An Analysis of the Alchemical Tradition Behind BOOK OF THE NEW SUN, Part IV: Hethor, Typhon and the Temptation of Severian
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Of all four books in the “original” tetralogy, I have to admit that The Sword of the Lictor is hands-down my favorite. Of all four books, it’s also probably the biggest downer, and the most rich with spoilers, so heed my usual warning if you haven’t read the books and skip this one, because it’s such a good journey that I really don’t think you want it spoiled. Also, because we are going to be discussing the ‘xanthosis’ step of the operation, which deals with the confrontation and removal of corruption, we will be discussing some of the darker and more serious–one might say, ‘more triggering’–themes nested within The Book of the New Sun. There will be frank discussions of rape and pederasty in the symbolic context of a work of fiction. As a disclaimer, I neither accept nor condone any such thing in real life, and I think that there are many rapes in fiction which are lazy, unnecessary and exploitative; we will soon see, however, if we have not already, that Severian’s journey is inseparable from the concept of his sexuality, in both its positive aspects, and its negative aspects. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get started.
The ending of The Claw of the Conciliator has a lot going for it. I promised last time that we would touch of the play of Dr. Talos, which, in style, bears quite a lot of Christopher Marlowe’s genes. In substance, it is very interesting; it predicts the events of Urth and also illustrates with more black and white symbolism the archetypes of some of our characters. It is also its own alchemical piece, although incomplete; featuring a greedy Autarch who lusts after a young succubus, however, it also reflects one of Claw’s most unfortunate incidents, which I’m just going to get out of the way.
Jolenta is a character about whom we know little other than she was once a waitress who was invited by Talos to join their show, and who was magically augmented to possess irresistible beauty. Not only does Jonas pine for her throughout the entirety of his acquaintance with Severian; Severian has relatively strong urges toward Jolenta as well, and acts upon those urges in a way which is subject to much debate. I have to admit, I don’t personally read Severian’s interaction with Jolenta as being one of rape, but I have noticed online more than a few people protesting the scene. As per usual, it is the reader’s duty to resist their kneejerk reaction and look into themselves, at both why the fictional event is so effecting them, and what the fictional event means.
There are a lot of rapes in literature that are unnecessary and have no meaning; but, there are a lot of rapes in literature, just like there are a lot of murders and tortures in literature, which do have meaning. So I do not mean to be insensitive to any victims of sexual assault, because it is a terrible crime against the right of another human being to feel both in control of and safe within their own body. That said, one would do well to consider that history and mythology is full of rape, and that the symbol of rape can mean anything from the penetration of the unwitting body by the consciousness of divinity like Jove descending upon Leda and his many other mistresses, to a symbol of the ultimate height of decadence and man’s cruelty such as we see in Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. Severian’s gray-area rape of Jolenta’s unconscious body during their boat ride is a little of both; but mostly, it is a turning point, and a powerful illustration of the Catholic’s relationship to sex.
In the symbolic world of Urth, Jolenta’s role is a decidedly sexual one to the point that she might be said to represent entirely the experience of sexuality in a 4th circuit sense. IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE JUNGLE BOOK ESSAY HOSTED ON THIS BLOG, READERS, READ IT NOW BEFORE GOING ON HERE. Not only will it make things easier; it will become relevant later in this very essay.
When I refer to Timothy Leary’s 8-Circuit Model, I am referring to a model of consciousness which divides the human experience of consciousness development in eight discernible steps. Circuit Four is the circuit where most human beings stop their development; it deals with sexuality and sexual taboos, and therefore it is responsible for structuring society and also for a great deal of brainwashing. Socially speaking, sex sometimes seems the be-all, end-all reason for existence: it fills up our ads and television shows, it suffuses the Internet, and I would venture a guess that most of us as children spent a nearly morbid amount of time speculating on the bedroom matters of adults. Sex is very interesting to the human brain because it is full of chemical and social rewards, and because it is the most important step in what the body feels to be its reason for living: procreation. The Catholic Church would agree with the body’s opinion, but when the ego gets involved and starts to think it’s allowed to have sex for pleasure, the situation changes and the Church gets touchy. Why? As always with a religion’s behavior, there is an exoteric reason, and an esoteric reason. The exoteric reason is related to growing and stabilizing the population of humankind across the globe, which has been more than accomplished; the esoteric reason for this is that when we truly become one with another human being, we cannot as easily become one with the divine, because we are filled up by this other person’s emotions, projections, and personal beliefs. Many magical orders command celibacy, not out of spiritual reasons, but because (as I myself discover more every day), being in a relationship often means putting up with ridiculous, needless, sometimes downright hallucinatory conflicts which frequently appear out of nothing and usually arise just in time to foil the blissed-out mental state required for the magician to go about his daily business. Sex can also be addictive and tiring, and take up much of a day or interrupt an otherwise productive atmosphere.
