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Entering Carcosa Part 7 (Final): The Forgotten Epic

(Photo by Roland Neveu/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Hello, and welcome to what will be the final instalment in Entering Carcosa. It has been a fabulous and rewarding experience writing about these epics, and I hope that anyone reading these has found inspiration for their own work. I am going to post links to the six previous articles here for ease of navigation.

Part 1: The Epic Isn’t Dead
Part 2: Metal Gear Solid
Part 3: The Horus Heresy
Part 4: True Detective
Part 5: The Book of the New Sun
Part 6: Seven Deadly Sins

For this last episode, I intend to write about an epic novel. Yes, I said I wouldn’t do it, but this novel is an exception because it is such an anomaly. Not only has the novel been largely forgotten, but the author too remains fringe even though they continue to write intriguing books today. It is a novel of incredible paradox and contradiction: as poetic as it is pornographic, as profound as it is problematic. The novel in question is Eric Van Lustbader’s Black Heart. It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of Lustbader, but what I find startling is how little credit he is given for his lyrical style. Whilst he is most famous, perhaps, to modern audiences, for continuing the late Robert Ludlum’s Bourne series, I find his personal projects far more remarkable, not simply for the stories he tells, but the way he tells them. Why is this epic poet neglected, then? I think, there are a number of reasons.

Firstly, let me tell you how I came to read this novel, because the process itself was something on an epic journey. This is a long book: some 800 pages, and easily over 240,000 words. I had picked up a battered old copy from a local second-hand bookshop around two years ago. I enjoyed Lustbader’s first book The Ninja greatly and wanted to read a standalone by him. I got to roughly 50% the way through the novel, when my duties as a fiction reviewer got in the way. I told myself I would finish up reading some of the new books I had to review, and then return to Black Heart. The problem was, the book was so complex, with so many characters and intersecting plot-lines, I couldn’t get back into it. I eventually had to abandon the attempt. For two years, this book kind of haunted my imagination. I rarely give up on books, and especially not books I was enjoying. Odd scenes that I could remember from it went round and round in my head.

Eventually, I realised I had to finish it, so I decided to once again attempt it. This time, I was able to easily blast through it. The feeling of deja vu and synchronicity reading it for the (sort of) second time only added to the mythical weight of the some of the scenes. This was made even more weird by the fact that the 1984 re-print that I had a copy of was littered with copy-editing mistakes. I mean, tonnes of mistakes. And not small ones, but full word-replacements and repeated lines and missing sentences. Reading it became a kind of scholastic activity rather than merely a leisurely one, like filling in the blank spaces left in Anglo Saxon poetry manuscripts. How could there be so much here but also there be so much missing? I became obsessed and fascinated to the point where I considered reaching out to Lustbader to work with him producing a cleanly edited version of the novel. I felt angered he had been so deeply let down by the publisher, I would hate to suffer such negligence myself.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, because I think it tells us something interesting about Black Heart. For many reasons – it’s action, sex, intensely passionate writing style – this book is considered pulp. Yet, how easily do we forget that the great Homeric epics are practically bursting with vicious combat scenes, sensuous affairs and sexual encounters, and written in a style that defies traditional writing conventions. In other words, I think it shows we have confined what was once epic to the pulp shelf, and now praise – well, whatever stuffiness stepped into its place.

Written in 1983 and subsequently republished, Black Heart is about the Cambodian genocide of the 1960s and a group of inter-connected special-operatives at once haunted by the past and struggling against sinister forces behind the scenes in the present. It is a strangely prescient book, predicting a rigged American election with Russian influence and corporate backing. The presidential candidate depicted in Black Heart, Atherton Gottschalk, is even a kind of Trump parallel, with an obsession with protecting the borders of American from ‘foreign invasion’ and deploying the military to safeguard American ideals. Gottschalk’s paranoia about terrorism, with frequent monologues about the nature of Islamic terrorist attacks, becomes frighteningly foreshadowing, in some ways predicting the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001, an event which would occur eighteen years after the book was published.

