The OF Blog: Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun: The Citadel of the Autarch

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun: The Citadel of the Autarch

My memories have always appeared with the intensity, almost, of hallucinations, as I have said often in this chronicle. That night I felt I might lose myself forever in them, making of my life a loop instead of a line; and for once I did not resist the temptation but reveled in it. Everything I have described to you came crowding back to me, and a thousand things more. (p. 211)

This quote from the second chapter of the concluding volume to The Book of the New Sun, The Citadel of the Autarch, serves as a foreshadowing of what the reader (as well as Severian, of course) shall experience in the course of the reading. As the series winds to a close, events and people touched upon in the previous volumes return for a time, not to mention that there is a "loop" of an even more literal sense of the word that Severian experiences during the course of this novel. So with this in mind, those who have not yet read this volume may want to wait until they have read it, since there shall be some thematic discussions as well as my first extended look at the character/personalities of Severian himself.

War is hell. It rends, it tears, it shreds its sometimes willing victims apart in ways that go beyond mere physical or emotional trauma. It is a product of two groups of people manipulating others into attempting to destroy one another. It is rather fitting that after the encounter with Typhon in The Sword of the Lictor and Severian's clash with the giant Baldanders (where Severian's sword, Terminus Est, is destroyed), we discover that Severian has gone north to where the forces of the Autarch are battling the Ascian invaders.

Wolfe does not skimp on displaying the horrors of war, having himself been a Korean War veteran. We see not just touching elements such as Severian's discovery of a dead soldier's letter (perhaps intended to hark back to a similar scene in Erich Maria Remarque's classic World War I novel, All Quiet on the Western Front), but also encounter soldiers from both sides of the conflict. While some might make the argument that the Ascian prisoner, Loyal to the Group of Seventeen is little more than a caricature of Cold War era representations of Soviet propagandists being like puppets parroting phrases learned over the course of a lifetime under an inhumane regime, I would counter by noting that this person, who in the story he tells "as translated" demonstrates quite a bit of awareness of the world, albeit shaped in a way that is very difficult for us to fathom. It is as though the worst hints of manipulation that we've seen in the earlier volumes have come to fruition in this rather decent person who cannot speak in more than platitudes that his homeland forced his people to adopt.

But this book is much more than just about the horrors of war. In many senses, this book is devoted to reintroducing characters and showing them in new lights. For example, Severian's old nemesis, Agia, has grown in her time away from Severian. Where earlier she seemed to be devoted solely to her hatred of Severian, her actions and eventual escape from the climatic scene with the wounded Autarch puts her in a Vodalus-like opposition to Severian. It is no longer just a simple personal affair but rather that her opposition has come to symbolize a sort of selfish, "anti-life" rebellion similar to that of Vodalus's against the Autarch, which Wolfe makes explicitly clear in a passage near the end of the book.

We also learn more about Dorcas and her tragic reunion with her now-elderly husband, plus we get further hints in regards to Severian's paternal ancestry. While Dr. Talos and Baldanders do not appear in this volume, there are more than enough hints given that the two represent artifice and its counterfeit nature against the "trueness" that is represented in the Autarchs. And speaking of the Autarchs, or "self-rulers," while much more about their origins is explained in the coda Urth of the New Sun, it becomes quite obvious by the end of the volume that they are the rightful rulers of Urth because they recognize that rule involves much more than just dominion over another. It involves a self-sacrifice and a heavy burden of sacrifice and commitment to the needs of others. It is for this reason, Severian reminisces, that the Autarchs have not been descended from a prior Autarch but have come from people of human origin who usually are not the greatest in any of their fields. After all, pride is an insidious thing that can emerge from the glories of greatness and greatness often is antithetical to being truly concerned with the rights of all.

