Back in Chapter 10, Jonas did a pretty good job of summing up what Severian thinks his goals are at this point in the story, even as he mocks how some of them just might cancel each other out:
You want to serve Vodalus, and go to Thrax and begin a new life in exile, and to wipe out the stain you say you have made on the honor of your guild -- though I confess I don't understand how such a thing can be stained -- and to find the woman called Dorcas, and to make peace with the woman called Agia while returning something we both know of to the women called Pelerines.Can Severian do any of this, at this point, let alone all of this? We'll see. But first he has a Very Special Meal to eat, and it's even ickier, and more life-changing, than we've been led so far to anticipate, for the "analeptic" (stimulant) quality of the alzabo is just the first course of this bizarre "meal."
Recall that Severian first met Vodalus and Thea in the midst of a grave-robbing. Didn't you wonder what they were going to do with the corpse? Now we're going to find out. Not, of course, with the corpse that they were stealing back then. Oh no. There is a much more important corpse out there now. And it's been roasted for increased edibility, but then dressed and posed so artfully that for a second, Severian seems to think that maybe Agia's note didn't lie, because THE MAIN COURSE IS THECLA!
So now Severian has something in common with this little lady. We thought she liked eating Eddie...
Maybe, though, Columbia would have been less upset if she'd gained the sort-of-benefit that Severian does here, because alzabo+Thecla+Severian's freakish Marilu-Henner memory = Thecla's entire experience, even a sort of print of her mind, now permanently shares Severian's skull with Severian.* Just the way we'll learn that someone else does much later on, for Vodalus & co. are not the only ones who exploit the strange properties of the alzabo. But so, no wonder Severian is crazy, and some of his narrative flights of memory seem so discombobulated; he's recording his story years later, and his skull is not entirely his own. Sometimes Thecla cuts in with her own memories. And perhaps someone else has a say in things, too. Dude. And so again, when he says that it's really Thecla's education that makes him capable of holding his own amongst the cultured, it literally is: what she learned and how she learned it, in minute biographical detail, is how Severian knows what the Snape people are talking about.**
But here's the thing: many people are sharing this experience, though for everyone else memories of it will fade naturally. For a time, though, all these people in Vodalus' inner circle are now going to experience all of Thecla's life in some degree. Including her time in the Matachin Tower of the Torturers' Guild. Including all the times she had sex with Severian. Well, I'd feel a little weird about that, were I Severian, is all I'm saying. Some of the guardsmen who'd escorted Severian and Jonas to this gathering were kind of ickily excited about the Sharing (and it seemed to make a difference to them that their, uh, meal, this time was a pretty Exultant woman). So, um, eww.
But anyway! We also finally learn about the mission Vodalus has in mind for Severian: go to the House Absolute -- it turns out that Dr. Talos' theatrical troupe has been invited, so he and Jonas have the perfect excuse to be there -- and pass on a message (in the form of a small piece of steel, vaguely knifelike, of the kind you strike a piece of flint against to get a spark and start a fire) to whoever gives the code phrase "the pelagic argosy sights land"; and if a return message is then given, Severian can pass it on to anyone who tells him "I am from the quercine penetralia."
So, I think at least the first code phrase is referring to the megatherians -- a pelagic argosy being, basically, a flotilla near the shore? Really near the shore if it's sighting land? But as for the "quercine penetralia"... um, quercine basically means "oak" or "oaken" and "penetralia" refers to interior or private parts but NOT ONLY IN THE SEXYTIMES SENSE YOU GUYS I've seen the word used in the context of describing, say, rooms deep inside a house. So, I'm from the heart of the oak? But oh wait, that was the name of a naval song in Nelson's navy! They played it on Jack Aubrey's ships sometimes in Patrick O'Brian's novels. So that, too, is rather an oceanic or nautical thing to say. So, yep, it's all about the megatherians. Or at least those among them or their lackeys who "wait until man is purified again, ready to join with them in the conquest of the universe."
