Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

‘Bloodsport’ by Gene Wolfe

with 15 comments

So, Gene Wolfe has a story in a new sword and sorcery anthology called Swords & Dark Magic. Here is Pat St-Denis’s review:

“Blood Sport” by Gene Wolfe just might be the most disappointing short story in this anthology. Given the author’s talent, this lame tale of a knight is half-assed at best. . .

That is the review in its entirety. A few of us thought this was, well, half-assed at best. As it happens, I received my review copy of the collection the same day as I read this review and it inspired me to read the Wolfe story straight away. Well, not just that, you will remember that I’ve had bad experiences with recent Wolfe and so wanted to know if this was any different. It was, in so far that it wasn’t outright bad and offensive. At the same time, I can honestly say I don’t know what he was attempted to do in ‘Bloodsport’.

As it happened, Larry Nolen received his review copy at the same time as me and has just published his review:

The first is Gene Wolfe’s “Bloodsport.” Although a couple of comments I had read elsewhere declared this story to be underwhelming, for me it was one of Wolfe’s better short fictions. The story is told from a first-person PoV, with the narrator concealing as much as he reveals. Take for instance these paragraphs that open his story:

Sit down and I’ll tell you.

I was but a youth when I was offered for the Game. I would have refused had that been possible; it was not – those offered were made to play. As I was already large and strong, I became a knight. Our training was arduous; two of my fellows died as a result, and one was crippled for life. I had known and liked him, drank with him, and fought him once. Seeing him leave the school in a little cart drawn by his brothers, I did not envy him.

After two yeard, I was knighted. I had feared that I would rank no higher than bowman; so it was a glad day for me. Later that same day I was given three stallions, the finest horses ever seen – swift golden chargers with manes and tails dark as the darkest shadows. Many an hour I spent tending and training them; and I stalled them apart, never letting them graze in the same meadow or even an adjoining meadow, lest they war. If I were refused that many meadows on a given day, one remained in his stall while the other two grazed; but I was never refused after my first Game. (p. 80)

At first glance, minus mysterious allusions to this “Game,” Wolfe’s tale seems to be that of an old warrior reminiscing about his youth, his experiences, and hinting at the hard life of war and privation that made up part of his life. However, as the story unfolds and the narrator reveals just what the “Game” truly is, the reader perhaps can piece together elements of a much larger narrative that is unfolding. Although Wolfe has a reputation in some quarters for being a bit too playful with his words and being too opaque for certain readers who want a more plain-spoken narrative, the puzzle elements in this story are not hard to figure out. There is an awful manipulation that occurs to this Knight, when he has to deal with other participants in the Game, leading up to the Queen. Although the conceit is rather transparent, Wolfe manages to overlay a sense of mystery behind an aspirant to the Game and how the Knight interacts with her. On the whole, it was the most enjoyable story in this anthology.

Can you spot the difference between Larry’s review and Pat’s? The thing is though, whilst this analysis actually engages with the text, it is not one I immediately recognise. He states that “the puzzle elements in this story are not hard to figure out” but he doesn’t explicitly state what they are and I still was convinced I’d grasped them. Yes, there is something to do with a game of chess here but is that the whole story. It was time for a re-read.

‘Bloodsport’ has a typical Wolfean unreliable narrator but it seems to me there are two metaphors at work here and one full-blown allegory. I remain unsure how they interact and how successful they are though. The first of these is the one Larry alludes to (and the one implied by the title). The Game is a chess-like game played with humans as the pieces. Chess-like but not quite chess:

After two years, I was knighted. I had feared that I would rank no higher than a bowman; so it was a glad day for me. (80)

The statues we saw were of pieces, of kings and queens, of slingers and spearmen, of knights such as I and pawns such as Lurn. (93)

The fact it isn’t quite chess makes it a more confusing way of hanging a metaphor over a story. However, it initially seems that this idea is going to be discarded. ‘Bloodsport’ moves quickly and abruptly both geographically and temporally and after just three pages the society responsible for the Game are destroyed by a people called the Hunas. Our narrator, Valorius, is one of the few survivors and after a bit of wandering round he forms a peasant army to fight the Hunas. During their first engagement he notes: “It is not the Game, yet it is a game of the same sort.” (86) This denial obviously raises the possibility that it is still the Game which I take to be Larry’s reading. What is the point though? That war is a game? Or that games are a form of war? I’m not sure. Nor am I sure how well the metaphor holds up, given the early specificity.

