The Hobbit at 80

I’m indebted to the Guardian for the news that today is the eightieth birthday of the publication of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, a hitherto obscure Oxford Don. Which makes tomorrow the birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, but let that pass.

There’s a lot of hostile BTL comments, directed at The Lord of the Rings as a book, and The Hobbit as a three-film extravaganza, absolutely none of which I can concur, but there is also frequent mention of the ill-chosen description of the book as a prequel to LOTR. The films are prequels, but the book of The Hobbit came first, by the best part of twenty years.

I have mixed feelings about The Hobbit. I recall my first hearing of it, in a First Year English Class at Grammar school, discussed one late and lazy Friday afternoon near the end of the year by our English teacher and Form Master, Mr Bassett. He talked about the famous first line, which sticks in my memory, though nothing else does.

It didn’t inspire me to search out the book, not in 1967. I was still in the Children’s Section of the Library, and if Tolkien was there, as he must have been, I don’t recall even seeing the book. And whilst I vaguely remember LOTR being discussed at school, no doubt in another English class, I have no memory of when, or which teacher first put that book into my consciousness. It did not suggest anything that would appeal to me then.

I finished school in 1973, proud possessor of enough A-Levels to get me into Manchester University to study Law. This was the long summer of cricket I’ve referred to before, but cricket didn’t blot out reading, and I was at Didsbury Library at least once a week. I had eight ticket, and it was a point of honour to get out eight books every time.

One afternoon, I was carrying seven books around, and scratching for an eighth. Nothing appealed. Eventually, I ended up in front of Tolkien. I remembered The Lord of the Rings. I was not enthused, but I had already been there ages and I couldn’t leave with only seven books, so I borrowed ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, just to see.

I left it till last, a sunny Tuesday afternoon. I read it before bedtime. At 9.00am, on Wednesday, I was at the Library, returning my eight completed books and heading straight for the Ts for ‘The Two Towers’ and ‘The Return of the King’. They had the first of these, which was frustrating. I carried it home, flung myself down on my bed, and finished it by mid-afternoon.

All I needed was the third volume. I was desperate to know the end of the story. But it had vanished from Didsbury Library. For the next two to three months, I kept going in every two to three days, hoping that a copy had been returned, but eternally frustrated.

In the end, Xmas passed, and January 1974 arrived and one Saturday my family found themselves in Stockport. We were on the bus, something needing repair on the car, and we had to get to Droylsden by 1.00pm, for the usual Dinner and talk and tea. I had long since been getting money for birthdays and Xmas, to enable me to select presents for myself (I was an awkward bugger when it came to taste even that far back), and inevitably some money was left over after the day, to be used up.

In W.H.Smiths, I discovered the one-volume paperback of the collected LOTR, sans Appendices, with the wonderfullly evocative Pauline Baynes cover. It cost £2 for a book of over 1,000 pages, and I had £2 of Xmas money left over. Unless forced to enter into conversation, like at the Dinner table, I was lost to my family for the rest of the day, even on the bus here I wasn’t supposed to read because of what it could do to my eyes (big deal: I had been wearing glasses for over a decade by then anyway). I was straight into Book 3 and immersed until I finally got to the end.

And on my next visit to Didsbury Library, ‘The Return of the King’ had been returned to the shelf. Of course.

Just as Justice League of America 37 had done, almost ten years before, LOTR changed my life. Having read and loved this epic, immense fantasy, I wanted more, more of the same. I began to haunt the SF/Fantasy section of the Library: not just Didsbury, but the even more massive selection at Central Ref. For the next twenty years or so, this was my primary genre of reading, and I owe it to that afternoon’s frustration in Didsbury Library my absorption in Gene Wolfe, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Gene Wolfe, Ursula Le Guin, and the irreplaceable R A Lafferty, not to mention those other authors in whose work I have been, sometimes fanatically, interested down the years.

Naturally, once I had completed LOTR, I was enthusiastic to read The Hobbit, and I was barely back at University for the Spring Term before I was picking up the paperback in Boots. And boy, was I in for a shock.