Next morning, Severian and Jonas(who reveals he didn't eat any Thecla, actually doesn't really eat much at all [because he's most likely a cyborg, about which more some other time]) wake to find everybody's gone, but they've been left with some very nice horses to speed them on their way to Autarchland. Easy peasy, lemon -- what the hell is that? Oh look, we're back in Clark Ashton Smith territory again, as ATTACK OF THE WEIRD BLACK DRAPY THINGS THAT SUCK HEAT. Which Severian quickly learns are a mistake to slice up with his sword because that just makes more of them. Fortunately, as
So the uhlan seems to be basically dead, but neither Severian nor Jonas seem particularly concerned about that. Jonas, it turns out, has encountered these things before and knows that the only way to really deal with them is to contain them in something air-tight. So he draws each of them out of the guy's head and stashes them in the guy's little herb box and BOOM, they're done.
But now Severian is feeling a bit guilty about sic'ing the notules on a probably-innocent stranger, and gets an idea. While Jonas gets the horses, he whips out the Claw and puts it on the uhlan's head for a moment and maybe it brings him back to life? But then Jonas just thinks he wasn't quite dead? But never mind, because Hethor is here! And he's brought us a new friend, Beuzec!****
Why are you looking at me like that?
I haven't talked much about Hethor in these posts yet, but it's not because he's not an interesting guy. I'm just trying for SOMETHING like brevity here. Hee. Anyway, Hethor, whom we last saw whining over the loss of his sex doll, has declared himself Severian's "slave" and has been following him doggishly since forever and will turn out to have been the author, by mysterious means, of the notules, as well as many other weird and inimical creatures Severian encounters in his travels. Now, Robert "Solar Labyrinth" Borski has a whole thing about Hethor and maybe Beuzec too being shapeshifters (and thus aliens?) as the best explanation for how Hethor manages to cart his menagerie of monsters around, but as far as I can guess, Hethor is named for St. Ethor (aka Hethor), a Celtic saint and martyr who was killed with 89 other monks in a Viking raid. And as for Beuzec, Beuzec is an alternate name for another Celtic saint, Saint Budoc, who was supposedly born in a cask in which his mother had been sealed by her jealous stepmother ("beuzi" being the Breton word for "drowned"), who no sooner had been born than was reassuring his terrified mother that "we have nothing to fear. God is with us, we are near the end of our voyage, and the time of consolation God promised us by his angel is at hand." He grew up to be a great churchman, whose saintly relics if sworn on guaranteed punishment to those who broke their oaths. But so that kind of blows Borski's shapeshifter thing by his own logic, because only humans from Urth get saints' names in BotNS?
Anyway, it still doesn't preclude Hethor's being some kind of beastmaster, possibly one with access to the same weird mirror technology we learned about in the story of Father Inire and the fish.
But enough about Hethor and Beuzic for now, because suddenly all attention is on a flash of white in the distance and it's like H&B aren't even there anymore. And off goes Severian on a wild walking statue chase.
Walking statues? Yes. Four times life-size and inhumanly beautiful and walking around what is rapidly becoming a garden as they progress. Maybe we're closer to the House Absolute than we think, yes? Yes. Because suddenly praetorians! In impossibly shiny and reflective armor that makes them very hard to see, so perfectly does it mirror their surroundings! And they've arrested Severian and Jonas and, presumably, Hethor and Beuzic! And it turns out that they've all been on/in the House Absolute for quite a while now, because the House Absolute's roof is covered in soil and stone and flowers and paths and walking statuary! Because the House Absolute is underground! As Thecla already kind of knew, come to mention it, but Severian is still getting acquainted with how the whole Head-Thecla thing works.***
But soon it's 100% Thecla memory as Severian works out where they've been brought: the infamous Antechamber, where we soon learn generations of prisoners have lived and died waiting for an audience with the Autarch to explain away their crimes. Or their ancestors' crimes? It's all very weird and terrifying and monstrously unfair. Jonas winds up shanghai'd into lengthy conversation with a lot of people who have never been outside of the Antechamber, whose parents never got out, etc etc until they have a lot of weird funny ideas of what the outside world is like, on the order of believing that the people who carry sugar are armed with swords to defend it****, because the whole concept of "bees" got lost in a big game of generational Chinese Whispers.
