Book (club) of the New Sun discussion

The Shadow of the Torturer

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message 1: by Drew (new)

Drew (slam4008) | 7 comments Wow. That was great. I'm not sure I can parse everything yet. I did start to think critically as things went along, trying to measure the Sci-Fi aspects of it. I will definitely need a re-read, but at the moment I guess I just loved the whole artistry of the book. It was beautifully written and doesn't seem to tread into "Mary Sue" territory which seems awfully hard in genre fiction. The Hero's Journey aspect was about as well done as I've ever seen, although I'm not quite sure that I get the role of women in the book yet. It seems like the only realized female character at this point was the Chatelaine Thecla. Aglia and Dorcas are problematic so far, and it could just be because it's a first person narrative and Severian is naive in a lot of ways. Basically everything after getting exiled from the tower is weird from a storytelling perspective, it basically slows down and seems to deal with a lot of things that don't seem very important. The actors, the conservatory and the duel all seem contrived. I didn't lose interest, but the flow got bogged down and I can't for the life of me figure it out. Maybe Wolfe was setting some ground rules for the society and introducing us to the world at large, but it was all so hallucinatory. I'm tempted to re-read to see if I can unwrap everything, but I don't think I can stop from finding out what happens next. Sorry if this is a lot to throw out at first, but it was so amazing I'm kind of all over the place.

message 2: by Heath (new)

Heath | 10 comments Mod
Oh man, I have an epic post coming when I get some time...

message 3: by Heath (new)

Heath | 10 comments Mod
Alright, where do I start? I've never had a knack for literary criticism so bear with me...

I suppose we start with the title itself. Book of the New Sun. Christian imagery is everywhere in this book. Severian is trotting through the city with a giant cross on his back. "Terminus Est" is said to mean "this is the line of division" but it is actually a play on "consumatum est" which were Christ's last words as he hung from the crucifix (and means "it is finished"). So Severian is literally walking around town with a symbol of Christ on his back. Remember this line from the opening chapters:

"We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges...I did not know that then, but it is a profound mistake to believe that we must know of such things to be influenced by them, and in fact to believe so is to believe in the most debased and superstitious kind of magic. The would-be sorcerer alone has faith in the efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all."

So what does "Book of the New Sun" mean? Well, on Urth, so far in the future from our own, the sun is dying. A coming of a new sun is prophesied to come to "save" the people. I think this is a play again on Christ and sun = son. Coming of the new son, or the second coming of Christ.

We've already had questions of whether Severian has been able to give life. He himself wondered whether he infused life into his dog, Triskele (puts his hand on the dog's head - even though he seemed "as dead as the rest"). It's also heavily implied that Dorcas was one of the dead bodies in the lake (probably the one the old man was searching for) when Severian's touch brought her back. Was it Severian, or was it the Claw of the Conciliator (with it's extremely bright light? Another great passage from the second chapter when Severian is talking about his childhood in the guild:

"Two thoughts (that were nearly dreams) obsessed me and made them infinitely precious...the second was that there existed somewhere a miraculous light - which I sometimes conceived as a candle, sometimes as a flambeau - that engendered life in whatever objects it fell upon..."

I found the title of the opening chapter interesting. "Resurrection and Death." Isn't it usually the other way around? Plus, I originally thought the title was a reference to his near drowning but that doesn't actually happen until the next chapter. I can't help but wonder whether Severian has a background which we are not aware. For example, in the chapter he meets Vodalus for the first time and immediately recites this diatribe about how he is a Vodalarius..."One of the thousands of Volalarii of whose existence you are unaware." Seems an odd thing to say for a guy who's been isolated in the guild tower his whole life. Severian even comments that it was a term he had scarcely heard. There's also the first line of the chapter (and of the book) to consider: "It is possible I already had some presentiment about my future."

I also want to comment on Severian's "perfect memory." He tells us several times upfront that he can remember all, yet he often betrays the fact that this might not be the case. In chapter three, Severian says: "It was in this instant of confusion that I realized for the first time that I am in some degree I could no longer be sure my own mind was not lying to me." There are also several references of him failing to recall details such as the meal he first brought Thelca - despite his best efforts to remember.

We also know Severian is a liar. He lies to the Masters in the guild several times. to the girl in the Atrium of Time, and to several others (including his readers?).

I'm not going to say much more...especially about the later chapters of the first book (once Severian leaves the guild). Yes, it's weird but all very relevant and does make sense once you have more information.

message 4: by Drew (last edited Oct 13, 2010 01:50PM) (new)

Drew (slam4008) | 7 comments Beginning of Claw

I've been doing a bit of thinking, and I'm going to suggest that there is a fair amount of reliance on Norse mythology so far. Obviously there are a lot of parallels between Jesus Christ and Baldur of the Aesir. Baldur was a teutonic antecedent of JC, and that murdered Sun God seems to fit in with the imagery despite the fact that Severian is walking around with a cross on his back. Urth is another form of Urd or Urdr, which was one of the three Norns, specifically fate. So basically you've got a world that at once references Earth but also seems to be the literal fate of the protaganist. Possibly not, but Wolfe seems to like throwing huge obvious things at us, like Dorcas, and letting us sort of miss the forest for the trees. The Baldur imagery is most apparent when Severian is "killed" by a leaf, while Baldur was slain by a sprig of mistletoe. Baldur will then be resurrected after Ragnarok in the new world that is to come. Kind of some neat foreshadowing and I'll be interested to see if this is borne out by events later in the book. That then raises the question of whether Agilus is Baludr's brother Hod or Longinus who pierced Jesus side. I feel like both were dupes who were being used by others as part of an existing plot. Were Agia/Agilus working for others?

