Root Speculation

Continuing with my discussion of the greatness that is Cryptonomicon, I'd like to offer some speculation about the story behind Enoch Root.

Root, as you may know, dies halfway through the book, in the past setting of 1944. Or does he? Later, in the present setting, he is alive and well. Is this the same Root? It appears so.

Some have suggested that Root's death was staged in order to get his wife both a passport and survivor's benefits. But this does not seem entirely clear from the text - if Stephenson wanted to surprise his readers with a fake death, he would have made the death sequence more ambiguous, assuming he is an honest writer, and I believe he is.

There is also the issue of Enoch Root's age. Although it is never explicitly mentioned (as far as I recall), I think it is fair to assume that he was at least age 30 in the past setting of the 1940's, which would make him close to 90 in the present setting when he meets Randy in prison. But the impression that I have from reading the book (admittedly, it was a while ago) is that Root was at least 40 during WWII and did not appear incredibly old to Randy. Something strange is definitely happening here.

Further compounding matters is the fact that Root appears in Quicksilver, the prequel to Cryptonomicon, set in the 1700s, which would make Root at least 300 years old.

So what could possibly explain this? Elliotte Rusty Harold has a nice webpage collecting various theories and reader submissions on the story behind Enoch Root.

One possible explanation is alchemy. When asked if he can converse with the local Italians, Enoch Root replies,

But my Italian is heavily informed by the Latin that my father insisted that I learn. So I would probably sound rather old-fashioned to the locals. In fact, I would probably sound like a seventeenth century alchemist or something. (p. 229)


Neal Stephenson explains on his home page that the symbol used on the cover of the book "is one of several symbols that were used, long ago, as a kind of shorthand by alchemists, to denote gold."

As one reader of the above mentioned link suggests, perhaps the mysterious cigar box contains a philosopher's stone, used by Enoch Root to achieve immortality.

This explanation is wanting, however, because Cryptonomicon is more science than fiction, at least in the sense that it avoids the mystical and outlandish. Alchemy does, or at least did, have some connections to genuine science, but fell into disfavor with the advent of modern chemistry. Still, the allusions to alchemy in Cryptonomicon cannot be ignored, especially considering that Isaac Newton, a main character in Quicksilver, devoted much time to this pseudoscience.

Another possibility: the name Enoch has religious connotations. Enoch appeared in the Old Testament as the grandfather of Noah and the father of Methuselah, who is said to be the oldest person who ever lived, at 969 years. Also interesting to note is that according to the Hebrew Book of Enoch, Enoch never "died"; rather, God took him and transformed him into the angel Metatron. Metatron in turn is described as "an angel that led the people of Israel through the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt" and "the link between God and humanity."

Hmm. A guiding savior, linking God and humanity, returning from the dead? That sounds strangely familiar. Jesus, anyone?

The Publishers Weekly review of Quicksilver on Amazon describes Enoch Root as a "Wandering Jew/alchemist," lending credence to both of the above theories.

Again, though, both of these explanations involve some form of mysticism and are thus outside of the style and tone of the rest of the book. One last explanation that fits within the flavor of science fiction, but does not have much supporting evidence from the text is the theory that the mysterious cigar box contains some kind of time travel device, and the Enoch Root that meets with Randy in the 1990's is a younger version of the Enoch Root that dies in Sweden in 1944.

I can't say I'm entirely satisfied with any of these theories, but we will soon see what Stephenson has in my mind for us regardless. Quicksilver will be released next Tuesday. Place your bets now.

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I think he's an alchemist

I think he's an alchemist with the Philosopher's Stone in the cigar box. That fits more than any other explanation. What about this theory leaves you unsatisfied?

I don't usually buy hardcovers but have pre-ordered Quicksilver.

More alchemy, eh? According

More alchemy, eh? According to my best friend Kinni--who, despite being a materialist atheist has been into the occult for a long time--The_Diamond_Age_ is a big alchemical allegory in addition to the "surface" story, which was all I ever apprehended. She says Neal really knows his stuff, alchemically.

