Rereading Gene Wolfe

The Citadel of the Autarch, Part 2: None of Us Are Free

In the last installment of this series, we left off when Severian was about to act as the judge in a storytelling contest between two men who both want to marry a fellow soldier in the war against the Ascians. This soldier, Foila, proposed that the one who told the better narrative would have her hand.

After hearing the stories told by the two candidates, fisherman Hallvard and farmboy Melito, Foila tells Severian he is not to judge just yet, saying that she will explain everything the next day.

The following day, Foila announces, to the surprise of everyone, that she has yet to listen to the story of the Ascian soldier (or “Loyal to the Group of Seventeen,” as he calls himself according to Correct Thought). Hallvard objects that this wasn’t in the original agreement, to which Foila retorts:

“It isn’t against it either, and in fact it’s in accordance with the spirit of the agreement, which was that the rivals for my hand (…) would compete. The Ascian would be my suitor if he thought he could.”

She offers to interpret his story for them, and she does so in a beautiful, elegant way, reminiscent of Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights. Foila seems to translate the Ascian’s narrative very well, as he tells the story of The Just Man, a good man who lives on a farm and is regularly assaulted by others in his collective who rob him of his share. He traveled to the capital, to very doorstep of the Group of Seventeen, to ask for justice. He does this a number of times to no avail, and is beaten each time he returns. Finally, the Group of Seventeen tells him the evildoers will be punished and the bad men, seeing that the just man refused to give up and believing that they would eventually be brought to justice by their rulers, flee in fear. Then the just man returned home and lived happily ever after.

Everybody applauds this story (which is somewhat reminiscent of Kafka and Dostoevsky, but with a very different moral: that you should believe in your masters, for you will be rewarded—an idea that’s more spiritual than political), and here Severian makes an observation which might well be the foundation not only of the Book of the New Sun, but also of Wolfe’s stories:

(…) it often seems to me that of all the good things in the world, the only ones humanity can claim for itself are stories and music; the rest, mercy, beauty, sleep, clean water and hot food (as the Ascian would have said) are all the work of the Increate.

Another interesting observation on Severian’s part, one which led me to think twice of the Ascians (and, naturally, to gain even more respect for Wolfe’s dexterity and skill with language):

The people of Ascia were reduced to speaking only with their masters’ voice; but they had made of it a new tongue, and I had no doubt, after hearing the Ascian, that by it he could express whatever thought he wished.

He also states that he has learned “what a many-sided thing is the telling of any tale,” because you can have many interpretations of a single story. Though he is musing here about Foila and Loyal to the Group of Seventeen, is Severian, perhaps unbeknownst to himself, telling us he is not a reliable narrator?

That night, however, he has another visitor: Winnoc, a slave to the Pelerines who was, many years before, whipped by a Torturer, who then was just a journeyman: Palaemon, former teacher of Severian’s. When Severian tells Winnoc this, he asks him if he will see his instructor again. Severian doesn’t think he will. They discuss slavery, and Winnoc tells Severian that, the morning he was to get his whipping, Palaemon went to have a conversation with him. During this talk, he tried to prepare Winnoc properly, assuring him that he would take care not to hurt him more than what was agreed upon, meaning that he would only cut the skin and not break any bones.

Then Winnoc asked if Palaemon could do him a favor, and return to talk to him after the whipping. The next day, Palaemon came as he had promised, and Winnoc told him about his life, a poor man’s life (he wasn’t a slave yet), and asked Palaemon about himself. Palaemon said that he had done something against his guild and because of that he was exiled for a while. He felt very lonely, and he advised Winnoc that if he himself wanted to be happy, he should find some sort of brotherhood and join.

Winnoc attempted to find a guild or society to join, but he couldn’t find any to his taste. Finally, he was approached by a man who told him he could sell himself as a slave to the Pelerines and have a hard-working but good life, where “a man could have a drink or two and nobody’d object so long as he was sober when he came to his work,” and he could also lie with girls too. Winnoc ended up signing the paper and sending the money to his mother.

