After blogging about author Gene Wolfe, I decided to go back and re-read The Book of the New Sun. I just finished Shadow & Claw, the first two books of the tetralogy. Hmm… I wrote that blog back in April, so it took me 7 months. I take my sweet time!
It’s a different experience the second time around. My recollection of the later books sheds new light on earlier events. But perhaps more significantly, I felt no need to avoid spoilers, and thus could freely peruse the secondary literature.
It’s surprising just how much secondary literature there is on The Book of the New Sun. There’s Urth.net, Ultan’s Library, a subreddit, as well as two full books (Solar Labyrinth and Lexicon Urthus). And honestly if you just google stuff, you can find discussion in all sorts of places. Most of which is unreadable crap, of course. The commentary that I found to be most helpful was the SUNS SUNS SUNS series from a blogger by the name of Kate Sherrod. Sadly it stops short of the end of the second book, so I guess I’ll have to find something else for the second half.
I have half a mind to write my own blog series, which I think I could do better than most of the internet. Perhaps it’s not worth my time. But I will indulge myself a bit with some scattered analyses.
Spoilers for The Book of the New Sun. That’s all four books, not just the first two.
1. Severian’s literary interpretation
In an amusing passage of Shadow of the Torturer, Severian and Dorcas see a giant building fly into the sky and disappear (Bk. 1 Ch. 31). However, they have no idea what happened, and instead of trying to figure it out, Severian drifts off into philosophical discussion. One of the keys to the universe, he says, is that everything has three distinct meanings. The first is the practical meaning, i.e. what materially happened. The second meaning is the implications on the rest of the world. The third meaning is the expression of the pancreator’s will.
Severian’s philosophy is terrible. Why is he applying literary interpretations to real life? But while it doesn’t make sense from an in-universe perspective, it makes more sense from a reader’s perspective. It’s hard not to see this as Gene Wolfe’s way of instructing the reader on how to read his own work. (Although I wish he would put less emphasis on authorial intent. I’d say what’s important is what the reader can take away from the story, regardless of the author’s intentions.)
So what’s up with the flying building? The attentive reader can discover that this is in fact the cathedral of the Pelerines, which is structured like a circus tent. The Pelerines set it on fire, which causes it to float up into the sky (Bk. 2 Ch. 3). The second meaning is whatever it implies about the Pelerines. They set their cathedral on fire because the point of the cathedral was to hold the Claw, but the Claw was stolen. The third meaning is whatever Gene Wolfe intended by writing the thing. And I guess the main point was to motivate Severian’s philosophical musings.
I kept on thinking about this as I perused the secondary literature, because most people just ignore the third meaning. It’s very easy to get caught up in the question of what’s actually happening in the story, and forget the question of what the story is trying to say. I didn’t bother reading any of Solar Labyrinth, but Kate Sherrod describes a few of its weird theories. Stuff like, “Master Palaemon is Father Inire in disguise!” Aside from the lack of textual evidence, the theory also doesn’t mean anything. There’s not enough to reward the reader’s willingness to believe so wildly implausible a fan theory.
So that’s my guiding principle for fan theories, my way of sorting good secondary literature from bad. Either your theory has to have textual evidence, or it has to say something meaningful. I provide examples of each below.
2. Vodalus or the Autarch?
Speaking of bad philosophies espoused by Severian, there’s another one in the very first chapter of the first book. He explains how symbols can have an impact on us even if we are unaware of them. He says it is superstitious to believe otherwise, as if things don’t happen unless we know about them. This is nonsense, from an in-universe perspective. But from a reader’s perspective, we know that characters don’t need to be aware of symbols for the symbols to matter.
The reason Severian is talking about symbols, is because he describes being given a coin by Vodalus, the revolutionary. He compares this to the way soldiers are given coins to symbolize their acceptance of military life. Severian believes so strongly that it’s a symbol of Vodalus that for a moment he expects to find Vodalus’s face on the coin, but instead finds that it has the face of the Autarch, the person that Vodalus is rebelling against (Bk. 1 Ch. 3). So ironically, by Severian’s own logic, he is actually loyal to the Autarch, whether he knows it or not.
