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The Claw of the Conciliator (1981) – The Eye Blinks and So Begins to See

April 22, 2010

Plato asks of Socrates in the Meno :

“And how will you inquire into a thing when you are wholly ignorant of what it is? Even if you happen to bump right into it, how will you know it is the thing you didn’t know?”

As with most of these kinds of paradoxes, Meno’s paradox does not really prove that which it appears to prove.  Meno does not provide us with knock-down proof of the futility of trying to learn anything or of the logical absurdity of knowledge.  Instead, the paradox serves to highlight a hidden assumption.  An assumption that we thoughtlessly buy into only to later realise its intellectual impact.  The assumption in question is that we begin the learning process from a position of complete ignorance: that we approach truth, meaning and knowledge with a blank slate.  I will not labour the point, but this is seldom the case.  Most quests for truth begin inspired by an intuition or by the hazards of context.  Knowledge does not exist in a vacuum and so we are never wholly ignorant.

This challenge to the possibility to understanding is also echoed in the work of a much later philosopher : Ludwig Wittgenstein.  In Philosophical Investigations (1953), Wittgenstein attacks the concept of a private language – a language whose meaning is secret to all but one person.  One practical problem with such a language would lie in verifying the truthfulness of any statements made in the language.  Suppose that one kept a note-book and that one wrote down a symbol denoting each sensation we had.  Before long, we would have something resembling a dictionary but it would be unusable as we could not look anything up without first knowing what all the symbols meant and while one might have perfect knowledge of what one is feeling now, one can never be sure that all symbols perfectly connect with precise feelings.  Languages, argued Wittgenstein, can never be private.  If they are private then they are not languages and if they are languages then they can never be private.

This exercise in philosophical throat-clearing is not as pointless as it may appear.  In my recent piece about Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), I accused Wolfe of having concocted the literary equivalent of a private language – a set of symbols, metaphors, similes, images and references so utterly impenetrable that they were little more than an exercise in narcissistic futility.  I stand by that accusation : The Shadow of the Torturer is a novel that places its reader in the position of Meno – It spins you around, gives you no indication of where you are supposed to go and then orders you to start marching whilst continually berating you for your terrible sense of direction.  Wolfe even smugly points out that the book was “originally composed in a tongue that has not yet achieved existence”.  However, if the symbolism of The Shadow of the Torturer is a Private Language then The Claw of the Conciliator sees that language gain meaning through use and the acquisition of context.  A context formed partly by the actions of the characters and the details of the setting but also by references made to bodies of classical myth and to a tradition of Christian mystical poetry stretching back through the works of Saint John of the Cross to The Song of Songs itself.

Cover of an older publication of the book

The Shadow of the Torturer opens with a rather sedate and accessible period in which Severian is nothing more than an apprentice torturer.  It is only half-way into the book that Wolfe begins to ramp up his use of imagery and metaphor.  The Claw of the Conciliator begins in a similarly sedate manner with Severian looking for his lost companions and practicing his trade as an executioner in order to pay the bills.  However, this time Wolfe devotes hardly any space at all to reintroducing us to his characters and settings.  He throws us straight into the deep end because to do anything else would be a betrayal of trust…

The end of Shadow sees Wolfe aggressively attempting to frame the nature of the relationship between the reader and the book.  Using Dr. Talos as a mouth-piece, Wolfe makes it clear that The Book of the New Sun is not a book to be enjoyed passively.  It is a riddle to be solved.  It demands and repays active reading :

“Are you familiar with the idea that the universe has a secret key?  A sentence, or phrase, some even say a single word, that can be wrung from the lips of a certain statue, or read in the firmament, or that an anchorite on a world across the seas teaches his disciples?” [Page 271]

But it is also a book that has a very clear and definite Truth to it.  That Truth is not the one concocted by critics seeking to creatively project their fascinations and obsessions onto an innocent text, but rather a single meaning intended by the author :

