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The Religious Implications of Gene Wolfe’s The Book Of The New Sun

Stephen Palmer

This is an amended version of an article I wrote almost twenty years ago for the British BSFA magazine Vector.  The original version was entitled Looking Behind the Sun: Religious Implications of Gene Wolfe’s “The Book of the New Sun” and was published in the August 1991 edition.

The Book of the New Sun is one of science fiction’s greatest achievements, and it is generally recognised that the book conceals rather more than is initially apparent. Wolfe, a Catholic, uses his faith to underpin a monumental work. This article looks at some of the religious implications, and hopes to draw comment from other readers.

If Severian is the Conciliator, who then is the Conciliator? Christ seems to be the answer, the Christ of the parousia. There are several clues. The first Conciliator is described as having a shining face, as Christ had during the Transfiguration; one of the Conciliator’s attributes is that he will return to Urth, as the Bible says Christ will; the Conciliator performed healings and miracles in the manner of Christ. Severian’s name may also be a clue to his nature if it is a future corruption of Steven, the name which comes from the Greek word stephane, meaning a crown (the stephane was a fillet of silver or gold worn on the forehead). The crown which the undines saw on Severian’s brow, and which is implied by the hierodules’ use of the term “Liege” to address him, is perhaps mirrored in his name. The name Severian does have another history however, and is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary thus:

“A member of the Encratite or Gnostic sect of the 2nd century which condemned marriage, etc.”

The dictionary goes on to note that the name may be derived not from a founder called Severian but from the austerity of the typical Severian’s life (i.e. from the Latin severus).

There are also clues in Father Inire’s effusive letter to Severian at the close of volume four. Father Inire refers to Severian the Autarch as Surya, the Indian god of the sun, as Helios, the charioteer who pulled the sun on its course, and as Hyperion, the father of Helios. Severian’s nature is also revealed at the end of the fever dream in the lazaret, golden rays pouring from him as he stands with the Cumaean and Master Malrubius, light which falls on all the Earth and gives it new life. There is also a “missing” name in the holy trinity; we hear of the Increate (Holy Ghost) and the Pancreator, but never of any son. The Conciliator, “the greatest of good men,” must be this figure.

During his wanderings across Urth, various mystical events occur around Severian. The most remarkable is the appearance of blood on his forehead when, in the House Absolute, he looks into the mirror-leafed book bound in manskin. It seems that Severian has experienced a book bound metaphorically with his own death; he blurts out that he saw his own dead face in the leather. The eclipse carved in the cabinet door that holds this book refers to this death, the hiding of the sun, and Severian’s blood is then that produced by the Crown of Thorns. Earlier, when drinking with Jonas, water becomes wine. When he drinks with Dorcas, as she is about to leave him, wine becomes water. He carries a sword with a blunt end on his travels – a cross.

Two of Severian’s personal symbols, acquired when a child in the Necropolis, are significant. The ship refers to his voyage to Yesod, but the other two may have religious implications. The fountain, although it seems to correspond to that laid in the House Absolute, is also an ancient symbol of life (sometimes depicted as a waterfall), while the rose is a symbol of Christ dating from the Middle Ages.

Wolfe, then, wrote a parousia in which Severian was either Christ or an equivalent figure (there are in him echoes of the Greek god Apollo, the god of the sun). But if Severian is such a figure there are other figures to account for, most importantly the Antichrist (the Beast) and the False Prophet. It would seem that Baldanders is the former and Dr Talos the latter.

Baldanders, who experiments on the world and spends the proceeds on himself, is an ideal Antichrist, for, despite his brutal nonchalance, he embodies an aversion to humanity; understated, but an aversion nonetheless. He is a direct opposite to Severian. The pair duel at the end of book three, as was foreseen in an underwater dream of Severian’s. Baldanders is the narcissistic boy for whom the world and all its inhabitants are merely constructions of his own imagination, lacking reality, while Severian is the man fully connected with people and the world, who does not need to place himself at the centre of the universe to live sanely. Baldanders is his own greatest work, and his only work; but Baldanders has nothingness within him, desiring power, money and facts, while Severian epitomises all humanity.

