Friday, May 13, 2011

Fantasy Masterworks #12: Gene Wolfe, Sword and Citadel

The Sword of the Lictor

The Sword of the Lictor, the third volume in Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun series, contains some of the most revealing and troublesome passages in the entire series. In this volume, readers begin to see somewhat clearly for the first time just how deeply layered Severian's adventures are and perhaps the astute reader can begin to sense the strings of narrative manipulation that are occurring both within and outside the written narrative. Since I shall be exploring a few passages and discussing certain events in great detail, it is highly suggested that those who have not yet read this volume refrain from reading it if they value plot details over thematic explorations.

The storyline is again resumed after yet another break in the action. We learn that not only did Severian reach Thrax and assume the office of lictor (the office itself being fraught with religious and civic meanings dating back to the Roman Republic), but that Severian once again abandoned his post and was exiled on account of showing mercy to a female prisoner. As he and Dorcas (for a time, only) flee the city, they have a fierce discussion that ultimately leads to Dorcas's departure. Traveling alone, Severian has many encounters, from the fierce alzabo, from a gland in whose head the magical elixir used in the "diabolic eucharist" of The Claw of the Conciliator is drawn, to the ultimate one with the giant Baldanders that concludes the volume.

While these adventures may provide scenes of amazement and speculation for those reading it for the first time, I want to concentrate on a few lengthy passages from this volume that I believe holds much of importance for interpreting the off-stage events of this series. The first is from the second chapter, as Severian is reflecting upon the innate savagery of humans:

One of the keepers of the Bear Tower once told me that there is no animal so dangerous or so savage and unmanageable as the hybrid resulting when a fighting dog mounts a she-wolf. We are accustomed to think of the beasts of the forest and mountain as wild, and to think of the men who spring up, as it seems, from their soil as savage. But the truth is that there is a wildness more vicious (as we would know better if we were not so habituated to it) in certain domestic animals, despite their understanding so much human speech and sometimes even speaking a few words; and there is a more profound savagery in men and women whose ancestors have lived in cities and towns since the dawn of humanity. Vodalus, in whose veins flowed the undefiled blood of a thousand exultants - exarchs, ethnarchs, and starosts - was capable of violence unimaginable to the autochthons that stalked the streets of Thrax, naked beneath their huanaco cloaks.

Like the dog-wolves (which I never saw, because they were too vicious to be useful), these eclectics took all that was most cruel and ungovernable from their mixed parentage; as friends or followers they were sullen, disloyal, and contentious; as enemies, fierce, deceitful, and vindictive. So at least I had heard from my subordinates at the Vincula, for eclectics made up more than half the prisoners there. 

Man's inhumanity to man. This is one of the oldest forms of conflict, as presented in innumerable literature classrooms across the globe over countless centuries. Homo homini lupus, which Wolfe might have been hinting at in a double entendre form with his talk of the savage dog-wolves. This comment, when viewed in light of Agia's greed and implacable hatred of Severian in the first two volumes as well as the scene of Morwenna's public humiliation and execution in Saltus that opens The Claw of the Conciliator, reinforces the notion that the ancient and exhausted world of Urth is just as full of hatred and pettiness as our own. The fact that it is an executioner making these observations only serves to underscore the irony behind the perhaps-misplaced faith that many have in the upward progression of humans via their own efforts.

Severian's encounter with the two-head Typhon about two-thirds of the way into the novel serves to illustrate a related concept: that of the loss of freedom and the chimera of dominion. Typhon, former ruler of Urth and apparently other world chiliads (or thousands) of years before Severian's time, has been revived somehow by the power of the Claw (Typhon shall also be discussed later outside the New Sun series). He exists as he does due to his appropriation of the slave Piaton's body. This is but the first of many signs in the two short chapters that Typhon appears of the insidiousness of power and its corrupting influence on those who desire to wield it. Typhon, playing the role of the New Testament Satan, tempts Severian with the offer of control of Nessus in exchange for swearing allegiance to him. Severian, although sorely tempted, resists and literally casts out Typhon from the mountain top where the two had their confrontation. Although the religious parallels are obvious and do serve to reinforce many of the religious symbols presented in the earlier book, it is the notion of freedom as opposed to dominion that is central to this scene, as we shall soon see when Severian encounters two other people in his travels after this volume.

