Friday, May 13, 2011

Fantasy Masterworks #1: Gene Wolfe, Shadow and Claw

The four-volume The Book of the New Sun is widely considered to be Gene Wolfe's magnus opus and it consistently ranks as one of the most highly-regarded literary works of the past 30 years. Blending elements of science-fiction and fantasy into a first-person narrative, these four volumes (The Shadow of the Torturer (1980); The Claw of the Conciliator (1981); The Sword of the Lictor (1981); and The Citadel of the Autarch (1982)) have won or been nominated for multiple World Fantasy and Nebula Awards. Filled with allusions to creation myths, Christianity, hagiography, the Cold War, etc., these books have provided fodder for all sorts of speculation as to what lay underneath the surface of the narrative.

The Shadow of the Torturer

The epigraph to this book holds an important clue towards one of the themes of this series, that of religious parousia (or the Second Coming) and eschatology (or the belief in the "end times" of the world as we know it):

A thousand ages, in thy sight, are like an evening gone; short as the watch that ends the night, before the rising sun.
Taken from the fourth stanza of Isaac Watts's famous hymn, "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," this epigraph highlights the religious imagery and metaphors that will appear repeatedly during the course of these four volumes, albeit many of these religious symbols will be kept to the background and the reader can enjoy the story without needing to be well-versed in Christian (and especially Catholic) theology and traditions.

The story itself begins near the end of the narrative timeline. The main character, Severian, has just finished recording a narrative of his adventures that led him from being an apprentice (later journeyman) of the ancient guild of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence, more commonly known as the Torturers. Severian, who tells this tale in first-person PoV, claims to have an eidetic, or "perfect," memory. As he narrates his life from growing up as an orphan among the Torturers to his coming of age, he reveals in passing certain discoveries that will later play a role near the end of the series. Among these is his playing in the necropolis of the ancient city of Nessus and his discovery of a tomb that has etched upon it the likenesses of a rose, a fountain, and a spaceship. These shall be discussed later.

However, there is a scene at the end of the first chapter where the boy Severian receives a coin from the rebel Vodalus. Severian makes an interesting observation that will bear heavily upon the importance of the events that follow:

We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges. When soldiers take their oath they are given a coin, an asimi stamped with the profile of the Autarch. Their acceptance of that coin is their acceptance of the special duties and burdens of military life - they are soldiers from that moment, though they may know nothing of the management of arms. I did not know that then, but it is a profound mistake to believe that we must know of such things to be influenced by them, and in fact to believe so is to believe in the most debased and superstitious kind of magic. The would-be sorcerer alone has faith in the efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all.
It is this self-defining of ourselves, of our surroundings, and of our "purposes" and how each affects the characters' interactions with each other and their surroundings that drives much of the action that occurs. From Severian's later acquisition of a religious relic, the legendary Claw of the Conciliator (who in presented as being an analogue to Christ although not in a direct one-to-one correlation), to how others refer to the blasted and diseased red sun of ancient Urth and the belief that one day that the Conciliator would "return" to bring a "New Sun" (literal, metaphorical, or both depending upon the person), this notion that we are defined by the symbols we choose to represent our hopes and fears is one that Wolfe returns to on multiple occasions in the course of the series.

One such example of this symbolic interplay is that of Katharine (St. Catherine of Alexandria), who is the patroness of the Torturers. From the slightly altered re-enactment of her martyrdom to the quite ironic adoption of her as being the patroness of the Torturers, the symbolic execution and the expression of faith done through such a re-enactment serve to underscore Severian's later betrayal of his guild via the forbidden showing of mercy to an exultant (high-born, genetically altered nobility on Urth) lady, the Chatelaine Thecla. It is this "betrayal," perhaps akin to some degree with the scene of Jesus and the adulteress in the Gospels, that leads to a journey of exile for Severian.

During this exile/assignation to the city of Thrax, where Severian is to be the Lictor (or executioner) in lieu of being held in hopes of a death sentence, Severian meets up with many characters, from the vengeful Agia to the monstrous Baldanders and his companion Dr. Taltos to many others. One of the more mysterious characters is that of Dorcas, who lives up to her namesake when somehow she is "revived" when Severian finds himself diving into a pond to retrieve his sword Terminus Est (more on that shortly). The latter volumes hints not just at the healing powers of the Claw of the Conciliator, but also at the tangled skein of Severian's own personal past.

