Wednesday, October 26, 2016

SUNS SUNS SUNS: The Claw of the Conciliator: Chapters 21 - 25

Has Severian yet received a shock as great as this? Entrusted with a vital message from his "hero"* Vodalus to the rebels' inside man at the House Absolute, he finds the Autarch himself in possession of the password!

As Chapter 21 opens, before Severian can decide what to do about this -- has the Autarch found the true contact and gotten the password out of him or her as a trap, maybe? -- Appian goes on to pretty much prove that he's the true contact and has taken the message, which Severian has kind of involuntarily pulled out of his murse, to read, saying that he had a feeling Severian was the one he'd been waiting for.

He doesn't let Severian see what the message contains as he puts the weird little piece of metal Vodalus encoded it onto, onto a sort of microfiche reader or something to read, but on reading it decides to entrust Severian with a singular sight. He has Severian fetch a gigantic "book" with "mirror" pages -- this is some kind of computer communications device with hologram technology, as is made clear when, as Severian looks at it, it projects a singular sight: a humanoid female form with butterfly wings, bright and glowing and obviously of a size that dwarfs anything on Urth, so that a flap of her wings disturbs the very substance of the universe itself.**

This sight, which is Severian's first of Tzadkiel, it's pretty generally understood by BotNS wonks, is so profound and shattering that it causes the blood vessels in Severian's forehead to burst, and prompts him to ask if the message from Vodalus told the recipient to kill the messenger. Appian kind of laughs this off, but then...

But then he's on about Severian's future plans. After his blood-sweating look at Tzadkiel, Severian has declared that he will henceforth be Appian's man, and reminds us that he wasn't really all that interested in serving Vodalus and...

But so, what's going on with Appian and Vodalus? It's pretty apparent that Vodalus doesn't know his contact in the palace is (now) Appian, but really -- is this Appian subverting the rebel movement? Or did he, like Wilford in Snowpiercer, somehow conspire in the rebellion's very creation? Possibly just as a delaying tactic to stave off what he knows is coming?

Rumble rumble, rattle, rattle, I don't wanna die

Dude, is my forehead still bleeding?

Dude, don't ask me; I'm way too old to be Vodalus

Appian alludes to this directly next, when he orders Severian to proceed with his original mission to Thrax (remember Thrax?), but to also strongly consider a side-quest to return the Claw to the Pelerines.

Well, of course the Autarch of the Commonwealth knows that Severian has the Claw.

Not that he's admitting to being the Autarch at this point. He apparently does not know that Severian has Head-Thecla, who recognized him immediately. No, he's still talking like he's just some schmoe with access to the Secret House (because I'm sure there are just dozens of those, right?) when he says "The Autarch is here, but long before you reach Thrax he will be in the north too, with the army. If he comes near Thrax, you are able to go to him. In time you will discover the way in which you must take his life."


But that remark of his barely has time to land before a hooded figure appears on the scene -- clues and patterns of presentation strongly hint that this is Father Inire himself in one of his many disguises -- and Appian has him escort Severian out of the House Absolute and off to rejoin the theatrical troupe.

On the way out, Severian has his first encounter with the Vatic Fountain, a water feature that foretells, somewhat obliquely, the querent's future if he or she chucks in a coin. What Severian sees is thus:

A sword. That seemed clear enough. I would continue a torturer. A rose then, and beneath it a river. I would climb Gyoll as I had planned, since that was the road to Thrax. Now angry waves, becoming soon a long, sullen swell. The sea, perhaps, but one could not reach the sea, I thought, by climbing toward the source of the river. A rod, a chair, a multitude of towers, and I began to think the oracular powers of the fountain, in which I had never greatly believed, to be wholly false. I turned away, but as I turned, I glimpsed a many pointed star, growing ever larger.

I'll buy the sword as signalling he'll keep on being a torturer for a while, sure, but what about all the other stuff? The rose is a symbol of the Conciliator, so that tracks; Severian carrying around a thorn from an ancient rose bush that is known in his day as the Claw of the Conciliator (and of course, through the timey-wimeyness of Tzadkiel's ship, he's got a destiny in the distant past of becoming the Conciliator). The river might as well be Gyoll, but he's got a date with Juturna soon on a sandbar in a tributary of Gyoll, too. The "long, sullen swell" of the sea is doubtless the great deluge that will swamp Urth and turn it into Ushas when Severian succeeds in re-igniting the sun. The rod and the chair probably allude to his future as the Autarch (and the Vatic Fountain once told Thecla she would one day seat a throne, which she certainly didn't do in her actual lifetime but totes does as Head-Thecla). The multitude of towers could just be a vision of the Citadel/Nessus, but might also be a vision of Tzadkiel's incredible ship. As for the star, well, duh.

So everything tracks pretty simply. For once. I'm sure there's more but not even Robert Borski has devoted too much time to puzzling out what that more might be, so I'm certainly not going to, because it's reunion time!

