An Analysis Of The Alchemical Tradition Behind BOOK OF THE NEW SUN, Part II: The Solve et Coagula of Terminus Est





All writing—all art—is, by definition, a work of active imagination. Jungians postulate that for something to qualify as true ‘active imagination’ in the psychiatric manner as meant by Jung, it must be for a certain purpose, or follow certain guidelines, but the fact of the matter is that as soon as one accepts the collective unconscious as a potential reality, one must also accept that all creative works are truly authored by that which is unknowable. A person can only ‘force’ a piece of fiction to be a certain way so much; after a certain point, the work produces itself. The human author responsible is, in truth, but a humble vessel; an emanation of divinity, as are we all, and specifically that aspect of the divinity responsible for telling that particular story.

The interesting thing about a book-within-a-book, however subtly this is handled, is that questions are raised as to the authorship of the work. I went into this subject in fair detail in my essay Understanding The Lightning Stenography Device (check out the essay after you read the book, available here), but talked more about non-existent books in works of fiction than actual, existent books in works of fiction. In addition to non-existent books, The LSD also uses the device of being written by fictional characters, which is by no means a unique trait. Fernando Pessoa, the wonderful Portuguese author of The Book of Disquiet, utilized what he called ‘heteronyms’ to do the bulk of his writing; the non-existent transgressive author, J. T. Leroy, wrote some extremely popular books that his ‘host’ might not have otherwise written; Lolita is a murderer’s masturbatory confessional, written just before his death in an attempt to self-justify. Many of the most interesting books in human history were written first, not by the authors who collect royalty checks in this universe, but by characters who do not exist here.

This is certainly true of The Book of The New Sun. In the afterwords of each book, Wolfe depicts himself as mere translator of the works, and he is right to do so; the truest author of BOTNS is surely the Increate, but the second truest author is clearly Severian, for whom the works serve as a sort of memoir. This also presents us with a very interesting consideration. I have written before at fair length about how acts of alchemical storytelling are best analyzed at multiple levels: that is, they should be analyzed from the perspective of the author, and from the in-universe perspective of the characters. When the character is the author, this is more vital and also more interesting. BOTNS is Severian’s alchemical operation as much as it is Wolfe’s. Both wrote of the journey, and both, in their way, lived the journey; and so shall we when we read the book.

At the end of BOTNS, Severian casts the second copy of his manuscript into the void of space; and, as Severian dwells (at least, in this universe) in the consciousness of Wolfe, this act is as powerful a symbol of the divine granting of inspiration as the image of the Temperance tarot card. Much as, there, the mercurial go-between angel delivers the waters of creativity in the act of ‘inspiration’ from the cup of the universe to the cup of the personal mind, so too does The Book of the New Sun (sealed, no less, in a lead box, lead being the Saturnine symbol of the start of the alchemical process and that which must be turned to gold) float through the vast space of Gene Wolfe’s consciousness.

But the journey, itself? Well, that is quite an undertaking to analyze, so we’d ought to start from the beginning.


Jewish mysticism and Western alchemical tradition have tightly twisted roots, as Jung and his student, Marie-Louise von Franz will be the first to point out. That said, as a lot of rationalist sci-fi readers think of the word ‘kabbalah’ and then picture—who was it, Madonna?—touting those little red strings circa 2003 or so, I want to take a moment to explain, in brief, what it is, and note a detail about the Tree of Life which is relevant to us from the start.

Daniel C. Matt, in The Essential Kabbalah (a great starter book on the subject), introduces the concept thus:

The Hebrew word kabbalah means “receiving” or “that which has been received.” On the one hand, Kabbalah refers to tradition, ancient wisdom received and treasured from the past. On the other hand, if one is truly receptive, wisdom appears spontaneously, unprecedented, taking you by surprise.

The Jewish mystical tradition combines both of these elements. Its vocabulary teems with what the Zohar—the canonical text of the Kabbalah—calls “new-ancient words.” Many of its formulations derive from traditional sources—the Bible and rabbinic literature—but with a twist. For example, “the world that is coming,” a traditional phrase often understood as referring to a far-off messianic era, turns into “the world that is constantly coming,” constantly flowing, a timeless dimension of reality available right here and now, if one is receptive.

–Daniel C. Matt, The essential Kabbalah, pg 1

I think it is clear right off how this conceptually relates to The Book of The New Sun, which I have already described as being a book authored by a fictional man and ‘received’ by a real one in active imagination, an action which, though to Gene Wolfe and all of us, is imaginary, is nonetheless a cosmically real experience had by the human brain and by the universe which produced it. Much as “the world that is coming” is really “the world that is constantly coming,” so too is all fiction simultaneously real and false.

The following passage from the (highly recommended) writing book Wired for Story by Lisa Cron describes in brief the importance of stories, and their effect on the brain. Pay attention to this effect and what it means for the brain, and for the aforementioned point of the nondualistic reality and falsity of fiction:

Before there were books, we read each other. We still do, every minute of every day. We instinctively know everyone has an agenda, and we want to be sure that agenda isn’t to clobber us, either metaphorically or with a hammer. What we’re hoping for is kindness, empathy, and maybe a nice big box of chocolates. So it’s interesting to note that the term “agenda” often carries a negative connotation, implying something decidedly Machiavellian, as in duplicitous, manipulative, and cunning. Truth is, agenda is just another word for goal—making it completely neutral and utterly necessary for survival.

In fact, Steven Pink defines intelligent life as “using knowledge for how things work to attain goals in the face of obstacles.” Almost sounds like the definition of story, doesn’t it? It’s interesting, too, that the most common obstacle in both life and story is figuring out what other people really mean. That’s no doubt why, as neuroscientists have recently discovered, our brain comes equipped with something they believe might be akin to X-ray glasses: mirror neurons.

According to neuroscientist Marco Iacoboi, who pioneered the research, our mirror neurons fire when we watch someone do something and when we do the same thing ourselves. But it’s not just that we register what it would feel like physically; our real goal is to understand the action. As Michael Gazzaniga has noted, thanks to mirror neurons, “Not only do you understand someone is grabbing a candy bar, you understand she is going to eat it or put it in her purse or throw it out or, if you’re lucky, hand it to you.”

Mirror neurons allow us to feel what others experience almost as if it were happening to us, the better to infer what “others know in order to explain their desires and intentions with real precision.” But here’s the kicker. We don’t just mirror other people. We mirror fictional characters, too.

A recent study, in which subjects underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain while reading a short story, revealed that the areas of the brain that lit up when they read about an activity were identical to those that light up when they actually experience it. Yes, yes, I can see those of you who’ve read steamy novels nodding sagely and thinking, Uh, you needed a brain scan to tell you that?

