Tuesday, December 17, 2013



Your guide to Gene Wolfe's masterpiece The Land Across

12.16.13: I plan to add more to the existing entries, and add new entries below the Legion of Light. Eventually the plan is to be comprehensive. I am looking for advice from all quarters - I have only read the novel three times so far, so I have doubtless missed things, even obvious ones. Please help me by e-mailing me and I will credit you in the text here.

ALIZ: An agent working with Naala. Naala says operators work in pairs; Aliz is her partner. She is lauded for her service by the Leader, but she never receives a medal. She seems to have been watching Martya for quite some time.

MARTYA: Kleon's wife. They have an unhappy marriage. She cheats on him with Grafton. When Grafton is abducted, Martya goes searching for him and meets Russ Rathaus when the Unholy Way sends her with the witches' hand to kill Russ. They become lovers and she helps him hide from the Unholy Way. She is already being punished when the novel begins, probably for infidelity. She has the second sight - Volitain may have trained her in the arts.

VOLITAIN: Magician, ancestor of Eion Demarates. He is the man who has a computer, but hides it behind a half closed door. He is the descendant of Eion Demarates and an aristocratic family. He is an attorney, and minor royalty. Does he suggest renting the Willows to Grafton in order to protect him?

NAALA: A senior operator for JAKA. She gives Grafton a bugged watch so she can monitor what he does when she is not around. She lives on the first floor, and takes extraordinary precautions with regard to her security. She knows her apartment is bugged and takes great pains to hold conversations outside of it. Who does Naala fear? I am not sure, but the fact the she has no photos of herself or her family may indicate that she was an undercover agent for a long period, possibly recruited at a very young age. Her fears may date back to the time of the communists, when she would have been only a girl. She also has good reason to believe there is a mole in her agency.

BALDY: The director of JAKA. He is extremely intelligent, yet seems to be caught in an internecine struggle in which he claims victory at the end of the novel. Most governments manage two intelligence agencies at least, and Baldy appears to be working both alongside and against the regular police force of the country. He has a lot of confidence in Grafton and Naala.

KLEON: Martya's husband. He has fruit trees, a sign of good luck, but his neighbors steal the fruit and leave his nut trees. Both appear to be political signs, which indicates Kleon had communist sympathies which went out of fashion.

THE WILLOWS: The residence of Eion Demarates. The white witch was left to die behind a mirror in its walls. She may have been left behind by Eion, who was of the magi, to protect his home from intruders, even his relatives. Several people instruct Grafton to cut down the house's distinctive trees, but he never manages it.

HAIR: I believe he is something like the commissioner of police, but I don't know.

AEGIS: Butch's violent partner. He speaks no English but he does speak German.

THE WHITE WITCH: She manifests as an old, gnarled, sentient hand. She loathes Naala, probably because she harbors racist attitudes from centuries ago. She is buried in a waterproof jewelry box. Papa Zenon says he will bury her body above the ground in a suitcase, and later says he did that. She may have been a maid.

PAPA ZENON: Magos X. Martya explains that he is a spy for JAKA in the clergy. I believe her first inclination is correct, and we know that JAKA likes to set several different people on a case; Naala even admits this is a common, if messy strategy. He looks like a mouse.

MAGOS X: Magician, a major one. He shelters Russ Rathaus in his home. He ordered dolls from Russ. He speaks the same dialect as Naala. Magos X is not his real name. His animal is the lion, suggesting his double, and probably his alter ego: Papa Zenon. He was against the communists, and was probably an intellectual persecuted by them. He is most likely a Jew, he is only possibly an American. His reaction to Grafton precludes him being Papa Grafton I think.

DOUBLES: As in all Wolfe, doubles abound in The Land Across.

Leader/Grafton's father
Martya/The White Witch

GRAFTON: The protagonist of the novel. The question of why he travels to the land remains open. It is suggested that he knew of Russ Rathaus before he arrived in this place; possibly he knew of the Unholy Way as well. He becomes the agent of Dracula after meeting the vampyr in his castle. Vlad rewards him with a girl for his service. It's implied that he wants to get out of the U.S. by the end of the novel, indicating he may be in some danger there. He may be hypnotized several times in the novel, first to trust and obey the leader, secondly as a means of giving him second sight by Vlad.

