The Fifth Head of Cerberus

The Fifth Head of Cerberus Explanation and Review

The Fifth Head of Cerberus is Gene Wolfe’s second published work following Operation Ares. Previous to reading this, I have read the five books of his Book of the New Sun series twice and then Peace. It has been a while since these reads, but I was excited to get back into Gene Wolfe. The Fifth Head of Cerberus is a compilation of three related novellas, all taking place on the sister planets of Saint Anne and Saint Croix. In typical Wolfe fashion, revelations are made through subtext, clues, and deep symbolism. 

The Puzzle (Spoilers)

I’m going to attempt to enlighten what these three stories are showing, but given how complex Wolfe is (and a reason I’ll get to later) I am definitely going to be missing a lot. The first of the three stories is titled The Fifth Head of Cerberus. In it, we follow a boy growing up on Saint Croix in a brothel. We discover he is a clone of his father and is destined to make the same mistakes as him. An anthropologist, John Marsch, comes from Earth in order to study the aboriginals on Saint Anne/Saint Croix and to meet another scientist named Veil. Veil has a hypothesis that the aboriginals (who are shapeshifters) took the place of the French colonizers of the planets and then forgot that they took their place. Therefore, everyone (or almost everyone) on the planets is truly an aboriginal. The story ends with the son killing his father, being imprisoned, and then released to run the brothel that his father once did.

The second story is titled, “A Story,” by John V. Marsch. The story tells that of a young aboriginal born on Saint Anne named Sandwalker. He is born alongside his brother, Eastwind, and they are separated at birth. The story tells of Sandwalker’s journey, capture, and rediscovery of his brother who now is a part of a tribe attempting to kill and eat Sandwalker and a group of captured natives. I am not entirely certain of how the following events come to pass, but in order to save those about to be cannibalized, a signal is sent out to space which brings down a ship bearing the first French colonizers. It is likely that at this moment the aboriginals take the place of the French colonizers. It is important that this is a story told from John Marsch’s perspective as it shows he has memories of an aboriginal child.

The final story is titled V. R. T., and tells the story of John Marsch who is now imprisoned on Saint Croix. In this story, we see a few aspects of Marsch’s life. The first is his story on Saint Anne where he found two individuals (one who is called V. R. T.) to guide him into “The Unknown” so he can find and study the aboriginals. The other story is told about his imprisonment, where he is constantly interrogated for being a spy sent from Saint Anne. What we discover during the former story is that it seems there was a moment during V. R. T. and his journey that V. R. T. killed him and took his place through shapeshifting. This is seen because around the moment of V. R. T.’s death, Marsch begins to say that he can no longer write well (an attribute of the aboriginals’ lack of ability to use tools). It is also suggested because the previous story shows that Marsch has the memories only an aboriginal could have. If this theory is true, it shows that the Marsch who visited Veil in the first story, and the Marsch who is currently imprisoned, is actually an aboriginal who has forgotten they were such, proving part of Veil’s hypothesis.

Analysis (Spoilers)

The Fifth Head of Cerberus is a story about identity and colonization. Each of the three stories has a conflict of individuality and identity. In the first, we see the conflict in the use of cloning, where the son struggles with the knowledge that he is simply a clone of his father. This story also presents Veil’s hypothesis, another conflict of identity. The second story shows the difficulty in identity between the two brothers. They dream of each other having never met, and in the end, they are unsure of which one is which. Finally, in the last story, we discover Marsch’s own issues with identity, having probably been killed by an aboriginal who then took his place.

This is where colonization comes into effect. In the real world, when countries have been colonized there have been losses of identity as well. When Spain arrived in the Americas, the Spanish explorers and the natives had children who would have been uncertain of their heritage. As time moves further on this uncertainty is more apparent: is it better to associate with one or the other, or is it the best to form an entirely new identity. This is where Wolfe loses me. He poses the question but does not give a clear answer. He is showing that colonization has these effects, but he is not saying what he thinks about them. This is a common critisicm of post-modernism, that it points out the problems but does not fix them. To me, I don’t typically mind this because identifying issues is necessary to eventually work towards a solution. However, that being said, I left the book unclear of Wolfe’s stance. Is he criticizing colonization? If so then I agree. But it also seems like there are hints of his conservatism coming out for a possibly criticism on race mixing, something that would make me deeply upset if I am correct about.


