Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Book of the New Sun: Notes #04

Baldanders is human. Not an undine. Not a proto-undine. Not a child of Abaia. Not a Hierodule. Baldanders is human.

In chapter 31 of The Sword of the Lictor, Severian, recently rescued from the clutches of the hetman and the shore people of Lake Diuturna, is having the following conversation with Llibio, leader of the nomadic People of the Lake who drift about the lake on floating, windblown islands. Llibio speaks first.

"Once when I was a young man, these quarrels took two or three lives in a year. Then the builder of the castle came. Do you know the tale?"

I shook my head.

"He came from the south, whence, as I am told, you come as well. He had many things the shore people wanted, such as cloth, and silver, and many well-forged tools. Under his direction they built his castle. Those were the fathers and grandfathers of those who are the shore people now. They used the tools for him, and as he promised, he permitted them to keep them when the work was done, and he gave them many other things. My mother's father went to them while they labored, and asked if they did not see that they were setting up a ruler over themselves, since the builder of the castle could do as he chose with them, then retire behind the strong walls they had built for him where no one could reach him. They laughed at my mother's father and said they were many, which was true, and the builder of the castle only one, which was also true."

I asked if he had ever seen the builder, and if so what he looked like.

"Once. He stood on a rock talking to shore people while I passed in my boat. I can tell you he was a little man, a man who would not, had you been there, have reached higher than your shoulder. Not such a man as inspires fear."

Llibio goes on to describe how, after the castle was completed, the beasts and the children of the shore people began to go missing in the night. The shore people blamed the People of the Lake and began kidnapping their children, in the hopes that whoever was taking the beasts and the children would take these kidnapped children instead. The conflict grows until the antagonism and violence is openly acknowledged. The "builder...was seen by no one once his castle was complete." Severian ventures that he may be dead, but Llibio continues, "An evil giant dwells there now, but no one has seen him." More clues are offered, as "Five years past, and they swarmed over it by night like the fingerlings that crowd a dead man. They burned the castle and slew those they found there." Finally, "After the melting of the ice this year, the people of the castle returned. Their hands were full of gifts - riches, and the strange weapons you turned against the shore people. There are others who come there too, but whether as servants or masters, we of the lake do not know." These others, it turns out, are not from the north or the south, but "From the sky."

Even the first time reader should see the parallels between this and Dr. Talos' earlier story of he and Baldanders touring the south with their little play in order to earn the gold necessary to restore their home on the shores of a far off lake. This lake, Diuturna, is indeed that same one Talos speaks about, and the reader will easily connect the builder of the castle, the "little man" who would not inspire fear, with Dr. Talos while the later "evil giant" that comes to inhabit the castle would be Baldanders. The visitors "from the sky" are obviously the Hierodules. Their connection to Baldanders remains a mystery at this point, but one which will soon be partially revealed since their ship is, at the time of Severian's attack on the castle, hovering above Baldanders' tower like an obscene mushroom cloud.

Much supposition bears fruit when Severian enters the castle. After pounding on the door, he is greeted by a surprised Dr. Talos who promises that Baldanders will give Severian back the Claw of the Conciliator (which had been stolen by the hetman of the shore people and sent to the castle) but that he is upstairs talking to the Hierodules. As Severian and Talos climb through the tower, Severian sees for the first time the horrors that Baldanders has wrought in his quest for knowledge. Aside from a screaming, insane prisoner who is being kept, as Dr. Talos puts it, "For parts, I suppose. That's what Baldanders has most of this rubbish for," the tower is full of strange and disturbing devices.

"This room held machines too. But these, though they might have been as old as those below, gave the impression of being in working order; and moreover, of standing in some logical though impenetrable relation to one another, like the devices in Typhon's hall. Baldanders and his guests were at the farther end of the chamber, where his head, three times the size of any ordinary man's, reared above the clutter of metal and crystal like that of a tyrannosaur over the topmost leaves of a forest. As I walked toward them, I saw what remained of a young woman who might have been a sister of Pia's lying beneath a shimmering bell jar. Her abdomen had been opened with a sharp blade and certain of her viscera removed and positioned around her body. It appeared to be in the early stages of decay, though her lips moved. Her eyes opened as I passed her, then closed again."


