The four-volume The Book of the New Sun is widely considered to be Gene Wolfe's magnus opus and it consistently ranks as one of the most highly-regarded literary works of the past 30 years. Blending elements of science-fiction and fantasy into a first-person narrative, these four volumes (The Shadow of the Torturer (1980); The Claw of the Conciliator (1981); The Sword of the Lictor (1981); and The Citadel of the Autarch (1982)) have won or been nominated for multiple World Fantasy and Nebula Awards. Filled with allusions to creation myths, Christianity, hagiography, the Cold War, etc., these books have provided fodder for all sorts of speculation as to what lay underneath the surface of the narrative.
While I will not be exploring all of these myriad speculations, I do plan on providing a few selections from the books themselves to highlight a few of the themes that may be of interest to those reading this work. In doing so, I also will endeavor to provide a plot summarization in addition to this exploration of some of the more salient themes that I detected in this series. I shall break this down by individual volume, using citations and page references for the two two-volume omnibus collections released by Tor in the United States in 1994.
The Shadow of the Torturer
The epigraph to this book holds an important clue towards one of the themes of this series, that of religious parousia (or the Second Coming) and eschatology (or the belief in the "end times" of the world as we know it):
Taken from the fourth stanza of Isaac Watts's famous hymn, "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," this epigraph highlights the religious imagery and metaphors that will appear repeatedly during the course of these four volumes, albeit many of these religious symbols will be kept to the background and the reader can enjoy the story without needing to be well-versed in Christian (and especially Catholic) theology and traditions.A thousand ages, in thy sight,
are like an evening gone;
short as the watch that ends the night,
before the rising sun.
The story itself begins near the end of the narrative timeline. The main character, Severian, has just finished recording a narrative of his adventures that led him from being an apprentice (later journeyman) of the ancient guild of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence, more commonly known as the Torturers. Severian, who tells this tale in first-person PoV, claims to have an eidetic, or "perfect," memory. As he narrates his life from growing up as an orphan among the Torturers to his coming of age, he reveals in passing certain discoveries that will later play a role near the end of the series. Among these is his playing in the necropolis of the ancient city of Nessus and his discovery of a tomb that has etched upon it the likenesses of a rose, a fountain, and a spaceship. These shall be discussed later.
However, there is a scene at the end of the first chapter where the boy Severian receives a coin from the rebel Vodalus. Severian makes an interesting observation that will bear heavily upon the importance of the events that follow:
We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges. When soldiers take their oath they are given a coin, an asimi stamped with the profile of the Autarch. Their acceptance of that coin is their acceptance of the special duties and burdens of military life - they are soldiers from that moment, though they may know nothing of the management of arms. I did not know that then, but it is a profound mistake to believe that we must know of such things to be influenced by them, and in fact to believe so is to believe in the most debased and superstitious kind of magic. The would-be sorcerer alone has faith in the efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all. (p. 14)It is this self-defining of ourselves, of our surroundings, and of our "purposes" and how each affects the characters' interactions with each other and their surroundings that drives much of the action that occurs. From Severian's later acquisition of a religious relic, the legendary Claw of the Conciliator (who in presented as being an analogue to Christ although not in a direct one-to-one correlation), to how others refer to the blasted and diseased red sun of ancient Urth and the belief that one day that the Conciliator would "return" to bring a "New Sun" (literal, metaphorical, or both depending upon the person), this notion that we are defined by the symbols we choose to represent our hopes and fears is one that Wolfe returns to on multiple occasions in the course of the series.
One such example of this symbolic interplay is that of Katharine (St. Catherine of Alexandria), who is the patroness of the Torturers. From the slightly altered re-enactment of her martyrdom to the quite ironic adoption of her as being the patroness of the Torturers, the symbolic execution and the expression of faith done through such a re-enactment serve to underscore Severian's later betrayal of his guild via the forbidden showing of mercy to an exultant (high-born, genetically altered nobility on Urth) lady, the Chatelaine Thecla. It is this "betrayal," perhaps akin to some degree with the scene of Jesus and the adulteress in the Gospels, that leads to a journey of exile for Severian.