Here’s what Jeffrey M. Zacks, coauthor of the study, has to say about the physical effect a story has on us: “Psychologists and neuroscientists are increasingly coming to the conclusion that when we read a story and really understand it, we create a mental simulation of the events described by the story.” But it goes much deeper than that. As lead author of the study Nicole Speer points out, the “findings demonstrate that reading is by no means a passive exercise. Rather, readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative. Details about actions and sensation are captured from the text and integrated with personal knowledge from past experiences. These data are then run through mental simulations using brain regions that closely mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities.”

–Cron, Lisa, Wired for Story pages 66-67

So, as far as your unconscious, mechanical brain operations are concerned, fantasy and reality are all the same. It’s consciousness that makes the differences, much as it’s consciousness which tells us things are weird when we become lucid in a dream. Story writing, reading, and psychedelic religious experiences are all very similar; arguably, identical. But kabbalah, and, specifically, the kabbalistic Tree, is a means by which one can express these experiences, and others. It is a structural demonstration of the perpetual becoming of the universe, and by ascending through the sephiroth/sefirot (yes, children, some day we will do a Final Fantasy VII essay) one is capable of contemplating the visible, experiential aspects of God. This is, naturally, its own kind of psychedelic experience, but it is also a pattern which can be applied to anything, much like alchemy, or Timothy Leary’s 8-circuit model of consciousness. When one views a piece of art overlaid by one of these grids, an analysis of its importance to the conscious mind becomes much clearer.

For the Kabbalist, the Tree of Life serves, among other things, as a kind of filing system for all archetypes….The Kabbalistic Tree is far more than an intellectual system. It is a profound tool for expanding the horizons of consciousness. Some Kabbalists ascend to higher states of awareness by visualizing themselves moving through the sefirot. Others may meditate on one of the several Hebrew names of God (each of which is associated with a particular sefirah). A Kabbalist who wishes to evoke rigor or severity will focus on the left side of the tree, called the “Pillar of Strength”; another who wishes to foster loving kindness works with the right, the “Pillar of Mercy.”

–Taschen’s Dictionary of Symbols, “Kabbalistic Tree”, page 14

So the Tree has much relevance to a magician (this is the origin of all that left hand/right hand path terminology) or occultist (for alchemy draws many symbols from Kabbalah, especially the figure of Adam Kadmon, First Man to whom we will return at a later juncture), and to a reader of The Book of the New Sun. The name ‘Severian’ literally means ‘one who is severe’; and of what crime is Severian guilty? Being merciful. His act of mercy, we shall see, will open him up into a world of wisdom, beauty, and, ultimately, eternity. Spoilers here–even the Angel of Mercy is a deeply significant player in Urth. Severian’s journey is both an alchemical journey, and a journey up the Tree of Life as a study of loving kindness, self-sacrifice, and compassion. As ever, Severian is a fusion of opposites, and the perfect alchemical man. So, let’s finally get to know him properly.

shadow 2


“It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future.” –The opening line of BOTNS

The first image of The Shadow Of The Torturer is that of a cemetery gate. One need not think hard to link this symbolism to the alchemical nigredo, mentioned in the previous essay (and many others) as the first step in the magnum opus. I cannot imagine my previous explanation was very satisfying for those who are uninitiated in alchemical concepts, so allow Jung to explain:

Alchemy, it is well known, describes a process of chemical transformation and gives numberless directions for its accomplishment. Although hardly two authors are of the same opinion regarding the exact course of the process and the sequence of its stages, the majority are agreed on the principal points at issue, and have been so from the earliest times, I. e., since the beginning of the Christian era. Four stages are distinguished (fig. 114), characterized by the original colours mentioned in Heraclitus: melanosis (blackening), leukosis (whitening), xanthosis (yellowing), and iosis (reddening). Later, about the fifteenth or sixteenth century, the colours were gradually reduced to three, and the xanthosis, otherwise called the citrinitas, gradually fell into disuse or was but seldom mentioned. Instead, the viriditas sometimes appears after the melanosis or nigredo in exceptional cases, though it was never generally recognized. Whereas the original tetrameria corresponded exactly to the quaternity of elements, ti was now frequently stressed that although there were four elements (earth, water, fire, and air) and four qualities (hot, cold, dry, and moist), there were only three colors: black, white, and red. Since the process never led to the desired goal and since the individual parts of it were never carried out in any standardized manner, the change in classification of its stages cannot be due to extraneous reasons but has more to do with the symbolical significance of the quaternity and the trinity; in other words, it is due to inner psychological reasons.

The nigredo or blackness (fig. 115) is the initial state, either present from the beginning as a quality of the prima materia, or else produced by the separation (solutio, separatio, divisio, putrefactio) of the elements. If the separated condition is assumed at the start, as sometimes happens, then a union of opposites is performed under the likeness of a union of male and female (called the coniugium, matrimonium, coniunctio, coitus), followed by the death of the product of the union (mortificatio, calcinatio, putrefactio) and a corresponding nigredo. From this the washing (ablutio, baptism) either leads direct to the whitening (albedo) or else the soul (anima) releaeed at the “death” is reunited with the dead body and brings about its resurrection, or again the “many colours” (omnes colores), or “peacock’s tail” (cauda pavonis), lead to the one white colour that contains all colours. At this point the first main goal of the processi s reached, namely the albedo, tinctura alba, terra alba foliata, lapis albus, etc., highly prized by many alchemists as if it were the ultimate goal. It is the silver or moon condition, which still has to be raised to the sun condition. The albedo is, so to speak, the daybreak, but not till the rubedo is it sunrise. The transition to the rubedo is formed by the cintrinitas, though this, as we have said, was omitted later. The rubedo then follows direct from the albedo as the result of raising the heat of the fire to its highest intensity. The red and the white are King and Queen, who may also celebrate their “chymical wedding” at this stage (fig 116).

-Jung, Carl, Psychology and Alchemy, “Religious Ideas In Alchemy”, II. The Alchemical Process and Its Stages, pg 228-232

This is about as concise an explanation of the alchemical steps toward creating the philosopher’s stone as can be written. I am of the group of alchemists who include xanthosis in the list of steps, as I find the psychological significance of the number 4 to be very profound, and I find the step of xanthosis to be a vital bridge in the transition to the rubedo. But the nigredo, which deals with putrefaction, is where we are presented with the initial problem to be solved; and that problem in The Book of the New Sun, as it is in many works of fiction, is the problem of death.

When we meet Severian, he is a young boy who, shortly after almost drowning while on a swim with friends, encounters the revolutionary, Vodalus, and his beautiful woman, Thea, while they are in the process of grave-robbing. There is an immediate confrontation of the opposites: not just life/death, but order/disorder, past/future, young/old, man/woman. Severian, we will find, has been raised in the city of Nessus, in its Guild of Torturers; he has seldom seen a woman at the story’s start, but ah, how many will he have known by the end! One, in particular, very well.