Gottschalk is being put into power via the machinations of several parties. At their heart is Delmar Davis Macomber, an elite American operative stationed in Cambodia who now runs a weapons manufacturing corporation called Metronics Incorporated. However, this company is but a front for a secretive organisation founded in the blood and atrocity of Cambodia, one that is prepared to kill to exert its influence over Western politics. Whilst Macomber may seem a villain, and even sports a villain’s moustache, Lustbader is never so simplistic, and offers compelling motivations for Macomber’s behaviour. At one point, roughly halfway through the book, our impression of Macomber shifts dramatically as new information comes to light and he transforms almost into the truly wronged party and one of the heroic figures of the narrative.

The true protagonist of this novel, however, is Khieu Sok. Khieu is an assassin in Macomber’s employ who began life as the son of a wealthy Cambodian family and a devout Buddhist. During the communist genocide, he joined the Khmer Rouge and turned on his own family and ideals in order to survive, committing atrocities to maintain his life. He was taught the art of stealth and hand-to-hand combat by the Khmer’s ‘secret weapon’, a Japanese martial arts master called Murano Musashi (a nod to the real Miyamoto Musashi, widely regarded as the most legendary swordsman in history). Macomber ‘rescued’ Khieu from his violent life in the communist regime only to manipulate him into carrying out high-profile assassinations on American soil. If you are thinking that this sounds vaguely like the plot of a Tarantino movie, you would not be far wrong. Lustbader’s love of unarmed combat is unabashed and he sees no problem delivering some of the most memorable and ultra-violent fight sequences in fiction. However, to say Black Heart is all action would be a gross miss-sell; it is just as concerned with introspection as it is with high-octane adrenaline, just as intrigued by the sundries of life and what deeper meaning they may hold, as it is with vividly described anal-play. It is full of life and willingly embraces all facets of life, whether they are palatable or not.

Lustbader’s introduction, exploring the complexity of Cambodian history.

 

Khieu is the heart of this novel all about heart. He is dichotomy personified, at once viewing himself as a Buddhist and therefore pacifist and holy, and also as a weapon of mass destruction and cold-blooded killer. Khieu has compartmentalised his life, and slowly throughout the course of the book the strain of holding these contradictory identities in mind tears him apart. The counterpart to Khieu is the seemingly ‘heroic’ Tracy Richter, another American who fought in Cambodia as part of a secret operation connected with Macomber. Tracy appears to be the classic ‘good guy’, a match for Khieu, having also been trained by a Japanese martial arts master Jinsoku-san. However, we slowly realise throughout the book, as we learn more about Tracy’s past, that in fact he enjoys killing. Like Khieu, he is victim of double think. He sees himself as a loving partner to his true love, the ballet dancer Lauren. A loyal son to his father, Louise Richter, who also plays a key role in the novel. But he also loves the power of ending a life. It’s a dark and morally grey portrayal that catches us off guard. Who do we really root for? The warrior who is trying to be a Buddhist, or the warrior who embraces what they are?

Just as Khieu and Tracy embody the juxtaposition of conflicting identities, Black Heart is similarly a book of incredible dichotomy. Double-think is present throughout the entirety of the novel. On the one hand, the most intelligent character in the novel is probably Kathleen Christian, a woman whom we initially believe is being used by Atherton as a ‘bit on the side’ but slowly realise is actually the one manipulating the presidential candidate. Her intelligence and cunning are an intriguing and complex counterpoint to the more directive schemes of men like Macomber. However, on the other hand, she is sexualised at every possible turn, as are all the female characters. That is, until they are murdered. Black Heart revels in its violence and explicit sex; you can tell by the language and the verbosity with which it is described. Yet, it is also about transcending both of those things, which is Khieu’s ultimate character arc. It simultaneously exhibits both positions without shame or fear.

Lustbader does not fall into the Madonna-Whore trap that so many male writers do. He manages to portray women who have complex sexual identities but also moral dimensions and intelligence. Lauren, Tracy’s partner, proves to be a key player at the end of the novel, and it is her act of astonishing courage at the novel’s denouement that saves Tracy’s life and redeems him. At the same time, Lustbader never misses an opportunity to tell us just how great her breasts are. Given how explicit and graphic some of the sex scenes in this book are (sex that makes D. H. Lawrence and Byron look like rank amateurs) one can kind of see why he zeroes in on these physical endowments. He sexualises the men, too, after all. Does this make it okay? Perhaps not, but it shows that Black Heart has its own kind of weird internal logic and consistency, and it is these through lines that I believe make it great and worthy of the epic. Khieu, as a subversion of the epic hero, has a unique weapon, which is his magnetism. His martial ability is secondary to his ability to lure people, men and women alike in fact, to him. Like a Gorgon, he often transfixes them with his eyes before striking the killing blow.

