Some Thoughts about Some Books about The Book of the New Sun, Some Thoughts about The Book of the New Sun, and a Few More Thoughts

Paul R. Potts

This essay has been a work in progress, sitting on my hard drive and patiently waiting. Some time ago, I realized that I could write a monograph about this book (and indeed, others have). I’ve tinkered with it a bit since I originally wrote it, most recently in 2022. It still doesn’t quite feel quite completed, but I can’t think of anything in particular to fix, so I’m finally putting it out there.

A note on the audience: it’s for moderate- to hard-core Gene Wolfe fans. It assumes that you’ve tried to read The Book of the New Sun at least once, and don’t mind spoilers, since it spoils a lot.

There are a handful of American science fiction writers that should be honored by publication in the Library of America series. Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Octavia Butler have been so honored. It’s time for Wolfe to be recognized by the Library of America as well. I’m saddened to think that he did not live to see himself so honored — Wolfe died in 2019 — but it’s not too late.

Thirty Years On

In 1980 Gene Wolfe published the first volume of his long novel The Book of the New Sun, called The Shadow of the Torturer. The fourth, The Citadel of the Autarch, appeared in 1983. The first four volumes form one complete novel, in that it has an apparent chronological unity — a short time frame of well under two calendar years — although time is a bit of a slippery notion in Wolfe’s work.

A fifth volume, not part of the novel but “coda,” called The Urth of the New Sun, appeared in 1987. It is part of the same world, and the same story, and has the same narrator, but it breaks free from the timeline, and weaves its story around the timeline of the original novel.

For reasons not entirely clear to me, in 2012 I decided to re-read all five books. I think it had something to do with an increasing sense that there isn’t very much new I want to read, and that I might find more enjoyment in my own library, or looking for older works I haven’t yet read, by authors either known or unknown to me. I’ve read The Book of the New Sun at least twice before. The first time was probably — I say this because I don’t actually recall, although I might be able to dig dates up from some of my old fanzine writings — during my college years in the late 1980s. I read it at least once more in the twenty years that followed. And now I’ve completed the whole thing again, along with Urth, having read it more slowly and carefully this time. I’ve also read, re-read some of, and am continuing to read, a few critical studies on Wolfe’s work: Robert Borski’s Solar Labyrinth, Michael Andre-Driussi’s Lexicon Urthus, Peter Wright’s Attending Daedalus and Shadows of the New Sun, and Wolfe’s own Castle of the Otter.

I’ve also read Wolfe’s four Long Sun books, twice (those four books, like the earlier four, form a single novel). I’m reading Operation Ares and The Fifth Head of Cerberus as well as a number of Wolfe’s related stories. And I’ve read the three Short Sun books, although I freely admit that I found them quite difficult, and had to start over twice before I managed to complete them. I’ve read the first of the Latro books and part of the second, and I really should try them again. I’ve read The Knight, but have not been able to finish The Wizard. You may sense a pattern here — Wolfe’s later works are easy to start, and hard to finish. I did not have difficulty completing The Book of the New Sun, even as a younger and less careful reader, although I did have more time and, perhaps, more patience.

Easy to Start, but Hard to Finish

Why is Wolfe’s later work more challenging in this way? I would suggest that Wolfe has been raising the bar. The novels get more dense and more allusive, and the audience drops away; the rewards are there, and may in fact be greater, but fewer will do the work to get them, and so it may be fair to say that The Book of the New Sun, the four-book novel, will remain Wolfe’s masterpiece. It hits the “sweet spot” where it can recruit and engage an audience, without alienating too many of them along the way. And to me it remains one of the few works that continues to astonish me. Reading it, I find myself having to set the book down, and stare into space for a while, or laugh out loud, or weep a little. To bring these introductory thoughts to a point: The Book of the New Sun is a work of enduring genius. It’s one of the few works of science fiction that qualifies. I’m quite humbled by it.

Not all science fiction I have loved follows this trajectory. Every year, Asimov’s work becomes less engaging and more painfully dated, while Clarke’s endures a little better. Heinlein’s work ages badly, for the most part, with a few exceptions such as his juveniles and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Dune remains brilliant, but there are only a few works of science fiction that don’t seem, to me, to be aging badly. In an interview, Wolfe talks about criticizing Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and says “they’re shooting arrows at the moon, and they know it.” Wolfe’s work is not without flaws, but those criticizing Wolfe, like those criticizing Lord of the Rings or Dune, generally seem to reveal more of their own weaknesses than the flaws in the work. When I criticize it, it’s with the full understanding that my arrows won’t hit it. I believe Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, and to a lesser extent the whole Briah Cycle, comprising the New, Long and Short Sun books, are enduring, and will and should endure. It gets better with each re-reading. Arise, fair Suns, and kill the envious moon!

Hey, did you ever notice that “Thecla” sounds a bit like “The Claw?” I’ll get back to that. But first,

Wolfe and His Critics: Solar Labyrinth by Robert Borski

Solar Labyrinth is a fun book. Borski proves by algebra that Hamlet’s grandson is Shakespeare’s grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father. Ummm, no, I mean that he writes a series of intriguing, suggestive, and often punny and amusing essays in which he attempts to solve the technical mysteries Wolfe sets up in the book. There are mysteries there. But it seems to me that some of them, and especially their significance to the story, may exist more in Borski’s mind than in the text.

In particular, Borski is very concerned with untangling the tangled family trees of Severian’s family, and writing the Who’s Who of Urth. He comes up with plausible, if not always convincing, explanations of the relationships between the characters, pretty much taking every minor named character, and a few unnamed character, and linking them into Severian’s bizarre family tree. In some cases, he collapses multiple characters into one — sometimes as many as five or six, in the case of the mysterious Father Inire. He reverse-engineers Wolfe’s naming scheme, and in my opinion gets most of this quite right, while sometimes overreaching a bit.

