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.