Ultan's Library

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Lions and Tigers and Bears . . . of the New Sun

by Michael Andre-Driussi

1. The Strange Bear Man at the Threshold

The first time I read The Urth of the New Sun, one scene tantalized me more than any other. I could see just enough to know that there was a great deal I could not see yet. The symbols were there, I just could not understand them. It was in chapter 14, “The End of the Universe”, where, in the rigging of the starship, Severian has single combat with a mutineer who has claws:

I paused for a moment to look at him, with some vague notion that the claws I had seen might be artificial, like the steel claws of the magicians [in The Sword of the Lictor] or the lucivee with which Agia had torn my cheek, and if artificial, they might be of some use to me.

They were not…. The claws of an arctother had been shaped from his fingers — ugly and innocent, incapable of holding any other weapon. (p101)

The combatant he faces is a modified human who has bear claws instead of fingers, in contrast to the metal hand weapons used by both the magicians (at the foot of Mount Typhon) and Agia (at the jungle court of Vodalus). Severian triumphs against this bear-man and soon thereafter the starship passes from his home-universe of Briah into the higher-universe of Yesod. The bear-man is thus in some sense a guardian of the threshold, even though as a common mutineer he is not tagged as such.

For a succinct definition of threshold guardians, I employ J. E. Cirlot:

Just as the powers of the Earth must be defended, so, by analogy, must all mystic, religious and spiritual wealth or power be protected against hostile forces or against possible intrusion by the unworthy…. From the psychological point of view, guardians symbolize the forces gathered on the threshold of transition between different stages of evolution and spiritual progress or regression. The ‘guardian of the threshold’ must be overcome before Man can enter into the mastery of the higher realm. (Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, “Guardians” entry)

This definition captures much of what I saw in that first glance: while it is clear that throughout his narrative Severian is undergoing a process of change through which he evolves from a torturer into the Conciliator (and beyond), the combat with the bear-man marked a distinct threshold, beyond which lay the higher realm of Yesod (if we take Yesod to be a kind of hyperspace).

Identifying the threshold and the guardian was all I had initially. I did not know why the guardian in this case was a bear, or better, why it had to be a bear. So I began to investigate what “bear” means in the text.

2. The Atrium of Time Provides a Key

In tracking down the bears in Severian’s narrative, I found myself back at the beginning again, where I discovered an important clue.

In The Shadow of the Torturer, chapter 4 (“Triskele”), Severian chances upon the Atrium of Time, an enclosed garden hidden deep within the Citadel complex. Emerging from the underground maze that had led him to the place, he takes in the scene:

Statues of beasts stood with their backs to the four walls of the court, eyes turned to watch the canted dial [of a multifaceted time piece]: hulking barylambdas; arctothers, the monarchs of bears; glyptodons; smilodons with fangs like glaives. All were dusted with snow. (p43)

Severian finds a garden where four types of statues are focused on a central clock that is tipped over and broken. All these statues are of animals extinct in our time: the barylambda was a cow-sized, primitive herbivore of Palaeocene North America; the arctother was the very large bear of North and South America; the glyptodon, which possessed a carapace like an armadillo, was a cow-sized herbivore of South America; and the smilodon was a sabre-toothed tiger. (A “glaive” is a pole-axe with a head like the blade of a sword.)

The placement of the statues suggests an opposition between arctothers and smilodons: while we do not know the orientation of the garden, opposing sides will be North/South and East/West. I tend to think that the bear/cat sides are North and South. Because the garden is literally focused on a timepiece, there is a hint that the four types of animal statues represent the seasons. As will become clear, I think that the bear represents winter and the cat summer.

The bear/cat polarity has already been alluded to just two pages earlier when Severian describes the beast handlers of the Bear Tower. Among them, “at some point in life each brother takes a lioness or bear-sow in marriage, after which he shuns human women” (The Shadow of the Torturer, chapter 4, p41). The big cat and the bear seem to be sacred animals, paired and yet in opposition.

3. Many of Severian’s Foes Are Bear-like

Initially it seemed as though the bear-man on the starship was the first bear-like opponent that Severian fights, but as I began to look closer, many intriguing details began to emerge: Severian faces a series of ursine opponents, nearly all of whom are killed.