I enjoyed reading all this, and it’s a good way to get one thinking about the series, but it leaves me feeling just a little bit hollow. It often fails to convince, as to the “why.” I don’t really believe, as Borski seems to, that every character can be explained or hooked in to the wiring diagram he seems to think Wolfe had in his head, or on a corkboard in his writing room. It is true that Wolfe was an engineer, and it doesn’t seem his style to waste parts. But creating a fictional world is not quite plan(e)t engineering. A novel is permitted to have extraneous parts that are not technically needed for the machine to function. Words don’t just cost; they earn their keep, if they are the right words.

Borski also seems to be assuming that Wolfe understood everything about his novel when he wrote it; that he had a master plan, he knew all the secrets. In his formulation the book is loaded with mysteries that have a single definitive solution, and Wolfe is the best authority on his own book. I’m not sure that’s actually true. I know when I write, I don’t always know what I am doing until I’ve done it, and having spoken to a few authors, I’m quite sure it isn’t, because when pressed on what they were doing, at a deeper level, these authors generally say “I don’t know.” And to much of what I find in their works, they often say “That’s interesting” — perhaps they are just being polite most of the time — “but I never thought of that.” I’m not saying that Wolfe was a “pantser” — a writer who wrote by the seat of his pants without plans and outlines — because I don’t think that’s true. I just think that his plans may not have linked everything together quite as much as Borski claims.

I’m not sure that Wolfe knows for sure, for example, who Severian’s lost sister is. I think he wasn’t quite sure he wanted to bring her in, as a character. And so he set up some hints and suggestions, but couldn’t really bring himself to decide. In other words, his imagined word is still a little vague in parts, even to him. That might irritate some readers, but I think it makes it more realistic. Not everyone knows very much about their own family. In interviews, Wolfe talks about how being an only child has left him the heir to a story that he can’t corroborate. If you are into genealogy, you will know that even a modern family history may be full of lacunae. That thing that no one ever talked about? All knowledge of it might well have died with your grandmother.

Great stories are never truly complete; they always make you want to find out a little more. Tolkien’s world-building was wonderfully flawed in exactly this same way — he suggests far more stories than he actually tells, even if you taking into account the thousands of pages of his drafts. Oh, and they are occasionally in conflict with one another, the same way that Severian, who will tell you about his painfully perfect memory, now and then contradicts himself, or conspicuously fail to give you “just the facts, ma’am.”

So while I enjoyed Borski’s book, and I’ve read it twice, and ordered a copy of his newer book The Long and the Short of It, I find Peter Wright’s Attending Daedalus more compelling.

Staring at the New Sun: Attending Daedalus: Gene Wolfe, Artifice and the Reader by Peter Wright

Wright steps back and gets at some of the bigger themes and arcs. He makes a distinction between the plot, or the events of the book as presented, and the story, or what (objectively, if such a term makes sense when there is no subject and the world is fictional) happens in the books — what is going on behind the scenes. Chapter five of his book is a really compelling explanation of that story, and seems to be the kernel around which he built the book. The rest of the essays are a serious and mindful attempt to decode more of that story, which is both more and less than the story that Severian tells you. This is where things get interesting. Even if you haven’t fully come to think of the text of The Book of the New Sun as a puzzle to be solved, there are obvious hints that much is happening off-stage and behind the scenes. Central to much of this is Severian’s dream, in which marionettes fight:

There stood before us a low wall, and on it a little stage and curtain, such as are used for children’s entertainments.
  Our roiling of the water seemed to flutter the kerchief-sized cloth. It rippled and swayed, and began to draw back as though teased by an unseen hand. At once there appeared the tiny figure of a man of sticks. His limbs were twigs, still showing bark and green bud. His body was a quarter-span of branch, big through as my thumb, and his head a knot whose whorls formed his eyes and mouth. He carried a club (which he brandished at us) and moved as if he were alive.
  When the wooden man had jumped for us, and struck the little stage with his weapon to show his ferocity, there appeared the figure of a boy armed with a sword. This marionette was as finely finished as the other was crude - it might have been a real child reduced to the size of a mouse.
  After both had bowed to us, the tiny figures fought. The wooden man performed prodigious leaps and seemed to fill the stage with the blows of his cudgel; the boy danced like a dust mote in a sunbeam to avoid it, darting at the wooden man to slash with his pin-sized blade.
  At last the wooden figure collapsed. The boy strode over as if to set his foot upon its chest; but before he could do so, the wooden figure floated from the stage, and turning limply and lazily rose until it vanished from sight, leaving behind the boy, and the cudgel and the sword — both broken. I seemed to hear (no doubt it was really the squeaking of cartwheels on the street outside) a flourish of toy trumpets.

On one level, this sequence is simply a “presentiment,” to use Severian’s word, of his fight with the giant Baldanders, and so is here just to resonate or amplify the effect that scene will have on you, when you reach it. But if Severian was simply having a precognitive dream, why is he seeing his own avatar from a perspective outside his body, being manipulated as a marionette? Wright digs into this deeply. By the time you finish Urth, you’ll have been given not just some clues but some outright, straightforward exposition on some of the ways in which Severian’s story is not so straightforward, indicating just how much of a puppet he’s been.

Wright shows, very convincingly, that Severian doesn’t seem to apprehend the half of it. This matches up with the insights I gained from re-reading. This time through the novel, I started making notes about just how wrong and confused Severian is when he claims to understand what is going on, and when he claims to remember his experiences accurately.