Backtracking a bit to the discussion that Severian had with his little namesake (speculation abounds as to if this might be a parallel Severian from another time or even his own son, but I shall not weigh in on this, at least not for now), there is one other scene, rather lengthy, that I want to quote, as it underscores Wolfe's views on freedom and responsibility:

"Severian, who were those men?"

I knew whom he meant. "They were not men, although they were once men and still resemble men. They were zooanthrops, a word that indicates those beasts that are of human shape. Do you understand what I am saying?"

The little boy nodded solemnly, then asked, "Why don't they wear clothes?"

"Because they are no longer human beings, as I told you. A dog is born a dog and a bird is born a bird, but to become a human being is an achievement - you have to think about it. You have been thinking about it for the past three or four years at least, even though you may never have thought about the thinking."

"A dog just looks for things to eat," the boy said.

"Exactly. But that raises the question of whether a person should be forced to do such thinking, and some people decided a long time ago that he should not. We may force a dog, sometimes, to act like a man - to walk on his hind legs and wear a collar and so forth. But we shouldn't and couldn't force a man to act like a man. Did you ever want to fall asleep? When you weren't sleepy or even tired?"

He nodded.

"That was because you wanted to put down the burden of being a boy, at least for a time. Sometimes I drink too much wine, and that is because for a while I would like to stop being a man. Sometimes people take their own lives for that reason. Did you know that?"

"Or they do things that might hurt them," he said. The way he said it told me of arguments overheard; Becan had very probably been that kind of man, or he would not have taken his family to so remote and dangerous a place.

"Yes," I told him. "That can be the same thing. And sometimes certain men, and even women, come to hate the burden of thought, but without loving death. They see the animals and wish to become as they are, answering only to instinct, and not thinking. Do you know what makes you think?"

"My head," the boy said promptly, and grasped it with his hands.

"Animals have heads too - even very stupid animals like crayfish and oxen and ticks. What makes you think is only a small part of your head, inside, just above your eyes." I touched his forehead. "Now if for some reason you wanted one of your hands taken off, there are men you can go to who are skilled in doing that. Suppose, for example, your hand had suffered some hurt from which it would never be well. They could take it away in such a fashion that there would be little chance of any harm coming to the rest of you."

The boy nodded.

"Very well. Those same men can take away that little part of your head that makes you think. They cannot put it back, you understand. And even if they could, you couldn't ask them to do it, once that part was gone. But sometimes people pay these men to take that part away. They want to stop thinking forever, and often they say they wish to turn their backs on all that humanity has done. Then it is no longer just to treat them as human beings - they have become animals, though animals who are still of human shape. You asked why they did not wear clothes. They no longer understand clothes, and so they would not put them on, even if they were very cold, although they might lie down on them or even roll themselves up in them."

Cruelties happen. Harsh dictators like Typhon, only concerned with their well-being and status, occur from time to time in human history. At times, these people and those misfortunes are confronted. But when people abdicate their right to determine their own futures as best as they can, when they deny the common natures of other people and instead treat them in ways that we label as being "inhumane," when people abandon hope in favor for living any which way they live, are they in fact "human?" In this passage, as well as the one already cited above, Wolfe appears to be arguing that no, no they are not "human" in the sense of how people ought to be. These man-animals, the zooanthrops of this volume or the man-apes of Claw, are the products of the self-dehumanization that Wolfe argues that occurs when one has given up their responsibility to be a true human being. This discussion, I believe, sets up the later discussions that Severian will have in Urth of the New Sun. It bears repeating that freedom and self-determination are as much of an undercurrent in this series as are the religious symbols that appear. In fact, one might argue that the two are just two sides of the same coin.

The Citadel of the Autarch

My memories have always appeared with the intensity, almost, of hallucinations, as I have said often in this chronicle. That night I felt I might lose myself forever in them, making of my life a loop instead of a line; and for once I did not resist the temptation but reveled in it. Everything I have described to you came crowding back to me, and a thousand things more.

