Rereading Gene Wolfe

The Citadel of the Autarch, Part 3: Closing the Circle

So, reader, we are approaching the end of The Book of the New Sun. When we last parted ways with Severian, he had just been asked by the Pelerines’ mistress of postulants, Mannea, to seek out an old, wise anchorite living twenty leagues from their camp and bring him to safety, lest he be killed by the war that’s approaching his hermitage.

Severian strides onward, but in his narrative he tells us that he is disoriented and unable to tell in which direction the anchorite’s dwelling lies. He claims to have turned in every direction, but eventually reaches a narrow canyon where “all the armies of the world seemed to vanish” (he is stopped twice by the army, but is able to continue after displaying the safe-conduct written by the Chatelaine Mannea.)

When he finally arrives at the hermitage, a house perched atop a cliff, he must scale the rock face, but loses all sense of time and direction as he climbs. He spends the night in a niche in the cliff, devouring what little food he still has. The next day, upon taking up the map again, he notices the words “THE LAST HOUSE” written in a very fine script beneath the image of the anchorite’s dwelling, and makes an interesting connection:

For some reason those words and the picture of the house itself atop its rock recalled to me the house Agia and I had seen in the Jungle Garden, where husband and wife had sat listening to the naked man called Isangoma.

After two days, he arrives at the Last House. He knocks at the door, and a man comes to answer. His steps are slow at first, so Severian thinks he must be elderly or sick. But, drawing nearer, the man’s steps became firmer and more swift, as if he was a younger man. By the light of the candle the anchorite carries, his face looks, to Severian, like the faces of the Hierodules he had met in Baldanders’ castle, but it is indeed a human face:

(…) the brows were heavy and straight, the eyes deep-set and deep blue, as Thecla’s were. This man’s skin was fine as a woman’s too, but there was nothing womanish about him, and the beard that flowed to his waist was of the darkest black.

The anchorite tells Severian that he is the last man there, and says to call him Ash. At this point, all the clues are in place, and we can surmise that this house is somehow beyond the traditional rules of time and space, and that maybe the anchorite truly is the last man there—“there” meaning Earth.

Ash invites Severian to eat, and states that he won’t leave his hermitage, because he cannot go, and that the war will never reach him anyway, no matter how and where its columns march.

When Ash leads Severian to a guest room so he can sleep for the night before he returns to the lazaret, Severian notices that there is light streaming past one of the windows, and at first he thinks that they must be above the clouds. Later, though, he will have a conversation with Ash in which the hermit tells him that indeed, the Last House is a nexus bridging several epochs of Earth, and he has been put there (he doesn’t say by whom) to observe that phenomenon. He also states that he intends to go away when the ice get there, and that will be Urth’s last glaciation:

The surface of the sun is dull now; soon it will grow bright with heat, but the sun itself will shrink, giving less energy to its worlds. Eventually , should anyone come and stand upon the ice, he will see it only as a bright star. The ice he stands upon will not be that which you see but the atmosphere of this world. And so it will remain for a very long time. Perhaps until the close of the universal day.

He explains further that this will happen thousands of years in Severian’s future. Ash himself is from that time, but he isn’t from Earth; rather, he is a descendant of the refugees the cacogens have carried to fairer worlds. Severian doesn’t understand, and tells Ash about the Green Man, who told him he came from a future with a brighter sun, stating that either Ash or the Green Man is a false prophet. And then Ash teaches him more about the nature of time that we had ever learned so far in the series:

You think that time is a single thread. It is a weaving, a tapestry that extends forever in all directions. I follow a thread backward. You will trace a color forward, what color I cannot know. White may lead you to me, green to your green man.

Severian is angry now, and insists that Ash return with him to the lazaret. Then he seizes Ash and binds his hands with Ash’s cincture, since there is no rope. Ash finally agrees, but warns Severian that he might not exist outside the house. When Severian tells him that he existed inside the house, Ash explains:

Yes, but that was because your possibility was complete. You are a part of the past from which my house and I have come. The question is whether I am the future to which you go.

They leave the house then, and after twenty or thirty paces, Ash disappears into thin air. If he is right (but we must remember at all times that this narrative is full of unreliable narrators, chief among which is Severian), then the strange phenomenon that afflicts the sun can be averted—when Severian becomes the New Sun, maybe?

When he finally gets back to the camp where the lazaret was located, there is nothing. Where the lazaret stood before, the ground seemed to have been plowed, and its bottom is like a small lake of shallow water, with shattered trees rimming the circle. He sleeps beside the road that night, and when morning comes he locates the survivors, approximately half a dozen leagues from the original site. The only person he recognizes is Foila, but she is very weak and cannot tell him much. The lazaret was attacked, and Melito and Hallvard were killed. She asks him to remember the stories they has all had told before, and to tell them in turn to other people. He ends this chapter telling us that he kept the second promise, first copying the stories, and then recounting them to us here, in the book we are reading.

