The OF Blog: Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun: The Sword of the Lictor

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun: The Sword of the Lictor

The Sword of the Lictor, the third volume in Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun series, contains some of the most revealing and troublesome passages in the entire series. In this volume, readers begin to see somewhat clearly for the first time just how deeply layered Severian's adventures are and perhaps the astute reader can begin to sense the strings of narrative manipulation that are occurring both within and outside the written narrative. Since I shall be exploring a few passages and discussing certain events in great detail, it is highly suggested that those who have not yet read this volume refrain from reading it if they value plot details over thematic explorations.

The storyline is again resumed after yet another break in the action. We learn that not only did Severian reach Thrax and assume the office of lictor (the office itself being fraught with religious and civic meanings dating back to the Roman Republic), but that Severian once again abandoned his post and was exiled on account of showing mercy to a female prisoner. As he and Dorcas (for a time, only) flee the city, they have a fierce discussion that ultimately leads to Dorcas's departure. Traveling alone, Severian has many encounters, from the fierce alzabo, from a gland in whose head the magical elixir used in the "diabolic eucharist" of The Claw of the Conciliator is drawn, to the ultimate one with the giant Baldanders that concludes the volume.

While these adventures may provide scenes of amazement and speculation for those reading it for the first time, I want to concentrate on a few lengthy passages from this volume that I believe holds much of importance for interpreting the off-stage events of this series. The first is from the second chapter, as Severian is reflecting upon the innate savagery of humans:

One of the keepers of the Bear Tower once told me that there is no animal so dangerous or so savage and unmanageable as the hybrid resulting when a fighting dog mounts a she-wolf. We are accustomed to think of the beasts of the forest and mountain as wild, and to think of the men who spring up, as it seems, from their soil as savage. But the truth is that there is a wildness more vicious (as we would know better if we were not so habituated to it) in certain domestic animals, despite their understanding so much human speech and sometimes even speaking a few words; and there is a more profound savagery in men and women whose ancestors have lived in cities and towns since the dawn of humanity. Vodalus, in whose veins flowed the undefiled blood of a thousand exultants - exarchs, ethnarchs, and starosts - was capable of violence unimaginable to the autochthons that stalked the streets of Thrax, naked beneath their huanaco cloaks.

Like the dog-wolves (which I never saw, because they were too vicious to be useful), these eclectics took all that was most cruel and ungovernable from their mixed parentage; as friends or followers they were sullen, disloyal, and contentious; as enemies, fierce, deceitful, and vindictive. So at least I had heard from my subordinates at the Vincula, for eclectics made up more than half the prisoners there. (pp. 16-17)

Man's inhumanity to man. This is one of the oldest forms of conflict, as presented in innumerable literature classrooms across the globe over countless centuries. Homo homini lupus, which Wolfe might have been hinting at in a double entendre form with his talk of the savage dog-wolves. This comment, when viewed in light of Agia's greed and implacable hatred of Severian in the first two volumes as well as the scene of Morwenna's public humiliation and execution in Saltus that opens The Claw of the Conciliator, reinforces the notion that the ancient and exhausted world of Urth is just as full of hatred and pettiness as our own. The fact that it is an executioner making these observations only serves to underscore the irony behind the perhaps-misplaced faith that many have in the upward progression of humans via their own efforts.

Severian's encounter with the two-head Typhon about two-thirds of the way into the novel serves to illustrate a related concept: that of the loss of freedom and the chimera of dominion. Typhon, former ruler of Urth and apparently other world chiliads (or thousands) of years before Severian's time, has been revived somehow by the power of the Claw (Typhon shall also be discussed later outside the New Sun series). He exists as he does due to his appropriation of the slave Piaton's body. This is but the first of many signs in the two short chapters that Typhon appears of the insidiousness of power and its corrupting influence on those who desire to wield it. Typhon, playing the role of the New Testament Satan, tempts Severian with the offer of control of Nessus in exchange for swearing allegiance to him. Severian, although sorely tempted, resists and literally casts out Typhon from the mountain top where the two had their confrontation. Although the religious parallels are obvious and do serve to reinforce many of the religious symbols presented in the earlier book, it is the notion of freedom as opposed to dominion that is central to this scene, as we shall soon see when Severian encounters two other people in his travels after this volume.

