Against my better judgment, and despite being brain-deep into illustrating Conrad's Heart of Darkness I've found myself almost helplessly pulled back into reading Gene Wolfe's masterpiece tetralogy The Book of the New Sun. The first book is The Shadow of the Torturer, the second is The Claw of the Conciliator, the third is The Sword of the Lictor and the fourth is The Citadel of the Autarch. There is a fifth book titled The Urth of the New Sun which acts as more of a coda, concluding Severian's story but acting in many ways as its own work. It's nonessential, but still powerful.
I know that at least one or two of you who regularly visit this blog have read New Sun and are as fascinated with it and enamored with Wolfe's writing as I am, and I am hoping that you find these brief, occasional posts interesting. Additionally, I would welcome any thoughts or perceptions you might share in the comments.
I had no idea I would end up doing something like this, on my blog, or I would have kept a more thorough record of my thoughts on these books from the beginning of this new reading. As it stands this morning, I am roughly halfway through The Claw of the Conciliator, at the point where Severian and Jonas, having been captured by the Autarch's guards on the grounds of the House Absolute, are being held prisoner in the antechamber. I will be able to jump backward a bit and capture a few of my thoughts from the first book, but for the most part these posts will be written as I slowly move forward through the remaining books.
In a letter to Neil Gaiman, Gene Wolfe wrote "My definition of good literature is that which can be read by an educated reader, and reread with increased pleasure." By that definition, Wolfe's writing is in every sense of the term truly "good literature" and multiple rewardings have proven deeply rewarding. This is my fourth trip through New Sun and even now I find new mysteries and new delights.
What happened at the Piteous Gate?
One of the mysteries which is so carking to readers is the mysterious disturbance at the Piteous Gate of Nessus and Severian's complete lack of information on the event. Wolfe's readers know his characters are often the most unreliable of narrators, and what is not written is often as important as, if not more so, what is written. Severian especially seems to very cautiously select what he does include in this account of his life and what he chooses to leave untold.
So, the scene is this. Upon being exiled from the Guild of Torturers for the sin of mercy, Severian falls in with a motley band of actors which includes the vulpine playwright Dr. Talos, the lumbering giant Baldanders, the sex doll Jolenta, Severian's traveling companion and new lover Dorcas, the shabby beggar Hethor, and an acquaintance newly met at the gate, the cyborg sailor Jonas. Just before leaving the Guild, Severian is given this bit of crucial information by his old Master Palaemon.
"You know of the roads?"
"I know they must not be used. Nothing more."
"The Autarch Maruthas closed them. That was when I was your age. Travel encouraged sedition, and he wished goods to enter and leave the city by the river, where they might be easily taxed. The law has remained in force since, and there is a redoubt, so I've heard, every fifty leagues. Still the roads remain. Though they are in poor repair, it is said some use them by night."
"I see," I said. Closed or not, the roads might make for an easier passage than traveling across the countryside as the law demanded.
"I doubt you do. I mean to warn you against them. They are patrolled by uhlans under orders to kill anyone found upon, and since they have permission to loot the bodies of those they slay, they are not much inclined to ask excuses."
So, travel by road in the Commonwealth is forbidden by law and usually means death. And yet the Piteous Gate, one of four gates out of Nessus, is indeed a large and well-traveled road passing directly through the massive, perhaps miles-high, Wall of Nessus. As Severian and his companions leave the city they pass through this gate which is really a long tunnel penetrating the wall. Nearing the exit and daylight, while Jonas is regaling them with a strange tale of black beans, there is a sudden and unexpectedly violent disturbance.
My attention was distracted by the sight of daylight ahead of us, and by the disturbance among the vehicles that clogged the road as many sought to turn back, flailing their teams and trying to clear a path with their whips.
"-she displayed the beans to the lords of men, and told them that unless she were obeyed she would cast them into the sea and so put an end to the world. They had her seized and torn to bits, for they were a hundred times more complete in their domination than our Autarch."
"May he endure to see the New Sun," Jolenta murmured.