Sufficiently Advanced Technology, but No Magic

Severian has been stage-managed from his first day on Urth. But the truly interesting thing about his story is that there is in it no magic, and nothing miraculous. It is on the surface a fantasy, embodying many fantasy tropes, but the underlying story that the reader has to uncover is a science fiction story. Much hinges on understanding what the story’s genre actually is, as it does not actually match the apparent genre of the printed volumes the reader holds, which at first glance appears to be fantasy, or a blend of fantasy and science fiction.

Severian himself is caught up in, and participates in, this misdirection because he is ultimately a person of surface impressions, somewhat gullible, as if he were giving you the history of the last decade through the lens of what he’s read on a television news crawl. Many critics seem to have fallen into this trap — Wolfe reports that half the reviewers described Severian’s sword, named Terminus Est, as a magic sword. There is nothing in the work that ascribes any magical properties whatsoever to his sword, although it is described as a valuable antique, wonderfully well-made. Taking the fantasy trope further, it is eventually broken, but as this is not The Lord of the Rings, Severian carries away only the hilt, buries the sheath (made of human skin), and throws the broken blade into Lake Diuturna.

Terminus Est does have a technological trick up its sleeve. It is hollow, with a channel running through the blade, and this channel contains a quantity of mercury, known by the Latin term hydragyrum. This allows Severian to keep it balanced better while holding it upright over his head, because the weight settles towards the grip, but then this weight shifts towards the end when the sword is dropped to sever a head. It’s an interesting idea. I have no idea how well it would work in practice, or whether it would make other uses of the sword more difficult — when, for example, he executes one victim with a horizontal stroke rather than a vertical one. But it’s not magical, and to see it is magical is to completely misread the text, and to assume that since the surface genre is fantasy, that all the fantasy tropes are in place.

Severian gives the impression of depth, as he wanders into bits of philosophical musing, but Wright makes the case that this is largely misdirection. While his book, written in the language of lit-crit, is a little leaden in parts, and he sometimes wanders into charts and graphs that I feel take the reader too far down rabbit holes, much of it is very much worth reading. It’s a bit like reading criticism of Ulysses — in fact, The Book of the New Sun really is science fiction’s Ulysses. A reader doesn’t really need to understand every parallel to The Odyssey to get a sense of what is going on in Ulysses — it is much more helpful to know a bit about the history and teaching of the Catholic Church and about practical matters involving transportation, technology, social classes, and employment in Dublin in the early part of the 20th century. A reader of The Book of the New Sun can enjoy it quite deeply without Wright’s charts and graphs, but they are there for someone who wants to take on the challenge of going down the rabbit holes all the way to their bottoms, or beyond.

A Seamful Garment

Like Tolkien, Wolfe made a lot of revisions to try to make the story coherent (he discusses this a bit in Castle of the Otter). But the finished product still has seams, and sometimes they show. I think he was writing on a typewriter, not a word processor, and writing revisions on a typewriter were more difficult than they are now. The planned third volume was to be the last, but it threatened to be much longer than each of the first two, so Wolfe had to make it two books because it was too long. But then, after dividing it into two books, each of these was too short, and had to be lengthened. So the manuscript had to fit several into Procrustean beds, while the publication process, already underway, added a bed.

The resulting “seams” show, here and there, I believe, as a number of slightly disconnected

Digressions and Diversions

In particular, the “last man” episode, where Master Ash looks out over the frozen Urth, feels a little bit grafted in, as it doesn’t effectively connect to most of the rest of the ongoing narrative itself. It does serve a plot purpose — it gets Severian away from the camp of the Perelines, so that he can survive its destruction. Ultimately it is a standalone incident, although Wolfe does bring back Ash, at least in tableau, in The Urth of the New Sun. Ash may be an archetype from Norse myth, but is he important to the story?

Ash is not the only character we don’t hear from again. And there are some other seams I might point to. What is the narrative purpose of the child, Little Severian? The critics seem largely silent on this matter. He feels to me like a character that is badly neglected, then viciously killed. Is this to explicate how Severian’s early self, his inner child if you will, has been killed, or to bring Severian to the brink of madness? This character does not feel complete to me, and his short life seems ill-used in the larger story. The torturer is tortured, but is this a necessary part of Severian’s unplanned-by-him journey to the throne? Perhaps it is, but the episode still feels slightly grafted on.

Severian is imprisoned in the ziggurat after Agia wounds his cheek. The torturer is tortured again; we get it. He’s bitten by a bat like Jolenta was bitten; we meet more characters who we do not hear from again. There are some nice parallels established in this episode, but even upon re-reading, I’m occasionally left wondering “what was the point?”

To digress: if you didn’t pick up on it, keep in mind that Jolenta didn’t die of a bat bite. Jolenta is the seductive, tragic figure from Wolfe’s young manhood, to wit: one Marilyn Monroe. Like Monroe, Jolenta’s beauty is artificially amplified, falsified, and manipulated; in 1973, Norman Mailler’s Marilyn was published, promoting some conspiracy theories about her death; Wolfe likely was quite aware of these theories. Jolenta’s death was more due to a conspiracy abandoned. While Monroe died of a drug overdose, Jolenta dies when the drugs that created and sustained her unnatural beauty are withdrawn by the indifferent Dr. Talos, once he has no more need for her. It’s a moving and sad retelling (and partial inversion) of the real Norma Jean Baker’s tragic arc.

