Ultan's Library

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The Feast of Saint Katharine (with a “K”)

Wolfe scholar and regular contributor to Ultan’s Library Michael Andre-Driussi describes his latest article thus: This essay traces the vestigial novella “The Feast of Saint Catherine” cryptically contained within the published text of The Book of the New Sun as a fossilized embryo. The plot of the tale will be established, along with the internationally recognized word count requirement for the form “novella.” Following these unassailable facts are speculative projections as to the novella’s resolution, conjectural notes on genre authors Clark Ashton Smith and Jack Vance, and suppositions regarding Gene Wolfe’s rejection of the novella.


Gene Wolfe originally intended the four-volume novel called The Book of the New Sun to be a mere novella of about 40,000 words. This long story was to be titled “The Feast of Saint Catherine,” and in his article “The Feast of Saint Catherine” (collected in Castle of Days), he gives the following synopsis [1]:

Severian, an apprentice torturer, meets a lovely prisoner, Thecla, and falls in love with her. He becomes a journeyman (on the feast of Saint Catherine, of course) but continues their relationship. Eventually, she pleads with him for the means of suicide, and he leaves a knife in her cell. When he sees blood seeping from under her cell door, he confesses what he has done.

Eventually (note the lacuna) he becomes a master of the guild. Everything is secure. The guild has been forced to forgive him, and he has almost forgiven himself. Then he receives a letter from Thecla. The suicide was a trick, permitting her to be freed unobtrusively. Soon she will be exonerated and restored to her former position in society. She says that she still loves him, though it may be that she only feels guilty about using him as she did. She invites him to join her.

What is he to do?

As an honest man and a patriot–and he is both–he should denounce the whole affair; but if he does so, he will be disgraced again, the guild will be disgraced, and Thecla will almost certainly die. If he does as she asks, he will be reunited with her; but he will be a pariah…and he may well make her a pariah too, in which case she will probably come to hate him. If he simply burns her letter and ignores her, she will only come to hate him much sooner, and she will be in a position to exert great political influence, and to blackmail the other masters of the guild as well. (Needless to say, I had a solution–but I will leave it as an exercise for the reader.)”

Wolfe writes, “That was to be the story, and as the early chapters of Shadow will show, I began to write it.” (op.cit. p.214), thereby challenging us to trace the original novella within the published text [2].

And so we begin.

To answer a first question as to the number of words to each page of The Shadow of the Torturer, let’s say 350 words, suggesting that 40,000 words will take a total of 114 pages. At a larger scale, we wonder which chapters are necessary to this tale.

  • Chapter V: eight pages. Mention of the guild feast (now the feast of Holy Katharine with an initial “K” and an “a” in the middle where there used to be an “e”, the change in the spelling of the name presumably indicating a cultural shift which has occurred over a long period of time), and Severian is sent to get books.
  • Chapter VII: 10 pages. Severian meets Thecla.
  • Chapter XI:  six pages. The guild feast.
  • Chapter XII: eight pages. The crime.

It appears that the barest skeleton for the first part of the novella is a total of 32 pages in four chapters. Then again, the page count of chapters one through 12 is 119 pages, so the more germane strategy would be “whittling down” the dozen chapters rather than “building up” from the four.

While Wolfe points out the time gap between the story’s first and second parts, I do not think this means the story was to be in two equal halves. It seems more likely that the second part would be one third of the total, the “third act” of a three-act play. Since two-thirds of 114 is about 80 pages, that leaves around 34 pages for the rest.

The break Wolfe describes appears to be a gap of some years, the sort of thing that can be handled by a pithy montage transition. After this new context is established, the story picks up again when Severian receives a letter from Thecla. Cue the two-page note from Thecla in Chapter V of The Claw of the Conciliator.

As for the unspoken solution to the story’s crisis, on the basis of events in The Book of the New Sun, I will go out on a limb and state my belief that the torturer kills Thecla and eats some of her flesh, using a rare necromantic drug that temporarily revives her within his mind, at which point she is trapped by his photographic memory for the rest of his life. She is thereby made a prisoner in the “cells” of his body, where he can enjoy her at will.

It is a profane re-enactment of the “Feast of Saint Catherine” legend. Instead of death followed by an ascent to heaven as in the original saint’s story, or even execution followed by a staged resurrection to bless the elevation of an apprentice to the rank of journeyman as described in the final text of The Shadow of the Torturer, in my postulated version of “The Feast of Saint Catherine”, the condemned is indeed resurrected, but only to serve as an internalized sex slave for her murderer. As a young journeyman, the protagonist of the novella is transfigured by love and rises above the innate cruelty of his calling, but as a master he reverses the process and becomes a true and horrible torturer, fulfilling the practical, professional promise of his elevation at the annual ritual.

