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 Sword of the Lictor’

As with The Claw of the Conciliator, Wolfe begins the third volume after a gap of unspecified but certainly extended time. Severian and Dorcas are now established in Thrax, City of Windowless Rooms, straddling the river Acis in a narrow, steep-lined gorge.
They have continued to have adventures between leaving the stone town and arriving at Thrax, but Severian has presented his credentials to Abdiesus, the Archon, and taken over the Vincula, a prison consisting of diagonal shafts drilled into the rock, in which prisoners lie chained.
Severian has been engaged in his task of mastering and ordering the system for several weeks: given that his story takes approximately one year from his leaving the Torturers and his return as Autarch, this gap cannot be too great: two further months seems a reasonable assessment, given that the events of The Sword of the Lictor will cover perhaps two to three weeks in total.
Originally, The Book of the New Sun was planned to be in three volumes, but the last of these would have been approximately half as much again as either of the first and Wolfe resolved the issue of imbalance by dividing the last volume in two, around a conveniently-placed event, and building each half of the story up. That would seem to account for the ease with which the linear story in this volume can be summarised.
But first, we find ourselves reading of a growing unease in Severian’s relationship with Dorcas, one that has him fearful for its continuation. Dorcas, having no official position in Thrax, and thus no occupation, is finding that time hangs heavily on her hands when she sees so little of Severian. She is also the subject of comment among other women for being the companion of the Torturer, and is growing increasingly disturbed.
Though Severian tries to justify his role in life, and his suitedness for it, Dorcas reveals that her distress at what he is forced to do goes even deeper than he already knew. A visit to the Vincula has forced her – who fears water so much – to go to public baths to clean the effect of the prison off her.
And matters rapidly get worse. Severian uses an afternoon free of duty to tour Thrax. From the high point of Acies Castle, he sees Dorcas by the river, hunched over. She is all but catatonic, and Severian can only lodge her in an inn high on the cliff, to be cared for by the Inn-mistress.
Back in his office, he is invited by Abdiesus to a masque that evening where he will be required to carry out an execution, by strangulation. His torturer’s garb doubling as a costume, he encounters Cyriaca, a still-beautiful middle-aged woman, wife of a minor armiger. She is wearing a Pelerine robe, having once thought to join the Order, which initially takes in Severian.
When she faints at his approach, realising that he is not in costume, he tends to her. They spend the night in company, talking of many things, and end in making love. In the morning, Abdiesus finds them, and indicates to Severian that she is his victim, which he has already understood. Her infidelities have made a laughing stock of her husband, a supporter of the Archon.
But, for a second time, Severian betrays his Guild, and thus ceases to be a Torturer. He lets Cyriaca go, aids her towards an escape, and thus has to flee both Thrax and Abdiesus. Before leaving the city, he has things that must be done. He uses the Claw to heal a dying girl and a sick boy, evades narrowly death by a fire-like creature that has been pursuing him (it is a creature of Hethor, who he has now realised must be the old sailor that Agia said wished to marry her). And there is Dorcas.
She is awake and talking now. She and Severian hold their last conversation. Just as he must flee, and intends to go north into the mountains, she must head south, return to Nessus. At the waterside, she saw an old piece of furniture, looted downriver in the abandoned areas of Nessus, and recognised it, as hers. Hers in a long ago time. She vomited, and vomited leadshot, of the kind used to weight down the bodies of the dead in the Garden of Endless Sleep.
She cannot now avoid the understanding that she was dead, dead for many years, and that Severian, by the means of the Claw of the Conciliator, though he did not yet know he possessed it, had restored her to life, long after. Dorcas has to return, to find where the furniture was taken from, to find what she can of her former life, of the family she had, of who she was.
Severian gives her all his money and wishes her well. He will only see her once again. By the end of his story, he will have realised who she is, one of a very small number of instances where he sees what is about him. For the attentive reader, there are already enough clues to undo the puzzle.
Severian leaves Thrax and heads north, intending to find his way to and join the war. He keeps to the highest ground, avoiding roads and any places where the Archon’s troops may be able to find and capture him.
Eventually, both thirsty and extremely hungry, he descends to an isolated cabin, just below the tree-line. It is occupied by Casdoe, her son and father. Casdoe’s husband, Becan, is out hunting, and expected to return for supper. Severian may stay for a night. Casdoe’s son is also named Severian, and it appears that he has or had a sister named Severa. At any rate, Severian soon realises that there is another, presumably young woman hidden in the loft: she is revealed as Agia.
As night falls, danger approaches. The cabin is threatened by an alzabo, the animal from which the analyptic was taken that put Thecla into Severian when he ingested a part of her. The alzabo has eaten Severa, which enables him to access her memories and speak with her voice and thoughts: Becan has gone to hunt it, but has become its victim. When it speaks with his voice, Casdoe unbars the cottage.
