Rereading Gene Wolfe

The Claw of the Conciliator, Part 3: Revelations and Ritual

Our previous installment of The Claw of the Conciliator ended with Severian and Jonas barely escaping the strange killing bats known as notules. When an uhlan is apparently killed by these creatures, Severian attempts to resurrect him with the Claw…and the man wakes up. Jonas will insist that no resurrection occurred, that the uhlan never died in the first place:

I am much older than you are. Older than you think. If there is one thing I have learned in so many voyages, it is that the dead do not rise, nor the years turn back. What has been and is gone does not come again.

And this may seem true to us readers (I had typed the word “unbelievers” in the first draft), but the fact that the uhlan’s inert body was found full of notules inside him makes this very hard to believe.

But then Severian notices something huge moving among the trees across the highway. He guesses that whoever might have sent the notules could have other weapons at hand. So they run away as fast as they can, soon reaching a graveled path among the trees, bordered with wild flowers and strewn with pebbles uniform in size and very white, as if they had been carried from “some secret and far off beach.” Severian asks Jonas what the appearance of such a path could mean and his fellow traveler answers that they are already on the grounds of the House Absolute.

In fact, they are in the gardens of the House. The first thing Severian sees there is a giant living statue, moving slowly and yet fluidly. The description of the stone figure reminded me of the beings in N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy (if it is a tribute on Jemisin’s part, it’s a fine one indeed).

Suddenly, Severian is thrown off his horse after sustaining a blow to the head, and faints. When he wakes up, he has a wire noose about the neck, and one of his captors is rummaging through his sabretache. The praetorian takes all his money and also Terminus Est, and he and Jonas are led away. Along the way, they strike a wider path—to Severian’s eyes wide as a processional way—and they indeed witness such a procession, or a motley company, with most people on foot, but some riding beasts. Among these are Dr. Talos, Dorcas, Jolenta and Baldanders. However, the company don’t see their captured friends and Jonas and Severian can’t call the players. The captives are finally led to a dark garden and, soon they are imprisoned, but not in a small cell; they are put inside a vast, bare room with a very low ceiling, which is already housing several dozen persons:

Men and women and a few children, were scattered in diverse parts of it—most singly, but some in couples or groups. Families occupied alcoves, and in some places screens of rags had been erected to provide privacy.

This entire scene is some sort of Kafkian nightmare—for, according to what little our protagonists can gather from the other prisoners, many of the people there aren’t the original perpetrators of any crime, but their descendants. Others are simply seeking an audience with the Autarch. Many have lived there their entire lives, being the second of third generation of supplicants. As one of them, a woman called Nicarete, explains to him:

I am a volunteer (…) Someone must make amends for the evil of Urth, or the New Sun will never come. And someone must call attention to the place and the others like it.

Later, when the two are talking alone, Jonas asks him if the Claw can’t release them (so Jonas believes the Claw holds some sort of power, after all). Severian doesn’t want to take it out because it gleams in the dark and might attract unwelcome attention. They wait for the night so that they can try and see if the Claw will spring a lock and allow them to escape. Jonas tells him that he has been talking with some families and he found out that many of them don’t even remember the world outside, but pass their knowledge down through oral tradition:

Traditions from the outside world that have been handed down to them, generation to generation, from the original prisoners from whom they are descended. 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.

Jonas asked them the name of the first prisoner. It was “Kimleesoong,” a very strange name to Severian, but not to Jonas. He then proceeds to explain that Kim Lee Soong (the name separated into three distinct words) “would have been a very common kind of name when I was…a boy.” This hesitation leads him to want to tell Severian his story in full now. Jonas begins saying that he was a member of the crew of a ship called the Fortunate Cloud.

But, just as he is about to tell the rest, they are attacked without warning. Severian is blinded by a flash of blue fire, which hurts as if his face were being torn away. This is followed by another flash, this time of green light, and chaos and confusion among the prisoners. He then risks revealing the Claw—or, as he himself says, “the Claw risks me, because it seems I had no control of the hand that slid into my boot top and grasped it.” The Claw then seems to have a living nature, such as famous objects of power in fantasy, like Elric’s Stormbringer, the sword that devours the soul of his enemies. But is the Claw a force for good?

At once the pain fades and there comes a rush of azure light. The hubbub dies away, and he gropes for Jonas, finding him unconscious. He carries his friend (noting that his body feels incredibly light) and uses the Claw on him; Jonas revives and they resume their previous discussion. Jonas starts to ramble about things that happened long ago—as far as we can tell, he speaks of the deep past indeed, maybe as far back as our medieval times. And he finally recounts his story: instead of a human being patched with metal (what we would call a cyborg, but there is no precise term for it in Severian’s time), Jonas is in fact a robot patched with biological material. This patching occurred when his ship crashed on Urth, long after they had first set off on their travels, so long after that there was no longer any port or dock when the ship returned. He then tells four stories to Severian—stories that I will not detail here.

