Rereading Gene Wolfe

The Claw of the Conciliator, Part 1: Holding the Power of Life and Death

So, after three installments on the first novel, we reach the second part of The Book of the New Sun. Since I am reading it all over again after more than thirty years, I find that I can’t remember much of Severian’s journey, but this forgetfulness seems to be a good thing, since I can almost regain the sense of wonder I experienced on my first encounter with the series.

If I had to describe now what I felt while reading The Shadow of the Torturer in one word, the word would be “uncertainty.” For now I can recall the concern, even anguish, that I felt for the young apprentice’s future on my first reading, even though it’s made clear from the beginning that he is somehow to become the ruler supreme of Urth—the Autarch—many years from the beginning of the story. But very soon I was captured by the rhythm of his narrative, to the point where I forgot about most of what I know about the overall plot, to the extent that I began to feel that anxiety all over again.

And it’s a good feeling to have, regarding an old book. For I felt a renewed sense of wonder reading the ouverture to the series. And I experienced the same beautiful cognitive estrangement with the second novel, The Claw of the Conciliator.

The Shadow of the Torturer ends at what we could call a cliffhanger, even if it’s not quite that. We could easily call it a passage, or a portal, because the troupe of artists arrive at the Piteous Gate just when the first volume ends. The second page of The Claw of the Conciliator even gives us the proper figure of speech to illustrate this:

Such a mighty structure was the Wall that it divided the world as the mere line between their covers does two books (…)

And that’s exactly what the reader witnesses: not only the passing of a gate, but simultaneously reaching the end of a book and the beginning of another.

Now, when The Claw of the Conciliator begins, we are there at the Wall. But something has happened: a kind of skirmish in which Dorcas is hurt (blood gushes from her cheek). However, when Severian draws Terminus Est to strike the men who have attacked her and finds himself about to strike Master Malrubius and his dog Triskele, we find that he is actually dreaming.

Severian thinks he has woken up in the apprentices’ dormitory, and for a while he concludes that everything that has happened so far must have been a dream. (That would have been something, huh?) But he soon perceives that this is also not true: he’s in a new place. He is in the same room as Jonas, with wine to drink but no water with which to wash himself. He goes to the inn nearby and orders breakfast. There we find something that has happened in the tight space between the ending of Shadow and this novel’s beginning: Severian’s next assignment as carnifex will be to execute Morwenna and Barnoch, two thieves. We also take note that there is a war going on. Was this already mentioned in passage on the first novel? I just read it and I can’t remember, but I seem to vaguely recall something about it.  (This just serves to prove that one not only loses anything by reading a book again, but one gains more by doing so.)

But I seem to remember that the war was mentioned briefly, yes. This being the war against the Ascians, who won’t appear in the series until book three or four. The only thing I remember was that the portrayal of the Ascians seemed problematic somehow, but I can’t tell why because I haven’t reached this part yet. The thing I seem to remember is that their physical description and their allegiance to a kind of sacred book reminded me of the Maoists in China, and the Red Book of Mao Zedong. But I can’t possibly elaborate on that until I cross again that particular bridge.

The innkeeper and Severian talk briefly about the war. The innkeeper’s wife, though, doesn’t believe that a war is under way. Rather, she thinks all the soldiers they have seen on the road are searching for Vodalus, and suddenly Severian’s heart fills with hope, for he wants to meet that mysterious revolutionary again.

After his meal, he and Jonas go to the house of the thieves, who are imprisoned there by volunteer guards. When they bring Barnoch out of the house, he shouts: “I will be free! Vodalus! Vodalus will come!” And Severian feels a certain shame because Barnoch, who maybe under other circumstances could have been his comrade, will now die by his hands:

I too had dreamed of rescue by Vodalus, of a revolution that would sweep away the animal stench and degeneracy of the present age and restore the high and gleaming culture that was once Urth’s.

…which seems like an intriguingly left-wing thought for someone like Wolfe, who self-identified as a conservative—but not so much if we remember that he was a Catholic, who probably also identified strongly with the gospels, which depict Jesus Christ as a man who fights injustice, not only with words but also with actions that would seem revolutionary in his time, such as preventing people from stoning  a woman accused of adultery to death, or (with a considerable amount of violence) expelling the money changers from the temple. So, Severian’s revolutionary leanings seems pretty much justifiable (or, at least, understandable) in this context.

