Rereading Gene Wolfe

The Sword of the Lictor, Part 3: Weaponless in the Wilderness

The most recent installment of this reread showed us some of the horrors of Urth in the form of a few monsters (from that world or not) that cross Severian’s path as he leaves the city of Thrax behind him. His journey continues in this last section of the book, taking him very far—this time accompanied by a boy, the young Severian, who he adopts as a son. They won’t be short on adventure—and, in a way, they will face new monsters, as well.

Severian—our Severian—ponders which direction he should take. He knows he can’t descend far, for the Archon of Thrax is sure to be waiting for him, not to mention Agia. So he decides to go to the northeast, where stands the highest peak he had seen so far. At least half of that mountain is covered in snow. He imagines that even hard-bitten dimarchi won’t follow him there.

On the way there, the two Severians talk, touching on several topics. The first involves about the nature of the zoanthropes, the man-apes or beasts who had attacked the younger Severian’s family, and the fact that these creatures might have once been fully human. Severian implies that humans could sometimes pay skilled men to take their thoughts away, a procedure from which there is no return:

They want to stop thinking forever, and often they say they wish to turn their backs on all that humanity has done. Then it is no longer just to treat them as human beings—they have become animals, though animals who are still of human shape.

As I have written before in these articles, the fact that Wolfe puts these speciest words in Severian’s mind doesn’t necessarily mean that the author thinks along the same lines. What is being discussed here, I suspect, is of a different nature, as the following part of the conversation shows:

You asked why they did not wear clothes. They no longer understand clothes, and so they would not put them on, even if they were very cold.

When little Severian asks his adoptive father if he himself was a bit like that (because even then, in the cold, adult Severian walks with his bare chest), he is taken aback for a moment, before answering:

“It’s the rule of my guild,” I said. “I haven’t had any part of my head taken away, if that’s what you’re asking, and I used to wear a shirt… But, yes, I suppose I am a little like that, because I never thought of it, even when I was very cold.”

He might have not had any part of his mind removed or erased, but since childhood the rules of his guild have been inculcated into his existence to an intense degree (as with many forms of instruction, where the student doesn’t learn as much as he is trained to do something without thinking, and matures only when he somehow starts to reflect on what he is learning). This shows how much Severian has grown since he left Matachin Tower—we are indeed getting closer to the end of his narrative (relatively speaking, of course, since we are still one novel away from the series’ finish line)

After traveling for hours, they arrive at a saddle between mountains, where they can see an expanse of forest and a little stream. Severian tells the little boy they will go down there tomorrow, then they lay down to rest for the night and count the constellations.

The following day, they enter the mountain jungle. It’s a strange, beautiful place, but soon they find something unsettling: a cock’s head with needles of dark metal stuck in its eyes, with a strip of cast snakeskin in its bill. Perhaps a charm made by a witch, Severian guesses. He explains to the boy that the cock is a herald of day, and a blinded cock is unable to fill this function. What he doesn’t tell little Severian is that in his heart, he suspects that this is a charm against the coming of the New Sun.

When they decide to go back, they are surrounded by devils—or rather, naked men with bodies painted in black, white, and scarlet stripes. Their hands are fitted with steel talons. He draws Terminus Est. One of the men tells him he may go away if he wants, for they won’t harm him—as long as he leaves the child with them. Severian refuses, but when he looks around for the boy, young Severian is no longer there. Then the man tells him he must surrender his sword if he wants the boy returned to him. He does so, and follows them.

They go to a place that can barely be called a village, with houses perched upon the branches of a tree, and others carved into the trunks of other trees. They descend into a subterranean room, where he is kept for hours in the dark. He starts to hallucinate (or maybe to commune with) Thecla, and they have a conversation about time, until suddenly someone appears in the room with them.

After a while, Severian manages to grope his way out of the dark room and finds himself in another chamber. He takes the Claw out twice to check his surroundings, and eventually detects a pungent, alien smell. He wanders in what seems like a maze, following the fetid trail, but never glimpses the creature that left it. He finally ends up finding a secret exit. Then he encounters a group of robed men, and one of them addresses him. Severian realizes that this man is the one who talked to him in the darkened room:

“As you can see, you cannot escape us. You were free, yet we drew you back.” It was the voice that had interrogated me in my underground cell.

As I had already mentioned before in this reread, one of the many influences of Gene Wolfe appears to be the French symbolist writer Villiers de L’Isle-Adam. This particular scene is reminiscent of one of his most famous cruel stories, The Torture of Hope.