Please understand, I am a very sex-positive person! I enjoy sex, and from a cosmic sense, sex has many positive connotations, being symbolic of divine union, a physical expression of love, and many more things besides. But nothing in this world is objectively good or objectively bad. Everything has a gray area. And the human fascination with sex tends to prevent the human being from expanding out of the first four, terrestrial circuits and into the next four, extra-terrestrial circuits which are generally rooted in the mind and consciousness. It is perfectly fine for a person to be a Catholic who enjoys sex, or a magician who enjoys sex, but it is also important to not remain ‘inside’ one’s enjoyment of sex, or of anything, for one’s whole life. That is the problem with teenagers: they are ‘inside’ the fourth circuit, ‘inside’ their experience of this novelty of sex because it is so new to them and still often so wrong. Being fully conscious, fully attentive and fully in control of one’s self means getting ‘outside’ of any earthly urge and being able to investigate it with an open mind; this is the Buddhist intention behind detachment.
It also brings us back to the interaction between Jolenta and Severian, or the interaction of Severian upon Jolenta, if you would prefer. However one interprets the occasion which Severian later goes on to view with shame, it is an important moment because it is an act of supreme weakness on Severian’s part. Again and again, particularly at a moment in Urth, Severian indicates to us he feels women have a kind of power over him, and they do. He is a man who has a problem with sex; a very complex relationship with it, at any rate. As I have explained from the second essay, Severian’s journey opens with the sudden introduction of adult, masculine drives and alluring feminine sexuality into the closed system of his childhood; beautiful Thea leads to downright holy Thecla and her more accessible counterpart, Valeria (who will have a great, big section of her own at the end of Book IV). And yet, Thea’s name is derived from ‘theo’, meaning ‘God’. Sexuality is a gift from God, and so it is not sexuality’s problem that people cannot figure out what to do with it. It is the human being’s problem to purify his own stance toward sex. The Jolenta boat scene is, essentially, a point of maximum toxicity—it is the moment where Severian’s position toward sex is as negative as it can possibly get, as it will ever get. It is also an act which he regrets, and we know this because he not only later refers to his interaction with Jolenta as a shameful rape; we know this because, after his rape of Jolenta, his sexual desires shift from the earthly to the celestial.
Although it is true that he continues in his sexual relationship with Dorcas after Jolenta’s rape, we see very little of it. They have one depicted sexual interaction following the boat ride, and it is in Jolenta’s (again, ostensibly sleeping) presence. Shortly thereafter, Jolenta is bitten by a blood bat and, between her poisoning and the fact that Dr. Talos is no longer around to maintain her artificially-enhanced good looks, she dies. With Jolenta will die Severian’s interest in earthly sex. Book III will essentially open with Dorcas breaking up with him, with the two of them apparently having lived separately for some time, anyway; the first sexual interaction he has is in the book is with a woman dressed as a Pelerine, toward whom he also shows another act of mercy. After, he will engage in a relationship with Burgundofara/Gunny aboard the ship which takes him to his test, and therefore his relationship with the sailor is an extra-terrestrial romance which will eventually lead to the celestial fling he has with the tongueless woman of Yesod. Even his sexual drive turns from simply physical procreation to spiritual fusion with the Increate: it is easy to see how a normal woman dressed up in the clothes of the clergy marks his first step on the way to ascending out of his sexuality.
So, often the path beyond something is a plunge through it; and sometimes shame is a necessary tool to overcoming and training our own urges into a more controllable state. For Severian, however, his journey of painful self-investigation is far from over. After he heals a dying little girl who will someday grow up to be a seer woman, and does battle with a salamander, and then returns to Dorcas in time to be broken up with; all for the better, since, in committing another act of mercy, he is once more on the lam. Now, however, he has information about the location of the Pelerines (healing the wounded soldiers in the Autarch’s camp), and the intention to return their Claw. Easier said than done, as we always find in these stories.
Into the mountains Severian goes, and very quickly comes upon a widow’s house. The symbols of the widow and the orphan are of exceeding significance in alchemy; as ever, let’s turn to Jung for more.
