Tuesday, November 13, 2012

SUNS SUNS SUNS - Shadow of the Torturer 6-10

We left Severian after a curious encounter with the old picture cleaner Rudesind, about whom I kind of want to think some more. His namesake saint* was a member of the Spanish nobility who became a bishop when he was just 18 years old, founded a bunch of monasteries, governed a good chunk of Spain, led armies against invading Norse and Moorish forces... but in the world of BotNS he's just a humble picture cleaner? Really? Well, nobody is just what they seem in these books, of course.

Does his miracle hold a clue? Let's see. Before he was even born, St. Rudesind's mother, Ilduara, prayed at a hermitage and learned from St. Michael that her son would be a great leader and holy man. In gratitude, she built a church there, and when Rudesind was born, of course he needed to be baptized there. One problem: no baptismal font. So one had to be hauled up the hill. Only the cart hauling it broke down. But then MIRACLE: the cart traveled the rest of the way up the mountain on its own!

But so anyway, what, if anything, does this have to do with the character of Rudesind, who cleans a picture of Neil Armstrong, talks to Severian about the moon and how bad things would be for Vodalus if the outlaw fell into the hands of the Torturers' Guild, and pretty much drops out of sight? Maybe nothing, maybe everything -- because lots of people think that Rudesind is actually Father Inire getting his first direct look at Severian. Of course, as we'll see later in Claw of the Conciliator, Rudesind speaks of having gotten instruction from Inire as to what he's supposed to say to Severian when he again delays the young man, Ancient Mariner-like, in a corridor that might be part of the Citadel, might be part of the House Absolute, might be both. My brain is teasing out a metaphor now, about Rudesind acting mostly as a tool but sometimes being self-directed, but it isn't quite there yet.

Ahh, Mr. Wolfe.

But wait! This is supposed to be about Chapters 6-12! Where stuff that doesn't involve Rudesind at all happens! Where stuff that is actually quite important happens! Where Severian falls in love again! To his great cost! So let's get on with it!

We find that Severian's errand (say that a few times with marbles in your mouth! No, wait, don't, please) that brought him into the orbit of the likes of Rudesind is to fetch some books from the Guild of Archivists for a very special prisoner, the Chatelaine Thecla**. Severian is basically lost in a forest of exultants in these early chapters, for of course Ultan***, the Master Archivist, is one as well. When Severian meets him, he describes a curious sensation that I'm still, reading after reading, trying to decide how I regard it -- meaningful? Just a bit of color?:
Again I seemed to hear bronze, and quite suddenly I felt that he and I were dead, and that the darkness surrounding us was grave soil pressing in about our eyes, grave soil through which the bell called us to worship at whatever shrines may exist below ground. The livid woman I had seen dragged from her grave rose before me so vividly that I seemed to see her face in the almost luminous whiteness of the figure who spoke. "Whose apprentice?" he asked again.
Um, doesn't this seem kind of significant? But of what? Now again, there are all those theories floating around that there are lots of Severians and a new one is cast off every time "our" Severian "almost" dies. Is he intuiting the sensations of his other self, who was not rescued by the undine in the river Gyoll, maybe? Or is he just reacting to the extreme age and blindness of Master Ultan, and since Severian claims to be insane, hallucinating the Chekov's Corpse that Chekov's Graverobbers stole from the cemetery a few chapters ago?

Severian, of course, doesn't dwell on it, and soon, since it turns out Ultan is pretty much blind but apparently doesn't trust Severian to read the letter he's brought, we meet Ultan's apprentice, Cyby, who is at least 40 years old, and are treated to a discourse on the Feast Day of Curators (the Torturers' Feast Day of Holy Katharine -- yes, she of the Wheel, having just recently passed) when Severian asks (he is wondering when, if ever, Cyby will be elevated beyond his apprentice status, an event that happens on a Guild's Feast Day). Ultan tells him all about how pretty it is, in the spring, when all the curators and librarians parade in grey...

In the midst of all of this, we get our second reference to the Claw of the Conciliator, for the Curators' cathedral has "candles in blue glass" to symbolize it. And we learn that the somewhat Borgesian Library extends beyond the walls of the Citadel, and is also the library of the House Absolute, and is also accessible to the public.

And remember, somewhere in all those corridors is the Atrium of Time. Dizzy yet?