Perhaps like mine, Wolfe’s digressions can feel a little disconnected. Severian’s sense of continuity is undergoing a gradual unraveling, as is the reader’s. It is only Wolfe’s exceptionally beautiful writing that keeps these diversions from becoming very frustrating. Ultimately it is hard to hate them; if all the digressions were removed we’d lose glittering gems like the story of Loyal to the Group of Seventeen, which is a wonderful episode. I try to think of some of these episodes as bonuses, like coming across a previously lost Gene Wolfe short story while in the middle of a Gene Wolfe novel. And although it is a long novel, once again after reading more than a thousand pages I felt that it was ending all too soon.

The Text Ouroborous

In Shadows of the New Sun: Wolfe on Writing/Writers on Wolfe by Peter Wright, which is primarily a book of interviews with Gene Wolfe over the years, together with a few brief essays, there are a few interesting suggestions and revelation about The Book of the New Sun. One of these revelations is the identity of the fourth book that Severian retrieves from Ultan’s library, for Thecla — a book he never describes. It is, Wolfe tells us, The Book of the New Sun. Has your mind blown a fuse? Let’s review.

Severian’s Manuscript 1

In the very lightly sketched “framework story” that introduces the book, Wolfe claims that he is translating a work from the future, The Book of the New Sun. So, Wolfe has one of Severian’s manuscript. But it isn’t the one the reader might think it is. In the last volume of the novel, The Citadel of the Autarch, Severian describes writing down his story after becoming Autarch, and giving his manuscript to Ultan’s library. Let’s call that Severian’s Manuscript 1. It’s the tale he has assembled of his chronologically fractured and altered timeline (per Andre Michael Andre-Driussi, there are as many as five versions of Severian, and it is hinted that there may be many more — that he enters his own timeline again and again).

Severian’s Manuscript 2

Ten years later, as Urth of the New Sun opens, Severian is writing out another manuscript copy of his story, from memory — the memory we’ve come to suspect may be a bit dodgy. Urth opens:

Having cast one manuscript into the seas of time, I now begin again.

He then seals this manuscript into a lead coffer and throws into the void between universes. This manuscript, then, which we can call Severian’s Manuscript 2, is the manuscript that Wolfe has translated as the four volumes of The Book of the New Sun which exists in our world. (And by the way, we’ve learned that Severian’s world, which seemed to be a version of our world in the distant future, will exist, or exists, or has existed, in a different universe, which could in fact be a past incarnation of our universe.)

Severian’s Implied Manuscript 3

There is a Manuscript 3 implied. For the story to have reached us, the text of The Urth of the New Sun also had to be written down, by Severian, subjectively “after” the events (that is, post-New Sun). In Urth, as he prepares to leave Typhon behind, Severian describes his plan to write down more of his story:

And I resolved then that if ever leisure should come to me again, I would pen a new account, beginning as I have with the casting away of the old.

From the perspective of our world, as readers of Urth, We don’t know how exactly how that manuscript came to be, or how it reached our world. Urth there is no introduction in which Wolfe continues the conceit that he has translated a manuscript. In that regard it is the same as most books that don’t introduce such a framing mechanism. We have to take it as an article of faith that somehow Severian’s thoughts made it onto the page, and that this text has come to us, like Manuscript 2.

Canog’s Manuscript…

There is yet another Book of the New Sun — the “in-universe” version, an ancient scripture containing the Acts of the Conciliator. In The Urth of the New Sun, we learn that Severian as the Conciliator returns to the Matachin Tower in the time prior to the Autarchy, and meets a young Ymar, later to become Autarch (Ymar the Almost Just — therein must lie a tale, but we have not gotten to hear it). While imprisoned in the tower, Severian speaks to his apostles, and his story is transcribed by an eavesdropper, Canog, in a neighboring cell. This manuscript, presumably somewhat distorted, which I will call Canog’s Manuscript, becomes the ur-Book of the New Sun, which Dr. Talos will one day read, and half-remember, inspiring his play Eschatology and Genesis.

Wolfe says that this is the fourth book Severian takes from Ultan’s library, the book that is, conspicuously, never described. Notably, it is not the one Severian takes with him when he leaves the Torturers. He takes with him the “brown book,” The Book of the Wonders of Urth and Sky: Being a Collection from Printed Sources of Universal Secrets of Such Age That Their Meaning Has Become Obscured of Time. The text describes the moment in which Severian sees the books in Thecla’s empty cell:

The four books I had carried to her a year before remained, stacked with others on the little table. I could not resist the temptation to take one; there were so many in the library that they would never miss a single volume. My hand had stretched forth before I realized I did not know which to choose. The book of heraldry was the most beautiful, but it was too large by far to carry about the country. The book of theology was the smallest of all, but the brown book was hardly larger. In the end it was that I took, with its tales from vanished worlds.

Was his future self’s own testament as Conciliator contained in the “book of theology,” the smallest of all? My impression is that it probably was not; Severian has elsewhere described a very small book, like a prayer book:

A green book hardly larger than my hand and no thicker than my index finger appeared to be a collection of devotions, full of enameled pictures of ascetic pantocrators and hypostases with black halos and gemlike robes. I stopped for a time to look at them, sharing a little, forgotten garden full of winter sunshine with a dry fountain.
  Before I had so much as opened any of the other volumes, I felt that pressure of time that is perhaps the surest indication we have left childhood behind.

…And The Book of the New Sun

I think it is probably the single un-described book, which Severian leaves behind, that is the true “in-universe” Book of the New Sun. Why does he not describe it, or mention the title, or take it with him? I suspect that it because it is a book that he feels is too commonplace to mention, a Gideon’s Bible of Urth. We know that Severian is aware of the stories of the Conciliator, although he only mentions Him in offhand ways such as this reference, in chapter 4 of The Shadow of the Torturer, before he has met Thecla:

Urth turns her aged face to the sun and he beams upon her snows; they scintillate and coruscate until each little point of ice hanging from the swelling sides of the towers seems the Claw of the Conciliator, the most precious of gems.

