Saturday, December 11, 2010


Musing and Seeking in this Tally of Tiers: The Wold Newton Universe as Meta-Narrative
By Arthur C. Sippo
5 Dec 2010

Philip José Farmer was one of those astonishing authors whose imagination regularly generated ‘Big Concept’ ideas the way other people generated grocery lists. He did it frequently, relevantly, with just enough panache to and variation to continually surprise his readers. Within his eclectic oeuvre he graced us with many original and challenging storylines including The World of Tiers, Riverworld, Dayworld, the Fr. John Carmody stories, the Polytopical Paramyths, his pseudonymous “Venus on the Half-Shell” and his contributions to Pulp literature both pastiche and authorized. He also wrote mystery stories and contemporary narratives that dealt with critical social issues. But his most widely recognized gift to the literary world was the Wold Newton Family and interconnected Universe of literature that has inspired so many authors ever since.

It started simply enough with the postulate that the great literary adventure heroes of the 19th and 20th Centuries were biologically related to each other due to a chance encounter by their ancestors with a meteor that actually fell at Wold Newton, a small village in the East Riding of Yorkshire, England on December 13, 1795. Some type of ‘influence’ from the meteor altered the genes of these people so that their descendants possessed mental, physical and spiritual abilities greater than those of ordinary humans. More than anything else, the Wold Newton families were composed of heroes (and a few villains): men and women who harnessed their abilities to do great things. The heroes predominated in this lineage and so the legacy of Wold Newton was of beneficence and service to humanity as a whole. Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Doc Savage, Monk Mayfair, Bulldog Drummond, The Shadow, Allan Quartermain, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Phileas Fogg, and Arsene Lupin, were members of this clan as were Professor Moriarty, Captain Nemo, A. J. Raffles, and Hanoi Shan (aka Fu Manchu).

Finding relationships among the heroes and villains of adventure fiction is an appealing idea and many have followed in Phil Framer’s footsteps to extend the Wold Newton family to other protagonists in popular fiction. But Phil did much more.

He also extended the Wold Newton lineage to include characters from more legitimate literature. The Darcy family from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice are included. So is Leopold Bloom from James Joyce’s Ulysses, Queequeg from Moby Dick, and Wolf Larsen from The Sea Wolf. Other notable inclusions in the family were real people such as Count Caligostro the Theosophist, Lord Byron, and There are homages to famous persons such as Robert Blake (a character from H. P. Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark who was thinly based on the author Robert Bloch) along with Paul J. Finnegan and Peter Jairus Frigate (characters from Farmer’s own fiction that were based upon himself. Phil even created a lineage for Edgar Rice Burroughs that went back to the Norse Father God Woden!

This is all very playful and imaginative, but I think there was something deeper going on. Phil Farmer was not merely taking all of his favorite literary characters and lining them up like toy soldiers. He was saying something about the very nature of the literary narratives of mankind. He was not merely looking at the narrative but looking behind them searching for points of unification between popular literature and more legitimate writings. He was wedding myth to fiction to history and ultimately to present day. He insisted that Tarzan was REAL not just fictional. He said the same thing about Doc Savage. When Phil looked out upon the human world he went searching for the order in things that underlies all of our stories fiction, mythical and historical. The Wold Newton family was his way of uniting the subtext in all literature into a grand theme of Good versus Evil; of the triumph of human courage and decency over the vicissitudes of our troubled world. He tried to do what Joseph Campbell tried to do in the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He looked behind the stories to the very ground bases of human life which is the real source of all literature.

The great Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote a long treatise on physics in which he described what he believed to be the laws by which the things that existed in this world worked. Sadly, he got most of this wrong by our modern standards. But then he wrote a work that tried to look beyond the particulars in the things that existed to the very idea of existence in general. These were the rules that underlie the rules of physics: "being qua being." This work was appended to the end of his work on physics and so it was known as “After Physics” or more usually Metaphysics.

Philip José Farmer emulated Aristotle in moving beyond the mechanics of the narrative to the meaning of “narrative qua narrative.” There are multiple tiers of meaning that are revealed in these tales. Phil’s Wold Newton Family was intended to unite the protagonists of a thousand stories at the deepest level to show their interrelation to each other and unity in their meaning. He opined that every story ever told was one of human self discovery, the assertion of the hero as a responsible moral agent, values in conflict, and an ultimate end in which human consciousness is raised and the darkness of old fears and hatreds dissipates in the light of truth and human progress.

The Wold Newton Family gives us a Meta-Narrative which is essentially moral, optimistic, and activist. It sees humanity struggling inexorably from ignorance to enlightenment and from self-deception to self-actualization. This was Phil Farmer’s gift to us. He showed us that our popular entertainments were part of a much larger creative enterprise that cannot be separated into fact and fiction. Our stories as well as our lives reveal the endeavor of human progress and the struggle to be not merely ‘right’ but truly ‘good.’ The Wold Newton Family and the Meta-Narrative it reveals tells us that the values our heroes espouse, the sacrifices they make, their struggles against great odds, and the thrill that we get from reading about them are REAL and not merely imaginary.

The Meta-Narrative is what truly underlies the Human Condition. Doc Savage, Superman, Sydney Carton, Richard Francis Burton, Dietrich Bonhoffer, Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa in their own ways embodied this Meta-Narrative. In that sense they are all real.

The Wold Newton Family and its extended Universe is an invitation for us to enter the Meta-Narrative not as spectators but as participants. It is our Meta-Narrative as well and we need the insight to see this and the courage to follow it through.

Phil Farmer has given us a much greater legacy than we can ever imagine. For this we give thanks to the master and wish him well on his journey beyond this life.