‘Bloodsport’ by Gene Wolfe
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.