Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Swans, Knights, and Mermaids

Over the course of a career, it is common for a writer to revisit themes and imagery.  It is no surprise that the legends and images of the Swan Knight and his mermaid crush found in the books of Green Knight's Squire appear elsewhere in the body of Wright's fiction.  So too do woses, cynocephali, elfs, and kitsune Fox Maidens.  Over eighteen novels and close to 40 shorter worker, Wright has developed a common library of images that have become familiar to his readers.  At the risk of reading like TV Tropes, let's take a look at how three important emblems in Swan Knight's Son have been used elsewhere in Wright's work: Swans, Knights, and Mermaids.


“Eh? So what do they call you?”
“Serene,” [Rania] said, showing her dimples. “Her Serene Highness. Isn’t that sweet of them?”
 - Count to a Trillion, by John C. Wright

Typically an exemplar of a human virtue, swan characters are beautiful, wise, fiercely independent, solitary, and prone to pride.  Their romantic relationships are marked by melancholy and separation.  Wisdom always comes with a price...


In The Golden Agethe agents of the Silent Oecumene, humanity's lost interstellar colony at war with the Solar System, are called Swans after the constellation Cygnus, where their home lies.

Additionally, one of the Houses governing the Alternative neuroforms common throughout the Golden Oecumene of the Solar System is known as House Swan.  The idea that wise Swans think differently from the masses of humanity occurs from the first of Wright's series and continues to this day.

The most prominent of Swan characters in the Count to the Eschaton sequence is Princess Rania Grimaldi of Monaco, the Swan Princess. Rania embodies the idea of the swan representing the highest ideal of a people. She is the only one of her kind, as she is the only human capable of sight-reading the alien writing of the Monument. Like many Swan relationships, her marriage to Menelaus Montrose is marked by separation. Instead of death, Rania's 33,900 light year pilgrimage to M3 keeps her away from her husband. Her return from the M3 globular cluster has elements of the swan maiden/tennyo (celestial maiden) myths, chiefly the robe that lets a swan maiden fly.

Created through genetic manipulation long after Rania's departure, the Second Humans are known as the Swans.  Before the introduction of pantropy to human civilization, a mesh of biological radio antennae gave them wings. Representing the love of individuality and wisdom, these Second Humans live in a mental internet similar to Asimov's Gaia, with neural structures and intelligence as far beyond present day humanity's as humans are above fish.  Unfortunately, their love for individual independence creates a drive towards hermit-like solitude that undermines any attempt at civilization.

Throughout the Moth and Cobweb series, the legends of the Knight of the Swan and the swan maidens provide the framework for Swan Knight's Son and its sequels.

Iron Chamber of Memory has another instance of the Swan Knight of legend, whose horn can shatter all witchcraft and will wake the knights sleeping under the mountain until King Arthur's return.

Lady Swan appears in the backstory of Wright's ongoing pulp serial, Superluminary.  Her characterization is yet unknown.


Light, brilliant and white, poured out from underfoot, and in the light were motes of gold that fled upward like snow, if snow were made of fire, and if, instead of falling to earth from heaven, snow was received into heaven from Earth. These snowy motes came from lances held in the hands of the knights, who rose to the surface on platforms, coming suddenly into view.

The Hospitaliers were risen.
- Judge of Ages. by John C. Wright

As mentioned elsewhere, the central dilemma to many of Wright's works is how a man of chivalry and honor should act in unchivalrous modern times.  Between that and the many medieval legends he uses in his worldbuilding, knights are common throughout his works, even appearing in his harder science fiction stories.

Often hot-blooded, the knight's honor code and courtly manners restrains his aggression.  However, when honor is insulted or a wrong needs redressed, you will not find a more formidable opponent. He might owe fealty to a king or the church, although there might be times where he will be a knight-errant, wandering between lords.

Notice that there are no female knights; Wright's characters hold in common a belief that the ritualized violence and death of the duel has a negative effect on women.  (Watching a duel will not send one of Wright's women to the fainting couch, rather it sends them in hatred to the weapons of an assassin.  The female of the species is more deadly than the male...)

In addition to their feats of arms on the battlefield and the duels of manners in court, Wright's knights also excel in the arts of romance.  Excel might be too strong a word, for they are not seducers or troubadours that turn a maiden's head with song and poetry.  Instead, their strength of arms, will, and character draws at first admiration, then flirtation. Knights rescue swan maidens from captivity, defend the honor of Fox Maidens from their near-divine accusers, tempt the wayward Nymphs into holy matrimony, and ride forth into battle on behalf of their mermaid loves.  In fact, the one thing more spectacular than a knight is his lady wife.


In The Golden Age, all martial responsibility and skill resides in one mind: Atkins.  He is The Knight and Soldier for the Golden Oecumene.  His romance can be found in "The Far End of History", complete with the melancholy characteristic of Swan romances.