Severian is forced to confront the alzabo, alone and in the dark. Agia deliberately betrays him, intent on his death, Casdoe out of fear for herself and her family. Severian negotiates an agreement by which the alzabo leaves for the night, on the promise of Severian leaving in the morning. Severian rather reneges on the spirit, if not the letter of the promise: when Casdoe and her family depart in the morning, he trails them, intent on intervening if the alzabo attacks,
Instead, the little party are attacked by zooanthrops. The father is clubbed down before both Severian and the alzabo can intervene. The zooanthrops are killed and the alzabo mortally wounded, but not before it has begun to eat Casdoe, reuniting her in some manner with her family. Severian is left to take responsibility for his little namesake.
They journey on together, Big Severian naming himself as his charge’s new father, Little Severian quickly growing to accept it.
In the forests, they are attacked by members of a tribe who practice magic. Little Severian is kidnapped, Big Severian disarmed and imprisoned underground. He pretends to be a great magician, greater in power than the village, which leads to a magical challenge. The villagers do have some form of magical power, though the challenge is rigged against Severian. But the contest is disturbed when the village is attacked by another of Hethor’s beasts.
The villagers believe the creature to have been summoned by Severian, and they bow before his power, letting him and the boy go on their way, undisturbed.
They head back towards the mountains, immense mountains that we slowly realise have been carved into the shape of men, former Autarchs of Urth. It is like Mount Rushmore, only that the carving is more extensive than mere faces and includes arms and hands.
An abandoned town lies near the hand. In a building, around which massive terracotta-esque soldiers stand, turning slowly to follow the sun, the Severians find the dessicated body of a man with two heads. They sleep the night, and in the morning discover that there is an apparent gold ring on one of the gigantic fingers. Eagerly, Little Severian runs ahead, but when he touches it, there is a blinding flash: he is electrocuted, his body turned to ash.
Alone and despairing, Severian is contemplating his future when he is found by the two headed man, who has been restored by the energy from Little Severian’s electrocution. The man, who is naked, is the ruler whose face adorns the mountain: Typhon, a tyrant who ruled a younger Urth when it was yet stronger than it is now, the Autarch whose scientists opened a black hole in the heart of the Sun, to extract energy, but who only began the darkening and cooling of Urth.
Too powerful for the weakened Severian, Typhon takes him to a chamber from which two empty windows overlook the Urth: they are the eyes of the mountain head. He explains that, in order to perpetuate his then reign, he chose to have his mind transplanted into a younger, healthier body. Since power resides in the face that can be recognised, his head was grafted onto the body of Piaton to take control of the motor functions. The other head, Piaton, cannot access the voice box: seemingly mad, it makes facial gestures, rambles silently.
Typhon intends to take control of the Urth again. Severian is to be his first lieutenant. He demands an all-encompassing, binding oath of loyalty, which Severian must either swear or be flung from the eye. Instead, lip-reading Piaton’s words, Severian strikes out, a blow intended to crush the nose and drive bone-splinters into the brain. Instinctively, Typhon raises his hands to protect his face, but Severian has struck at Piaton, whose death is sufficient to bring death to all the body.
Still weak for lack of food, near delirious himself, Severian descends from the mountain, coming eventually to the shore of Lake Diuturna. Attempting to browbeat the Shore People into food, drink and rest, he is instead drugged, to be taken to the lord of the Castle on the lake’s northerly shores. Severian is accompanied by the slave-girl Pia, of the Lake People, who live on floating reed-rafts, and who now suffer from the Shore People since the master returned to his Castle.
Severian exploits an explosive given by the Master to the Shore People to free himself and Pia for rescue. He finds himself expected to lead the Lake People in an attack on the Castle, futile though it clearly is. However, he must retrieve the Claw, which has been taken there. By taking charge, Severian secures enough trust to be allowed to make a solo scouting expedition, telling them to expect a lighted fire as the signal to attack.
The Castle has, hovering above it, an immense alien spacecraft. The Castle’s occupants are, of course, Dr Talos and Baldanders. The latter has been in contact with the three cacogens – Ossipago, Barbatus and Famulimus – for many years. They have given him scientific hints, drawing him onwards, enabling him to create Dr Talos and in turn to grow himself from a small size to the giant he has become.
The cacogens are delighted to speak to Severian. They talk as if they know him, and well, though this is his first meeting with them. Though Severian is mystified as to why, it is clear that they are abandoning Baldanders and transferring their sponsorship to the former Torturer.
Their craft leaves. A frustrated Baldanders refuses to return the Claw, instead hurling it from the battlements. It’s arcing path of fire triggers the attack. Severian finds himself fighting for his life against Baldanders as the Castle starts to burn. In the end, raising Terminus Est to block a mace-blow, the blade is shattered. But with the Castle facing ruin, Baldanders dives hundreds of feet into the Lake.
He does not surface, but Severian is by no means convinced the giant is dead.
Terminus Est is destroyed. Severian retains its hilt but buries what remains of the sword itself. As the Lake People celebrate, he goes hunting for the Claw. Eventually, he finds it, shattered into pieces. These he also buries, but he also finds a sharply hooked, claw-like jet thorn, which he senses is the Claw itself, the gem merely its casing.
Preserving it, he heads north, towards the War. Having carried his readers from fortress to fortress, should they not wish to plunge into the struggles ahead, he does not condemn them. It is no easy way.