The first bear is Agilus. Severian’s combat with him is at the Sanguinary Fields of chapter 27, but the build-up to this begins 10 chapters earlier: at the rag shop (The Shadow of the Torturer, chapter 17, “The Challenge”), Severian is challenged to a duel by a hipparch of the Septentrion Guard. (The challenge is given by Agia in disguise. Her twin Agilus later wears the same disguise for the duel.) Agilus is a bear in that he is disguised as a Septentrion Guard, where “Septentrion” is another name for the constellation of the Great Bear (it became a term for the North in general). Agilus cheats at the duel, but when the dead Severian rises up from the ground Agilus panics and kills several spectators in his attempt to flee. Ironically the magistrate orders Severian to execute Agilus for his crimes against the spectators, so while Severian kills Agilus it is a legally sanctioned execution.

The second bear is Hildegrin. Hildegrin is often referred to as “the Badger”, due to his digging up of corpses, but he is introduced in the first chapter of The Shadow of the Torturer as being like a bear: when Thea takes the laser pistol from Hildegrin it seems to Severian “as if a dove had momentarily commanded an arctother” (The Shadow of the Torturer, chapter 1, p14). So 22 chapters before we are given his name or his sobriquet, Hildegrin is described as being like a bear. At the end of The Claw of the Conciliator (chapter 31), Hildegrin calls for Severian’s aid as he wrestles with Apu Punchau in the revived Stone Town. As Severian enters the fray, the time-warp scene implodes (due to Severian’s physical contact with Apu Punchau) and Hildegrin is never seen again.

The third bear is the alzabo. This ghoulish monster animal of Urth is based upon medieval legends concerning the hyena, and yet when the alzabo appears in The Sword of the Lictor it clearly has bearish traits: “Its fur looked red and ragged in the firelight, and the nails of its feet, larger and coarser than a bear’s, were darkly red” (The Sword of the Lictor, chapter 16, p128). When Severian later sees the alzabo by daylight, he notes: “It was so large and moved so swiftly that I at first thought of it a red destrier, riderless and saddleless” (p135). The alzabo has a bear’s claws, a bear’s body mass, and bear-like fur that is red like the colour of the dying sun. Severian’s combat with the alzabo is complicated by the manoeuvrings of Agia (who wants to kill Severian) and Casdoe (the one whom the alzabo is after), so in the end Severian pledges a truce with the monster. The next day the alzabo is killed by zoanthrops (wild men), and Severian looks upon the corpse with some compassion.

The fourth bear is Decuman, one of those sorcerers alluded to in the quotation about the bear-man.  Shortly after the death of the alzabo, Severian encounters the sorcerers (The Sword of the Lictor, chapters 20 and 21), and finds them to be unmodified human males who use steel talons as hand weapons. The sorcerers kidnap Little Severian and Severian enters a duel of magic to ransom them both, but his opponent Decuman is killed by a monster (sent by Agia’s agent Hethor to track and kill Severian).

Up to this point, the bear traits have been physical (claws, fur, size) or in the name (Septentrion). But bears are famous for hibernating, for going into their caves to sleep out the winter. With that hint, perhaps you will not be as surprised as I was to recognize the fifth bear in Master Ash and his Last House in The Citadel of the Autarch.

Severian takes on a mission from the Pelerines to force Ash from his hermitage (allegedly to save him from the advancing Ascian forces), but once there, Severian discovers that the house is a time portal, with different ages visible from different floors, and that Ash is a man (perhaps the last human on Urth) who is watching the final ice age (“winter”) from the safety of his house (“cave”). Severian sleeps in the Last House, a detail that locks in with the hibernation theme. Severian has to use force to get Ash out of the house, and when that is accomplished, Ash fades away. The next person Severian meets reminds him that it is New Year’s Day.

The final bear in The Book of the New Sun is an unnamed “ursine man” who sets up Severian for the horse-taming test to join the military unit (The Citadel of the Autarch, chapter 19, p151). Severian does not kill this man, though it is quite possible he dies in the battle against the Ascians in chapter 21.