Thematically, Black Heart is mind-meltingly rich. The direct derivation of the title is an alternative name for the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, who refer to themselves as a Chet Khmau. It also becomes a kind of pseudonym for one of Khieu’s bifurcated personalities as his violent side emerges more strongly. In Western language, the word ‘heart’ is directly derived from ‘courage’. Corazón in Spanish means both. Le cœur in French is similarly synonymous. In Japanese, kokoro literally means heart or ‘inner mind’. However, we are given two deeper definitions of kokoro by the two different Japanese masters in the novel. Murano Musashi, Khieu’s master, defines it: ‘The killing spirit is here. Believe that if you believe nothing else.’ This echoes Stephen King’s world-famous line from The Dark Tower: ‘I kill with my heart’.

Scenes from the Cambodian Genocide courtesy of https://discoverwithme.org/2016/08/24/the-cambodian-genocide/

The second definition we receive, however, is even more profound. Jinsoku, Tracy’s master, tells us that ‘To peer into this and survive is life’s only heroic act’. To look inwardly, to truly interrogate ourselves, in other words, is the only heroism. Interestingly, I think Black Heart itself asks for our heroism as readers, for us to look beneath the surface and work out what the real mystery is, and this book is full of mysteries right up until its final page. The deeper into the past it plunges, the more we hunger to learn and the more we realise we can never know. Tracy says ‘the past holds the key to everything’ (this becomes a segue-way for the first flashback in the book), and in the case of this story he is utterly right. All of the characters are connected by their traumatic past and are drawn back to it. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once said: ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, drawn ceaselessly back to the past.’

Each character in the novel, regardless of how major they are, is required to look inward, to ‘peer into kokoro’. Tracy refuses at first to look inward, unable to acknowledge the ‘vice of killing’. Lauren cannot admit how she really feels about Tracy. Her heart is literally in the wrong place. Khieu cannot order his binary identities. Macomber cannot interrogate his motivations and therefore transcend them and let them go. There is a kind of ironic touch in that one of the weapons Macomber’s company, Metronics Inc., is working on, is called the Vampire, a new type of AI-controlled fighter jet. Vampires, of course, can only be killed by putting a stake through the heart.

Atherton Gottschalk’s ‘black heart’ is semi-literal, a weak heart he is terrified will give out on him due to genetic defects running through his family. When Macomber stages an assassination attempt on his life to boost his popularity, he is shot in the heart. Even though he was wearing a bullet-proof vest, the experience unmans him. In the end, once Macomber’s plot and his artificially boosted bid to presidency is exposed, Atherton kills himself because he lacks the courage to face the press and shame.

Black Heart, of course, also evokes the Chinese philosophy of ‘Thick Face, Black Heart’, first postulated by Li Zongwu and later developed by Chin-Ning Chu. It is a sociological technique of concealing one’s true motivations in order not to be victimised by the world. This philosophy is so nuanced that to restate or summarise here would be to grossly bastardize and do it injustice. However, conceptually it marries with a lot of what Lustbader thematically explores in Black Heart. No one is who they seem. People who seem altruistic prove selfish, and people who seem selfish prove devotionally selfless.

One of the most fascinating characters in this regard is Kim, a Vietnamese master-torturer. It would be easy to hate Kim, especially in the hands of another writer, but Lustbader shows remarkable empathy in his portrayal of a (literally) tortured person. Kim has watched the genocide of his people and the decimation of his entire culture. His story, which proves more relevant to the main plot than we could ever imagine at first, is in some ways a ‘last human on Earth’ narrative – a man out of time and place who has nothing in common with the rest of humanity, who feels utterly alienated by Europe and America, where he is forced to survive. Kim is consumed by the flames of the past and a desire for revenge. Yet, his motives are not selfish as they first appear. He acts on behalf of his family, all of whom save his brother were killed by Cambodians. Kim’s interactions with his brother are some of the most fascinating in the novel. His brother, Thu, has embraced Western culture, marrying a blonde American woman who seems the epitome of American beauty and 50s domesticity. Kim, however, cannot let go of the past and who he is. It is about how the West has trampled on cultures and subsumed them.