Because we must choose what to tell. As I’ve made my way through these installments of The Book of the New Sun, I’m painfully aware that I should have mentioned many things I did not (and some of you have kindly reminded me in the comments), especially the various stories Severian hears throughout his travels (since Wolfe has a penchant to tell stories inside the stories), but what is one to do with a narrative as rich as this? The story goes on, must go on—and it now dawns on me that the whole architecture of the series’ narrative reminds me a bit of the liturgy of the Catholic Mass.

For those of you who’ve never attended or taken part in a Mass, it involves a highly symbolic and ritualized retelling of the last days of Jesus Christ, changing according to the time of the year, focusing on Christ’s birth at Christmas, and on his death and resurrection at Easter. A Mass can be a beautiful and meditative experience, but occasionally it can also have less-than-ideal aspects even for the devout, with a priest rambling through a long homily, for example, and getting nowhere. This is definitely not the case with Wolfe, of course, but every long journey can start to seem tiresome at points, and readers can be forgiven for feeling fatigued or overwhelmed every once in a while.

After many more troubled days and nights in the anteroom, Severian follows a girl who knows a way out, and finally escapes imprisonment. He carries Jonas, who is not well, and finally they arrive at a room full of mirrors; Jonas claims he knows this place. He goes straight to the center of the mirrors, the circle of panels—and somehow the mirrors teleport him out of there, leaving Severian alone. He then starts to roam the House Absolute, partly by guessing, as well as using what little he still retains of Thecla’s memories, to find his way. He bumps into a soldier, who mistakes him for a superior officer, and he talks the man into telling him where to find Terminus Est. He finally located the sword inside a closet for supplicants, where all the items they bring with them from the outside world are kept until a future time when they can get out and retrieve said objects (which, of course, they never do).

After some time spent mounting stairs, turning corridors, and getting deeper into the labyrinth of the House Absolute, Severian arrives at a large room containing framed many pictures…and an old man perched on a high stool cleaning one of the pictures. Severian recognizes the man as being Rudesind the curator: the man he had met long ago, when Master Gurloes had sent him to fetch the books for Thecla. But, even if the place seems the same, it is not, as Severian reminds the old man: the first time they met, they were in the Citadel. They talk for a while and Rudesind shows him a few paintings, including one in which a man appears in the costume of a llanero playing a guitar (one of many references which suggest that the story takes place in what was Argentina, probably in the pampas), as well as another, apparently an Impressionist painting. Attempting to step back for a better view of this work, Severian suddenly finds himself inside another room (possibly a room inside the picture hanging opposite the Impressionist painting); Rudesind and the corridor filled with paintings seem to have vanished, and inside this new room he meets a figure in a yellow robe:

Short, white hair was brushed back from his rounded brow, and his face might almost have served a plump woman of forty; about his neck, a phallus-shaped vial I remembered hung on a slender chain.

Severian is greeted as if he was Death himself, but he excuses himself, stating that he’s only a journeyman of the guild of torturers. The man explains the nature of the concealed rooms to him, and when Severian asks where the garden is, he responds, “Many will seek to flee by that road if the pelagic argosy sights land.” The phrase “pelagic argosy” is the code that Vodalus had warned Severian to expect (though I see now that this was one of the things I skimmed over in the previous installment, I’m afraid.)

So Severian now knows that the androgyne (for that’s how he refers to the man) has a connection with Vodalus.

He explains to him:

“I was imprisoned in the antechamber,” I said. “And so lost time.”

“But you escaped, I see. It isn’t likely you’d be released before my men came to search it. It’s well you did—there isn’t much time left… the three days of the thiasus, then I must go.”

(Note: the “thiasus” mentioned here refers to a  a festival for a god, full of singing and dancing, according to Michael Andre-Driussi in Lexicon Urthus). Then he reads the message Severian brought from Vodalus, and, even though the androgyne comments on it, he insists it’s none of Severian’s affair.  He directs Severian to go fetch a book inside a cabinet.

It held one monstrous book—a thing nearly as tall as I and a good two cubits wide – that stood with its cover of mottled blue-green leather facing me much as a corpse might had I opened the lid of an upright casket. (…) The first page (…) was written in red in a character I did not know. “This is a warning to the seekers of the path”, he said. “Shall I read it to you?”

I blurted, “It seemed to me that I saw a dead man in the leather, and that he was myself.”

What is this book? Severian asks the androgyne to give him the map to find his way out of this place, but the other answers: “There is no map. This is the thing itself.” And he opens the book, revealing pages like mirrors. The androgyne tells Severian to read from its pages, but he doesn’t dare. It doesn’t matter: something shapes itself in the air above the open pages—a hologram?

