The Fifth Head of Cerberus (caution: spoilers!)


Well-Known Member
May 8, 2006
Here's a piece I wrote several years ago on Wolfe's The Fifth Head of Cerberus. I never did find out if I'd solved the book's puzzle correctly...

The Fifth Head Of Cerberus comprises three novellas, all sharing a common location, the twin planetary system of St Croix and St Anne. These are the title story, ‘“A Story” by John V Marsch’ and ‘V.R.T.’ The first and last share Marsch as a character—he makes an appearance in ‘The Fifth Head Of Cerberus’, and the last is his story, as told through his journals. As the title of the second story makes clear, Marsch is its narrator, although he does not appear in the text. Crimes also book-end the novel, appearing as the central events of both ‘The Fifth Head Of Cerberus’ and ‘V.R.T.’

Sainte Croix and Sainte Anne were both originally settled by the French, who lost a war sometime in the story’s recent past, and this has affected their subsequent history. St Anne has the more pioneer flavour of the two worlds, with St Croix the ‘civilised’ cousin.

‘The Fifth Head Of Cerberus’ is the remembrances of an unnamed narrator. Clues in the text suggest his surname is Wolfe—the description of a book by his father appearing under ‘W’ in the library:

The upper shelves were, if anything, in worse disorder than those more conveniently located, and one glorious day when I attained the highest of them all I found occupying that lofty, dusty position (besides a misplaced astronautics text, The Mile-Long Spaceship, by some German) only a lorn copy of Monday or Tuesday leaning against a book about the assassination of Trotsky, and a crumbling volume of Vernor Vinge’s short stories that owed its presence there, or so I suspect, to some long-dead librarian’s mistaking the faded V. Vinge on the spine for “Winge.”
[page 9]

and a comment that the name of the house he grew up in, Maison du Chien, may be a reference to his surname [page 14]. (Not to mention the triplet of lines from The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner that open the novella.)

Something is not quite right about the world of ‘The Fifth Head Of Cerberus’. The novella opens traditionally enough—a childhood memory—but three paragraphs later we learn that the narrator’s father traded in children. The narrator and his brother were also supervised by Mr Million, a robot. Mr Million would often take the two boys to the library, where they would debate semantics whilst ostensibly discussing the history of St Croix and St Anne.

The Maison du Chien was named for the statue of Cerberus, the three-headed dog, that stood guard by its front door. The name is also a pun, since the house is also a brothel, and its whores were often “enhanced” through science by the narrator’s father.

At the age of 7½ St Croix years, the narrator is rudely dragged from his bed, and undergoes a curious experience in his father’s study. He is nicknamed “Number Five” by his father, and then told to talk non-stop about the holograms he is shown. In his 12th year, the narrator meets his “aunt”, who tells him of Veil’s Hypothesis: that the shape-changing aborigines of St Anne mimicked the human colonists so well, they have become the human colonists. It is typical of Wolfe that he frames the reader the central puzzle of the three novellas so overtly, and yet hides it behind a “veil”. For it is the mystery of St Anne’s aborigines with which The Fifth Head Of Cerebrus is concerned. What happened to them? Where did they go? Did they truly die out?

‘The Fifth Head Of Cerebrus’, the novella, has no seeming connection to this mystery. But it is part of the solution.

After several childhood adventures, the narrator is promoted to “greeter”, and begins to learn how his father’s household works. Shortly afterwards, Marsch makes his appearance. He is looking for Veil, because he too is interested in the mystery of the abos.

During this time, the narrator’s nocturnal visits to his father’s study have continued… with the result that the narrator often dreams vividly of events and places he can’t have witnessed; and often enters a fugue state where he behaves normally but has no memory of his actions afterwards.

This mystery is solved after a raid by the narrator, his brother, and a female friend on a trader’s warehouse. Guarding the trader’s safe is a four-armed slave. The narrator recognises him: it is himself.

Number Five is apparently a clone, as is his father, of an ancestor. The nightly visits were to channel Number Five’s thought-processes such that they came to match those of the mysterious ancestor—as evidenced by his “dreams” and fugue states. On discovering this, the narrator determines to kill his “father”. He does. And the story is framed as his remembrances as he returns to the Maison du Chien having served his sentence.

‘“A Story,” by John V. Marsch’ is a Sainte Anne aboriginal myth, as transcribed by Marsch. The origin is not clear, but likely to be the boy described in ‘V.R.T.’ It describes the capture of a tribe of hill-men by a marsh tribe, and the rescue of the survivors. Sandwalker had journeyed to a sacred cave to ask advice of a hermit, when he dreamt his people had been taken by the marsh people. He goes to their rescue, but is captured and thrown into a pit called The Other Eye with the survivors of his tribe.

During his journey to the marshes, Sandwalker helped a group of Shadow Children, a nocturnal St Anne race. The Shadow Children are important.

The marsh people have captured Sandwalker’s tribe in order to sacrifice them to the stars. Like much of the story transcribed by Marsch, and the world-view of Sandwalker, this rite shows the St Anne aborigines to be worshippers of Nature. They believe that trees live, and permission should be asked of them to drink the water that collects in their roots.

It is the climax of Marsch’s “A Story” that contributes most to the central puzzle of The fifth Head Of Cerberus. The Shadow Children admit they are descended from a star-faring race, and that they are also responsible for hiding St Anne from other star-faring races. By removing this protection, the Shadow Children save Sandwalker from the marsh people, but also allow humans to land for the first time, thus changing the world’s history forever.

Clearly, “A Story” is actually a parable. Sandwalker is an inhabitant of his world; the Shadow Children may not even be real. They always appear in groups, and between them create another member of the group, the Old Wise One. Or Group Norm. The Shadow Children may be no more than accepted norms of behaviour in mythic form. While all behaved according to these, the world was safe. But breaking these norms result in the world changing beyond recognition. The Shadow Children’s admission that they were once star-farers may actually apply to all the inhabitants of St Anne. The abos are descendants of a lost colony, perhaps. And their shape-changing abilities purely mythical—after all, the only changes that are described in “A Story” could be easily metaphors; and the one recognised change is that of the central puzzle: that they became human. Perhaps they were human. They simply joined the colonists and “disappeared” into its society. It is their culture that is extinct, not the race.

It’s a nice theory, but the final novella in The Fifth Head Of Cerberus, ‘V.R.T.’, suggests the true answer is otherwise. It consists of excerpts from taped interviews, the field journal, interrogation transcripts and prison diary of Marsch, framed by a narrative describing the military officer reading those documents in order to make a decision on Marsch’s incarceration. The picture built up through these goes as follows: Marsch arrived on St Anne directly from Earth, with the intention of tracking down any surviving aboriginals, all long thought to be dead. He interviews several people with knowledge of the aboroginals, although what he is told hardly constitutes hard evidence, and consists mainly of folk tales. Then he meets Trenchard, a beggar of Irish extraction, who claims to be an aboriginal. Trenchard’s son, however, identified only by the initials V.R.T. proves a more interesting character, and he takes Marsch on a field trip to the sacred cave mentioned in the second novella. During the field trip, V.R.T. dies. Marsch heads for St Croix, where the events of the title story take place, and is then arrested for spying. The only evidence for this accusation appears to be a table of figures in the back of a copy of A Field Guide to the Animals of St Anne, which Marsch insists were there when he bought the book. The figures apparently describe the amount of drop in trajectory of a bullet for given ranges, and the authorities take this to mean Marsch is an assassin.

