You are Number Five
Prisoner 143





Gene Wolfe The Fifth
Head of Cerberus

There Were Wolves. There Are Doors.
There Were Lakes. There Are Shores.
There's A Cat Dressed As A Bear.
With A Feather In Her Hair.
There Was You.
Then There Was You.

apologies to Brian Eno

Welcome to Number 666, Saltimbanque Street, Port-Mimizon, Departement de la Maine, Sainte Croix! Bon chance, mon brave.
You may feel like you are confined in hell, but a trip to the nearby domed library will cheer you up I am sure. At least you are not on your own. Now listen closely, there IS a way out of this mess, but don't take my word for it. How could you trust someone you have never met? The words you decipher as you hear tapping from close by may be another prisoner like you, but perhaps you sense it is an interrogator's trick or the insane ramblings of some lost soul? All gibberish!
But ask yourself - If you can't trust 'me' what other hope do you have?
No, do not worry about the monstrous hound guarding the gates, or the crippled monkey on the parapet, I can assure you they won't bite you!
There is no need to beware of the dog.
You can hear the howls of the other denizens under the milk-white moon
Those shabby notes you study have been through many hands, perhaps you would like something else instead? My learned friend has a good selection available, Perhaps you would let me choose one appropriate to your condition. No, he doesn't have Proust available now, though the name is familiar. Naturellement.
Perhaps you are interested in poetry, I have long regarded an old seafarer's shanty to be most memorable.
There are other libraries.

William Morris 'Willow Bough'

"One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it." Anton Chekhov, letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev (pseudonym of A. S. Gruzinsky), 1 November 1889

Discovering the mysteries of this book is a confusing, though rewarding experience. One trick he uses consistently is to overcharge his characters, events, places and props, so that each has many meanings and sigificances. The problem is heightened by the way in which Gene Wolfe constructs his clues, generally you need to attend just as closely to what he doesn't say as to what he does.
For example, if he wished to make reference to J. L. Borges he might introduce us to an old peddler of books, who confesses that he has given up reading, but still likes the feel of a book in his hands. He may speak with an odd accent, like many other Southerners.
Perhaps we meet him in a knot-garden by the local library, or buying a lottery ticket, with dreams of wealth and power.
No clue is conclusive in itself, but when you consider them together, and what he might not be saying (i.e. a blind South American writer who worked in a library), the conclusion is inescapable.
He might then also add some twist that throws us off the scent, but which may have a deeper aspect which confirms the accordance.
Maybe the old peddlar claims to have only lived a few years (despite his great age) and to have been granted the secret of an unnaturally prolonged life by an obscure committee of librarians. How could we believe such an obvious liar?
I am aware of Borges cameo appearance in Severian's tale, though I have not re-read that for several years now.
Furthermore a few pages later, he may present clues that 'unequivocally' identify this character with Cortez, Don Quixote or Speedy Gonzales!
In this spirit I will present an interpretation which has influenced my understanding, particularly of the 'V.R.T.' story.
Having carefully checked the figures scrawled within the covers of this book, I am now ready to take a pot-shot at an unlikely target, hoping the rifle doesn't explode in my hands.
V.R.T. is the son of Hans Christian Anderson's 'Little mermaid' she has now been transformed into the 'cat' that follows March and V.R.T.

Biographical Clues

Wolfe, Gene Rodman (1931-)
Gene Wolfe once said that being an only child whose parents are dead is like being the sole survivor of drowned Atlantis. There was a whole civilization there, an entire continent, but it's gone. And you alone remember.'
William Gibson

  • Born in New York
  • Suffered from Polio as a child
  • Raised in Texas
  • Fought in Korea
  • A trained and experienced Engineer
  • Converted to Catholicism
  • Married with Children
  • Now Lives in Illinois

"In a better world we shall hear Jane Yolen's tales with Oscar Wilde's, Hans Christian Andersen's, and Charles Perrault's over a winter's eve of ten thousand years."
Gene Wolfe

(GW) R.T. "She was a useless woman, you understand, Doctor. Ha! She could not even cook. She was a -" (Spits over the side of the boat).

(H.C.A.) His wedding morning would bring death to her, and she would change into the foam of the sea.

(GW) V.R.T "She was an actress, a very fine one."

(H.C.A.) Sea Witch "...You will still have the same floating gracefulness of movement, and no dancer will ever tread so lightly..."

This interpretation implies that the back of beyond is in fact the sea. Their 'mountains' are undersea trenches.
Wetlanders indeed!
2E S14 is a map reference to a deep point off the coast of Africa.
'Full fathom five my father lies'
H.C.A.'s decription of the mermaids' habits reminds me of dolphins as well as the more usual interpretations.

How many stories?

'The Fifth Head of Cerberus' was first published as a single novella. Under Damon Knight's tutelage, Gene Wolfe wrote two accompanying stories which he has called a prequel and a sequel, these are '"A Story" by John V. Marsch' and 'VRT'.
You may notice some events overlap in the three stories which were published together in 1972.
My opinion is that the book is best understood as one story told in three distinctive styles. An Annese Trio rather than an Alexandria Quartet.

Things that are not men (continued)

  • Children.
  • Animals who look like men
  • Animals who talk
  • Women who talk a lot
  • Large fish and men with wings
  • Mechanical toys
  • Anything who is unable to call himself a man
  • Wallpaper
  • Animals that look like trees
  • Some plants and mushrooms
  • beetles who are not men.
  • This pen
  • Dogs, wolves, cats and owls
  • Apes who cannot fly
  • A wooden enclosure... or stone
  • Women who look like men
  • A few old bones
  • Gods who call themselves men, and men who believe themselves gods.

For Damon Knight (1922-2002) who grew many magic beans.

Angels' Trumpet

"Literature is not exhaustible, for the sufficient and simple reason that a single book is not. A book is not an isolated entity: it is a narration, an axis of innumerable narrations. One literature differs from another, either before or after it, not so much because of the text as for the manner in which it is read."
Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), Argentinian author.

Challenge the Reader!
First correct entry wins an appropriate prize.
Messrs. Swan, Whistler and Foxfire will adjudicate... send your answer to them.
Once this nut is cracked I will take another from the bag.

What is my favourite number? (The answer is nearby.)

Whistler, Swan... and Foxfire


There is a visitor for prisoner 6107.