The second metaphor comes into play after the destruction of Valorious’s home when he meets Lurn, a former opponent in the Game. Their attraction has been foreshadowed previously and so when they meet they form a truce. Their meeting, however, ends with this exchange:

“I have seen sun and moon in the same sky,” I told her. “They did not engage.”
“They do but rarely.” She smiled as she spoke, and there was something in her smile of the maid no man bussed. “When they do she best him, as is only to be expected. Bests him and brings darkness over Earth.” (84-5)

Lurn is obviously Lune and this sets up the fact that at some point their allegiance will falter. I’m not at all clear how you map a metaphor of knight and pawn onto one of sun and moon but there you go. As well as providing another layer in itself this also sets up some further implications. Firstly, the sun and moon are symbols of great power, perhaps even god-like power, implying Valorius and Lurn are characters of similar power. Secondly, that final line suggests that women are betrayers and imperilling to the Earth. Which brings us nicely to the question of Christianity.

I think this is what is missing from Larry’s reading but at the same time I’m not sure how valid my own reading is. Suffice to say, Wolfe is highly Catholic and this is a fundamental and acknowledge influence on his work. In ‘Bloodsport’ there are passages that jump out at you. For example, after Valorius and Lurn triumph in their first battle with the Hunas, Valorious reflects that: “Animals have no evil in them. Men have much, women (I think) have half as much or less. Children have less still. Yet all humanity is touched by evil.” (89) It is hard not to read that as an allusion to Original Sin and as the story progress it is Christianity, not chess, that seems to me to be the key to the puzzle of the story.

After the battle, the story has another of its jumps and the pair set off in search of the origins of the Game. Initially Lurn leads the way (a temptress) but once they arrive at their destination it is Valorious who takes over, directed by a supernatural presence:

“No. We must go to the vaults.” My own words surprised me.
She looked incredulous, but the ghost in the dark passage ahead nodded and smiled; it seemed almost a living man, though its eyes were the eyes of death. (92)

But is the ghost real? Valorius is, of course, a deeply unreliable narrator.

It was our guide who answered her: “Where you wished to go, O pawn.”
“Why are you talking to me like that, Valorious?” (93)

So the ghost does not exist, is but an aspect of Valorius’s personality, something made even clearer when the ghost turns into his father. It is also notable that he refers to Lurn as “pawn” since we are back to the Game and here, presided over by the moon, she takes the crown that transforms her into a queen. If they have been playing the Game all along then this is her endgame: “I shall reform the kingdom and the Game will be played again.” (95) It is not clear why she should want this beyond providing symmetry to the story. Unfortunately after a brief fight, it is Valorious who triumphs and hence prevents darkness spreading over the Earth. And with a transition as abrupt as every other in the story, it is over. All that leaves is a chance for Valorius to reflect on the rest of his life:

Now I wander the land. Asked to prophesy, I say we shall overthrow the tyrants and make a new nation for ourselves and our children. Should our folk require a sword, I am the sword that springs to their hands. Asked to heal, I cure their sick – when I can. (96)

Now, doesn’t that sound a bit like Jesus? Particularly taking into account his spiritual merger with his father, whose final message to him was: I blessed and cursed you, Valorius, and my blessing and curse are the same. You will inherit. (83) So, those are the allusive elements that make up the story but I’m still not clear what they mean or how they are supposed to cohere. Does Wolfe have a message encode with ‘Bloodsport’ that I simply cannot access? Or is he simply blending these aspects in to thicken what would otherwise be a thin story? Either way, I don’t think “it is all about a game of chess” is an adequate answer.

Written by Martin

24 June 2010 at 08:41

Posted in criticism, sf, short stories

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15 Responses

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  1. I didn’t want to directly reference it in part because I didn’t care then to go into a detailed analysis when I was looking at the anthology as a whole. But I will note that I do believe there were some references to a struggle against Sin and the entrapments that occur with such a notion. While there may be Jesus-like qualities to the protagonist, I’m always hesitant of saying that it is directly so, since Wolfe does tend to approach such references sideways and not straight on.

    Larry

    24 June 2010 at 09:06

  2. I’m going to have to read this story aren’t I?

    I echo Larry’s caution about reaching prematurely for the Jesus. Yes, Wolfe is a left-footer (I like the idea of his being “highly Catholic” is that like being “highly contagious”?) and Yes, he does seem to like Messianic tones but as Roberts pointed out to me on twitter there’s a distinction between the idea of a messiah and Jesus.

    It’s natural for a Catholic to want to write about redemption and it’s natural for a Catholic to want to write about redemption taking some human form but I think it’s probably reductive to assume that all Wolfe is doing is fading out with a Thought For The Day-style “…and that’s a bit like Jesus isn’t it?”