This quote from the second chapter of the concluding volume to The Book of the New Sun, The Citadel of the Autarch, serves as a foreshadowing of what the reader (as well as Severian, of course) shall experience in the course of the reading. As the series winds to a close, events and people touched upon in the previous volumes return for a time, not to mention that there is a "loop" of an even more literal sense of the word that Severian experiences during the course of this novel. So with this in mind, those who have not yet read this volume may want to wait until they have read it, since there shall be some thematic discussions as well as my first extended look at the character/personalities of Severian himself.

War is hell. It rends, it tears, it shreds its sometimes willing victims apart in ways that go beyond mere physical or emotional trauma. It is a product of two groups of people manipulating others into attempting to destroy one another. It is rather fitting that after the encounter with Typhon in The Sword of the Lictor and Severian's clash with the giant Baldanders (where Severian's sword, Terminus Est, is destroyed), we discover that Severian has gone north to where the forces of the Autarch are battling the Ascian invaders.

Wolfe does not skimp on displaying the horrors of war, having himself been a Korean War veteran. We see not just touching elements such as Severian's discovery of a dead soldier's letter (perhaps intended to hark back to a similar scene in Erich Maria Remarque's classic World War I novel, All Quiet on the Western Front), but also encounter soldiers from both sides of the conflict. While some might make the argument that the Ascian prisoner, Loyal to the Group of Seventeen is little more than a caricature of Cold War era representations of Soviet propagandists being like puppets parroting phrases learned over the course of a lifetime under an inhumane regime, I would counter by noting that this person, who in the story he tells "as translated" demonstrates quite a bit of awareness of the world, albeit shaped in a way that is very difficult for us to fathom. It is as though the worst hints of manipulation that we've seen in the earlier volumes have come to fruition in this rather decent person who cannot speak in more than platitudes that his homeland forced his people to adopt.

But this book is much more than just about the horrors of war. In many senses, this book is devoted to reintroducing characters and showing them in new lights. For example, Severian's old nemesis, Agia, has grown in her time away from Severian. Where earlier she seemed to be devoted solely to her hatred of Severian, her actions and eventual escape from the climatic scene with the wounded Autarch puts her in a Vodalus-like opposition to Severian. It is no longer just a simple personal affair but rather that her opposition has come to symbolize a sort of selfish, "anti-life" rebellion similar to that of Vodalus's against the Autarch, which Wolfe makes explicitly clear in a passage near the end of the book.

We also learn more about Dorcas and her tragic reunion with her now-elderly husband, plus we get further hints in regards to Severian's paternal ancestry. While Dr. Talos and Baldanders do not appear in this volume, there are more than enough hints given that the two represent artifice and its counterfeit nature against the "trueness" that is represented in the Autarchs. And speaking of the Autarchs, or "self-rulers," while much more about their origins is explained in the coda Urth of the New Sun, it becomes quite obvious by the end of the volume that they are the rightful rulers of Urth because they recognize that rule involves much more than just dominion over another. It involves a self-sacrifice and a heavy burden of sacrifice and commitment to the needs of others. It is for this reason, Severian reminisces, that the Autarchs have not been descended from a prior Autarch but have come from people of human origin who usually are not the greatest in any of their fields. After all, pride is an insidious thing that can emerge from the glories of greatness and greatness often is antithetical to being truly concerned with the rights of all.

And so over the course of these four volumes, the reader has encountered many base and treacherous characters. From greed and the thirst for dominion over others, we have seen people such as Vodalus, Agia, and Typhon lust. There is no love involved in their quests for power and, in Typhon's case, immortality. We have also sensed that behind this lurks the nihilistic impulses of Abaia and Erebus, those aptly-named beings who symbolize the darkness and coldness which threaten not just the physical Urth but also the spiritual well-being of its inhabitants. We have witnessed the results in the persons of the Ascians, as Severian so eloquently notes in this passage:

These Ascian soldiers had a rigity, a will-less attachment to order, that I have never seen elsewhere, and that appeared to me to have no roots in either spirit or discipline as I understand them. They seemed to obey because they could not conceive of any other course of action.
But opposed to these horrors is a sense of responsibility and of duty to be just and to love what can be loved among the peoples and creatures of Urth. Much has been made about the calls for the New Sun over the course of the novels (and much more of this in Urth of the New Sun), but in the scene where the last Autarch passes along his responsibilities to Severian, there is a passage that sums up quite well the good/evil conflict that has occurred:

"You were right to hate me, Severian. I you will stand...for so much that is wrong."