I haven't read The Diamond

I haven't read The Diamond Age or Snow Crash yet, so I can't comment on any alchemical allegations in those books, but it doesn't seem like alchemy fits in well with the tone of Cryptonomicon. Everything else that occured in the book could have occured in "real" life, i.e. was in accord with known scientific laws. Alchemy is not in this category.

This is why I mentioned the theory of time travel, as that is not necessarily ruled out by the known laws of physics. But it does seem like alchemy is the direction Neal is going...

Wouldn't some of these be

Wouldn't some of these be considered spoilers? Should we put warnings up and/or hide some of the text in the "more" box?

Just trying to look out for the unspoiled... ^_^

Wouldn't some of these be

Wouldn't some of these be considered spoilers? Should we put warnings up and/or hide some of the text in the "more" box?

Ummm... wouldn't the following be warning enough?

Continuing with my discussion of the greatness that is Cryptonomicon, I'd like to offer some speculation about the story behind Enoch Root.

Yeah, but there's no

Yeah, but there's no accounting for the spoilers that can pop up in comments, even if the original poster is careful. I personally received a devasting spoiler about the series finale of Buffy on this very blog, in a comment.

Haven't read Crypto but just

Haven't read Crypto but just started Quicksilver--a perk of working in a bookstore. I'm only 30 pages in and the name dropping has begun. It's fun.

As for alchemy in Snow Crash: I don't recall anything about it. That's a cyberpunk adventure filled with Japanese references, cool weapons, but a bland ending.

Sean, I think Virginia was

I think Virginia was talking about The Diamond Age, not Snow Crash. I don't really see the Alchemy aspect of TDA, although perhaps nanotech is sort of a modern Alchemy. For example, like lead into gold, carbon was able to be turned into diamond pretty easily, and became as common as glass.

I couldn't see the alchemy

I couldn't see the alchemy stuff in TDA either, I had to take my friend's word for it. The fact that the alchemy stuff is coming out in some of Neal's other books bolsters her case, I think.

A dictionary of Angels by

A dictionary of Angels by Gustav Davidson,
pg.106, explains much. "The invention of astronomy and arithmetic is laid to Enoch". Perhaps religion has a place in technology. Is Neal trying to pose this question?
At any rate Mr. Stephenson sure did come up with a hook, didn't he?

What about when Rudy Von H.

What about when Rudy Von H. calls him "Enoch the Red" (Rot = Red in German, hence "Root" if I may be so bold).

Enoch Root, NS seems to want to tell us, is of Teutonic descent (like any good white mystic in postwar fiction).

So, we are to look to the Germans, and the ever-mystical world of Germanic lit. Check out "The Green Face" by Meyrink for a good slap in the face by the Wandering Jew.

Posit: Root is to NS's Cycle as St. Germaine is to Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum." Both serve as touchstones between inter-generational narratives, and are a lot of fun as red herrings, too (like all good mystical mysteries).

Also, Randy calls him a

Also, Randy calls him a "wizard" and there's the whole LOTR worldview he has, so Enoch the Red could be like Gandalf the Gray/White, who also had a history of resurrection and was also a member of an order whose goal was to help history along.

Also, on page 850 Gunther

Also, on page 850 Gunther Bischoff talks about renewing his acquaintance with Enoch Root. "He made it?" Rudy asks. "He made it," Gunther replies.

Enoch Root is the Blanket

Enoch Root is the Blanket Man on page 542. After a minute or two he sees Rudy poke his head out the door of the doctor's office and look one way, then the other. He pulls his head back inside for a moment. Then he and another man walk out of the office. The other man is wrapped in a blanket that covers even his head. They climb into the Mercedes, Blanket Man lies down in the back seat, and Rudy drives off in the direction of his cottage.