In terms of genre and literary precedent, this necromantic and indeed necrophiliac twist to the ending gives to a “Dying Earth” story a dark “Zothique” conclusion, paying tribute to both Jack Vance and the earlier Clark Ashton Smith, two authors whom Wolfe has explicitly cited as influences and inspiration. [3]

I have never concealed a debt to Jack Vance and a debt to Clark Ashton Smith as far as that goes. I think Vance is very much in debt to Clark Ashton Smith. [4]

Which raises an interesting point of difference between Smith and Vance. While there are strong similarities between the fictions of the two, [5] Smith’s sixteen “Zothique” stories often feature necromancy and necrophilia; Vance’s six “Dying Earth” stories never do.

Wolfe has praised both Smith and Vance. I suspect his original plan was to create a hybrid as I have described, a tale that was “Dying Earth” right up to a shocking “Zothique” ending.

Yet he did not.

It seems to me that the novella would have been about the strange courtship of an obsessive love. From the start, Severian encounters increasingly powerful echoes and approximations of Thecla, beginning with the sight of her half-sister Thea in the graveyard (The Shadow of the Torturer, chapter I); followed by sexual relations with Thecla’s khaibit in the brothel (op.cit., chapter IX); and finally carnal knowledge of Thecla herself in her prison cell (alluded to in The Claw of the Conciliator, chapter VIII, p. 71). But even this last is not enough. The lover demands more than her body, and ultimately binds her spirit to his flesh.

In this light, the necromancy is not so much a corruption of communion [6] as it is a mockery of marriage, a perversion of “two flesh become one.” Shifting the Vodalarii feast from “group communion” to “secret wedding” trips another wire: the turning of water into wine at the inn of Saltus.

Seen by itself in The Book of the New Sun, the miracle of changing water into wine seems to be stripped of most of its Biblical context.[7] In the Gospel of John, Jesus and his group visit a wedding party where the host has run out of wine. Jesus quietly performs the miracle, witnessed only by his disciples, that turns ordinary water into a superior wine subsequently enjoyed by all the celebrants (John 2.1-11).

At the Saltus inn, while the private nature of the wine miracle is preserved, there is no sign of a wedding party, never mind the dilemma of running out of wine; the miracle of transmutation was apparently just a sign that miracles could happen. This miracle is more heavy-handed than previous ones; changing water into wine is more difficult to rationalize than the very public “flying cathedral” episode of the previous book, and the witnesses do not even try coming up with a mundane excuse.

Still, even if one grants a connective “marriage” theme between the wine at Saltus and Thecla’s feast, there is the complication of the events coming out of natural order. That is, in the gospel, first there is a wedding ceremony, then there is a party with the wine; here we have the wine (with only an associative reference to marriage), followed by a necromantic chemical wedding. Yet sequence rearranging of this nature is a part of The Book of the New Sun‘s tool kit, with the title of Doctor Talos’s play, “Eschatology and Genesis”, being a succinct name for the trope.

Putting aside such meandering, this is the plan for re-creating the cannibalized novella that is the Ur-form of The Book of the New Sun: the bulk of it exists in the first dozen chapters of The Shadow of the Torturer as published; then comes a lacuna transition, perhaps like the sketch of Palaemon’s exile and return scattered in Chapter XII of The Citadel of the Autarch; followed by a crisis that starts with Thecla’s letter and ends with the chemical wedding at the Vodalarii feast (chapter XI in The Claw of the Conciliator) reshaped into a tête-à-tête.

Rudimentary imagination must be used to fill the gaps of the last part. For example, if the story never moves to Saltus, then where is the cave sheltering Thecla? It might be in a hill in the dead city, but that is too much invention; say it is a cave in the Botanic Gardens, perhaps even the Cave of the Cumaean. But how does Severian kill Thecla? Presumably he has the sense to avoid inheriting a “bad trip,” so, rather than doing anything to make her fearful, he probably drugs her wine and then gently smothers her.

Whatever Wolfe’s plan for his novella, he rejected it. Looking at it in the terms I have framed it with, the notion of ending a Vance story with a Smith twist seems like a bad idea: the “Smith” part overpowers the “Vance”, or it is a bait and switch. A further problem arises through Wolfe’s open use of Christian symbols within the tale, a strong contrast with Smith’s made-up pantheon of dark gods and Vance’s more fairytale approach. It would seem an anti-Christian slander to suggest that Jesus is signaling approval of Severian’s murder of Thecla by turning water into wine. So one might reasonably suppose that Wolfe abandoned all that.

