Sunday, December 2, 2012

SUNS SUNS SUNS - Shadow of the Torturer 31-35

We now find Severian poised to do his job for the first time in public. Step One: stand there and look menacing to "symbolize the unsleeping omnipresence of justice" and intimidate the crowd. Step Two (apparently) muse to himself about the nature of crowds and mobs and make socioeconomic assumptions about this particular crowd-mob who is gathered to watch him execute Agilus. Step Three: Off with his head (with graphic descriptions of how it feels and smells to cut off someone's head). Step Four: Profit. So at least Severian has this over the Underpants Gnomes. Step Five: Sing an XTC song* to your [REDACTED] new girlfriend. And reflect on what a dirty liar Agia was for saying, among many, many other things, that the avern's leaves alone could kill people. Ha.

And while Severian and Dorcas are somewhat cattily recounting their adventure together so far, talk turns to the note left for them at the Inn of Lost Loves. Severian goes fishing in his murse for the copy of it he made but pulls out... oh noes! The Claw of the Conciliator! Which  he and Dorcas figure out must have been slipped into the murse during the scuffle at the Pelerines' Cathedral Tent by Agia, making Severian into a dirty liar in that encounter.

And of course, though this won't occur to Severian until later (supposedly), the presence of the Claw on his person when he fell into the Lake of Birds is probably what brought Dorcas** back to life. For of course she was not only a corpse in the lake, but the very same Cas for whom the Boatman was searching, suddenly in vain. Poor Boatman.

Anyway, then they see something over which I still tend to scratch my head a bit: "Hanging over the city like a flying mountain in a dream was an enormous building -- a building with towers and buttresses and an arched roof." Severian's jaw barely has time to drop before it disappears, though. Of course, this is probably our first look at Tzadkiel's spaceship, and maybe Tzadkiel getting His/Her first direct look at Severian, but why here, why now? Is it really just because he found the Claw at this point?

Oh, the Claw. The Claw and the vision of the City In The Sky Thing touch off a long philosophical discussion between Severian and Dorcas about metaphor and meaning and The Wonders of Urth and Sky that is basically just Gene Wolfe making sure we understand that this is not just another Dying Earth adventure story we're getting into, here. We know, sir. We know.

And while they puzzle over this stuff, they encounter, well what do you know? Dr. Talos and Baldanders' Traveling Show! Performing right now! And Severian is just in time to play his part, and hey, there's a part for Dorcas, too! Severian is Death and  Dorcas is Innocence!*** And though they don't know their parts at all, Talos is such a great director that they manage to play them anyway!

Oh, and by the way, there is a new member of the troupe, though it turns out Severian met her once before, for she was the bedraggled waitress whom Dr. Talos convinced to let him make her into a beautiful actress. Which Talos did, boy howdy. Helloooooooooo Nurse! Jolenta**** is one Marilyn Munroe caliber bombshell (and Wolfe has said in interviews that this was a resemblance he intended, but, you know, Wolfe in interviews. Heh). But meanwhile, the play. The play! We don't get to read the text of the drama until the end of Claw of the Conciliator because Severian has chosen at this point to convey only his confusion and first impressions of it. Baldanders is Big and Scary. Talos is Wily and Foxy. Speaking of Foxy, Jolenta is Purty. Did he mention that Jolenta is Purty? Jolenta is Purty. And the play is Weird and Metaphorical and he gets to tie everybody down at some point or other, like a good little Torturer. And then at the end of the play, when Baldanders scares off the audience real good, the party combs the field for "dropsies" -- valuables that audience members happened to leave behind in their haste to get away from the Maddened Giant. How droll.

Really, I kind of love this interlude. Can you tell?

Then it's time to sleep under the stars, and, for Severian, to secretly ogle the Claw some more. And, um, reminisce about his first teacher, Master Malrubius (who was possibly Father Inire in disguise before Master Paleamon was Father Inire in disguise? Maybe?), and then dream (or maybe not?) about a visit from Triskele, possibly following up on the Tzadkiel fly-over? Perhaps summoned by Severian's thoughts of Triskele's fellow aquastor? And then Severian, now lying happily back-to-back with his (resurrected?) dead dog, dreams of Master Malrubius quizzing him on the seven systems of government. How much of this is a dream and how much a visitation from his aquastors? Are they testing his fitness for his eventual role this early? But if not, why else would these two appear in the story at this point? And does Baldanders get a similar visitation in the night?

The next morning, Severian shares a bit of an account of his experience with Talos, who assures him that out here in the real world, he noticed no such thing, and since he doesn't really ever seem to sleep, he would notice if there was something to notice.

Then over breakfast, Severian lets fall the news that he's not going to travel along with the troupe; he has "business" with the Order of Pelerines, i.e., he wants to return the Claw to them. So then comes time to divvy up the money, and Talos shocks everyone by not taking a share at all.

And then they are interrupted by the coming of Hethor, he of the unprepossessing yet familiar appearance and stuttering, riddling talk of a sailing ship among the stars. It all sounds, again, very like a hologram-view of Severian's larger story arc. Turns out he is quoting from the play, the text of which we readers have not yet had the benefit of getting, which is itself basically a hologram of Severian's story. Ow, my brain. At any rate, he comes across as just a deranged fanboi at first, and Severian dismisses him as such (once Talos establishes that he isn't one of those lunatics who thinks the play is real): "There are a good many of them... They find pleasure in pain, and want to associate with us [Torturers] just as a normal man might want to be around Dorcas and Jolenta." And all Hethor wants is to come along with them, just for the love of... them.