Severian travels on, wandering for a couple of days more, thinking of Jonas, who is also Miles, and who he will never meet again. When his energies are beginning to wane, he pauses at the smoldering remains of an empty supply wagon. Suddenly a man on a destrier appears and questions him. The man extends him an invitation to enjoy a good meal that night, meet new friends, and receive a handful of orichalks on the morrow. Severian accepts and goes with him. And so he becomes a recruit of the Eighteenth Bacele of the Irregular Contarii. The leader of the bacele, a man called Guasacht, welcomes him and dares him to climb on a horse carrying a woman called Daria. If he can do it, he can have the woman. He succeeds. They go to a forest and he takes her, saying, “You have no power over me, neither you nor they. I am not afraid of pain, or of death. There is only one living woman I desire, and no man but myself.”

The next day, he goes on patrol with the others. They find themselves surrounded by other soldiers of the Commonwealth, but they can break free if they can count on the help of man-beasts who are guarding a coach belonging to the Autarch. Guasacht asks Severian to intercede, and he talks with the leader of the creatures, who refuses to get away from the coach, which is full of gold. Severian goes to a group of Ascian prisoners and asks them to help him and the soldiers, promising them the money and the coach. They manage to escape, but Guasacht kills all the Ascians and the man-beasts before they can escape. After that, they march onward to the battlefield.

The battle is the fiercest Severian has ever experienced. He notes that fighting is a stupid business even while noting that there are things to be learned—numbers tell only in time, for example, and the immediate struggle is always that of an individual combatant against one or two others. That knowledge doesn’t keep him from being hurt. During an engagement in which he kills at least half a dozen Ascians, he is struck and the blast lays his leg open. His seared flesh is cracked, with blood oozing out of it. Daria bandages his injury, just in time for them to encounter another strange group of fighters: dwarves mounted on top of giant blind men (a description that brought to my mind the awesome novel The Mount, although Carol Emshwiller didn’t write it until 2002).

The fight continues, bloodier than ever, and it’s clear that they are soon to be defeated. Severian’s piebald is struck in the chest by an arrow, another rider crashes against them, and they fall together in the dark. When he regains consciousness, he is pinned beneath the body of the piebald. He manages to get himself free, when he is met by a figure riding a mammoth, and Severian makes a significant realization:

Perhaps it was his touch that told me who he was: the androgyne I had met in the snowcovered House Azure, and later in that artfully foreshortened room that posed as a painting hanging in a corridor of the House Absolute.

The Autarch.

The Autarch, in turn, tells him, “You know who we are. We are the thing itself, the self-ruler, the Autarch. We know more. We know who you are.”

Who is Severian, actually? Is his fate written in stone, as it might seem (at least to the Hierodules he encountered in Baldanders’ castle)? His journey is similar to that described in the classic Hero’s Journey, but he is not exactly the Chosen One we might expect, or at least Severian wants us to think so… When he wakes up, weak but recovered, he talks a bit more with the Autarch, whom he recognizes from the House Azure. Then the Autarch scolds him gently, revealing another significant bit of information:

I never told you, you will recall, that I was only the Autarch. (…) In fact, I am several of the minor officials of my court… Why shouldn’t I be? I have the authority to appoint such officials, and I can just as well appoint myself.

Upon hearing that, Severian asks him if he is going to be executed, since he knows too much now. But the Autarch says he has other uses for him. Then he takes Severian to a flier, upon which they will travel back to the House Absolute. During their flight, they discuss the war, and Severian asks the Autarch if he have ever really been in a battle. He answers, “I’ve been in a thousand. You are two, as people are usually counted. How many do you think I am?”

This seem to indicate that the Autarch has not only played several roles in his own body, but that he might also drank of the alzabo gland and eaten from the flesh of many people, and so he contains multitudes. It is clearer now (if it wasn’t before) what use he might possibly have for Severian.

But they don’t reach the House Absolute. Their flier is shot down behind the Ascian line, and the Autarch is severely hurt in the crash. He manages to show Severian a phial at his neck, telling him it contains a pharmacon like alzabo, and that Severian must use it before he dies. (He also tells him to use the knife, and we must assume that the knife is not only intended to kill him, but also to cut his flesh and eat it so the ingestion of the drug can work.)

Severian imagines that the Autarch is delirious, but doesn’t ingest the drug immediately. They are captured by the Ascians, who take both away—but Severian is quickly abducted and spirited away by a hideous creature, commanded by Agia, who now tells him that her debt to Severian (from when he left her alive in the mine) is now repaid.

She takes him to Vodalus, in whose camp he rests for a few days. Then he is led into Vodalus’s presence, and the man asks him who he really is. When Severian tells him he is only a former journeyman of the guild, Vodalus sighs, saying that his servant Hildegrin had always insisted that he was important. Vodalus continues:

You see, ridiculous though it sounds, I feared you were he. One never knows. An Autarch dies and another takes his place, and the new Autarch may be there for half a century or a fortnight.

Severian insists he is not the Autarch, and yet Vodalus notices that he is changed. Severian tells him that’s because he took the alzabo and the flesh of Thecla: “(…) I am two, in this single body. Yet I am not the Autarch, who in one body is a thousand.”

