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From: "Robert Borski" <rborski@coredcs.com>
Subject: (urth) The Shrike and Dante
Date: Sat, 30 May 1998 18:14:56 

One of the scenes I've puzzled over most in FIFTH HEAD I call the Shrike
Engima and it begins the 
final novella of the book, VRT.

In it the officer assigned to review Marsh's case record picks up VRT's
school composition book and reads the following, as Victor, in describing
two birds, writes :  "One was a skull-shrike, and the other was a bird that
the shrike had..." The ellipsis ends the sentence, but I feel the next word
would be impaled if finished. The shrike impales its prey on thorns
(Roncevaux is French for thorn) and moreover has a reputation for
bloodthirstiness, often killing more than it can eat. At first I thought
this scene symbolically recapitulated the death of Maitre by Number Five,
who kills--impales--his father with a scalpel, but later, when the junior
officer assigned to review Marsch/VRT's case reads of Marsch's being
scratched by thorns after an encounter with the tire-tiger, he interrupts
his reading and goes back and specifically rereads the two sentences about
the shrike. I therefore have always believed the shrike scene had
additional significance. But what? 

Then recently in a communique from Professor Andre-Driussi, Chair of
Literature at the Universite d'Urth, I was startled to read his conjecture,
in responding to the murderous/suicidal impulses of the Wolfe clan, about
how maybe FIFTH HEAD was "a descent in the Inferno, from the woods of the
suicides to the realm of the patricides."

This immediately kicked free all sorts of associations, from Number Five as
Dante, Phaedrea as Beatrice and Mr. Million as Virgil (another V--and there
is a Virgil quote in FH that David recites).

But more importantly "woods of the suicides" reminded me that some of the
suicides in INFERNO's seventh circle--Piero Delle Vigne, the advisor to the
Emporer Frederick, e.g.--were _imprisoned_ in a thorn bush. Once again I
thought of the Wolfe clan, and specifically the very first member of the
clan, who opted for suicide in allowing his brain to be scanned into Mr.
Million. Cool, I thought. There's also the quasi-suicides of the second and
third Maitres, who are killed by clonal versions of themselves

But then I went back to VRT and picked up the narrative, with the junior
officer coming back to Marsch's journal, which he has put down, no doubt
having free asscociated Marsch's mention of thorns with Roncevaux (again,
French for thorns).

In the very next extract he reads Dr. Marsch is bitten by VRT's abo
catgirl. i.e., he's metaphorically "impaled," _completing_ the second
sentence in Victor's school composition book. 

The _very next_ entry in the journal, however, dated one day later, is
clearly Victor's. 

"Hand still bad, as you can see from the writing. Without the boy I don't
know what I'll do. He has done everything, most of the work, for the entire
trip." (p. 234)

Marsch, in other words, has been killed by Victor (Marsch=bird impaled by
shrike), and VRT, to complete the Dantean thorn connection, has committed
metaphorical suicide, abandoning his previous identity and taking on that
of Marsch--all this adumbrated, hologram-style, at the beginning of VRT in
what is not even two complete sentences. Zowie! No wonder I'm a Wolfe

 Robert Borski 

*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

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