Dr. Talos, Jolenta, Baldanders and Dorcas are camped out in a pleasant clearing within the garden, awaiting the time when they are supposed to perform Talos' now-infamous play, "Eschatology and Genesis" for the House Absolute crowd (this time minus the "scare away the rubes and collect the dropsies bit" one might presume, but, uh, yeah, about that...).

Severian has a curious interaction with Baldanders straight off. We've understood to this point that only Jonas had managed to stick with Severian in the chaos at the Piteous Gate at the end of Shadow of the Torturer, but here's Severian asking him “why he had left me in the forest beyond the Piteous Gate.” So, um, yeah. Baldanders was along for a bit of the post-Gate adventure, but not much. And Baldanders isn't too forthcoming about this, saying “I was not with you. I was with my Dr. Talos.”***

But of course, for a little while, he wasn't, if Talos/Jolenta/Dorcas were separated from Severian/Jonas/Baldanders. And presumably there was some time when Baldanders wasn't with either, for an unknown length of time. This lacuna Robert Borski argues was spent getting it on with Juturna and her sisters, still searching for their Max to help them get free of Immortan Joe Abaia.

Hey, do we know for sure that Baldanders *doesn't* eat people?

I see nothing particularly compelling about his argument for this, but don't see anything wrong with it, either. The Brides are systematically interviewing candidates for the New Sun and Baldanders is one of them, and they've got to have seen him some time. Why not now?

Meanwhile, Dorcas. Dorcas is more interested in telling Severian what's been going on since Gate-gate, which chiefly involves her horrible, horrible dreams. In them, she has what seems like normal interactions with townspeople, shopping, eating, etc., but has a powerful sense that they regard her as unclean and horrifying. Severian tries to reassure her over and over again that she is none of those things, and they fall to conversing about how Dr. Talos calls them “Death and Innocence”, which Dorcas says she doesn't like because it feels like Talos is accusing Severian of something when he calls him “Death.”

But what about my little joke a couple of entries ago that it could be the reverse that is meant, that Dorcas is Death and Severian is Innocence? Dorcas is the one who's come back from the dead, after all, and Severian, at least as he portrays himself in his narration to us, is kind of blunderingly clueless most of the time.

Furthermore, I'd refer the really interested to this thread on, in which members speculate about how Dorcas might actually be a vampire, or at least associated with them. She might have been an undead, unclean monster long before her original death back when she was young and married to the unnamed boatman who was searching the Lake of Birds for her corpse, which, the Lake of Birds is a somewhat unusual place to stash a corpse in this culture, which generally buries bodies in a cemetery, hence the first scenes of BotNS. Whether you buy this particular set of arguments or not, there's something a bit weird and uncanny about Dorcas, quite apart from the notion that she's actually Severian's grandmother.

And then there's Jolenta. Beautiful, sexy, voluptuous Jolenta, who draws hordes of admirers wherever she goes, and the gardens of the House Absolute are no exception. Surrounded by a bunch of performers from other shows, she is unceremoniously dragged away by Dr. Talos, who beats her. Severian points out that this is hardly her fault, but Talos doesn't care. He's just interested in order, I guess.

Poor Jolenta. As Severian observes, she's kind of all alone even within their troupe: “Dorcas and I had each other, Baldanders and the doctor their crooked friendship, and we came together in the performance of the play. Jolenta had only herself, the incessant performance whose sole goal was to garner admiration.”

This is a pretty crappy projection onto her on Severian's part, but it's going to get much worse. Jolenta, tired of all the hounding admirers and uninterested in/unable to (much is made of how her voluptuous fleshiness makes her unsuitable for any kind of actual work; her breasts are too big, her hips too wide, her round thighs chafe, etc.) help with setting up the stage and scenes for the performance, she talks Severian into going for a walk with her. She complains to him a lot about how it's not just men, but women, too, who hound her (the women usually offering her advice and protection from the men in suffocating ways, but they really, too, just want to sleep with her), and Severian just sort of clucks his tongue at her and then they wind up in a boat, with Severian rowing and Jolenta just kind of going to sleep because all that walking and complaining is fatiguing, and then... Yeah. One of the ickiest scenes in the whole series is this boat ride, because even as Severian muses about all of the nicer feelings he has for all of the other women in his life, his impulse towards Jolenta is to treat her like crap.

Jolenta's desire was no more than the desire to be desired, so that I wished, not to comfort her loneliness as I had wished to comfort Valeria's, nor to find expression for an aching love like the love I had for felt for Thecla, nor to protect her as I wished to protect Dorcas, but to shame and punish her, to destroy her self-possession, to fill her eyes with tears and tear her hair as one burns the hair of corpses to torment the ghosts that have fled them.
Yuck. There is just so much wrong with that passage. So much. More than any other bit of this whole series, that passage makes me doubt every single relationship Severian claims to have had with women, whom, let's recall, he pretty much always portrays as throwing themselves at him.