- The Orphan, The Widow, and The Moon
In the text cited at the end of the last section Dorn continues: “Hermes trismegistus called the stone ‘orphan’.” “Orphan” as the name of a precious stone is found in Albertus Magnus. The stone was called “orphan” because of its uniqueness—“it was never seen elsewhere”—and it was said to be in the Emperor’s crown. It was “wine-colored” and sometimes shone in the nigt, “but nowadays it does not shine [any more] in the darkness.” As Albertus Magnus was an authority on alchemy, he may have been the direct source for both Dorn and for Petrus Bonus. “Orphan” as the name of a gem may therefore mean something like the modern “solitaire”—a very apt name for the unique lapis Philosophorum. Apart from Dorn and Petrus Bonus, it seems that this name is found only in the Carmina Heliodori. There it refers to the homeless orphan who is slain at the beginning of the work for purposes of transformation.
The terms “son of the widow” and “children of the widow” appear to be of Manichaean origin. The Manichaeans themselves were called “children of the widow.” The “orphan” referred to by Hermes must therefore have for his counterpart a vidua (widow) as the prima materia. For this there are synonyms such as mater, matrix, Venus, regina, femina, virgo, puella, praegnans, “virgin in the centre of the earth,” Luna, meretrix (whore), vetula (old woman), more specifically vetulla extenuata (enfeebled, exhausted), Mater Alchemia, “who is dropsical in the lower limbs and paralysed from the knees down,” and finally virago. All these synonyms allude to the virginal or maternal quality of the prima materia, which exists without a man and yet is the “matter of all things.” Above all, the prima materia is the mother of the lapis, the filius philosophorum. Michael Maier mentions the treatise of an anonymous author named Delphinas, which he dates to some time before 1447. He stresses that this author insisted particularly on the mother-son incest.
–Jung, C. G., Mysterium Coniunctionis, pg 18-19
Boy, I sure hope Gene Wolfe won’t give us a homeless orphan to care about!
Wait— what’s that?
Yeah, that’s right; in the widow’s cottage, who should Severian meet but a little boy whose name also happens to be Severian, which should inspire an immediate red flag labeled ‘DO NOT GET ATTACHED TO THIS CHARACTER’. Swiftly, he will become a homeless orphan, much as Severian himself could be said to be; and, for a short time, Severian’s journey will once more be accompanied.
There’s a weird moment also often cited online among discomforted fans where Severian flat-out says, “There was no sexual play between myself and the boy, as there had been between Dorcas and Jolenta,” which kind of stops everybody with a little, ‘Ahaha, excuse me?’ but I find the line interesting for two reasons: because it is telling about Severian, and it is telling about the culture of the Commonwealth, or at least the culture of the Torturers. The line is striking because he is just so utterly casual about it. Is this because he’s trying to slip something in past our radar, or because he truly thinks nothing morally of it? I think mostly that it is the latter.
Although it is located in a many, many millennia hence version of South America, the Commonwealth has many qualities which, socially, resemble those of Ancient Rome. Though the Greeks were better-known for their pederasty, the Romans weren’t strangers to— ah, how shall I say, ‘providing initiatory relationships’ to young men. Until the emergence of Christianity and the edicts of 342 A. D. which were, according to author Louis Crompton in Homosexuality and Civilization, seemed to be rooted in prejudice toward “cults of Venus” (Eastern faiths of Ishtar, Astarte and other various forms of the mother goddess) and their sacred prostitutes, many of whom were transgender. Romans at the time, sensing their society was on the brink of destruction at the hands of other forces, feared that effeminacy would weaken their Empire, and so homophobia became the order of the day. Additionally, there was more or less always sexual prejudice against those men who received the act of sodomy; and by the 200s, it was a capital crime (that is, punishable by banishment or worse, but not necessarily death) to seduce a freeborn boy under the age of seventeen. So while the Romans did eventually shake off the views of the Greeks—that pederasty was essentially a philanthropic task on the part of an older man intended to be a contributor to the boy’s education in morality and masculinity—they took some time to get there.
In a Commonwealth located in the far, far distant future where the primary concerns involve the fact that your sun is burning out, your civilization is surrounded by sabertoothed tigers and you are being watched by beings you believe to be effectively demons from outer space, sexual taboos are probably going to be a lot lower on your list of concerns. This is all the more true when your Autarch is an androgyne; whether you know that fact or not, it’s sure to have a psychological trickle-down effect, for lack of a better word, on the populace’s perception of gender; and when one also considers the fact that this same Autarch spends part of his time running a (probably clone-based) brothel to blow off steam, there may also be a very open attitude toward sexuality, at least among exultants who are in the know. Add those two facts to Severian’s upbringing among a male-only guild of torturers, which is at once a boy’s school and a prison, and one can easily see how Severian’s position on homosexuality is, at the end of the day, one big shrug. You may care, but he sure doesn’t. He’s just straightening out his relationship with the boy in your mind, in case you come from a time and place where that is normal.