It seems as if he assumes that his reader is also so familiar with the work that he doesn’t need to do anything other than reference it. Severian may have been taught the story of the Conciliator as a young apprentice, inspiring him to become the Conciliator, whose actions he will one day describe, indirectly leading to the text that he will be taught, which will eventually inspire him to leave Urth in order to save it, unintentionally becoming the Conciliator whose actions he will, as he travels the Corridors of Time, one day describe segmentation fault (core dumped)

In addition, Thecla may have read this fourth book, which means that later, when Severian becomes Thecla, he would have access to her memories of the contents of the fourth book — the story of the Conciliator.

Has your head exploded now?


I first read these books when I was quite young, and a less mature reader. Severian was an enigma to me then. I’m middle-aged now and have a better sense of my effect on those around me. I can no longer make myself the unqualified hero of my own story; I’ve relegated myself to a less central character.

I’ve a young autistic son, and I’ve had to confront my own depression, my own place somewhere slightly along the autistic spectrum, my own tendencies towards obsessive-compulsive disorder, towards attention deficits, and towards manufacturing meaning and spinning digressions and obsessions out of nothing. As this revised me, with an updated understanding of myself, I feel that I’m in a far better position to understand Severian.

Wolfe has created a character who both inflicts and experiences a great deal of misery, and so one might expect that the reader will be asked to sympathize with him, and that this would engender a sort of conflict. But this is not what happens — at least, it is not what happens to me. While I can identify with Severian, and not in good ways, it is very hard to sympathize with him. He’s an unapologetic killer, a man trained to torment and hurt and kill, from childhood, and for the most part someone who seems to be able to sleep at night.

In fact he seems slightly sociopathic — he seems to be able to go from a normal conversation to inflicting violent pain or death in an instant, without breaking a sweat. He’s big, and intimidating, and people are intimidated by him for good reason. I suppose I may have intimidated someone at some point in my life, but I think that’s been the exception and not the rule. He’s what one might call cold. When he does get nervous, it doesn’t seem to be out of any kind of sympathy for his victims, but rather a fear that the branding, breaking, and decapitation he performs will go awry and involve the unseemly display of a partially beheaded victim screaming, spurting blood, and requiring multiple whacks with his sword.

Even in matters of love, Severian is almost entirely unconvincing in his self-portrayal as a being capable of sentiment. His flat affect to me is reminiscent of Vaughan, the protagonist of J.G. Ballard’s Crash. As he is meeting with the false Thecla in the House Azure, his arousal is revealed to us more in his threat of calm violence towards the faux Thecla than in any information he provides us about his emotional state. In fact, he’s often terrifying, as he threatens violence with no real provocation. If he is capable of feeling love — and occasionally, we hear in his affectless voice that he is tearful, or deeply misses a lost love — he isn’t really capable of telling us about it in anything other than his flat narrative monotone.

Severian constantly reiterates his claim to remember just about everything, while at the same time forgetting to tell us large chunks of the story. In what he does tell us, we find that he’s frequently knocked unconscious while critical plot elements are playing out, and so we can’t feel confident that he is even capable of telling us what really happened in those moments.

Severian: a bundle of contradictions, really, is what he is, the biggest contradiction being that he claims to be a reliable narrator, without ever understanding how very unreliable he actually is.

Aside from the occasional flashes of insight into the identities of characters, he seems to understand nearly nothing. The advanced technology around him is, to him, indistinguishable from magic. When he does get critical clues to the nature of events surrounding then, they all seem to go into the same basket of abstract theories about his world, and he is prone to wander between them in a very dry, pedantic way. The world seems very two-dimensional to him. He spends big chunks of the story dazed and confused, lost in thought — and after his ultimate communion with Thecla, mumbling to himself. He fails to recognize many of the people around him, so often that I think he may be “face-blind.” Face-blindness, or prosopagnosia, is

…a cognitive disorder of face perception in which the ability to recognize familiar faces, including one’s own face (self-recognition), is impaired, while other aspects of visual processing (e.g., object discrimination) and intellectual functioning (e.g., decision-making) remain intact.

Recall that Severian does not seem to fully recognize his own face in the funeral bronze, although he almost seems to:

In the light that pierced the little window I examined his face and meditated on my own as I saw it in the polished metal. My straight nose, deep-set eyes, and sunken cheeks were much like his, and I longed to know if he too had dark hair.

Wright identifies him with Alexander Luria’s ‘S,’ described in The Mind of a Mnemonist. That seems fair:

For the mnemonist, S., whose case is studied in such exquisite detail in these pages, is a man whose memory is a memory of particulars, particulars that are rich in imagery, thematic elaboation, and affect. But it is a memory that is peculiarly lacking in one important feature: the capacity to convert encounters with the particular into instances of the general, enabling one to form general concepts even though the particulars are lost. It is this latter type of “memory without record” that seems so poorly developed in this man.

But to take a more contemporary reference point relevant to myself, my family, and the people I often find myself working with as a software engineer, Severian seems to have something like what used to be known as Asperger’s Syndrome, but which is now not considered distinct from autism. A now-revised version of the Wikipedia describes the notable aspects of speech and language:

Abnormalities include verbosity, abrupt transitions, literal interpretations and miscomprehension of nuance, use of metaphor meaningful only to the speaker, auditory perception deficits, unusually pedantic, formal or idiosyncratic speech… speech may convey a sense of incoherence; the conversational style often includes monologues about topics that bore the listener, fails to provide context for comments, or fails to suppress internal thoughts.