To the contrary, Wolfe doubled nearly all of it. The one thing he held off was that bit of the hero executing a plan of his own making.


[1] Gene Wolfe’s essay “The Feast of Saint Catherine” originally appeared in The Castle of the Otter: a book about The Book of the New Sun (Ziesing Brothers, 1982). The Castle of the Otter was subsequently reprinted, along with other material, as part of Gene Wolfe’s Castle of Days (Tom Docherty Associates, New York, 1992). The quotation given here is from page 214 of this edition.

[2] For other accounts of Wolfe’s original ideas for his story, see (a) his reply to Robert Frazier’s question, “What were some of your initial conceptions in constructing The Book of the New Sun?” in Frazier’s “Interview: Gene Wolfe – the legerdemain of the Wolfe” on page 50 of Shadows of the New Sun, edited by Peter Wright (Liverpool University Press, 2007); and (b) his description to Larry McCaffery, as recorded on pages 91-92 in “On Encompassing the Entire Universe: An Interview with Gene Wolfe”,  also collected in Shadows of the New Sun, of how he first conceived the idea of a torturer as a hero while attending a discussion on costumes at a science fiction convention.

[3] For Wolfe’s admiration of Clark Ashton Smith, see McCaffery’s “On Encompassing the Entire Universe: An Interview with Gene Wolfe”, and James B. Jordan’s “Gene Wolfe Interview”, on pages 98 and 104 respectively of Shadows of the New Sun. In the same collection of interviews and essays, Wolfe mentions his regard for Jack Vance in interviews with Frazier (page 50), McCaffery (pages 103-104, and Lawrence Person (page 170). Wolfe also wrote an essay on Jack Vance entitled “The Living Earth”, which is included in Jack Vance: Critical Appreciations and a Bibliography, edited by Arthur Cunningham (British Library, 2000). He further contributed an appreciative introduction to the anthology The Return of the Sorcerer: The Best of Clark Ashton Smith, edited by Robert Weinberg (Prime/Science Fiction Book Club, 2012).

[4] Gene Wolfe talking to James B. Jordan, as recorded on page 104 of Shadows of the New Sun.

[5] See Don Herron’s “The Double Shadow: The Influence of Clark Ashton Smith” in Jack Vance, edited by Underwood and Miller (Taplinger, 1980). The article mainly looks at the similarity of the made-up names for people and places in the fictions of Smith and Vance.

[6] Joan Gordon wrote, “The cannibalism of the alzabo ritual, which results in the gaining of another’s memory, parallels the communion ritual by which the Christian accepts Jesus into his or her soul through the symbolic partaking of Jesus’ body and blood.” (Gene Wolfe (Starmont Reader’s Guide, 29), Borgo Press, 1986, p. 92-93).

[7] The changing of of the ewer of water in Severian and Jonas’ room into wine at the inn in Saltus is referred to in the first and fifth chapters of The Claw of the Conciliator. The latter reference mentions the superior quality of the wine and suggests that the transformation had taken place while Severian was examining the novel’s eponymous jewel:

I would have been completely at ease if the wine in my cup had not recalled to me so vividly the much better wine Jonas had discovered in our ewer the night before, after I had examined the Claw in secret.

The reference to the excellence of the wine in Severian’s water ewer echoes the favorable response of the master of the feast after tasting the wine which Jesus miraculously provided at the wedding in Cana (John 2.10), thereby strengthening the literary parallel between the two episodes.


Editor’s Appendix – Epigraph as Overture

Nigel Price writes: Paul Stinchfield kindly contacted the editors of Ultan’s Library to point to the recent identification of the source of the epigraph for The Claw of the Conciliator. He wrote:

Dear Jonathan and Nigel,

I thought you might like to know about this:

http://www.wolfewiki.com/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=WolfeWiki.TheClawOfTheConciliator

Epigraph for The Claw of the Conciliator:

In The Castle of the Otter, Gene Wolfe writes:

The Claw of the Conciliator opens with a quotation from Gertrude von Le Fort, about whom I know next to nothing except that she wrote the lines I borrowed:

But strength still goes out from your thorns,
and from your abysses the sound of music.
Your shadows lie on my heart like roses
and your nights are like strong wine.

which I think very beautiful.

They are indeed very beautiful and yet their source has apparently never been noted in any work about Wolfe. It is Hymns to the Church, by Gertrude von Le Fort, translated into English by Margaret Chanler, Sheed & Ward, New York, 1937, originally published in Germany in 1924 as Hymnen an die Kirche. It has long been out of print in America and is quite rare, but is still in print in Germany and France.