As a side note—and this may be a conspiracy theory, which I said I would try to avoid, but, oh well—the fact that Severian takes time out to make this distinction about his relationship with the boy should not make us wonder about his relationship with the boy, but about his relationship with Jonas. Because, one thing is clear: of all his friends, of all the people he meets, for some reason, Severian seems to show a particular tenderness toward Jonas. At no point in time does Severian go out of his way to tell us he did not have sex with Jonas; really, it’s not even clear (at least to me) how long they were journeying together between books 1 and 2.
This is also a convenient moment to note that Jonas’s ascension with Father Inire’s mirrors, which are established by the story of Domnina, Thecla’s friend, who is shown a vision of a fish. Jung has quite literally an entire essay on the subject of the symbol of the fish in Aion, titled, what else, “The Symbol of the Fish in Alchemy.” As I have already gone into it to a fair extent in the Book of Tobit essay, I will not repeat myself, but I will leave it at the fish being a symbol for the deeply unconscious, essentially primordial self, with the philosopher’s stone often being called a ’round fish’ and other variations. For more detail, please check out the Tobit essay here on the blog; otherwise, I don’t want to get further off-track than to say that it is telling that Jonas is so thrilled about his opportunity to be transported by those same, fish-projecting mirrors. This is an important moment where Mercurius is freed from matter, although this particular iteration of the Spirit does not make another appearance; Severian, however, sees him reflected frequently in other characters and in the world.
Make of all this what you will. It is one of the few theories on the structure of the plot and characters that you’ll get from me, and I think whether it is true or not that Severian had a—shall we say, Spartan friendship with Jonas, based on his comments about himself and Little Severian, and about Jolenta and Dorcas, it may be normal in the Commonwealth for sexuality to be viewed among certain classes or between partners in certain situations in a blasé way. Even Dorcas is said by Agia in the Inn of Lost Loves to be no more than sixteen or seventeen, which places her at an age which is borderline as any forbidden young man late in Rome’s lifetime. Keep in mind, I’m not saying these things are good. But The Book of the New Sun is, in a way, a work of anthropology and archaeology for a culture whose mores and artifacts have not yet even been invented. This blasé attitude should also allow us to remove ourselves almost completely from the notion of right and wrong in Severian’s world and pay primary or exclusive focus on the symbolism and what it inherently means.
It is also an important subject, the nature of homosexuality in Severian’s world, because it will come into play not just with the weird comment, but also with an interaction I have been DYING to talk about since this essay series began. So, shall we resume?
At the widow’s hut, Severian discovers the widow there with an old man (who is of such advanced age as to become childlike in his oldness, meaning he is a duality), her son, Severian, and someone upstairs whom she claims to be her daughter Severa but who is revealed to be, who else, but Agia? We have discussed before the nature of Agia’s symbolic twinship with Severian, and here is a very clear symbolic example of it, for she disguises herself as a Severa before she has even appeared in Book III.
I haven’t really talked much about Hethor, but I think I’d ought to; a morbid old weirdo who used to be one of many washed-up (literally and figuratively) space sailors now walking Urth, Hethor has control of alien creatures called salamanders and is just…generally gross. Between his weird boner for Severian the fact that one can practically imagine him just begging Agia to walk on his balls, he is probably my least favorite character in the whole series, so I don’t talk or think about him as much as I should in the context of this, but really, he plays a very small role. He is a partner-in-crime for Agia once Aglius is out of the picture, and, as Agia is Severian’s extroverted shadow and a sort of toxified anima, he is that toxicity. The motif of beautiful woman/hideous monster is a popular one symbolically for just that reason.
We will now see what the texts have to say about Luna’s noetic aspect. The yield is astonishingly small; nevertheless there is the following passage in the Rosarium:
Unless ye slay me, your understanding will not be perfect, and in my sister the moon the degree of your wisdom increases, and not with another of my servants, even if ye know my secret.
Mylius copies out this sentence uncritically in his Philosophia reformata. Both he and the Rosarium give the source as the “Metaphora Belini de sole.” The “Dicta Belini” are included in the “Allegoriae sapientum” but there the passage runs:
I announce therefore to all you sages, that unless ye slay me, ye cannot be called sages. But if ye slay me, your understanding will be perfect, and it increases in my sister the moon according to the degree of our wisdom, and not with another of my servants, even if ye know my secret.