Backtracking a bit to the discussion that Severian had with his little namesake (speculation abounds as to if this might be a parallel Severian from another time or even his own son, but I shall not weigh in on this, at least not for now), there is one other scene, rather lengthy, that I want to quote, as it underscores Wolfe's views on freedom and responsibility:

"Severian, who were those men?"

I knew whom he meant. "They were not men, although they were once men and still resemble men. They were zooanthrops, a word that indicates those beasts that are of human shape. Do you understand what I am saying?"

The little boy nodded solemnly, then asked, "Why don't they wear clothes?"

"Because they are no longer human beings, as I told you. A dog is born a dog and a bird is born a bird, but to become a human being is an achievement - you have to think about it. You have been thinking about it for the past three or four years at least, even though you may never have thought about the thinking."

"A dog just looks for things to eat," the boy said.

"Exactly. But that raises the question of whether a person should be forced to do such thinking, and some people decided a long time ago that he should not. We may force a dog, sometimes, to act like a man - to walk on his hind legs and wear a collar and so forth. But we shouldn't and couldn't force a man to act like a man. Did you ever want to fall asleep? When you weren't sleepy or even tired?"

He nodded.

"That was because you wanted to put down the burden of being a boy, at least for a time. Sometimes I drink too much wine, and that is because for a while I would like to stop being a man. Sometimes people take their own lives for that reason. Did you know that?"

"Or they do things that might hurt them," he said. The way he said it told me of arguments overheard; Becan had very probably been that kind of man, or he would not have taken his family to so remote and dangerous a place.

"Yes," I told him. "That can be the same thing. And sometimes certain men, and even women, come to hate the burden of thought, but without loving death. They see the animals and wish to become as they are, answering only to instinct, and not thinking. Do you know what makes you think?"

"My head," the boy said promptly, and grasped it with his hands.

"Animals have heads too - even very stupid animals like crayfish and oxen and ticks. What makes you think is only a small part of your head, inside, just above your eyes." I touched his forehead. "Now if for some reason you wanted one of your hands taken off, there are men you can go to who are skilled in doing that. Suppose, for example, your hand had suffered some hurt from which it would never be well. They could take it away in such a fashion that there would be little chance of any harm coming to the rest of you."

The boy nodded.

"Very well. Those same men can take away that little part of your head that makes you think. They cannot put it back, you understand. And even if they could, you couldn't ask them to do it, once that part was gone. But sometimes people pay these men to take that part away. They want to stop thinking forever, and often they say they wish to turn their backs on all that humanity has done. Then it is no longer just to treat them as human beings - they have become animals, though animals who are still of human shape. You asked why they did not wear clothes. They no longer understand clothes, and so they would not put them on, even if they were very cold, although they might lie down on them or even roll themselves up in them." (pp. 97-98)

Cruelties happen. Harsh dictators like Typhon, only concerned with their well-being and status, occur from time to time in human history. At times, these people and those misfortunes are confronted. But when people abdicate their right to determine their own futures as best as they can, when they deny the common natures of other people and instead treat them in ways that we label as being "inhumane," when people abandon hope in favor for living any which way they live, are they in fact "human?" In this passage, as well as the one already cited above, Wolfe appears to be arguing that no, no they are not "human" in the sense of how people ought to be. These man-animals, the zooanthrops of this volume or the man-apes of Claw, are the products of the self-dehumanization that Wolfe argues that occurs when one has given up their responsibility to be a true human being. This discussion, I believe, sets up the later discussions that Severian will have in Urth of the New Sun. It bears repeating that freedom and self-determination are as much of an undercurrent in this series as are the religious symbols that appear. In fact, one might argue that the two are just two sides of the same coin.

Although there is still the scene with Baldanders to explore, I wish to do that in relation to the final volume, so I shall stop here. Again, Wolfe's dictum at the end of each volume is apt. If you do not wish to read on, I understand, as there is much that I myself have not touched upon.

1 comment:

Jeroen Admiraal said...

One thought that keeps returning to my head is the fact that Severian's greatest adversaries in this volume (Typhon and Baldanders) are both giants and both represent strong forces besides humanity.
Its really Campbell's hero cycle going on. Typhon represents an alien power, Baldanders represents an earthly, but non-human power (Erebus, Abaia, the Undines). By defeating them both, Severian shows that it should be a human (in fact, himself) that should decide the future of Urth.

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