This is where the argument suggested around ‘A Story,” by John V Marsch’ begins to fall apart. The boy, V.R.T., clearly owes something to the abos. He is familiar with their culture, he is clumsy at things they could be expected to be clumsy at (coming from a non-technological society as they did; or perhaps an overly technological society?). He is the same mixture of knowledge and ignorance “A Story” would lead us to expect of an aborigine. His father is clearly an impostor—and treated as such by Marsch—but the boy may not be. However, it’s too easy. Trenchard’s wife was an aborigine, and so too is the son. It’s too obvious. Even Marsch, a trained anthropologist, comes to believe it, even though almost the entire populations of St Anne and St Croix believe the race to be extinct.

However, Marsch’s journals could be a complete lie. In one of the tapes of Marsch’s interrogation this is actually suggested—the example given that Marsch describes all doctors as useless and given only to helping keep ugly women alive; and yet the only doctor mentioned in his journal is a Dr Hagsmith [page 206]. Coincidence? Or proof that the journal is as fictional a construct as “A Story”?

Throw in a few more clues: The boy’s eyes are described as vividly green [page 181]; Marsch’s eyes, whilst he is on St Croix, are also described as green [page 35]. The population of St Croix is considerably diminished from what it was 50 years ago. St Croix is suspicious of St Anne and all who come from there. The narrator of ‘The Fifth Head Of Cerebrus’ accuses Marsch of being an aborigine [page 68]. The implication is that the boy took Marsch’s place, and that the unnamed narrator’s accusation in the first novella resulted in Marsch’s arrest in ‘V.R.T.’ on what appears to be negligible evidence. Because Marsch is now an aborigine.

Marsch’s behaviour and character in the first novella are different to what you would expect having read the third novella. So perhaps this is true. Marsch’s behaviour on leaving St Anne for St Croix is suspicious enough to support this theory.


If Marsch is actually V.R.T, who is an aborigine, then how true is “A Story”? On the one hand, Marsch could have written it himself, since as an aborigine in disguise the myth is his. On the other hand, I rather like the idea of “A Story” being a parable of a people who lost a war when their defences failed after internal strife. (A war is mentioned in ‘The Fifth Head Of Cerebus’, which the French lost.) Which would make Marsch no more than a supposed spy, arrested because his fiction of coming from Earth has been seen through by the conquering authorities of St Croix.


New Member
Sep 6, 2007
Awsome some really nice points there ^_^ I am studying this book at school and your writing has helped me prepare notes a bit. Im still unsure on what I could write the essay on though without re-telling the story too much.

Also to add to it.

· Marsch says he has an injured hand; “As you see, my hand is still bad; I do not think it will ever be right again, although it looks healthy and there is no scar. I have trouble holding onto things” Page 244. This adds to the fact he might be an aborigine, it was said aborigines could not write well as they lacked movement and skill in their hand. It also fits well as he seems to have a bad hand “after” the boy supposedly dies however this would just be VRT taking Marsches place and he cant write well.

Oh yeah and I think the version i have is a little different so some of the pages are different.


Jul 29, 2010
One very salient point, that I found to be central to the whole work, is the matter of the "drug" that the abos chew in their mouths in order to "be like gods". I cannot remember the exact references made, but I got the distinct feeling somehow that possibly this substance WAS the shadow children, and that the only distinction was those who chewed it, somehow granting it life through them, vis a vie those who did not. The substance in effect being a catalyst to an altered state of consciousness, where the Old Wise One can exist. This thought really tickled my fancy, can anyone remember more specifics about when the drug was mentioned?

This also raises pleasing parallels to both the Alzabo and the Inhumi (who lived on two sister-worlds, one green, one blue). Has anyone delved deeper into the possibilty that this work may be set in the same place as Short Sun, but in a time vastly predating it? Or vastly succeeding it, if somehow Briah is cyclical in nature...


Mar 21, 2005
Actually No, that had not occurred to me before. I have some additional texts/notes including the latest edition of Lexicon Urthus, so I should probably see if I can find any refernces or links to what you are suggesting.

Then again we could always write to Mr. Wolfe to see if he would be so kind as to furnish us mere mortals with an answer....;)


Author of 'Pennyblade' and 'Feral Space'
Oct 28, 2008
Leicester, The Las Vegas of the Midlands!
Then again we could always write to Mr. Wolfe to see if he would be so kind as to furnish us mere mortals with an answer....;)

Don't hold your breath, mate!

Still, its great to have an SF novel (a genre that makes much of explanation) that's such an outright enigma. David Lynch would do a great film of it!


Jan 19, 2010
I got and read the book a long time ago, and now feel motivated to read it again. I haven't read your piece, Iansales, will read 5th Head first! :)


Well-Known Member
Nov 15, 2010
Sorry to bring up such an old thread, but I just finished "5th Head" and thought it was fantastic!

I think along the lines of iansales, but with a twist. Towards the end of "V.R.T." the narration blurs ... sometimes it is clearly Marsch writing, other times it switches without warning to the perspective of the boy, still from the first person. (As, for example, when the narrator reminisces about his father rowing a boat ... this person is clearly V.R.T.'s father, not Marsch's). I think that, after sufficient study and practice at imitation (we know that V.R.T. at least gives a spot-on impression of Dr. Hagsmith, and opined in one scene about "wanting to become an anthropologist") the boy took the opportunity to kill Marsch, take on his appearance, and then attempt to blend back into society as an anthropologist recently returned from the field.

There are a few other reasons to think this. Marsch would most likely have personally visited the father to give the news of the boy's death, and probably would have offered some sort of compensation / condolences. Instead, Marsch simply sends a message ... I think this is because the boy, disguised as Marsch, would still be recognizable to the father somehow.

There is also, in the first story, the narrator's picking out that Marsch is an abo. This puts Marsch off-guard ... perhaps it was one of the first times someone had noticed something was off?

Alternate detail: It is possible that Marsch died accidentally (even in the way described ... falling from a stone ledge), and the boy took advantage of his death and simply hid the body, and took on Marsch's appearance. The boy didn't seem to bear Marsch any ill-will, and they seemed to have become friends.

Anyways, I will post more when I think of more ... but I think that there are enough narrative clues to deduce that the abo boy switched places with Marsch after Marsch died, and tried to take on his role upon returning to civilization.

Edit: The other thing is this: the expedition took three years. This is plenty of time for the abo boy to pick up Marsch's mannerisms, speech patterns, and personal information. Furthermore, that is three years of learning about anthropology from Marsch himself, and reading the various books on the topic thaat they brought. This seems to me sufficient time for the boy to have enough information to fake being Marsch. Remember also that this "idea" of identity replacement is alluded to in the very first story; the boy in the first story contemplates the specifics of replacing his father after killing him, and what sorts of lighting / appearance modifications would be necessary to assume his father's role and make his appearance convincing to visitors.