Dr Talos seems to be the False Prophet. It is interesting that several times Severian is reminded of a stuffed fox when Dr Talos’ face appears; if the letters F-O-X are taken according to Cabala traditions they make 6,15,24, i.e. 666, the Number of the Beast. This is perhaps the means by which Dr Talos is marked in Severian’s imagination. Meanwhile, Dr Talos’ main task seems to be wandering the Urth performing his ignoble play; that is, misinforming the people about the Conciliator. For example, at the very end of the play it is Baldanders who breaks his own bonds to achieve freedom.

The Claw of the Conciliator is itself steeped in the Roman Catholic tradition. Severian refers to the blue shell as a pyx when he finds the Claw wedged between rocks. A pyx is the box or container in which the consecrated host, the Eucharist, is kept, and it can also mean the container in which supplies of wafers for the Eucharist are kept. Meanwhile, the Pelerines wear scarlet in the Catholic tradition (“Pelerine” derives from the Latin for pilgrim). Angels and archangels make appearances too – Hierodules (holy slaves) are angels and hierogrammates are archangels. The hierodules wear angelic white. Of the latter class, there are two explicitly referred to, Gabriel and Tzadkiel, perhaps paralleling the only two angelic figures referred to in the Bible, Gabriel and Michael. Tzadkiel appears extensively in the final volume showing his shape-changing ability, while in the fourth book there is Melito’s story about birds and an angel who clearly has the same transforming ability.

It is also possible that Wolfe worked the Wandering Jew into his book, although this figure is an invention of later centuries and does not appear in the Bible. According to legend the Wandering Jew taunted Christ as he dragged his cross to Golgotha. Christ responded, saying he would wander the Earth until the time of the Second Coming. Could Hethor correspond to this figure?

Then there is the problem of Mary. Wolfe intentionally presents the reader with an enigma here; there are various candidates for Severian’s true mother, but is it correct to assume that there was one mother? There are two Severians. Using the scene at the end of the fourth book at the Inn of Lost Loves, it seems that Dorcas is related to Severian because of the facial likeness – she is the grandmother of the first Severian. However, she cannot be the mother of the second Severian, the carrier of the Claw; that title perhaps goes to Cyriaca, a.k.a. Catherine, who recognised Severian even though his mask was on, then tried to cover her tracks. Incidentally, Catherine means “pure,” which could be translated as Virginal.

A curious parallel occurs when the Cumaean is considered. This figure seems to echo the sibyls of Roman times, for like them the Cumaean is a prophetess, a seer. But there is a further point, since the Cumaean is “sleekly reptilian” when seen by Severian from his extended temporal perspective; that is, serpentine. In the days before Judaism and Christianity had destroyed the ancient matriarchal religion, that of the Goddess, the snake was the symbol of female potency, wisdom and prophetic ability. Even today, pythoness means prophetess. So it is significant that the acolyte Merryn refers to the Cumaean as “Mother”.


Stephen Palmer was born in 1962 in Harpenden, UK, and was brought up in Wales and in England. He read physics at the University of London, then went on to follow a “portfolio career”, including time at a college, a private girls’ school, a university, and with the booksellers Waterstones. He now works at a college in Shropshire. He has written a number of science fiction and fantasy novels. His blog can be found at http://stephenpalmersf.wordpress.com/ and his latest novel, Urbis Morpheos, is now available on the Amazon Kindle.

 

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11 Comments

  1. Aaron Singleton

    Not to nitpick this otherwise enlightening piece, but I always thought the fountain Severian sees in the necropolis represented the White Fountain that would replace the dying sun and not the fountain at the House Absolute. Perhaps I am in error, or it could be that Wolfe intended for both fountains to be associated with the symbol.

  2. Michael Andre-Driussi

    It is a fine thing to be able to read this piece, finally! Thank you to Stephen Palmer and Team Ultan for making it available.

    I knew about it from “Urth-Man Extraordinary” — no, wait . . . looking over my annotated copy, the original only goes up to 1990. Well, then. I knew there were Urth-related articles and reviews in Vector, most of which I have never seen.

    Anyway, I like the article, especially the part about the mirror book and the eclipse on its spine. That’s an excellent example of the Melville-like layering of symbols going on in the Urth Cycle (if not all of Wolfe’s work).

