A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Claw of the Conciliator’


Bruce Pennington’s covers

The Claw of the Conciliator followed a year later.
In Wolfean fashion, the abrupt end of the first book does not lead directly into the second. An unmeasured period of time has elapsed, and Severian has travelled an unspecified distance – far enough at any rate that the Wall is no longer visible, though it must be remembered that we are now beyond Nessus, and into the forests and hills, approaching the mountains – to the town of Saltus.
His only companion is Jonas, the middle-aged man with a metal hand encountered in the tunnel beneath the wall where Shadow ended. Severian has become separated from the rest of Dr. Talos’ troupe, most especially from Dorcas, though before the end of this volume we will learn that at first he headed in the same direction as Baldanders, albeit not at the giant’s instance.
Severian has been engaged to carry out two executions, one woman, one man. The woman has been accused of murdering her husband and children (though after she dies her rival admits to having framed her), the man is an agent of Vodalus. The Alcalde (Mayor) of Saltus, with an eye to the commercial aspect of things, has made the two executions the focus of a week-long fair.
The fair draws all manner of people to the area, including a column of soldiers marching towards the mountains, and, more seriously for Severian, Agia. She disappears before he can find her, but in the fair he visits the tent of a supposed Green Man, who is indeed green. He claims to be from Urth’s future, but though Severian does not believe him, he leaves him the means to break his shackles and escape.
Later that day, Severian performs the execution of Morwenna. That evening, in the lodgings he shares with Jonas, they are discussing his reactions when Severian receives a letter. It is from Thecla, describing how her ‘death’ was contrived by agreement with Master Gurloes, enabling her escape. She wants Severian to come to a secret rendezvous some miles away.
Driven by the thought of Thecla alive, Severian immediately leaves, stealing a magnificent destrier (horse) outside his lodgings. He gallops up the valley, until he reaches the mine entrance Thecla describes, after dark. There is no sign of Thecla, outside or in: the mines are dark, and populated by ape-like creatures, who surround Severian, in a hostile manner. He loses Terminus Est, but when he accidentally removes the Claw of the Conciliator from his boot, it glows with a clear blue light that illuminates the entire cavern and fascinates the ape-men.
Unfortunately, it also appears to disturb something monstrous deep in the dark. Severian retrieves his sword and flees. In the dark outside, he is shot at with a crossbow: his assailants are assassins hired by Agia. Once he hears her voice, he comes close to weeping, knowing that Thecla is really dead. With the assistance of a man ape whose hand he has severed, Severian kills the assassins and confronts Agia. She expects him to execute her, and asks only the boon of facing away from him. Severian cannot do it: he leaves her alone in the dark, silently.
Barnoch’s execution is planned to take place the following day, but Severian, still thinking about the man-apes, is consumed by his memories: unable to distinguish between those and what he is currently experiencing, he and Jonas are kidnapped by armed men, taken into the forests and placed aboard an elephant under guard.
The men are agents of Vodalus, who wants the torturer to prevent the execution of his man. Severian and Jonas travel a great distance to a substantial court in the heart of the forest, where Vodalus arrives. By taking advantage of his captor’s distraction, Severian retrieves Terminus Est, using it to kill everyone aboard, and bring the elephant to an obedient halt at Vodalus’s feet. He reminds Vodalus of their previous connection, in the necropolis.
This changes Vodalus’s thought: instead of simply killing Severian and his companion, he intends to use him as his agent. He has been tracking the torturer, and wishes to send him to rejoin his fellow troupers at the House Absolute, where he is pass on a message to another agent. Firstly, Severian and Jonas must undergo a horrific ritual that, even more than the oaths they are made to swear, is meant to bind them absolutely to Vodalus.
This far future of Urth holds a wild, bear-like creature called an alzabo that, when eating his victim, is able to assume its mind, voice and personality for a time. A drug extracted from the alzabo can duplicate the effect on humans. Vodalus’ ritual involves consuming the cooked flesh of a dead person and, temporarily, taking them into you. For Severian, the feast will involve the body of Thecla.
