Tree is My Hat, Short Sun, and Home Fires spoilers
In “The Tree is My Hat” you have a man who is estranged from his wife. He writes to her, but they don’t get along. He has taken a new “wife,” a much younger woman (seventeen or so) who essentially was forced onto him by an authority he doesn’t want to aggravate (specifically, the local island tribal patriarch chieftain, who says no man can be sane if he doesn’t have a wife). He befriends a dwarf, a dwarf who is actually a powerful demon, who likes him an awful lot. They become blood-brothers, relations. At the end of the tale the wife finally makes her way to the island to see her husband. She’s been globe-trotting a bit (went to Uganda first), and arrives in her rented Range Rover with aged kids her husband has never met and never wanted — surprise! While the man is away, the “friend” of the man… the great shark sea-demon, targets her right away, and brutally rips her to shreds while she’s in his waters. What was ostensibly supposed to be a joyous reunion ends up in massacre.
In other words “The Tree is My Hat” seemed like a close replay of a key part of the plot of “Short Sun.” As a recap, in “Short Sun,” a man — Horn — leaves his wife, a wife he was mostly estranged of owing, in his case, to his feeling an outsider once their first son was born. As he travels a great power — Mother, a great sea goddess/demon — demands he possess a new wife, a seventeen-year-old daughter of Hers, and he obliges Her. He develops a friendship with someone who is friendly with him… or mostly, but whom everyone else deems a demon — a skinny inhuma, Jahlee (who in a different world is also a dark goddess). They become blood relations, kinda — he calls her his daughter. The man, Horn, takes Jahlee with him as he finally reaches back to the island his wife is on, the island he left so long ago after all his trotting through various globes, and introduces her to her new “child” (surprise!). He takes a walk off the beach for a moment, and in this gap of time the demon attacks and tries to kill his wife.
This dramatic replay of a husband “innocently” fostering murder onto his wife recalls a bit “Home Fires” where the wife who had returned to her husband after many years apart, leaves him again because her husband can’t help but visit death upon her. She insists her husband is well-intentioned, but somehow he always invites upon her some sort of destruction.
(It also reminds me of Severian when he travels across space as a diplomat of Urth, apologizes to his wife but takes on a new young teenage lover, Gunnie, and returns to his middle-aged wife when she is wholly on the defensive, assaulted as she is by demonic friends of his — Baldanders and the bride of Abaia — and by the dramatic sea-rising birthed by the arrival of the New Sun.)
I’m reminded in these replays of a theory scholar Peter Wright had that Wolfe was hoping to teach his readers to, in effect, begin to become alienated from perhaps habituated ways of seeing, so to become more independent/less gullible. (Repeat what you did before, but this time with the menace you should have noticed the first time, more overtly in view, is his theory on how Wolfe educates us.) Is it possible that Wolfe was trying to teach us that as much these men insist they will not hide the truth from us — they both make a point of this; that they’ll reveal everything and suffer the consequences — that they very much were hiding from themselves their unconscious desire to obliterate their wives?
For support for this theory, I’m thinking a bit of what Wolfe does in “Peace” where two lovers, Olivia and her suitor, Mr. Peacock, demand that the child they had accompany them on their expedition/picnic, Alden, cut a cope that was keeping them from plummeting to their deaths. Alden did not conclude that this was simply humour, that they were just kidding. He did not conclude that if any accident had occurred that lead to one of their deaths, it would be wholly innocent. But rather, instead, that they were demands made from people who — however unconscious of it — were possessed in part with an actual desire to see their loved one decimated.
He says: “If I had been older, I would have told her I did, and I would — after the fashion of older people — have been telling the truth. I had sensed that cutting the rope was only a joke; I had also sensed that beneath the joke there was a strain of earnestness, and I was not mature enough yet to subscribe fully to that convention by which such underlying, embarrassing thoughts are ignore –as we ignore the dead trees in a garden because they have been overgrown with morning-glories or climbing roses at the urging of the clever gardener.”
Wolfe mostly blocks us from exploring the main male protagonists in “The Tree is My Hat” and “Short Sun” in the same way. He doesn’t lend us to see something missing in the “mature” take that a child might have seen and refused to not keep in view. He doesn’t work us to rediscover this sensitivity that we’d lost, or to develop an adult sophistication that most children and adults ostensibly do not possess. If we’re looking for something foul from both of these men, some powerful crime against their spouses, we’re actually firmly directed by Wolfe to think only of infidelity (though it is true that with this meaning their getting their wives to visualize their making love to much younger women, an alternative motive other than truth-telling — namely, revenge — might be being floated for us to espy and catch).
But we know in a sense that this accidental actual-or-attempted annihilation of their wives, is not their first time. I mean it factually is… but with Wolfe providing an Eternal Return-sense with these repetitions of the set-up of horrible murders (Valeria dies/drowns when the New Sun arrives; it’s humiliation and death for her too) across several stories, it begins to feel like it isn’t.
Is Wolfe unaware of his own replays? Or are we being prompted… as Wright might argue, via repetition, to take another look, and perhaps come to understand these “innocents abroad” as actually not-so-innocent men who made use of what was available to them to make likely the staging of the murder of their aging “broads/brides,” in ways their conscious minds could accept only as unwise naivety on their part?
Are we prompted to see some of the men in Wolfe’ as the same sort of witches that are found to be responsible for cold-blooded murder in tales like “Pandora”? Have I perhaps for the reader highlighted here some of the five murders that were the number required for the true murderer in “Short Sun” Salica’s tale “From the Grave” — a snake — to finally find itself from out of its “underground” hiding place?
With perhaps “A Cabin on the Coast,” where yet again on a beach two lovers who’d showed they partly hated one-another — the woman castrates her man, we are made to understand — find themselves, after the intrusion of a demon, back together again, but with a real sense of menace circling the soon-to-be wife — Big Tim has arrived, while she is naked trying to clothe her breasts with a sheet — have we found the snake that had been obscured by clever psychological guards/gardeners of our psyches?