Thursday, November 15, 2012

SUNS SUNS SUNS - Shadow of the Torturer 11-15

So, Severian has ended his apprenticeship and is on the cusp of becoming a Journeyman Torturer. He has lost his virginity to a Thecla-look-alike, become the special companion of Thecla herself, fallen in love with her, and started talking quite elegiacally about his Guild. One gets, does one not, a feeling that not much more of this story is going to take place in the Matachin Tower, among the torturers.

But things don't unfold quite as they've seemed like they would. If this were any other writer, well of course Severian would try to help Thecla escape and run away with her, perhaps to join Vodalus and Thecla's half-sister, Thea, in hiding somewhere. But this is Gene Wolfe, and things just aren't that simple. Starting with the relationship that is still developing, as we start this next section of Shadow of the Torturer, between Severian and Thecla.

I'm terribly interested in a passage early in Chapter Ten, which I left alone last time, where he speaks of being "drawn to the world of ancient knowledge and privilege she represented." Severian is very careful here about how he words things: "If educated men have sometimes thought me, if not their equal, at least one whose company did not shame them, that is owing solely to Thecla," he says immediately after saying the books he brought her were his university and she his oracle. The implication here, to a first-time reader, is that Thecla acted as Severian's tutor, in some fashion, during the winter of her captivity. We will later learn just how much of a mis-characterization that is, though it is true that Thecla's is the (original) education on which Severian will draw. Wink.

The Feast Day of Holy Katharine* comes around, and it's all about Severian; the ritual by which he becomes a journeyman is quite a strange one. After a huge feast, Severian is given a fancy looking fake sword and symbolically kills a woman from the city who impersonates the martyr, the same woman every year. Now, Robert Borski thinks this woman is even more special than she already seems, because Borski is pretty much positive that this woman is Severian's mother. The theory goes that she was originally a Pelerine (a sort of holy order for women in BotNS-verse) who broke her vows, ran off and got pregnant, and thus fell afoul of the Autarch's law and became a "client" of the Guild. Her crimes weren't severe enough for her to be killed, but she would have always had a special relationship with the Guild ever after. Furthermore, she bears some resemblance to Severian, having like him dark hair and a straight nose. Severian compares her face to "a pool of pure water found in the midst of a wood" but is otherwise pretty much unmoved by his encounter with her, though it all feels a little weird when she intones the ritual phrase "Strike and fear not." If Severian really is symbolically killing his own mother, this is a heavy scene. If.

Severian and the Torturers (there's your next band name) then party like rock stars, and the next morning Severian wakes up with his very first hangover. As he struggles in his new little room, he hears footsteps outside it that wig him out a little bit. "I knew I had recognized them, though I could not just then recall whose steps they were. Struggling, I brought back the sound; it was no human tread, only the padding of soft feet, and an almost imperceptible scampering." Is this maybe Triskele (who will turn out to be a bit more than an ordinary dog in Urth of the New Sun)? Or is there a certain Man whose hue rhymes with "lean" padding about certain Corridors? Or is it just apprentices randomly scampering around where they shouldn't be?

Anyway... It's not only for Severian that things have changed, as he soon discovers. For Thecla, despite her certainty that the Autarch would change his mind and order her release and thus has been fantasizing about her future as a cult leader, is about to become more than just a prisoner of the Scare Club for Men, but also a client. She makes a big show of being brave and curious and cynical as Severian escorts her to the machine where she is going to be "excruciated" but when the time comes... it doesn't seem like much, at first, the "Revolutionary," does it? Especially compared to some of the nasty things they walked past to get to it. It seems  most like a mild dose of electro-convulsive therapy, but, as we learn, the treatment itself is not really the excruciation, for all that Thecla does scream.

No, it's afterwards, in the hours and days and weeks that follow the treatment, that are the problem. The revolutionary awakens the Jungian shadow of a person, it would seem, and endows it with tremendous strength and malevolence. The machine turns the self against the self.