It was neither a woman nor a butterfly, but it partook of both, and just as we know when we look at the painted figure of a mountain in the background of some picture that it is in reality as huge as an island, so I knew I saw the thing only from far off—its wings beat, I think, against the proton winds of space, and all Urth might have been a mote disturbed by their motion.

The androgyne then slams shut the book and asks Severian what he saw. Severian can’t bring himself to say, but he swears allegiance to this man from then on. The man accepts, telling him he might someday remind him of that oath. But he tells Severian the sight has marked him, and indeed Severian now sports a kind of stigma; a bruise upon his brow, from which he has been sweating blood due to intense emotional strain.

(Stigmatas, according to Catholic lore, are marks of the crucifixion of Christ imprinted upon the body of the believer. They manifest usually in the hands and feet, but they can also manifest on the brow, because of the crown of thorns Christ was made to wear. Although it is not clear now how this vision relates to Jesus’ suffering, there can be no doubt again that Severian is an analog of Christ in some way.)

Upset, Severian asks the androgyne why he had showed him the book, when all he wanted was to get a map to find the Green Room? The androgyne can’t help but laugh, and after a while, muses:

“Was that all you wished?” he said when he was had control of himself again. “You asked me for a light for your candle, and I tried to give you the sun, and now you are burned.”

Would this be a metaphor for the light of God? Could the androgyne be a kind of harbinger for the coming of the New Sun that is Severian? Until this scene, I was sure this role was being fulfilled by Vodalus, but it’s the androgyne who gives him this gift of sorts—just as John the Baptist gave the sacrament of baptism to Jesus, manifesting the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, above the head of the Christ. (But I might be reading too much into this scene.)

He then asks Severian where he will go after he has found the Green Room. Severian simply answers: “Where you send me.” But what if he has no orders? Then Severian must go to Thrax, because he has a letter to the archon there. The androgyne agrees, and telling him, “You must go to Thrax as you planned, telling everyone… even yourself… that you are going to fill the position that waits you there.”

The “even yourself” part is most significant—Severian must convince himself that this is what he needs to do, that he must play a role in the larger scheme of things, a scheme he still knows nothing about, though we know (and he as the narrator of the overall story knows too) that this will lead to him becoming the next Autarch—even if that means fulfilling the androgyne’s final instruction: that he must kill the Autarch when he sees him next. Severian already knows by now that this androgyne is the Autarch himself.

Then he leaves, to find again his friends some distance away. Dr. Talos, who welcomes him, explains that the rest are deep asleep on the grass. They are going to perform later in that day, and he has arrived just in time to join the troupe. He meets Dorcas again, who seems lost without him, and who is happy now that he came. Dorcas tells him she has been having strange dreams featuring an old man who poles a boat as she lies on its floor, unable to move, and a voice she loves calling her name. Severian tells her she must be dreaming of the boat they once rode in together with Agia, but it’s probable that she is remembering her death. By now we already gather that Dorcas (by what we’ve seen in the first volume, but also by the exegesis written by Michael Andre-Driussi), is the wife of the old man who was searching for his wife’s tomb, and that she is in fact Severian’s grandmother. How is this all relevant for the series? I don’t know yet.

After that, Severian meets Jolenta, and tries to appease her anxiety, because she will be performing on the grounds of the House Absolute that day, and she is counting on her seduction skills, or rather, the skills apparently given her by Dr. Talos. They make love. Severian doesn’t seem be drawn to Jolenta as he has been to other women, beyond his physical desire; he is not in love with her, and knows that Jonas (who’s not there) is in love with her. In fact, as far as we know, Severian is neither in love with anyone nor seeks to be, and this is not a romantic adventure, by any measure. At the same time, it’s important to note that there is consent, and people don’t seem to have any prudish views regarding sex at the time in which the story is set, even if sometimes the faux-medieval setting might give readers that impression (even with Catholicism strong in the European Middle Ages, though, did the people of that time have an overwhelmingly prudish view of sex? According to Chaucer and Boccaccio, among many other chroniclers of that period, this is not likely).

Then there is a whole chapter dedicated to the play written by Dr. Talos, being a dramatization (as he claims) “of certain parts of the lost Book of the New Sun”: the story seems to show a newfangled version of Adam and Eve’s narrative, complete with serpent, but also featuring the Autarch as God. The play is very interesting but not necessarily vital to our rereading, although there is at least one thing worth mentioning. At one point in the play, the character of the prophet tells the Autarch this: “Yet even you must know that cancer eats the heart of the old sun. At its center, matter falls in upon itself, as though there were there a pit without bottom, whose top surrounds it.”

A black hole would be consuming our sun, then? Or some kind of superscience-y massive energy weapon?

Maybe, after completing the whole Gene Wolfe Reread, I should write a postscript focusing only on the stories, like this play, told inside the other stories (and within other stories, since Wolfe’s stories are so full of layers and different meanings).

