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!