    Writing without having read the story obviously but I know from what I’ve read of Wolfe that he sees the messiah as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

    Jonathan M

    24 June 2010 at 09:27

  3. I didn’t want to directly reference it in part because I didn’t care then to go into a detailed analysis when I was looking at the anthology as a whole.

    Yeah, it isn’t really fair to compare my detailed reading against your examination of the story in the context of your review of the whole anthology. At the same time, you did focus a lot on ‘Bloodsport’ and you obviously liked it a lot so I’m keen to engage. As I said, there are parts of your critique that don’t resonate with me. For example, you describe Lurn as “an aspirant to the Game”. That implies something beyond the use of “the Game” within the story but I’m still not clear exactly what it was. More importantly, I’m still struck by your characterisation of the story as not hard to figure out.

    Both you and Jonathan caution against reading Valorius as straighforwardly Christ. I hope I don’t so so – you are both right that that would be overly reductive – but at the same time it clearly plays some part. I am neither knowledgeable about or interested in Christianity but I would welcome some further enlightment on this part of the story.

    Wolfe does indeed approach things sidewise and that is the crux of the issue. For me, he throws several things into the mix here and the result is a story that is, yes, too oblique. For you, it seems a lot clearer so I am trying to tease this out. I don’t see what I am missing and at the moment you’ve not convinced me that all the pieces of the puzzle are there.

    I think it’s probably reductive to assume that all Wolfe is doing is fading out with a Thought For The Day-style “…and that’s a bit like Jesus isn’t it?”

    It is funny you should say that because that is exactly how I read it, right down to Marc Riley does his Rabbi Lionel Blair voice in his head. And yes, you should read the story. Should I send the book to you for review once I’ve finished with it?

    Martin

    24 June 2010 at 09:59

  4. Is Lionel Blair a Rabbi now? I didn’t even know he had converted.

    I haven’t read this one, so can’t chip in. But I’ll say this much: there is, I think, a very big distinction that may look, at first blush, like a trivial matter of semantics, but which actually has the most enormous implications for the way we read post Tolkien fantasy. It’s the difference between ‘allegory’, where characters (eg) are decoded, and Tolkienian ‘subcreation’, which, for an author also ‘highly Catholic’ was theologically about ‘incarnation’, inflected via Coleridge’s primary/secondary imagination notion. Tolkien talks about his ‘cordial dislike’ of allegory. He writes Fantasy to explore the logic of incarnation … Christ, you see, does not alleorgically or symbolically ‘stand for’ God, Christ is the incarnation of God in human form. That’s very different. C S Lewis, likewise, denied that Narnia was a ‘Christian allegory’. Aslan does not ‘allegorize’ or ‘symbolise’ Christ: Aslan is what Christ would look like in a world of intelligent talking animals. A whole aesthetic of Fantasy unpacks from this initial premise, and it looks rather unlike the pigeonholing, quasi-structuralist account of the mode you find in many critics’ work.

    I trust that’s clear.

    Adam Roberts

    24 June 2010 at 12:17

  5. Is Lionel Blair a Rabbi now?

    Oh, Humphrey Lyttleton where are you, now we need you.

    Alison

    24 June 2010 at 12:24

  6. So Valorius is Christ…

    The distinction you make is important and doesn’t seem like semantics. However, it does make me wonder if I am confused because Wolfe is simultaneously using allegory and incarnation and I am only reading it as allegory. But if Valorious is literally the incarnation of God in this setting then what is with all the cobblers about chess? I’m not sure I’m up to this.

    Is Lionel Blair a Rabbi now?

    He is.

    Martin

    24 June 2010 at 12:32

  7. So Valorius is Christ…

    Well, not exactlt. This is all much more about fiction more than about God. Coleridge claimed that true poets engaged a ‘secondary imagination’ (lesser poets, he thought, couldn’t even manage this, and had access only to ‘fancy’) when they created characters, worlds and so on. This secondary imagination is a sort of echo of or ratio inferior to the primary imagination that God used when he actually created people and worlds. It’s the same sort of thing; but Middle Earth, obviously, is not actual Earth. That said, its creation has affinities with what God did when he made the real Earth. Two things without which any reading of Wolfe will feel thin, I think, are (1) his fascination with the divine tint of all fiction (narrating, storytelling and so on); and (2) his sense of this as dialectually mutual determined … which is to say, that God is a poet and text-maker as much as poets are little imitation gods.

    I trust that is clear.