“Everything, whatever happens, has three meanings.  The first is the practical meaning, what the book calls ‘the thing the plowman sees.’  The cow has taken a mouthful of grass, and it is real grass, and a real cow – that meaning is as important and as true as either of the others.  The second is the reflection of the world about it,  Every object is in contact with all the others, and thus the wise can learn of the others by observing the first.  That might be called the soothsayers’ meaning, because it is the one such people use when they prophesy a fortunate meeting from the tracks of serpents or confirm the outcome of a love affair by putting the elector of one suit atop the patroness of another […] The third meaning is the transsubstantial meaning.  Since all objects have their ultimate origin in the Pancreator, and all were set in motion by him, so all must express his will – which is the higher reality.” [Page 272]

In my review of Shadow of the Torturer I admitted that I was taken aback by the arrogance of Wolfe’s decision to dictate the terms of engagement to his reader.  As I start to review The Claw of the Conciliator, I find myself sheepishly unable to engage with the novel in any other way.  This is not an adventure story or even a traditional novel.  It is a puzzle to be solved.  A truth to be pulled from the world.  It is a challenge.  And for Wolfe to begin The Claw of the Conciliator with any other mindset would be a slap in the face.  Mercifully, we do not have long to wait before the first challenge presents itself.

Cover of a recent collected edition of the first two volumes of the series

Having recognised someone in the crowd, Severian finds himself wandering around a local fair where he is lured into a tent.  In this tent he encounters a green man.  This green man is said to know all and he reveals himself to be a denizen of the future who has returned to the past only to find himself enslaved by carny folk.  The green man hints at the coming of the New Sun (his colouring is supposedly due to algae in his blood stream, a result of some futuristic genetic manipulation) and he questions whether or not he should trust Severian to help him escape.

This encounter is initially somewhat jarring.

Compared to the gentle symbolism and dainty dream-like fantasia of Dorcas’ appearance from the water in The Shadow of the Torturer, Severian’s encounter with the green man comes across as a shockingly crude piece of foreshadowing : Here is a man from the future.  We know that he is from the future because he is green.  He also talks about the protagonist’s capacity for mercy and muses over whether or not he should have faith in him.  Even if one is entirely ignorant of the accepted critical wisdom that The Book of The New Sun is about the emergence of a Christ-figure, then Severian’s encounter with the green man still seems depressingly easy to disentangle.  However, as though taunting us, Wolfe immediately slams the door shut by questioning the honesty of the green man :

“‘You are young now, and strong.  But before this world has wound itself ten more times around the sun you shall be less strong, and you shall never regain the strength that is yours now.  If you breed sons, you will engender enemies against yourself.  If –’

‘Enough!’ I said.  ‘What you are telling me is only the fortune of all men.’” [Pages 330-331]

Beneath the teasing and obfuscation there is an astonishing technical grace to this passage.  Wolfe uses it to introduce not only the impending and very real arrival of the New Sun, but also a Messianic role for Severian in this arrival.  Of course, having introduced these concepts, Wolfe immediately steps back from them.  His exposition is never so crude.  Never so direct.  And yet these ideas have now been introduced into the text, albeit with question marks in the margins next to them.  They are words that have been used and because they have been used, they have acquired meaning.  Their meaning will add to the eventual context of the novel.  The context that grants meaning to all of Wolfe’s symbols and images.

This muddying of the waters is then compounded by some uncharacteristically inconsistent observations that Severian makes about his own character.  Indeed, having finished with the green man, Severian climbs onto a scaffold and performs the duties of his office by executing some prisoners.  When challenged that a suspected witch might have been innocent, Severian shouts back “If you like!” and “To the Demiurge alone belongs all justice!” he even parades the severed head of his victim about with glee :

“I wanted to laugh and caper.  The alcade was shaking my shoulder and babbling as I wished to myself ; I could not hear what he said – some happy nonsense.  I held up my sword, and taking the head by the hair held it up too, and paraded the scaffold.  Not a single circuit this time, but again and again, three times, four times.” [Page 339]