Dprcas tightened her grip on my arm and asked, "Why are they so frightened?" Then screamed and buried her face in her hands as the iron tip of a lash flicked her cheek. I pressed past the merychip's [Jonas' mount] head, seized the ankle of the wagoneer who had struck her, and pulled him from his seat. By that time, all the gate was ringing with bawling and swearing, and the cries of the injured, and the bellowings of frightened animals; and if the stranger continued his tale I could not hear it.
The driver I pulled down must have died at once. Because I had wished to impress Dorcas, I had hoped to perform the excruciation we call two apricots; but he had fallen under the feet of the travelers, and the heavy wheels of the carts. Even his screams were lost.
And that, other than a brief closing paragraph that says nothing about the disturbance, is how Shadow ends. One year later the sequel, The Claw of the Conciliator, was released. Yet rather than begin the book immediately after the disturbance at the Piteous Gate, the action picks up days if not weeks later, with Severian napping and dreaming in a forest as he travels toward the village of Saltus with Jonas. However, there may be some clues in Severian's dream.
Outside, Eusebia, Morwenna's accuser, howled like a witch. I tried to reach the bars to tell her to be quiet, and at once became lost in the darkness of the cell. When I found light at last, it was the green road stretching from the shadow of the Piteous Gate. Blood gushed from Dorcas' cheek, and though so many screamed and shouted, I could hear it pattering to the ground. Such a mighty structure was the Wall that it divided the world as the mere line between their covers does two books; before us now stood such a wood as might have been growing since the founding of Urth, trees as high as cliffs, wrapped in pure green. Between them lay the road, grown up in fresh grass, and on it were the bodies of men and women. A burning cariole tainted the clean air with smoke.
Five riders sat on destriers whose hooked tushes were encrusted with lazulite. The men wore helmets and capes of indanthrene blue and carried lances whose heads ran with blue fire; their faces were more akin to the faces of brothers. On these riders, the tide of travelers broke as a wave on a rock, some turning left, some right. Dorcas was torn from my arms, and I drew Terminus Est to cut down those between us and found I was about to strike Master Malrubius, who stood calmly, my dog Triskele at his side, in the midst of the tumult. Seeing him so, I knew I dreamed, and from that knew, even while I slept, that the visions I had had of him before had not been dreams.
Several things here. At first, this can be seen as a fairly straightforward explanation of the disturbance at the Piteous Gate. Since it is forbidden by the law of the Autarch to travel cross country by the roads, the Citadel has stationed a small force of uhlans with fire lances at each gate leaving Nessus. These uhlans, mostly through visual intimidation, disperse travelers leaving the city, forcing them off the road and into the open countryside. However, I feel as if there are two flaws to this.
The first is the presence of weapons which have been recently been fired ("lances whose heads ran with blue fire") and corpses ("Between them lay the road...and on it were the bodies of men and women. A burning cariole tainted the clean air with smoke.") So the uhlans either regularly disperse the crowds with violence and murder, which seems unlikely as word would surely spread and travelers would cease leaving Nessus by the gates altogether, or there has been some incident provoking a riot or stampede and necessitating the use of deadly force by the Autarch's forces.
The second flaw is the veracity of Severian's dream. He mentions near the end seeing his long dead Master Malrubius and long gone dog Triskele as he seeks out Dorcas in the chaos at the gate. How can this be, if the events in Severian's dream are to be taken as a literal recounting of events? Their presence seems to throw the entire account into doubt.
On the old Urth.net message boards, several users seem to advance a different theory. Their idea is that Hethor, who is already trailing Severian and under compulsion to murder him for the love and favors of Agia, has prematurely unleashed one of his beasts from the stars through the use of his portable mirrors. This too-soon attempt on the life of Severian, in the presence of an enormous crowd and the chaos of a busy public thoroughfare, goes horribly awry causing the uhlans stationed near the exit of the gate to open fire on either Hethor's monsters, the panicking crowd, or both. This seems feasible although again the question remains why does Severian so conspicuously avoid any real mention of the events? Severian never leaves anything out of his accounting unless it is for a very specific reason. I'm just not sure I can find any cause at all for Severian to avoid mentioning the disturbance at the gate. Could it be wounded pride, since it seems to take him forever to realize that Hethor is trying to kill him? That doesn't seem like Severian, but I'm not sure.
So to any who have read this, I ask: What happened at the Piteous Gate and why does Severian avoid describing it?