Throughout, Lustbader invests massive time and energy making his characters, particularly his Asian cast, feel real and three-dimensional. I couldn’t stop myself asking how many major books, films, and games of the last ten years have over 50% of the main cast made up by Asians, and not only that, but a diverse range that pays subtle attention to the colossal cultural differences between Japanese and Chinese ways of life, Vietnamese and Cambodian, and more. Is Lustbader culturally appropriating, or is his work a Shakespearean achievement of sympathy and recognition in the vein of The Merchant of Venice? It is not for me to say, of course. Others more qualified will be the judge. I can see that if this novel were to be released tomorrow, it would be extremely divisive in this regard.

In fact, I’m not sure this kind of novel could get a major publishing deal nowadays, not because I do not think it is up to standard, but because it is too radically what it is. It is lavishly stylistic, borderline psycho-tropically sensual, and doggedly true to itself. No overzealous editor has paired down Lustbader’s ferocious prose, and that is entirely a good thing. There are so many vast droves of sterile, boring books these days that have been edited into oblivion and unmeaning. Black Heart is not one of them. It does what its blurb says: ‘Explodes with supernova intensity’. Is it a little much at times? Maybe for some readers, but I personally found myself riveted from word go.

Lustbader isn’t afraid of an extended metaphor, nor a mixed one for that matter. Just look at how he describes Khieu feeling once again the loss of his sister, for whom he had an incestuous infatuation: ‘His right hand would ache and he’d look around wildly, feeling the heated breath of the unknown furnace closing on him, brushing past him just a heartbeat away.’ That final line is transcendental, not only connecting to the title of the book but also transporting us with an auditory stimuli rather than a visual. Sound, of course, has far more of a capacity to transport in time than any other medium. Just think of hearing an old song and the way it puts you into that exact location in time. Similarly the ‘heated breath’ of the furnace is psycho-sexual, as is the use of the word ‘brushing’.

Not all of Lustbader’s sex is perverse either. Sometimes, he surprises you with something wholesome, or else deflates or interrupts the sexual congress with some startling revelation or observation. Let’s examine again Khieu’s obsession with Malis, which is in part an act of semi-religious devotion in which he describes her as ‘apsara’, an interpreter of the gods. In one traumatic flashback, a young Khieu watches his sister Malis masturbate in bed, a voyeurism he succumbs to nightly, only to then have his fantasy destroyed as Malis’ real lover climbs through the window in the dead of night. It’s a shocking moment, for us and Khieu. Khieu becomes aware of himself as an observer, and sees the baseness of what he is doing. It is a startling moment where we as readers are also jerked out of the passionate frenzy and come to see ourselves as slightly perverse voyeurs.

In Black Heart, the ultimate katabasis, the ultimate hell, is the past itself. Just as we drawn back to it, so too we are haunted by it. All of the heroes are literally drawn back to China and Cambodia, and their respective pasts, where they discover numerous horrifying revelations. However, in the final sequence, we return to the past in a spiritual and symbolic sense as Khieu finally sheds his guilt and once more returns to the beauty of Buddha which he glimpsed as a child. It is a hair-raising scene that caused me to profusely weep, a moment of divine revelation in which the entire meaning of the cosmos hinges on one profound image: ‘… at last he saw the eternal face of his Amidha Buddha…’ Black Heart, for all its love of action, ends on a note of spiritual re-awakening.