I digress. In the last essay, I mentioned how Severian is simultaneously his own ego and Gene Wolfe’s shadow/the in-universe mercurial agent responsible for the Operation, like the homonculus developed in a vessel. The title of the first book, even, is Shadow of the Torturer. It is very clear who Severian is at the start, as clear as it is who he will become based on our own presentiments of his fate; but what of these other figures?

Note that the number of friends with whom Severian opens the novel is 3, making him the 4th. This is not the only time Severian will be 1 of 4 by any means. Despite his near-drowning and its cemetery setting, Severian’s life is in an Edenic period; his world is enclosed, the walls of the Guild like an egg around him. The appearance of Vodalus and this woman mark the first spark of (at the time) immaturely experienced sexual development, when a man becomes a man.

I just want to take this moment to note a previous essay which I strongly, strongly encourage readers of these Book of the New Sun essays to read before we discuss Sword of the Lictor. It happens that on February 3rd, 2017, I shared an essay titled “The 8-Circuit Jungle Book: Understanding Consciousness Through Rudyard Kipling”. The appearance of Vodalus and Thea here is very similar, in an archetypal sense, to the threat posed by, and eventual destruction of, Shere Kahn. However, it offers an alternate perspective; in this case, rather than taming the male principle and wearing it like a skin, Severian will chose to become its servant, and, in so doing, carve a life driven by women like a man marched forward by the shimmering conspiracy of Maya/matter. This is a theme that I will revisit at many points throughout this essay, but I will say that by the end of BOTNS I found myself surprised at just how central this theme became. He is exiled from the Guild for mercy shown to a woman, who later enters him as a kind of soul; (SPOILERS) his shadow and greatest nemesis, Agia, is a woman; he may or may not have a long-lost sister whom he but briefly (possibly) encounters while in the company of two other women, one of whom is actually his resurrected grandmother (or grossmutter in German, literally translating to ‘Great Mother’ and thus having the extremely significant occult connotations of Severian and Gene Wolfe being men who strive to know the divine substance of all matter) with whom he is unconsciously, incestuously involved; on his time-travel to see who has supplanted him as Autarch, he finds it to be his wife; the servants of Abaia, such as Juruturna, who rescued Severian from drowning in the Gyoll as a boy, are literally giant naiads; and when (REALLY HUGE SPOILERS) the Archangel of Mercy reveals itself to him in the highest emanation we ever experience alongside him, it does so in that form he most respects: the form of a woman. (END OF REALLY HUGE SPOILERS…FOR THE MOMENT.)

The soul is feminine, according to Jung. Thecla, we will find, is Severian’s (and perhaps Wolfe’s? I do not presume to speculate more than that) soul, or representative of it. In Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, (a highly recommended starting point for learning about these concepts), Jung writes, emphasis mine:

The nixie is an even more instinctive version of a magical feminine being whom I call the anima. She can also be a siren, melusina (mermaid), wood-nymph, Grace, or Erkling’s daughter, or a lamia or succubus, who infatuates young men and sucks the life out of them..But how do we dare to call this elfin being the “anima”? Anima means soul and should designate something very wonderful and immortal. Yet this was not always so. We should not forget that this kind of soul is a dogmatic conception whose purpose it is to pin down and capture something uncannily alive and active. The German word Seele is closely related, via the Gothic form saiwalo, the Greek word which means ‘quick-moving’, ‘changeful of hue,’ ‘twinkling,’ something like a butterfly which reels drunkenly from flower to flower and lives on honey and love…

Being that has soul is living being. Soul is the living thing in man, that which lives of itself and causes life. Therefore God breathed into Adam a living breath, that he might live. With her cunning play of illusions the soul lures into life the inertness of matter that does not want to live. She makes us believe incredible things, that life may be lived. She is full of snares and traps, in order that man should fall, should reach the earth, entangle himself there, and stay caught, so that life should be lived; as Eve in the garden of Eden could not content until she had convinced Adam of the goodness of the forbidden apple. Were it not for the leaping and twinkling of the soul, man would rot away in his greatest passion, idleness. A certain kind of reasonableness is its advocate, and a certain kind of mrality adds its blessing. But to have soul is the whole venture of life, and for soul is a life-giving daemon who plays his elfin game above and below human existence, for which reason—in the realm of dogma—he is threatened and propitiated with superhuman punishments and blessings that go far beyond the possible deserts of human beings. Heaven and hell are the fates meted out to the soul and not to civilized man, who in his nakedness and timidity would have no idea what to do with himself in a heavenly Jerusalem.

The anima is not the soul in the dogmatic sense, not an anima rationalis, which is a philosophical conception, but a natural archetype that satisfactorily sums up all the statements of the unconscious, of the primitive mind, of the history of language and religion…

Although it seems as if the whole of our unconscious psychic life could be ascribed to the anima, she is yet only one archetype among many. Therefore, she is not characteristic of the unconscious in its entirety. She is only one of its aspects. This is shown by the very fact of her femininity. What is not-I, not masculine, is most probably feminine, and because the not-I is felt as not belonging to me and therefore as outside me, the anima-image is usually projected upon women.

-Jung, Carl, Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, selections from pages 25-27

It is appropriate, then, that most of Severian’s journey is shaped, driven, and controlled in large part by his relationship with women, for what is really driving him is his relationship to his anima. The first glance Severian will have of his soul is not in the pure and goodly form of tragic Thecla (who, like the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, is too pure for this cruel world, or so Severian has us feeling by the end of the story), but in the corrupted and very sexual Thea, who is literally Thecla’s sister—half-sister, specifically, which also has interesting symbolic connotations.

Think of the archetypes like colors, and their orientations like hues, or perhaps saturation. Two very different characters, (say, Christ and the Devil), can actually be rooted in the same psychological archetype, (the Spirit Mercurius). I have spoken about this concept before in the Alchemical Devilry series, but to summarise, all archetypes have a wide variety of expressions, and I find the best way to visualize this is in the form of a grid of opposites. Alchemy is a fusion of opposites, and it is vital that there be at least two pairs of opposites at work. This, naturally, makes crosses, squares or diamonds the most convenient form for these sorts of thinkings.

The first quaternity that is developed, then, is Severian/Vodalus and Thecla/Thea; Severian feels an affinity for Vodalus because they are of the same metaphysical stuff, and, in the constellation of Severian’s world, Vodalus is that Luciferian image which initially lights our way toward— well, enlightenment. This is confirmed by the gift that Vodalus gives Severian in thanks: a gold coin, gold being the material of consciousness, the alchemist, and the sun.