Edit 2: I was right! Here is an excerpt from an interview that Wolfe gave:

"'A Story,' by John V. Marsch, yes, which is not actually written by John V. Marsch, but by the shadowchild who has replaced John V. Marsch. (laughs) That's New Wave. But belonging to a literary movement doesn't consist so much in using a certain set of techniques, as it consists in running with a certain set of people, and only to a very small degree did I run with that set of people. So as I said, I would be very peripheral as a New Wave writer.
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Well-Known Member
Nov 15, 2010
One very salient point, that I found to be central to the whole work, is the matter of the "drug" that the abos chew in their mouths in order to "be like gods". I cannot remember the exact references made, but I got the distinct feeling somehow that possibly this substance WAS the shadow children, and that the only distinction was those who chewed it, somehow granting it life through them, vis a vie those who did not. The substance in effect being a catalyst to an altered state of consciousness, where the Old Wise One can exist. This thought really tickled my fancy, can anyone remember more specifics about when the drug was mentioned?

This also raises pleasing parallels to both the Alzabo and the Inhumi (who lived on two sister-worlds, one green, one blue). Has anyone delved deeper into the possibilty that this work may be set in the same place as Short Sun, but in a time vastly predating it? Or vastly succeeding it, if somehow Briah is cyclical in nature...

I remember reading an interview in which Wolfe specifically denied that the "Blue" and "Green" planets of the Short Sun series were Saint Croix and Saint Anne. I will try and dig it up.


Well-Known Member
Nov 15, 2010
With some help from the Urth List, I found out that I had been mixing up two different interviews. Wolfe never denies that Green and Blue are the same as Saints Croix and Anne, but whether they are actually the same is up in the air. If they are, the stories would separated by millions of years.


New Member
Feb 7, 2012
I just finished reading this book, and was completely blown away by its artfulness and subtlety. It makes me want to read everything Gene Wolfe has ever written. I appreciate you sharing your essay (now 5 1/2 years ago, bet you never thought people would keep posting on it intermittently this long). Maybe I'll write one myself sometime - but in the meantime I'll certainly be evangelizing the book heavily.


Well-Known Member
Nov 15, 2010
I just finished reading this book, and was completely blown away by its artfulness and subtlety. It makes me want to read everything Gene Wolfe has ever written. I appreciate you sharing your essay (now 5 1/2 years ago, bet you never thought people would keep posting on it intermittently this long). Maybe I'll write one myself sometime - but in the meantime I'll certainly be evangelizing the book heavily.

Glad you liked the book! Much of Wolfe's large bibliography is of exceedingly high quality, and much of it is on par with The Fifth Head of Cerberus, particularly the four volume The Book of the New Sun, and Peace. I have read at last count 16 of his 29 novels, and they were all fantastic. Anyways, head over to the Urth list for tons of Wolfe discussion; you will find much more there on a daily basis than here.
Mar 24, 2013
I just wrote this little write up for the urth list; I tried to be pretty comprehensive in my approach, where I have been doing some more or less chronological analysis of Wolfe's stories.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus

I felt odd moving past 1972 without at least some mention ofWolfe’s first successful long volume, The Fifth Head of Cerberus; the titularnovella was published in Orbit earlier that year.

I want to start bysaying that Borski’s Cave Canem, now on the Wolfe-Wiki, constitutes his bestwork, and is well worth considering. Iwill gloss over some of the information that he fleshes out more thoroughly,but there are a few things I want to emphasize in light of later Wolfe works.(Though some of this may re-treat or recapitulate his observations, I haveresearched the allusions again myself wholesale as I saw fit). In some part this is a response to Borski’s,Wright’s, and others comments on the book. I quote them extensively towards the end of this analysis. This is such a complicated work that involvesso much that there are probably a few important details and themes that aresimply mentioned in only a sentence or two or not at all.

First, my philosophy on Wolfe’s stories: repetitive symbolsand theme are key to interpreting the actual surface level of “whathappened”. In his novels after Peace,juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated things is also of absolute importance,though I do not think this is yet as stylistically prominent in Fifth Head ofCerberus. I think that many repetitiveinternal symbols are ignored by critics and interpreters, and this confoundsme. Borski latches onto repetitionsquite a bit but too often throws in everything but the kitchen sink to force apat conclusion. I tend to force patconclusions when the theme warrants it (For example, in The HORARS of War, ourmain character is both fully human and fully machine because the religioussymbol of the star at Christ’s birth resonates with that theme, but in” Trip,Trap”, the spiritual world is unambiguously the real world and more objectivethan the physical world – the blade has a point in the physical world, but ourtroll is not pierced, only slashed, because in the spirit world the point isbroken and the two protagonists have formed the third billy goat of objectivereality instead of subjective prejudice – objective outside detail is usually,in my opinion, at the heart of getting to the bottom of things in Wolfe).


CIRCULAR COLUMNS IN DREAMS: a circular column of pillars ortrees that suffuse ALL THREE NOVELLAS. The dreamer is surrounded by this columnthat extends to the sky. This appears to be the “natural” temple that appearsin V.R.T., made up of trees that our narrator (at that time Marsch) insistscould never occur naturally, as there is one tree for every day of the Anneseyear. THIS IS IMPORTANT!!!!!! Equallyimportant is the slab of stone where supposedly God can’t see what happens, andthis is where Eastwind/Sandwalker are born and probably where Marsch dies (orat least, where he claims the boy V.R.T perishes), and the magical cave nearthe river of time.

47 AND THE PIPES: prisoner 47 had been knocking on the pipesin prison in VRT … and there are 47 old pan pipes above the door frame in ouropening scene. #47 is a politicalprisoner who states he is “Fifth of September” – lots of things happened onthat date in history, but probably the French revolution is implied, as theFrench have now been repressed.

PROPHYLACTIC SHOWERING/ NONSEXUAL REPRODUCTION/SALIVA:There’s something weird in the saliva in Fifth Head, and in the third novella,our officer has sex with a girl and then bathes “prophylactically” to get hersaliva off him – in VRT a girl who paints a no and yes on her breasts leavesthe imprint on the man she favors, but then goes and washes in the river –“that’s for forgetfulness in the tales, you see.”

Number 5 is formed parthenogentically, as is the partabo/part human girl grown from an arm by Cinderwalker. Additional nonsexual reproduction occurs in theexperiments of number 5: “I was stimulating unfertilized frogs’ eggs to asexualdevelopment and then doubling the chromosomes by a chemical treatment so that afurther asexual generation could be produced. “ ( 23)

SENTIENT TREES, LEAVES OF GODHOOD: Trees that move aroundand act in sentient fashion, with holy connotations, including impregnation:

“They mated with trees and drowned the children to honortheir rivers. That was what wasimportant” (FHOC, 11)

“Sandwalker greeted the tree ceremoniously, … a murmuring ofleaves answered him, and though he could not understand the words they did notsound angry. (98)

“it isn’t good to sleep where a tree is for more than onenight” (100)

“I am not, you comprehend, a Christian, but may yourgenerosity to my poor boy be blessed by Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, or in theeventuality that you are Protestant, Monsieur, by Jesus only and by God theFather and the Holy Ghost. As my ownten-times decimated people would say, may the Mountains bless you and the Riverand the Trees and the Oceansea and all the stars of heaven and the gods. I speak as their religious leader” (VRT, p.198)…

”many animals and birds, trees that were alive, just as youand I have traveling, … though this is still not the back of beyond where onesees gods come floating down the river on logs, and trees gone traveling, thegods with large and small heads, and blossoms of the water hydrangea in theirhair, or the elk men whose heads and hair and beards and arms and bodies werelike hose of men, whose legs were the bodies of red elk, so that they needed tomate with the cow-woman once as beasts and once as men do” (VRT, p. 173) and,when the “boy” is captured with the current, according to Marsch’s journal(after he VRT begins writing for him: “Downstream a long way, a big tree stoodgrasping the rock, with water at his feet, and had thrust out a root to catchmy friend.” (VRT ,p.261). The hybrid Shadow Child who claims to be amental combination of the “man” Sandwalker and the other Shadow children says ”Wehad no names before men came out of the sky … we were mostly long, and lived inholes between the roots of trees.”