    Adam Roberts

    24 June 2010 at 12:57

  8. I’ve just read this story tonight. I don’t think I have a perfect handle on it either, but I do have a few comments and observations…some of which may be obvious, but yes, it can be frustrating when people hint at things that you yourself can’t recognize in a text (I for example have no idea what the “awful manipulation” is that Larry mentions).

    So:

    - Our protagonist is named Valorius, his people are known for their bloodthirsty Game, and they are invaded by a group called the Hunas. This sounds rather like an alternate form of the Roman Empire and the Huns. Which puts us in the right era for…

    - …the Christ motifs, which begin early in the story. Here is the protagonist’s first fight with another knight: “I struck his gauntlet instead. A spike breached the steel, nailing his hand–for a moment only–to the haft of his ax.” So interestingly, in this case it’s the knight’s opponent to whom the Christ symbolism is attached.

    - I very much agree with Adam Roberts about Wolfe. Wolfe came to his Catholicism late enough in his life that his relationship to it is not so much a proselytizer as a questioner, someone who is trying to figure out what being a good Catholic means. Wolfe as a result is typically less interested in creating allegory than in exploring what a truly Christian (thus inevitably Christ-like) figure would look like in different circumstances. Thus I tend to look at things like the above as more of a signpost than an allegory.

    - I’m not especially well-read in religion–I dare say that most of what I know of the Bible I’ve learned by implication from SF!–but I can perhaps spot a few other similar signposts in the story: Lurn’s giant size is evocative of the semi-human children of Lilith (see also Narnia’s White Witch); the nightingale (“I was harkening to a nightingale”) has some very relevant religious symbolism as explained here; the garden; etc.

    - Martin, you wrote “I’m not at all clear how you map a metaphor of knight and pawn onto one of sun and moon.” I’d suggest thinking of it not in terms of knight and pawn but men and women, who often are mapped to sun and moon, respectively. Sun and moon also are being mapped to white and black chess pieces: those who can’t tolerate much sun will have pale skin (like Lurn), those who relish the sun will presumably be darker.

    - Also: “Secondly, that final line suggests that women are betrayers and imperilling to the Earth.” I’m not sure how you come to “betrayers”–there is to me more the sense of things acting according to their natural patterns. Lurn is after all using eclipses as her metaphor; but there’s also (to us reading the story) an echo of the chess metaphor here, the idea that certain types of things must move in certain ways.

    - The moon worship in the story suggests (what is typically termed) paganism; see also Lurn standing in a “circle of white stones” to receive her crown from her goddess. That in this story the Earth is seen as circling the moon suggests that this paganism is ascendant, which is “right” for the relative historical era we’re in. And so one line of conflict in the story may be the conflict between these analogues of paganism and a burgeoning Christianity (“Our Lord the Sun”).

    - In particular, the argument seems to center around their differing ideas/ideals of mercy and bloodthirstiness. Lurn spares Valorius in their initial conflict as part of the Game, and all her efforts are with the aim of restoring and returning to the Game. It’s akin to Lurn’s tale of the moon temporarily defeating the sun, then restoring it. Valorius in contrast spares his fellow knight in the beginning of the story as an act of mercy as an end in itself; on the other hand, he’s willing to kill Lurn if it means putting an end to the Game (in which many are killed). So it raises the question of what is mercy: what would a merciful (Christian) person do in each case, and are both of Valorius’s actions merciful ones?

    - The other key argument and conflict seems to be in the ability of people to transcend (and thus escape) roles and their patterns. Lurn succeeds in moving across the board and becoming a queen. But what of Valorius the knight? Before he moves to crown and then attack Lurn, he receives a mantle and then stands “before her; the distance was half as far, perhaps, as a boy might fling a stone.” Which is to say, not very far. And we know which chess piece is notable for moving only in short distances. Wolfe, I think, is having some fun playing games with games, changing the game on us: it’s a common phrase that person X is playing checkers while person Y is playing chess; but while new queens can be made in chess, it’s checkers, a game played on the same board, in which new kings are made.

    - But re: the last paragraph of the story, being a king in truth–ruling yourself, being willing to ask the tough questions and act on their answers–is a hard and lonely thing (a common theme in Wolfe); easier, though not better, to pick a path, a role and its patterns, and stick to it.

    That’s what I get from the story, at any rate.

    Matt Denault

    1 July 2010 at 04:57

  9. Thanks for this detailed reading, Matt, it has been very helpful for me.

    - Also: “Secondly, that final line suggests that women are betrayers and imperilling to the Earth.” I’m not sure how you come to “betrayers”–there is to me more the sense of things acting according to their natural patterns.

    Yes, I prefer your reading. I had got locked into a religious reading where Lurn is an Eve-like figure who damns the world by breaking their alliance. I was probably bringing my own baggage about Wolfe rather than engaging with the text itself.