The lines Gene quoted can be found on page 17 of the American edition.

Thanks to Robert Corzine at Goodreads.com, who recognized the quoted passage.

Best,
Paul Stinchfield

There has clearly been quite a bit of discussion about the epigraphs in The Book of the New Sun recently, and as well as the WolfeWiki link which Paul cites, readers might also like to have a look at:

I have not been able to find an online copy of Gertrude von le Fort’s hymn/poem, so I have not been able to pin down exactly who or what she is referring to as when she uses the possessive pronoun “your” in the lines which Wolfe quotes. The collection containing these lines is entitled Hymns to the Church, so “The Church” may be who or what is being addressed, though, to my mind, it would be a better fit if she were addressing God, Christ, or even the mount of crucifixion. If it is indeed “The Church”, then she is using it in a most all-inclusive sense as representing at least some aspects of the other possible addressees that I have mentioned. Until I see the hymn/poem, I can only guess.

But le Fort was a woman who came to faith, and specifically a Catholic faith, as an adult, just as Wolfe himself did, so I can see why her verse might well appeal to him. And using these lines as an epigraph to The Claw of the Conciliator implies a much clearer link between the details of the author’s Catholicism and the content of his story than would have been apparent solely from the text of the novel itself.

Looking at the lines he quotes, you can see Wolfe using them as a poetic overture to his prose narrative, announcing some of the themes in advance.

But strength still goes out from your thorns,
and from your abysses the sound of music.
Your shadows lie on my heart like roses
and your nights are like strong wine.

  • Strength from thorns – the power of the Claw of the Conciliator (as well as an evocation of Christ’s crown of thorns)
  • Sounds of music in the abysses – perhaps a forewarning of the strange and unexplained noise in the depths of the abandoned mine at Saltus?
  • Shadows and roses – thorns, again, and roses, whose significance will become clearer in The Citadel of the Autarch
  • Nights like strong wine – Severian accidentally turns the water into wine when he examines the Claw at night

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6 Comments

  1. Michael Orlando

    The Feast of Saint Katherine has fascinated me since I heard of it, not the least because it’s a tale of yet another lost refraction of Severian; one in which he does not become the New Sun, nor Urth Ushas ( though, perhaps, the water-women found another boy, of another guild, drowning among the black roots in Gyoll and saved him, for the New Sun or this time , maybe, Abaia).

  2. That’s true: the hero of Gene Wolfe’s novella was the first of the “first Severians,” with all the loops and meta-loops such a designation entails!
    Your note points to additional authorial strategies in Wolfe’s tree of decisions. For one large example, a setting with a dying sun (as in the work of Smith and Vance) could show some difference by having the sun actually change (die or be healed). This would use the setting in a specific way implied by its elements, making it different from the “timeless” mode employed by Smith and Vance which is similar to the setting of fairy tale or generic fantasy. It would introduce history (a “before” and an “after”) to a timeless world, similar to the ending of The Lord of the Rings except in this case the change is anticipated from the very beginning, from the title itself.
    But, still, the main thing here is to look at (or “for”) the novella he tells us is there.

  3. Michael Orlando

    I don’t know that Smith’s Zothique or Vance’s Dying Earth are best viewed as insulated from history: Xylac gives way to Tasuun gives way to Ustaim; the Dying Earth is mired (nor too say throttled) by the weight of its piled ages. They lack not so much history as eschatology (and it’s this sense of culmination that separates Wolfe from his predecessors). Far now from the original matter, I’ll close by saying that what gives that unwritten novella such umbral power (to me at least) is its suggestion of the multiplicity, plasticity of not only the character of Severian but the vast set of Urth; leading back to the unknowable germ from which they emerged.

  4. Aaron Singleton

    Great article as always Michael. Thank you.

  5. R Schultheis

    Cool speculations, I’ll reread with these in mind.

    I do not think that the alternate spelling of Catherine – Katharine – implies a real cultural shift; instead, Wolfe eschews almost all later lingual influences on the name (he plays with language so profusely in the bns, it’s really fascinating ) – namely the latin spelling catharina, the english version catherine, and so on.

    What he actually uses is the german spelling of the greek name Katharina/e (Αἰκατερίνη – the pure one), dropping the ai- of aikatherina/e and ending the name on -e as a simple alternate version of the name.

    The culture described in the bns is hardly reminiscent of english/american culture, thus basing this train of thought on ‘Catherine’ as the name basis is inaccurate.

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