Then, suddenly, Severian sees Agia’s face among the crowd of onlookers—only to lose her immediately in the crowd, which disperses into a fair nearby. Entering this fair, Severian is advised to visit the tent with the green man, because this green man knows everything, and should be able to tell Severian where Agia is. Indeed, when Severian approaches the tent, a man with a drum is barking:

Brought from the jungles of the North! Never eats! Akin to the bushes and the grasses! The future and the past are one to him!

He pays the barker and enter the tent. And he sees the green man, “a man the color of pale jade. He wore a kilt of leaves, now fading (…) Even the whites of his eyes held a greenish tint.”

When he asks the green man what (not who) he is, the answer is cryptic: “A great seer. A great liar, like every man whose foot is in a trap.” And he explains that he came from Severian’s future to explore the current age. Then he offers a better, more detailed explanation:

The green color that puzzles your people so much is only what you call pond scum. We have altered it until it can live in our blood, and by its intervention have at last made our peace in humankind’s long struggle with the sun. In us, the tiny plants live and die, and our bodies feed from them and their dead and require no other nourishment. All the famines, and all the labor of growing food, are ended.

The concept of a “green man” is not an invention of Wolfe’s: this is a kind of character who is virtually a mythos unto himself. Emily Tesh wrote a delicious article on it for Tor.com a while ago, and our Stubby wrote another one listing eight famous characters who embody this myth—without mentioning Wolfe’s green man, though. (Maybe it’s time for an update, Stubby?)

This one, however, is not a myth, but simply a man from the future—an apparently sustainable future (quite apropos for our current solarpunk era, by the way) where humankind can survive under the sun without solid or even liquid food, requiring just the light and the energy provided by the sun.

And the interesting thing, when Severian ponders that these future people must have sun: “Yes, the green man said. And I have not enough here. Day is brighter in my age.”

How come? If we surmise that the story is set in a million years from now, when the sun has turned into a red giant, then there are two possible explanations for this: either humankind rediscovered space technology and built a kind of apparatus to amplify the intensity of sun beams—or the sun is not red anymore, but yellow. (This has been theorized in one of the comments of a previous reread installment.) It makes sense, since a million years is too great a span, and probably the human race wouldn’t be here any longer, or it would have suffered a huge mutation, not being entirely human anymore.

But is it true? A quick search in Michael Andre-Driussi’s article Posthistory 101 (in Gene Wolfe: 14 Articles) gives me a good, but by no means complete, timeline of events pre- and post-Severian, explaining that the Age of the Monarch, which came right before the Age of the Autarch, occurred thousands of years before Severian, but fails to give an exact date. Way before that we have the Age of Myth, which is our own. An important character of this age who is mentioned in The Claw… is Apu-Punchau, a figure who leads a technological revolution among farmers. Apu-Punchau is other name for Inti, the ancient Incan sun god. If they are the same person, Andre-Driussi calculates that (since the Inca dinasty was established in A.D. 1200) Severian is living in A.D. 98,700. Therefore, the million-year hypothesis is just part of the myth surrounding this story.

Severian, however, chooses to interpret these words the only way a man of his time could: he thinks that the New Sun has come in the Green Man’s time, as prophesied. Meaning that there is a second life for Urth. At this, the Green Man only laughs. They get angry with each other. And they pity one another. In a short time, they almost become friends. I recall that they will meet again in the future, but I can’t remember when, so let’s leave it at that. But the Green Man tells Severian something about his future; in fact, two things: first, a personal but cryptical prophecy that in approximately ten years he will be less strong, and will never regain the strength he has now. He doesn’t believe this, because this is the fortune of all men. The second, however, is more objective: armed men are seeking to free a man called Barnoch.

In exchange for this insight, Severian gives the man half of his whetstone, so that he can free himself of his chains. (So it’s obvious that they will likely meet again in the future.)

The next day, he executes Morwenna. This time, though, Wolfe takes his time describing in full detail the role of the carnifex, which is not at all different from what we know of executioners in medieval Europe. Severian seems to take pride and even to like what he’s doing. That same night, when he and Jonas are dining in their room, Severian observes a note being slipped under the door. This time (unlike in the last book) the note is for him, and is signed by Thecla—who apparently didn’t die, and longs to meet him again. She then directs him to a mine where she is waiting for him, and where the Autarch had hidden a great treasure.

Severian is beside himself with joy, and he just can’t wait: he borrows Jonas’s horse to go and meet her. But I’ve been interspersing this reading with Wolfe’s Castle of Days, and in one of the texts there (The Castle of the Otter, more specifically, in the chapter “The Feast of Saint Catherine”) the author mentions that he initially thought of having Thecla feigning her death and escaping the Matachin Tower, to call for Severian later, but Wolfe says he ended up deciding to keep her dead. So, the note could only mean a scam, right?