Then there is this odd explanation for what the herbs of St.Anne do when chewed: “Once between the full face of sisterworld and her next, aman may take the fresh leaves and folding them tightly carry them in hischeek. Then there is no woman for him,nor any meat; he is sacred then, for God walks in him. … When we die at last wehave been greater than God and less than the beasts. . . when the phase comes again we find newwives, and are young, and God.” The herb is described as wide, warty, andyellow, the seed pink prickled eggs. Atthe culmination of “A Story”, the shadow child bites Eastwind and says, “Thatwhich swam in my mouth swims in his veins now” – this allows the switching ofperception between Eastwind and Sandwalker. Borski implies in his explorations that the abos mimic the trees, but Iam sure these trees are the masterminds of the Shadow Children, though theiractual life cycle is mysterious.

THE RIVER AND THE STARS: The Tempus body of water seemssomehow associated with something mystical, it is in this water that many ofour characters drown or disappear, whether it be Marsch (or the boy VRT,according to his unreliable journal), Last Voice, or Sandwalker. It is associated with time and the sky aboveis also somehow associated with the Shadow Children and their ability to “hide”the planet from terrestrial colonization. As soon as their protection is no longer offered, the French land. These shadow children have a different namedepending on the number present, and often their numbers are not subjectivelyreal, as they are mental projections.

DREAMS: In the drugged dreams of Number 5, he actuallyremembers foreign experiences that must have been from his “father” or furtherback in time. Eastwind and Sandwalker,twins, dream of the other awake when they are asleep, and the aborigine who hasreplaced Marsch, though he is attempting to pass himself off as Marsch, relatesdreams of his mother and red-bearded father that are clearly of his previouslylife as the boy V. R. Trenchard.

SANDWALKER’S FEET: A few more things: every time Sandwalkerappears , his feet are shown hitting the ground: “ The second came not as theyare ordinarily born – that is, head foremost as a man climbs from a lower placeinto a high – but feet foremost as a man lets himself down into a lowerplace. His grandmother was holding hisbrother, not knowing that two were to be born, and for that reason his feetbeat the ground for a time with no one to draw him forth.” ( 84) Then later, “feet foremost as a man letshimself down into a lower place, climbed into Thunder Always” (86). This is important for determining who dies atthe end of the story, for the characters feet are swept out from under himbefore he descends to a lower place.

REPETITION OF THE NAMES WALKER AND WOLF: Number Five is aWolfe, and later when the five shadow children are only one, their name isWolf. Oddly, the Old Wise One who is afigment of the mental reality of the Shadow Children is also called “The GroupNorm”. They have names like Firefox and Swan, and afire-fox shows up again, along with a ghoul-bear and tire-tiger, in the huntingsequences of V.R.T.

The aborigine of theFree People, Sandwalker, has a name that is echoed later in Twelvewalker (Ibelieve the name Trenchard assumes) and Cinderwalker, a very magical aboriginewho takes “a cattle-drover’s woman [who] had her arm cut off by a train” anduses the arm to “[grow] a new woman on that so that the drover had twowives. Naturally the second one, the oneCinderwalker made, was abo except for the one arm”

In each tale we have a doubling, followed by incarceration:the clone number five is imprisoned for murdering his father, the twinSandwalker is born on the slab where foul acts are invisible to God, iseventually cast into a pit “The Other Eye” to be sacrificed, and will attemptto murder his brother Eastwind before a Shadow child bites and switches theirperceptions. In the final tale ouranthropologist is imprisoned as well, perhaps indefinitely.

BRIEF SUMMARY, with interpretations:

Our narrator Number Five lives in a Brothel called theMaison du chien on the blue planet St. Croix in Port Mimizon. He and hisbrother, actually a genetic son, live with their father, called Maitre, andtheir robotic tutor, M.Million, a neural copy of the original man who boretheir genetic code. It turns out thatMaitre is actually a key spy for the government, which may be facing a probablyFrench revolution. (who has colonized the French?) The play that Number Five, David, andPhaedria star in is later mentioned in VRT as a reference to letting the Frenchmaintain some infrastructure thanks to slavery on St. Croix. The dream of our narrator seems to echoevents from previous iterations of his genetic code, and he also sees thecolumn of pillars/trees that is found in all of the dreams throughout thenovellas and is the temple on St. Anne. His aunt, Jeanine, or the black queen, is Aubrey Veil, who haspostulated the idea that the abos have replaced the colonists, but she alsoundercuts it. Number Five recognizesthat Marsch is an aborigine, and Marsch recognizes that Number Five is a clone,who repeats the murderous pattern of his father, even down to the crippledmonkey. Many of the slaves are failedclonal experiments of the Maitre, and the whole planet seems to have stagnatedwith very little genetic diversity. Number Five kills his father and moves back into the compound to restartthe same pattern. His father said thathe made the experiment to see why no clone ever becomes greater than this –talk about a cycle of degeneration.

In A Story by John V. Marsch, Eastwind is born of CedarBranches Waving, followed by the breach baby Sandwalker. Eastwind is taken while being bathed in theriver and his grandmother drowned, and he is trained to be an acolyte of Lastvoice,his beard ritually plucked. Sandwalkerknows little of his brother save in his dreams, where they each perceive theother, and grows to seek out the sacred cave of a priest (who is there, butapparently awake, as Sandwalker feels his feet and withered legs and thenleaves his sacrifice for the priest (it is not clear that the priest is at alllike the man of the Free People, Sandwalker)). He meets with Seven Girls Waiting under a treeand they develop a relationship. Hismother has been taken by Eastwind’s people, and along with some ShadowChildren, who seem to cast a glamor into the sky that keeps St. Anne from beingdetected by colonizers, Sandwalker is eventually cast into a pit called “theother eye” to be sacrificed to the holy river. He discourses with the shifting shadowchildren. The end involves beatingLastvoice to death as sacrifice, then Sandwalker decides to kill his brother,but a Shadow Child disappears, and with a “magic” bite, switches theirperceptions. It is pretty clear thatEastwind is the one who survives, as he kicks Sandwalker’s feet out from underhim, and, later in V.R.T, the rumor is that the landing of the Frenchmen aboutto occur at the culmination of this tale and at the removal of the ShadowChildren’s perception filter, that Eastwind greets them.

