and a cure to his affliction. In the process he meets gods, wrestles Rope-makers, sleeps with at least one dryad, and is enslaved. Unable to create new memories, he writes down all of his daily experiences in a book, which he strives to read when he wakes the next day and finds he has forgotten who and where he is. His companions include Pindaros the poet, Io the slave-girl and an Ethiopian man who speaks neither Latin nor Greek, but who nevertheless proves himself a true friend time and time again.
Soldier of the Mist is one of Gene Wolfe’s strongest, and strangest, fantasy novels. By virtue of its author, this makes it a contender for one of the strongest and strangest fantasy novels of the twentieth century. Published in 1986 by Gollancz (in the United Kingdom) and Tor (in the United States), it won the 1987 Locus for Best Fantasy Novel, and was nominated for both the World Fantasy and the Nebula Awards (the Hugos were still a sci-fi award at the time). It sold well enough to spawn two sequels, Soldier of Arete and Soldier of Sidon. Wolfe allegedly planned more sequels, but never quite got around to writing them, more’s the pity.
I will not dive too deeply into plot summary here. For those of us initiated into Wolfe’s writing, we know how he plays with plot, structure and meaning. For those of you unfamiliar with the high mysteries of the Saint, then I can only say: keep an open mind, and reread the novel once you’re finished (and once you feel a significant hankering for the rest of the story). Wolfe, more than almost any other author in speculative fiction, rewards patience and rereading. Soldier of the Mist does not, for example, play with time-travel as much as The Book of the New Sun or the Wizard Knight, but by filtering everything we see through the eyes of a man who is very much of his time, Wolfe still manages his old magic. Meaning and certainty, those old standbys, are ever-elided in Wolfe’s work. Latro’s story is no exception.
And it is Latro I wish to discuss the most in this review. With his character, Wolfe accomplishes something I find very rare and very tantalizing within the context of the modern fantasy novel (if a novel that predates its reviewer in age can still be termed modern, that is): he creates a character that feels immediate and believable, both as a modern character in a fantasy, and as a historically-inspired “Other.” This is, in my opinion, one of the most challenging achievements in modern fantasy. I find many fantasy novels, particularly those that draw upon medieval or antique Europe as a touchstone for their worldbuilding, fall prey to what we might call “copy-of-a-copy” syndrome (I am open to a wieldier term). Which is to say, these modern works derive their picture of the past (and hence their world, and their characters’ worldview, and thereby much of the meat of the story itself) from other stories within the fantasy genre, or from tabletop RPGs, or video games, or any other myriad pop cultural representations of history. This leads to works that feel, in my opinion, inauthentic and derivative.
For example, certain familiar topoi—the prevalence of absolute monarchy, the relative sidelining of religiosity, the ubiquity of taverns—are products more of Dungeons and Dragons than they are of medieval/antique history. Which is not, in and of itself, bad. Authenticity is, of course, a touchy subject, and the extent to which one can achieve it at all is a topic worth debating. Too often, we find works that claim “authenticity,” but use it as a bludgeon in modern-day culture wars; other times, an author achieves a deep understanding of their topic matter, but they lack the writing craft to translate said knowledge into rounded characters, striking imagery, and an enjoyable plot.
But, for the moment let us sidestep the stickiness of authenticity (witness here the powerful rhetorical move known as “running away”), and consider it from an aesthetic standpoint. One of the most desirable qualities in fantasy fiction is, in my opinion, its ability to transport us somewhere unfamiliar and strange. Somewhere, in a word, fantastic. The above topoi, those copies of copies, fail to transport me. They seem too familiar, too worn, too grayed out by their endless, incestuous reuse. They often feel far too modern, or even mundane: the characters snark like modern twenty-somethings on the internet, their mores are those of your average Twitter user, their likes and dislikes aligned solely with your garden-variety Redditor. The stories could be set in downtown New York, and they’d scan just as well. All of these topoi can be well and good in their own right. Nor do I mean to disparage those who enjoy works that contain them (for I have enjoyed my share of them). But I admit, I do tire of them.
Thankfully, Soldier of the Mist offers a breath of fresh air for readers like me. Wolfe does not accomplish this in the manner of, say, E.R. Eddison in The Worm Ouroboros, who wrote in a reconstructed Jacobean English in order to evoke a feeling of otherworldly wonder; Latro and his compatriots mostly speak in an unaffected, if not exactly colloquial, modern American English. Nor does Wolfe ape his prior success in Book of the New Sun by employing ample archaism and unusual diction to drive home the Otherness of Latro’s world. Indeed, he often does the opposite. Familiar terms of Greek origin, such as hoplite, often find themselves translated (sometimes with purposeful inaccuracy, on which more later) into English: the aforementioned hoplite is rendered as “shieldman,” Speusinioi (the Scythian “police” of ancient Athens) is given as “archer,” and so on. The effect is an intriguing one: since Latro is writing in Latin, he must be translating some of those words (the familiar ones) into his own language. Some, he mistranslates. Others, he translates in ways unfamiliar to most modern readers (certainly unfamiliar to me!). Thus, we see him translate Sparta as “Rope,” and its inhabitants as “Rope-makers,” because he (so we might be told by the wiser denizens of the Wolfean community) confused the Greek word sparte (rope) for the name of the city (Sparta). Similarly, he calls the land surrounding Sparta “the Silent Country,” presumably due to a misapprehension of the word lakonía.