During this exile/assignation to the city of Thrax, where Severian is to be the Lictor (or executioner) in lieu of being held in hopes of a death sentence, Severian meets up with many characters, from the vengeful Agia to the monstrous Baldanders and his companion Dr. Taltos to many others. One of the more mysterious characters is that of Dorcas, who lives up to her namesake when somehow she is "revived" when Severian finds himself diving into a pond to retrieve his sword Terminus Est (more on that shortly). The latter volumes hints not just at the healing powers of the Claw of the Conciliator, but also at the tangled skein of Severian's own personal past.
When Severian was presented with the executioner's sword Terminus Est, the presentation of its meanings (line of division, this is the end) illustrates Severian's role. Not only is he the executioner of those sentenced to die, not only is he the final image of authority that the condemned see before they die, but the name itself refers to the old Roman god Terminus, the lord of boundaries. In this case, the boundary between life and death and their interrelationships with each other are symbolized with how Severian uses the sword during the course of his travels.
While I certainly could continue to narrate various symbolic actions during the course of this first volume, I want to focus instead on a discussion Severian has near the end of this book with the apparent shade/ghost/image of one of his former Masters, Malrubius:
"Severian. Name for me the seven principles of goverance."
It was an effort for me to speak, but I managed (in my dream, if it was a dream) to say, "I do not recall that we have studied such a thing, Master."
"You were always the most careless of my boys," he told me, and fell silent.
A foreboding grew on me; I sensed that if I did not reply, some tragedy would occur. At last I began weakly, "Anarchy..."
"That is not governance, but the lack of it. I taught you that it precedes all governance. Now list the seven sorts."
"Attachment to the person of the monarch. Attachment to a bloodline or other sequence of succession. Attachment to the royal state. Attachment to a code legitimizing the governing state. Attachment to the law only. Attachment to a greater or lesser board of electors, as framers of the law. Attachment to an abstraction conceived as including the body of electors, other bodies giving rise to them, and numerous other elements, largely ideal."
"Tolerable. Of these, which is the earliest form, and which the highest?"
"The development is in the order given, Master," I said. "But I do not recall that you ever asked before which was highest."
Master Malrubius leaned forward, his eyes burning brighter than the coals of the fire. "Which is highest, Severian?"
"The last, Master?"
"You mean attachment to an abstraction conceived as including the body of electors, other bodies giving rise to them, and numerous other elements, largely ideal?"
"Of what kind, Severian, is your own attachment to the Divine Entity?"
I said nothing. It may have been that I was thinking; but if so, my mind was much too filled with sleep to be conscious of its thought. Instead, I became profoundly aware of my physical surroundings. The sky above my face in all its grandeur seemed to have been made solely for my benefit, and to be presented for my inspection now. I lay upon the ground as upon a woman, and the very air that surrounded me seemed a thing as admirable as crystal and as fluid as wine.
"Answer me, Severian."
"The first, if I have any."
"To the person of the monarch?"
"Yes, because there is no succession."
"The animal that rests beside you now would die for you. Of what kind is his attachment to you?"
There was no one there. I sat up. Malrubius and Triskele had vanished, yet my side felt faintly warm. (pp. 197-198)
This scene reveals quite a bit, not just about how Severian orders his priorities in accordance to a hierarchy of legal standards, but more about how this attachment to the Divine in the personal form not only foreshadows what occurs later, but also how it symbolizes the views that the religious have in regards to matters of faith. This concept of ordering the power relationships not only refers back to the medieval Great Chain of Being, but it can also symbolize yet again the passage that I quoted at the beginning of this post.
There will be separate posts in the coming days on each of the remaining volumes, again with a mixture of some plot occurrences and thematic elements that I perceived to be important. But as I pause, if you wish to walk no farther with me, blog reader, I (like Severian at the end of each volume) will not blame you. Discussing Wolfe's themes is no easy road.