Dr. Marsch, in the third section, goes to find traces of theaborigines on St. Anne and it leads him to a fraudulent man named Trenchard whoactually does have a half-aborigine son. The son and Marsch go into the wilderness, to the back of beyondtogether, to find the same sacred cave and temple of trees that played soprominently in the imagery of A Story. They are followed by a lot of strange creatures, including a cat that isprobably the boy’s lover, a ghoul bear, and a tire tiger. At one point, the boy is weeping when acreature is killed. Perhaps this is hismother or some other aboriginal familial association. Marsch is eventuallyreplaced by the boy, the cat lover also killed, and VRT goes to St. Croix, andis arrested when Number Five kills his father, for the murder. The authorities keep him contained becausethey think he might be a spy, and set up Celestine Etienne to watch him,supposedly simply the nearest woman present at the time of hisincarceration. Given that Maitre is aspy for these individuals, she is almost certainly the woman in pink who isoccasionally in his library at the beginning of the book, as it appears to beher favorite color. His files arehaphazardly looked over by an officer called Maitre, before “Marsch” iscondemned to what will certainly be a very long, perhaps terminal,incarceration.


Our planets are St. Croix of Number Five and the firstnovella and St. Anne of the aborigines and the second section. St. Anne is the mother of the Virgin Mary,and obviously the name Croix implies cross. Interestingly, this covers a very particular part of history, from theImmaculate Conception of Mary that sets the groundwork for God’s enfleshment,and the moment in time when that flesh will be put to death.

More disturbing are the street names: Rue D’Asticot – thestreet of Maggots, and Rue D’Egouts – street of sewers

Port Mimizon is not the word for mimicry, but it may verywell be resonant with it, and mimi does mean a mime or mimic.

The address of the Maison du Chien, the dog house: 666Saltimbanque – Charlatan/Fraud and the number of the devil

In any case, Cerberus guards the gates to Hades and sits intheir front yard. When you live in theHouse of Dogs, nicknamed Cave Canem (beware of the dog), on Charlatan streetnear Maggots and the sewer, then pretty clearly this is some hellish imagery,and number five’s parthenogenetic inception is kind of a nasty turn on thenormal order of things. He is bred torepeat the same murder his father and his father before him have – this reallyis something like a hell, and even M.Million is not free, as his creation wassomething akin to a self-destruction that led to an eternal half-life.

When confronted with the Four Armed man, David spins off thefirst lines of Virgil’s Aeneid: arms and the man I sing who forc’d by fate … interesting inthat this is a story of the founding of a second great empire after a defeat,thematically joining the Greek and Roman art and history … something that iscontemplated about the aboriginal culture as a group of cast out Greeks ratherabsurdly in the opening sections of the book. Interesting echo, nonetheless, though it is the four arms of theiradversary that prompts David to recite the lines. The Aeneid is about one hero who escapes theshambles of the Trojan war to eventually found a new Empire, and I think thatthe myths of colonizers from Gondwanaland or some other primitive earthernculture coming to St. Anne long ago and then turning into the aborigines is insome way summoned by the Odyssey/Aeneid presence in the book.

St. Anne – the mother of the Virgin Mary, intimatelyassociated with the immaculate conception, which is actually the inception ofMary without sin.

There are several secular allusions:

“When the ivy-tod is heavy with snow, and the owlet whoopsto the wolf below, that eats the she-wolf’s young” is the opening quote, and itis not clear if it is the wolf which is eating the she-wolf’s young, but inlight of the story I rather fancy so. Later, the Maitre is called an “owl” – perhaps another link between theopening scene with our narrator and David plucking pan pipes to play with – ifMaitre of VRT is David, then perhaps the slave standing under the tree is acast off clone of his brother/father, creating a nice circular situation.(Number Five often sees his own face in the slaves for sale in Port Mimizon).

Both Sandwalker and Number Five experience life as someoneelse when they sleep: “In my dreams that night I saw the little boy scamperingfrom one activity to another, his personality in some way confused with my ownand my father’s so that I was once observer, observed, and a third presenceobserving both”

On Number Five’s Name:

The volumes in the library: the volume on the murder ofTrotski was probably The Great Prince Dies by Bernard Wolfe, thoughalternatively, there is a play by Peter Weiss, Trotski in Exile (Mosley’s bookThe Assassination of Trotski was not published until 1972) that would satisfyour W requirement for the last name, Monday or Tuesday was by Virginia Woolf, amis-filed book by V. Vinge filed with the W’s, and interestingly “The Mile LongSpaceship” oddly identified as a misplaced astronautics text by “some German” –Kate Wilhelm – and that story is about telephathic communication between a manand aliens whose ” dreams” are real. Yes, Number Five was looking for some Wolfe books, clearly his father’sname is Wolfe.

THEMES: There are two very interesting and, to mymind, opposite things at play here: Maitre WANTS to change and succeed, but hisexperiment always fails – his perfect copies are stuck in the same loop ashimself and wind up in exactly the same place. While the “perfect” mimicry ofthe abos leads us to question who is human and who is aborigine, there issomething much more spiritual at stake – why does Number Five, the perfectcopy, never seem to have free will to change? Is the parthenogenetic cloning process itself why the “ship” of hisdreams never moves anywhere? Is M.Million a more perfect copy of the original human; does he evince true emotions?

Individual perception verified by external observation,imitation, and the difference between those who conquer and those who areconquered are all on the table here.

VITAL QUOTES: Davidon the abo’s tools: “If you could have asked them, they would have told youthat their magic and their religion, the songs they sang and the traditions oftheir people were what were important. They killed their sacrificial animals with flails of seashells that cutlike razors, and they didn’t let their men father children until they had stoodenough fire to cripple them for life. They mated with trees and drowned the children to honor theirrivers. That was what was important.”

This is how Eastwind kills Last Voice at the end, withflails. The aborogines probably did matewith trees literally. What is the riverthat it has so much power? How do theShadow Children obscure the perceptions of others, and are they truly able tocommunicate with the stars?

Also, there is this one: Robert Culot says that hisgrandfather saw the aborigines, and that they looked, “sometimes like a man,but sometimes like the post of a fence. … or a dead tree … sometimes like oldwood”. Pretty close relationship to thetrees they were supposed to mate with, eh?

Cinderwalker creates a whole new person from a dead arm.

RELIGIOUS IMPLICATIONS: There is something very fascinatingabout the names of these planets, St. Anne and St. Croix, that really does dealwith salvation – the onset of the immaculate conception that allows Christ toenter into the world through the conception of his vessel, the Virgin Mary, tohis crucifixion (St. Croix), which is symbolic of the fully human, but fullydivine Christ’s death in the act of salvation. It seems a far more sinister parthenogenesis is at work on St. Croix,designed not to save, but to damn.

The river on St Anne as greater than God and its littleplace names are interesting – how does life on that planet really work? There are Free People, Marshmen, ShadowChildren, and probably even more groups, some pretty distinct. It seems the composite animals described inVRT are aboriginal as well.

CONNECTION TO OTHER WORKS: There really are a lot of motifsthat are repeated in Long and Short Sun, from Tree hybrids to four armed men toa blue and green planetary system to parthenogenetically produced offspring,but, no, it isn’t the same as Blue/Green. This is explored further down below.

The style of A Story is something Wolfe is very good at –that mythic but confusing dream prose that channels the savage mind withoutlosing sophistication. It is verydifferent than the first part of the novel, but I would have to say he doesoccasionally repeat this tone, in things such as “The Sailor Who Sailed Afterthe Sun” , “At the Point of Capricorn”, maybe even “Tracking Song” – wheretechnology and mysticism lead to a primitive world.