A thought about Father Inre. Just as Jesus threw down the old order with his denunciation of the legalistic Pharisees, so too might Father Inre who's name is essentially INRI (a latin acronym that is translated to Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews) be symbolic of the old order that Severian is destined to overthrow.

I might be way off base here, but these were a couple of thoughts that I'd been mulling over since yesterday evening and I thought I'd go ahead and share them.

message 5: by Heath (new)

Heath | 10 comments Mod
I suspect you are right on with the references to Baldur. The fact that we was killed by mistletoe along with the other evidence is too obvious not to be right.

I don't have a copy of the book in front of me at the moment, but is it Father Inre or Inire?
Either way, I don't disagree with your assessment of the symbolism of the name. But the good father seems to be much more than a representation of the old order given his use of mirrors and the Botanic Gardens.

I spent a little time thinking about the "Resurrection and Death" title and now think that it was intentionally misdirecting and ironic. The title doesn't refer to Severian in the way I assumed it had at first glance. Wolfe means "resurrection" in the sense that Voladus' crew is physically lifting a body out of the ground in that chapter. And Severian saves Voldalus' life by killing his attacker.

message 6: by Drew (last edited Sep 28, 2010 06:56PM) (new)

Drew (slam4008) | 7 comments Dammit, you're right about Inire. Good call, although I'm not sure that it doesn't necessarily invalidate my supposition (you've read the book so there's a good chance I'm being an idiot). Without getting too into things, the Pharisees represented a beneficial advancement that had become corrupt and stultified. Obviously a codified law is a tremendous improvement on the chaos that the Pharisees were a rejection of. But it had become another tool to protect those in power. Inire seems to represent the modern ethos of political, religious and scientific authority. Given that, at the time of writing, we were still using the birth of Christ as the defining characteristic of the modern era with BC/AD, it doesn't seem completely unreasonable to suppose that he represents the old/modern world that is being undone. Of course this presupposes that he is the real, or an, antagonist in the story.

I like your thoughts on the title of the first chapter. I'm very anxious to learn more about Voladus/Voladii. That seems like a key to understanding a lot of what's going on.

I've also got to try to figure out the symbolism of the acting troupe. I'm sure they'll make more sense, but at the moment it's just more weirdness that I can't quite get a grip on.

message 7: by Drew (last edited Oct 13, 2010 01:51PM) (new)

Drew (slam4008) | 7 comments 2/3 of the way through Shadow. Spoilers.

Well, the Autarch has been met and the play staged. It seems to be a confirmation of the overtly Christian themes, except for a couple passages. Before the play Severian remarks that Talos doesn't lie, but that he speaks in metaphor and is never really honest. Almost like a Sophist. The fact that Talos and Baldanders are both mythical figures representing a Bronze giant protector of Crete (which I believe is one of the cradles of Western civilization) and a protean myth respectively is interesting, although their roles seem to be reversed here. I'm going to have to think about that later, but the other comment that was telling was after the play when Severian remarks that the crowd was reading symbolism into the play that wasn't necessarily there. This seems to be another case of the omniscient narrator casting doubt on his narrative. The overt biblical story of the play though seems to be a recognition of the nature of the story as a whole. I think the point is to tell the reader that Wolfe recognized and at least partially rejects this interpretation of the text. He acknowledges the similarities in a sort of Joseph Campbell "Power of Myth" fashion and then makes it clear that this is not that story regardless of the shared details. But the fact that we can't trust anything that is written down seems to reject that supposition as well. Basically a (don't say it) labyrinthine narrative structure ( I said it). I'm glad you chose Borges.

message 8: by Heath (last edited Oct 22, 2010 04:33PM) (new)

Heath | 10 comments Mod
Spoilers to the end of Shadow and the Claw.

I mentioned it in one of my other posts but I think you're right on to point out that Wolfe wants us to question the interpretations that he, himself, has cultivated. I think he does it to a devastating degree in the the Appendices. Not only is translation itself an imperfect practice (unless you are translating Don Quixote in Borges' world) but Wolfe casts further doubt by telling you that he replaces entire CONCEPTS with their twentieth-century equivalent.

I'd like to say I understood the play on my second read-through, but the themes are completely lost on me. However, did you catch that the play is based on "a dramatization of the lost Book of the New Sun? Are we meant to think that the Book of the New Sun, Severian's manuscripts, somehow passed through time to Gene Wolfe who translated them in 1980 and became lost over hundreds of thousands of years (much like the list of lost texts referenced in the New Testament) until Severian acts in the Chinese-whispers version of his own story?

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