Based on reading LOTR, and based on its references to event in The Hobbit that formed part of the overall story, I expected a similar book, despite the massive difference in style. I got a children’s story, some elements of which I would have found embarrassing had I been half my then age.

I still have The Hobbit, though I’ve long since up-graded to an anniversary hardback, and I also have John Rateliff’s two-volume history, analysing how the published version was built up from the original drafts, the equivalent of Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle Earth series. But I rarely read the book.

I’ve always wondered how my opinion would have been affected if I had read The Hobbit first, and at an age nearer to that of it intended audience. There is a lot of adult support for the book as being infinitely better than LOTR, and a lot of that comment does command the book to an adult audience. I agree that the story gets progressively darker and more serious as it goes on, but this is as soon as Tolkien begins to attach this kiddie story about a jolly Hobbit on an adventure to the larger, and higher matters of the Silmarillion mythology he had been developing for twenty years already.

But I came with expectations of something high and adult and serious, and the actuality was a shock. I was eighteen, and just in the process of my first literary adult literary enthusiasm, and my response to Tolkien’s first book is permanently coloured. I cannot see past the childish tones and the silly song.

I’ve already given my opinion in respect of The Hobbit Trilogy. This is a prequel, unlike the book, coming after the LOTR Trilogy. It’s easy to understand the objections of those who love the book: turning a novel of that size into three epic films, totalling some seven and a half hours before you look at Director’s Cuts, and completely rejecting the style and tone of the source novel can be hard to understand for someone who loves the book.

But I don’t love the book. I love LOTR and the films came after that and were part of the same world, and the film Trilogyhad to reflect the tone and style of LOTR. And, despite the flaws, especially in the various story changes made in Part 2, I did and still do love the LOTR films.

There’s no escaping the fact that, without The Hobbit, none of this would ever have happened, and thousands of book, many of them crap but a great number of them beautiful, elegant, thoughtful, mind-expanding and immensely involving would never have been written. Having read The History of Middle Earth, I see almost no possibility of Tolkien’s earlier and higher mythology ever being published, or finding anything greater than an esoteric audience.

And without The Hobbi there could have been no Lord of the Rings, and without that book, what would or could have opened my eyes the way that did?

So Happy Eightieth Birthday to The Hobbit. I am in the middle of so many other things at present, so I can’t mark the day by digging you out again, but I promise to re-read you as soon as is possible. I may not enjoy you much, but I owe you, big time.


Problems with Titles

As I have mentioned, I have a problem with titles when it comes to books. I have no natural capacity for them, and whilst I’m satisfied with the titles I’ve ended up choosing for previous works, they don’t come until very late in the process, and several times the book has spent a long time under one title before I come up with the one that feels better. The first two books of the Tempus Trilogy were ‘The Infernal Device’ and ‘The Two Jacks’ for literally years.

The Legendary Semi-Autobiographical First Novel has been operating under its clearly sarcastic title for decades, and the only printed copy of that first version is under that name. It obviously isn’t going to be applicable to the final, available version, but I’ve been bereft of ideas for anything that might suit.

A few days ago, apropos of nothing, I remembered a very early Talking Heads song with a title that seemed to fit the underlying story reasonably well. I started playing around with it, with different versions and variations, trying to find something that seemed to fit.

Then I went on YouTube to play the song, which I don’t have in my collection. And I discovered I had misremembered the title, which wasn’t anything like as appropriate, indeed, it wasn’t appropriate at all. On the other hand, my misremembered version still fitted. And it had evidently come from my subconscious, where all the heavy lifting is done.

So I’m taking that as evidence that I’m on the right track, and the more I think of it, the more comfortable I become with it. Whereas Talking Heads first broke out with the single, “Love Goes to Building on Fire”, I have now titled 2017s literary project as Love Goes to Building on Sand.

Look for this title before New Year!

Work in Progress

I can’t remember when I last gave you a progress report on this year’s literary project, The Legendary Semi-Autobiographical First Novel. Probably it was around the time I completed the Second Draft, which was when I put the project to one side for a while, to get some distance from it and allow it to ‘brew’ in my subconscious (which is where most of the hard work takes place anyway).

