A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Shadow of the Torturer’

I owe a debt of thanks to Ursula Le Guin for discovering this book at the time I did. I was still in my mid-twenties and had only really begun to open out to SF/Fantasy after first reading Lord of the Rings in 1973/4. I had adopted Roger Zelazny as a favourite author, by means of the first Chronicles of Amber, and was also by that time well into such different writers as Harlan Ellison, and Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider books (I know: forgive me).
I’d read a lot of Le Guin, enough to respect her work if not yet to appreciate it as I do now. I’d also, after a certain naivete about which I’d been very lucky, begun to have a scale in my head for author blurbs. Despite Zelazny being responsible for my first purchase of an R. A. Lafferty novel, I’d already grown to mistrust his recommendations. As for McCaffrey, I’d learned enough to avoid like the proverbial plague any book her imprimatur was on.
But Le Guin… Aah, Le Guin could be trusted. It was her voice that tempted me to purchase the Arrow paperback edition of The Shadow of the Torturer. I knew Wolfe by then, primarily as a writer of short fiction, a constant presence in the anthologies I borrowed and read from the library: distinctive, but not enough to tempt me.
Le Guin’s words made the difference, and it did not take more than a few pages to recognise that I was in the presence of greatness, that in front of my eyes an author was vaulting to the front rank of SF. It would be a long and painful wait for the second volume.
Reading The Book of the New Sun is such an immersive experience that it can often be easy to lose oneself in the fabric of the story and in Wolfe’s glorious portrait of this immensely distant future, couched in the archaic language of the past. For this re-read, I adopted a hitherto untried approach: two chapters at night, before going to bed and, no matter the temptation, only two chapters (except in the case of the last night of The Shadow of The Torturer where, the book having 35 chapters, I read three.)
Breaking the story down to such small portions, read with wide intervals, proved to be instructive. Words I had read dozens of times suddenly become more obvious, when they were part of a limited portion, and I could see more of the hints and inferences that other, more wise readers have exposed down the years, for the benefit of we who have been less perceptive.
Severian’s path towards the Autarchy unwinds more deliberately, its individual paces more clear.
Although he lets slip early on that this is the story of how he, unwittingly, backed into the throne, Severian is in no hurry to set himself in motion. He begins with a scene of great importance to all that follows: night, in the Necropolis, he and three fellow apprentices and friends returning to the Matachin Tower after Severian has almost drowned, swimming in the great, slow river, Gyoll. Severian encounters the rebel exultant, Vodalus, saves his life even, and romantically and in ignorance (is there a difference between the two states?) declares himself a follower.
Several chapters are devoted to the very little Severian knows of his past (he is an orphan), and to the mystery of his Guild – the Seekers after Truth and Penitence, vulgarly known as the Torturers. Spreading these pages over several nights makes clearer things that, in earlier, more driven readings, I overlooked in my haste to reach the next stage.
The Book of the New Sun is set in an unimaginably distant future. Mankind has been to the stars, has formed vast Galactic Empires, has encouraged and raised numerous alien races and, falling gently into decline after innumerable centuries (the entire history of Science Fiction lies behind these books!), returned at last to the single planet, Urth. And Urth itself is dying, slowly. The sun’s light dims, stars are visible in daylight, the Moon shines with a green light (having been terraformed millennia ago, and covered with forests).
Wolfe cloaks his story in the air and the trappings of fantasy, yet this is an SF novel, couched in a real Universe and a real timeline extending all the way back to the times in which this story is being translated. The untranslatable future is made both explicable and obscure by being couched in archaic, obscure, forgotten terms. The Torturers Guild is housed in the Matachin Tower (Matachin: a sword dancer in a fantastic costume). Between torturers and the vivid name, we expect dank apartments, stone and cobwebs. But the Matachin Tower is a converted spaceship, a rocket rooted to Urth, and the slow read enabled me to see more clearly all the references that demonstrate this.
All this is a settled situation. The first step towards breaking it up, to forcing Severian into action, is the arrival of the Chateleine Thecla at the Matachin Tower, to be held pending eventual excruciation. The tall, lovely, slender Thecla is to be allowed comforts, including certain books requested from the Library of the House Absolute. Severian, as Captain of Apprentices, is sent to collect these. It is his first excursion beyond the environs of the Guild, and a foreshadowing of the expulsion that becomes inevitable when, by a chance of fortune, it is he who delivers the books to Thecla in her cell, not his friend, the journeyman, Drotte.