All of the characters are called to free themselves from the past and let go of old grudges, to purify their black hearts. Tracy Richter is utterly defeated; he does not triumph over the villain in physical combat. However, he learns that there are more important things that settling the score. Khieu, similarly, stops fighting and becomes one with the Buddha whom he adored as a child. Kim, however, is another story, eaten up by the flames and cast down into oblivion, all because he cannot let go of the wrong done to him. Black Heart is strangely a tale of redemption that offers the surprising revelation that it really is never too late, provided we do not allow ourselves to be conquered by our desires and temptations. It has been said that the Western story is characterised by the straight line, the journey, and the Eastern story is characterised by the returning circle. Whether this is true or not, Lustbader reflects this tradition by having his novel circle fully back to the profound opening line: ‘From within the eye of the Buddha, all things could be seen.’

Black Heart is honestly unlike anything I have read in the world of fiction or am likely to read again. It changed the way I think about narrative and prose in startling ways, and offered me a glimpse into an astonishing time period and historical event that in the West we still know very little about. I could not help but feel a profound sadness as I put down the book. It was the sense that something truly great, for all its flaws, had been lost from the world, was no longer remembered as it should be. But then, that is very fitting, as the very message of Black Heart is to let go of the past.

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This has been the final entry in the Entering Carcosa series. I hoped you have enjoyed investigating these modern epics with me. The only thing that remains is for you to write your own.

I will not be disappearing, however, far from it. I’m looking to transition these discussions about literature, films, movies, games, and more, to another medium, possibly a podcast, though I haven’t fully made my mind up yet! Keep your eye out, especially on my Twitter: @josephwordsmith. If you ever need help, advice, or simply someone to rage against the world with, feel free to message me there! Also, if you have any suggestions about the kind of content you would like me to produce, people get in touch via this website’s contact page or Twitter.

If you feel that you have benefited from today’s class, then please check out my KoFi page, where you can donate $3 to “buy me a coffee” to help me keep producing free resources like this. Do not feel pressure to do so, but small contributions can go a long way for creators like me.

Thank you, my friends!

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Entering Carcosa Part 5: The Book of the New Sun

Hello dear scholars! Welcome to the fifth installment of Entering Carcosa, a series that examines the modern epic. Our aim is to show that epic narrative is far from dead, far from confined to the dusty shelves of snooty academics, but rather a living breathing thing. And we need it more than ever. We’ve looked at a variety of epics so far, from video-games: Metal Gear Solid, to collaborative novel series: The Horus Heresy and TV: True Detective. I retreated into the dark recesses of my ‘workshop of filthy creation’ for a time, poring over your suggestions for further entries in this series, and one suggestion above all captured my imagination. So, today, I want to write about an often over-looked Fantasy-Science Fiction epic, a quartet called The Book of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe. I’d like to thank Dana, a senior developer at Red Hook Games (the geniuses who made Darkest Dungeon), for recommending The Book of the New Sun to me. It has honestly been a life-changing experience reading it, and it is certainly a fitting entry into the epic canon.

The Book of the New Sun was published in four segments: The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), The Claw of the Conciliator (1981), The Sword of the Lictor (1982) and The Citadel of the Autarch (1983). Since, it has reached a kind of cult-status among fandoms, but is not as widely known as say The Lord of the Rings or even the works of Raymond E. Feist or David Eddings. However, Gene Wolfe’s quartet is surely a masterpiece, one that probes the nature of time, love, destiny, morality and divinity. The true brilliance of the novel is not simply the scope of its world ‘Urth’ (which in fact is our own post-technological world thousands, or perhaps even millions, of years in the future), or the scope of its themes, but the way these are conveyed to us via the first person narration of its protagonist, Severian the Torturer. Severian recounts to us his complicated and colourful life, from being a humble apprentice with the Guild of Torturers, to ascending to the very apex of society. He is an unreliable narrator, prone to tweaking facts and investing too much thought in certain interpretations of events. Everything we see in this world is filtered through his perception, and Gene Wolfe does a phenomenal job sustaining this viewpoint for the entirety of this lengthy narrative. Severian is as real to me as any historical figure.