Severian demands having his son returned to him, along with his sword. He claims to be a magus, and the leader of the man challenges him to prove it by duelling with Decuman, another member of his tribe. Severian accepts, as long as his son stays with him, and they finally agree. Little Severian is afraid, but our Severian tells him that there is no such thing as magic—and yet, somehow Decuman manages to do something with Severian’s mind which leaves him questioning, later, if magic does perhaps exist.

A dark, shapeless creature appears and Severian slashes at it with Terminus Est, but as soon as the blade tears into it, the wound seems to close and knit. He picks up the boy and runs like hell through the jungle, all night. Severian assumes that this creature is the same that haunted the antechamber of the House Absolute, and that Hethor probably summoned it, as he did the salamander. He wonders if Hethor is close.

And yet they continue on through the jungle. This setting is interesting—it might be (according to what little I know of Urth’s geography) the Andes, maybe? Although today that region’s fauna is nothing like what’s described here. In the middle of their climb, they come to an ancient highway. Severian observes that he had never walked in a place that gave him so great a sensation of anomaly. Then they see a massive hand at a distance:

I craned my neck, but for a moment I saw nothing but what I had seen before: a long promontory of inhospitable gray rock. Then the sunlight flashed on something near the end. It seemed, unmistakably, the gleam of gold; when I had seen that, I saw also that the gold was a ring, and under it I saw the thumb lying frozen in stone along the rock, a thumb perhaps a hundred paces long, with the fingers above it hills.

Severian stares at the huge gold ring, keenly aware that they have no money and that they will need it when they get back to civilization:

Gold might also buy little Severian an apprenticeship in some worthy guild, for it was clear that he could not continue to travel with me. It seemed most probable that the great ring was only gold leaf over stone; even so, so vast a quantity of gold leaf, if it could be peeled away and rolled up, must amount to a considerable total.

They climb further in order to get to the hand and golden ring, and then, after a last steep ascent, they observe a cluster of slender spires. The boy thinks he’s looking at Thrax, but Severian disabuses him of that notion, telling him that their appearance has more in common with his Citadel and its metal towers: the Matachin Tower, the witches’ tower, the Bear and the Bell towers. But in fact, the towering metal figures are cataphracts, warriors armored from head to toe, “the guardsmen of the Autarch, waiting in his lap to destroy those who would harm him.” Little Severian asks if they would hurt them, but Severian says: “They’re only statues, spiritual guards left here as memorials to his powers.”

The boy also sees buildings below, reaching only until the waists of the statues. They go to the nearest structure to see if they can find food or water, and Severian discovers the body of a man with two heads. The thin, dry air of the mountain had desiccated that body long ago—like the mysterious buildings, it might have been a year old, or a thousand.

The body is lying upon a mechanism that seemed intended to provide nourishment. Severian fiddles with the machine to try to obtain some food for them, but to no avail. He then decides to go up the mountain, to search for some snow to assuage their thirst. He says they will travel to the ring the next day—but then he finds a way up inside the building, via a narrow stair with hundreds of steps. They end up climbing directly to the hand:

We were on the wrist, with the little plain of the hand spread before us, broader and safer even than the arm. As I strode over it, the boy ran ahead of me. The ring was on the second finger, a finger larger than a log cut from the greatest tree. Little Severian ran out upon it, balancing himself without difficulty on the crest, and I saw him throw out his hands to touch the ring.

Then there’s a flash of light: to Severian’ eyes, bright but not blindingly so in the afternoon sunshine. The next thing he knows, little Severian lies dead, “blackened and consumed.” The body falls and rolls until it disappears in the crevice between the second and the third fingers. Severian hurries there, taking out the Claw:

For a moment it seemed that there was a glimmering, a bright shadow or aura; then the boy’s corpse crumbled to black ash that stirred in the unquiet air.

Slowly, Severian traces his way back down the stair, remembering the boy’s family, and melancholy takes hold of him:

They were all dead now, Severa and Becan, whom I had never seen; the old man, the dog, Casdoe, now little Severian, even Fechin, all dead, all lost in the mists that obscure our days. Time itself is a thing, so it seems to me, that stands solidly like a fence of iron paling with its endless row of years; and we flow past the Gyoll, on our way to a sea from which we shall return only as rain.

Again we encounter metaphors involving water, here, to remind us of a few things: for example, Severian’s marked fondness for and connection to rivers and lakes and maybe seas, and also the pre-Socratic philosophy of panta rhei, stating that no one bathes in the same river twice. The waters flow and are different every time. So are we.