This is an image of Severian as a happy guildsman.  A passive executor of the will of others.  A man content to know his place in the grand structure of things.  A tool in the hands of others.  Indeed, this is perfectly in fitting with what we know of Severian as a character given that the first book saw him dragged from set-piece to set-piece as though on a lead.  This book even contains the suggestion that Severian’s decision to give Thecla a knife so that she might kill herself might not have been his own.  This passivity and receptivity is also reflected in Severian’s repeatedly boasted of perfect memory.  In the first book, Severian makes repeated reference to it almost as a means of establishing his credentials as narrator of his own story.  But suddenly Wolfe shatters this relationship by suggesting that, far from being passive in the telling of his tale, Severian may actually be an unreliable narrator, an autobiographer who edits his own life story :

“In order that it shall not fill a library as great as old Ultan’s, I will (I tell you now plainly) pass over many things” [Page 341]

Note Severian’s insistence that he is telling us something “plainly”, thereby suggesting that everything else he has said has been complete bullshit.

“You that read it cannot but have noticed that I have not scrupled to recount in great detail things that transpired years ago, and to give the very words of those who spoke to me, and the very words with which I replied; and you must have thought this only a conventional device I had adopted to make my story flow more smoothly.  The truth is that I am one of those who is cursed with what is sometimes called perfect recollection.  We cannot, as I have sometimes heard foolishly alleged, remember everything.” [Page 372]

This muddying of the waters serves two purposes.  The first is that it hints at a dual nature to Severian; He is responsible for his actions but he is also subject to a greater plan and a greater purpose.  This subtly draws our mind back to the hints of the green man as well as Wolfe’s expression of authority over his creations.  Only he can tell us the truth about his characters and world.  The second is to suggest that the internal semiotic architecture of the Book of the New Sun is open to revision.  Characters who are introduced to serve one symbolic purpose can and will be re-used in the service of another.  This also functions as a further warning about our relationship to the text : The important part of the Book of the New Sun is not what the characters do and say, but what their activities and pronouncements mean.

These meanings are carefully constructed through a series of encounters made by Severian and Jonas as they travel between cities.  Encounters that deserve a more detailed analysis.


A Silver Mine

Encounter 1 – The Mine.

Severian is lured to a silver mine by a letter claiming to be from Thecla.  In the mine, he fights with a band of primitive and terrifying man-apes who come close to killing Severian before dropping to their knees in front of him when he pulls out the mystical jewell named the Claw of the Conciliator.  This encounter is almost a reflection of Severian’s encounter with the green man in that the apparent superiority of the more advanced human may or may not be due to trickery.  Are the man-apes recognising something divine in Severian or was Severian simply lucky enough to be holding a magical item that scared off the beasts?  The same question could be asked of the colouring of the green man : Is it proof of spiritual, intellectual or technological primacy?  Severian himself is unsure, remarking that “the Claw had flamed for them and not for me”.

Wolfe too seems unsure as while he plays down the revelation that Severian can use the Claw to heal people (something that was thought to be only within the powers of the Conciliator, a Christ-like figure from Urth’s history), he is also eager to place the events of the mine in a metaphysical and spiritual context.  Indeed, when Jonas appears to help Severian fight off some assassins, he describes the scene with the man-apes in heavily mystical terms :

“A glowing being in a far robe making an obeisance to you.  You were holding up a cup of burning brandy, I think.  Or was it incense?” [Page 364]

Wolfe also introduces us to the idea that the world of Severian is one filled with monsters.  Not just the man-apes but also ancient gods and monsters from the sea.  He even suggests some kind of spiritual pecking order as the man-apes are scared away by some rumblings from deep under ground.

“I only knew that there was something far beneath us before which the man-apes, with all the terror of their appearance and their numbers, scattered like sparks before a wind.” [Page 357]

This is an important piece of world building for reasons that only become apparent later in the book.

A Forest

Encounter 2 – The Forest.