This does a fair job describing Severian’s narration, doesn’t it? Severian, although largely free of introspection, at least does seem to realize that he may be “in some degree insane.” What’s not so easy to understand is just why this is the case.

Wright lays this out somewhat differently, but I believe the basic idea is the same. In Wright’s formulation, Severian, a mnemonist, like Funes in the story by Borges, is told that he was chosen to save Urth, to become the New Sun, because of his talent for memory — his ability to tell his story, his myth, in such a way that it will eventually alter his future. But this is a comforting lie; Severian’s mind does not actually function as a mind should. He is capable of transmitting the myth, but can’t do the math; he’s got the details, but not the narrative; he’s all trees, and no forest. He’s obedient, he’s handsome, he’s charismatic, and a little dull. He’s not particularly moral — he does a lot of bed-hopping, and he’s unfaithful, and disloyal, although we do see him question his training and gradually attempt to chart a moral course for himself. And all this is why he’s perfect for the job. He’s gullible. He may do a lot of introspection, but the Severian he sees is very different than the one others see.

Whatever else Severian is, he is a survivor. In fact, that could pretty much be the single most salient characteristic — Severian survives. Not because he’s careful to preserve himself — he most certainly isn’t. Not because he shows good judgment. His survival is pressed onto him. He behaves with suicidal abandon, and occasionally speaks of his wish to die. But he survives his own death, repeatedly. And, of course, in Urth we learn that he re-enters his timeline; he’s recursive.

In fact, Severian is not exactly, or not quite, and certainly not just, a person at all, even if some of the characters seem to find him personable. From what he reports of what they say to him, his bedmates find him more frightening and confusing than comforting, even if they do find him occasionally arousing.

Severian is, at least at one point in the narrative, an aquastor — a computer simulation of a person. His programming could easily be altered;, but he does not understand this. In Urth he comes to believe that he is a God, with faith in his own myth. I’m not sure how a narrator could be any less reliable than that! In Lexicon Urthus, Michael Andre-Driussi identifies eight “versions” of Severian. Whether you agree with just where he draws the boundaries around those Severians, or not, there are almost certainly more Severians than that, as Severian of Ushas, post-New Sun, apparently still has the ability to walk the Corridors of Time, and tells us that he has seen himself repeatedly in his past. (The question of whether those Severians are “different” may be, I’m afraid, for someone above my pay grade.)

Severian is, to a certain extent, to be pitied. He becomes godlike, but yet I pity him. While giving almost no consideration to the pain or suffering of others, and no apparent consideration to his own pain and suffering, he does seem to suffer off-camera, and his personality is built upon loss, and lack of consolation. His whole timeline, at least what we hear of it, and convoluted as it is, seems in subjective time to be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. But as he is a torturer, despite the fact that he strives to become the Conciliator, the Healer, it is very hard for us to find sympathy for Severian; it is pity, not sympathy, that we feel.

Thecla and The Claw

After she has waited so long that she starts to believe it might never happen — and being allowed to develop hope itself becomes a form of torture — Thecla is in fact tortured. But only once, because once is enough, via a Kafkaesque device called the Revolutionary. It does something to her brain that caused one hemisphere, or some other distinct part of her brain, to turn against the rest of her. She begins to try to harm herself — to tear out her own hair. blind herself, scratch herself, and beat herself bloody. You know this already if you’ve read the books. It is an ironic torture. She is accused of aiding the revolution against the Autarch, and so he foments in her a revolution. There’s a rather obvious but nicely worked metaphor here about how a body (or a body politic), divided against itself, cannot stand — and perhaps a warning about our own body politic. The device is electrical in nature, although Gurloes cannot recall the word “electricity.”

  There were cables to be wound from one part of the examination room to another, rheostats and magnetic amplifiers to be adjusted. Antique lights like blood-red eyes gleamed on the control panel, and a droning like the song of some huge insect filled the entire chamber. For a few moments, the ancient engine of the tower lived again. One cable was loose, and sparks as blue as burning brandy played about its bronze fittings.
  “Lightning,” Master Gurloes said as he rammed the loose cable home. “There’s another word for it, but I forget. Anyway, the revolutionary here runs by lightning. It’s not as if you were going to be struck, of course, Chatelaine. But lightning’s the thing that makes it go.”   “Severian, push up your handle there until this needle’s here.” A coil that had been as cold as a snake when I had touched it a moment before was warm now.
  “What does it do?”
  “I couldn’t describe it, Chatelaine. Anyway, I’ve never had it done, you see.” Gurloes’s hand touched a knob on the control panel and Thecla was bathed in white light that stole the color from all it fell upon. She screamed; I have heard screaming all my life, but that was the worst, though not the loudest; it seemed to go on and on like the shrieking of a cartwheel. She was not unconscious when the white light died. Her eyes were open, staring upward; but she did not appear to see my hand, or to feel it when I touched her. Her breathing was shallow and rapid.

Having asked Severian, who seems to have seen the Revolutionary function before, what will become of her, Thecla knows that she is going to die slowly, blind and in excruciating pain, by her own hand. And so Severian slips her a knife — an act of mercy, of a kind, enabling her to take her own life. However you may feel about the fraught subject of “assisted suicide,” unlike Kevorkian, Severian does not actually see her die; he sees only a trickle of blood. This failure to witness her death becomes a key plot point, of course, as he is manipulated later into believing that Thecla may still be alive. In fact, this is just one of the cases in which Severian, the self-proclaimed perfect recorder, misses key events, and the fact that he has missed them allows his understanding of them to be manipulated. Other examples include his near-drowning and his fight with the avern.