Anyway, after a long discourse on the charms of the Library and on how the Curators' Guild initiates new members (children who get lost in the Library and come across the Book of Gold are "descended upon" by the other librarians "like vampires" who talk to the child and the child joins them. "Henceforth, he is in the library wherever he may be, and soon his parents know him no more." Kind of sinister, isn't it? It almost sounds like some kind of hypnosis, no? And again, there's that reference to gold. Does Severian, who doesn't know his family at all, maybe come from a family associated with the Curators?), we learn of what books Thecla has requested. Three whose titles Cyby knows well, and a fourth called The Wonders of Urth and Sky, which Ultan says is shelved next to the Lives of the Seventeen Megatherians**** and about which Severian is immediately curious. Wonders... turns out to be three or four hundred years old at least, and purports to be a compendium of all kinds of forgotten lore and knowledge, such as how to make holograms. Or a bit about the "corpse eaters", who can, if they ingest a dead person's flesh together with a certain "pharmocon", can relive the lives of their victims.*****

These and lots of other ideas are discussed there in the Library. In lots of ways, this chapters is a piece containing the whole, just as the holograms described in Wonders, just as the corpse consumed with the pharmocon: "The entire life is in each finger." We'll see lots more of this kind of thing later, in Dr. Talos' traveling show. Wink.

We never do get a look at the other three books, really. I keep thinking if I read more closely, I'll get more detail from the hologram fragment that is this chapter, but no. One book is some kind of collection of religious iconography, we see, as Severian dawdles his way back to the Matachin Tower, but that's all. Le sigh.

Of course, soon, we're meant to forget all about the books, because Severian finally meets Thecla, because Drotte, now a journeyman, is too busy with another client and talks Severian into bringing Thecla her books and her dinner. In no time at all, Severian is head over heels in love with the "Traitress," and his days among his guild are numbered, for all his protestations that her friendly overtures to him "won't help." We are treated in some detail to Severian's internal exposition about how this is so, but of course our lord doth protest too much.

Once he has left his lady's presence, Severian learns a bit more about exultants, how highly placed many are and aren't, how whole families of them have been extinguished (often by Severian's own Guild), how the most highly placed families are forced to turn over their fairest daughters to serve as the  Autarch's "ceremonial concubines" (but how they don't actually have to sleep with anybody; shadow women, common girls who resemble the chatelaines, take on that job when it's required, unless the chatelaine in question feels like subbing in for the hell of it).****** Thecla is one of those concubines, the first of such to have come into the Guild's hands in all the years that Master Gurloes has been a Torturer. Oh my!

And Thecla's sister is Thea -- the woman whom Severian first encountered in the company of Vodalus the Rebel! Oh my!

And she has requested that none other than Severian keep her company, when he's available. Better not get her pregnant, Severian, says Gurloes. Oh my!

But Thecla doesn't seem to interested in "having her bed warmed." She is deep in the delusion that the Autarch will relent and she will be set free and found a cult based on her accounts of her experiences in the Matachin Tower -- that she will make up. And in telling Severian all about the House Absolute, which, it turns out, is invisible!

Meanwhile, since Gurloes has winkled out of Severian that Severian is still a virgin, his old pal Roche comes to bring him on a special mission: to pop Severian's cherry in the House Azure. Soon Severian is at the tender mercies of "Chatelaine Barbea" and some other women who are probably also Barbea in not very good disguises, or at least not-very-good until she comes out disguised as Thecla.******* And except for the height, she is apparently a dead ringer for Thecla, and the reader finds herself wondering, perhaps along with Severian, if Faux Thecla isn't standing in for Prisoner Thecla, who isn't being missed at the House Absolute at all... but of course that can't be, and soon he is accusing Faux Thecla of fauxery and she is trying to convince him to "master reality" and pretend. And in so doing, says something pretty subversive: "What is the Autarch but a man who believes himself Autarch and makes others believe by the strength of it?"

And... commence light boning.

Of course the intended effect of all this -- that Prisoner Thecla, taken at least symbolically down from her pedestal, would be less of a figure of awe and desire for Severian -- backfires, and Severian winds up more in love with Thecla forever. He even sits still while she learns him real good (impossible not to think of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon in a certain set of scenes in Bull Durham... "she read poetry to me all night, it was more tiring than f@#%#ing"), always a sign of infatuation. And Severian, too, gets a taste of being treated like a nice underaged piece of man candy.

I've always pictured Severian as Jaeger, from Carla Speed McNeil's Finder series, 
which is almost as intricate and dense as BotNS, really.

