Riders of the Purple Wage Themes
by Philip Jos‚ Farmer

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Riders of the Purple Wage Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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Farmer answers this question through the paintings of his young protagonist, Chibiabos Elgreco Winnegan, and the teachings of Chib's one-hundred-and-twenty-year-old grandfather, Grandpa Winnegan. Chib's paintings are really three-dimensional sculptures made by bending and twisting thousands of wires into different shapes at various depths. When a soft, red light shines through the wires, it reveals subterranean layer upon layer, rather than the mere surfaces of conventional paintings. Chib's art suggests that even in a perfect society, the artist continues to be a restless explorer, returning from his mental journeys with stunning representations of his psychic discoveries. Grandpa Winnegan expresses the second half of Farmer's message. Obviously speaking for Farmer, Grandpa tells Chib that he must learn to paint with his heart, because only then will his paintings be great and true. Thus, the novella demonstrates Farmer's artistic credo, emphasizing the artist's eternal need to ignore conventions and remain faithful to his inner visions.

Farmer gives this need an added urgency in Riders of the Purple Wage by the repetition of imagery from dead civilizations, implying that in spite of its apparent progressiveness, Bird City is actually overly concerned with the symbolically dead past. For example, Chib's name is from Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha (1855), the legendary poetic narrative about the vanished past of Native Americans. Longfellow's Chibiabos, a minstrel, is Hiawatha's constant companion before being killed by enemies and transformed into the ruler of the land of the dead. Farmer's Chib also rules "a land of the dead," in the form of his own paintings, which obsessively deal with past figures from history and mythology — an understandable preoccupation, given his culture's fixation with the past and his grandfather's stories of the ancients visiting him through time travel. At Grandpa's funeral, Chib receives a posthumous message from the old man (and from the past he represents): As long as Chib is alive to remember, Grandpa will be "the Northern Lights" of Chib's soul. This message combines with Chib's technically innovative paintings to suggest that artists must retain the past as inspiration, but should look to the present and the future for new, challenging ways of expressing their insights and emotions.