Introducing an element of unrealiable narration into the Fantasy genre is a stroke of brilliance because it creates space for the reader to create their own interpretations, to question, and to draw their own conclusions about events. Whereas Fantasy has a tendency to be simplistic, or even didactic (the prophecy is the prophecy and is undoubtedly true, for example), Gene Wolfe’s epic muddies the waters, which actually more closely resembles Homer’s own grey and ambiguous morality. Are we supposed to see Achilles in The Iliad as a hero or monster? Are we supposed to condemn Odysseus for his unfaithfulness to Penelope or forgive him? The epics of old created complex characters that were in no way saintly in their actions, and so we see this in Severian, who is remarkably convoluted. On the one hand, he has no qualms about torture and execution, and even prides himself on his relative mastery of the art. On the other, he shows remarkable compassion for certain people and things: his dog Triskele, whom he rescues, his lover Thecla, whom he spares further torture (which causes him to be banished from the Guild, initiating his quest), Dorcas, whom he takes under his wing despite knowing nothing about, and even his arch-nemesis Agia, who tries to kill him on more than one occasion. However, it is precisely this complexity that has potentially stymied The Book of the New Sun from reaching mass-market appeal, unlike some of our other entries in this series, which are more broadly popular. Still, it is widely regarded as one of the best Fantasy novels of all time (according to Locus magazine and many others).

Not only is this first person close perspective a deeply intimate and personal style, which makes it incredibly emotive, it is also elusive. By this, I mean that Gene Wolfe manages to bury many secrets in his narrative. The answers to the narrative’s many questions are there for the observant reader, but they are not spelled out to us. We must seek them ourselves. This, I would argue, is a relatively new idea in the epic, which as a genre has never been much about twists or ‘surprises’. However, Gene Wolfe’s narrative is not reliant on it. The story can be read at a surface level: a rip-roaring fast-paced and unusually well-written Fantasy novel. However, look a little deeper, and you will see threads connecting characters, events, and timelines in the most astonishing ways. Gene Wolfe has achieved such remarkable narrative depth that, thirty five years on or more, it is still being discussed on reddit forums, podcasts, and in book clubs. There are wild schools of interpretation that take certain angles on the events described in the book, piecing together the elliptical parts of the storytelling. In addition, writing in Severian’s voice, Wolfe uses a plethora of antiquated words to evoke a post-technological (and therefore, paradoxically ‘ancient’ even though it is in the future) world, such as sabretache, oubliette, zoanthrope, eidolon. Though Severian writes in a fairly accessible way, his vocabulary is that of an older world and often dazzling, matching the high, elevated style of the epic.

Time and again, Wolfe draws us back to the classical epics with his work. Severian is, in many ways, the epitome of an epic hero. He bears a double-edged executioner’s blade called Terminus Est, and a ‘fuligin’ mask and cloak, a colour dimmer than black which hides him in darkness. He also carries the Claw of the Conciliator itself, a magical talisman, remnant of a Messianic saviour, that can ‘heal’ people and create awe-inspiring light. His cloak echoes the magical cloak used by Siegfried in the German epic The Nibelungenlied which can turn its wearer invisible (think also of the cloaks given to Frodo and Sam by the elves of Lothlorien). His sword echoes numerous ‘epic’ blades, including Siegfried’s Balmund, King Arthur’s Excalibur, and the Spear of Achilles, which can ‘cut the wind itself’. This magical equipment allows Severian to overcome many perils on his journey.

He has been trained as an instrument of the law (all epic heroes require a sense of justice), and is proud of the fact that he never ‘exceeds’ allotted punishments, which is his idea of fairness. Severian of course, as the narrator, tries frequently to persuade us to his point of view. Odysseus narrates part of his tale in The Odyssey, and during this story he often asserts his moral rectitude. In this way Wolfe mirrors the classical epics, but he stretches our empathy even further, perhaps to breaking point. Many of the acts Severian commits would make Odysseus pale. In addition, Severian has several powers, including ‘perfect recall’, although some instances of omission in the narrative lead us to question the veracity of this.