    Martin

    1 July 2010 at 10:26

  10. [...] since I don’t think it really fits with the anthology. However, I did discuss it in detail here. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)A Very Pretty MessTideFantasy versus [...]

  11. Martin,

    I’m getting into Wolfe just now and have only read some of the books in his Sun work and An Evil Guest. I’d say his allegiance to classical thought is confusing your allegiance to modern thought.

    Eve does not damn the world in the Bible. No classical reading from the ancient Fathers would view it that way. The apostle Paul states the exact opposite in fact, “through one _man_ sin entered the world.” There’s a modern reading of the Bible…that’s not a reading of the Bible. That being said when women behave badly they are generally viewed as temptresses while when men behave badly they are generally seen as murderers/man-slayers.

    From the sounds of the story we are all comfortable with the protagonist starting off as a man-slayer but oddly uncomfortable with the woman acting at any point as a temptress. I see this all over the place in reviews of Wolfe. The Women can’t possibly be bad (or stupid or any other negative attribute)! Dead silence on the villainous (or stupid or any other negative attribute) men. Severian is of course a great example of this.

    As Matt points out there is an ancient assumption, one that I think we are far too careless in discarding, that we tend to act towards archetypical patterns. Wolfe embraces those pasterns rather than running away from them. His women are women. His men are men. And they tend to act _largely_ within their archetypes.

    Nick

    26 May 2011 at 17:25

  12. Eve does not damn the world in the Bible. No classical reading from the ancient Fathers would view it that way.

    Tertullian: (“Every woman should be ….) walking about as Eve mourning and repentant, in order that by every garb of penitence she might the more fully expiate that which she derives from Eve,-the ignominy, I mean, of the first sin, and the odium of human perdition… The sentence of God on the female sex lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too.”

    Ambrosiaster: “Women must cover their heads because they are not made in the image of God… as a sign of their subjection to authority and because sin came into the world through them.”

    Johannes Teutonicus: “God is not glorified through the woman, as through a man, because through a woman the first sin came about”

    Alison

    26 May 2011 at 17:34

  13. Funny how Tertullian was excommunicated for his radical views. Quoting from him is fair; quoting blindly is not.

    As to Ambrosiaster I can’t find the quote and you don’t attribute it though it wouldn’t be surprising. We know very little of him and his influences other than he was wrongly attributed to St. Ambrose. I believe this is the quote Augustine uses but it is rendered very differently from yours which does include an ellipse (a problem in the Tertullian quote as well). I’m guessing the actual quote is different from the one you produced. I believe this is from his Commentaries on Paul’s Epistles but I can only find Latin copies online and I don’t trust my Latin in a debate.

    You are also confusing two issues. The sin of the fruit and the damning of the world. Its a neophytes mistake so I don’t blame you (since the Fathers only make it murky when they talk too freely), but they are not the same thing.

    Johannes is not a Father of the church. In fact he’s a rather minor character. His quote also has no bearing on the discussion at hand because the quote does not deal with the damning of man.

    Nick

    26 May 2011 at 18:28

  14. They were just the first three I came across in the first few seconds of searching, I am sure you are well aware there are many, many more. Tertullian was repudiated and re-admitted as I am sure you know. And I am not ‘a neophyte’ as I am of your beliefs. And what is all this is aid of? To argue that the church does not portray the female as the root of sin? That horse has long bolted, it’s a bit late to start bolting the gate.

    Alison

    26 May 2011 at 18:57

  15. There is no bolting from the gate Allison. The teaching on the Adam’s Curse is ancient. That Eve was also cursed seems to be the only sticking point, which rather proves my point. And while Eve is generally seen as a gatway to the Fall (as your quotes even allude to) she is not seen as the reason for the Fall, which no greater authority than St. Paul places squarely in Adam’s lap.

    Tertullian also died in schism…I’m not sure where you’re getting your information. The sect of his that broke off from the Donatists was (eventually) reconciled but he wasn’t. _Some_ of his _thought_ was also reconciled.

    In fact your whole stream of comments rather illustrates my beef with some of Wolfe’s reviewers. There is this general theme that women should not be displayed as anything less than perfect while turning a complete blind eye to the follies of men. I see this in reviews of “An Evil Guest” all the time. Cassie is ridiculed for being dumb…even though she is likely a long term manipulator of time. No one even pays a seconds attention to Bill Reis being an idiot when it comes to women.

    They latch onto the perceived slight in a way that defies irony. Sexism much?

    Nick

    26 May 2011 at 19:57


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