Severian is introduced to Baldanders and the three Hierodules he is speaking with, Barbatus, Famulimus and their android servant Ossipago. They shock Severian and deeply offend Baldanders, although this is only subtly indicated, by bowing to Severian. The Hierodules, like Merlyn in T.H. White's The Once and Future King, live through time in reverse, having come from the future while traveling toward the past. They bow because they are aware Severian will eventually become the Autarch and beyond that will bring the New Sun. Baldanders, who in his monstrous ambition, has been vying for these honors as well is infuriated.

In his slow voice, Baldanders said "Severian will be the victor. Else why did they kneel to him? Though he may die and we may not. You know their ways, Doctor. The looting may disseminate knowledge."

After a fiery exchange, Dr. Talos leaves and the Hierodules explain, in the vaguest terms, their motives. Their desire is to advance humanity - all of humanity - in the hope that, as is revealed in the fifth book The Urth of the New Sun, humans eventually evolve into the very Hierarchs that left the fallen universe of Briah, traveled to Yesod, created the Hierodules, and learned how to create suns and even galaxies. In short, the Hierarchs, Hierogrammates, and Hierodules are essentially equivalent to a modern Christian's angel, and their hope is that humanity eventually attains the godhead. The Hierodules, literally "holy slaves," have the closest contact with humanity although they, like the Istari in The Lord of the Rings, do not directly interfere with or manipulate events for a more favorable outcome for humanity. They offer what guidance and tools that they can, placing the onus for the spiritual progression necessarily on the shoulders of humanity. The Hierodules, privy to the knowledge of multiple futures, see the possibility of either Severian or Baldanders bringing the New Sun, therefore they have taken a special interest in each. With Severian, this interest seems to be smoothing his road toward the throne of the Autarchy and, by extension, his eventual testing by the Hierarchs. With Baldanders, this interest is in the dissemination of knowledge and tools in the hopes that Baldanders will either disperse this information to others willingly or, in his death, "seed" the planet with the results of his inquiries. Famulimus says this explicitly.

"That man you call Baldanders lives to learn. We see that he hoards up past lore - hard facts like seeds to give him power. In time he'll die by hands that do not store, but die with some slight gain for all of you. Think of a tree that splits a rock. It gathers water, the sun's life-bringing heat...and all the stuff of life for its own use. In time it dies and rots to dress the earth, that its own roots have made from stone. Its shadow gone, fresh seeds spring up; in time a forest flourishes where it stood."

Time to draw these threads together. Baldanders, whose origins at first seemed ambiguous enough that calling him a proto-undine or an extra-solar monster would not have seemed far-fetched, began life as human as Severian. I believe this to be true because the bringer of the New Sun, the Conciliator, is essentially the redeemer of humanity specifically, and not just Urth. In order for Severian and Baldanders to have been considered equally worthy, at least at first, they would both have to be human. I also maintain that Baldanders, while turning inward and away from humanity in his monstrous ambition and self-obsession, is also not specifically aligned with the interests of Erebus, Abaia and the rest although he will also use them and their powers to aid his own desires if necessary. Baldanders truly is a third faction in the struggle for Urth and as I mentioned before, more a Byronic hero than an evil enemy or fallen Christ figure.

And if any further evidence is necessary, for once, one needs look no farther than the text itself. Wolfe spells it out quite directly in this brief conversation between Severian and Baldanders.

"I had already concluded," I said with as much self-possession as I could summon, "that when the islanders told me of a small man who paid for the building of this place, they were speaking of the doctor. But they said that you, the giant, had come afterward."

"I was the small man. The doctor came afterward."

