A Lycanthrope in Wolf’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Urth of the New Sun’

There’s a point in one of his discussions about his career when Gene Wolfe reveals that he had something of an argument with his then-editor over the end of The Citadel of the Autarch. This editor argued passionately for the inclusion of a paragraph or two explaining that Severian did undergo the trial for which the whole of The Book of the New Sun was meant to prepare him and that he did succeed in bringing the New Sun and restoring Urth, and Wolfe was insistent that after the quarter of a million words he’d so carefully compiled, the audience were going to be pretty sure that they hadn’t been following the adventures of yet another failure.
But editors are editors, and in order to avoid having to undermine the vast subtlety of so major a work, Wolfe agreed to write a sequel in which the whole story would be told.
The Urth of the New Sun was published in 1987, three years after The Citadel of the Autarch. I welcomed it then and I enjoy it still, but there is no denying that it is a book of an entirely different order and purpose, and although it is an official adjunct to The Book of the New Sun, and that there is much in it that is wonderful and strange, I estimate that I have probably read it no more than once for every four to five times I have read the parent work.
Amusingly enough, if there had to be a sequel, Wolfe elects to start it from the very moment Severian the Lame, sometimes called Severian the Great, lays down his pen after copying, out of his infallible memory, the book about his rise to power, authority and influence, and to make Severian’s act of hurling this manuscript into the vortex of time from which, someday, it will emerge into the hands of Gene Wolfe the catalyst for the start of his new adventures, which in themselves are, unknowingly, the beginning of his Trial in the higher universe of Yesod.
For Severian is travelling on the great ship that sails into and out of Time and Space, a things of impossibility, with its multitude of decks and masts, sprouting at all angles until I wonder if its best conceptual image is that of a curled-up hedgehog, all spread with canvasses beyond sizes we can imagine, turning to catch the solar wind. Almost hypnotised by the sight, and by the fact that his lamed leg is no barrier to jumping vast distances, Severian seeks to hurl his manuscript from the highest mast, but overshoots it and is about to be equally lost in Space, until the act of hurling the chest produces the equal and opposite reaction that sends him flying back into the forests of masses and vines of riggings, and he is back aboard, in a different part of the ship, where he is mistaken for crew and begins a hunt for a supposedly dangerous apport (any creature who emerges from time, drawn by the solar sails).
From here, the story progresses through three basic phases: Severian’s adventures and encounters on the ship, where there are those who wish to kill him, to prevent the coming of the New Sun, because they know and fear the cataclysm it will entail, the formal element of his Trial, in Yesod, and the rather unusual but ultimately satisfying (in a subtle way) the New Sun is generated, and lastly Severian’s return to the Universe of Briah, long ago, and his and the star’s progress towards the present day, and the washing clean of Urth so that it might be renewed as Ushas.
What form that cataclysm takes is foreshadowed in typical Wolfean fashion, though it is not until destruction comes, in the form of a new and even more comprehensive Flood (Wolfe is nothing if not Catholic), that the unwary reader on his first outing discovers just how thoroughly everything is destroyed, and that Severian’s quest to renew ultimately demanded Destruction, to leave an Urth uncorrupted, just as the star with which he is identified is a White Fountain that will remove the corruption created by Typhon’s Black Hole.
Mention of Typhon leads me to confirm that many of the characters of The Book of the New Sun do return within this sequel, though none play more than a cameo part, significant though some of these may be. And this is an indication of the sheer skill of Wolfe. The Book of the New Sun was a complete work, containing everything and resolving everything within it. Wolfe wrote it without the lightest thought of a sequel, leaving no lacunae out of which a return visit might spring.
But The Urth of the New Sun, despite spending almost every page of its length away from the settings with which we were so familiar, despite offering a completely different atmosphere and a completely different book, is so completely intertwined with its parent, slips so seamlessly into interstices that you never realised existed, that it is unbelievable to think that Wolfe did not have all of this planned for the day he completed that first detailed synopsis of what he was going to write.
I confess that I don’t enjoy this book anything like as much as I do the original tetraology. Though this is still Severian, and he still can’t forget and he still talks as he did, this is not the same man who wrote The Book of the New Sun. That was a journey-story, a boy-becomes-a-man story, a picaresque journey by a man not entirely formed but moving towards transformation. This Severian may only be ten years older, but they have been ten years of authority and responsibility, ten years of concentrating oneself to become a fixed thing, and someone without freedom, with a fixed role.
This Severian does not draw me in quite so much, especially once he becomes all but superhuman. I remember an old friend remarking on this aspect the year the book was published, and I have only become more conscious of it as I re-read onwards.
It’s more overt as Severian bodily travels across time on Urth, becoming successively figures out of his own past, incarnating himself over and again. He may be captured, he may be beaten, so badly that an ordinary man would die, but he and the slowly-approaching star are one, and Severian can draw energy, instantly, from his astronomical self, to restore his bodily self, over and again. And in the end, even after Urth is flooded, after the White Fountain has cancelled out the Black Hole and no longer exists to sustain Severian, he can still live and breathe underwater, indefinitely.
The Undine offered him that in The Claw of the Conciliator, but only if he would die first. You might think that this gift has ultimately come at a higher price, though not necessarily a personal one, but that’s not entirely true. Severian does die before receiving this gift. Except that he dies very early on, in the first phase of the book, in a sequence that is incredibly confusing as written ā€“ deliberately so ā€“ but which Wolfe does empirically explain a long way on in the story.
How can Severian die, yet be alive to complete his journey, and to once more spend time committing himself to recording his life with such thoroughness? I won’t give that explanation, even though Wolfe does: you must read for yourself and then ask the questions that I now ask myself: in what way thereafter is Severian really Severian? In what way does his passing of the test really represent Redemption for Urth?
Or is Severian’s realisation of the basis for his continued existence another false flag?
For in The Book of the New Sun our favourite mnemonist displayed both an eidetic memory and a near total inability to comprehend the reality that he sees around him. This latter ‘quality’ is almost completely absent here, but what if Severian’s conclusion is that misunderstanding reasserting itself? If that is so, then I confess that I have no other explanation for his survival, or rather his re-creation, and I’ve never heard anyone else debate this point.
But Severian is destined to become the Conciliator, and we are all easily aware which figure he is meant to represent, and thus a prior Death and Resurrection is only to be expected. Where is such a Resurrection to come from?
In complete contrast to my review of The Book(s) of the New Sun, I’ve gone into almost no detail of the story, which was not a conscious choice but rather an instinctive response to the differences between the books. It’s trite to say this, because it’s true of every single sequel there’s ever been since man started drawing stories on cave walls, but The Book of the New Sun could exist with The Urth of the New Sun without anyone ever suspecting a sequel existed, but The Urth of the New Sun would be meaningless without its distinguished predecessor, and beneath the surface, beneath the care, the exceeding cleverness, the wit and the wonder, there’s the faintest hint to me of a book that was written because someone else insisted upon it, and not because the book itself demanded it.
Which always makes a difference.

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