About a month ago, I started on the Third Draft. To be honest, I found the process a bit unsatisfactory. Beyond some mainly cosmetic changes, smoother expressions, eliminating unnecessary phrases, implanting some foreshadowing, there seemed oddly little to do. A lot was done at Second Draft level, but much of that was as a response to transcribing unfamiliar work in the First Draft. I expected to do more.

But I’m cycling back through it again, and this time it feels looser, more expressive. Ages ago, I described this as being like a collaboration between me and the younger version who wrote this down to begin with, and this time I feel like the modern me is taking a fuller part in the collaboration, is not being precious about his younger colleague’s words.

I’m looking, under normal circumstances, at about another month’s work, but after tomorrow I have eleven days off work. Whilst I’m reserving two of them for bingewatching Twin Peaks – The Return, and if the weather improves on us, I may slip off to the Lakes for a day, to make up for last November’s debacle, I should be able to take at least a modest leap forward.

After this phase, I’m hoping the book will be ready for publication. It still needs a title, and I’ve started trying to come up with something. I am absolutely useless on titles, it always takes forever to come up with something that feels right. At the moment, I’m trying to develop something as a variation to a very early Talking Heads song title, which means I’m looking to insert little lines, here and there, that would link to such a possible title.

At the moment, I’m hoping to get the book into publication through in November at the latest: in time for my birthday if possible as that seems appropriate. As and when it’s ready, there will be notifications on here, and I’ll be expecting my two regular followers who have expressed interest to dig into their pockets. I’m not saying it will make an ideal Xmas present, but I’m going to exploit every opportunity I can!

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘Free Live Free’