Meanwhile, Severian has been pulled aside by two old people, Lomer and Nicarete (no, not the stop smoking aid, but rather a lady whom our friend Robert Borski has convinced me just might be the mother of Thea [Vodalus' girlfriend] and Thecla, the latter being Nicarete's-or-someone's illegitimate daughter by the Autarch). Lomer seems to be a garden variety offender, but Nicarete, Nicarete is in the Antechamber voluntarily! She claims it is in order to help humanity earn the forgiveness of all the pissed-off-aliens who sent the megatherians by way of making it hard for society to forget that there are generations of people trapped here in the Antechamber. But she appears to have grown old there, so, how's that working, huh?*****
And then we come to Jonas' big freak out. What he has learned from the habitual prisoners is bothering him in lots of ways, right into a big ol' existential crisis. He reveals some things. Like that the group of prisoners he was talking to all claim to be descended from a guy named Kim Lee Soong, a name that seems to have considerable meaning for Jonas because it might just have been his original name when he was 100% organic human, centuries ago, and was maybe part of an early wave of space colonists from, not Urth, but Earth (a time and place when Kim Lee Soong "would have been a very common kind of name")...
BUT, no time to ponder that now, though, because lights out! And they really mean it. It's pitch black in there at night. Except when it isn't. Except when it's lit up by brilliant flashes of green light, which are pretty much our clues that there is danger, not only because they are unusual, but also because they are a good sign that our friend the Green Man is making another time-tripping attempt to pay off his debt to Severian by saving his life! Chaos ensues! Severian hears "the clear laughter of a young woman: then it was gone."
And... scene. More or less.
*A crowded, crowded place is Severian's skull. But I'm trying not to be entirely spoilery here. But it's a crowded, crowded place.
**And but so take that, Severian sister-hunters. I submit that the puzzle of Severian's missing sister (eyeroll) that so many are on about is entirely beside the point. Severian has one woman that he is closer to than any other (and yes, Robert Borski, she meets the creep-o criterion for female relatives in that he has boned her), and that is Thecla, living in his head. She may be dead, but she has a more intimate connection to Severian than anyone could (well, except for [REDACTED FOR NOW]). And it is perhaps this, the ultimate in highly developed feminine sides, that gives Severian the edge in terms of New Sun candidacy. That also-ran, Appian [HEE], only got a feminine side after he was gelded for his failure. Har. I am the funniest Gene Wolfe blogger.
***For me, it's impossible not to imagine this relationship as being pretty much exactly like Head-Six on Battlestar Galactica. And yeah, I could picture James Callis playing Severian, come to think of it. Hmm.
****There is probably something very clever to be said tying this remark to the former life of the current-within-this-part-of-the-narrative Autarch, Appian, who apparently started palace life as a honey steward, but it's not coming to me now. Nor is the clever remark about the Antechamber being a microcosmic hologram of Book of the Long Sun's generational spaceship full of people who don't remember that the artificial intelligences that govern the ship are artificial intelligences governing a ship but rather think they are gods who control a small hollow earth lit by a really gigantic fluorescent tube suspended in the middle, which they call the Long Sun. Insert your own here.
*****Nicarete's namesake saint is pretty interesting, too, by the way. An early (5th century) Christian, she was a student of theology and became a physician and follower of St. John Crysostom, whom she once cured of a stomach problem. I don't know for sure how transgressive it was then for a woman to be involved in this kind of stuff, but it kind of fits in with our character's self-given mission to make sure the poor dwellers of the Antechamber aren't forgotten, eh?