Lots of months pass. Severian learns more stuff, including that when Thecla's mother was in labor, she went to a prophetic fountain and there learned that Thecla was destined to sit a throne. Which, she sort of is (see footnote** below. Heh), but darn those pesky details that prophets and fountains never quite seem to get right! And anyway, everyone knows that Father Inire is the real power behind the throne. Old, old Father Inire, who has served as vizier for hundreds of years...

And so the Feast Day of Holy Katharine comes around. Severian's apprenticeship is finally over, and he gets to choose -- leave the Guild, or become a journeyman Torturer! Severian claims that he's never even considered leaving, but in his heart, especially after his year or so with Thecla, he doesn't have much respect for the Guild anymore "inefficient and ineffectual, serving a power that was not only ineffectual but remote" but then he asks his masters and himself, "Where would I go?" Oh ho ho ho! But his masters agree: anywhere he went, he would be known as either one nurtured by the torturers (hee hee) or, if he had agreed to "take the fulgin", as a former torturer. And so they tell him the final secret of his Guild, which he must never reveal to anyone not himself entering said Guild. Severian swears to this, but then tells us he has broken that oath "many times."

Except the sonofagun does not tell US. And here endeth Chapter 10!

*Gene Wolfe had a whole thing about naming characters in these series for saints. Oh, don't even.

**Chatelaine is the formal title given to all female exultants. Her namesake saint is a very early one, a disciple of St. Paul, who took his message of chastity seriously. This pissed off the saint's mother and fiancee, and somehow poor Thecla was sentenced to be burnt at the stake. A miraculous storm saved her. Later, still following St. Paul, she ran afoul of a nobleman who had the hots for her, but she fought him off, only to be sentenced to be eaten by wild beasts! Another miracle: the female beasts defended her from the male ones! She also has a supposed tomb in Syria, where once a mountain opened up to save her from pursuers. But it's mostly the beasts that are interesting here, eh? Because, of course, Gene Wolfe's Thecla has a date with an alzabo.

***Another saint's name. St. Ultan was an Irish abbot and hermit, who rescued some precious books and manuscripts from a monastery that was under attack. So at least this time, the choice of name for this character makes obvious sense.

****Megatherians being the term for the giant aquatic aliens like Abaia and Erebus who are the chief way-behind-the-scenes villains of this story. They are generally understood as representatives of all of the aliens out there who are out to punish humanity for depredations like those in The Fifth Head of Cerebus, and who seek to prevent anyone from bringing the New Sun, since the damage to the old sun is most likely the punishment that was inflicted in the first place.

*****Gosh, wonder if that has anything to do with the graverobbing Severian witnessed back in Chapter 1?

******And of course, as Master Gurloes explains all this, we also get our first hint that there is something wrong with the Autarch, for "it is more than somewhat doubtful if he has the pleasure of any of them."

*******Barbea being one of the candidates most often brought up as Severian's missing twin sister (whose possible existence is not even hinted at until, I want to say, Sword of the Lictor at the very earliest?), chiefly because of her hair "so near to burnished gold that it might have been a wig of golden wires" but also because "there was something in the eyes..." that Severian says "recalled something I had seen elsewhere (I could not remember where)." I am not a Barbea/Severa supporter, though. I think it's just a wig and its golden color is just part of her mock-exultant costuming, because that's what the customers most want to pretend their getting. As for her seeming familiarity, well, Severian has fallen in love with every woman he's met so far, so, uh, he's probably really focusing on the attributes that men usually claim to be focusing on when they don't want to be caught ogling breasteses.


  1. I just discovered this blog and I am glad I did. Great posts about The Book of the New Sun. Just thought I'd add one tiny detail: Wolfe says that the Book of Gold is actually Jack Vance's The Dying Earth. I thought that was awesome since Vance and Wolfe are two of my favorite writers. Anyway, keep up the great work.

  2. Re: the final secret of the guild - Wolfe does eventually tell us what it is, at the end of chapter 31 of 'the sword of the lictor'.
    "And the secret is only 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, taller than the Bell Keep, taller than the Wall of Nessus, taller than Mount Typhon, the pyramid that stretches from the Autarch on the Phoenix Throne to the most humble clerk grubbing for the most dishonourable trader - a creature lower than the lowest beggar - we are the only sound stone. No one truly obeys unless he will do the unthinkable in obedience, no one will do the unthinkable save we."


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