And so over the course of these four volumes, the reader has encountered many base and treacherous characters. From greed and the thirst for dominion over others, we have seen people such as Vodalus, Agia, and Typhon lust. There is no love involved in their quests for power and, in Typhon's case, immortality. We have also sensed that behind this lurks the nihilistic impulses of Abaia and Erebus, those aptly-named beings who symbolize the darkness and coldness which threaten not just the physical Urth but also the spiritual well-being of its inhabitants. We have witnessed the results in the persons of the Ascians, as Severian so eloquently notes in this passage:

These Ascian soldiers had a rigity, a will-less attachment to order, that I have never seen elsewhere, and that appeared to me to have no roots in either spirit or discipline as I understand them. They seemed to obey because they could not conceive of any other course of action. (p. 352)
But opposed to these horrors is a sense of responsibility and of duty to be just and to love what can be loved among the peoples and creatures of Urth. Much has been made about the calls for the New Sun over the course of the novels (and much more on this when I review Urth of the New Sun), but in the scene where the last Autarch passes along his responsibilities to Severian, there is a passage that sums up quite well the good/evil conflict that has occurred:

"You were right to hate me, Severian. I you will stand...for so much that is wrong."

"Why?" I asked. "Why?" I was on my knees beside him.

"Because all else is worse. Until the New Sun comes, we have but a choice of evils. All have been tried, and all have failed. Goods in common, the rule of the people...everything. You wish for progress? The Ascians have it. They are deafened by it, crazed by the death of Nature till they are ready to accept Erebus and the rest as gods. We hold humankind barbarism. The Autarch protects the people from the exultants, and the exultants...shelter them from the Autarch. The religious comfort them. We have closed the roads to paralyze the social order..."

His eyes fell shut. I put my hand upon his chest to feel the faint stirring of his heart.

"Until the New Sun..."

This was what I had sought to escape, not Agia or Vodalus or the Ascians. As gently as I could, I lifted the chain from his neck, unstoppered the vial and swallowed the drug. Then with that short, stiff blade I did what had to be done. (p. 356).
There are no clear-cut decisions to be made; only a choice of evils. Urth is an imperfect world and each choice is fraught with evil possibilities or consequences. In such a world, it is hard to hold hope, Wolfe seems to be arguing, but yet, somehow, people have managed to do so. Until the New Sun. A phrase laden with symbolic meanings of rebirth and renewal. A phrase that hints at the washing away of the old creation in ways akin to the language of Revelations. And who is to bring this New Sun?

No other than Severian. A Torturer who shows mercy in spite of the strictures placed on him. A self-deceiving and not always likable person who has undergone so many changes during the course of his travels. A person who finds a holy relic, only at the end to learn this:

At that time I did not think of it, being filled with wonder - but may it not be that we were guided to the unfinished Sand Garden? I carried the Claw even then, though I did not know it; Agia had already slipped it under the closure of my sabretache. Might it not be that we came to the unfinished garden so that the Claw, flying as it were against the wind of Time, might make its farewell? The idea is absurd. But then, all ideas are absurd.

What struck me on the beach and it struck me indeed, so that I staggered as at a blow - was that if the Eternal Principle had rested in that curbed thorn I had carried about my neck across so many leagues, and if it now rested in the new thorn (perhaps the same thorn) I had only now put there, then it might rest in anything, and in fact probably did rest in everything, in every thorn on every bush, in every drop of water in the sea. The thorn was a sacred Claw because all thorns were sacred Claws; the sand in my boots was sacred sand because it came from a beach of sacred sand. The cenobites treasured up the relics of the sannyasins because the sannyasins had approached the Pancreator. But everything had approached and even touched the Pancreator, because everything had dropped from his hand. Everything was a relic. All the world was a relic. I drew off my boots, that had traveled with me so far, and threw them into the waves that I might not walk shod on holy ground. (p. 367).
We have come full-circle; the symbols that shaped Severian's journey have mostly been unraveled. We create relics, Wolfe appears to argue, because we need them to remind us of the Increate/Pancreator. We need material things to remind us of the spiritual, for which we ever seem to be grasping. Severian is not a perfect man, but he has sought to relieve himself of his impurities. He has been through the fires of temptation, especially with Typhon, but now he is changed. He is not a Christ, but he certainly has become the ideal of a Christian, some might argue based on Wolfe's liberal sprinkling of Christian symbols throughout the narrative.