Thecla's descriptions of its effects have haunted me since my first reading:

"I thought I saw my worst enemy, a kind of demon. And it was me," she says as Severian bandages her up right after the treatment. And then...
"Since then, I can't control my hands... I can if I think about it, if I know what they're doing. But it is so hard, and I'm getting tired... I bite myself. Bite the lining of my cheeks, and my tongue and lips. Once my hands tried to strangle me, and I thought oh good, I will die now. But I only lost consciousness... My hands are trying to blind me now, to tear my eyelids away."
Egads. It made me shudder again just typing it. And then, because he can't lie to her, Severian answers her bleak questions. Will I be blind? Yes. How long before I die? A month, perhaps. "The thing in you that hates you will weaken as you weaken," and in the end they will die together. DUDE.

And then Severian confesses that he had had thoughts of rescuing her before her excruciation. He even stole a bread knife. But he chickened out. This gives Thecla the idea that pretty much seals Severian's fate as a torturer. She asks for the knife. And he gives it to her. And the thing that hates her gets a helping hand.

So see, he does sort of help her escape.

Then there is nothing for it to go fess up. He expects to be executed for this, but it turns out that would not be lawful. But he's put his Guild in a bind, until the Masters come up with another idea. Turns out, the Guild also used to provide executioners or "lictors" to some of the larger communities outside of Nessus, and one such community has asked for one again. Perfect! Before Severian has really had time to think about anything, he's in Master Palaemon's room, being inspected by via the Master's weird lens contraption that hides his face**, being told of his new job and how to get there, and receiving a magnificently badass sword, Terminus Est ("the line is drawn") that Palaemon just happened to have lying around. Severian is to use it to behead condemned men in the city of Thrax, but meanwhile, he gets to carry it around in a beautiful manskin (!!!) scabbard and hope no one lays too covetous an eye on it, because it is one beautiful sword, fancily decorated and balanced with a core of liquid mercury (okay, "hydrogyrum") so that its killing stroke is extra powerful. Curiously, it has a "man edge" and a "woman edge." But they're both, you know, sharp. Oh, and it doesn't have a sharp point, because it's for cutting, not stabbing.

It's interesting how Palaemon almost directs Severian to head "down" Gyoll to the sea rather than up Gyoll towards Thrax, as they part. The sea is where the big enemies are, of course, but Severian is nowhere near ready to deal with that crap yet, not even in the backwards-ass way he's going to, eventually.

And so Severian leaves his Guild, but not entirely, for he takes it with him in a fashion. He wears a fulgin cape, carries a distinctive sword, and has an unusual job waiting for him at his destination -- to which he must walk, because the Guild is certainly not going to pay to send him off in style, not after he left them on the hook for Thecla the way he did (shades of the Blackadder II episode "Heads" there, no? Heh). And sure enough, as he sets out on his way, he's held up by the local law enforcement buffoons before he's even to the city's outskirts. They think he's a faker, and want to charge him, but the bossman is cautious, and, moreover, observes that Severian smells like a torturer (blood and metal) and not like some schlub off the streets, and just cautions him to get some different clothes and find a place to spend the night until he can.

And this, this is how he meets his gonnabe-traveling companions, Baldanders*** and Dr. Talos, whose room he winds up sharing at an inn. Severian winds up sleeping through the night next to Baldanders, and has a very peculiar dream, in which he meets a familiar giant underwater face, because he is underwater (after plummeting from the sky, wherein he rode a giant, leather-winged beast that flew so high he saw all of Ocean, only not surrounding the land like it should, but having engulfed it entirely. Prophetic???), only this time he gets to tour her city and meet her sisters and hear them talk about what it's like to be the Brides of Abaia, Abaia being the giant only-sort-of-Lovecraftian alien who will "devour the continents" when this Dying Earth finally Dies. Again he remarks on being underwater but not breathing, which echoes his experience almost drowning in Gyoll in Chapter One.

Baldanders, too, is found to have dreamed, but of something very different: "Of caverns below, where stone teeth dripped blood... Of arms dismembered found on shattered paths, and things that shook chains in the dark." Robert Borski suggests that both dreams were "sendings" from Tzadkiel (whom we'll meet in UotNS) and/or Abaia, but got switched around, with Severian getting Baldanders' dream and vice versa. I do not scoff at this notion, as Baldanders is an alternate candidate for Severian's ultimate job, and his dream sounds more like an ordinary dream for a guy who was "nurtured by the torturers" but, you know.

