The Queen of Spades = Sybil

Submitted by MARYROSS on Sat, 08/04/2018 - 18:27

In the most astute sleuthing of Pale Fire yet, James Ramey, winding his way through the index to Pale Fire, discovered that Nabokov slyly hid the crown jewels on the title page in the form of a notation of a black chess queen crown. (James Ramey, PALE FIRE’S BLACK CROWN, NOJ, VOL VI (2012)

Disguised to look like part of the Putnam logo, the ruse unfortunately has not been carried forward in later editions, such as my Knopf 1992. 

Ramey asks the question,

But why a black queen? Why not the Hastings font of the black king’s crown, which in

chess problems represents the composer’s sine qua non? Closer inspection of the other chess pieces we have seen in the Index reveals multilingual chess wordplay: Zule Bretwit’s first name is a heraldic term for the chess rook, and Ferz Bretwit’s first name is the Russian word for “pawn.” I would be delighted if other scholars can detect an actual chess problem in these piquant encodings, but whatever the case, it seems very likely that they culminate in the black queen on the title page, that she is the final “move” in the series.

I am not a chess player, so I can’t provide any information on that level, however this fits perfectly into my theory that Sybil is the key player in this “game of worlds”. My question would be, is she the Black Queen or the Red Queen? I have thought the Red Queen because of the “Through the Looking Glass” association and because of her “ruby ring” and her maid, “Ruby”.and ultimately because of her actually being John Shade’s real nemesis.

Then again, I see her as the black widow at the center of the web. I believe there are Tarot and cartomancy clues that suggest she is the Queen of Spades. Pushkin wrote a ghost story titled “The Queen of Spades” featuring the revenge of an elderly sharp opinionated woman upon an avaricial man who made a diabolic deal with her. Here are some typical description of the Queen of Spades:


The Queen of spades evokes a hostile, lonely and negative woman. In cartomancy, she stands next to the King of spades as she also announces conflicts. Excited by negative urges, the Queen of spades will deliberately block the consultant’s path in order to harm him/her. She is jealous and mean.


Queen of Spades
An ambitious, skillful, intelligent woman. Divorced or widowed, lonely, an older woman, may be from a foreign country, a leader, lawyer, health specialist, clever, capable of conniving and plotting, spiteful and catty, deceptive, cold, calculating, emotionally controlled or detached, a gossip, a rival in love or business.


Queen of Spades Widowed or divorced woman; or a woman with Air predominating in her chart. Unscrupulous. Malicious. Cruelty. Betrayal of close friends. Being used for someone's gain. Seduction. Treachery.

Alexey Sklyarenko has kindly alerted me to a possible error in the quote I lifted from James Ramey’s “Black Crown” paper: “Ferz Bretwit’s first name is the Russian word for ‘pawn.’” 

“Ferz” is the Russian word for “queen,” as Nabokov also lets us know in the index.  Ramey earlier notes this as well. I believe he wrote “pawn” here because his contention is that the chess game is between reader and author, and that by following the clues through the index the ultra-sophisticated reader would eventually come to the black queen’s crown on the title page. The reader, he surmises, is a black pawn that is promoted to Queen once they solve this puzzle. Here is what he writes just after the quote I mentioned:


“If so, it would be my hunch that this is an elegant little joke letting the solver know that until reaching this page, having passed through the “mystifying maze” of all the foregoing chess moves, he/she has been Black’s pawn all along. For only here, at the first rank of White’s end of the board, can the solver be promoted from pawn to queen, defending in perpetuity the only true king of Pale Fire, whose name is printed in bold-face just above his queened pawn’s crown.”


I did not include this previously because I am more interested in the fact that the black queen crown is on the title page, than Ramey’s conclusion. Ramey’s conjecture is brilliant and may be true, but I am still of a mind to think that the black queen is Sybil, so I am not entirely convinced of his solution.


