Wolfe's comments from the Introduction to Storeys from the Old Hotel

"'Straw' is fundamentally a hot-air ballooning story. Every so often I like to think of things that could have been invented a long time before they actually were - or that might easily have been invented but weren't. For example, for hundreds of years, wars among the Greeks (possibly the most briliantly creative people in history) were fought by heavy infantrymen armed with long spears and circular shields. Most of them were won by the Spartans, the ackowledged masters of holplite warfare. Then, around 379 BC, Thebes produced a general of real genius named Epaminondas. And Epaminondas came up with the simplest great military innovation I know of: he cut a notch out of each round shield. That was all it was. Instead of looking like a whole cracker, the shield looked like a cracker from which a tiny bite had been taken. But that bite permitteed the soldier to use his left hand to assist his right in managing his long spear, and the Thebans crushed the Spartans at Leuctra.

"The point is that Epaminondas' notch could have been cut a thousand years sooner -- in Homer's day, for example. In the same way, it seems obvious that the hot-air balloon could have been invented well before the end of the ancient world. You need a little rope (it's been around for a long time), a lot of silk (which by then was coming steadily along the spice routes), some straw, and an iron basket to burn it in. There are no moving parts, and the design is simplicity itself -- a bag held over a fire. But if the hot-air balloon had been invented in 500 AD, what would have been done with it?"


The narrator is the junior member of a team of mercenaries who travel about by balloon in an approximately medieval world. A baron persuades them to stay at his hall in exchange for straw for their balloon, but they realize that he actually wants them to stay and defend it against enemy attack. The story is told as a reminiscence about a time long past in the narrator's life.


  • Small (unmanned) hot-air balloons were supposedly used for signalling by the Chinese in the 3rd century CE.
  • This story reads rather like the first chapter of a novel.
  • 'Miles' is Latin for 'soldier', 'Bracata' for 'trousered', and 'Derek' a Germanic name meaning 'leader of the people'; so these may be pseudonyms assigned by the narrator to his companions.
  • Ascolot is a minor location in Le Morte d'Arthur.
  • As well as the balloon, the mercenaries use unusual weapons which seem to be spring-powered. Like the balloon, they could have been invented in our world by that time, but weren't.
  • Bracata might be secretly attracted to Jerr, the narrator. He says, "... of course I was hardly there at all as far as she was concerned," but men are often depicted as being oblivious to a woman's feelings. When the balloon (crash-)landed, "Bracata fell on top of" Jerr. She used the claws on her mitts to stop herself, so it may very well have been intentional. Bracata also sat next to Jerr (the narrator) at the feast. She ate the pheasant, but let Jerr eat the venison. Bracata then warned one of the baron's daughters of Men, possibly expressing her exasperation with Jerr.

Unresolved Questions

  • What do the names Clow and Jerr signify?
  • Why are Jerr and Bracata frightened of Clow?

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