“Queen” By Gene Wolfe: Is It CSF? What Can We Learn As Writers?

This is a brief short story, six pages in QPB size. It’s fantasy. It doesn’t name names; it expects the reader to figure out what is happening by the slowly accumulating clues. And it’s not hard to figure out, if […]
on Aug 25, 2006 · No comments

This is a brief short story, six pages in QPB size. It’s fantasy. It doesn’t name names; it expects the reader to figure out what is happening by the slowly accumulating clues. And it’s not hard to figure out, if you are Christian, especially a Catholic.

I love this small jewel of a story for it feels like a parable, a fairy tale, an instructive fable, a timeless tale, even though it’s g rounded in the historical and actual. It shows what a master writer can do with very few pages of clean prose loaded with allusion and symbolism.

I hope some of you got to read it.


“It was late afternoon when the travelers reached the village.” These two travelers, calm and cryptic, ask directions of the richest man in the village as he is hurrying home. Something about the travelers changes the rich man’s attitude: he slows down, he offers to guide them to the home of the poor old woman they seek. Once at the woman’s humble abode, the rich man insists he has no time to spare, but he lingers, and wants assurance the travelers won’t hurt her. The woman, meantime, seems to remember one of the travelers.

“We have come to take her to the coronation,” one of the travelers says, at which the rich man remembers the poor old woman is a descendent of a royal line.

(You can guess what is going on at this point, yes?)

The rich man can’t seem to extricate himself and offers to fetch food.

The old woman says grace and the prayer becomes a moment of epiphany for the rich man who “had never heard such prayers before,” and moreso, “he had never heard prayer at all. He was like a man who had seen only bad coin all his life, he thought, and after a great many years receives a purse of real silver, fresh from the mint.” A thought which one of the travelers seems to hear and responds to verbally.

As he dines, the rich man learns that the woman’s son was a teacher and that there is a long way for the other three to travel to the coronation. He tries to convince them to stay in the village, rest before leaving, stay for a couple weeks at least and be introduced, because having connections is good. “Too many people think that they can do everything through relatives.”

When they say they are ready to go, the rich man offers to find a donkey and to travel a way with them, because the old woman won’t be able to keep up with the travelers on foot.

The old woman says to one of the travelers, “Weren’t you the one who came to tell me about my son?” He doesn’t look a day older, she says.

The rich man asks if they are relatives of the old woman. They admit to being only messengers. The old woman receives assurance they aren’t messengers of death.

The rich man feels left out, asks if he may go with them. They say not. It’s by invitation only. He shyly asks if he might go just to the edge of the village and is told, “Since we are there now, yes, you may,” and, “You’ll tell others. That’s good. Because you’re rich, they’ll have to listen to you. But some won’t believe you, because you’re dishonest. That should be perfect.”

The rich man denies his dishonesty. Then admits it as he walks on. Then distances himself from the acts: “Those things were dishonest, but not I.”

The travelers and the very old woman begin to ascend air. The old woman says farewell: “Please tell everyone I’ll miss them terribly, and that I’ll come back just as soon as I can.”

At one point in their climb up some invisible path, the travelers offer the old woman a last look at her home village. She turns and says, “It’s precious, and yet it’s not important.” To which one traverler says, “It used to be important.”

The old woman laughs “a girl’s laugh” and feels strong enough to run and the travelers say they can’t promise to run as fast as she is able. When she says she wants not to be late to the coronation. They assure her she won’t be. It won’t start without her.

When the rich man’s servant arrives, only three stars are visible where the rich man’s gaze is fixed. They return to the old woman’s house, and the rich man vows to take care of it “while she’s away.” He plans to repair it and keep the trust, and “he was filled with a satisfaction near to love at being thus trusted.”


Is it CSF?

I chose this as it seemed to be a nice pairing with the other short tale I previously discussed, “The Traveler and the Tale.” Here, again, is a Marian story. Here again, the idea of story and of witness matters. “You’ll tell others,” the traveler (obviously an angel) says to the rich man.

In both tales, a meeting with Mary changes the observer for the good. But whereas Yolens’ sci-fi story is skeptical of Mary (and God), this fantasy story is one drenched in respect of and faith in Mary’s special status as Mother to the Son of God.

Surely you realized what was going on. The poor old woman is Mary, the travelers are two angels, one of whom is Gabriel, the one who “told me about my son?” The village is not named, but we can assume is one in the M.E.. Nazareth? (Tradition, I believe, ascribes Mary’s last residence in Ephesus, which was not a village, but an important and lovely city. So, Wolfe sets this elsewhere, a liberty allowed in fantasy.) And the event portrayed is the Assumption (a Catholic belief, though not one widely accepted in Protestant circles.) The coronation is not Christ’s, but hers. She is the Queen of the title.

Would a non-Christian unfamiliar with matters of Christian history and belief get these things. Probably not. Maybe not. But the story would still work as one of a miraculous event and a man changed by it. It would not be as meaningful, but it would still be a fable with its own charm.