On the surface, which is always a dangerous place to be in a Gene Wolfe book, Free Live Free is a seemingly mainstream story, with strong elements of farce and screwball comedy, about four misfits and no-hopers who meet by taking advantage of an unusual offer of free accommodation, before becoming involved in a quest to find their missing benefactor, who they believe possesses a mysterious and lost treasure that could benefit all or any of them.
This is an accurate description of this book.
It’s equally superficial to say that this prolongedly mainstream tale, which flits backwards and forwards between its four principals then takes an awkward left turn into an implausible SF conclusion that has no connection with the initial 95% of the book, and which never quite explains itself.
This much is also true and accurate.
But by now it must be apparent that the words ‘no connection’ are singularly inappropriate to a Gene Wolfe book, and that the reader who knows this will have kept his or her eyes open throughout and will have realised far sooner that there is something going on that we, Madame Serpentina, Jim Stubb, Osgood M. Barnes and Candy Garth are not being told about.
And the reader who is on their second or subsequent approach to the story will at some point realise, with a deep sense of foreboding, that Free Live Free is a deeply disturbing story, and that it is the prelude to a horror story that never quite arrives but which, by the end, is inevitable as sin, and that no part of the snowy Chicago winter that these events occupy can be as cold as what will come after.
Read in one fashion, Free Live Free is an archetypal fantasy quest story. A group of strangers, each with their own unique abilities and attributes, band together to seek a magical object that is a passport of some kind to some higher state of being or existence. A story told many times over: The Lord of the Rings for one.
But practically no quests are set in the midst of a Chicago winter, among dilapidated and condemned houses, small hotels, railway stations, bars and a mental asylum, nor do they feature homeless, penniless, friendless strangers, who between them are a seeming mystic and probable conwoman, an unlicensed private investigator, a one-eyed salesman of cheap, gimcrack novelties, and an overweight, alcoholic prostitute.
The set-up is that all four have responded to an advert under the heading ‘Free Live Free’. It has been placed by elderly Ben Free, who is living in a dilapidated house condemned to demolition, and who is inviting tenants to live free in return for helping him keep the house standing.
This draws four people. Madame Serpentina, who presents herself as a mystic, and is known as such, is sultry, exotic, attractive and mysterious. She speaks in a mixture of tongues and dialects, is an accomplished conwoman and would rather search alone for old man Free’s missing key, his passport to the High Country, hidden in a wall somewhere, but finds herself all but blackmailed into partnering with, first Jim Stubb, then the other two. She is, it appears, a gypsy named Marie.
Jim Stubb, a very short and short-sighted man, would be a private investigator if he could afford the licence. He has the analytical mind common to many of Wolfe’s characters, able to piece together disparate information to perceive a situation that the reader would not otherwise understand, but his height cripples him psychologically. His employment is as a legman for real PI’s, doing stake-out and trailing jobs, but he scratches for pennies, and is attracted to those rare women – of whom two appear in the book – who are even shorter than him.
Ozzie Barnes is a salesman. It’s suggested that once he was a good one, of good materials, married with a wife and a son, Little Ozzie, and he’s still an inveterate salesman but his goods are cheap, nasty and frequently of an adolescent sexuality, things that reveal a naked woman if you do this, that or the other. He has a generous, or at least unselfish bent, and he knows how certain types of people think, but not very far underneath, he’s desperate and lonely, an answerer of Lonely Hearts ads with hopefully misleading and old-fashioned letter.
And Candy Garth. Some people have problems with how Wolfe writes women, and it’s with such creations as Candy that I can see their point. In some reviews, Candy is described as a sex therapist, and it may well be that she has a knack for understanding the wants and needs of her quasi-formal clients, but it would be more honest to call her what she is, a part-prostitute. Candy is blonde, relatively young and massively overweight, straining at her clothes. She’s a glutton and a drunkard, forever in search of the permanent satisfaction of her wants, which don’t visibly extend beyond food, drink and sex. She meets Ozzie’s son, Little Ozzie, by coincidence: his mother has abandoned him to his absent father whilst she goes off with her boyfriend, by sending him by train to Chicago. But she quickly forgets about him when something puts her in a rage, and the attack she goes off on gets her held in the aforementioned asylum, starting a long and farcical sequence where everybody gets locked in, for one reasonable reason or another, and it all steadily gets further out of control.
Despite varying degrees of ingenuity, the quartet fail to keep Free’s house from being wrecked, and in the confusion the old man goes missing. Everybody ends up hanging out in the hotel room Madame Serpentina has scammed into for her own use, and agrees to team up to look for him and his ‘passport’ to the High Country. It’s partly out of genuine concern for the benefactor who took them in, but when it’s learned Free is dead, apparently a mugging victim, their concern transfers wholly to the ‘passport’.
What it is, they have no idea, though fittingly Stubb comes the closest, seeing Free as the ‘black sheep’ member of an upper Class family who revolted against wealth, yet kept a way back in.
But as the story moves along, each of our quartet are separated, by people known to them or whom they might normally trust, each of whom lead them along paths that offer them the things they want, things that satisfy. Some of them recognise, afterwards, that they have been put under a test, to see how they can handle their desires. Each of them, to differing degrees, fails, and Madame Serpentina and Stubb are both honest enough and perceptive enough to recognise this.
Failures lose, are rejected, usually. But despite their failings, the quartet have been driven back together. They are shown the ‘passport’, they are taken to the High Country. And suddenly, what has been a very down to earth book, literally, with glimpses of a horror shot through at differing times, becomes a completely different fiction, a fiction of the kind more usually associated with Gene Wolfe.
It is as if 95% of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe has consisted of the games of John, Susan, Edward and Lucy, and they had only travelled to Narnia ten pages from the end, to the eve of battle.
It’s an awkward ending, one that sits uneasily with everything else, and it is not entirely an ending, not even with a one page epilogue that indicates what decision our quartet have made.
But the reader approaching this ending for the second time has knowledge. And maybe he or she has made a connection. Between the prediction Madame Serpetina makes to Sandy Duck of Psychic Monthly, and the paranoid fears of Sergeant Proudy after he brains himself with his own axe, and the last line of the book.
From there, you make your own choice as to how this story really ends, in pages far beyond the last point at which Wolfe writes. Despite what Ben Free says, about what happens after you get your greatest desires, my reaction was one of horror. It’s how I can see this book. Crazy, lively, farcical, frantic, deep-lying… and frightening.
Make your own reading of it.