Co-incidentally, I just came across an image of the cover of the 1969 Berkeley Medallion Book of Pale Fire. Nabokov was very particular about his covers, and I would assume he authorized this one. It shows him with a WHITE rook and making a move with a WHITE queen! (There is also a Vanessa atalanta and, I believe, a botfly?) This would seem to make Zule and Ferz important components in the plot, which I would guess to be the Goldsworth 'chateau' and Sybil? I assume this cover must have been analyzed and discussed and would appreciate any information or thoughts on this. 


If VN is white, then he must be vanquished, not defended, by the black queen. I think that would account for Kinbote’s final rant that appears to be Nabokov, defeated, revealing himself a solus rex


Cover of 1969 Berkeley Medallion Pale Fire
1969 PF Berkeley Medallion Cover


I am not a chess player, so I can’t provide any information on that level, however this fits perfectly into my theory that Sybil is the key player in this “game of worlds”. My question would be, is she the Black Queen or the Red Queen? 


There is no red queen in chess, obviously, and in cards a "black queen" could as well be a club.

Raney has done an admirable job of solving the mystery of the crown jewels--hiding in plain sight, as it were. His question about why a queen instead of a king may add another dimension to VN's sly joke. Kinbote is admittedly a "queen," in the vernacular of then and now. We shall soon be able to view a bio-pic of the late Freddy Mercury.

True, I don't play chess, but I have certainly seen red chess pieces. "Through the Looking Glass" has a red queen; she bosses around her hen-pecked husband, as Kinbote suggests Sybil does.

Sybil has a ruby ring which makes the law. She chops off the televised head of a singer in mid song (i.e. a poet with an unfinished verse.

Kinbote signs with a black king, but his disguise in red and his red loyalists, his red car seem to suggest red.

VN even mentions his old wood chess set that still retains a few spots of red paint.

 I believe chess sets are usually B&W, but occasionally Red and White (sometimes green?) I don't think red and black play each other as a rule. Since the title page is only in B&W, I suppose it is possible it could be for a red queen. 

VN also mentions how he has tried to bind the terrible force of White's queen - moving Sybil "off the board" to Canada while the knight (Gradus?) and the bishop (Balthasar?) take care of business? Still, my bet is with the Black Queen.

As for the Queen of Clubs, there is no indication that I know of that would suggest her, but the similarity of Pushkin's Queen of Spades, and also the gardener's spade lead me to believe that suit may be important. The gardener is associated with the magus (a Tarot card) Balthasar, one of the magi at Christ's birth, so perhaps a priest, and therefore a chess bishop(?) I believe that is a bishop behind the rook and queen on the PF cover, so clearly important in the game. 

Then again, maybe Kinbote IS the queen...

I searched "card" in PF, and, other than references to Shade's notecards and cardboard, there are several references to playing cards.

Two soldiers are seen playing "lansquenet." I see that Faro (Pushkin) is related to this game.

There are two references, in the notes and in the index, to Nodo, a cheat at cards.

Gradus is chosen for his mission (supposedly) by a cut of cards.

The only uses of "queen" refer to Zemblan nobility, with the sole exception of ferz.

There are both a Red Queen and a Queen of Hearts in Carroll. The former is associated with chess; the latter with cards.

Yes, thanks.  Also, Kinbote at first thinks the Shades are playing cards when he spies into their window. Perhaps they were! It is only later that Kinbote rethinks that it must have been his notecards. He also assumes that the tears and huddle-shaking were over the death of their daughter. What if they had been playing cards and the game was interrupted by a tearful confession of the affaire? I'm not 100% convinced of that, but could be; VN leaves us only with K's suppositions and that may be purposeful, as it seems everything in PF is.

Nodo is mentioned, but nothing much happens with him, but clearly he is there for a purpose. I think the Nodo-lansquenet-Pushkin-Queen of Spades connection is telling. Also the mirror opposite theme of Odon/Nodo is crucial to PF, and in my theories that ties into alchemy-Sol/Luna-King/Queen-Sacred Marriage-anima/animus on the more hidden (occult) levels. I've been posting bits of my overall thesis this past year, so I understand if it doesn't all seem to hang together yet. I'm working on it. I appreciate your comments.