And given that it includes a view that refers to things Biblical (including doctrinal stuff of angels and messengers, Mary as a descendant of a king, ie David) and it has a respectful tone of heavenly matters, and that it shows prayer as powerful, and that it alludes to things our Lord taught—something that one gleans reading the actual story, and not my overview—I say this is Christian fantasy. It’s more specifically Catholic fantasy (and perhaps the Orthodox churches accept some of these matters about Mary, but I can’t speak with confidence on that.)

What Can We Learn As Writers and Readers?

  1. You don’t have to babble on to tell an effective story of “magic” and personal transformation. Bit by bit, over a mere six pages, we see the evolution of a rich man from self-centered to other-centered. From worldly-obsessed, to other-worldly initiated. It’s in small clues sprinkled along in narrative and dialogue that we visualize the effect of woman and angels on this rich man.
  2. Feel free to take extra-biblical religious tales and transform them into fantasy or science fiction. Taking these liberties doesn’t mean you must be skeptical or disrespectful to history or doctrine.
  3. Working with the familiar does not require we be clichéd and beat people over the head with the obvious: At no point in “Queen” did these angels say, “Behold, we come from God to take you home.” At no point did Mary repeat parts of the Magnificat to identify herself. She didn’t have to say Jesus, my son, or Joseph, my late husband. She was simply and old woman who lived alone and missed her son and who wanted a bite to eat before leaving for a great event. She even feared death a bit, a very human thing. The elegant submissiveness of the angels to her desires was neither obnoxious nor overt. It was gentle and quiet, just like the story. The tone was never violated. Discretion can speaks volumes.
  4. Trust your readers to get your clues: While some readers won’t get it, and you always have to live with that, any with a normal dose of Western cultural knowledge will. And a dose of mystery is never a bad thing. Everything doesn’t have to be spelled out. Maybe not all the subtle clues to parables and things biblical will be understood, but enough is there to heljp you enjoy the tale.
  5. Rising action is still a great technique: It’s a classic story element taught in schools for ages, and it still works. In this story, we see the growing engagement of the rich man and the growing disengagement of the three who are to leave, and that provides tension and leads upwards to the climax. It’s a lovely feeling, even when it’s this discreet. No one gets shot. No one yells. So, the miraculous stands out amidst the mundane and hushed events of one night.
  6. Know your symbolic toolbox as a Christian writer and reader: I challenge you to go through these six pages of story and find everything that refers to things biblical, allusions that build and build and build the holy infrastructure of this story. “Queen” reminded me a bit in this regard of T. S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi,” especially that middle stanza that is loaded with imagery that speaks prophetically forward for what is to come for the child the Magi come to honor: vine leaves, empty wineskins, running stream, darkness, etc. In “Queen,” the allusions look not forward, but back—as old people often do upon their lives.

    Examples: 1. The two travelers looking for a roof for the night correlates to the journey to Bethlehem of Mary and Joseph. 2. The “rich man”, unnamed, is a figure of Christ’s parables. 3. The lamb that the rich man suggests the travelers buy and take to the poor woman is a reference to her son, the Lamb of God. 4. The two travelers carry no staffs, and the rich man thought it odd they had no staffs to defend their lives. Remember Jesus telling his disciples to go into cities with no staff, to go in pairs?

    Those four examples of the allusive gold mine of this story are all in the partial first page of the story. Just 3/4ths of one page. Every single page is loaded this way. The old widow woman who has a little “oil” and “flour.” What does that remind you of?

    This is the kind of tale that is richer as an experience the better you know your Word.

  7. Have someone and/or something genuinely change: Another couple of classic story element that work together in this brief tale are character epiphany and change. The rich man is transformed emotionally and spiritually. The old woman has changed in location and status. Even her parting words suggest the village itself is changed. That’s a lot of change in six pages, but it’s done with such skill that the story doesn’t feel packed. It unfolds at just the right pace.
  8. Don’t be afraid of “was”: This seems like a silly thing to include, huh? But I’ve seen folks critique others’ writing (and I have done it myself in the past) for starting a story with a “was” sentence construction and for using it as the story rolls. One thing I’ve learned through reading widely is that many of our best and most lauded writers are not afraid of was. Maybe as beginners we should watch for it to make sure we’re not being lazy craftsmen. But do not fear it. It’s a legitimate word. In a story that has a “fable” or “parable” taste to it, “was” is particularly appropriate: Once upon a time there WAS… This is a classic English story set-up. Go read some novel starts by C.S. Lewis and others. See how they do not fear “was.” And be not afraid ye either.

What do you think? Am I on target? Are these helpful hints actually helpful? Can any of these be applied to your story?

As a reader, do you think this story would move you, satisfy you?

Next Week: Another story comes under the Mircroscope, either the multiple-award winning novelette “Hell is the Absence of God” by Ted Chiang or the short story “Bed and Breakfast” by Gene Wolfe. Please try to hunt down the stories and read them. It makes for a much more robust discussion, no?

What do you think?