LITERARY REFERENCES:Michael Andre Druisi and Borski have long since catalogued these, but I want tosay that the Puss in Boots reference is never taken far enough by Borski, it isEXTREMELY thematically important, as are the references to “The Mile LongSpaceship” (with its dreams as realityapproach and the statement that it was an astronautics text misfiled - prettyinteresting) and the opening lines mirroring of “Remembrance of Things Past”,with its exploration of involuntary memory and identity in all three stories –when the cat shows up and says that the gift is courtesy of the marquis ofCarabas, this evokes not only a sentient cat but the surrounding mythos: thecat gives stuff to the king courtesy of a peasant lad who owns him. He convinces his master to bathe in the rivernaked and hides his clothes while the king comes by, then convinces all thecountry life to say that the land belongs to the marquis of Carabas. Next, he tricks an ogre to turn into a mouseand eats it, attaining its castle for his master. With a river and nudity and pretending to besomething other than one is, this story resonates pretty well with the St. Anne portion of the tale.
Mar 24, 2013
ON BORSKI’S FAMILIAL CONNECTIONS: The lady in pink is clearly CelestineEtienne, because she is a spy mistress working for the government, and MaitreWAS an important spy for them, and she is also using her wiles on “Marsch” inprison. However, his essays on David andPhaedria as siblings and Celestine Etienne as their mother I find VERYunsound. There is no indication thatPhaedria has not been naturally born. Healso claims that David’s mother must have blue eyes, which is patently untrue –her eyes could be as Brown as Maitre – it only means that both would have tocarry the recessive allele. Identifyingher as the lady in pink is vital and of course proper.

He also makes this claim on who the five heads are:

BORSKI’S LIST “5. Number Five

4. Maitre (first cloned progeny)

3. Mr. Million

2. Gene Wolfe II

1. Gene Wolfe (founder, ur-patriarch)

In this group, to incorporate David's maidenhead pun, Mr.Million is the virgin.

As for our Gene Wolfe, the author of FIFTH HEAD, he would beGene Wolfe 0.

The horizontal configuration includes the current batch ofWolfes, the one Aunt Jeannine can't quite total to five (because she's unawareof who Number Five's sister is).


2. Aunt Jeannine

3. Number Five

4. David

5. Phaedria”

To which I say, thefirst list should have Maitre as the third clone and Number Five as the fourth,this cycle of cloning has gone on for a long time, thus why Maitre has becomeobsessed with SOMEBODY finally breaking out, though anyone too different issold as a slave (which makes no scientific sense – you want to change, so theones that might be unique you cast out as unsuitable, putting in your placesomeone who is sure to fail as you did). The second list needs Phaedria switched out with Mr. Million, I justdon’t buy that she is related.

One more claim that he is making that I must respond to,Borski’s essay “Dante and the House of Wolfe”, found at Wolfe-wiki.

In the level of suicides, the man trapped in a thorn bush,ignores the mechanistic reason our officer looks up the text of the Shrike:here, Marsch has miraculously escaped damage from a dangerous beast by beingcut by thorns – it is that mystical foliage at work again. Borski has slightly misidentified why thebird impaled by the Shrike is brought up right there – whether it be a symbolof the punishment of suicides I leave up to the reader, but in some ways, yes,Marsch will ultimately kill himself.

That being impaled by the thorn bush, in my opinion, is kindof inviting that vegetative life to take an interest in what is going on. Marsch is very soon after doomed to perish,possible on that slab of rock which is supposedly free from God’s scrutiny.


Wright stresses the inability to differentiate betweencolonizer and colonized in his essay “Confounding the Skin and the Mask:

“Disappointingly, it took twelve years for another critic tocapitalise on Sargent’s reading and readdress the political dimensions of thetext. Albert Wendland’s Science, Myth, and the Fictional Creation of AlienWorlds (1985) treats The Fifth Head of Cerberus as a narrative raising‘questions over identity’ and ‘personal morality’ and, more significantlyperhaps, concerning ‘methods of government’ which are ‘complex and impressive.’ Wendland’s argument not only focuses on‘the reversed outlook of object [aborigine] onto subject [coloniser].but alsothe complicated interaction of object and subject, and the inability tountangle the two’ that Wolfe effects through his carefully balanced deploymentof ambiguity. Importantly, Wendland recognises that ‘such ambiguity not onlyquestions the certainty of most SF conclusions (the defining of the universe bythe SF human explorers, the determination of the object by the subject), butalso the whole concept of certainty itself, especially the assumed,self-contained and separate integrity of individual subjects.’ Although Wendland does not undertake aconsistent postcolonial reading, he is aware that Wolfe’s examination of theseadmittedly ‘abstract matters’ is contextualised by setting – Sainte Croix andSainte Anne are both Earth colonies – and by Wolfe’s treatment of the complexinteraction between human colonist and aborigine. ‘The new regime’s dominationis so strong that the old race, in order to survive must imitate the ways ofthe new rulers, become like them’, Wendland remarks, associating implicitly thephysical mimicry of the Annese with the cultural mimicry found amongst manycolonised peoples. Despite thepertinence of this observation, Wendland remains unwilling to apply apostcolonial critique to a text so clearly amenable to such discourse. Hence,there is a need to reconsider the narrative in the light of postcolonialtheories in order to illuminate the possible purposes and consequences ofWolfe’s elaborate and mesmerising textual puzzle. However, even at this stageit is important to understand that the existence of the puzzle is moresignificant that its solution, since the puzzle is where the politicalarguments of the novel can be found.”

MY RESPONSE To which Isay, if we look at the interplay of all those interviewed in the text, thereason that this “impossibility” to distinguish is actually a farce. The difference between Sandwalker andEastwind is empirically EASY TO SPOT – it does seem that a brief bit ofdialogue indicates Eastwind has NO TESTICLES, when a girl points and laughs athim and then he claims that it is bound by woman’s hair until it putrefies,though the reference is not 100% clear and he might just be plucking his facialhair every day. The difference betweenMarsch and the boy who takes is place is also easy – those green eyes and acomplete inability to use the rifle properly. The ambiguity comes in identifying who is the conqueror. The French come down to conquer and are soonrepressed by some unknown force (is it English? Not sure). In the discourse ofthe Wise Old One who cannot distinguish between men as Shadowchildren, the FreePeople, or those colonists, it is pretty clear that the reason for this is ALLTHE LIFE STEMS FROM A COMMON ORIGIN, save perhaps that of the pink seeds in theleaves. [I wonder if the mite that spinsits weave and, if it winds up inside workers of the mat, is related to St. Annelife, as those aborigines are great with ropes and suck with tools – could thesmall mite be important?

Dollo’s law is brought up (once a species loses the use ofsomething it doesn’t come back, he has to adapt a new way to do the same thing)is almost certainly because the offhand colonization from ancient terrestrialstock and differentiation/regression/hybridity back to an animalistic place hashappened. Both the stagnation of cloningin St. Croix and the interbreeding and hybridization of St. Anne has gone along way to dehumanizing the worlds – St. Croix is a place that doesn’t change,nor does it move, St. Anne a place that is too changeable and fluctuates withno base into the animal kingdom, so adaptable that it lacks identity.

I really like Wright’s point here: “Through the interactionof Mr Million, Number Five’s father, and Number Five who are, after all, oneand the same person, Wolfe appears to be advocating hybridity, diversity, andcultural exchange by showing the stifled and stifling stasis that opposes it.In many ways Maison du Chien, 666 Saltimbanque, is a rambling metaphor forcultural isolationism, on the one hand, and imperialism on the other since theact of cloning and the process of hypnopaedia are symbolic representations ofcolonial occupation and re-education.”