In the Count to the Eschaton sequence, His Excellency Grandmaster Emeritus Guiden von Hompesch zu Bolheim of the Knights Hospitalier and his order owe fealty to the Judge of Ages, protecting from graverobbers the Judge and his guests as they sleep in cryo-suspension.  This is a take on the Slovak version of the King in the Mountain tale, where a legion of knights sleeps, waiting for their time. Unlike the Knights of Sitno, though, when a Hospitalier asks "Is it time?", it's a warning that knights and horses in powered armor are about to ride out for battle against you. During one of his quests on the surface of the Earth, Sir Guy tamed the wild heart of a Nymph

Speaking of the Judge of Ages, Menelaus Montrose, gunslinger and lawyer, acts as knight-errant in the cause of freedom while his wife, the Swan Princess Rania, is in transit to M3.  In his youth, he was a Texan lawyer at a time where the Texas legal tradition that there are more men needing killing than cattle needing stealing turned into trial by combat.  While not a formal knight, he embodies the legal responsibilities of knighthood, including redressing wrongs, helping the helpless, and trial by combat - may God prove the right.  He is a formidable duelist, and the wounds he received in his last case spark an interest in improving cryo-suspension techniques.  Perfectly content to sleep away the aeons until Rania's return, events on Earth constantly wake him from his slumber.  While many of the knights in Wright's work duel for personal honor, Menelaus has also dueled to redress wrongs, avenge family, and free peoples from slavery to the forces of history.  When his glass pistols fire, kings die and civilizations fall. Nolite Vexare Texam.

Not only is the legend of the Knight of the Swan featured in Gil Moth's adventures in the Moth and Cobweb series, so are the knights of Arthur, Charlemagne, and the Grail.  Chief of the last is the Green Knight, from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

In Iron Chamber of Memory, Arthur appears again, as do many of the same knights and myths used in the Moth and Cobweb series

Knights also appear in The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin. Although Rachel's Roanoke Academy adventures are written by L. Jagi Lamplighter, the Arthur revering hero, Siegfried Smith, who might just be Gil Moth's dimension-separated twin in personality, was not only Wright's PC in the Roanoke RPG, but has his dialogue occasionally written by Wright.


She raised one eyebrow like Spock, and for a moment, she did not look like the unearthly walking mermaid, and she was just Penny again, the girl from the newspapers.
-Somewhither, by John C. Wright

When used for more than seasoning a setting with a taste of the exotic, mermaids in Wright's work follow two legends.  The legend of Muirgen, the Christian mermaid and saint, is featured throughout Wright's stories, even in tales written when he was an atheist.  Mermaids also follow the example of the lay of Sir Lanval and entice knights to their fate.  In the lays, this is to destruction, but in Wright's work, the mermaids instead tempt them into matrimony.


In Orphans of Chaos, Miss Daw, one of Amelia's guardians at the school, is a mermaid baptized as a Christian because Brendan the Navigator had preached to an ancestor.

In Somewither, the alluring Penny Dreadful is a mermaid, complete with a cap like Nerea's that allows her to breathe underwater.  Unlike many of Wright's works, Penny is human, but because certain miracles did not happen on her home dimension's Earth, her people live as merfolk.  Also present is a retelling of Muirgen's salvation.

In the Moth and Cobweb books, Nerea Moth is cut from similar cloth as Penny, complete with a mermaid cap and humanity.  However, her mermaid heritage comes from the Moth family intermarrying with many cryptids and magical folk.   Mermaids are also mentioned in the short story "Pale Realms of Shade".

The story of Sir Lanval and his mermaid bride appears in Iron Chamber of Memory.  This is yet another of Wright's stories in which the idea that mermaids have souls appears.  But where the Muirgen stories insist that mermaids have souls, the mermaid bride is ensouled by her love.

In the Count to the Eschaton sequence, the Nicor and other aquatic pantropic races of man add to the exotic nature of its future history.  Instead, the forest race of Nymphs, a mix of elf and anime bishoujo girl in appearance, serve in the classic role of temptresses.

Methane breathing mermaids frolic through the atmosphere of Saturn in Superluminary.

In addition to mermaids proper, there are repeated mentions of their conceptual cousins, the Melusine,   These water nymphs are often depicted as two-tailed mermaids.  Wright tends to portray them as a separate and even more exotic race from mermaids.  Mentions of the Melusine are found in Moth and Cobweb as well as Somewither.  In  the Count to the Eschaton sequence, however, the Melusine are an aquatic race consisting of "individuals", each one a pod of five humans and/or uplifted whales (of various mixtures of species and sexes) networked together by electromagnetic telepathy into one consciousness - and servitude.  The Swans are descended from these Melusine.

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