Terry Pratchett is finally gone

Before he died, Terry Pratchett requested that all his unfinished work should be laid in the middle of a road and crushed out of existence by a streamroller. Last week, as several major outlets have confirmed, that very thing happened. We have seen pictures of the hard drive, before and after.

As a writer myself, albeit on a level from which Pratchett is barely visible, I understand, and approve completely, and I honour and celebrate the men and women of principle who were responsible to fulfill his wishes, and have honourably followed those wishes. As a reader who has loathed and despised Literary Necrophilia throughout his life, who believes passionately in the primacy of the author, the original author, and nobody else without his or her explicit approval and permission, I say again, all honour to those who have been faithful to the wishes of the only person with the right to decide.

But as a reader, and a fan of Terry Pratchett since almost the beginning, inside I weep, for those lines, those oh-so-Pratchett lines, those concepts and ideas, situations and insights into that vast array of friends I can never visit again. Not a word more of His Grace, the Earl of Ankh, Sam Vines, the Eternal Copper, to choose just a single favourite.

There is literally nothing left, nothing that can be produced from an archive, or a folder or a scrap of paper. Terry is finally gone in every possible sense, and I mourn again, just as much as I did over two years ago, for him and them and all of them, and the coldness and emptiness of the closed, barred and bolted door back into Didscworld.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Book of the New Sun’ overview

I said, when writing about The Shadow of the Torturer, that I was witnessing a writer vaulting into the very first rank of SF writers, and so it was. I didn’t need more than the first volume to see that, in the formation of the sentences, the creation of so many voices, places, themes, concepts. The Book of the New Sun is an extraordinarily rich tale, an epic demanding of the name. It may never have been a best seller, outside of the specialist SF charts (The Claw of the Conciliator reached no.1, which for the second book of a tetraology, without beginning or ending…) but it has never been out of print and whenever polls are taken of the greatest such books of all time, it is outvoted only by the obvious choice of The Lord of the Rings.
It is not as well known as Tolkien, but it deserves to be. Tolkien wrote only one story: Wolfe wrote multiple stories, including those you can’t see, unless out of the corner of your eye, when you go, hey, wait a minute, what did he mean by that, didn’t he…? So when he did that, and she said… That couldn’t have been him. It just couldn’t. Bloody hell, was it?
Don’t worry: with every Wolfe story, short or very long, there will be an equivalent of moments like that. Repeatedly.
The very first thing that needs to be emphasised about The Book of the New Sun is that its narrator, Severian, is unreliable, as is, in varying ways, every narrator in Gene Wolfe’s works.
Severian has an eidetic memory: moreover, not only does he not forget, but he is incapable of forgetting. His memories are eternally with him, almost to the same level as his perception of current events, even to the point where they can be sufficiently real that he can mentally lose his place in his own history.
This might seem to make him the ultimate of reliable narrators, able to recall dialogue word-perfectly. But two things marr that assumption.
Firstly, Severian is a liar. He admits to this in various places, and recounts many instances when he deliberately lies for his own advantage. That he is open now, in his memoirs, to the facts and specifics of his lying does not absolve him. It’s unlike the Flashman Chronicles, where the old rogue explicitly states he is breaking the habit of a lifetime and telling the unwhitewashed truth. We simply do not know whether Severian can be trusted to tell us the truth even now: after all, this is an account that, by the end, is to be committed to both the future and the past.
Secondly, and more disturbing, Severian lacks perception. He is blind on so many occasions to things that the reader – if he or she is thoughtful and thorough – can discern. He frequently analyses situations without getting anywhere near to the truth.