After some more travel, Severian finally meets up with the rebel leader Vodalus.  This encounter is oddly unsatisfying both for the reader and for Severian simply because of the scale of the impact that Vodalus had on the Torturer as a younger man.  Indeed, not only did the rebel leader serve as a huge influence upon Severian’s emerging teenaged identity, his rebellion against the Autarch also caused Thecla to be sent to the torturers in the first place thereby precipitating Severian’s disgrace and exile to the provinces.  In many ways, Vodalus has been a defining influence upon Severian’s life up to this point and despite only appearing briefly at the beginning of The Shadow of the Torturer, his presence is felt throughout the series as he is never far from the forefront of Severian’s thoughts.  Indeed, in the mind of Severian, Vodalus comes to represent the greener grass of the other side.  He is a catalyst for movement, for change and for the perpetual re-examination of the world around Severian.

However, when Severian eventually does meet with his hero, he finds not some great mythical figure or even a larger than life hero but a rather unimaginative and materialistic aristocrat who is as much a part of the old and decaying world as the Autarch himself.  Indeed, when Vodalus tries to recruit Severian, he speaks not of lofty ideals or of moral absolutes but rather of a game :

“You must understand something of the position of the pieces on the board, and the goal of the game we play.  Call the sides white and black, and in honour of your garments – so that you shall know where your interests lie – we shall be black.” [Page 384]

“I want you to conceive now of two autarchs – two great powers striving for mastery.  The white seeks to maintain things as they are, the black to set Man’s foot on the road to domination again” [Page 386]

Not much of a sales pitch is it?  Not only does Vodalus suggest that he would simply be another autarch, but he can think of no better way of selling his cause than a colour scheme and a ridiculous simplification of political reality that frankly beggars belief and insults the intelligence.

The encounter with Vodalus takes us back again to the book’s opening encounter with the green man.  As much as the green man looked the part, he was ultimately a false prophet who was only capable of telling Severian what was obvious or what had been told him.  He was not worthy of faith or of trust.  Wolfe paints Vodalus in similar terms, as another false prophet who promises change but who, at second glance, is utterly trapped in the world he inhabits.  He is a creature of his times, not of the times to come.  His status as a false prophet is then secured by his demand that Severian and Jonas prove their loyalty by taking part in a ritual.  A ritual that taps into the imagery of the eucharist only to pervert and twist it as Severian is made to eat the roasted flesh of his former lover Thecla who Vodalus has apparently dug up from her grave.  Upon eating her flesh, Severian finds himself filled with her memories and perceptions – indeed, at several points in the book, he slips into believing that he is Thecla.

“Just when I despaired – she was there, filling me as a melody fills a cottage.  I was with her, running beside the Acis when we were a child.  I knew the ancient villa moated by a dark lake, the view through the dusty windows of the belvedere, and the secret space in the odd angle between two rooms where we sat at noon to read by candlelight.  I knew the life of the Autarch’s court, where poison waited in a diamond cup.  I learned what it was for one who had never seen a cell or felt a whip to be a prisoner of the torturers, what dying meant, and death.” [Page 401]

This sequence is extraordinarily powerful and complex as it marks a real turning point in the semiotics of the novel.  On a purely psychological level, it serves to distance Severian from Vodalus.  While before the mass, Vodalus was ever-present in Severian’s mind, he now retreats to the background and takes on the role of a burden to be borne rather than an ideal to be pursued.  Indeed, if Severian’s new-found distance from Vodalus suggests that his path is a spiritual and/or mystical one rather than the mundane or materialistic one walked by Vodalus, the mass also serves to draw out a strand that was always present in the text, even when Severian strived for Vodalus – namely that Severian’s path is one that is expressed through his relationship with women.  Women like Dorcas, women like Thecla, women like Agia and women like Jolenta.  This, along with the obvious references to the eucharist in the devouring of Thecla’s flesh, marks a conspicuous adoption of Catholic imagery : Just as the life of Jesus was one defined in part by his relationship with the two Marys (the Madonna and the Whore), so too does the life of Severian come to be dominated by his relationship with women.

A Prison

Encounter 3 – The Prison

Having been given a mission to perform by Vodalus, Severian and Jonas set off for House Absolute, the city-sized palace that houses not only the Autarch but also most of Urth’s aristocracy.  However, the pair have barely arrived in the outlying gardens of the palace when they are arrested and thrown into prison.  But the prison they find themselves in is a strange one indeed.