Believe me, I have the best memory. Really infallible memory. 
I remember everything. And I'm going to sue Jolenta. She's so fat, she's yuge.

Anyway, the question of whether it is or is not rape is not addressed by Severian, but I can't imagine this was exactly what Jolenta, who is actually in love with Dr. Talos, wanted out of this little excursion. Yuck.****

And of course, depending on how one is choosing to perceive Dorcas (and I must confess I kind of like the vampire theory), this interlude likely has even worse implications for Jolenta's future, for Dorcas, upon Severian's and Jolenta's rejoining the group, perceives what has happens and weeps with jealousy (according to Severian).

Then it's play time. Chapter 24 finally presents the text of “Eschatology and Genesis,” which is basically a hologram/puzzle of Severian's mission as the New Sun and its consequences. I skip it a lot, when re-reading, because I find it tiresome, its few illuminating bits just as well illuminated by other things in the novels, and I'm just not interested in going over it here. Besides, there's this bit, which feels an awful lot like Wolfe making fun of enterprises like mine:
There were conversations in the audience, and I could here those as well -- one about the play, which discovered in it significances I had never guessed and which Dr. Talos, I would say, had never intended.
Suffice it to say that it's performed, and performed pretty much the way they've been doing it for the rubes in the countryside, even to Baldanders' feigned psychotic break and attack on the audience, which wasn't supposed to happen this time; there's a whole fifth act to the play that they were going to do here. But nope.

The punters of the House Absolute, however, don't scare so easily. Many are armed, and fight back as Baldanders rampages through the audience. And someone “possessed that rarest of all weapons, a dream” which is flung at Baldanders, and envelops him, putting on a peculiar show as he stands there. “It seemed then that he stood wrapped in all that was past and much that had never been: a gray-haired woman sprouted from his side, a fishing boat hovered just over his head, and a cold wind whipped the flames that wreathed him.”

It's largely this imagery that convinces Borski that Baldanders has recently had a tryst with one or more of the Brides, under the sea, or at least deep in a river, about which, more next time.

The dream doesn't faze Baldanders a bit, though, and he keeps on smashing his way through the audience, some of whom are revealed to be – not human! Yes indeed, here there be some aliens, very likely ones we're going to get to know later on, namely the hierodules Famulimus, Barbatus and Ossipago, and Severian's first glimpse of them grosses him out but good. And in the chaos, he loses track of Dorcas, whom he takes off to locate while burdening us with his profound thoughts about the nature of men's love for women and the actual extent of the House Absolute as he blunders around in the dark overnight, encountering nature (including a monkey that some think is, somehow, yet another guise of Father Inire, because his face is described as “simian” and he sometimes carries a staff with a mummified monkey head on it) and finally giving up and going to sleep, where we shall leave him for now.

*I put "hero" in scare quotes because, the more I think about it, the more convinced I become that Severian's hero-worship of Vodalus makes no sense. I re-read the first chapter of Shadow of the Torturer a few times recently (because I'm still puzzling over who Vodalus and Thea were digging up when Severian came to their rescue), and Severian's explanation for how Vodalus captured his loyalty is circular and silly, even for a Severian explanation. First he says that Thea appears precious to him because of how fierce Vodalus is about protecting her, then he says that he finds Vodalus admirable for so fiercely protecting Thea. Bah. But when you factor in the presence of Head-Thecla (though yes, she wasn't there in his head at the time of his first meeting with Vodalus), whose influence is at times overt and at times quite subtle, a reason for becoming devoted to Vodalus emerges. Thecla's emotions and memories and loyalties are coloring Severian's memories of this first encounter, so he tells it as though he was instantly thunderstruck by the rebel leader. More likely, in Severian's usual way, he allowed himself passively to be maneuvered into a situation in which he sort of had to give Vodalus his loyalty, as he'd hit a point of no return in saving the man's life.

**Insert your own lame butterfly effect joke here.

***I love how he says “my Dr. Talos” here, as though Talos were his dog or something. The implication, of course, is not far wrong; we'll learn later on (and the idea has already been presented to us in “The Tale of the Student and His Son”) that Baldanders, far from being just a big dumb lump of muscle and bone, is a master of some weird knowledge, including the making of homunculi (models of humans that can be animated “magically”), and that Dr. Talos is, in fact, one of his creations – which is why Talos never takes a share of the money the troupe earns, and, presumably, why he is the only being on Urth who doesn't want to bone Jolenta.

****And if that's not yuck enough for you yet, this might also have been twincest, as Jolenta is a favorite candidate for Severian's missing twin sister, if such a sister actually exists.


  1. Thanks for these -- though I've got to say as a first time reader, the full-on spoilers were a little bit surprising!

  2. Please continue this series! I just finished BotNS and I desperately need your insight! I'm mad lost, which I know I'm supposed to be, but your blog has been super helpful.


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