Reviews and Analysis - The Iron Dragon's Daughter Analysis
The Elf Lord, the triune Goddess, and Jane's dilemma
(Caution - Spoilers)

From: Rachel Brown
Subject: Iron Dragon's Daughter - Spoilers
(Was: Re: Swanwick on Vacuum Flowers)
Newsgroups: rec.arts.sf.written
Date: 2001-02-21 22:52:10 PST

... It's unfortunately a little late for me to attempt to reproduce any of the very interesting theories that have been batted around here about it, but I wonder if perhaps Douglas Muir and I and our fellow obsessives could maybe pick our top five things that have been making our brains implode since the (wonderful, brilliant, brutal, true, thought-provoking, memorable) book came out ...


I know that I had a theory that some elements of the book, such as the elf lord turning into an egg of light and exactly what happened to Puck and why, were deliberately inexplicable to give us a taste of how inexplicable Elfland is to Jane. I recall that Douglas had a counter-theory, which I've now forgotten. But I know I'd like to know what the author meant by them.

Who was the little girl with the needle and the dog's tail that Jane meets toward the end? Jane's soul? The Goddess? What did she mean when she told Jane that Jane didn't know what to do with her knowledge of Tetigistus and Kunosaura? What was Jane supposed to have done?

And what are we to make of the ending? Does the cycle continue? Or not? Is the man she meets at the party doomed?

- Rachel

From: Michael Swanwick
Newsgroups: rec.arts.sf.written
Date: 2001-02-25 07:11:40 PST

Actually, I enjoy talking about my own work. The pity is that nobody ever asks me anything about it while it's still fresh in my memory.

>I know that I had a theory that some elements of the book, such as the elf
>lord turning into an egg of light and exactly what happened to Puck and
>why, were deliberately inexplicable to give us a taste of how inexplicable
>Elfland is to Jane. I recall that Douglas had a counter-theory, which I've
>now forgotten. But I know I'd like to know what the author meant by them.

Um... as I recall, the elf lord was going senile, which is to say he was losing his grip on his ego and sense of self, and manifesting himself as he really was. Showing his true nature. Which was particularly shameful and offensive because it's the true nature of all the elves, and thus a denial of the validity of their worldly existence.

The significance of which is not simply that Elfland is inexplicable to Jane, but that existence is inexplicable.

(But that's on a theoretical level. On a plot level, I wanted a moment of sheer existential terror. And the image terrified me, anyway.)

I forget what happened to Puck.

>Who was the little girl with the needle and the dog's tail that Jane meets
>toward the end? Jane's soul?


>The Goddess?

Yes. The Maiden aspect of the triune Goddess.

>What did she mean when she told Jane that Jane didn't know what to do
>with her knowledge of Tetigistus and Kunosaura?

Not with her knowledge, but with them. T and K themselves, their presence in Jane's life, were the Goddess's gift to Jane.

>What was Jane supposed to have done?

I honestly don't know. That's Jane's dilemma, and everyone else's too.

>And what are we to make of the ending? Does the cycle continue? Or not?
>Is the man she meets at the party doomed?

As it turns out, the ending can be read either way, and since my part was done when I finished writing it, all readings are valid. What I wanted the ending to mean was that Jane had been freed from the cycle. She gets to be a chemist (I know a lot of fantasy fans hated this as a reward for the heroine, but I thought it was a pretty good one) and possibly an important one, to live in Pittsburgh (a lot of readers didn't like that either, but Pittsburgh is a nifty place), and most of all she gets to work out her own life, subject to chance and luck but without overt meddling from the Goddess.

Is this a happy ending? I don't know. It's the one we all have.

Which is why the contrary reading, that Jane never escapes the Goddess or the cycle, is also valid. Depends on your reading of this world. Either way, Jane is content. She likes life as we know it.

I gave her T as a reward for making it through to the end of the novel - he's the one worldly thing she wants - and, quite to my surprise, the Goddess threw in K as well. What happens next? Does Jane marry T and keep K as best friend? Does K steal T from her? Do they all fall into bed together? This one I really don't know because the real reward I gave Jane for making it to the end of the book was freedom.

I ran across Carol Emshwiller just after she finished writing Ledoyt and she said she was in mourning, that all these people she had lived with for years were suddenly gone and it felt as if they'd all died. "Doesn't it feel that way to you, too, when you finish a novel?" she asked.

I thought about it. "No," I decided. "It feels like all these characters who have suffered under my persecuting hand have been set free. I imagine them running joyfully in all directions, as hard and fast as they can, so that I can never catch them and put them in another book again."

Jane could end up as a waitress, living over a garage, and be happy.

All best,


PS: Ledoyt is Carol Emshwiller's most recent (I think) novel, and an extremely interesting one.