At this point Severian inserts a small pause in the narrative to tell us that he is writing this section of the story on the last day before he leaves the House Absolute, where he participates in a solemn religious ceremony. After describing part of it, he muses on the nature of life and death and then continues on the narrative, describing what he did after his interview with Vodalus, leaving his place under the guard of six women, who were sometimes forced to carry him, and crossing a jungle for a week or so. He travels through fields of dead Ascians until he arrives at a dome of metal that had served as their headquarters. Inside, he finds Vodalus, and a palanquin with its curtains opened to show the body of the Autarch. Vodalus asks him again if he is the Autarch. He imprisons Severian with the Autarch, who, he finds now, was only sleeping—but is going to die at any moment. The Autarch tells Severian that he must take the drug and swallow the living cells of his forebrain:

When you do as I have commanded you, my life and the lives of all those who live in me will be continued in you. The cells will enter your own nervous system and multiply there. The drug is in the vial I wear at my neck, and that blade will split the bones of my skull like pine.

This time, Severian promises he will do it. In tears, he tells the Autarch he has hated him since he was a boy. The Autarch replies that Severian was right in hating him, because he stands for so much that is wrong (he also adds, “as you will stand”). When Severian asks why this is so, he answers, “Because all else is worse. Until the New Sun comes, we have but a choice of evils. All have been tried, and all have failed.”

Severian kills him and swallows the drug—perhaps not fulfilling a prophecy, exactly, but at least bringing about the culmination of a hint that has been seeded throughout the story: that he is indeed the next Autarch:

The dead Autarch, whose face I had seen in scarlet ruin a few moments before, now lived again. My eyes and hands were his (…) his mind was mine and filled mine with lore whose existence I had never suspected and with the knowledge other minds had brought to his.

Then the Green Man appears and leads him out of there, along with Agia. Agia still wants to kill him, but the Green Man will not permit it. She leaves, and he is left alone with the Green Man, who also owes Severian a debt, and reminds Severian that he had given him half his whetstone so that the Green Man could set himself free:

I have been running up and down the corridors of Time, seeking for a moment in which you also were imprisoned, that I might free you.

But he tells Severian that the debt is not yet quite paid, because Agia had found him too and would have freed him without his help. So he promises that they will meet again…and disappears back into the corridors of time. Then Severian has the impression that something huge is rushing toward him down the tunnel: It’s a ship, much smaller than that of the Hierodules, and suddenly Master Malrubius and Triskele descend from it.

Severian and Malrubius have a beautiful conversation about the nature of reality. When Severian touches his former master’s face and says that he is real, Malrubius replies: “No. We are almost what you think us—powers from above the stage. Only not quite deities.”

Ex machina gods, perhaps? Yes, and also a reference to Shakespeare’s soliloquy “all the world is a stage.” Every one must play his or her role, and so must Severian. Malrubius invites him to board the ship, and then Severian surmises (correctly) that the man is in fact another Hierodule, to which he explains the etymology of that world: hierodule means holy slave. “Do you think there can be slaves without masters?” he asks Severian, also informing him that he intends to take him to Ocean in order to preserve his life. But in fact, he returns Severian to the House Absolute, for he is not ready yet. He will have to undertake several tests first:

You know of the chasms of space, which some call the Black Pits, from which no speck of matter or gleam of light ever returns. But what you have now known until now is that these chasms have their counterparts in White Fountains, from which matter and energy rejected by a higher universe flow in endless cataract into this one. If you pass—if our race is judged ready to reenter the wide seas of space—such a white fountain will be created in the heart of our sun.

He is naturally referring to black and white holes, and, if Malrubius is to be trusted, then if Severian passes the tests, then the intelligence or intelligences behind the dimming of our sun will create a white hole in the heart of the sun so that it can become a yellow star again, thus allowing Earth to flourish anew and avoiding the glaciation Ash had spoken about earlier in the novel.

If he fails, however, he will be castrated so that he can’t pass the throne to any descendant. In due time he will indeed go to Ocean, which is not the sea of Earth, but the black void between the stars. The ship lands near a sea and Severian disembarks. He walks all the way to the House Absolute, but after many hours he stops to rest by a clump of wild roses growing from a dune. He sits in their shadow to take off his boots, but then a thorn catches his forearm; when he plucks it out, he finds out that it’s the Claw.

There are but a few chapters remaining in the narrative, and at least one of them is quite enlightening as to what happened in the universe that might have caused Earth’s banishment, of sorts, from the rest of the galaxy. To return to the topic of unreliable narrators, though, Wolfe ultimately ends the saga by giving Severian the following words: “My pen halts, but I do not. Reader, you will walk no more with me. It is time we both take up your lives.” But of course, he was never a reliable narrator, was he? For we know that there is still another book in the series, The Urth of the New Sun, published a few years after this ending…

This, however, will have to wait a bit longer, as I’ll be taking a brief hiatus for the next couple months. When the Reread returns, I’ll be changing course a bit and focusing more on analysis in my closing remarks about the the New Sun series and, of course, its coda. Until we meet again!

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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