A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Citadel of the Autarch’


The Citadel of the Autarch is the final book of the New Sun quartet, and it makes for an unusual and interesting ending to the story, not that it is, wholly, complete when Severian the Lame, Autarch of the Commonwealth, lays down his pen – twice – to go on with his life.
As with the other books, an indefinite period of time has passed since the previous volume, but the impression created here is that this has been considerable less than the two previous lacunae, and there is no similar dislocation as before: Severian closes The Sword of the Lictor by heading off north to join in the War against the Ascians, and he begins Citadel still set on that course.
The final book is a curiously slow and quiet story, with the majority of its action, such as there is of it, concentrated into the middle of the book. Severian begins on the road, still trying to make up his mind, and avoiding parties of soldiers so as not to have that decision taken out of his hands. Growing weak and faint from malnutrition since leaving the mountains, one such diversion leads him to the body of a dead soldier, with food in his pack and part of a letter to a sweetheart.
Not until after he has replenished himself does Severian think of trying the now uncased Claw: his reward, after a delay, is that the soldier returns to life, dazed, confused, silent. Together, the pair seek the Army, and a lazaret where the soldier – whom Severian names Miles – may receive treatment. By the time they arrive, it is Miles who presents Severian for treatment.
Severian stays in the lazaret, under the care of the Pelerines, for several weeks. He becomes the judge in a story-telling contest, between wounded but still ardent wooers of the injured woman soldier, Foila, including a marvelously interpreted story by the captured Ascian, Loyal to the Group of Seventeen, told entirely in Approved Words. He tries to surrender the Claw to the Pelerines, but is roundly disbelieved: the Claw is not within its jewel, Severian is clearly disturbed, his whole demeanour and story dismissed by a psychological analysis that is wholly incorrect, but which provides a beautifully ironic counterpart to his own imperception of other matters, not to mention his willingness to lie to serve himself.
Introducing stories into stories is one of Wolfe’s favourite memes, but the inaction covers a long part of the book and it is hard not to think of this section as being a part of the original third volume that required ‘building up’.
That is not to say that the section is uninteresting. Severian is joined by the now-talkative Miles, just before the latter is redeployed. Miles also rejects Severian’s story about restoring him to life, but in doing so he uses phrases that would be typical of Jonas. Severian believes that Miles has been re-animated by the spirit of Jonas, which Miles denies. But when Severian tells him, flatly, that Jolenta is dead, something goes out of Miles’ eyes, and he turns and leaves, silently. He is not encountered again.
Despite the rejection of the Pelerines, Severian is determined to return the Claw. As soon as he is sufficiently strong to crawl to their altar, he secretes the Claw, safely, in a recess, fulfilling his oath.
When he is sufficiently recovered, the Pelerines send Severian on a mission to visit a local archimandrite, or hermit, Master Ash of the Last House, and persuade him to come to the Pelerines for safety from the advancing Ascians. The journey is strange: the Last House is visible but, when Severian deviates from his clearly-marked path, to take a short-cut, it cannot be found.
After a night in Master Ash’s guest quarters, Severian wakes to an unending, unfeatured ice-field. Ash is from Urth’s even-more distant future and his house extends vertically through time, the lower its storey, the nearer to Severian’s present: the ice-field is Urth’s atmosphere, frozen solid. It is a future vastly different to that of the Green Man. Master Ash is safe, and in no need of protection, but Severian nevertheless forces him to leave. But Severian’s present will not lead to Ash’s present: he dissipates into non-existence.
Though his mission is a failure, Severian discovers it has been a lifesaver. In his absence, the lazaret has been attacked and almost razed by Ascian troops. Only Foila has survived from the storytellers, whose work Severian never judged, and it is heavily implied that she will not last long.
Severian goes out to fend for himself. He is picked up by a band of cavalry Irregulars, acquitting himself well in the hazing that precedes acceptance, and demonstrates his quick wits and intelligence over a coachful of gold, but when battle – true battle – approaches, Severian discovers in himself a true fear, one that he must handle.
It is not gone when battle commences, but nevertheless Severian fights hard and well, until he is hit in the leg by the equivalent of a laser beam (it is another of Wolfe’s motifs that his heroes are lamed in one fashion or another and this is Severian’s turn: the wound is permanent). He is rescued in a quite startling fashion, by an intelligent mammoth under the direction of a minor official of the Commonwealth, the master of the brothel, the eunuch that both Severian and Thecla know to be eternal.
But though Severian pretends to hide his knowledge, it is beyond the point of mattering. The Autarch announces himself: Severian is, as he has known since before their first meeting in the House Azure, his successor.
And just as Severian is two in one, thanks to the use of the alzabo, and the lodging of Thecla’s mind and memories within his own, the Autarch is legion in one, containing the thoughts, experiences and memories of all his predecessors, minds that will merge into Severian as his rite of passage.