When Severian was presented with the executioner's sword Terminus Est, the presentation of its meanings (line of division, this is the end) illustrates Severian's role. Not only is he the executioner of those sentenced to die, not only is he the final image of authority that the condemned see before they die, but the name itself refers to the old Roman god Terminus, the lord of boundaries. In this case, the boundary between life and death and their interrelationships with each other are symbolized with how Severian uses the sword during the course of his travels.

While I certainly could continue to narrate various symbolic actions during the course of this first volume, I want to focus instead on a discussion Severian has near the end of this book with the apparent shade/ghost/image of one of his former Masters, Malrubius:

"Severian. Name for me the seven principles of goverance."

It was an effort for me to speak, but I managed (in my dream, if it was a dream) to say, "I do not recall that we have studied such a thing, Master."

"You were always the most careless of my boys," he told me, and fell silent.

A foreboding grew on me; I sensed that if I did not reply, some tragedy would occur. At last I began weakly, "Anarchy..."

"That is not governance, but the lack of it. I taught you that it precedes all governance. Now list the seven sorts."

"Attachment to the person of the monarch. Attachment to a bloodline or other sequence of succession. Attachment to the royal state. Attachment to a code legitimizing the governing state. Attachment to the law only. Attachment to a greater or lesser board of electors, as framers of the law. Attachment to an abstraction conceived as including the body of electors, other bodies giving rise to them, and numerous other elements, largely ideal."

"Tolerable. Of these, which is the earliest form, and which the highest?"

"The development is in the order given, Master," I said. "But I do not recall that you ever asked before which was highest."

Master Malrubius leaned forward, his eyes burning brighter than the coals of the fire. "Which is highest, Severian?"

"The last, Master?"

"You mean attachment to an abstraction conceived as including the body of electors, other bodies giving rise to them, and numerous other elements, largely ideal?"

"Yes, Master."

"Of what kind, Severian, is your own attachment to the Divine Entity?"

I said nothing. It may have been that I was thinking; but if so, my mind was much too filled with sleep to be conscious of its thought. Instead, I became profoundly aware of my physical surroundings. The sky above my face in all its grandeur seemed to have been made solely for my benefit, and to be presented for my inspection now. I lay upon the ground as upon a woman, and the very air that surrounded me seemed a thing as admirable as crystal and as fluid as wine.

"Answer me, Severian."

"The first, if I have any."

"To the person of the monarch?"

"Yes, because there is no succession."

"The animal that rests beside you now would die for you. Of what kind is his attachment to you?"

"The first?"

There was no one there. I sat up. Malrubius and Triskele had vanished, yet my side felt faintly warm.

This scene reveals quite a bit, not just about how Severian orders his priorities in accordance to a hierarchy of legal standards, but more about how this attachment to the Divine in the personal form not only foreshadows what occurs later, but also how it symbolizes the views that the religious have in regards to matters of faith. This concept of ordering the power relationships not only refers back to the medieval Great Chain of Being, but it can also symbolize yet again the passage that I quoted at the beginning of this post.

The Claw of the Conciliator

Thecla, the Chateleine who once was was the Autarch's leman (in this specific example, quasi lover, as we shall see later in this volume) before being seized and brought to the Torturers because of certain papers that implicated her as being associated with Vodalus, is in many senses the half-overlooked center of this series. We only learn the basics about her torture and how the diabolical Revolutionary drove away her will to live. I did not note it in the first review, but one could make an argument that the Revolutionary serves to represent our tendency to find faults in ourselves, often to the point of us committing what many Christians might call the most insidious of the Seven Deadly Sins, that of sloth/despair. In the course of the narrative, Severian stops at the point of exploring just what were the exact effects of the Revolutionary, but based on his passing comments, the hypothesis that I presented above might be developed from it.

Thecla's personality, which later we learn is often petty and cruel, is important not so much because we "witnessed" her torture and suicide, but because of a recurrent theme in this volume, one that was hinted at earlier with Dorcas's rising from the pond: resurrection of the body. A great many of the events that occur in this volume revolve in some point around the resurrection of the body or soul, or conversely, around the decay and corruption of both body and mind.

Jonas, a companion from afar who joins Severian near the end of the first volume, is one such example. Wounded in an attack about two-thirds into this volume, Jonas's body of cells and metal represents a sort of a reverse cyborg; a machine clothing itself in human parts in order to repair some prior damage. Severian's attempts to "heal" Jonas are only partial, but this melding of the biological with the mechanical in the person of Jonas perhaps could be viewed as a metaphor for the interactions between the physical body and the spiritual soul. However, the text is ambiguous on this point and I do not have citations to present to support this point.