Severian is an orphan who does not know his true parentage and has been raised by the Guild itself, though hints of his origins (and his true nature) become evident later. Here, he echoes Achilles, who was sent away from his mother Thetis to be raised in a secluded sect of women, dressed and disguised as a woman, so that he might never go to war. The prophecy about Achilles was that if he went to war, he would die young but win great glory. Thetis does this to protect Achilles, but of course, as with all Greek tragedy, it ends up becoming part of the prophecy’s fulfilment, for the sect is discovered by Odysseus who recruits Achilles for the war. Achilles has been dispossessed of his masculinity, his royalty, and his free choice by being hidden away, and in going to fight in the Trojan war he reclaims it. So, too, Severian is dispossessed in his own fashion, dispossessed of an identity and a ties to other people, hence his sociopathic nature. He is forced to wear the habit of the Torturer, which he remarks upon himself is ‘a disguise’ of his true nature. Many characters refer to him as ‘Death’, yet as he says himself he is not Death but simply ‘a man’. However, we sense as readers deep down he may not even be a man at all. There are many layers of disguise and symbolism here at work. In a way, The Book of the New Sun is a rags to riches story of Severian coming to inherit what is rightfully his, though whether he truly knew himself that he had been dispossessed is up for much debate. He arguably shares one other trait with Achilles, that of his indestructibility, yet this too is uncertain given the lens of unreliable narration.

Severian possesses many tragic flaws; he might even be described as monstrous from a certain point of view. He is full of lust, morally unscrupulous, deceitful in his narrative and frankly terrifying to most people he meets, and is it any wonder: he is described (roughly) as a six-foot tall man in a black gimp mask with a blade longer than he is tall. Certainly not a knight in shining armour, but he does have redemptive qualities that make him compelling to read. Much like the compellingly vile heroes of Ancient Greece (Ajax, Achilles and Agamemnon come to mind).

Severian is our ‘guide’ through this story, in one sense, though not an entirely reliable one. He does have his own guide too, that of Thecla, who in some ways, like Penelope, is symbolic of his deeper, better self. The anima of his soul (for our souls are said in Greek philosophy to be the opposite gender to our bodies). She is also a philosophical teacher, much like Virgil was to Dante. Thecla is the first person to introduce Severian to the tales of the old world in the ‘little brown book’ that she reads to him and subsequently bequeths him. Her wisdom and knowledge, the stories she imparts to him, prove a comfort and guide in his times of need. Though Thecla is no longer with him (in one sense), her voice continues to guide him throughout the events of the story. This becomes more literal later on, whereby ingesting the gland of the alzabo (a creature possibly hailing from another world) along with a piece of Thecla’s flesh, Severian absorbs her consciousness and becomes a dual self. He also gains her memories which become essential to infiltrating the citadel of the Autarch later in the story. Severian, in one sense, becomes a keeper of the dead.

The Book of the New Sun is many things. I have mentioned that in some ways it resembles a ‘rags to riches’ story, and I think at its heart that is the narrative that most resonates. At the end of the story, we revisit many of the locations and people that formed the early narrative in an unexpected yet heart-breaking return. It is this moment we realise ‘how far we have come’, how Severian has grown, now being at the highest eschalon of society, and how much has been lost and gained. It is a truly masterful turn from Wolfe – an Odyssey moment where the hero comes home. However, he subverts this. Whereas Odysseus’ home is more traditionally comforting (his loyal servants, his roaring hearth, his family, his loving wife), Severian’s ‘comforting’ return is to the torture cells of his old Guild tower. Somehow this is no less emotive.

However, despite this ‘rags to riches’ moment, it is undeniable that Severian’s journey into the north and south of his land feel like a traditional quest, with episodic encounters, recurring characters, and unexpected turns of fate. He even has a party of followers, which changes from time to time with the ebb and flow of the story. He winds up in a war against the Ascians, climbing Mount Typhon to meet with an Autarch of old, plumbing ruins filled with devolved man-apes, a captive prisoner of a renegade of the state, and a respected official in the city of Thrax far away from his home of Nessus, and much more besides. In essence, the scope of this story in a literal sense is immense. Underlying this are the thematic elements which are what truly make the story work and give it such powerful resonance. Severian describes a world to us that once knew interstellar travel, but which now regards technology as a kind of magic. The sun of the world is dying, fading to a dull red glow, the Urth dying with it. There is a prophecy, however, that one day the New Sun (which may in actuality be a New Son) will arise, causing Urth to be reborn and ushering in a new age of technological greatness. The New Sun, and the other quasi-deities that are worshipped in this strange future world are, in a way, the Muse which Severian invokes to tell this tale. They are the promise of a redemptive future and a new hope to which Severian has dedicated this tale of his life. Wolfe performs the invocation of the Muse within the universe and mindset of his character, never breaking the illusion he has created.