The prominence of these bear guardians diminishes as the narrative of The Book of the New Sun progresses. Agilus is the central foe of The Shadow of the Torturer, and his victory would have kept Severian from the Gate of Nessus. In order to triumph, Severian must die and resurrect himself. Hildegrin is trying to kill the promise of the Past in the form of Apu-Punchau, yet he is a lesser opponent than Agilus in that he is not the primary obstacle in The Claw of the Conciliator. The threshold that the alzabo is guarding is Fatherhood, while the sorcerers guard Sacrifice at the base of Mount Typhon, yet in The Sword of the Lictor Typhon himself is a much more imposing monster, as is Baldanders after him. Master Ash of The Citadel of the Autarch is an unarmed hermit who offers little real resistance, but beyond his threshold lies the threatening Ragnarok future. The destrier-trainer guards the awful world of War, but he himself, while literally marked as “ursine,” plays a slight role compared to all the other “bears”.

When the bear-man appears in The Urth of the New Sun he is diminished to the point of being a mere mutineer who is more bear than man, but the threshold he guards has grown to be the Universe itself, and for the first time Severian knowingly kills his ursine opponent.

4. Severian’s Dealings with Cats Are Compassionate

Having established this pattern regarding bears, I turned my attention to the big cats in the text, searching for a possible pattern there. The cats are more elusive, their presence often showing only through a distant roar or a recent track: Severian hears a smilodon’s roar when he is with Agia in the Jungle Gardens (The Shadow of the Torturer, chapter 20, p179); near the war front, Severian finds fresh smilodon tracks (The Citadel of the Autarch, chapter 1, p11); in the Age of Myth, Severian hears a smilodon’s cough (The Urth of the New Sun, chapter 44, p345).

When a smilodon shows up in an embedded story, the protagonist (who is linked to Severian) twice avoids combat with the cat. In the mountains Severian reads a story from the Brown Book to his newly adopted Little Severian, and in that story, “Tale of the Boy Called Frog”, there is a confrontation between a smilodon and a wolf family that has just adopted the boy called Frog (The Sword of the Lictor, chapter 19, p153). Combat is avoided, however, and when the smilodon appeals to the Senate of Wolves to attempt to get the boy by legal means, combat is again avoided when another animal (a big cat) ransoms Frog with gold.

Two times in the text Severian encounters big cats face-to-face, and both times they are bound creatures: while crossing the pampas with Dorcas and the dying Jolenta, Severian frees an atrox (a type of ice age cave lion) that is tied to a tree to scare off other atroxes (The Claw of the Conciliator, chapter 29, p270); in Typhon’s Era on Urth, Severian frees a smilodon that had been tied to a post to torment a prisoner (The Urth of the New Sun, chapter 34, p276). When a wounded Severian encounters cat-people they are the women-cats of the Old Autarch, who act as nurses for him, and their hidden claws remind him of the Claw of the Conciliator (The Citadel of the Autarch, chapter 24, p195).

The contrast between Severian’s interactions with the “bears” and the big cats is plain: the bears are foes who must die, and the cats are foes to be avoided or friends to set free. In dealing with the bears, Severian shows severity; in dealing with the cats, he exhibits mercy and compassion.

It occurs to me that Agia may be a hidden cat. After all, I have identified her twin brother Agilus as a bear, which in the scheme I have sketched would make her a cat. In addition, Severian shows mercy in not executing her outside the Mine at Saltus (The Claw of the Conciliator, chapter 7), which ties into the mercy-towards-cats I have traced, and Severian first hears a smilodon roar while he is with Agia (The Shadow of the Torturer, chapter 20). Finally, while Agia uses an athame (poisoned witch’s dagger) against Severian at the Mine (The Claw of the Conciliator, chapter 7) and a crooked dagger against him at the widow’s house in the mountains (The Sword of the Lictor, chapters 15-16), she only scores a hit on him with the aforementioned lucivee (The Citadel of the Autarch, chapter 26), a type of metal “cat’s claws” (the name in French means “lynx”). There is also the chapter entitled “The Mercy of Agia” (The Citadel of the Autarch, chapter 25) wherein she rescues Severian from behind Ascian lines.

5.  The Meanings of This Pattern

I think this pattern of bear and cat has applications to both ecological niches and ice age mythology.