Original Usenet format, and continuation of thread at

Nested metaphors, dog's tails, needle-boys, and more!
(Caution - Spoilers):

From: Douglas Muir
Subject: Re: Iron Dragon's Daughter: themes'n'spoilers
Newsgroups: rec.arts.sf.written
Date: 2001-02-06 16:27:32 PST

Kynosoura means "dog's tail".... It also means "cynosure" - "the center of attention or intent, or that which is watched or admired by all".

The etymology is interesting. The constellation we call the Little Dipper was the Dog to the Greeks. The star at the end of its tail is Polaris... aka kynosaura, the tail of the Dog. Since all the other stars circled around it, and since mariners looked for it every night, "kynosaura" came to be a metaphorical term meaning the center of attention.

No great step, we use "polestar" or "lodestar" in much the same way today. However, the Greek term has a level of bawdy nuance that's lacking from the English; apparently, it's clear in Greek that it's a /female/ dog's tail... and "chasing tail" had much the same implications for them as for us.

But anyhow. The modern Latin/Norman/English word "cynosure" descends from this meaning, with the original one left mostly behind.

Swanwick has used this metaphor with considerable skill. Male-female dichotomy. That which is attracted, and that which attracts; Mr. Happy the homing needle, as you say, and chasing tail. Compass needle and polestar.

Note, too, that the kynosaura-girls in Jane's life tend to be, well, the center of attention... Gwen most obviously, but the others in their ways too. At the same time, they're all bitches of one sort or another... except for Gwen, who displays a fairly canine devotion.

The needle-males, OTOH, are all "sharp" in one way or another - sharp-witted, sharp-tongued, or sharp dressers. And they all have phallic names - Rocket, Rooster, Peter, Puck. Yet they keep dying because of Jane ... well, needles are sharp but fragile too.

The metaphorical becomes more "real" as we head higher towards spiral castle, with the relentlessly bitchy elf-version of Kynosaura seeking to ensnare Jane (and to cast an enchantment that will focus her monstrous ancestor's attention forever), while Rocket locks onto Jane in relentless pursuit and fires heat-seeking missiles at her.

It's a lovely little nested metaphor, and one that I didn't catch until the second or third reading.

Doug M.

Michael Swanwick replies in mail:
Date: Thu, 8 Feb 2001 09:05:31 EST
From: Michael Swanwick
Subject: Re: Iron Dragon's Daughter: themes'n'spoilers

Doug Muir was correct pretty much across the board. Kunosoura, or however I spelled it, was a play on cynosure, dog's tail, pole star and the rest of it. Though as I recall (but that was two novels ago), I was thinking of K. as being not only "desired" but also "steadfast," a potential guiding light in the otherwise ambiguous murk of Jane's life.

Yes, I was acutely aware of all the vulgar and bawdy sexual references, which was why I buried so many of them as deeply as I did. I think they work better that way, submerged in dream-logic, rather than stated flatly as things literally true and easily refutable. (I loathe Goethe's "eternal feminine" riff, which was why I took a mean whack at it in Jack Faust; ironically enough, offending many who thought I meant it literally.) Though occasionally, as with the heat-seeking missiles, there was nothing to do but let the sexual metaphors out of the cage. When reality breaks down, T., who has otherwise been pretty enlightened for a fey, is reduced to rage and desire. But it's a reduction, rather than a purification. It's not his essence.

As to what's going on with K. and T. and Jane, well, you have to keep in mind that everything is given multiple and often conflicting explanations in the novel. But they're both permanently entangled with Jane's life. Rocket et al. were obviously Jane's soulmates and impressed upon the plot by the logic of the fantasy novel. I was surprised and pleased when K. turned out to be recurrent - I think it helps cut the grease of the whole male-female dichotomy thing that Jane has a strong and not overtly sexual relationship with another woman. I forget what logic I used to choose her names, though I remember putting a lot of work into them. I was careful not to make them female analogues of T.'s name's, though, partly because it would've been offensive, and partly to avoid reducing the characters to programmatic functions.

Jane is just Jane: The protagonist, the Hero With a Thousand Faces, a particular girl and then woman who "means" no more than anyone else. Jane is a witch's name, of course, like Elizabeth, and though she doesn't realize it Jane is indeed a witch, at least potentially, in the sense of someday possibly becoming a "wise woman." She's also a witch in the sense of being a complete outsider in her society and having the power of the otherworldly.

None of them are aspects of the Goddess. They're all three real people. K. and T. are not meant to be Jane's anima and animus.

Let me admit right here that I goofed when I assumed "Tetigistus" meant needle. Mea culpa, and why didn't I open a dictionary? The late Joe Mayhew, who was the first to point this out to me, suggested that in Faerie, where so much else is reversed, it should be assumed the word had swapped meanings with "Acu." Which was generous of him, and probably the best strategy to employ when reading the book. Still, what a blunder! Ouch.