As for Dr. Talos, right now he acts very much like Baldanders' boss, but things are not always as they seem, of course. But for now, well, it is he who invites Severian to come along with them and their performing troupe, whose path is also taking them up the Gyoll, maybe even to the House Absolute!

And thus endeth Chapter 15...

*This is, of course, BotNS's version of St. Catherine of Alexandria, aka Catherine the Martyr, she of the Wheel, another virgin saint. Catherine was a princess, the daughter of a pagan king, who converted to Christianity only at the age of 14, and went on to convert many others -- possibly even thousands of others. She also took on the Roman emperor Maxentius, trying to make him see the error of his Christian-persecuting ways. She won a debate he set up between her and a passel of scholars, and, from prison, converted Maxentius' own wife. Naturally, she had to be tortured until she gave up her stubborn ways. When that didn't work, the emperor proposed to her, only to be told her spouse was Jesus and she had consecrated her virginity to him. What else was there left to do but put her to the Wheel? Which miraculously broke. So finally, she was beheaded. So, you know, who else would be the Patron of Torturers, right?

**And thus, per Borski, makes him a candidate for Father Inire in disguise. But there's more reason than that to suspect Palaemon of being even odder than he appears; per the generally accepted scheme of how Wolfe named characters in this most occult of series, if this Master were merely human, he would get a saint's name like pretty much everybody else did. But there is no St. Palaeomon. There is a Roman grammarian and teacher by that name, but he was a pagan. But there is another Palaemon, actually two of them. And they are mythological: Palaemon is an epithet for Hercules/Heracles, and Palaemon is also the name of one of that Hero's sons. Who gets mythological names in BotNS? Oh, that's right, ALIENS. Like Erebus and Abaia and some others we'll meet later. HMMMMMM. (Oh, and btw, Inire is a Latin infinitive. The verb means "to enter or begin" which is an interesting name for "the oldest living man" isn't it?).

***Ahh, Baldanders. When we first meet him, he is just a dude asleep. A very big dude. When he gets out of bed the next morning, he turns out to be a really, really big dude, like three times taller than a man big. And then there's the name, which is, TA-DAA, mythological. Baldanders is a Germanic version of the ever-transforming Greek god Proteus, and, yes, is a transformer. His name literally means "soon another." Most of my friends will recognize the name from Jorge Luis Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings, where he is described as having a human head and torso, the tail of a fish except for one leg, which is the leg of a goat, and the wings and claws of a bird. Perhaps this Baldanders is just that in larval form? As we'll learn in later books, he does get bigger...


  1. I know I said I wasn't going to read your posts til I'd finished reading them all, so I ONLY SKIMMED. I promise I'll come back, but we'll have to discuss elsewhere cos of CAPTCHA.

    ANYWAY, is that really what Severian's mask is supposed to look like? That is not how I imagined it at all.

    1. Yeah, that's not my idea of his Guild mask either, but I could buy it as the one he wears when he serves as Lictor of Thrax.

      I just chose that picture for the sword 8)

  2. I clearly need to re-read this. You are catching stuff I never guessed when I read it years ago.

    1. This is my fifth or sixth re-read, and I've spent lots of time on the forums and whatnot feeling exactly the same way, as I've read those, as you are right now.

      I will say that, no matter how closely you decide to read, this series (including UotNS) really is better the second time around. And by "better" I mean "making you say 'D'oh!' a lot."

  3. I think that saying it is better the second time around is too limiting. The books are better every time around.

    1. Too right, Richard. Too right. This is my fifth-or-sixth on BotNS and I'm SO HAPPY to be back on Urth!

  4. Commenting again because MONTHS LATER I finally finished these, and now feel confident enough to read without you dropping all of your nudging hints. <.<

    Anyway, what I wanted to say was regarding Palaemon being synonymous with/son of Heracles, when in SotL (which really was my favourite) we learn that there is AN ENTIRE RACE referred to as amphitryons, Amphitryon being the husband of Alcmene, father of Iphicles - twin to the hero (and the whole twins with different fathers always threw me as a kid).


Sorry about the CAPTCHA, guys, but without it I was getting 4-5 comment spams an hour.