Here is where we take another little aside to remind readers that there are correspondences between alchemical metals, and the planets followed at the time the alchemists were working. The correspondence is:








And, for the record, bronze is a copper-tin alloy, so when we see bronze in fiction, we should try interpreting it as a conjunction of the qualities associated with Venus and Jupiter; that is, interpreting it as a fusion of the feminine mercurial and the ego. (It is important to remember the hermaphroditic nature of Mercurius, meaning that both Venus and Mercury are mercurial archetypes; yes, archetypes are not gender-bound, either, and can be adjusted readily. So, annoyingly, yes; all archetypes are arguably expressions of that which one calls Mercurius, to various degrees, but this only makes them the same as much as all people are made out of carbon elements. After a certain point of alteration, it is simply easiest to call an archetype by a new name while still tagging it as a variant of Mercurius or his feminine counterpart of Venus. ‘Mercury’ is a powerful symbol for the substance of the unconscious in this sense because of the way droplets of mercury behave, merge together as one, but separate into many sizes and conditions; much like Tzadkiel, incidentally, we will see later on.)

The type of martial consciousness embodied by violent, warlike, and masculine Vodalus is similar in that respect to Shere Kahn. It is unbridled, furious masculinity which would ravage its own world so far as the world itself is concerned—but it is unbridled, furious masculinity which will eventually be a huge contributing factor in the bringing of the New Sun, which is its true purpose. Severian is destined to inherit much from this more masculine and, at the time, powerful emanation of his archetype. Not just consciousness, and soul, but mind.

For those who are not familiar with alchemy, its most popular catchphrase is “The Axiom of Maria”: “One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the one as the fourth”. This concept expresses what is happening psychically, in alchemy: the one person divides himself into a multiplicity and, through working on these aspects, emerges again as a greater Whole, the Self, the Stone, etc. It is expressed by symbols of roundness (you know, like a round gem, say) and very powerful in terms of its importance to the human mind. The Axiom makes a great deal more sense when it is paired with the phrase “Solve et Coagula”, or ‘dissolve and combine’, which is the sort of commandment of the alchemists: they dissolve themselves and re-combine their own psychic molecules into a greater, more divine Self.

I bring this up now, because one of the most vivid characters we meet in the guild is not a human, but rather, Severian’s three-legged dog, Triskele. ‘Triskele’ means ‘three legs’ and is also the name of the famous Celtic triple spiral design, indicative of cycles, seasons and rebirth, among other things. Triskele is a deceptively important character; like the dog in the book of Tobit who represents the Logos, or God concealed/expressed in matter, Triskele hovers in the background, but serves similar (albeit more active) purpose. When caring for Triskele (whom he has accidentally resurrected) in secret, the dog wanders off, never to be seen again; but in the process of searching for him, Severian discovers his footprints lead to the Atrium of Time, where he will meet (SPOILER)his future wife(SPOILER) Valeria.

Other things of note at the guild: we learn of the guild color, fuligin, which is darker than black and the color/substance of the guild members’ cloaks. Severian will later use this to describe a black hole. We also learn a little about the massive Citadel which houses most of the guilds, (with the Torturers located in Matachin Tower, ‘matachin’ being a kind of sword-dancing) and we learn, too, a little about how the guild acquires new members: the boys are orphans, generally of former ‘guild’ clients, and only men are admitted to the Guild. Baby girls are sent to be raised with the Witches. There is also the Feast of Holy Katharine, which is one of the most interesting features of the Torturers’ culture.

The symbol of the Catherine Wheel, for which both the feast and Severian’s absent mother are presumably named, is exquisitely dual-purposed. As the holy symbol of the guild of torturers, it is a sort of chthonic sun. For a start, the symbol of the wheel is, in and of itself, rich with deep significance to the human mind. From Taschen’s dictionary of symbols:

The sun wheel is a version of the mythic circle of totality and its hub, or eye, the ambivalent center manifest in the fiery, seed-germinating, creative rotation of the rim. The rayed spokes of the great solar wheels of ancient cultures divide the cosmic whole into measures of time or space, the four seasons, phases of the moon, elements or cardinal directions, the eight-petaled lotus, emblem of continuous renewal, the 12 months of the zodiac and their astral configurations and transits, the whirling of the changeable about the hub of eternity. The wheeling of the stars around the pole sets in motion the cycles of nature and the course of a life. Or in Tibetan Buddhism the Wheel of Life portrays rebirth as the succession of different states of existence, all in the grip of the monster of impermanence. (Enc. Brit. 10:214). Tarot’s Wheel of Fortune signifies turns of destiny, and “order, extension, time and duration” (Gad, 98). In the wheel-like circulatory process of the alchemical opus is implied mystic peregrination, ascents and descents, sublimation and coagulation, one moving into the other until synthesized at the hidden center.


In myths and life, the wheel has also been used as an instrument of torture on which one is fixed or stretched, suggesting the agonizing nature of psychic compulsion. Negatively, the wheel is emblem of being “stuck in a rut,” or of endlessly turning the wheels of the mind, but getting nowhere. In Mahayana Buddhism, cause and affect is “the wheel that cannot be turned back.”

Taschen Dictionary of Symbols, “Wheel”, pg 504

And, for a more vivid picture, Daniel P. Mannix explains a bit about the wheel’s use as an implement of torture in his book, The History of Torture, highly recommended and not very easy to get.

Breaking on the wheel, especially on the continent, was so common that it almost became the standard manner of executing criminals. A large wheel like a cart wheel was mounted vertically on a scaffold. The condemned was tied spread-eagled on the wheel, his arms and legs extended as far as possible and fastened to the rim so they were approximately at right angles to the spokes. The executioner then broke each bone separately with an iron bar, finally killing the prisoner with a blow across the chest. In certain cases, the final blow was not given. The execution broke the man’s ribs and the wheel was then mounted on a pole set through the hub, the condemned being left to die slowly. A variation of this torture consisted of putting each of the condemned’s limbs, one after the other, in a wooden trough with vertical slits cut in the sides. The executioner then used a small but very heavy wheel with an iron rim that he dropped through the slits in succession, crushing the limb by degrees—starting at the extremity and working up to the body. This device was usually used in torture chambers because it was not so suitable for public display as breaking on the wheel.

France devised the technique of burning out the victim’s eyes with a basin of hot coals (the bassin ardent), soaking the victim’s fingers in tallow and then burning them like candles, or putting hot stones under the armpits and lashing the hands to the sides. Prisoners were beaten with the battoir or battledore, an instrument like the paddle used in ping-pong but studded with nails. Blasphemers had their tongues fastened to their cheeks with an iron pin. But France was particularly famous for her oubliettes (from the word meaning “to forget”). These were dungeons shaped like an inverted funnel with trapdoor at the top. When the victim stepped on the door, it opened under him and he fell into the cell from which there was no escape. Louis XI is said to have killed 4,000 victims in oubliettes. It was considered a courteous gesture to open the trapdoor afterwards and call down it, “Vade in pace” (Go in peace). Some of these old oubliettes can still be seen at Chateau Toufou near Veriennes. They are now used to store grain.