Sad and somewhat dazed, he tries to return to the circular building, but he can’t. Instead he finds a sheltered spot distant from the nearest metal guardsman, where he attempts to rest. But he is soon woken by the sound of soft footsteps.

It’s a naked two-headed man. One of the heads introduces himself as Typhon, and the other, who remains mute (Severian notices that the other head appears to be intellectually disabled and unresponsive), as Piaton. Severian asks Typhon if he is by any chance the son of the dead man he saw a while ago, and he responds, “Not at all. I am the man himself. (…) You thought me dead when I was only dry. I drank, and as you see, I live again. To drink is to live, to be bathed in water is to have a new birth.”

What an interesting thing to say, don’t you think? I sort of cheated here again and looked for references in Michael Andre-Driussi’s Lexicon Urthus, and found quite a lot of interesting references there. Typhon was son of Hera, or possibly of Zeus and Niobe, and he was a fire-breathing giant. Andre-Driussi give us possible etymological origins for the word “typhoon,” which is mentioned by Wolfe himself in Castle of Days. Apparently, this word comes from the Chinese “tai fung,” which means “big wind.” According to John Brunner, this word might have been carried back from the China Sea by Arab sailors, from which we now have the words “tufan” in Hindi and “tuffon” in India (and “tufão” in Portuguese).

In this case, Typhon is a monarch—the last monarch of Urth, in fact. Seeing the fall of his empire, he searched for ways to restore its glory—even having his own head grafted into a servant’s body so he could extend his life. He apparently existed in a kind of suspended animation—or was he dead and somehow the Claw resurrected him? We don’t know. But he revels in the fact that he lives again, and the drinking of water is the equivalent of baptism in his mind.

He explains to Severian that he lived in a period of great confusion, because of the sun:

My astronomers had told me that the sun’s activity would decay slowly. Far too slowly, in fact, for the change to be noticeable in a human lifetime. They were wrong. The heat of the world declined by nearly two parts in a thousand over a few years, then stabilized. Crops failed, and there were famines and riots.

Then someone appeared: a wonder-worker. Typhon is speaking of the Conciliator—but when he asks Severian where he is now, the former torturer tells him he has been dead for many chilliads.

Typhon takes Severian to a floating boat, a sort of a mini-flyer, and they go to an empty chamber where he will give food and water to Severian—as long as he gives the Claw to him and swears solemnly to serve Typhon. Severian refuses. Then Typhon seizes him and hold him by his heels outside. They are on the face of the mountain autarch, where the erstwhile monarch of Urth asks him if the Claw can help him. Severian says it cannot.

“Who can save you, Talisman-bearer?”

“You. Typhon.”

“Only I?”

“Only Typhon.”

Then Typhon pulls Severian back and shows him an ocean of undulating cloud, telling him it’s the robe of the world, and that this world can be his, to rule as Typhon’s steward, for his capital will be elsewhere. (According to the Lexicon Urthus, Gregory Feeley compares the encounter between then with Jesus’ Temptation in the Wilderness. And I couldn’t agree more.)

Then, they see movement below. The cataphracts, as they did before, turn their faces away from the sun, in their direction. Typhon says they honor him, but Severian thinks otherwise:

“(…) They salute the Claw. Autarch, what of the New Sun, if at last he comes? Will you be his enemy too, as you were the enemy of the Conciliator?

“Swear to me, and believe me, when he comes I shall be his master, and he my most abject slave.”

Then Severian strikes. Instead of Typhon, he aims at Piaton’s nose, smashing it so that the splintered bone enters the brain, and killing him—and the monarch as well.

He has trouble getting down from the mountain since the boat doesn’t work for him, and he descends slowly. He is past hunger (“I hungered no longer, for hunger is a thing that passes if one does not eat,” he observes melancholically). But after two days he comes upon a shepherd’s bothy, and finds in it a cooking pot full of ground corn. He eats it and leaves as payment his scarlet cape, now stained and too thin to provide warmth.

On the following day, he arrives at Lake Diuturna, a huge body of water almost like a sea (by the reckoning of Severian). He spends the greater part of the afternoon descending to its shore. There he finds a village, and even though the place seems to be very poor, he is grateful because he hadn’t noticed until then how utterly lonely he feels.