Habitual readers of Gene Wolfe have noticed that he often marks his protagonists as wolves or wolf-like, from the obvious example in the story title “Hero As Werwolf,” to the more subtle case of The Book of the Long Sun, where Silk’s pet bird is “Oreb”, a biblical name for a raven associated with a wolf.1 It is well known that Severian is so marked: when Severian’s adoptive son asks him for a story from the Brown Book, he specifies that it must have “wolfs” [sic] in it; the story, as mentioned before, has the wolves adopting a human boy, just as Severian has adopted the new orphan; Severian later remarks, as he is trying to find his way out of the underground maze of the sorcerers, that, “My nose is by no means the sensitive one of the he-wolf in the tale” (The Sword of the Lictor, chapter 21, p167).

In writing about wolf-heroes, Gene Wolfe takes a number of different approaches, depending on the story. Generally speaking, his fiction paints hunters in an unfavourable light, in part a reaction, perhaps, to the hunters that kill the wolf in such stories as “Peter and the Wolf” and “Little Red Riding Hood”. Another approach is the wolf as predator in an ecological system, as in his “Hero As Werwolf”. There is also the beast fable, such as “The Tale of the Boy Called Frog”, where beasts or beast-men are relating to each other in satire of human society, that is, with little or no basis on ecological niches. In The Book of the New Sun as a whole, however, Wolfe seems to be taking an ecological approach at a deep level, in the same way that perhaps the Old English epic Beowulf is “really” about a bear (“bee wolf”) who goes into a cave to fight a fire-spitting monster (bee venom as “fiery”) and finds “gold” in the form of honey.

Bears are animals of the northern forests, from the temperate zone to the arctic. Wolves are also native to these areas, and in such ecological niches the bear (a large omnivore) is just above the wolf (a carnivore), sometimes preying upon it.  So in ecological terms the bear and the wolf are enemies, with the bear having an advantage in single combat.

In contrast, lions and tigers are generally found in the tropics, where they occupy a niche similar to that of wolves, but as they are not in competition with them, the big cats are not enemies of wolves. Severian’s reign as autarch begins with Agia as the new Vodalus, and thus she is twinned to Severian in a way that is not big cat to bear (as it was with her brother), but big cat to wolf (two equals who will keep out of each other’s sphere).

So it seems to me that in this pattern of bear, cat, and wolf, Gene Wolfe is exploring the wolf within an ecological niche, where the bear is a superior foe that threatens the wolf, rather than focusing on the wolf as a predator of creatures in the niches below itself.

In addition to this personal/ecological level there is also a powerful set of mythic symbols from the ice age period of around 30,000 years ago. In Primitive Mytholog, Joseph Campbell writes about an ice-age burial skeleton with necklace and girdle of lion teeth and bear teeth, discovered in the Landes region of southwest France:

The bear and lion teeth are interesting, because these two animals, in the northern bear and African lion-panther rites, respectively, are, as we have seen, equivalent in form…. A mythological association is thus suggested of the bear and lion with the sun, solar eye, slaying eye, and evil eye, as well as with the animal master and the shaman. This must have been for millenniums one of the dominant mythological equations underlying the magic of the Palaeolithic hunt. (Part 4, Section 4, p379)

The bear and the big cats are solar symbols, and despite the different geographical habitats of the animals (and their cults), it is fascinating to see that the cults did overlap in Europe to the point where the burial site would have both bear and cat represented. This clearly has some bearing on Severian’s narrative, with its central solar focus.

The bear and big cat cults come from the Magdalenian period of Cro-Magnon Man (circa 30,000 to 10,000 years ago), but the bear cult seems to be older, arising in the time of Neanderthal Man (circa 200,000 to 25,000 years ago). The Neanderthals also had the curious practice of ritualistic cannibalism in which they ate the brains of their human victims. This grisly detail is re-enacted in The Citadel of the Autarch, where the Old Autarch’s forebrain must be eaten raw by his successor, Severian (The Citadel of the Autarch, chapter 29). So Gene Wolfe is using mythic material that predates Homo Sapiens Sapiens.

But the rites for both bear and cats involved placating the spirits of the slain animals; that is, there was no pattern of killing one and sparing the other, as I have depicted in the text. This would appear to be a departure from what is theorized, and shows Wolfe working with ice-age symbols to tell a different story.