Firstly, it is a perpetual prison in that people are not held in it for a certain period of time and then released.  Instead they are thrown in it and then left to rot along with their children and their children’s children.  In fact, the prison is almost a world in its own right :

“I began to ask questions of my own and found that none of them, not even the oldest woman, had ever been free.  Men and women are put into this room alike, it seems, and in the course of nature they produce children.  And though some are taken away, most remain here throughout their lives.  They have no possessions and no hope of release.  Actually, they don’t know what freedom is, and although the older man and one girl told me seriously that they would like to go outside, I don’t think they meant to stay.  The old women are seventh-generation prisoners, so they said – but one let slip that her mother had been a seventh-generation prisoner as well.” [Page 431]

“They don’t know what some of the words mean any longer, but they cling to the traditions, to the stories, because those are all they have; the stories and their names” [Page 432]

Secondly, the prison is not officially a prison.  Instead, it is referred to as an antechamber and instead of being given food, the prisoners are fed on coffee and expensive-looking cakes as though they are merely temporary guests.

The idea of the world as a prison not only evokes Plato’s cave but also the moral dualism of the gnostics and their belief that the material world itself is a prison from which only religion offers an escape.  On a more mundane level, the vastness and baroqueness of the antechamber as well as its presence directly beneath the Autarch’s home speaks of a great sense of spiritual, intellectual and moral decay at the heart of Urth’s government.  This passage is a timely reminder of why people are putting their faith in Vodalus and why people live in the hope that a New Sun will be born.


These three encounters help us to learn the language of Wolfe’s world.  We have learned that it is Messianic, we have learned that it is spiritual and we have learned that it is one filled with doubt and false starts.  However, if the vocabulary of the private language is beginning to become recognisable through use, its grammar is still unclear.  Is Severian’s story one with mythological references like Star Wars?  Or is it explicitly religious?  Wolfe attempts to fix the grammar of the Book of the New Sun by deploying not one, but two stories within the story : A mythological text from Urth’s past and the much foreshadowed play written by Dr. Talos.


The Creation of a Literary Homunculus

Story A – The Tale of the Student and His Son.

This story-within-a-story marks the return of the idea of Wolfe as god of his own literary universe.  The story deals with a student of magic who works in a university.  As he has been a student for a long time he is now an old man and is under pressure from his teachers to prove himself worthy of stepping up.  And so, after much delay, the student creates a boy out of thin air using only the power of his pen :

“In time these manifestations , originally rare, and, indeed, at first limited almost entirely to those nights when thunder rumbled among the pale towers, became common, and there were unmistakable signs of the other’s presence: a book he had not unshelved in decades lying beside a chair; windows and doors that unlocked, as it seemed, of themselves; an ancient alfange, for years past an ornament hardly more deadly than a trompe l’oeil picture, found cleansed of its patina, gleaming and newly sharp.” [Page 447]

While one could comment upon the resemblances between the boy and Severian (child of an author, crown of command, adventurous sort, forever pursuing and dealing with beautiful women…)  it is the formal characteristics of the story-within-a-story that are most interesting.  The first thing you notice about the story is that it features a ship roaming about an archipelago filled with monsters.  Monsters that can only be defeated thanks to information pried by the hero from the minds of the beautiful women he encounters.  This description of the story doubles as a reasonable synopsis of Homer’s Odyssey.  Indeed, the second thing one notices about the story is its repetition of the phrase “the young man fleshed from dreams”.  This is rather reminiscent of the infamous “child of morning, rosy-fingered dawn” that peppers the Odyssey as a useful tool for the bards who used to recite the story from memory.  But the classical allusions do not end there as the story ends with the student killing himself when he notices black sails on the ship of his son.  This is a reference to the story of Theseus who, having killed the minotaur, returned home with black sails on convincing his father that he had died during the quest.