–Maddox, Daniel P., The History of Torture, pgs. 82-83

shadow 4

Please note that first and foremost, to be placed upon the wheel is to be crucified. As Christ was crucified to the cross of wooden matter like so many gods hung (Odin) or beget (Adonis) from trees, so too are all unconscious men crucified to the wheel of matter. From there, an iron—a violent, Martian metal) bar is applied. The limbs of the will to live are broken and all prior connection with reality is severed, ready to begin anew with post-death rebirth. It is a gruesome picture and I do not minimize its gravity, nor draw up this metaphor lightly: many real people throughout history died in such a fashion. Yet, such a brutal act bears steep symbolic significance to the brain, and renders the symbol of the Catherine Wheel—and Severian’s eventual emergence from that guild who holds it sacred, into a brand new, wide open world—of real import, for it is one of many unconscious signs that Severian is a spirit of sacred consciousness who is destined to escape (at least, mentally and to a certain degree) the illusions of matter and, more importantly, time.

Prison is a Saturnine symbol, and Saturnine symbols are closely related to toxicity, evil, corruption (especially in matter), and time. Saturn is a reaper who cuts down the wheat, which is milled into flour, which is baked into bread—as an alchemist would observe, bread, and, perhaps in a further, Dorn-like leap, the spirit of Christ within Communion bread, (sorry, atheist readers, but this is symbolically important) are the inner essence of that wheat, which Saturn’s cutting down gradually coaxes out. If you take exception to the metaphor, remember Christ is only a purely archetypal symbol of pure consciousness. The principle at work here—the principle of the alchemists as a whole—is that all matter is imbued with the capacity for Christ-consciousness and deep connection with the Godhead, called in The Book of the New Sun “The Increate”. In attempting to transform lead into gold, they were psychologically trying to enact that within the matter, and within themselves. Most of them recognized it and wrote or illustrated colorful treatises describing their imaginative, dream, or psychedelic experiences as a result of engaging in the Work; a few of them didn’t, and became con men. But all souls, whether alchemist or not, whether creative or not, whether extroverted or introverted or materialistic or spiritualistic, all souls are drawn to the magnet of the Increate like mere iron files, or better yet, like magnetic fluid seeking its great source. All souls are secretly engaged in the work of knowing Creation, in whatever means and by whatever definition one has.

But those souls who are not yet consciously aware of this, these are those who are like the grain (how apropos, almost troublingly so) now stored in the oubliettes where once men rotted. The unconscious human who becomes conscious is facing the mission of a statue which wishes to come to life, or a tree which must give birth to a human. And for every man or woman who ascends to the level of consciousness I describe, many more go to their graves never experiencing it, and must work it out somehow in death. I do not believe in reincarnation in the sense of an individual ego being reincarnated through many bodies historically; I believe the symbol of reincarnation is only relevant to the single clear “I” of consciousness, the Clear Light of Tibetan Buddhism which must be recognized by the dead or dying as the Self, and reincarnation also has a place within the symbol of transformation during the life cycle, as a man transforms through many personas during his life’s journey. There is also the idea of reincarnation in a multiversal sense, or reincarnation in the sense of quantum immortality; it all, essentially, leads to the same thing, and that is, to the emergence of the soul to proper immortality.

Do you see how much there is to unpack? How every symbol of the unconscious is a diamond of metaphors, a fractal of meaning? The Book of The New Sun is certainly no exception. Those souls who lose their lives in the oubliette of the Guild are like those unconscious humans who never unlock their conscious potential, who are trapped in ignorant matter. These are the same who are, in the Bible, condemned to eternal hell. The true inescapable hell is found in a purely materialistic way of thinking which does not sense a proverbial fifth cardinal direction in the movement of consciousness. Severian’s emergence from the dark and violent Guild and into the vast world of the Increate is the same as any story of consciousness which frees itself from the demiurge.

While working on this essay, I have been reading, as an appropriate accompaniment, Marie-Louise von Franz’s excellent study of Dorn’s work, published as Alchemical Active Imagination. Whenever I read works like this, and spend a lot of my waking days working on essay interpretations, I find I have very vivid, symbol-laden dreams. Two nights ago I dreamt I held both my copies of Alchemical Active Imagination and Shadow & Claw in my hand, and that, while standing up to put them away, I managed to catch Shadow & Claw alight on a nearby fireplace! I put it out, most upset, and looked to see the top strip of the cover had burned away to reveal the genre, which, in garbled dream wording, read, “Science fiction or fantasy”; so, in putting out the fire, I was able to reveal the book’s inner essence. But the point this dream was trying to get across to me is evident: I cannot allow the fire to consume the entire book, but only a little bit of the book! That is, I cannot allow alchemical interpretations to steal the show. This is about Book of the New Sun, not Dorn, or gnosticism, or even really alchemy! We have to move this show along; so if I blaze through important sections and characters please forgive me. As I keep repeating, this is a dense text with a great deal of symbolism to unpack. The flower symbolism alone could have its own essay. Therefore, we must focus on a few key points, and to do that, I am going to hit character by character. Prepare for some glossing, with many apologies; if you want to understand the symbolism in-depth yourself, I will try to include a list of resources in the final essay. The best way to understand something is to experience it firsthand. Also know that some of these characters—particularly Baldanders & Dr. Talos—will give us a more opportune time to touch on their symbolism later on, so they’re more generally categorized for now. That said, this section is just full of spoilers, so…sorry.


A character who we meet early on, and then basically never see again until the end of the books, Valeria is a mostly unconscious figure, as most figures of matter are. As primitive, unformed aspect of the anima and the illusion of Maya, Valeria is a girl who Severian meets in the eternal Atrium of Time, where time apparently stands still. He is lead there by the footsteps of Triskele, who therefrom disappears. The Logos (we don’t have time in this essay to go into the masculinity of the number three, but we may get back to it with Triskele’s appearance in Book IV) leads Severian to his first glimpse of eternity, and his first glimpse of his life-giving soul. Valeria is, in many ways, symbolic of the Higher Self, the Higher Soul, the eventuality of matter wherein we find ourselves. Glimpsed in that once-upon-a-time, dream-space of eternity, she is most alluring; but, once she is removed from eternity and brought down into matter, she is rendered ugly.