So, Thecla’s name sounds like “the claw,” the artifact that is both significant and not significant to Serverian’s miracles. I don’t believe that this is a coincidence, and I’m also startled that none of the critics I’ve read have mentioned this correspondence, while occasionally reaching for what are (it seems to me) much more tenuous connections. I can’t claim to understand completely what Wolfe was getting at here, but to me

The Shadows on the Cave Wall

form a picture that looks a bit like this:

After Severian literally eats Thecla and absorbs her memories, he becomes her. He is (partially) Thecla. Sometimes she is fully integrated into his personality, and sometimes, when he is tired or impaired, with depleted executive function, she takes over. This two-in-one is our preparation for understanding what Severian will become as Autarch — literally Legion. She lives in him.

In the same way, the power of the claw is really Severian’s power as the New Sun. He is the claw; the claw is him. He is the torturer who “claws” the Urth, the savior of Urth, who saves it by crucifying it with a thorn — and he is that thorn. Lexicon Urthus identifies the Claw as quite literally one of the versions of Severian himself, implying that the relic itself has a certain agency, as it has his DNA (it has “drunk” his blood). I’m not sure I am willing to think of the Claw as another “revision” of Severian, but it is an interesting idea, not out of keeping with some of the ideas presented in the story:

  >“Then a man’s whole life is in his right hand and in his left as well. Is it in each finger too?”
  “I believe each participant must consume more than a mouthful for the practiceto be effective. But I suppose that in theory at least, what you say is correct. The entire life is in each finger.”
  We were already walking back in the direction we had come. Since the aisle was too narrow for us to pass one another, I now carried the candelabrum before him, and a stranger, seeing us, would surely have thought I lighted his way. “But Master,” I said, “how can that be? By the same argument, the life must reside in each joint of every finger, and surely that is impossible.”
  “How big is a man’s life?” asked Ultan.
  “I have no way of knowing, but isn’t it larger than that?”

Does it have any intrinsic power, this claw, or does it serve only as a means by which Severian’s power can be focused? The details here remain a bit fuzzy, and Severian does not seem to fully understand them, and neither do Barbatus, Famulimus, or Ossipago — or at least if they do, they are not willing to share too much.

In The Urth of the New Sun, Severian begins to experience dual consciousness, experiencing himself both in his accustomed body, Severian, and in the form of approaching star, the White Fountain. During these out-of-body experiences, he feels himself aproaching Urth, on its/his way to bringing about Urth’s destruction and rebirth. He is even able, as the White Fountain, to perceive the distant Severian, and heal him from a vast distance. The “white fountain” is an image of spurting semen, and as he inseminates Apheta, he feels himself born to himself as the New Sun, which is already approaching, as his attainment of his goal is now, and so was, inevitable in the manipulated timeline. Together with Thecla and The Claw, Severian is a sort of trinity: Severian, Thecla, and The Claw; he is also a duality, the New Sun and Severian, that are united in a sort of unity, as the New Sun, incarnated as the Conciliator, an instrument by which God reconciles Himself with humankind.

Recall that the Fountain, the Rose, and the Ship are the three parts of the heraldry on the tomb of the unknown version of Severian whose tomb the young Severian plays in as a young apprentice: the fountain is himself, the ship is his journey to Yesod, and the rose bush (for every rose has its thorn) represents the Claw — and also Thecla. Recall again that Thecla’s perfume smells of “burning roses,” and the Revolutionary burns its way into Thecla’s mind. The Revolutionary’s sparks bring to mind the fiery Catherine wheel, both the spinning firework and the implement of torture. In the Severian’s elevation ceremony, we see the wheel miraculously change from an implement of torture to the symbol of a miracle — blooming roses:

When they reached that part of the narration at which our patroness is condemned by Maxentius, four masked journeymen rushed out to seize her. So silent and serene before, she resisted now, struggled and cried out. But as they bore her toward it, the wheel appeared to blur and change. In the light of the candles, it seemed at first that serpents, green pythons with jeweled heads of scarlet and citrine and white, writhed from it. Then it was seen that these were flowers, roses in the bud. When the maid was but a step away they bloomed (they were of paper, concealed, as I well knew, within the segments of the wheel). Feigning fear, the journeymen drew back; but the narrators, Gurloes, Palaemon, and the others, speaking together as Maxentius, urged them on.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria was a Christian saint:

The furious emperor condemned Catherine to death on a spiked breaking wheel, but, at her touch, it shattered. Maxentius ordered her to be beheaded. Catherine herself ordered the execution to commence. A milk-like substance rather than blood flowed from her neck.

The woman who plays Catherine in the elevation ceremony is likely Severian’s real mother, begetting — the White Fountain.

And Yet

at some level, all this is bullshit. Severian is deluded. There’s a technological, not a magical, explanation. Severian’s power is not a mystical power but a technological power, brought about by the intervention of the Hierodules. The Hierodules, the dei ex machina, bow to him, but behind their multiple masks they must be snickering. They’re the ultimate violators of the Prime Directive, a time-hopping version of the Bene Gesserit Missionaria Protectiva, meddling, convincing Severian of his divine powers in order that he might serve their aims, to instill the myth more effectively.

Thecla is “the claw” that pricks Severian’s conscience — her death awakens him to who he is and what he is actually doing, and his own revolutionary hemisphere begins driving his time-fractured and serially-resurrected consciousness forward to confront the moral implications of his guild, and his guilt. This is not an immediate transformation, and we do not see most of it in the pages of the four-volume novel, although we see more of it in Urth. Scant months after he bores Dorcas with a dull recited justification of the need for his work, he is back at the Citadel, now Autarch, wondering if the Guild of Seekers for Truth and Penitence still has a place in a world he must now lead.