The Byronic connections are also made explicit a bit later in the next chapter, as Severian, Dr. Talos and Baldanders talk following the departure of the Hierodules. Baldanders begins.

"No, I am my own great work. And I am my only great work!"

Dr. Talos whispered, "Look about you - don't you recognize this? It's just what he says!"

"What do you mean?" I whispered in return.

"The castle? The monster? The man of learning? I only just thought of it. Surely you know that just as the momentous events of the past cast their shadows down the ages, so now, when the sun is drawing toward the dark, our own shadows race into the past to trouble mankind's dreams."

The final key to the mystery of Baldanders arrives near the very end of the cycle, in one of the last chapters of The Citadel of the Autarch. Severian has completed his journey to the throne and is receiving visitors. To his surprise, Dr. Talos arrives, having survived the massive struggle at Baldanders' tower.

"Oh, Baldanders, you mean. No, he has dismissed me, I'm afraid. After the fight. After he dived into the lake."

"You believe he survived, then."

"Oh, I'm quite sure he survived. You didn't know him as I did, Severian. Breathing would be nothing to him. Nothing! He had a marvelous mind. He was a supreme genius of a unique sort: everything turned inward. He combined the objectivity of the scholar with the self-absorption of the mystic."

I said, "By which you mean he carried out experiments on himself."

"Oh, no, not at all. He reversed that! Others experiment upon themselves in order to derive some rule that they can apply to the world. Baldanders experimented on the world and spent the proceeds, if I can put it so bluntly, upon his person. They say-" here he looked about nervously to make sure no one but myself was in earshot "-they say I'm a monster, and so I am. But Baldanders was more monster than I. In some sense he was my father, but he had built himself. It's the law of nature, and of what is higher than nature, that each creature must have a creator. But Baldanders was his own creation; he stood behind himself and cut himself off from the line linking the rest of us with the Increate."

That exchange is so rich with meaning it almost asks for a separate blog post. It is too easy, especially at the beginning, for the reader, through Severian, to love Vodalus and to hate the Autarch. The reader comes to see though that while the Autarchy is deeply flawed and the Commonwealth is in many ways a horrible system of governance, he is the greatest hope humanity has. He is the Epitome, and through the many many people inside of him, he is deeply and intimately connected to all of humanity. The Autarch must truly be selfless and Baldanders is the antithesis of this. Baldanders, while human, is almost Miltonian in his Satanic pride and individuality. He willingly severs himself from the Commonwealth, from Urth, and from humanity, and from divinity through sheer selfishness and pride. Baldanders subverts the Hierodules in hoarding the knowledge that they share with him and using it for his own ends and to sate his own appetites. In The Urth of the New Sun Apheta explains that the Hieros ultimately stand against entropy. Entropy is the great devourer and only through an ordered advance of culture, philosophy, knowledge and morality can humanity evolve and eventually triumph over entropy. Baldanders is an evolutionary cul-de-sac. As the New Sun, he is a failure.


  1. Oh! Sir, I think you mistake my argument! I certainly agree that Baldanders is human...but I also think he is a proto-Undine, & that the undines were once human, as well. Think of it like if I said "Baldanders is a vampire." That would not preclude him being human in the past. It would demand it!

    (Of course, vampires in the Solar Cycle are a non-human species, but you know what I mean!)

  2. Ah yes, I did indeed mistake your argument. The perils of electronic communication. Some day I hope to at least say hello to you face to face. But onward...

    Your point that the undines may once have been human merits some serious consideration. They too remain a great mystery to me, as do Abaia, Erebus, Arioch (Wolfe paying homage to Moorcock or digging even deeper in demonology?) and the other megatherians (aren't there 17 of them?). I agree with you that, intentional or not, there is something deeply Lovecraftian about them, so it is tempting to see the undines as some monstrous offspring of the megatherians' union with or manipulation of human stock, like the Deep Ones or the Dunwich Horror. The vampire analogy is also especially apt, and an excellent way to frame the argument.