This collection of classical allusions serve to flesh out the world of Urth by providing us with some of its mythology.  Indeed, Jonas even comments upon black sails returning to Athens and thereby confirming that the world of Urth is our world or one with a very similar history and set of myths.  This act of ontological positioning is an interesting one as the we know that the world of Severian is a world in which there are monsters that are half-man and half-animal.  We also suspect that there may well be gods and we certainly know that it is a world in which the mythical can become very real indeed.  This places Severian in an intriguing ontological limbo : He is the creation of a writer and so he is not real and yet his world is one with ties to our own and well as the fantastical.  He is both a figure of mythology and a real person and he is the creation of an author-god.

However, the real significance of this metaphysical positioning only becomes apparent once Severian meets up with Dr. Talos and his other companions and performs in a play.

Still from a film about a play about a play within a play

Story B – Eschatology and Genesis

As I read through The Claw of the Conciliator, I was suddenly struck by the similarities between the work of Gene Wolfe and that of the director Alejandro Jodorowsky.  Best known for his sadly aborted adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune and his linked mystical pieces El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973), Jodorowsky began his career amidst the surrealist performance artists of the Panic Movement.  Surrealism is an artistic movement underpinned by a belief in the ultimate plasticity of semiotics.  The surrealist manifesto, for example, suggests that the purpose of the movement is to break down the traditional meanings of things in order to forge a new and more profound sets of symbols.  This deconstructive instinct, of course, laid the foundations for postmodernism but it also allowed artists and writers to explore themes of madness and cognitive estrangement as in works such as Roland Topor’s The Tenant (1964) and, much later, Blindness (1995) by Jose Saramago.  However, Jodorowsky took the deconstructive instinct in an entirely different direction.  His films demonstrate the extent to which truth can appear to be a private language to those that are not initiated into it.  Indeed, both El Topo and The Holy Mountain are works packed with references to mythology and mysticism but if one is not equipped to understand these symbols then they can appear disjointed and stereotypically surreal.

Jodorowsky’s film The Holy Mountain draws its inspiration from two separate sources.  The first is Rene Daumal’s Mount Analogue (1952).  Sub-titled “a novel of symbolically authentic non-euclidean adventures in mountain climbing”, the book introduces the concept of the peradam – an object that can only be seen by those who search for it :

“One finds here, very rarely in the low lying areas, more frequently as one goes farther up, a clear and extremely hard stone that is spherical and varies in size—a kind of crystal, but a curved crystal, something extraordinary and unknown on the rest of the planet. Among the French of Port-des-Singes, it is called peradam. Ivan Lapse remains puzzled by the formation and root meaning of this word. It may mean, according to him, “harder than diamond,” and it is; or “father of the diamond,” and they say that the diamond is in fact the product of the degeneration of the peradam by a sort of quartering of the circle or, more precisely, cubing of the sphere. Or again, the word may mean “Adam’s stone,” having some secret and profound connection to the original nature of man. The clarity of this stone is so great and its index of refraction so close to that of air that, despite the crystal’s great density, the unaccustomed eye hardly perceives it. But to anyone who seeks it with sincere desire and true need, it reveals itself by its sudden sparkle, like that of dewdrops. The peradam is the only substance, the only material object whose value is recognized by the guides of Mount Analogue. Therefore, it is the standard of all currency, as gold is for us.”

The other source of inspiration for The Holy Mountain was the work of St. John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz), a Spanish mystic and Carmelite friar who composed works of poetry including Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul.  These works are densely symbolic explorations of (depending upon how you read them) either Christ’s relationship with God, Christ’s relationship with the world or the Soul’s relationship with God.  They are works that exist as part of a tradition in Judeo-Christian thought that stretches back past Augustine and Aquinas and past Christ himself to The Song of Songs, an allegorical work that forms part of the Hebrew Bible.