But Severian is incapable of forgetting. If he ingests Thecla under this drug, she will remain within him for as long as he lives.
The following morning, Severian and Jonas set off to ride to the House Absolute. Severian now has all of Thecla’s memories in him. Their journey takes several days, but as they near the grounds, they are attacked by curious creatures that resemble flat, black slivers. Jonas recognises them and urges flight. Severian can slash these creatures in two with his blade, but Jonas warns him against doing so: dividing them merely multiplies them and increases their speed. They are called noctules, and they seek human warmth.
The pair save themselves by inadvertently leading the noctules to an uhlan. The noctules overwhelm and kill him. Having rejoined, and being sated, Jonas is able to hook the noctule out entire, and seals it in a bottle, imprisoning it. Jonas rides ahead, but Severian stays to use the Claw, which awakens the soldier bodily, but leaves him dazed.
At this moment, Severian is approached by his follower Hethor, a stammering, wretched creature who has adopted Severian as his master, and who complains in his circuitous manner of the pains Severian causes in following him. Seeing something white amidst the trees, Severian spurs on to rejoin Jonas. He is bitter at the thought that, had he had the presence of mind to produce the Claw at the feast, he could have restored Thecla, though Jonas strongly denies that possibility.
The appearance of a path underfoot shows they are now on the grounds of the House Absolute. Thecla’s memories within Severian confirm this: not for the last time they threaten to overcome Severian, so that he is Thecla.
However, the duo are surrounded by a platoon and are brutally imprisoned, their belongings taken from them. They are being marched towards the House when they glimpse the rest of the troupe being escorted across the grounds. Before Jonas can even draw breath to call to Jolenta, he is brutally stunned. Two guards carry his body, oddly easily.
Inside, they are imprisoned in an ante-chamber full of prisoners of all ages, some of whom have been there for decades.
In accordance with tradition, two of the senior inhabitants take Severian aside for questions and answers. The torturer discovers, to his surprise, that the old woman, Nicorette, is not a prisoner, but rather an armigette who has chosen voluntarily to spend her life with the prisoners as a safeguard against their being completely forgotten (though many have) or being treated extremely badly.
Jonas is cared for separately. When Severian is reunited with him, Jonas is is a strange state. He has to escape or he will lose his mind.
Jonas’s travels among the stars have also been travels in time. We do not understand quite how far back he goes until he recognises the original Greek source of a tale Severian reads from Thecla’s book, and begins to talk of people in the antechamber who descend from times so ancient that their names are appropriate to the Twentieth Century. Moreover, he is not a man who has been fitted with a metal prosthesis, but a man of metal fitted with a biological prosthesis.
At night, the prisoners are attacked by young, drunken armigers and armigettes, delighting in torment. Thecla recalls at least one such occasion when she was among them, but this proves vital as Severian can now remember the secret door by which they entered, and through which he and Jonas exit when another strange, and dangerous beast begins to prowl the antechamber.
They take refuge in a chamber in which a machine of mirrors awaits. The light between it enables the ruined Jonas to depart, into time or space. He vows to return, for Jolenta, when he has again been made whole.
Severian, left alone for the first time since the inn where he met Baldanders, searches for Terminus Est: Having found it he seeks to be reunited with Dorcas. First, he encounters old Rudesind, the Curator, cleaning another picture as in Ultan’s Library years ago. Severian recalls that picture effortlessly: we realise that it is of the original Moon landings.
Invited to step back to properly see this latest photo, Severian finds himself passing into a hidden chamber, where he is met by the androgynous man who ran the bordello to which he was taken by Roche. This man is Vodalus’s agent. He gives Severian instructions: to continue to Thrax, to return the Claw to the Pelerines, if he can, to be prepared for the Autarch’s presence in the northern mountains, in a few months, where he must find a way to kill the ruler.
The androgyne is also, from Thecla’s knowledge, the Autarch.