All in all, Winnoc lives what he considers a rather good life—“I’ve never been whipped here—nothing worse than a few slaps,” as he explains to Severian—only to add:

A lot of men sell themselves to the order, thinking like I did that it’ll be an easy life and an adventure. So it is, mostly, and it’s a good feeling to help cure the sick and the wounded. But those who don’t suit the Pelerines are sold off, and they get a lot more for them than they paid them

And then he finally says what he really wants to say, asking: “What I want to know is whether he told me what he did to torment me. Or was he giving me the best advice he could?”

Severian answers that certainly Palaemon did advise Winnoc as well as he could, but is careful to add: “But torturers don’t know everything.”

This is, for me, another key to reading this series. If torturers don’t know everything, then Severian also don’t know everything. He has already demonstrated that, even for someone with a perfect memory (or so he keeps claiming), he doesn’t remember everything, and can even forget things. Winnoc serves a function here to show us a certain guilt for the road not taken, and how some people need (or think they need) a master, or a brotherhood to join. So, even if the Ascians (who are not to be read as Asians, I hasten to add—thank you readers for pointing me out to several references on that point—and might even be USians of the far future) join a collective that might seem, even to Severian, too harsh in terms of depersonalization, deep down perhaps every human being want to be attached to something.  None of us are free, as the old (extremely old to Severian, naturally) blues song goes.

The following day, Severian and the others are surprised once again, when Folia, in a genius turn of events, informs them that she is also going to tell a story:

Don’t you think I’m entitled to one too? Even a man who courts a maid thinking he has no rivals has one, and that one is herself. She may give herself to him, but she may also choose to keep herself for herself. He has to convince her that she will be happier with him than by herself, and though men convince maids of that often, it isn’t often true.

She then proceeds to tell the story of The Armiger’s Daughter. The armiger had a very good and rich life, but of all his children, only one lived beyond the first year. The girl was tall, brown as leather yet smooth as oil, with hair the color of the palest wine and eyes dark as thunderheads. When she was approaching twenty, her father determined she must wed, and sent his servants to spread the word for three hundred leagues about, promising that on his death her husband should hold all that was his. Many fine riders came, and his daughter, disguised as a man, mingled with them, so that she might hear who boasted of many women and see who stole from them. Every night she told her father their names, and they all were dismissed, until only three suitors remained.

The armiger’s daughter got rid of her disguise and dressed like a woman again. Then she sent for her father and her three suitors:

Behold me (…), You see a ring of gold about my brow, and smaller rings suspended from my ears. The arms that will embrace one of you are themselves embraced by rings smaller still, and rings yet smaller are on my fingers. My chest of jewels lies open before you, and there are no more rings to be found on it; bt there is another ring still in this room—a ring I do not wear. Can one of you discover it and bring it to me?

After searching the room, one of the three took the lark’s cage from its hook and gave it to the daughter. There was a tiny ring of gold circling the lark’s right leg. She said then that her husband would be the one who showed her that little brown bird again, and opening the cage, let it fly away. The suitors followed and rode away, after the bird.

The first one, who went north, came to a river and rode along its bank until he reached a ford. At that ford he found a rider in brown sitting on a brown destrier. About the ankle of his right boot was a ring of gold. The suitor, thinking that the rider means to prevent him from finding the bird, attacks him, defeating him and rides on, leaving the rider bloodied in the water.

The second suitor, who rode toward the mountains, came to a bridge made of rope and bamboo stretched across a chasm. When he began to cross it, a figure appeared in the center, very similar to a man in form “but all of brown save for one flash of white, and it seemed to fold brown wings about itself.” It also wore a ring of gold about the ankle of one boot. The suitor asks the figure who it is, and it answers: “You see me (…) Name me true, and your wish is my wish.”

The suitor then answers: “You are the spirit of the lark sent forth by the armiger’s daughter (…) Your form you may change, but the ring marks you.”

The figure accepts the naming and goes with him back to the armiger’s house, but warns the suitor that if the daughter lays eyes upon it, she will not see in it what the suitor sees.

Then the suitor goes to the other side of the bridge, because his destrier can’t turn around in the middle, but he grows tired and asks if the figure can’t simply fly with them across the chasm. The figure answers that the first suitor slashed one of is wings, so he cannot do this, but the suitor thinks: If I were to cut this bridge the lark would be forced to take bird form again…but since he wouldn’t fly far, the suitor might be able to kill it and carry it back to the armiger’s daughter.