The effect is impressive. We get a sense of Latro’s position within the society of antique Greece: an outsider, albeit a familiar one. We get a sense of how Latro views the world as well, how he imparts meaning upon it through language, and yet, does not let himself become perturbed by apparent inconsistencies or oddities. Latro never questions why the “Rope-makers” are called so (though some other characters needle him for his mistake); he simply believes it is an odd name. Similarly, he never quite questions the gods he sees upon his journey. And indeed, they are numerous (and quarrelsome).
Latro’s interactions with the religious and spiritual aspects of his world constitute some of the novel's most interesting elements. Our hero often finds himself communing with gods and demigods on his travels: these include a tryst with Aphrodite, wrestling advice from Hercules, and a rather harrowing conversation with Persephone. Only rarely does Latro recognize them as deities, and even more rarely does he name them in a straightforward fashion; more often, he employs the allusive naming practices we might see in a translation of the Iliad or the Odyssey, with gods named by some title, such as the King of Nyssa, the Maiden, the Thunderer, and so on. Wolfe, in his customary fashion, leaves much of the work up to the reader. Sometimes, the deity reveals themselves only through their own allusions to later mythology, referencing some famed deed of theirs or some relationship that (if the reader possesses the necessary knowledge) reveals their identity. Often, Latro is the only character to see these supernatural beings, and with his head wound in mind, we might be tempted to chalk them off as artifacts of Wolfe’s much-beloved unreliable narration. But there are moments—few of them, but extant nevertheless—where Latro manages to inadvertently reveal a deity to surrounding witnesses, typically by touching the deity (which then makes them visible).
This interaction with the spiritual world is a prime example of Wolfe’s fidelity to his source material. Similar interactions between wandering gods and unwitting mortals fill certain ancient narratives, even ones that might otherwise be (relatively) sober chronicles of contemporary events. The modern term for such a meeting between god and mortal is theophany, though the Greeks called them something more familiar: epiphanies (apologies, by the way, for not using the proper Greek language terms or alphabet. Your humble reviewer is depressingly Anglo, as it were). A famed epiphany (cited by Wolfe himself in reference to Soldier) was the meeting between Pheidippides and Pan before the battle of Marathon, as recorded by Herodotus. Pheidippides was an Athenian messenger who allegedly met the god Pan while delivering a message to Sparta during the Greco-Persian War; in this meeting, Pan asked Pheidippides why the Athenians do not honor him more, given his love for Athens. Were the Athenians to honor Pan, he would aid them. Pheidippides delivers this message to his fellow citizens, and they believe him. A shrine to Pan is erected in Athens, and sacrifices are performed there in Pan’s name. Later, Pan is alleged to have aided the Athenians in person at the Battle of Marathon, spreading supernatural terror among the Persian warriors (whence we receive the modern term “panic.”)
It’s clear that in Soldier of the Mist, Wolfe is writing a love letter to the works of Herodotus, Thucydides, Homer and other Greek writers of antiquity. He mines their work for inspiration—as in the concept of epiphany—and here, Wolfe strikes gold. Latro may not have read Herodotus—his Histories were, for one, published decades after the events of this story (makes sense; history and all that)—but he would have existed in the same world that led to Herodotus' chronicle; he would have consumed many of the same myths, participated in some of the events, interacted with many of the various cultural touchstones that made Herodotus who he was. The way he thought and acted would have been recognizable to Herodotus, were they to meet. They might be, in many ways, alien to a modern reader. But in other ways, they might have been very understandable (witness the enduring popularity of Homer, Herodotus, et al). Wolfe’s understanding of his source material, and the way in which this understanding informs everything about his characters, from their actions to their worldview (and hence, the worldbuilding), lends a veneer of what we might call “authentic strangeness” to Soldier of the Mist that elevates the text above many of its contemporaries (and many of its descendants as well). In my opinion, it transports and transforms the reader into a place far more fantastic than that managed by many other works. This can make the text difficult at times—even frustrating—but the reward is, in the end, worth it.
As something of a post-script, I offer my utterly unsolicited (and potentially very stupid) craft advice. I would urge authors who are interested in crafting their own medieval or antique fantasies to follow Wolfe’s example: do not only read modern histories on your favored time and place, but seek out translations (or, if you are capable, read it in the original language!) of works that people from your favored time and place might have read themselves. Immerse yourself in the worldview of the ancient “Other,” and see if you might find a commonplace for meaning in your work. Perhaps you will bounce off the material. That is fine! But perhaps you might read something in Hildegard von Bingen, or Thomas Aquinas, or Herodotus, or Sappho, or Wolfram von Eschenbach (and so on and so forth) that inspires you in the way the ancient Greek authors clearly inspired Wolfe. Perhaps you may find yourself writing characters with alien viewpoints, with strange methods of thinking and doing, with odd conceptions of the world. If so, then know you do so in the greatest of traditions. I hope I get to read them some day.
About the Author
Graham Thomas Wilcox is an author and freelance editor. He lives near the Atlantic coast with his wife and their two dogs.
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