When Severian enters the mine, he calls for Thecla, but no one answers. Instead, he starts to see light—a sort of luminous mist, “sometimes seeming of no color, sometimes of an impure yellowish green”. This light was soon joined by many others, and then Severian sees that he is into a kind of vault apparently built by human hands, maybe a buried city, from which the miners of Saltus delved their treasures. He sees pillars and star-shapes; but upon a closer examination, the star-shapes are twisted men, or beast-men:

They were terrible in a fashion I am not certain I can explain—like apes in that they had hairy, crooked bodies, long-armed, short-legged, and thick-necked. Their teeth were like the fangs of Smilodons, curved and saw-edged, extending a finger’s length below their massive jaws. Yet it was not any of these things, nor the noctilucent light that clung to their fur, that brought the horror I felt. It was something in their faces, perhaps in the huge, pale-irised eyes. It told me they were as human as I.

Or, as he says later, men “wrapped in the guise of lurid apes”.

This is something recurrent in Wolfe’s books: men-beasts not unlike the ones seen in The Island of Doctor Moreau. We have seen such figures appear in this rereading so far in almost all of his books (with the possible exception of Peace). What do these creatures represent in Wolfe’s prose?

A few of them are armed with maces that seem to be made of bone, and they gather round Severian to attack him. Then, when one of the man-apes grasps his boot, he instinctively reaches for the Claw. And the Claw of the Conciliator starts to glow with a clear azure light that fills the cavern and inspires terror in the man-apes. They retreat, and, pondering their behavior, Severian offers us a clue, perhaps, into Wolfe’s thinking about his use of such creatures in his stories:

Old men return to childish ways when at last the years becloud their minds. May it not be that mankind will return (as an old man does) to the decayed image of what once was, it at last the old sun dies and we are left scuffling over bones in the dark?

And he continues:

I saw our future—one future at least—and I felt more sorrow for those who had triumphed in the dark battles than for those who had poured out their blood in that endless night.

A sad but true image—one that calls to mind Wells’ The Time Machine, with the Morlocks living in the underground (even though the Morlocks are intelligent, while the man-apes don’t appear to have more than a simple-minded apprehension of things).

Then they flee, and the blue light seems to go with them. He notices sadly that the light flames for them, not for him. What could this mean? That the owner, or handler, of the Claw is not entitled to any possible benefit from it? We don’t know that, at least not just yet. He searches for his sword, and finds out that the one who had summoned him was Agia, not Thecla—who really is dead, alas. Jonas descends to the bottom of the mine and joins him. Severian is set to kill Agia, and she seems ready to die, although she doesn’t want to, for she still seeks revenge for the death of her brother Agilus. Ultimately, Severian decides to speare her life and leaves her in the mine. Severian and Jonas return to their inn, bringing with them the mace used by the man-ape, and only then discover that the weapon is made of pounded gold.

But we’re left with many lingering questions about the nature of the Claw… Can this sacred relic be a symbol for anything significant in the Catholic tradition? And what role will it play in the rest of this novel? We will learn more about it (but not all) as the rest of the story unfolds—suffice it to say that it may be a weapon of sorts: a weapon for life, in opposition to Terminus Est, which is meant for death. But that remains to be seen.

See you all on Thursday, October 17th, for the next installment of The Claw of the Conciliator

Fabio Fernandes started writing in English experimentally in the ‘90s, but only began to publish in this language in 2008, reviewing magazines and books for The Fix, edited by the late lamented Eugie Foster. He’s also written articles and reviews for a number of sites and magazines, including Fantasy Book Critic, Tor.com, The World SF Blog, Strange Horizons, and SF Signal. He’s published short stories in Everyday Weirdness, Kaleidotrope, Perihelion, and the anthologies Steampunk II, The Apex Book of World SF: Vol. 2, Stories for Chip, and POC Destroy Science Fiction. In 2013, Fernandes co-edited with Djibrilal-Ayad the postcolonial original anthology We See a Different Frontier. He’s translated several science fiction and fantasy books from English to Brazilian Portuguese, such as Foundation, 2001, Neuromancer, and Ancillary Justice. In 2018, he translated to English the Brazilian anthology Solarpunk (ed. by Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro) for World Weaver Press. Fabio Fernandes is a graduate of Clarion West, class of 2013.

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