He finds no inn, and so he asks for the hetman’s house. Here, for a brief while, Wolfe changes gears from the tragic to the picaresque again, for Severian decides to act like he is superior to everyone there (which he by all rights was at one point, at least until he forfeited his office at Thrax) and imposes his will at the hetman, after the man bows and addresses him as an optimate:

“I am not an optimate,” I told him. “I am the Grand Master Severian, of the Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence, commonly called the guild of torturers. You, Hetman, will address me as Master. I have had a difficult journey, and if you provide me with a good dinner and a tolerable bed, it is not likely I will have to trouble you or your people for much else before morning.”

The reason he does this is because he remembers one time when Master Gurloes told him that one of the easiest ways to dominate a man was to demand something he couldn’t supply. Thus he demands all sorts of foods he is sure the hetman won’t be able to give him.

Not long after, a young woman enters the room to bring him food. Severian notices she is quite naked, except for objects he at first takes for bracelets, but upon a closer look he finds them to be “gyves of watered steel joined by a long chain.” That is, she is a slave.

Severian makes conversation with her and finds that she is of the lake people, and the hetman and the people of the village are, by contrast, the shore people. Pia, the slave girl, tells Severian she used to live in a moving island:

I have heard that there are islands that do not move. That must be very inconvenient, I suppose, and I have never seen any. Our islands travel from one place to another, and sometimes we put sails in their trees to make them go faster.

After he eats, he starts to hallucinate, but before he’s fully aware of the fact that his food was drugged, the door opens suddenly and he is attacked by two men, who also steal the Claw. After some time, a somewhat frightened hetman appears, and Severian orders the man to release him. He says he can’t do that, because he is acting under instructions—instruction from the castle. Severian doesn’t have the slightest idea of what castle he means.

They take a boat, but on their way, they are attacked by the people of the lake. The hetman uses bullets of power against them: metal slugs shot by archers that explode in contact with water. Severian manages to jump out of the boat, even with his hands tied, a moment before the boat is also struck by an explosion. Pia joins him, and he is rescued by the islanders, who cut him free.

The leader of the islanders, Llibio, tell him the story of the castle, which is nearby. When he was a young man (apparently decades ago, judging by his appearance) the builder of the castle came from the south, as did Severian:

He had many things the shore people wanted, such as cloth, and silver, and many well-forged tools. Under his direction they build his castle. Those were the fathers and grandfathers of those who are the shore people now.

Severian asks him if he had ever seen the builder. Llibio answers that he had:

“I can tell you he was a little man, a man who would not, had you been there, have reached higher than your shoulder. Not such a man as inspires fear.”

And yet fear had crept in, for a while after the completion of the great wall of the castle, the leader of the shore people came to the lake people and said that they had stolen beasts and children from them, and would destroy them if those weren’t returned. It wasn’t true, but all the same the shore people took the lake people’s children, and so the enslavement cycle began. Since then the builder hadn’t been seen again.

Llibio tells him this because the lake people are finally ready to fight against the builder. And Severian, having revealed himself as a Master from the guild of tortures, coming from the House Absolute, is expected to take part in this: “I was never asked directly to lead them against the castle. Yet as the day wore on, I came to realize that they wished it, and they to understand that I would so lead them.”

Severian doesn’t have any particular wish to help them, but in the end he decides to lead them anyway:

The truth was that I felt a coercion stronger than theirs. Llibio had worn a fish carved from a tooth about his neck; and when I had asked him what it was, he had said that it was Oannes, and covered it with his hand so that my eyes could not profane it, for he knew that I did not believe in Oannes, who must surely be the fish-god of these people.

Here I felt the urge to research again, for the name Oannes bears a huge resemblance to the Latin spelling of John, Johannes. But, according to the Lexicon Urthus, Oannes was a Babylonian god, half-fish, half-man. Even so, the Catholic connection is clear, because the fish was a symbol for early Christians, and Severian acts as if he had just seen a brother in Llibio. But there is more, as he explains to himself and to us:

I did not believe in Oannes or fear him. But I knew, I thought, whence he came—I knew that there is an all-pervasive power in the universe of which every other is the shadow. (…) I knew the Claw was his, and I felt it was only of the Claw that I knew that, only of the Claw among all the altars and vestments of the world. I had held it in my hand many times, I had lifted it above my head in the Vincula, I had touched the Autarch’s uhlan with it, and the sick girl in the jacal in Thrax. I had possessed infinity, and I had wielded its power.