The suitor then cuts the bridge, but the figure in brown jumps into the horse’s saddle and rides him down, killing him.

As for the youngest suitor (the one who had found the bird in the first place), he rode toward the sea, and on the beach he meets someone who looked to him like an angel, cloaked in brown, with a brown hat, a brown cloth across nose and mouth, and a gold ring about the ankle of a brown boot.

The angel repeats the formula:  “You see me (…) Name me true, and your wish is my wish.”

“You are an angel,” says the suitor. “sent to guide me to the lark I seek.”

The angel draws a sword and gives it to the man, who replies that his only wish is for it to lead him to the daughter. The angel answers: ‘But would you go by the shortest road? Or the best?” Thinking it might be a trick, the suitor answers “the best.” Then the figure tells him they must go to a nearby port, where they must sell the suitor’s destrier as well as his gold ring. They do so, and with the money they buy a ship. On their third day away, the suitor has an erotic dream, and when he wakes up he feels the pillow next to him warm and a perfume in the air.

They reach a deserted island, and the suitor goes ashore to search for the lark. He doesn’t find it, and when the day is ending he strips and goes for a swim in the sea. As night falls, another swimmer joins him, and they swim together and lay together telling tales on the beach. It becomes clear later that this other person is the bird, and it is in a woman’s body. Together they roam the seas, trading and also fighting, as pirates of sorts. (This tale reminded me briefly of “A Cabin on the Coast,” one of Wolfe’s sad and beautiful short stories. I will return to it when I review his collection Endangered Species)

They call their ship the Lark, and eventually they return to the port from which they first sailed, selling the ship and also their loot and the goods gained by trading. Then the youngest suitor and the angel buy good destriers, fill their saddlebags with gems and gold and set out for the armiger’s house. When they get there, the angel goes to the armiger and his wife, takes off her brown clothing and reveals herself to be the armiger’s daughter.

So they start planning the wedding, and a few days later, the suitor is summoned to the daughter’s room, “to talk of times past upon sea and land.” He goes there and finds her sitting on a window seat, reading a book and listening to the singing of a lark in a cage. The lark has a ring of gold about one leg. And she tells him:

Did the angel you met upon the strand not promise you should be guided by this lark? (…) and by the best road? Each morning I open his cage and cast him out upon the wind to exercise his wings. Soon he returns to it again, where there is food for him, clear water, and safety.

Their marriage was the finest of the land, she finishes her story.

This time, it is Severian who postpones the judging, because he has developed a horror of judging, something he attributes perhaps to his education among the torturers. But he also wants to see Ava, the postulant—she didn’t serve their evening meal as usual, so he slips off and goes to search for her.

He finds the Pelerines’ chapel, and enters stealthily to watch one of their ceremonies. When the ceremony is over and the priestesses exit the chapel, he remains there, pretending to be praying—but soon he finds out that he is indeed engaging earnestly in some sort of prayer, speaking to himself or to the universe about his travels and his plight. Then he goes to the altar and takes out the Claw, saying:

I have carried you over many mountains, across rivers, and across the pampas. You have given Thecla life in me. You have given me Dorcas, and you have restored Jonas to this world. Surely I have no complaint of you, though you must have many of me. One I shall not deserve. It shall not be said that I did not do what I might to undo the harm I have done.

He conceals the Claw under the stone of the altar, with wild joy: “The burden of life and death had been lifted from me. Now I was only a man again, and I was delirious with delight.”

As he is about to return to the lazaret tent, though, he is approached by a Pelerine, Mannea, mistress of the postulants. She asks him to go on an errand for her. He is to travel to a place twenty leagues from there where is the hermitage of a wise, holy anchorite. He is safe now, but the war is coming and he might be killed, so Mannea wants him to take shelter with the Pelerines for the anchorite’s own safety. Severian accepts and sets off.

We will meet the hermit on Thursday, February 20th, as we reach the third installment of The Citadel of the Autarch…

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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