So Thecla sees Severian, where otherwise she would not. She talks to him, and requests the Masters that he be her attendant, a request granted. Severian takes on the role of delivering the Chateleine’s food, and remaining in her cell to talk to her. He is warned against warming her bed (in case she should become pregnant and the Guild be unable to carry out such excruciations as are eventually ordered for her), and in order to reduce his temptations, Severian is sent, with his other friend, the journeyman Roche, to the Witches – in effect, the Guild of Prostitutes.
The Witches offer girls who pretend to be ladies of the House Absolute, sneaking out in the snow to slake their lusts: Severian chooses one who purports to be Thecla, a choice that does little for Master Gurloes’ intent to divert any lust (it is made plain in a later book that Severian and Thecla do become lovers, though at the moment we see only his fascination with her, and a more romantic feeling).
A long winter passes as Severian watches Thecla follow the classic path for those not immediately punished. The longer Thecla goes without punishment, the further she moves from carefully suppressed fear to blooming confidence that she will not be tortured, that friends, even the Autarch, will intercede on her behalf, and deep into plans for what she will do on release.
But Thecla has been taken because her half-sister is the Chateleine Thea, the consort of Vodalus. And the inevitable day comes when Thecla is subjected to excruciation. The machine used delivers the equivalent of an electric shock. Afterwards, Thecla struggles to keep her hands from attempting to throttle herself. Severian smuggles a knife from the kitchen, that he has especially sharpened, into her cell and leaves. When a trickle of blood emerges under the door, he calls Masters Gurloes and Palaemon and surrenders himself.
No sooner has he betrayed his Guild than Severian rediscovers a tremendous attachment to it. He expects, though does not wish for, death, but the Guild are in a legal quandary, having no authority to kill or torture without Warrant. Palaemon’s solution is elegant: Severian must leave the Guild, but he is commissioned to travel to the northern city of Thrax, which needs a carnifex (or executioner).
He also gives Severian the superb executioner’s sword, Terminus Est (this is the line of division).
Severian, still dressed in the garb of his Guild, leaves immediately, anxious both to begin his penitence and to enter the outside world, though it will take the remainder of Shadow before he reaches the Wall surrounding Nessus in the north.
I should mention that Wolfe, throughout the whole story, gives plenty of clues to identify that this story takes place in the Southern Hemisphere, and conscientious readers have identified, with Wolfe’s tacit agreement, that the vast and ancient, sprawling city of Nessus was once Buenos Aires.
Severian’s delight in entering what, for him, is a new world is in inverse proportion to the stir he causes in his torturer’s garb. He is more or less ordered off the street, finding refuge in an inn whose reluctant host puts him in a shared room with a stranger overnight.
The stranger is a Giant, Baldanders by name. Severian is introduced to him in the morning by Baldanders’ companion, and seeming master, Dr Talos, a small, fox-like, talkative man. He and Baldanders are performers: at breakfast, he enlists both Severian and the pallid, scrawny, unnamed waitress at their table, to become members of their troupe. Severian agrees, with no intention of ever returning, and goes off to seek clothing to disguise his Torturer’s garb.
This brings him into contact with Agia and Agilus, twins running a broken-down shop, a meeting that governs most of the rest of the volume. Agia, outside, sends Severian in to speak to her brother, who initially is found wearing a mask. Agilus’s only concern is with Terminus Est, which he seeks to buy, despite Severian’s absolute refusal to sell.
Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of a masked, silent Hipparch (an army officer), challenging Severian to a duel in respect of some unidentified insult, to take place at sundown on the Sanguinary Field.
Severian is in complete ignorance of the purpose and mode of the duel, which is to be fought using the highly dangerous alien plant, the avern. Agia takes him under her wing for the day, escorting him to the Botanical Gardens, where he can pick the avern, and then to the Sanguinary Field for the duel.
On the way to the Gardens, Agia provokes a race between rival fiacres that ends with that carrying Severian and herself crashing into the Pavilion of the Pelerines, a female religious Order responsible for guarding an ancient relic, the Claw of the Conciliator. In the confusion, this goes missing. Agia, who is suspected, is stripped and searched, but Severian is accepted as innocent (he later learns that Agia had indeed stolen the Claw, and planted it upon him).
In the Botanical Gardens, designed by the Autarch’s chief advisor, Father Inire, Severian discovers it to contain many different zones, each of which manipulates time to one degree or another. In the Lake of Birds, where dead bodies filled with lead shot are sunk in its preserving waters, and where the averns grow, they meet an elderly boatman, searching for his ‘Cas’, his dead wife, whose body has moved from where it was sunk, and where it should lay. Severian stumbles and falls into the water.