"Why?" I asked. "Why?" I was on my knees beside him.

"Because all else is worse. Until the New Sun comes, we have but a choice of evils. All have been tried, and all have failed. Goods in common, the rule of the people...everything. You wish for progress? The Ascians have it. They are deafened by it, crazed by the death of Nature till they are ready to accept Erebus and the rest as gods. We hold humankind barbarism. The Autarch protects the people from the exultants, and the exultants...shelter them from the Autarch. The religious comfort them. We have closed the roads to paralyze the social order..."

His eyes fell shut. I put my hand upon his chest to feel the faint stirring of his heart.

"Until the New Sun..."

This was what I had sought to escape, not Agia or Vodalus or the Ascians. As gently as I could, I lifted the chain from his neck, unstoppered the vial and swallowed the drug. Then with that short, stiff blade I did what had to be done.
There are no clear-cut decisions to be made; only a choice of evils. Urth is an imperfect world and each choice is fraught with evil possibilities or consequences. In such a world, it is hard to hold hope, Wolfe seems to be arguing, but yet, somehow, people have managed to do so. Until the New Sun. A phrase laden with symbolic meanings of rebirth and renewal. A phrase that hints at the washing away of the old creation in ways akin to the language of Revelations. And who is to bring this New Sun?

No other than Severian. A Torturer who shows mercy in spite of the strictures placed on him. A self-deceiving and not always likable person who has undergone so many changes during the course of his travels. A person who finds a holy relic, only at the end to learn this:

At that time I did not think of it, being filled with wonder - but may it not be that we were guided to the unfinished Sand Garden? I carried the Claw even then, though I did not know it; Agia had already slipped it under the closure of my sabretache. Might it not be that we came to the unfinished garden so that the Claw, flying as it were against the wind of Time, might make its farewell? The idea is absurd. But then, all ideas are absurd.

What struck me on the beach and it struck me indeed, so that I staggered as at a blow - was that if the Eternal Principle had rested in that curbed thorn I had carried about my neck across so many leagues, and if it now rested in the new thorn (perhaps the same thorn) I had only now put there, then it might rest in anything, and in fact probably did rest in everything, in every thorn on every bush, in every drop of water in the sea. The thorn was a sacred Claw because all thorns were sacred Claws; the sand in my boots was sacred sand because it came from a beach of sacred sand. The cenobites treasured up the relics of the sannyasins because the sannyasins had approached the Pancreator. But everything had approached and even touched the Pancreator, because everything had dropped from his hand. Everything was a relic. All the world was a relic. I drew off my boots, that had traveled with me so far, and threw them into the waves that I might not walk shod on holy ground.
We have come full-circle; the symbols that shaped Severian's journey have mostly been unraveled. We create relics, Wolfe appears to argue, because we need them to remind us of the Increate/Pancreator. We need material things to remind us of the spiritual, for which we ever seem to be grasping. Severian is not a perfect man, but he has sought to relieve himself of his impurities. He has been through the fires of temptation, especially with Typhon, but now he is changed. He is not a Christ, but he certainly has become the ideal of a Christian, some might argue based on Wolfe's liberal sprinkling of Christian symbols throughout the narrative.

And that rose carved into that tombstone? It is a symbol for Catholics and Eastern Orthodox for the Virgin Mary and also for Christ. The fountain? It is the well-spring of the Water of Life, or of the Christ of St. John 7. The spaceship? It symbolizes the next step in Severian's life.

And the tomb itself? It is empty. Not the way that Christ's tomb is empty, but empty nonetheless due to the matter of time (which is addressed in  Urth of the New Sun).  Hopefully these reviews have encouraged people to re-read and to re-consider this masterpiece of literature. I know I did not touch upon everything and that some of my interpretations certainly can be challenged. Nonetheless, a work like this deserves nothing less than honest people arguing over matters of interpretation, no?  

1 comment:

  1. This review and analysis is just the kind of thing I have been looking for in the Book of he New Sun series. I read the complete four books last year, and am looking forward to reading them again this year, and plunging once again into the depth and beauty of Wolfe's world and his creative masterpiece. cheers for this