Valeria is, archetypally speaking, almost identical to Thecla; however, one is that which is attained, and one is that which is unattainable and therefore, more driving. Furthermore, the death of Thecla frees the microcosm of Severian from the world of matter; but the seemingly abrupt death of Valeria during Urth echoes that death (both committed with a dagger, for instance) and in so doing, frees the macrocosm of reality from that same world of matter. Although the resurrected assassin’s plunging of the dagger and the drowning of Urth are not causal acts, they are synchronistic acts, which to the Self is arguably more powerful. But, as Valeria is the attainable anima, Valeria is a matter-bound anima, related with matter, who later, presumably, becomes a grandmother; thus, in killing her, the mulier senex dies and gives way to a new world.


Thecla, the half-sister of Thea who is strongly implied to be imprisoned for political reasons, is treated as most guild clients, but with a few extra privileges. Most notably, she is allowed to have books, and is responsible for Severian’s journey to the library as much as for his entire journey. Thecla is a beautiful, gentle spirit condemned to undue suffering; she is the true, pure, spiritual anima, that portion of the soul which is thrust down into matter but does not identify with it or belong to it because it is really a sliver of the Increate. Thus, Thecla is ultimately unattainable; while she and Severian have a very close and romantic relationship, he commits a crime against his own dark nature in merciful act of smuggling her a dagger by means of which to commit suicide.

Its capacity for swift, precision cutting has given the knife a conspicuous place in the rituals and iconography of cultures as varied as the Hebrew, Celtic, Aztec and Hindu, where, as the implement for slaying sacrificial victims over sacred vessels, it released the libido of fertilization and renewal signified by the offertory blood. Traditional instrument of Abraham’s ritual circumcision, the knife becomes the instrument of a symbolic sacrifice that since ancient times implies for the Jewish male the voluntary cutting away of an aspect of hiimself to join a larger, sacred covenant. In Tibetan Buddhism, the phurba, or magical ritual dagger, embodies the compassionate action of the wrathful deity Vajrakilaya. The phruba’s triple blade signifies the spiritual tools that sever the roots of ignorance ,desire and hatred, which poison human existence.

–Taschen’s Dictionary of Symbols, “Knives/Daggers”, pg 490

Therefore, in a grander sense, Thecla’s suicide is a form of human sacrifice which will become more important later; and her death, as well as Valeria’s, bookend the action. The soul liberates itself with the aid of the shadow, and then becomes that same shadow off in pursuit of a higher existence, to reveal itself pure Spirit; Matter must be liberated by physical death coming from outside of itself, which the Spirit survives.

Before she conjoins with his inner essence, Thecla ‘survives’ in the form of The Brown Book, a collection of fairy tales, recycled fiction and perhaps some plays which Severian carries with him throughout the first few volumes of BOTNS. We will visit this subject in detail sometime later, as it becomes more relevant, but note how apropos this symbol is for the way the anima inspires in authors like Gene Wolfe not only new stories, but a love of reading and literature in general.

As the highest, most pure form of the anima, however, she is also unattainable; her death will render her thus, and despite a chance meeting in the paradise of Yesod, it is unclear if Severian ever actually manages to engage in sexual congress with her. He later in book four or five implies that he did, but I do not think this is necessarily true; he was deeply affected, after all, by the encounter with the whore using her image in House Azure. That encounter is a powerful symbol for the search of the spirit and the Self for the anima in the real world, the anima (or animus) as actually imagined in the human mind. Not someone who is ‘like’ the anima, but the anima, perfect thought made manifest. Poor chumps who create tulpas of their anime waifus are only keenly sensitive and antisocial people who are perhaps more brave, for they are willing to admit that they want what we all want: not the imperfect other, but the perfect inner image of what that other ‘should’ be which we project onto every person we meet. Severeian’s sudden outburst and anger at the woman in House Azure is only a hastened example of a doomed relationship: it is based entirely upon his projection, upon the illusion that the prostitute is Thecla; but when her clothes (that is, the projections) are stripped away, the resemblance to Thecla is lost, and Severian feels a sense of misplaced betrayal, as we all do when we discover that our lovers were not the person we were forcing them to try to be. But, displeasing though she be, the whore shares with Severian a very deep secret, indeed:

“[You, Severian, are] very strong. Aren’t you strong enough to master reality, even for a little while?”

“What do you mean?”

“Weak people believe what is forced on them. Strong people what they wish to believe, forcing that to be real. What is the Autarch but a man who believes himself Autarch and makes others believe by the strength of it?”

“You are not the Chatelaine Thecla,” I told her.

“But don’t you see, neither is she…the Chatelaine Thecla is not the Chatelaine Thecla. The the Chatelaine Thecla of your mind, which is the only Chatelaine Thecla you care about. Neither am I. What, then, is the difference between us?”

–Wolfe, Gene, The Shadow of the Torturer, page 66

There is hardly a woman in the book who Severian does not compare to Thecla at some point or another; Valeria may be his first earthly crush, but Thecla, to Severian, is the heavenly prototype of love, itself. I will take a moment to point out that Severian’s Brown Book—or the scraps from it—directly quote Marlowe’s play Dr. Faustus, which is quite a bit shorter and rather different than Goethe’s play Faust. Marlowe’s style is also a heavily influence on the play of Dr. Talos; so it reads to my eye, any way. In Dr. Faustus, the eponymous protagonist strikes a bargain with Lucifer by way of mercurial middle-man, Mephistophilis. Near the end of the deal, and the end of the play, Faustus revisits a plea of Mephistophilis that he made earlier—that he should have a wife. However, the first time Faustus made the plea, he was not specific, and so Mephistophilis invites on-stage a demon dressed as a woman, which Mephisto introduces as Faust’s wife, and which eventually gets Faust off the subject by giving him a grimoire of spells and rituals. Yet, as the time of his reckoning draws closer, damned Faust encounters and old man who attempts to dissuade him from continuing down the path of hell; and, although he allows Mephistophilis to convince him to wish a curse upon the old man (whose soul cannot be touched, but whose body Mephisto can wrack with disease), Faust finds himself disenheartened, and afraid. Therefore, he requests again his wife, but specifies that it should be the recently-seen shade/manifestation of Helen of Troy.

FAUSTUS. One thing, good servant, let me crave of thee,

To glut the longing of my heart’s desire,—

That I might have unto my paramour

That heavenly Helen, which I saw of late,

Whose sweet embracings may extinguish cleanliness

These thoughts that do dissuade me from my vow,

And keep mine oath I made to Lucifer.


MEPH. Faustus, this or what else thou shalt desire

Shall be perform’d in twinkling of an eye.


Re-enter HELEN.


FAUSTUS. Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,

And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss. [Kisses her.]

Her lips suck forth my soul; see where it flies!—

Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.

Here will I dwell, for Heaven be in these lips,

And all is dross that is not Helena.