Severian is led into the gardens and directed to find the players. Dr. Talos is first to greet him, but he has little time to talk to Dorcas before she is sent for water. She relates a vivid dream that hints at her lost past, and expresses her fear and hatred of water.
The play is to be performed that evening, with Severian again playing the multiple roles assigned to him. As the stage is being prepared, with Dorcas deeply involved in painting the set, he accepts an unspoken invitation from Jolenta to explore the gardens. The unfeasibly voluptuous woman is open about her intention to use her commanding appeal to ensnare someone high in the court, perhaps even the Autarch, so that she would have great wealth and power.
Jolenta has no sexuality in her, only a manipulative consciousness of her attraction to all, man or woman. The afternoon is hot and she cannot walk far due to her over-ripe thighs chafing. Severian takes her onto a boat on the river. Jolenta falls asleep and in her sleep, Severian unloosens her clothes and takes her.
This time, Severian recounts the play, as if in a script, until the same moment when Baldanders attacks the audience. But this time the audience includes cacogens, or aliens, and their strange appearances and their weapons beat back the giant amidst great confusion. Severian is forced to flee, cursing himself at having lost Dorcas again so soon, but after a night in the forests, he encounters his friends again.
It is the end of Baldander and Dr Talos’s journeys: they have raised the money they required and are now returning to Lake Diuturna, in the mountains. Everyone is paid off their share and Severian and Dorcas are intent on Thrax. Only Jolenta is distraught, when Dr Talos refuses to take her with them. When she attempts to follow, she is beaten and her money taken, forcing her to follow Severian and Dorcas.
At night, Severian and Dorcas make love again for the first time since before the Wall. Severian wakens to the sound of his name being called in a rich, deep woman’s voice. A gigantic woman lies in the river, beautiful but so large that she can only support herself in the water. She is a daughter of Abaia, one of the alien monsters that war on Urth, a swimmer between the stars.
She professes love, and a crown, claims that it was she who saved him from drowning in Gyoll in an incident immediately before the beginning of Shadow. She wants Severian to come with her: he will be made immortal, able to breath water as air, but first he must, effectively, drown himself. When he refuses, she tries to leave the water with disastrous effects.
Severian escapes, aided by Dorcas, who has come in search of him. Jolenta’s wrist is oozing blood. Severian attributes it to an animal’s bite. Never a hardy traveller, Jolenta now needs to be supported at every step. Her flesh and her beauty begins to dissolve.
They encounter a herdsman and his dead son. Severian uses the Claw to restore the young man, who recovers to fear him as the new lictor of the still-distant Thrax. Severian easily prevents the father from killing him and, in the morning, takes a destrier to carry Jolenta.
Their path leads to an ancient, abandoned stone town. All are weak for lack of food and water, and Jolenta is dying. On a rooftop they find two women raising a campfire. These are the Cumaean, the witch of the Botanic Gardens, and her acolyte Merryn, but they are being protected by Hildegrin the Badger. All three are here to raise the dead: Apu-Punchau, a sorceror of long ago. Severian, Dorcas and Jolenta – who is revealed to have been under a glamour part cosmetic, part-magical, part-illusion – are brought into the summoning that restores the stone to life.
Severian, seeing through eyes not his own, recognises the face of Apu-Punchau as that of the funeral bronze in the Atrium of Time that was his secret hiding place as an Apprentice. Hildegrin dives into the dead crown and grapples with Apu-Punchau, who resists. He calls for Severian’s aid but Severian finds himself seeing two Hildegrin’s, one whom he is fighting, the other fighting someone invisible. He defeats the first and is trying to aid the second when lightning strikes.
He awakes to find all things changed. Hildegrin, we must assume, is dead, the witches and the mounts have gone and only Dorcas remains, with the dead body of Jolenta, whom Severian finally recognises as the waitress from the cafe who chose to go with Dr. Talos.
Again, Severian lays down his pen, having conducted his reader from town to town. If the reader does not wish to travel further with him, he has no blame: it is not an easy road.

 

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