Through this lens, Wolfe is able to make all kinds of anachronistic observations of our world, as well as predictions about the worlds of the future and commentary on the past. Still, timeless themes prevail as well as political or sociological ones (the Ascians are certainly a commentary on Communism in the East, for example, only able to recite ‘approved’ scripture, yet an entire language is formed around this and Wolfe subverts expectations by having one of the most powerful framed narratives in the whole book told by an Ascian prisoner). Love and its antithesis is a big theme in this novel. Severian’s many encounters with women are often unwholesome and cause us to judge and condemn his repulsive behaviour; we are supposed to feel this way about them. Yet, these give way to moments of transcendent beauty and forgiveness too. Death and religion are also big themes. Severian is Death, in a sense, a man in black with an executioner’s blade stalking the land. Yet, he is also life, because he bears the Claw. He is, in some sense, an adjudicator, the ultimate judge with the power to give and take away. The world itself is dying, but there are also possible futures where it is renewed, and this is not only through technology but also a spiritual occurrence, the return of the Messianic Conciliator (New Sun). For some this hope is nothing but a faint delusion, but for others it is real. The power of religion to inspire and deceive is dealt with in equal measure. Ultimately, Severian’s beliefs shape the whole narrative, because as insightful as he is, he is blind to the truth about what he really is. Wolfe, I think, is making the point here that perhaps we all are.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a katabasis, a descent into hell. There are many instances where Severian descends into a kind of ‘land of the dead’, the first of which in The Shadow of the Torturer, significantly, is his pursuit of his dog through the tunnels beneath the Guild Tower, where he stumbles upon the forgotten Atrium of Time. In this place, he meets an eerie maiden, Valeria, and time itself seems to be stopped. You will not know it upon first reading, but his conversation with Valeria, much like Odysseus’ with Tiresias in Hades, is prescient, and foreshadows many events of the later narrative. Time remains a theme throughout The Book of the New Sun. Severian seemingly steps into the past in The Claw of the Conciliator via the incantations of the Cumean, a witch queen. He sees a strange ritual and sees a vision of a dead man: Apa-Punchau. He also experiences the horrifying rite at Vodalus’ camp whereby he eats the dead body of the woman he loves most in the world, Thecla, in order to absorb her consciousness. This is truly hellish, yet it leads to a moment of beauty in which Severian is, finally, re-united with the woman he lost. Nekyia is the Greek word for the rite by which the dead are summoned (e.g. necromancy), and here we see that rite not only allows Severian to see the dead but to keep them alive. [see my own ‘epic’ novel Nekyia if you’re interested in more on this theme]. In The Sword of the Lictor, Severian has many hellish encounters, including an assault on a keep overlooking Lake Diaturna, a keep occupied by a terrible giant. Within the keep, he sees many malformed experiments, twisted once-humans the giant has created, and which he must fight through. This ends with a frankly hair-raising confrontation with the giant himself which is almost reminiscent of the battle between Achilles and Hector. In the final book, The Citadel of the Autarch, Severian goes to war, finding himself amidst the horrors of the front, though this is not nearly so dramatic as his escape into the Corridors of Time, glimpsing the world behind the world.

Ultimately, The Book of the New Sun can easily be considered an epic. In its scope, pathos, style, structure and most of all: its protagonist. Wolfe has created a modern legend that is deeper than it appears on first glimpse, full of hidden meanings, subtexts, and secrets. Yet, it does not lose its narrative power or pace. Rather, each part augments the whole. Were our society to come to an end, and The Book of the New Sun be one of the only surviving fragments, no doubt whatever species discovered our ruination would be curious as to what incredible and convoluted hero it was that wrote such an account.

It has been a pleasure to bring you a fifth part of this series. I am always looking for more examples of modern epics, and while I have some thoughts myself, I quite enjoy taking your suggestions, as it introduces me to new material! Please, feel free to leave a comment with your suggestions for further epics or thoughts about The Book of the New Sun.

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Until next time, my friends!