I'm sorry to admit my knowledge of Alice and Looking Glass comes mostly through the Disney conflation. At any rate, one of the red queens says "off with their heads" (i.e. Sybil with the TV programs). 

You'd have to go back to the poem to see what Sybil "beheads." The "vertical hold" was always a problem with 50s tvs, with the frame rolling up and down.

Thunder above the Jungle. "No, not that!"

Pat Pink, our guest (antiatomic chat).

Eleven struck. You sighed. "Well, I'm afraid

There's nothing else of interest." You played

Network roulette: the dial turned and trk'ed.

Commercials were beheaded. Faces flicked.

An open mouth in midsong was struck out.

An imbecile with sideburns was about

To use his gun, but you were much too quick.  

A jovial Negro raised his trumpet. Trk.

Your ruby ring made life and laid the law.

Oh, switch it off! And as life snapped we saw

A pinhead light dwindle and die in black



Of course it's a joke on the vertical hold, but Sybil is imperially dispatching all these flicking faces - all relate to PF; the imbecile with a gun is Gradus, the Negro is Balthasar, who has Christ connotations and in this case kind of like the angel Gabriel heralding Shade into the beyond, (Pat Pink is probably a "pinko", a statement on VN's anti-communist/totalitarian views), the pin-head of light dying into infinity is both Shade & Hazel's death.


BTW, I forgot to mention re: cards, that there are quite a few "Jacks" (even if most are the same guy). Also there are allusions to Tarot, which playing cards developed from.

>The Fool: Kinbote 

The whole Tarot deck is called the "Fool's Journey" as he goes through the spiritual meanings of the cards. This jibes with the Jungian Joseph Campbell's "Hero's Journey" which we see evidence of in K's escape.

>The Magus: Balthasar

The Magus card has an infinity symbol (lemniscate) above the magician's head. VN often refers to himself as a conjuror/magician

>The Hermit: K in his cave

>Justice: Judge Goldsworth


>The Tower: Revolution of consciousness

>The Devil: Gradus (base and animal nature)

>The Sun, The Moon, The Star, 

>Judgement: Resurrection, the afterlife

Probably all the other major arcana, too. In the court cards, the Queen of Swords is equivalent to the Queen of Spades.

PS I neglected to add that Gerald Emerald is referred to as a "practical JOKER"


Playing cards and Tarot are only part of a web of occultism. There is also astrology and numerology and of course, alchemy. I believe all, or at least most, of the poets and writers referenced, including Carl Jung, were involved in some form of spiritual society or practice.

PPS There are also card suits mentioned throughout PF.  As Ljiljana Cuk so well documents, many diamonds, at least one spade (the gardener's) and swords, blades, botkins, tre-foils, social "clubs" as well as bats, sticks, wands, etc., and hearts (Shade's 'attacks' and also in reference to Kinbote's emotionalism).

I was just going over this post of a year ago. I forgot to add that "Ombre" is a card game. Shade mentions this word in one of the drafts.


"After line 274 there is a false start in the draft: I like my name: Shade, Ombre, almost "man" In Spanish... One regrets that the poet did not pursue this theme - and spare his reader the embarrassing intimacies that follow."  P.134


I believe VN is having Kinbote suggest we follow this theme.


Like Lewis Carroll, Alexander Pope apparently structured "The Rape of the Lock" as a card game - of "Ombre." Ombre is played with a deck of 40 cards (a frequent number in PF). It is played with 3 players, each dealt 10 cards, with 13 in the draw deck. I am not clever enough to figure exactly how this works within PF, but I am encouraged by the 3 players aspect since my Jungian take is based on 3 main characters (Gradus, Shade, Kinbote). 

Shade is "almost 'man'," suggesting he is only a part of the whole - Botkin. 


There are also the "ombrioles" in Lavender's artsy porno collection.

I think there may be both a card game and a chess game going on in PF.

Mary Ross