Suddenly, almost at the end of the play, someone fires a pistol, and chaos ensues. Several exultants had drawn their swords, and once more we are confronted by cognitive estrangement in the next scene:

(…) someone—I could not see who—possessed that rarest of all weapons, a dream. It moved like tyrian smoke, but very much faster, and in an instant it has enveloped the giant. It seemed then that he stood wrapped in all that was past and much that had never been: a gray-haired woman sprouted from his side, a fishing boat hovered just over his head, and a cold wind whipped the flames that wreathed him.

What these visions seem to mean? There is no explanation, also because they don’t seem to affect Baldanders (the giant) in any way. Severian flees, but not before seeing that the exultants were in fact monstrosities, or cacogens. He reaches for Dorcas, but he can’t find her.

After a while running, he stumbles into the troupe again. They share the money they collected from the audience in the performance, and they go their separate ways. But Talos and Baldanders will travel alone, and Talos refuses to travel with Jolenta, who is now fearful because she is certainly going to lose the beauty and seduction powers given to her by Dr. Talos. Dorcas goes with Severian. Talos offers money to Severian, asking him to stop and hold Jolenta until they are well away, otherwise they will kill her. Severian refuses, saying he can only accept commissions from legally constituted authorities. He doesn’t care. Soon after Severian and Dorcas depart, they hear screams. Then they return and find Jolenta lying on the ground. Severian uses the Claw to wake her, and she revives. (Is he trusting too much in the power of the Claw, or not?) Jolenta begs to go with them. Severian ends up agreeing.

At night, Severian has a dream—or is it a dream? Someone calls him, and he follows the voice. He goes to the river and finds the owner of the voice:

A face looked through the water at me, the face of a woman who might have dandled Baldanders like a toy. Her eyes were scarlet, and her mouth was bordered by full lips so darkly crimson I had not at first thought them lips at all. Behind them stood an army of pointed teeth; the green tendrils that framed her face were her floating hair.

She is an undine, daughter-wife of Abaia, and she urges him to come to her, because she wants his love. She claims she can make Severian breath under water, but he will have to trust her and let himself drown first. But he doesn’t trust her. Since Severian refuses to go to her, she tries to go to him, but her weight is too great for her to continue outside the water, and she collapses. Fearful, Severian flees to Dorcas, and they resume their walking.

After many days, they come upon the sod house of an herdsman, sucking his maté (a gaucho of the future, apparently). They beg him to let Jolenta rest inside the hut, because she might be dying. The herdsman does not consent, because a friend of his is also dying there. Severian offers to help him, and the herdsman finally lets them enter. He draws the Claw, but he’s not able to help Jolenta. When the sick man wakes up, he recognizes Severian as the new lector of Thrax. They try to kill him, but he and Dorcas rapidly overpower both men (Severian breaking one of their arms, in the process); they leave the next morning, though not before Severian touches their wounds with the Claw.

They will end the next part of their journey in a tower, where they meet two women, one young, one old, who Severian calls witches. They help Jolenta, though perhaps she doesn’t want to live. Jolenta reverts to her previous state when she was a wench at the inn in The Shadow of the Torturer, older and with a haggard face. One of the women explains that she had been imbued with a glamour, and Dorcas asks if it is magic. But the other answers: “There is no magic. There is only knowledge, more or less hidden.”

But there is someone else in the tower waiting for them: Hildegrin, who wants to know if Severian has fulfilled his mission. He says he did, but that he has no message to return. At that, Dorcas says she has a message: someone she met in the gardens of the House Absolute told her to say, “When the leaves are grown, the wood is to march north.”

Now Hildegrin asks that Severian and Dorcas help him in “bringing back the past” in the form of a certain Apu-Punchau, the legendary figure who is the forerunner of the Conciliator. They all link hands, including Jolenta, and conjure the past. Severian collapses, and when he wakes up, he is in a different place, able to see his companions as if they are translucent, insubstantial phantoms. They see the dead come to life again, making a great procession of dancers along a street. Then a man comes to greet them, and his face is the face of funeral bronze mask in the mausoleum where Severian played as a boy. It is Apu-Punchau.

Suddenly Hildegrin runs toward him. Then, perhaps because both are not quite in the same time frame, a sort of impasse occurs: Hildegrin holds onto Apu-Punchau but cannot subdue him. The other man struggles but can’t break free. Severian reacts, trying to get to them, but receives a blow on the side of the head. When he regains consciousness, he is lying in the mud of the pampas…but aside from himself, Dorcas, and a dead Jolenta, there is no one else present.

Well, we are also there as well, of course, but there is nothing we can do for them now. So, the Mass—or at least this part of the liturgy—ends on a sad note.

See you on Thursday, November 14th, for The Sword of the Lictor…

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.

citation

1 Comment

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.