–Marlowe, Christopher, Dr. Faustus, Scene XII

This embodiment of the chthonic Eternal Feminine in the form of the perfectly beautiful (and pagan, and debauched) Helen of Troy is near identical to the feelings experienced by Severian for Thecla, or so he feel in retrospect once having lived with her within him. All is dross that is not Thecla. Then, of course, there are similarities to Goethe’s Faust, who evades damnation by virtue of the women praying for him. I still have to do a Faust essay, I know…all things in their time.


shadow 3

Terminus Est is probably my favorite character in all the books. Frequently described in plain terms as a cross, she is given to Severian as he leaves the guild. Therefore, she does not just represent nous and the creation of the mind as do so many swords in fiction, swords which discern and cut down and dissect all problems before the protagonist; she represents the beginning of the operation. In Book III, Typhon, new-resurrected, translates her name, not as ‘This is the End’, but ‘This is the Place of Parting.’ How powerful that is to the alchemist! I have chills whenever I consider it. The moment Severian is handed the sword, he is engaged in the Operation. ‘Solve et Coagula’ refers to the command o the alchemists to separate the elements of the Self and recombine them into a new, more powerful form; Terminus Est, as a lictor’s sword made for decapitation, is symbolic of all that which does the separating.

As an added bonus, the sword is impossibly light to lift and impossibly heavy on the downstroke, and all thanks to…that’s right, a central channel filled with mercury.

I shall not bore you with a catalog of her virtues and beauties; you would have to see her and hold her to judge her justly. Her bitter blade was an ell in length, straight and square-pointed as such a sword’s should be. Man-edge and woman-edge could part a hair to within a span of the guard, which was of thick silver with a cavern head at either end. Her grip was onyx bound with silver bands, two spans long and terminated with an opal. Art had been lavished upon her; but it is the function of art to render attractive and significant those things that without it would not be so, and so art had nothing to give her. The words Terminus Est had been engraved upon her blade in curious and beautiful letters, and I had learned enough of ancient languages since leaving the Atrium of Time to know that they meant This Is The Line of Division.

“She is well honed, I promise you,” Mater Palaemon said, seeing me test the man-edge with my thumb. “Fore the sake of those given over to you, see you keep her so. My question is whether she is not too ponderous a mate for you. Raise her and see.”

I clasped Terminus Est as I had the false sword at my elevation, and lifted her above my head, taking care not to strike the ceiling. She shifted as though I wrestled a serpent.

“You have no difficulty?”

“No, Master. But she writhed when I poised her.”

“There is a channel in the spine of her blade, and in it runs a river of hydrargyrum [an antiquated term for the metal mercury]—a metal heavier than iron, though it flows like water…”

–Wolfe, Gene, The Shadow of the Torturer, pg 90-91

What a wealth of symbols! Note that although this mercurial sword (which simultaneously tags Severian as a mercurial archetype, and itself as that ‘purer’ mercurial archetype who is responsible for the actual severing which is, nonetheless, deeply unconscious, because it is an object and not even an animal) is androgynous, having both a ‘man-edge’ and ‘woman-edge’, it is primarily female, described as ‘she’ and ‘her’, and bearing silver color. I have already mentioned the connection of silver to the alchemical moon, Luna, the archetypal feminine. Therefore, we are being unconsciously signaled from the start of Severian’s journey that his relationship with women—and more specifically, his own feminine aspects—will be the great tool by which he will make his journey. Additionally, its black colors point to the chthonic nature of the anima. I would also do well to note that her sheath is manskin, as the mind is sealed within flesh.


In Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, Jung describes how The Wise Old Man archetype frequently makes appearances in which he is split into two, and specifically calls out the ‘giant/little man’ pairing as being a very popular one; a doctor is another popular appearance; and a trickster or con man is a frequent appearance of the Spirit Mercurius in this particular form. Jung explains that the unconscious has no sense of proper scale when in comes to physical size; this is certainly true of Baldanders, forever growing as he is. Everything about the characters point to alchemical backgrounds—Dr. Talos is specifically described as a homonculus at one point. We will get into these characters a great deal more later; however, for now, suffice it to say that the Wise Old Man archetype is generally the most ‘down to earth’ variant of the Spirit Mercurius, and, while not necessarily good, it is one of the earliest-met archetypes after the animus/anima and therefore one of the most helpful in engaging in the process, even if they do not seem as such. Down in the Agia section, we will discuss introverted archetypes versus extroverted archetypes in detail, but for now, Baldanders and Talos represent this very well; Baldanders, fleshly and material but a student of alchemy and chemistry, is the introverted type, and Dr. Talos is is extroverted projection who, while a mountebank and general con man, is genuinely good at heart and very generous. Talos never seems to take gold, at least, not from his friends; he only gives it in huge droves, symbolic of the Spirit Mercurius which divines creative inspiration in the form of gold from the outside world and funnels it inward, to the introverted spirits of Severian, Dorcas and Baldanders’ research. The play he writes alone marks him as a spirit which generates creativity; and as a homonculus, he straddles the border of reality and fiction, for although he is fictional to us, he was also once fictional in his own world—of course, weren’t we all?


One of the most common pairs of archetypes, and the one most commonly represented in the symbol of twins, is that of extroverted and introverted functions. Please understand that these terms mean something a little bit more than “do you like to go out or stay in on a Saturday night?” Jung meant these terms in the sense of how one views the world. Are you motivated by external goals, more inclined to only believe what you see, do you prefer the concrete and the sensible? Then you are probably an extrovert. Do you have a more inward way of living, place greater value on abstract intuition, and value consciousness over material living? Then you are an introvert as Jung meant the term. Marie-Louis von Franz’s book The Shadow And Evil In Fairy Tales goes into this motif in fairy tales very often.

Christianity in its mainstream form appeals to the extroverts; alchemy tends to appeal to the introverts, and we know from his internal world that Severian is an introverted variant of the Spirit. That means, somewhere in the world of Gene Wolfe’s psyche, he has to have a neglected, extroverted counterpart, a function which is not as dominant as Severian but still existent; and that counterpart is Agilus, one of the few executions we hear of Severian committing. Their duel, and the act of execution, indicates an internal or unconscious struggle between extroverted values and introverted values; one last-ditch effort of the psyche to prevent the initiation of change by trying to keep the self matter-bound. Aglius wants Terminus Est (mind), therefore he is a function which wishes to rise to dominance; he and his sister own a clothing/costume shop, and they are therefore concerned with the superficial aspects of living. The poisonous flowers with which they duel could be considered an early form of the Self.

Agia becomes slightly more complicated, though all things are clear when they are broken into a quaternity. Severian/Dorcas and Agilus/Agia represent the quaternity of choice, here being divided into literal families of introversion and extroversion. When Agilus dies, Severian symbolically usurps his position as Agia’s twin, and she begins to appear time and time again throughout the novels. This is partly because each one of them is missing a twin, or at least, Severian is strongly implied to be missing a twin. When Agia’s twin dies, we therefore have two twinless twins, which are themselves a kind of twin, not fraternal or identical, but tragical.