The conflict between Severian’s stated loyalties, and actual loyalties, is a recurring motif. He pays lip service to Vodalus, primarily to justify the mercy he showed towards Thecla, but he definitely had some ulterior motivations that he’s not admitting (such as, Thecla was his lover). It’s also funny that the one task Vodalus gives him, Severian does not care about (Bk. 2 Ch. 12). And then he completes the task by accidentally running into Vodalus’s spy, who turns out to be the Autarch themself. …I can’t remember if that one is explained in later books.
3. Time Traveling Jesus
Early on, Thecla muses that a contradiction makes the best foundation for a religion (Bk. 1 Ch. 8). Good news for Severian, who is just a bundle of contradictions, and strongly implied to be the Conciliator, an ancient Christ-like figure.
Wolfe is likely thinking of his own Catholic background here, and what he says about Catholicism appears to be very critical. Some might find it shocking that someone with stated loyalties to Catholicism could at the same time be so critical; some might ask where this person’s actual loyalties lie.
But personally, I was raised Catholic, and so self-critical Catholicism doesn’t seem particularly unusual to me. Much was made of the apparent contradiction of the Trinity. How can one be equal to three? And transubstantiation. How can bread literally become Jesus’ body, while still identical to bread? If anything, Catholics were keen to emphasize these contradictions, going out of their way to reject explanations like “it’s only metaphorically Jesus’s body”.
But I think the criticism goes deeper. See, Severian is a bad person. His attitudes towards women are terrible, and I’m pretty sure he commits rape at least one time (hard to keep track, because he does it off screen). He’s a professional torturer/executioner who thinks his approach is more humane than prison. One time he showed someone mercy, and he regretted it ever since. Oh, and his philosophy is shit.
Severian means well, of course, but meaning well doesn’t count for a whole lot when you were raised by torturers, in an era with very different moral sensibilities from our own, and inequality is so vast that wealthy people live in a sci-fi world while poor people live in a fantasy world. However well-meaning, Severian is no more capable of being a moral authority than say, some guy who lived two thousand years ago.
The Book of the New Sun asks, how do you judge a man who lived in such different times? How can we derive any moral values from him?
4. Mind-controlling giants
In case anyone thinks I’m being deep, I’d like to close with an observation that has few implications on anything. I just thought there was a lot of textual support for this theory, and could not find any secondary literature connecting the dots. I found this odd, considering how many pointless fan theories are out there.
My observation is this: Baldanders has the power of mind control. This was most clearly used on Jolenta. When we first meet her, she is a waitress who Dr. Talos tries to persuade to become an actress (Bk. 1 Ch. 16). She is extremely skeptical, until Baldanders reassures her, and suddenly she’s convinced. The mind control of Jolenta is even explicitly stated by the Cumaean (“she was promised beauty while entranced.” Bk. 2, Ch. 31).
Baldanders also tells Severian that they will meet at Ctephison’s Cross (Bk. 1 Ch. 16), and though Severian has no intention of doing so, Severian just mysteriously ends up at the right place at the right time, after a long and aimless walk (Bk. 1 Ch. 32). In Chapter 34, when Severian declares that he’s parting from the group, Dr. Talos tries desperately to wake Baldanders up, presumably so Baldanders can use his powers of suggestion to stop it. Baldanders lets him go.
Baldanders having psychic powers is not totally out of the blue, and makes sense given later books. Baldanders is a giant, and is said to grow without bounds. He might be compared to other giants in the series’ mythology: Erebus and Abaia. Erebus and Abaia are mountain-sized things that live in the sea, and which control armies of men through psychic (?) means. But they’re never shown explicitly. I think of Baldanders as possibly a younger individual of the same species, and perhaps our clearest window into understanding those lurking horrors.
So there you have it, a taste of my analysis of Shadow & Claw. I could have written something for each chapter, but eh. Maybe in another seven months I’ll talk about Sword & Citadel. And yes, I’ll try to read The Urth of the New Sun and the The Fifth Head of Cerberus afterwards.