Oh yeah, that's going to end well.

Next thing  you know, Dorcas is talking again about how much she didn't like and actually was kind of afraid of Agia and Hethor is offering to carry Severian's sword! Of course Severian politely refuses, and while he's yes, thinking of Agia's plot to part him from Terminus Est, he thinks it's just a coincidence.

And then CHAOS. Because they've finally come to the enormous Wall (so tall that only big powerful birds like eagles fly over it, made of the same strange black metal that the spaceship-that-became-the-Citadel was made of, etc.) that surrounds the city of Nessus*****, and there are crowds. And from the crowd emerges a man on a merychip (basically, an archaic name for what might well be an archaic horse. At any rate, I've always pictured a near ancestor of the good old horse we know, possibly one with toes), Jonas(Hooray Jonas!) who claims that he's heading to meet the Pelerines on business himself! But actually, they've left the city; he saw their mournful procession (doubtless mourning the loss of the Claw?).

So through the Gate they go. Or rather, into the Gate, which Severian compares to entering a mine, but a mine with windows in its walls through which passersby can observe men and women and "cacogens" (aliens) and "beasts with too much of men about them, so that horned heads watched us with eyes too wise, and mouths that appeared to speak showed teeth like nails or hooks." Talos explains that these, all of these, are soldiers who live in the wall "like mice" in honeycomb-like passages and tunnels all through it; they are Nessus' real defense.

As they proceed, Jonas ingratiates himself further to the party by telling them a myth he knows about the Wall, which of course also gives  us some hints about the origins on Urth of Abaia and his Brides in the tale of a woman returned from the stars with a handful of black beans and told the "lords of men" that if she were not obeyed she would throw them into the sea and thus end the world. Which, guess what happened there.

Meanwhile, chaos. A wagoneer accidentally-on-purpose hits Jolenta's face, then Dorcas', with his whip. Severian attacks the wagoneer, everybody else freaks out, and... the story shall continue in The Claw of the Conciliator. Where we can immediately start off by wondering WTS is Morwenna, and what does this have to do with this mad scene at the Gate?

*This one. And yes, I have it playing on the jukebox in my head every time I come to this conversation.

**And here is as good a time as any to talk about Dorcas and death. As far as I can tell, this character's namesake saint was a disciple (mentioned in the Book of Acts) basically famous for dying and "being mourned by all the widows." So merely by her name, Wolfe is telling us that she was dead until Severian came along.

***Though I suppose a case could be made for it being the other way around, eh?

****I guess she's named for Yolanda (aka Jolenta) of Poland? Beatified for her kindness to the poor while married to Duke Boleslaw the Pious (she herself was the daughter of the King and Queen of Poland), she is otherwise only known for being the daughter, wife or sister of famous and important good people. In addition, the BotNS character is described by Severian in the same kind of terms with which he described the woman who portrays Holy Katharine for the Guild's ceremonies: Jolenta's face is "pure and perfect as the curve of a rainbow" (earlier in Shadow of the Torturer, Severian described Catherine/Katharine's face as "a pool of pure water found in the midst of a wood").  This all kind of argues for her maybe being Severian's imagined twin sister in addition to all of Borski's claims. But like I said, the sister hunt is not that big a deal for me.

*****I want to take a closer look at the name of the city here, because it is here that we learn a bit about why it has that name. Jonas tells us that Nessus was not the original name, for back when the Autarch first established his dominion there and built the Wall (not to defend his city from outsiders, but to defend himself from his subjects), "the river was unpoisoned." In Greek mythology, Nessus was a centaur whom Heracles defeated, and whose tainted blood in turn killed Heracles. Nessus' blood, of course, was tainted by a poisoned arrow Heracles fired at him when he tried to make off with Heracles' wife; whom the centaur tricked into dosing her husband with his blood later on in the mistaken belief that it would keep him faithful to her. I'm still sorting out how all this relates to the relationship between the Autarch and his city. I suspect it has something to do with a bad bargain the exultants struck with the Autarch to come and suppress dissent and class war. Old King Log vs. Old King Stork and all. I'm also interested in how this river gets the name of a creature from mythology, which, according to the naming scheme pretty much everyone has accepted for these books, means that, somehow, the river itself is somehow an alien? Or perhaps it was just altered to make it more hospitable to the aliens like Abaia and his Brides?


  1. Of course, this is probably our first look at Tzadkiel's spaceship, and maybe Tzadkiel getting His/Her first direct look at Severian, but why here, why now? Is it really just because he found the Claw at this point?

    I thought so at the time, it had to do with the Claw.

    1. I'm inclined to agree, though at the beginning of Claw of the Conciliator we're as much as told that it was "really" the Cathedral billowing up into the air on hot air updrafts from the fire the Pelerines set in the post-crash/theft chaos.


  2. I'm a couple years late, but I have to ask. You mention here that Malrubius may have been Father Inire, and that Palaemon was. I'm on my second read of the book and I don't recall this. When was this stated, or even hinted at? Would you be able to provide any insight?

  3. I'm just getting ready to do another re-read of these and finish this project properly, so I'll look again but I mostly got that from Borski.


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