EION DEMARATES: He left home after a quarrel with his father, and became a rich man. He hides his treasure in his house. It is gold. Grafton says he found the treasure in the chimney, but there is reason to doubt this statement.

VLAD THE IMPALER: Former ruler of the land, vampyr. He lives in his castle and is the source of magical power in the land. The wolves belong to him. He wishes the Unholy Way out of his land, probably because he disdains human worshipers. He rescues Russ from prison and frees Grafton in the process.

ROSALEE: Magician, Russ' young wife, and stepmother to Papa Iason. Russ says she is not very bright, but this is a cover. She was his accountant it seems, and maybe at one time was his secretary. She has learned something of magic from Russ, as when she hides as a mannequin in a nice woman's store. It is possible that she made Yelena resemble her through similar processes.

PAPA GRAFTON: We are told that Grafton's father worked for the State Department, but it seems likely that this is far from the whole story, and probably a cover. He is a magician himself, if his son got any talent from the father. I suspect he was Russ Rathaus' original partner in the Imprinting Doll business, and that he created the process responsible for the exportation of magic. It is probable that both men were working for the United States government in their endeavor, and Russ may have been sent in to clean up whatever mess the program caused in the land.

We don't know Grafton's father's current whereabouts, but I suspect he is in the novel somewhere, and Grafton just tells us he is dead so no one would go looking for him.

PAPA IASON: He is Russ Rathaus' son. He is a very ambivalent character. Grafton alludes to a messy past, and calls him a bad man trying to be a good one, then softens it with the idea we all are. His housekeeper may be his mother. He is biased against Volitain, probably because of some conflict between Volitain and Magos X, who is his friend given that the first person he turns to after receiving the hand is Papa Zenon. (Magicians' quarrels in Wolfe date back far indeed.) From all evidence is a very good priest.

THE UNDEAD DRAGON: Grafton says the leader of the Unholy Way is the archbishop. Others seem to confirm this view.

THE ARCHBISHOP: I certainly believe that Grafton himself killed the archbishop as Naala suggests (she is a very good detective). But the idea of the archbishop climbing the stairs for no reason makes little sense. He went up there to meet with someone, possibly a vampyr .

BUTCH BOBOKIS: The white witch's hand murders Butch because he is a spy for the Unholy Way. She casts it into Naala's apartment to inform them Butch was a traitor and there are spies within JAKA.

THE UNHOLY WAY: We know surprisingly little about the Unholy Way. They are described by their leader as Satanists. They do horrible things, murder and orgies, and they are probably vampyr worshippers.

THE LEGION OF LIGHT: The mysterious organization that abducts Grafton. He betrays them to JAKA by announcing his location on the air. They appear to be a dissident group with a pro-capitalist message. The leader of the Legion seems strangely perceptive.


  1. I just finished my first read. I'm well versed in Wolfe and an astute reader.

    But the one thing I missed was: who is the woman with the red pen? I'm sure you've unraveled that in your three readings? Thanks for any clues.

  2. I'm wondering whether the country in The Land Across is based on Transnistria ("a partially recognized state located mostly on a strip of land between the River Dniester and the eastern Moldovan border with Ukraine." [see Wikipedia]). First, the name: "trans" means "across" and Transnistria is across the Dniester, with respect to Moldova and Rumania;
    hence, "the land across." (Though Gene Wolfe said it means "across the mountains" with respect to Austria; could this be a red herring?) Everything else fits, also: the talk of Vlad the Impaler, who was mostly in Rumania, of which Moldova (and Transnistria) was a part at one time; the fact that Grafton is unable to read the language, even though he can speak it a little (the language they use in Transnistria is a dialect of Rumanian written in Cyrillic letters); and so on. I haven't been able to figure out the lake near the capital, though -- Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, does not seem to be located near a large lake. Wolfe says, though, that the lake is very long -- maybe this is his sneaky way of saying that he actually means the Dneiper River, which winds around so much in the vicinity of Tiraspol that it looks almost like a long, skinny, winding lake. (However, there are several lakes that fit the description near Bucharest, Rumania -- maybe the capital city is an amalgamation of Tiraspol and Bucharest.) I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on this.