The most obvious evidence of this second trait is Jolenta. It is blindingly obvious to any reader of the narrative that she is the waitress from the cafe, persuaded by Dr Talos to go into his and Baldanders’ act, but not until all her glamour has been removed, and she is dead, does Severian finally understand who she is, and even then he does not understand the cause of her death. Because her physical appearance has been changed, he is unable to link the ‘two’ women, even when the vestiges of Jolenta’s glamour start to be stripped away.
Do not trust what you read.
Wolfe distances himself from Severian by claiming to be merely his translator. The accounts that are about to be sent out into the void at the end of Citadel are drawn back our era as the ship weaves its way in and out of time, and Wolfe has been requested to use his skills to translate from a language that is millennia from coming into being. (Ursula le Guin would claim a similar role in her utterly magnificent Always Coming Home, several years later).
In ‘translating’ the account, Wolfe explains that he has made a deliberate choice to take words whose usage has slipped beyond obscure to represent creatures, roles and standings of this unimaginable future. The old words convince us by being an authentic language, where most made-up tongues, Tolkien the philologist aside, fail to convince, and Wolfe is endlessly inventive in matching these ancient terms with what he imagines the future will bring in terms of genetics and evolution.
Words such as optimates, and my personal favourite, fuligin, the colour that is darker than black, enrich the impression the story gives of being an elaborate, ornate fantasy, whilst all the time it is rooted in the hardest of SF.
More than any other of Wolfe’s works, The Book of the New Sun repays careful, and repeated re-reading. But even as the reader reads the first time, there are moments of clarity in which it’s possible, even easy in places, to see connections to which Severian is oblivious, to understand that his analysis of situations is completely wrong-headed. Even the surface warns us of tricks and traps and hidden pockets. Before we reach the conclusion, we are on the look-out for what Severian does not tell us, what he does not see himself.

This isn’t a Reader’s Guide. I’m not going to deprive you of the enjoyment of reading and deciding about the understory for yourselves. But I am going to give you a clue: whenever Wolfe introduces an unnamed character, it’s a signal that he wants you to work out for yourself who this person is, and what their relevance is, and where we have seen, or heard of them before.
Take, for example, the matter of Severian’s sister. Now, if you read carefully, you will become aware that during the course of the narrative, Severian – who is, by the fact of his being taken up by the Torturers, an orphan – meets every member of his family, up to two generations before him. Of this surprisingly extended family, there are only two who he recognises as such.
But Severian does not speak of, let alone confirm, that he has a sister, who is almost certainly a twin. The clues are widely scattered, but they point to the same implication. Who, then, is Severian’s sister? Conventional wisdom, i.e., the majority opinion, points to this being Merriam, the trainee Witch, who is the assistant to the Cumaean, and Wolfe has half-confirmed this as a possibility.
Robert Borksi, one of Wolfe’s most enthusiastic analysts, has come up with another possibility, perhaps more outlandish in its initial plausibility, but which includes a key factor consistent with Severian’s relationships with the female members of his family, which certainly isn’t present with Merriam.
Think about it when you read.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to know what to say without giving away too much that will spoil a new reader’s enjoyment. My blogs on the individual volumes have given away much more about the story than I would normally do, though what I have said has barely scratched even the surface of the surface, and I have taken care to do no more than hint at a fraction of those hidden connections that transform the epic into a another tale entirely.
My personal advice, though perhaps it’s not entirely apt for a first reading, when you will want to swallow as much as you can, is to read lowly, and to visualise what Wolfe describes. The pictures are wonderful, and the book takes on more dimensions than you will otherwise understand.
Though I don’t watch it, I have long since thought that the producers of the Game of Thrones TV series could do far worse than look to The Book of the New Sun as a follow up. They could never do justice to it, not to its interior and its subtleties, and some of the Wolfe’s trick and traps would be exposed too openly if we were to see the people who recur, but the production levels available would make a grandiose spectacle, and I would love to see Nessus, and Thrax, the City of Windowless Rooms, and Dorcas, and the Sanguinary Fields, Lake Diuturna and the mountain carved in Typhon’s likeness…
It might not be the Book and the whole Book, but it would be a glory to see.
But the best pictures are inside. Read and enjoy. Read and imagine. Read…

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.