Speculatively, I offer the following interpretation. The bear, because it hibernates, represents the inconstant sun of the north; the big cats, because the winter is mild in their climes, represent the constant sun of the tropics. With a little magical thinking one can easily change cause and effect to determine that it is the bear going into a cave that causes the sun to grow weak (rather than the coming of winter that makes a bear hibernate), so that if one could only keep the bear from the cave, the sun would not weaken. Likewise, if the bear is already in the cave, if it can be driven out then a new sun/new year will begin (as seen in the case of Master Ash).

In the setting of Urth, the bear is unequivocally linked to the Old Sun, the swollen, red, dying sun that will finally go cold and leave the world in a permanent ice age, termed “Ragnarok the Long Winter” in the text. The big cat is identified with the revived New Sun, golden, strong, and undying.

With all of this in mind let us return to the Atrium of Time:

Statues of beasts stood with their backs to the four walls of the court, eyes turned to watch the canted dial: hulking barylambdas; arctothers, the monarchs of bears; glyptodons; smilodons with fangs like glaives. All were dusted with snow. (p43)

The arctother is the waning sun of Northern Winter, the smilodon is the constant sun of the tropics. The central time piece is broken, meaning that the solar “engine” is no longer working, the axis of time is out of alignment, the cycle of seasonal change is coming to a halt. There will no longer be a waxing as the Old Sun is really dying. That all the statues are “dusted with snow” points to the Final Winter that will arrive if the New Sun does not come. Contrast this with the second time Severian visits the Atrium of Time, in the final pages of The Book of the New Sun:

The snow I recalled was gone, but a chill had come into the air to say that it would soon return. A few dead leaves, which must have been carried in some updraft very high indeed, had come to rest here among the dying roses. The tilted dials still cast their crazy shadows, useless as the dead clocks beneath them [in the underground maze], though not so unmoving. The carven animals stared at them, unwinking still. (The Citadel of the Autarch, chapter 38, p312)

Before, the Atrium seemed locked in time; now it seems that the machine of seasonal change has been at least partially repaired; the Ragnarok Winter is not longer a certainty.

Severian is cast as a wolf fighting a series of bears, each guarding a different threshold. Most of these bears die, but Severian only knowingly kills one (the final one) in combat.

Bear

Threshold

Killed by

Agilus

Death and Resurrection

Legal execution

Hildegrin

The Past

Severian trying to help

Alzabo

Fatherhood

Zoanthrops

Sorcerers

Sacrifice

Hethor’s pet

Master Ash

Ragnarok: the Future

Severian pulling him

Trainer

War

n/a

Bear-Man

Yesod

Severian stabbing him

The bears are linked to severity, whereas their polar opposites the big cats are linked to mercy/compassion. Once its gem casing is shattered (The Sword of the Lictor, chapter 38), the Claw of the Conciliator is revealed to be a claw indeed, a claw which, by one account, appears to be that of a cat or bird (The Citadel of the Autarch, chapter 8, p63), even though it is ultimately shown to be a rose thorn, still there is this linking of Conciliator to cat. And when Severian becomes the Conciliator, he practices healing (like the Pelerines who carried the Claw and the women-cats who carried Severian) and mercy, with fewer outbursts of severity, thus becoming more catlike (as opposed to being just anti-bear).

Because Severian (the wolf) is becoming the Conciliator (the cat), it is fitting that each threshold guardian be a bear (the polar opposite of the cat and the superior enemy of the wolf). This bear threshold is less a station of the cross than a position on the clock: an “hour of the bear” that is repeated over and over again. But this repetition is not that of a closed circle of stasis, nor an inward spiral of regression, instead it is an expanding spiral of progressive evolution.

Starting from the resonances of one puzzling scene I have traced a hidden structure to the Urth Cycle, a series of bearish threshold guardians who recede into the background, yet continue to mark the personal growth of Severian. The inclusion of both the magicians and Agia within the initial quotation for this essay seems far more than merely an allusion to the bearers of claw-like weapons, rather, it is a powerful link to the polar opposites of bear and big cat.