St John of the Cross

On a formal level as well as a symbolic level, Dr. Talos’ play-within-a-story is closely linked to the Song of Songs and the tradition of Christian mysticism that grew out of it.  Aside from direct references such as the characters Meschia and Meschiane taking their names from the Hebrew word for deer (or roe as they are referred to in some translations), there is a similar obsession with the flora and fauna of the world and it also poses a serious interpretative challenge.  Indeed, a glance at some of the secondary literature surrounding works like the Song of Songs reveal that there is no critical consensus as to what it is exactly about.  There is agreement that it is allegorical but the precise details of these allegories seem rather vague.  In fact, it is almost as though the Song of Songs exists not to be solved but as a touchstone for religious thought; that its symbols and structures become meaningful to those who are familiar with the language of belief but that rather than forming a coherent message, the Song is an excuse to exercise that language.  To use it.  And so to give it meaning.  A Judeo-Christian version of a Zen Koan if you will…

But the play also serves to blur the lines between the world of mythology and the world of the Book of the New Sun as it makes references not only to characters from the books (such as the Autarch) but also creatures that have been introduced in The Claw of the Conciliator such as the sinister rumbling thing that exists in the caves beneath the man-apes.  This is a reminder, as if one were needed at this point, that the world described in the Book of the New Sun is a world in which the New Sun is set to return.  A world awaiting a Christ-figure.  Of course, as with all mystical poetry, the identity of this Christ-figure is blurred by the fact that the initiatory process is described in terms of Sacred Becoming, as though becoming religious is like becoming God.  And so the question remains :

Is Severian a mythological figure or is he merely a character moving through a world whose religious mythology is true?  The distinction is an important one and the book’s final encounter goes some way towards answering it.


Death rides a pale horse

Encounter 4 – The Illness of Jolenta

As the play comes to an end, Dr. Talos and his giant decide to pocket their earnings and return to the home in the mountains.  Severian and Dorcas decide to head in another direction but the comely Jolenta wants to go with Talos.  He turns her down, forcing her to tag along with Severian.  However, almost from the beginning, something is not right.  Jolenta is weak and slow and she protests about having to walk.  In fact, she seems to be getting ill.  As the group journey, they are waylaid by a series of monsters, witches and semi-mythological figures.  These meetings hark back to Talos’ play in which the magical creatures try to hold back the changing of the world and the arrival of the New Sun out of fear that they, along with the rest of the world, will be swept away by the coming changes.  Severian finds himself once again a hostage to fate and utterly passive in the face of forces beyond his comprehension.  Unwilling to give in to the demands of the creatures he encounters, he is nonetheless devoted to saving the increasingly moribund Jolenta, even using the Claw of the Conciliator in an attempt to avoid the inevitable.

The inevitable is the end of the old world symbolised by the death of Jolenta.  Indeed, as Jolenta weakens, Dorcas appears to become stronger, evolving from a beautiful but child-like presence into something more womanly, a more fitting receptacle for the desire of Severian :

“It seemed to me that her entire body, yesterday so opulent, had softened like wax, so that instead of appearing (as she once had) a woman to Dorcas’ child, she seemed a flower too long blown, the very end of summer to Dorcas’ spring” [Page 570]

As Jolenta fades, Severian seems to come to terms with the changes that are abroad in the world.  It is as though he has escaped the Autarch’s limbo-like prison and accepted that things are going to change and that he will have a hand in these changes (as he did when playing the role of the Familiar in Talos’ play).  Cursing his own conservatism and desire to cling to the past, Severian rages as a storm fills the sky :

“Another flash showed me the building and Dorcas’ frantic figure silhouetted on the roof.  I circled the blind walls and found the steps.  Our mounts were gone.  On the roof, so were the witches; Dorcas, alone, bent over the body of Jolenta.  By lightning, I saw the dead face of the waitress who had served Dr. Talos, Baldanders, and me in the café in Nessus.  It had been washed clean of beauty.  In the final reckoning there is only love, only that divinity.  That we are capable only of being what we are remains our unforgivable sin.” [Page 597]

This scene harkens back to the one that we came in on : Severian plying his trade as an executioner.  However, now he is not killing women that are said to be witches.  He is killing the old world.