And he also tells us of a significant discovery he apparently makes just now: “Moreover, it seemed to me that I had somehow been chosen to hold—if only for a brief time—that power,” while also revealing something to us, something very important that he didn’t want to impart with us in the first place, a secret of the guild:

The secret is that we torturers obey. In all the lofty order of the body politic, the pyramid of lives that is immensely taller than any material tower (…) the pyramid that stretches from the Autarch on the Phoenix Throne to the most humble clerk grubbing for the most dishonourable trader—creature lower than the lowest beggar—we are only sound stone. No one truly obeys unless he will do the unthinkable in obedience; no one will do the unthinkable save we.

How could I refuse the Increate what I had willingly given the Autarch when I struck off Katharine’s head?

This moment is when Severian fully accepts his destiny—that is, of the bearer of the Claw. Until now, we’ve sees a reluctant man, who sometimes leads and other times is led by circumstances. Now, though, after he forsakes his trade, he becomes a guardian of the Claw and its promise of new life, not necessarily despite the face that he is a torturer (and therefore the promise of death), but because of that. So he is now fully set on his course, and will face the builder of the castle.

When he finally gains access to the castle, he finds out that Dr. Talos and Baldanders are there—and they are apparently the builders (Talos being the little guy Llibio mentions, apparently—though later Baldanders will correct him and say he was the little man, suffering from a disease that makes him grow endlessly until becoming the giant Severian knew). Severian asks for the Claw back, to which Talos responds that Baldanders will certainly give the “trinket” back to him (which, after the encounter with Typhon, we can’t be so sure that’s going to happen).

First, though, Talos asks him if he wouldn’t mind meeting with several cacogens, because Baldanders is talking to some of them inside the castle. Severian doesn’t object, and so he meets Ossipago, Barbatus, and Famulimus, visitors from offworld, who quickly become interested in him, in an astonishing way, as Famulimus tells him:

“There is no greater joy for us, than greeting you, Severian. You bow to us in courtesy, but we to you will bend our knees.” And he did briefly kneel, as did both the others.

Nothing he could possibly have said or done could have astonished me more, and I was too much taken by surprise to offer any reply.

Then the conversations take another turn, for Severian asks Baldanders if the Claw helped him. One of the cacogens, Ossipago, asks to see it, but Baldanders dismisses it as being just “a fragment of corundum.” But then Ossipago crosses to Severian’s chair and tells him he wants to hear about the Claw. Even though he fears that that they could take the Claw away with them to space, he recounts the things the Claw has accomplished, and they ask to see it. Ossipago holds it in his hand but can’t believe it did any of the things that Severian has witnessed. Then Severian asks for it back, but Baldanders don’t want him to have it, for he can’t prove it belongs to him in the first place. Barbatus tells them it’s not their task to judge this, and they must settle it between them after the cacogens depart.

They go to their craft, but the Claw is still with Ossipago. He gives it back to Baldanders when they depart, and their talk is not that different from the conversation Severian had with Typhon. The difference is that Baldanders doesn’t want more than a cure for his ailment, but he doesn’t believe the Claw can work. He berates Severian for what he calls  his “fantasies of theurgy,” and throws it out of the castle.

Seeing the blaze of the stone and mistaking it for a signal, the lake people storm the castle. Severian fights Baldanders. Right at the beginning, in a very anticlimatic fashion (as was little Severian’s death), Severian strikes Dr. Talos and kills him. After that, it’s a long, weird combat, full of surprises like the chamber of clouds—a place full of phantoms that appear to be holographic projections, but in fact they can do harm and also be harmed. The final showdown takes place when Baldanders’ mace meets Terminus Est—the mace is destroyed, but the blade of Severian’s sword is shattered. Then Baldanders jumps from the parapet of the castle, falling in the lake. He doesn’t resurface.

That night, Severian decides to go looking for the Claw, even though he is not convinced he will recover it. And he doesn’t, in a way: he finds the gem shattered in pieces, but also discovers the object hidden inside of it:

A claw as long as the last joint of my smallest finger, cruelly hooked and needle-pointed, the reality of that dark core at the heart of the gem, which must have been no more than a container for it (…)

He is now without his sword, but not without the Claw (though if it will still work without its involucrum remains to be seen). Severian can resume his journey, continuing his travels deep into the hills.


Here I pause. As Wolfe’s protagonist travels, so did we over the last half of the year, which is now coming to an end. I hope you are enjoying this reader’s account and wish you all Happy Holidays. The Gene Wolfe Reread will return next year, on Thursday, January 23rd.

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,, 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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