The Fifth Head of Cerberus is a complex and unarguably genius puzzle of a novel. In it, we can see how much thought Wolfe puts into his worldbuilding and how he provides every clue necessary to fully unravel the puzzle. Interestingly, having read some later works, it is also incredible to see the techniques he will eventually use more effectively such as the unstated death and rebirth of a character. Unfortunately for me, this novel suffers from a few things, the first being, I didn’t care enough to unravel the puzzle any more than I did. Where in The Book of the New Sun and Peace I spent days (even weeks for the former book) reading theories, rereading passages, and discussing online, I only watched a 30-minute video on this work and felt I had had enough. The characters and story simply weren’t interesting enough to merit any more exploration. Wolfe managed to provide an intense puzzle that I simply didn’t care enough to delve into any more than absolutely nececssary. Luckily, he fixes this in later books and is able to write better characters and stories, so there is that to look forward to.

Secondly, as I said in my analysis, I did not care for what he was saying. Wolfe is known to be a pretty conservative thinker and what he was saying about colonization and identity possibly showed this line of thinking. It is a conservative mindset that unfortunately does not get at the root of the problem; instead, it points the finger at something less at fault. While his critique on identity is a struggle that many do have, the way it is presented here almost takes away from any of the other issues.

See my Goodreads review here: Goodreads

See other book reviews or what I plan to read next here: Book Reviews

6 thoughts on “The Fifth Head of Cerberus Explanation and Review”

  1. > In the real world, when countries have been colonized there have been losses of identity as well.

    When considering a writer who wrote Hero As Werwolf and whose protagonist in his magnum opus is a torturer who destroys the world, I think it is risky business to assert what he is “saying” from his own perspective.

    However, if I were to do that, I’d say he’s saying that “colonizers are colonized in turn “ and “the land forms the people rather than the other way around.”

    Wolfe politics are not easily mapped on a conventional conservative-liberal line: populist, environmentalist, traditionalist, individualist. I once heard him say “The political system I favor is democracy — not America’s republic. In a republic, we choose people to rule over us. And once we have, you can believe they know it.”

    My own understanding of what is going on in this story is here at the 1:04 mark.

    1. Thank you for the response! I agree that the loss of identity is a very important issue when colonization occurs. I mentioned that with the example of the colonization of today’s Latin America. My main issue is that it was presented in a way that I didn’t care for. I agree that he is not nearly as easy to pin down on a political spectrum as being strictly conservative or liberal, but even he himself said he was a little overly conservative of a writer in some of his earliest works.
      That being said, there are most definitely many ways to interpret his message within The Fifth Head, and mine may very well be an incorrect interpretation. I wasn’t as interested in this book as I was in Peace or the New Sun series (which I’ll be re-reading soon), so I didn’t delve into it as much as I could have. I do appreciate the link and I’ll take a look at that soon!

  2. I enjoyed the take, honestly. Incidentally, my take on the story assumes people already understand how to deduce Number Five’s and Maitre’s real name. If you don’t know that, I spoil it a little. Not directly, but a little.

      1. Their name is Gene Wolfe.
        Five goes looking for his father’s books in the library and looks on a shelf of Virginia Woolf’s books and Kate Wilhelm’s The Mile Long Spaceship (Five thinks it’s a technical manual).
        He says the Cerberus statue, he says it’s a reference to the family name.
        Aunt Jeannine’s name.
        And Maitre is a scientist of genetic research. And the double helix stairway in the library.

        1. That is very interesting. Might merit a re-read eventually with that in mind – despite my not totally caring for the book. I picked up on Virginia Woolf being mentioned and how it seemed Wolfe must have been aware he was making us think of him, but I did not realize the character was he himself. Then again, Wolfe really only starts coming to life on a re-read, so I’m not surprised I didn’t pick it up. Thanks for that info and for your other comments!

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