I also like his points on hybridity: “Hence, the biologicalchameleon becomes a cultural chameleon; the shapeshifter an idealanthropologist, an individual possessing the intelligence and insight to understandcultures alien to himself. Accordingly, the menace embodied by Marsch-Trenchardtakes the form of his ability to outperform the colonial figure – Marsch – atevery level. His ‘development’ as a character is a consequence, then, not ofhis mimicry, but of an increasing hybridity, a furthering of his own racialheterogeneity.”

In addition, he makes excellent points about “counting” theabos as human:

WRIGHT: “This is not to say that various characters do nottry to construct a colonial discourse. David, Number Five’s son-come-brother,remarks how it is imperative to see the aborigines as human because, ‘If theywere alive it would be dangerous to let them be human because they would askfor things, but with them dead it makes it more interesting if they were, andthe settlers killed them all.’ 17 In other words, if the aborigines arebelieved to be extinct, it is safe to consider them as human. However, if they aredeemed to be still extant, to advocate their humanity would be to admit theywould ‘ask for things’, that is be humanly materialistic, and demand a basiclevel of human rights. We see this attitude repeated by East Wind in histreatment of the Shadow Children, by Mrs. Blount and Dr. Hagsmith, who see theAnnese as animals.”

And finally, his conclusion:

“This is the final tragedy of the collection: the solitaryhybrid, untrammelled by contact with other individuals during his sojourn onSainte Anne, understanding more than any other character about society,governance and individual and interracial interaction, is denied. Hisincarceration is the imprisonment of a free spirit enchained physically,spiritually and emotionally by those who suspect and fear difference. Thecaptive John V. Marsch/Victor Trenchard, alone in his benighted cell, is thefinal, emotive image Wolfe provides of the actions of a species whose poisonouscharacter holds them, like the successive clones of Mr Million’s personality,on a becalmed ship, fearing to embrace the possibilities of an empoweringpersonal and cultural transformation.”

Yet Wright’s excellent article is still ignoring somethingimportant – that both of these places, the mutable hybrid and the stagnantclone, still seem to be leading to a place of moral bankruptcy and murder.

And this is where Borski strikes a very true note, in hisarticle which responds to it, which I am quoting at length because it is justRIGHT:

BORSKI’S RESPONSE:“[the original Marsch] does seem intrigued by the trophy-like nature of thecarabao he kills, and takes a shot or two at a following farmcat, but in thelatter case he desists when he sees how much this upsets Victor and tells theboy that if he can get the animal into camp he can keep it as a pet. Contrastthis compassion and sensibility with the far more murderous tendencies ofVictor, who kills not only human John Marsch, but the abo girl he hasrendezvoused with in the back of beyond– who respectively represent each of thetwo worlds which he should be trying to understand and assimilate as tyroanthropologist, not reduce through violence. Victor, in addition, seemsunusually hostile to women, at one point seeking in his prison diary to justifywhy men find well-endowed women more desirable than their scrawnier sisters, atanother imagining Celeste Etienne masturbating with a candle. He also believeshe was abandoned by his mother after she witnessed him having intercourse, andexpresses no regret at having left his destitute father behind to fend forhimself. Surely, with biases like this–no compulsions about murder, issues withfemale sexuality, toxic familial relationships–Victor Trenchard falls far shortof the idealized observer Wright posits*, and actually deserves punishment forhis more serious crimes, even if the authorities on Sainte Croix areimprisoning him for all the wrong reasons. At least–unlike another fictionalintellectualized monster, Hannibal Lector–Victor is where he belongs.

Then there’s also thesignally high level of mimesis between Number Five and Victor Trenchard.Wright, of course, fails to mention this, and perhaps rightly so, given theoperative paradigms and central thrust of his arguments. But the plain truth ofthe matter is that there are so many correspondences between the two men thatit’s hard to believe Wolfe wants us to see them as different, being in fact, ifnot each other’s shadow, then nearly the same character. The following list isprobably not exhaustive, but I think it clearly delineates this criticalpoint–that Victor Trenchard and Number Five are symbolic twins, with lifecircumstances and ultimate fates irrevocably linked:

1) Victor is born toThree Faces, a sometimes prostitute, who later abandons him; Number Five,according to Aunt Jeannine, has probably been carried in utero by one of thehouse girls at 666 Saltimbanque, and also grows up motherless.

2) Both Number Fiveand V.R.T. have the number five connected with them. (V = 5 in Roman Numerals).

3) Both bear namesthat must be decrypted. Number Five’s real name is Gene Wolfe, and V.R.T. isVictor R. Trenchard. If the ‘R’ of his middle name is Rodman, as some peoplehave suggested, this is an additional correspondence, being author Gene Wolfe’smiddle name, furthering the autobiographical conjunction between the two.

4) Number Five is thephysical clone of his father; Victor is the nominal clone of his, both père andfils bearing the aforesaid ‘R’.

5) Both Number Fiveand Victor declaim about the importance of fishing nets to the Free People.

6) Atop the pleasuregarden of Cave Canem, Number Five spies on a patron** frolicking with a “nymphedu bois” in a private grotto; in the back of beyond John Marsch imagines Victorfrolicking in secret with his own nymphe du bois.

7) Both men havescholarly, scientific minds.

8) Both men killalternate versions of themselves–Number Five, his father, with whom, as aclonal son, he’s isogenetic; Victor, his mentor John Marsch.

9) Number Five planson impersonating Maitre after he kills him (although we do not hear if hecarries this out); Victor successfully assumes the identity of murdered JohnMarsch.

10) Number Five has adream about confining Corinthian pillars in a paved court, the Anneseequivalent of which (“woodhenge”) Victor sees in the back of beyond.

11) Number Five, in adetention camp, sees robot guards go berserk, firing upon prisoners; Victordreams about the same incident, with berserk robots firing upon him in “a vastdeserted courtyard surrounded by colonnades.”

12) Both Number Fiveand Victor Trenchard are initially arrested as suspects in the same fouldeed–the murder of Maitre.

13) Victor Trenchardis being held by the authorities on the possibility that he may be a spy forSainte Anne; Maitre (Number Five’s alter ego) is a spy.

14) Both men areserved barley soup while imprisoned.

15) Number Five andVictor Trenchard’s lives are linked by the recurring image of the trumpet vine,mentioned at the beginning of the titular novella which recounts Number Five’sstory, and referenced again at the conclusion of “V.R.T.”, which tells VictorTrenchard’s, in essence making of them a single tale.

Now, given how NumberFive’s life turns out–tragically, he repeats his father’s excesses, frompatricide to imminent abuse of his own son (if this were a Greek tragedy,surely his name would be Teutamides (Greek:”Son of he who repeatshimself”))–and how sympathetically resonant it has been with that of his shadowtwin, Victor Trenchard–it seems very hard to find anything triumphal inV.R.T.’s demise.”

What Borski has said in this super long quote is perfect –the two characters are mirrors of each other, even dreaming realistically intheir “otherness”. I don’t’ see VRT atall as a positive character as Wright does. Both extremes, the capricious assimilation of all that they aboriginessymbolize, and the frigid stagnation of St. Croix, both lead to the pit ofhell.