    I have yet to encounter many vampires but I believe they feature heavily in the Long Sun and Short Sun books, yes? Those are in the queue, waiting my first reading. After I finish "Urth" I am taking a short break to read that odd little Arzach book written by Jean Marc L'Officier and Moebius, then it is back to Wolfe again for seven more volumes of craziness.

  3. One more thing, tangentially related more to my post than your comments. It is absolutely fascinating to read Wolfe's opinions and thoughts through these books. Unlike his later work, his personal beliefs are much more transparent in The Book of the New Sun. His thoughts on communism (the Ascians), democracy (at one point, Severian flat out says it has been tried and it doesn't work), a dictatorship of sorts (the Autarchy) and religion, especially Catholicism (Severian, the Conciliator, the Hierodules, Yesod and on and on). So just what is Wolfe saying with Baldanders? Is it an anti-science thrust? Is Wolfe essentially questioning the role of scientific inquiry, and perhaps positioning it as unethical and immoral? I still don't know.

  4. Ah I again am going to differ with you: I don't think the Ascians are Communists, so much as...well, let me put it this way. Nessus is in South America, right? The Gyoll is the Amazon, the Rocky Mountains are the many emperor statues...etc. The Ascians come from the north...across an isthmus...the Ascians are the Americans, gone all 1984!

    I'd also say that you shouldn't look at the Autarchy as attempting to create GOVERNMENT. The actual purpose of the Autarch is to create ONE FREE HUMAN. The expenditure of a mega-nation, complete with trading routes that include other planets...all to make ONE PERSON WHO IS FREE TO MAKE A CHOICE. The ultimate choice, natch.

    As for Catholicism, well, I can't devil's advocate that, these books are Catholic as hell. Pun gloriously intended.

    I would say Baldanders is a statement on post-humanity, & the human drive for transcendence. There is no transcendence save through communion-- sorry, big-C Communion-- so Baldanders is ultimately doomed.

    I would argue, fundamentally, that all the exegesis we need is found in Doctor Talos' play.

  5. The Long Sun books are better than Urth of the New Sun. The Short Sun books are good, but not such amazing masterpieces.

    Also let me highly recommend The Fifth Head of Cerberus. The three-in-one novel, not just the eponymous novella (which is contained in some "best of" collections.)

  6. I'm still not sure if I agree with you on the Ascians. Geographically, yes, and perhaps even governmentally (all 1984) definitely. But given Wolfe's experiences as a Korean War veteran, I still see the Ascians not so much as communist, but as Wolfe's own vision of communism taken to it's horrifying extreme. Actually, the closest analogy I have ever seen to the Ascians is Darkseid's Anti-Life Equation - the total abolition of individuality, free will, and chance and an absolute conformity.

    Your description of the Autarch was absolutely spot-on and you said it far better than I did. It's funny, I've read the books four times now, so I should know what's coming, but with every reading I am at first taken for a ride with Severian, hating the Autarch and loving Vodalus. And each and every time, when Severian finally meets the old Autarch and learns what he really is, the ONE FREE HUMAN as you put it, I am tremendously and deeply moved. It is such a powerful concept, and that sudden shift for the reader from hatred to admiration is very emotional. The Autarch really is, or at his best he should be, the Epitome of us all.

    Baldanders is such a fascinating character. I feel like I could think about him and write about him for a very long time. I don't think I had ever even fumbled toward that connection Baldanders has with big-C Communion until now, and your remarks are very helpful there. Strange just how deeply Catholic these books are!

    As for Dr. Talos' play, man that is a tough nut to crack for me. The language and structure still at times madden and befuddle me. I know all the seeds of meaning are contained within, but it demands a great deal of study. At least for me. I hope to write a post on it, but that could spiral out of control.

  7. Oh, yeah, I actually do have Fifth Head and very much intend to read that as well. Would you recommend it before or after Long Sun? I've read that it is somehow tangentially connected to the whole Sun cycle, and that alzabos might be the ghoul bears mentioned in one of the three stories.


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