As the second volume of the Book of The New Sun draws to an end, I am struck by the similarities between The Claw of the Conciliator and The Solitudes (1987) – opening volume of John Crowley’s Aegypt series, which also charts the arrival of a new world through a densely symbolic and elusive semiotic thicket.  Both books make their readers pay for the arrival of the new world, but Wolfe exacts a higher price.  The question, to my mind, is whether The Book of the New Sun is ultimately as rewarding as Aegypt and, indeed, whether it is rewarding at all.

  1. April 23, 2010 2:35 pm

    Thanks for this – it really unravels some of the subtleties of this book that I felt I only ever really half-understood. An interesting point about how rewarding the series is: although I’m glad I’ve read the books, I’m not sure I’d be in a great hurry to re-read them. I don’t mind being deliberately alienated from a text – in fact, I quite enjoy it. But I just never liked Severian much. Perhaps it’s because of the passivity you mentioned, making him a less engaging protagonist. Or perhaps it’s just because he’s a bit dour.
    Are you going to read The Urth of the New Sun? Would be very interested to hear your thoughts on that….


  2. April 23, 2010 7:17 pm

    I still haven’t got to Claw, but read this article over all the same, and enjoyed it-in particular, its not shying away from that question of whether a difficult text is or is not rewarding after all (too often ignored in discussions of this sort of thing).


  3. April 23, 2010 7:25 pm

    Helen — I may well leave a bit of a gap before I move on to the next two books. This was definitely a critical challenge, but I am not sure how much I enjoyed Claw as a book as opposed to as a critical challenge.

    Nader — I think it genuinely is an issue here. I’m finding the Book of the New Sun to be beautifully constructed and the product of what is clearly a lot of thought and care, but I am really not sure as to how much I like the books themselves. I think I preferred Shadow’s WTF-ness. Claw is just dense and difficult and obtuse.


  4. April 27, 2010 9:52 pm

    Excellent post, Jonathan. Really excellent stuff.

    My only quibble (and a vanishingly minor quibble)would be with the allegory stuff. One important insight into C20th century Catholic Fantasy, post Tolkien/Lewis, is that it has no truck with allegory. The key is incarnation.


  5. April 28, 2010 5:43 am

    Thank you :-)

    By “incarnation” do you mean the idea that Severian is animated by the Holy Ghost/God/Divine Spark? So The Book of the New Sun is not a Christ allegory (a literary fiction) but a story of Christ’s return (speculative future history)?


  6. April 28, 2010 10:07 am

    I mean something that calls to be argued at greater length, really. Maybe at book length. Not really comment-box sized, I’m afraid. Probably shouldn’t

    It’s to do with a larger narrative of aesthetic philosophy: one of the consequences of Romanticism in the larger sense (Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria specifically) and the way these often pseudo-medieval fantasy narratives are actually deeply unmedieval, deeply postRomantic. So people sometimes take The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe to be an allegory of the story of the Passion in which Aslan ‘symbolises’ or ‘allegorically represents’ Christ. But that’s not right, certainly according to Lewis. Aslan doesn’t represent Christ; he actualises Christ.

    I think that though the distinction perhaps looks superfine it’s actually really important for Fantasy. Lewis’s point is: imagine a world populated by intelligent talking animals. God sends a redeemer to such a world, so of course the redeemer incarnates as a talking animal. That’s what his story is about. Tolkien is onto something similar with is ‘subcreation’ theory, cribbed wholecloth from Coleridge.


  7. April 28, 2010 10:30 am

    Ah I see.

    I thought that you were merely making a metaphysical point about the relationship between God and his instantiation (or is it emanation? I forget) in Jesus Christ, Aslan and Severian.

    But instead you are making a point about the aesthetic purpose behind the depiction in the first place.

    That is probably something that would support a book as it challenges the accepted wisdom that fantasy is simply a matter of escapism or consolation.

    I remember China Mieville’s attempts at reclaiming fantasy as a revolutionary act but from what I recall of the papers reprinted in SFS, he never really got beyond the idea of fantasy as a form of retreat from the actual world.



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