Footnotes

  1. “Oreb” is a biblical name originally belonging to one of a pair of Midianite leaders captured and killed by the Ephraimites in Judges 7.25. The other leader’s name was Zeeb. “Oreb” means “raven”, while “Zeeb” means “wolf”. (return to essay)

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph          The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology Viking Penguin, New York, 1976 [paperback]

Cirlot, J. E.                    A Dictionary of Symbols Philosophical Library, New York, 1962

Wolfe, Gene

The Shadow of the Torturer Simon & Schuster, New York, 1980

The Claw of the Conciliator Simon & Schuster, New York, 1981

The Sword of the Lictor Simon & Schuster, New York, 1981.

The Citadel of the Autarch Simon & Schuster, New York, 1983

The Urth of the New Sun Tor, New York, 1987.

Copyright © Michael Andre-Driussi 2003

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9 Comments

  1. Very interesting article! Thank you! I look forward to digging into the new edition of LU whenever I finish up the 4 or so books I’m currently juggling.

  2. Michael Andre-Driussi

    You are welcome, Anthony Davis! And thank you for your comment.

  3. Tom

    Bear, as an iconic, almost totemic entity retains its symbolic force even now. Such a unique beast inevitably will. Chicago Bears. The Cubs. I note that “Bears” and “Bulls” of Wallstreet retain a kind of duality, or pairing as the beasts in your essay do.

  4. Michael Andre-Driussi

    Thank you for posting, Tom! Good point about the “bears” and “bulls” of Wall Street. The pair-pattern is there, that’s for sure, (the bears being pessimists and the bulls being optimists,) but I wonder what the “guild” of Wall Street gives as the lore for their animal symbols? Granted there is a big famous Bull statue right there, as is fitting, and AFAIK no bear statue to be seen (also fitting!).

    • Drotte

      First of all, this is a fantastic essay. Excellent work.

      As to the bear and bull in wall st… These animals symbolize the behavior of the market. The bull, when attacking uses its horns to thrust upward; conversely, the bear stands and uses its paws to strike in a downward manner. Thus, a stock is a bull or bullish if it is expected to go up and a bear or bearish if expected to go down.

  5. Bhashthur

    Nice article. Possibly another thing to consider is that bears represent symbolize polar orientation (Ursus), cats solar orientation, and wolves lunar orientation. Under this scheme, polar orientation would represent the ‘old order’, solar orientation the ‘false sun order’ (666), and lunar orientation a ‘Solilunar’ order personified by Severius (light of Severius is a reflection of the light of the Increate). A good reference for these ideas would be Rene Guenon, particularly his book ‘Symbols of Sacred Science’.

  6. Michael Andre-Driussi

    Interesting note, Bhashthur, about polar/solar/lunar orientation. Thanks for posting it!

    =Michael=

  7. Lee

    Thank you I really enjoyed this. So often reading these books I’m either wondering what is going on or who to discuss it with.

    I am currently waiting delivery of Lexicon Urthus and I’ve read the Book of the New Sun and Solar Labyrinth only once so please bear with me if the answers to the questions below are obvious.

    1. How did you pair the bear and smilodon and the glyptodon and barylambda?

    2. Why are there multiples of each creature?

    3. How do you know it is a clock and not a compass?

    4. I’ve looked at the animals above and 3 of them seem to be closely linked historically but one is much earlier. Is there any connection?

    5. Is this dial inside the building? How does it have snow on it?

    6. Do you think the 4 animals link with the books from the Library?

    Thank you.
    Lee

    • Michael Andre-Driussi

      Hello there Lee. Sorry for the delay!

      “1. How did you pair the bear and smilodon and the glyptodon and barylambda?”

      From the order given in the text. It goes barylambdas, arctothers, glyptodons, smilodons. (See next answer for more.)

      “2. Why are there multiples of each creature?”

      I think each wall has multiples of one type: so there is the barylambda wall, next to that is the arctother wall, and across from it is the glyptodon wall. The facing walls form the pairs.

      “3. How do you know it is a clock and not a compass?”

      It is said to be a clock of some kind, but my conceit was to treat it as a compass calendar thing.

      “4. I’ve looked at the animals above and 3 of them seem to be closely linked historically but one is much earlier. Is there any connection?”

      I was aware of that detail but could find no solid notion about it.

      “5. Is this dial inside the building? How does it have snow on it?”

      The atrium is open to the sky but surrounded by walls on all sides.

      “6. Do you think the 4 animals link with the books from the Library?”

      No, I do not.

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