  3. Stephen Palmer

    Thank you gentlemen for your comments – and, Michael, just to add that I loved “Lexicon Urthus”!

    Aaron, the fountain is another example of the joyous ambiguity that GW is a master of…
    I hadn’t thought of the White Fountain, but of course that seems more likely than my suggestion.

  4. Jeff Liss

    Love this, although I’m sure I have seen a version of it before on the Web, perhaps here.

    The only point I would take issue with:

    “There is also a ‘missing’ name in the holy trinity; we hear of the Increate (Holy Ghost) and the Pancreator, but never of any son.”

    It makes sense that GW, as a Catholic, would involve the Trinity. But I don’t see why it is that the Pancreator and Increate should be considered different aspects of God. That which is the only Creator, the one who created everything (Pancreator) is itself the only thing which is not created (Increate). Thus, I would consider these two epithets to be synonymous.

    This is not to say that Severian does not represent Christ. He isn’t Christ as perfection, as it’s obvious he is a sinner, but rather Christ’s human nature.

  5. I’m very proud to say that the Wimbledon Book Club (which I started and run) read the first half of the Book of the New Sun and that this piece was very helpful to a number of members.

    Our last event discussing Mr Wolf’s Masterwork is next Monday for anyone who happens to be in the London area: http://www.wimbledonbookclub.com/calendar/13250435/

    Many thanks to the team behind this.

  6. Duergar

    Sometimes it seems to me that the author was attempting some kind of religious manifesto with this work (or aspects of it). I have no problem with the religious/Catholic symbolism, but what I find disappointing is the work’s self-assured dogmatism, with some quite devious implications (all women are evil), and the acridity that I feel against non-religious worldviews.

  7. I’m an atheist of the Dawkins variety (though on atheism I’m not so annoyingly verbose as he is), so it’s rather a paradox that TBOTNS is my all-time favourite SF work…

    Such is life.

  8. S. Decoteaux Bates

    A clear and concise article. However,one feels bound to mention that the angel Raphael is mentioned in the Deuterocanonical Book of Tobit, a text cosidered canoical by the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and Mr.Wolfe, as you mention above, belongs to the former. Apologies for one’s compusive hair-splittig.
    (As to the Hierogrammates existing as literal archangels–one is curious as to the metapysical implications once the fact of their creation by humans is considered. Does God allow his lesser servents to manufacture those greater than themselves [light denied, as it were]?)
    Always a pleasure to read a reflective piece on the work of Mr. Wolfe; thank you.

  9. Brian Kehler

    I disagree that Wolfe paints “all women as evil.” There are
    a few ambiguous Beatrice figures in several of the women in the New
    Sun and Long Sun books, and Dorcas (raised from the dead like the
    girl in the New Testament)also resembles Goethe’s tragic Gretchen
    in relation to Severian. These are highly sympathetic characters,
    very human as well as archanely holy in the Dantean sense. The men,
    in contrast, seem much more evil (Severian’s role as torturer, for
    example).

  10. Fred Remus

    A small nitpick; the name Severian is unrelated to Stephen, Stefan, etc. It comes from the Latin names Serverus and Severianus. The name Severiano is still used in Spanish and Italian. Seve, the first name of Spanish golf pro Ballesteros, is short for Severiano.

  11. Nick

    Actually I have much to pick here.
    1.) Wolfe has specifically said that Severian is not Christ but Christian in character. He could very well be a great prophet and wonder worker in this world without being Christ.
    2.) The discussion of the Trinity leaves much to be desired and I think you and some of the commenters here are confused by it. That’s ok, it is complicated, but I’m not sure you should use it in an article without knowing more.
    3.) “In the days before Judaism and Christianity had destroyed the ancient matriarchal religion” at which point I call bullcrap. That has to be one of the single most ignorant things I’ve heard in a loooooooooong time. While it is a modern Wiccan fantasy that somehow the Germanic tribes were all quasi-monotheistic goddess worshipers its a load of claptrap. There is _zero_ archeological evedince for it and the theory has been _long_ (almost out of the box) discredited.

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