We have a world of corruption and stagnation. Lots of similarities.

Sentient trees. Hybridization. ConfusedIdentities. Blue and Green binaryplanets. Different alien species thatseem to rely on imitating or stealing identity from others (inhumi, abos). I think there is evidence that both VanishedPeople and Inhumi are the vestiges of humanity, as these Shadow Children andabos are as well. Man with Four arms.

Differences: these abos don’t seem to ingest their “victims”as the inhumi and the trees do in Short Sun.

Why am I so certain they are different? The resonance between Urth and the Blue/Greensystem is too strong for me. St Croixand St. Anne just don’t seem galactically important enough – their struggle ismore individual than the theme in Short Sun of returning home only to find thatit no longer suits you. The theme ofFifth Head of Cerberus is very different. The man with four arms is surgically created here.


In general, these are my conclusions – the main character inevery section dies in one way or another – Number Five kills himself in hisfather, but that ending, “someday they will want us” is ominous; there is everyindication the cycle of fraudulence will continue in the maggoty sewers of thecity of mimicry behind the doors to hell guarded by Cerberus. Sandwalker, with his feet on the ground, isthe aborigine who is killed. Theaborigines were actually once human and are trying to be that again, butDollo’s law has made them adapt back in a different way to using tools. The shadow children are different – they aremental constructs to some degree, and the trees or projections of those leaves,I think, which are still somehow transubstantially hybridizing, perhapsmentally through the chewed leaves with their pink eggs. (The story ofCinderwalker shows him making a woman who loses her arm into two women, onewith a human arm and an abo body, the other with a human body and an abo arm –this is some funky hybridization right here, and I think thematically similarto what Number Five is doing in creating viable frog generations from anunfertilized sex cell – those chewed leaves with their pink eggs MUST besomething with that creative “godlike” force, because it was said, when theywere being chewed, no more need for women and the chewer was “like God”. Demiurgic?

Eastwind is the one who survives, as the later talecorroborates. There is a scene where thefirst Frenchmen at the landing site are supposedly greeted by Trenchard’sancestor Eastwind (though Trenchard is obviously deluded about his origin andis merely imitating an aborigine and supplementing his income by making faketools.)

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS: WHO HAS COLONIZED AND SUBJUGATED THE FRENCH? Almost certainly not theaborigines. Given the confusion of theWise Old One about who was a man and who wasn’t, and his confusion of past andpresent, this does seem as if there was an ancient colonization of terrestrialstock to the planet. How?

[Eastwind is the twin who survives, I am sure)

WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH THE PLASTIC TOOLS OF THE ABOS M.MILLIONASKS THE CHILDREN TO DISCUSS? Trenchardtries to sell his forgeries, David and Number Five talk about how they weren’timportant and nets and stuff were, but geez, can they even use tools? The boy VRT can use complicated ropes, thecaptors in the second novella use liana vines as ropes to lower their victims,and Number Five does imply that the nets and poisons would have been moreimportant than tools, but why are there even tools on St. Anne if the aboscouldn’t use them unless it implies earlier colonization from Gondwanaland?


In the final analysis, objective identification seems prettyeasy, it is the individual who cannot know himself. The overwhelming negative imagery of PortMimizon and the street names certainly indicates that something truly horrificand hellish has transpired, and is still transpiring. There are no happy endings in Fifth Head ofCerberus, both stagnation and imitation lead to an unsavory fate.
Mar 24, 2013
I have a much better final explication of the second and third parts now: the metaphor of place names as "eye" and "other eye" in "A Story" are a mythic mapping of what is happening in VRT as well - the shadow children chew these little pink eggs and spit out their white "wives". Indeed, these little eggy things ARE the shadow children in nascent form.

Later, shadow children are described as "riding up in the bubbles and the foam from the springs", and Victor Trenchard says that he sees them, along with living trees and birds and animals. Marsch then goes out and sees huge worms the color of a dead man's lips. He also shoots a creature with a doubled pupil. The starwalker's leave from the pit called "the eye" and then sacrifices are made for the river in "the other eye" in "A Story". This is all a metaphor - the shadow children ride the marsh men by attacking their wounded eyes in the story as well. Are they an eye infection?

The mites/larva in VRT are actually the shadow children - they are not anthropomorphic, but only made that way through the story and through infecting hosts. Their claim to be a space faring race is actually a metaphor for being airborne - they infect their host and then "become" them. Thus, when Sandwalker dies at the end of "A Story", Eastwind replaces him but thinks that he is Sandwalker (there are several reasons for believing this, including the pain in his arm and the claim that Eastwind met the French Landers, as well as the statement earlier when Eastwind said that he would outlive Sandwalker but that Sandwalker would live on in dreams, as well as all the foot imagery associated with Sandwalker).

This is what happens to Marsh at the end: he is not the aboriginal VRT, but a shadow child who has "ridden" the Marsch man through the eyes. When Eastwind survives, this is the airborne nature of the shadow children in metaphor - it is not the landlocked aborigine VRT who survives, but a third creature who is neither fully Marsch nor fully VRT, but has come to be the group norm for them.

The successive group approximation becoming validly human is a theme explored in the "relaxation" brought up by Marsch when talking to Number Five, an engineering idea that series of approximations will eventually solve a problem.

Thus, Marsch in jail is a shadow child (I am still not sure if the larva actually goes through a metamorphosis or simply infects its host, but the microscopic nature of the Shadow Children coupled with the mites blown out to see who weave fabric presages the native life's great facility with weaves and knots.)

Everybody only thinks that it is VRT pretending to be Marsch, but in fact the death scene of VRT in the river (and a tree reaching out for him) can play out as described, for Marsch was replaced earlier in the tale. Thus, both Marsch and VRT are dead. Sandwalker dies, but Eastwind lives, his atrophied testicles a symbol of the appropriated replication viruses and parasites must steal from their hosts to complete their life cycles.

It is John Vector Marsch.


Well-Known Member
Jun 19, 2008
Just finished this and really enjoyed it. Like most of his books, on first reading I'm sure i really don't know what's going on. I think this is right up there in being one of his best works. SciFi and fantasy does not get much better than this.


Hex data reader and pawn
May 9, 2013
I have first tried to read these three novellas some time ago but the second novella "A Story" has made me stop although I had really loved "The Fifth Head Of Cerberus" .

Some years later I cannot remember what made me want to read "Book Of The New Sun" saga but to be short I have ended up reading the first two books with immense joy, pleasure and astonishment.

Then, I have started to think that possibly my first impression on "The Fifth Head Of Cerberus" was generated by a serious misconception of this work and it should be reviewed so I made the question to myself "why not trying again now?".

I seriously thought I would simply like it as an average book, but...

You certainly already know that I will admit I loved the book after the second attempt thus I sincerely conclude this is not the first book to be read if you want to join the large group of Gene Wolfe admirers. I would not even dare to add any extra analysis on this thread after such in high detail impressive analysis of this magnificent book performed by other members before me, at least not until I read this book again but you will forgive me now that I understand that I have a big list of Gene Wolfe books to read.

It is odd that my first impression that only the Novella "The Fifth Head Of Cerberus" was good in comparison to the other stories, because I understand that it was largely a misconception: the other two novels are not just even better but I cannot think about the three of them read separately as each one seems to contain the hints to unveil the puzzles posed by these three incredible novellas.
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