Jolenta, the Nessus barmaid who becomes part of Dr. Taltos and Baldanders's travelling troupe, serves as an example of this mind/body union. Altered by Dr. Taltos's arts, she has become a thing of beauty and of desire, but yet there is a sickness within that mutates from a metaphorical matter into a very real and visible disorder near the end of the book. Her façade has crumbled and what we see then is now related to what the astute reader might have perceived soon after the first encounter with her after her transformation.

Dr. Talos, that mad scientist whose skills have managed to create simulacra of life, beauty, and truth. The composer of that play near the end which serves to foreshadow the concluding two volumes of Severian's saga. The fox-like creature, so clever and so manipulative, the apparent source of so much subterfuge. I have read elsewhere that some have postulated that Talos is based on the mythological Cretan creature of bronze that guarded the island, while others have noted his role as artificer as being but an extension of this attempt to replicate life via mechanical means. I side more with this second explanation, as Talos (and by extension, Baldanders) seem at first to have goals so similar to the more mystical bringing of the New Sun (or the second blooming of life on Urth), but whose means betray their real end goals.

By now, perhaps you are weary of my digressions and wondering just why I haven't discussed the plot of The Claw of the Conciliator. While it may seem as though I have digressed and not have attempted to explore the "story" of this novel and its strengths and weaknesses, in many ways I have covered just that, albeit via those seeming detours of character study. While The Claw of the Conciliator certain can be read on the surface level as the continued travels of Severian and friends from the gates of Nessus to the outliers of Thrax, to understand why the multitude of events such as Severian's second meeting with Vodalus and what transpired there occurred the way they did means adopting some of Severian's own approaches towards telling his story.

There were quite a few lacunae in this tale. Not only does the opening chapter pick up on the other side of those colossal gates of Nessus, in the town of Saltus (some commentators have noted that since the action apparently is set in South America, that Nessus may be the corruption of Buenos Aires and Saltus may be the alteration of the Argentine province/town of Salta), but the tone of the narrative changes. The careful reader has already noted, doubtless, that while Severian's eidetic memory has left him sharing all sorts of petty little details such as the stories from the brown book from Ultan's library in Nessus that he took after Thecla's suicide and his banishment to Thrax, there is so much that he is skipping or deigning to downplay. The open lies and lies by omission that will later become a hallmark of Severian's character are more on display here.

Also, the scene about halfway into the novel where Vodalus and his associates invite Severian to partake in what Wolfe later called a "diabolical eucharist" of consuming Thecla's body while drinking an elixir from an alien creature known as the alzabo (more on that in the next volume) is a turning point in the narrative. Lies of omission or not, the Severian "voice" that we have encountered to date appears to be singular in nature, but slowly after this scene, the thoughts and personality of the consumed Thecla emerge and occasionally the "Severian" we encounter on the pages of the book is somehow different; sometimes Thecla in tone, sometimes Severian, other times an amalgamation of the two. This partaking of the body and receiving something of the mind/spirit of the deceased is a sort of a perversion, some might say, of the Catholic/Orthodox doctrine of the Real Presence of the Christ in the wine and bread consumed in the Eucharist. It certainly something whose ramifications will become more evident in the succeeding volumes.

As I said earlier, resurrection motifs abound in this volume. From the healing of the man-apes (how did those creatures evolve or perhaps devolve over time?) to the partial healing of Jonas to the nigh-useless attempt on Jolenta, the blue gem that Severian carries, the legendary Claw of the Conciliator, serves to highlight this theme of healing in the midst of death and suffering. While I will address the theme of suffering later in the review of the second omnibus, it bears to keep this matter in mind as one reads these volumes.

The allusion-filled play near the end that Severian, Dorcas, Jolenta, Dr. Talos, and Baldanders perform (before I forget, there are a couple of scenes that I'm purposely leaving out as I need to wait until the fourth volume to discuss them at length) serves to foreshadow what lies underneath the journey of the exiled journeyman Torturer. From the Persian names for Adam and Eve to the mention of the "dawn" of Ushas (herself a Hindu deity of the dawn), the eschatological interpretation of the New Sun is presented in a way that seems opaque at first, but which yields so much fruit once the series is complete. Since I am writing this review with those who have just finished reading Shadow and Claw for the first time, I will pause here. After all, the road again is not an easy one to travel.  

1 comment:

  1. I was waiting for your group to get to these books! Like 'The Fifth Head of Cerberus,' the first time I read it I appreciated that it was very well written, but not a whole lot beyond that. The second time was something of a revelation. I've read 'Shadow & Claw' once, and I am very eager to read it again.