There are hints that Thecla is the daughter of Appian, the eunuch Autarch before Severian; her own timeline, for all we know, may also have been altered, as part of the process to shape Severian’s many revisions. The thorn itself seems to just be a conduit. When it is touched with Severian’s DNA, it becomes a channel for the manipulated Severian to channel power. It could have been any thorn. Severian misreads this so very badly in an epiphany, as he decides that all thorns, all waves, all grains of sand, are holy. As he calms the storm and is not wet by the rain, he interprets this as a miracle, but he ignores the likelihood that he is at this point a slightly immaterial projection, an aquastor or eidolon. He has been hypnotized to slavish obedience to the Hierodules, and in his obedience he believes he is becoming holy himself. Wolfe points out that Severian is not a Christ figure, but a Christian figure. He’s Mulder; he wants to believe, and his excess of credulity undermines his agency, and makes him semi-tragic.

The Way Out is the Way In

Michael Andre-Driussi suggests in Lexicon Urthus that the sapphire is really the fancy monstrance, chosen to inspire the faithful with smoke and mirrors, and the relic is inside. In other words, the flaw is the claw. How does the claw get inside the gem? We don’t know, but we have a clue in Wolfe’s “crystal sarcophagi” — unearthed and cast aside in the mines of Saltus, technology allowed the dying to preserve themselves against time in a state of suspended animation, awaiting the cure for disease or age. But this again is not magic; the suspended animation pod is a well-worn science fiction trope. At some point in the timeline, the Claw is preserved so that it can complete its strange loop through time and fall into Severian’s hand, where he holds it again, for the first time.

When the gem-Claw is shattered, Severian believes the Claw to be destroyed, until he finds a rose thorn that seems to glow, to give off a hypnotic, mind-canceling power. But upon multiple readings, we can no longer assume that Severian is perceiving the world accurately. In his manipulated world view, this is the “true claw” — and he returns it to the baffled Perelines. Once he is conveniently offstage, though, the encampment of the Perelines is destroyed, and presumably the claw with it; this is the end of that particular, ordinary rose thorn.

Later, near to the end of the story, is the genesis of the Claw, when Severian stabs himself on a rose thorn, creating a “relic” of himself. This is the thorn that Severian takes with him on his journey to Yesod. In Urth he leaves the thorn in his past. We lose track of it then, but we know that it will wind up inside the gem-Claw revered by the Perelines. This is the gem that the Perelines revered, and which Agia steals, and conceals in Severian’s bag, setting up this circular, self-begetting Mystery. Severian can wield the claw, but in Baldander’s hand, the rationalist scientist’s hand (Frankenstein, though he appears at first to be Frankenstein’s monster) it is a dull, dead gem — a mineral specimen; the hierodules themselves do not believe that the gem-claw holds any special virtue, although it may be Severian’s stories about it that give them the idea to use it in Severian’s revised timeline; they cross timelines as the hierodules head towards his past. Without Severian and the active intervention of the Hierodules, at least in the timeline leading up to the Severian’s possession of it, the encased Claw would be decaf instead of regular; it would glitter but not be gold; its monstrance shell an empty throne. But we know, that timeline has been changed — in fact, changed and changed again.

Another aside: did you notice that the false Thecla — the khaibit, the clone of the real Thecla — a false “the claw” — is found in the House… Azure? Azure is sky blue, but recall that the sun is dimmer in Urth’s time than it is on ours. The stars are visible in daylight, and the sky is a dark blue. Dare I say, need I say, sapphire blue? Severian is able to work miracles with the gem-Claw for a time. But is this Claw as false as the false Thecla in her House Azure?

Wolfe is saying a lot here — or, rather, saying a little, and suggesting a lot. Perhaps the gem claw is to the real “claw,” the torturer/savior, as the bread and wine is (in Catholic thought) to the Blood and Body. I won’t go so far as to call Wolfe a crypto-Atheist, but he seems to be getting at either a sort of distinction between false myth and true faith, or, perhaps a bit more radically, a unity, where the faith creates the truth.

Thecla Again

In a bit of storytelling that is uncharacteristically kind to Severian, in The Urth of the New Sun, Wolfe allows Severian to meet, and join with, Thecla; along with the Thecla in himself this is a threesome, or if you will, another trinity, a recursive trinity this time, where Thecla and Severian meet Thecla, gratuitous in the sense that it may be the only real act of kindness granted to Severian by his harsh, harsh taskmasters.

It seems from outside, to the reader, though, that this may be only another manipulation — an implanted memory, and that outside of Severian’s memory, it never happens, and Severian’s bed remained empty. Can we trust any of Severian’s memories of Thecla, or his understanding of the Claw?

There’s a lot going on in this aspect of the story. Wolfe is writing about the real power of religious artifacts, the technology of miracles, and the miracles of technology. But I maintain, like Wright, that this is not just to point you towards a mystical explanation. There is no magic.

The truth, at least as much as the sly wolf Wolfe is willing to lay out for you, is in there, and the work it takes to uncover it is, for the right reader at least, the real undying joy to be had from mining this heap of dead words about a dying Urth. I’m looking forward to reading it yet again. For The Book of the New Sun was one of my books of gold:

  >From time to time… a librarian remarks a solitary child, still of tender years, who wanders from the children’s room and at last deserts it entirely. Such a child eventually discovers, on some low but obscure shelf, The Book of Gold. You have never seen this book, and you will never see it, being past the age at which it is met.”
  “It must be very beautiful,” I said.

I assure you that it is.

Saginaw, Ann Arbor, and Pittsfield Township, Michigan
July, 2012, June, 2016, and July, 2022

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