And that rose carved into that tombstone? It is a symbol for Catholics and Eastern Orthodox for the Virgin Mary and also for Christ. The fountain? It is the well-spring of the Water of Life, or of the Christ of St. John 7. The spaceship? It symbolizes the next step in Severian's life.

And the tomb itself? It is empty. Not the way that Christ's tomb is empty, but empty nonetheless due to the matter of time, which shall be addressed in the Urth of the New Sun review. Hopefully these reviews have encouraged people to re-read and to re-consider this masterpiece of literature. I know I did not touch upon everything and that some of my interpretations certainly can be challenged. Nonetheless, a work like this deserves nothing less than honest people arguing over matters of interpretation, no?


Martin LaBar said...

Once again, thank you for this splendid series.

Larry Nolen said...

You're welcome! :D I am planning on reviewing quite a few more of Wolfe books this month and into next, if that might interest you as well. He's one of the few authors where the re-reads have been more enjoyable than the original reads, something that I wish were more commonplace this day and age.

Unknown said...

"rereads have been more enjoyable"

Always the case with Wolfe, in my experience.

Speaking of, there's a preview of Wolfe's next opus on Neil Gaiman's Journal, the entry dated Dec. 1.

Larry Nolen said...

Yeah, I read that. Forgot to add it to my latest post, since I had already posted about it on wotmania, but needless to say, I'll preorder it the day it's available for orders. Speaking of preorders, am awaiting my copy of Wolfe's novella, Memorare, that ought to be shipping by the first of next year.

Unknown said...

Re: "Memorare":

Wow, I hadn't known that there was an edition of this novella in the works!

I have only read "Memorare" once, in the special Wolfe issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and I haven't puzzled it out yet. I remember that it was about as close as Wolfe ever comes to "hard sf." Some of it almost reads like Niven -- anyway there's coffee in bulbs. Also lots more action (as opposed to those lupine lacunae).

Enjoying the Wolfe posts; looking forward to more. Don't disturb the Seal of Pas.

Anonymous said...

Hi Larry,

I think you'll enjoy Memorare. I have read very little of his sf, and like the poster above said, I'm still trying to figure it out.

I do appreciate the time you've taken to discuss the New Sun series. Thank you!

Larry Nolen said...

Looking forward to reading it (since I didn't get the magazine version of it), even though I too am not very familiar with his SF stuff.

And you're welcome - these posts have been a blast to write, even though my typical procrastination has set in to a degree (I've read all 12 volumes in the "Solar Cycle") :P

Unknown said...

In regard to rose allusions I could borrow from Robert Borski to mention that a rose resembles a labyrinth. My own contribution is that labyrinths figure strongly in time portals in this story (Atrium of Time, Ultan's Library, Jungle Garden, Last House and perhaps more). Roses appear on St. Catherine's wheel. Gene Wolfe's wife is named Rosemary.

I'd like to mention the mausoleum of Severian's childhood with a funeral bronze resembling him and five coffins, two open. I think the number 5 represents the five heads of Cerberus who represents Gene Wolfe himself. The protagonists in Fifth Head of Cerberus (novella) and The Book of the New Sun are both tall, slender, dark haired, pales skinned guys who love dark haired beauties with large violet eyes. Thus I think the two open coffins are Wolfe's way of saying he considers both Severian and Number Five to be avatars of himself.

Nate said...

I think your analysis of the rose, the fountain, and the spaceship are all valid, but I think they also have more concrete representations in the story. The fountain is Severian himself, the New Sun, the "white hole" sent to revive the dying Sun. The spaceship is the ship he rode to his testing in Urth, but it is also the castle where he was raised as a torturer. The rose I forget - wasn't it mentioned in connection with Valeria, his queen?

Rick said...

i know this post is pretty old but i was wondering why you never posted on the rest of the sun books (aka long and short sun series)? You mention it often but i cant find it anywhere on your site and would be very interested in hearing your continued insight

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