But before all of this can be done, the Autarch takes Severian for a tour of the Ascian lines, by flier. The craft is hit by a bolt and brought down, injuring both men. The Autarch signals for help from Vodalus that he is in a downed craft and that the Autarch is there. It is the Ascians who find the flyer first, but Vodalus’s men are not far behind and take charge of the two men. They are under the command of Agia, who rakes open Severian’s cheek with a palm-held blade, scarring him for ever.
Severian is taken to Vodalus for questioning, whilst the Autarch, though mortally wounded, is cared for. Severian is quizzed about who else was with them. He admits the presence of the Autarch, and denies – truthfully – that the Autarch is him. Agia demands Severian as her reward, but Vodalus owes a debt to him. Moreover, he remains confused, especially as Severian betrays knowledge of the Autarch’s nature that very few have.
Severian remains Vodalus’s prisoner for endless weeks. He is taken to the Ascian leaders, who quiz him to see if he is the Autarch, but he satisfies them that he is not. Nevertheless, he is handed over as a prisoner and held with the dying Autarch. This enables him to complete the ritual as the Autarch requires, and come into his own authority.
Nevertheless, he is still a prisoner of the Ascians, though his status is unknown to them. Not for much longer, as he is rescued by the combination of Agia and the Green Man. The latter has been travelling the Corridors of Time searching for a moment in which he can repay Severian for giving him the means to free himself in Saltus. Agia is acting against the Ascians, whom she will not serve: she has killed Vodalus using one of Hethor’s creatures, and she is taking his place as rebel.
The Green Man also leaves, his debt not yet fully paid. To leave the north, Severian is taken aboard a cacogen craft, led there by two aquastors, in the forms of Master Malrubius and the dog Triskele: shapes taken from his mind and impressed upon the air: Malrubius tells him some of what he needs to know of the purpose of the Autarch.
Mankind has fallen far, far in among itself. Once, it spanned stars, created peoples who rose until they passed beyond this Universe of Briah, into the higher Universe of Yesod. Some remain, acting in gratitude, seeking to assist humanity to raise again. Only when it is ready will a New Sun be sent, literally: a White Fountain (the opposite end of a Black Hole) will be opened in Urth’s Sun, restoring its light and vigour.
It is for the Autarchs, if they choose, if they have the courage, to leave Urth for Yesod and undergo a test. If they fail, as did the Autarch preceding Severian, they are unmanned and returned, unable to create a dynasty. It will be Severian’s choice to take the test, and face his fate.
The aquastors leave him on the shores of Ocean, at dawn, near the mouth of Gyoll. Severian resumes his journey north, but now it is a return to Nessus he seeks.
This is, as Severian notes to himself, the end of his story, but there are other matters he wishes to record. He travels north along Gyoll on a trading ship whose master speaks of strange things on and in the river. When he reaches the abandoned, southern quarters of the city, he leaves the ship for a time, to cross a peninsula of land whilst the ship sweeps around its ox-bow bend.
For he has seen a newly-arrived boat drawn up, and following intuitions that he so recently did not possess, he finds Dorcas, whose journey from Thrax in the north has taken the length of time he has travelled. He sees her but she does not see him. She has found her past, and weeps over the body of an old boatman: the man whom Severian met as long ago as the second chapter of The Shadow of the Torturer, the boatman who ferried Agia, Severian and Dorcas over the Lake of Birds, the old man seeking his young dead wife,’Cas.
Severian rejoins the boat and leaves it at the Citadel, announcing himself as Autarch for the first time at the Citadel and coming in state to the Matachin Tower. He meets with Master Palaemon, who eventually recognises his voice. Word is spreading. Palaemon and Severian debate the Guild, and though Palaemon spiritedly defends it as a good and necessary thing, Severian has decided that it shall end.
First though, he has need of old friends to accompany him, Drotte, Roche and Eata. In ordinary garb, they travel north on Gyoll, until Severian leads them to the Inn of Lost Loves, on the edge of the Sanguinary Field. There he asks for the waiter, Ouen, and quizzes him about his past. About the young blonde woman who so resembled his mother, who died young, in childbirth. About the dark haired exultant, Katherine, who he loved before she was taken. The Innkeeper is taken by the resemblance between the scarred Severian and the older waiter Ouen.
Severian knows who this man is. He intends to take him to the south, to find, stay with and protect his mother.
That is almost all. Severian finishes his tale in the last hours before his flight to beyond the stars, to save Urth. He has thought hard about his journeys, seen the hidden pattern. He is not the first Severian. That Severian had all the adventures, and went to the stars to undergo the test, returned and was buried. Severian has seen his tomb, and played in it within the Atrium of Time.
Then those who wanted to see him succeed walked the Corridors of Time to his youth and took certain actions to ensure their end would be fulfilled. And the result is the Severian who writes these words, who understands why he has been the object of their attention.
He will end the book, to go into Ultan’s Library. In his cabin on the ship he will write it out again, word for word, seal it in lead and abandon it to the void, to where it will go, even into the deep past.
For the last time, Severian the Lame, Autarch of the Commonwealth, lays down his pen. He and his reader turn away from each other, each back to their own life.


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