He is helped out by a young, blonde woman, dressed in rags, without memory of anything save that her name is Dorcas, who has emerged from the lake. Despite Agia’s attempts to send the girl away, Severian allows the helpless Dorcas to follow, and join them.
They are helped to find the avern by a man with a small boat, Hildegrin the Badger, whom Severian recognises as the third of that party long ago in the Necropolis, with Vodalus and Thea. Unwisely, he identifies himself to Hildegrin as that young boy of long ago, though there are no consequences of that decision in this volume.
The avern turns out to be a strange plant that can only be held by its stem, its leaves being both razor sharp and lethally poisonous. Agia leads the disparate trio to an Inn by the Sanguinary Fields, set in a tree top, where Dorcas can clean herself, the trio can have a hot drink and arrange a meal for after the combat.
A strange note is left by someone, probably the waiter Ouen. Severian reads this, against Agia’s urgent attempts to prevent him. It appears to be addressed to one of the two women: Dorcas later identifies it as being for her. The note warns her against the woman with her, and ends with the words ‘You are my mother come again’, though Dorcas, being aged sixteen, cannot possibly have a child that could write.
With the women in his train, Severian attends his appointed duel. The silent hipparch is present and the combat begins, with Severian rapidly learning the rules of avern combat. Not quickly enough: he is struck in his bare chest with a leaf and the hipparch claims victory, and Severian’s goods.
But though he should be dead, indeed may, momentarily have been dead, Severian recovers, the spent leaf falling from his chest. The sight of his revival unmans the hipparch, who flees, killing several spectators who try to stop his flight. Severian collapses.
He wakes the following morning in a lazaret (military hospital). Dorcas, still sleeping, is guarding his things, especially Terminus Est. Whilst Severian gets himself breakfast, he hears stories of a dead duellist being brought in the previous evening, and realises they are referring to himself. Dorcas, now awake, is relieved to find he has not died. That night, she and Severian become lovers.
Prior to that, Severian is hired to act as carnifex for the hipparch. Visiting him in prison to prepare him, Severian is shocked to find the hipparch is Agilus, and that he is in a naked embrace with a woman: Agia. She it was who played the silent hipparch in their shop, the whole duel being an elaborate plot to get their hands on Terminus Est. Indeed, Agilus demands his freedom from Severian, blaming him for entrapping him into this plight. Agia attempts to both seduce and attack Severian, fruitlessly.
The execution goes ahead at noon, Severian’s first public performance. There are no hitches: as Agilus’s head is taken off, he hears Agia scream.
Severian and Dorcas leave the lazaret that evening, prudently forestalling any reprisal from Agia. As they move northwards, behind them they see the Cathedral of the Pelerines leap into the air and burn, borne aloft on the air of the fires. Here, Severian discovers that he is in possession of the Claw, thus requiring him to turn back to return it to the Pelerines.
It seems that possession of the Claw is what restored Severian’s life on the Sanguinary Field, as well as bringing Dorcas back from the dead in the Lake of Birds.
Before they can decide on a course, the pair stumble on Dr Talos and Baldanders, just starting a performance, aided by a voluptuous and ripely beautiful woman named Jolenta. Despite their lack of rehearsal, ‘Death’ and ‘Innocence’ are brought into the play, holding themselves well.
That night, as he tries to sleep, Severian is visited by two aquastors: his former Master Malrubius, now dead, and his three-legged dog Triskele.
In the morning, after the takings are divided, with Dr Talos taking nothing, Severian and Dorcas join the troupe on the final walk to the Gate, in the massive Wall above Nessus. There are crowds funnelling at the tunnel entrance. Jonas, a middle-aged man with a hand of metal, overhears Severian talking about the Pelerines and tells them that the sect have left Nessus already, by this Gate, travelling north. He takes an early shine to the lovely, but self-centred Jolenta, who dismisses him.
Suddenly, confusion overtakes everyone as a military party forces itself in from outside. A carter’s whip catches Dorcas’s cheek: Severian unhorses the man, who is crushed under wheels.
At this point, Severian lays down his pen for this first volume, having taken his reader from gate to gate. If his reader no longer wishes to follow him, he takes no offence: it is no easy road.


2 thoughts on “A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Shadow of the Torturer’

  1. What an exhilarating introduction to the epic imagination of Gene Wolfe. I’ve never read any of his novels, but would have loved this when I was young (might still do). Really enjoyed this post. Ursula Le Guin and Arrow paperbacks sent me hurtling back in time. Happy days.

  2. I cannot recommend this set of four books enough. Read slow, read carefully, read thoughtfully, feel yourself absorbed into this world. There is so much here, even on the surface. The books can be had cheaply enough through eBay but try to get the set with the Bruce Pennington covers as these create an atmosphere.

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