A thief, she is that part of the psyche which throws constant doubt into the operation and elicits stumbling blocks from within. She is also that tainted part of the anima; so, if Thea contains Thecla in the sense that Thea is the most unconscious, shadow-form of the anima Severian meets in the book, then when the light aspects of Thea are removed, the leftovers are noxious Agia. She is a walking state of xanthosis exclusive to the anima; and yet, ultimately, she is on the right side, because as the Work is undertaken and all bodies are purified, even those which once fought will now work together. Ah, the symbolic arithmetic of the unconscious!


Of all the symbols in the book, the Claw—a thorn hidden within a round gem which Severian believes early in the book to have healing power—is the clearest symbol for the Philosopher’s Stone, otherwise known as the Self. One would do well to also note that the symbol of the Self emerges, not from the altar from which it is stolen, but from Severian’s sabertache—that is, the Self emerges from the same container as the Mind. It does not come from without, whether from the Church or the sky or anyplace else; it comes from the Mind, and, more than that, it is merely a symbol of Severian, himself. As every golden lotus, glittering gem or humble egg depicted in fiction or seen in dreams is but a symbol of our Self, so, too, is Severian’s Claw little more than a symbol of the far greater end to the Work: his own enlightenment.

The Claw’s origin (at this juncture, anyway) is also not to be overlooked; a stone, kept by a cult of women (The Pelerines) and stolen by a woman, delivered to Severian. Again, the themes of femininity and the delivery of the Self at the hands of the female inner essence is being marked as important.


I have already touched on Dorcas throughout the text, but now I have a moment to extrapolate on the paradox she represents. Alchemy is all about the tension of opposites, and it is the combining of those opposites which gives us the Operation and, eventually, the Stone. Dorcas, within herself, contains a great many opposites: she is an anachronism, having died many years before Severian was even born, but being resurrected accidentally by his hand in the Botanic Gardens (notably from the waters, the way various figures of consciousness erupt from the waters of the unconscious). She is old, but she is also roughly fifteen years old. She is a grandmother, but she is a girl. She is Severian’s grandmother (again, Great Mother), but they are nonetheless sexually engaged. She seems innocent, but she is sexually active. She may also be bisexual if Severian is to be believed (I don’t think I believe him on that point, personally). Dorcas is like a flower with each unfolding set of petals another pair of opposites, as the Great Mother archetype of matter must contain all opposites of the world within her.

Again, another woman being representative of matter; but each one represents a certain style of relationship to matter, and a certain stage in the operation. Dorcas is that part of ego matter which both generates and yet paradoxically does not generate, but only attracts, the shadow which will form the root of our Self; she is also the part of it which later combines with it in the coniunctio. In alchemy, the ego separate from consciousness is frequently feminized, largely because it is a receptive vehicle for the penetration of masculine consciousness. This is also arguably because the ego is a function of society working upon the brain, society and brains both being physical constructs of matter, which is, say it with me, depicted as feminine. This point is further emphasized because nothing bad happens to Dorcas (that we know of) except that her relationship with Severian reaches a point which is not great, for reasons Severian either does not communicate to us or does not understand himself. (Trying to bang every lady in Thrax? Maybe. Rampant speculation here, folks.) But, rather than suffering an ill fate, Dorcas simply returns to her old home.

In the alchemical process, the ego is not destroyed. It is transformed, it is healed and renewed, and then it is returned to its material home; but now we will find that the center of our experience is Consciousness, rather than the persona with which we previously identified. If you find the use of the word ‘ego’ to be pretentious (as it often can be, for when people accuse others of living in their ego, or when people claim they have no ego—these are often the most egotistical people of them all!) then by all means, substitute ‘persona’. It is probably a more accurate word and helps us to avoid Freudian associations. At any rate, the persona is restored to life by the alchemical process, but has disagreements with consciousness from time to time; we all know what it is like to have a nagging inner voice which tells us to do something we do not want to do, but yet which we know we certainly should do! It is no coincidence that we refer to our conscience in this situation; for, really, it is the clear light of consciousness attempting to guide the persona. When the persona eventually submits and recedes into the background, consciousness becomes the central force, and One emerges from Not-One, like Severian leaving Thrax alone after journeying so long with a varied collection of companions.


Another Spirit Mercurius/Wise Old Man-style archetype, Jonas swings in to replace the rest of the party when an unexplained occurrence at the gate of Nessus causes their separation. He is barely in the first book and is more important in the second. They meet just before the gate of Nessus, with Jonas riding a merychip (a proto-horse) and making contact with the party while overhearing that Severian is in search of the Pelerines. In dreams, writing and all other forms of art, the Spirit Mercurius tends to be the one who moves the plot along and helps enact change. Jonas will help keep Severian moving throughout the second book, and also has a bitching secret which we discover shortly before he makes his grand exit.

But, I’m (not) sorry to say, this is where we make our grand exit for the week, because this essay is a whopping sixteen pages long. I haven’t even introduced Hildegrin, Jolenta, the Botanical Gardens, Father Inire, Master Malrubius, the Gates of Nessus, the symbolic meaning of the cardinal directions in Severian’s journey, and, of course, all of Books II-V.

So I suppose what I’m saying is, be sure to come back in two weeks for the next part. But if you’re feeling blue, why not fill the time by reading The Book of the New Sun over again—or, better yet, support this blog and its free essays by buying a copy of THE LIGHTNING STENOGRAPHY DEVICE, my newly-released psychedelic novel which searches for the meeting point between fantasy and science fiction as well as the one between the left brain and the right. Buy it in hardback, paperback and ebook on Amazon, Barnes&Noble, or this blog right now. Thanks as always for reading; we’ll see you in April. Happy Early Easter!

M. F. Sullivan is the author of DELILAH, MY WOMAN and THE LIGHTNING STENOGRAPHY DEVICE. Be sure to subscribe to this blog for updates on her upcoming series, THE DISGRACED MARTYR TRILOGY, and for new essays the day they come out!

One Reply to “An Analysis Of The Alchemical Tradition Behind BOOK OF THE NEW SUN, Part II: The Solve et Coagula of Terminus Est”

  1. Reblogged this on The truth is over here…. and commented:
    A very compelling article done by Painted Blind Publishing discussing works of fiction by Gene Wolfe. The article is written by M. F. Sullivan who recently published a new novel entitled “The Lightning Stenography Device” which has been described as psychedelic in nature, which interests me right from the get go.
    Some of the opinions expressed in the article may not completely coincide with my own but the article discusses alchemy in depth so for that reason I have reposted it here.

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