So, why Needle? It's a simple dual meaning: as a compass needle, something flighty and jumpy and yet (again, like K.) steadfast, a possible guide; and as a sliver of metal, something that gets under Jane's skin and can't be dislodged. A constant presence whether she's aware of him or not, an irritant and source of sensation whether she would or no. There's an echo of this second meaning in the syringe-duel at the end of the Teind chapter.

None of this can be codified, though. All meanings were intended to be elusive and allusive, to draw the mind away into speculation and uncertainty and thus suggest more than can actually be put into words. To what degree this succeeds depends on the generosity of the individual reader.

Um ... and that's all, off the top of my head. Thanks for indulging me.



Original Usenet thread, which makes interesting reading at:

Editor's note: there have been a number of discussions of Swanwick's works on Usenet that are worth reading. We'll publish more if/when we get copies.

Philip Pullman and the Spiral Castle
in The Iron Dragon's Daughter (Caution - Spoilers):

Dave Turner asked: I recently read The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman, and I was struck by the similarity of the Clouded Mountain, where God (sorta) lives to the Spiral Castle from The Iron Dragon's Daughter. I wonder whether you both got your inspiration from the same place (if so, where?) or whether there is just something deeply attractive to scifi authors about living in a Klein bottlish sorta place. Anyway, I typed up the passage from The Amber Spyglass so you can see what I'm talking about:

It reminded her of a certain abominable heresy, whose author was now deservedly languishing in the dungeons of the Consistorial Court. He had suggested that there were more spatial dimensions than the three familiar ones, that on a very small scale, there were up to seven or eight other dimensions, but that they were impossible to examine directly. He had even constructed a model to show how they might work, and Mrs. Coulter had seen the object before it was exorcised and burned. Folds within folds, corners and edges both containing and being contained: its inside was everywhere and its outside was everywhere else. The Clouded Mountain affected her in a similar way: it was less like a rock than like a force field, manipulating space itself to enfold and stretch and layer it into galleries and terraces, chambers and colonnades and watchtowers of air and light and vapor.

Keeping in mind that it's been a while since I wrote The Iron Dragon's Daughter ... I wrote Spiral Castle as a model for the entire universe, which Einstein tells us is saddle-shaped and has no exterior. To this essential shape I added the insight from modern physics that there are I forget how many dimensions (nine? nineteen? I knew at the time) in addition to those we can experience, and imagined the whole thing computer-modeled into a single hyperdimensional interfolded body. There might also be a touch of the Medieval mnemonic device of the Memory Palace thrown in there as well. I'd already used the Memory Palace in Stations of the Tide, so there wasn't the pressure on me to explore it, but it's possible that was why I resorted to a castle. The name of Spiral Castle comes from Celtic mythology. It is, essentially, where you go after you die. If you go to Newgrange, the single largest passage cairn in Ireland, and one of the three greatest in the world, you'll note that outside the entrance are two great stones with spirals carved into them. Not, I think, a coincidence.

I can't speak for Philip Pullman, but as a reader it seems likely to me that a lot of the same stuff went into his creation too.

Is The Iron Dragon's Daughter Elfpunk?

Following a recommendation of Daughter as an elfpunk novel in the newsgroup rec.arts.sf.written:

> Vlatko Juric-Kokic wrote:
> On 2 Feb 2002, Nancy Lebovitz wrote:
> >It's a nasty elf world with heavy industry, but there's nothing
> >about it that I'd call punk. There's an oppressive social situation,
> >but it's Victorian rather than chaotic.
> Yes, it's clearly Victorian, but only in the first part, "Cold Iron".
> The second part moves it into the American college/mall culture of the
> twentieth century, which is continued in the third part, too. But the
> heroine rebelled against an opressive "no future" social situation
> just like the punk did, so you might say it is punk.

What you said sounds eminently sensible. I hadn't thought of it in those words, but they ring true. I'm too old to claim the "punk" title, but there's no gettin around the fact that I was trying for that kind of acerbic clarity the real punks achieved. Also what Bill Gibson called their "explosion into form."

All the novel's locales, incidentally, are American. I wouldn't try to deny that Dickens had an enormous influence on the dragon factory section, how things were presented, and how they were played out. But the physical plants are based on places I've either visited, researched, or worked in, all in this country. The layout of the buildings was taken straight from the Baldwin Locomotive Works, which in the nineteenth century covered a couple of square miles of land in North Philadelphia, stretching from the Delaware to the Schuylkill. It was a city in itself, employing many thousands of people - not one, incidentally, of African extraction. Not even to do the sweeping-up. Not one brick of that remains. Every building is gone, torn down long ago, leaving not a trace of physical evidence, like a dark and troublesome dream from which we've managed to awaken.

That said, "Elfpunk" is a really loathsome term, even worse than "steampunk." It's designed to turn off the reader before he or she even learns the title of the book. I hope the sub-genre either stays small enough that the term never reaches currency, or that they find a better one.

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