It is one of those approximate quotations which are typical of the Rosarium. In considering the quotation as a whole it should be noted that it is not clear who the speaker is. The Rosarium supposes it is Sol. But it can easily be shown from the context of the “Dicta” that the speaker could just as well be the filius Philosophorum, since the woman is sometimes called “soror,” sometimes “mater,” and sometimes “uxor.” This strange relationship is explained by the primitive fact that the son stands for the reborn father, a motif familiar to us from the Christian tradition. The speaker is therefore the father-son, whose wisdom is the son’s sister-wife. “According to the degree of our wisdom” is contrasted with “your understanding;” it therefore refers to the wisdom of the Sol redivivius, and presumably also to his sister the moon, hence “our” and not “my” wisdom. “The degree” is not only plausible but is a concept peculiar to the opus, since Sol passes through various stages of transformation from the dragon, lion and eagle to the hermaphrodite. Each of these stages stands for anew degree of insight, wisdom, and imitation, just as the Mithraic eagles, lions and sun-messengers signify grades of initiation. “Unless ye slay me” usually refers to the slaying of the dragon, the mortificatio of the first, dangerous, poisonous stage of the anima (=Mercurius), freed from her imprisonment from the prima materia. The anima is also identified with Sol. Sol is frequently called Rex, and there is a picture showing him being killed by ten men. He thus suffers the same mortificatio as the dragon, with the difference that it is never a suicide. For Sol, in so far as the dragon is a preliminary form of the filius Solis, is in a sense the father of the dragon, although the latter is expressly said too beget itself and is thus an increatum. At the same time Sol, being his own son, is also the dragon. Accordingly there is a coiugium of the dragon and the woman, who can only be Luna or the lunar (feminine) half of Mercurius. As much as Sol, therefore, Luna (as the mother) must be contained in the dragon. To my knowledge there is never any question of her mortificatio in the sense of a slaying. Nevertheless she is included with Sol in the death of the dragon, as the Rosarium hints: “The dragon dieth not, except with his brother and his sister.”
The idea that the dragon or Sol must die is an essential part of the mystery of transformation. The mortificatio, this time only in a form of a mutilation, is also performed on the lion, whose paws are cut off, and on the bird, whose wings are clipped. It signifies the overcoming of the old and obsolete as well as of the dangerous preliminary stages which are characterized by animal symbols.
The moon appears to be in a disadvantageous position compared with the sun. The sun is a concentrated luminary: “The day is lit by a single sun.” The moon, on the other hand—“as if less powerful”—need the help of the stars when it comes to the task of “composition and separation, rational reflection, definition,” etc. The appetites, as “potentiae sensuales,” pertain to the sphere of the moon: they are anger (ira) and desire (libido) or, in a world, concupiscentia. The passions are designated by animals because we have these things in common with them, and “what is more unfortunate, they often drive us into leading a bestial life.” According to Pico, Luna “has an affinity with Venus, as is particularly to be seen from the fact that she is sublimated in Taurus, the House of Venus, so much that she nowhere else appears more auspicious and more beneficient. Taurus is the house of the hierogamy of Sol and Luna. Indeed, Pico decalres that the moon is “the lowest earth and the most ignoble of all the stars,” an opinion which recalls Aristotle’s comparison of the moon with the earth. The moon, says Pico, is inferior to all other planets. The novilunium is especially unfavorable, as it robs growing bodies off their nourishment and in this way injures them.
Psychologically, this means that the union of consciousness (Sol) with its feminine counterpart the unconscious (Luna) has undesirable results to begin with: it produces poisonous animals such as the dragon, serpent, scorpion, basilisk, and toad; [From Jung’s footnote: A milder form of these is the salamander.] then the lion, bear, wolf, dog, and finally the eagle and the raven.
—Jung, Carl, Mysterium Coniunctionis, pg 137-144
The alchemical earth, as we saw, is the arcane substance, here equated with the body of Christ and with adamah, the red earth of paradise. From adamah is traditionally derived the name Adam, so that here again the paradisal earth is connected with the corpus mysticum. (This specifically Christian idea comports ill with the alleged Jewish authorship.) Nevertheless, it is strange that, as Eleazar says, the earth is “mimingleld with fire.” This recalls the alchemical idea of the “ignis gehannalis,” the “central fire” by whose warmth all nature germinates and grows, because in it dwells the Mercurial seprent, the salamander whom the fire does not consume, and the dragon that feeds on the fire. Though this fire is a portion of the fire of God’s spirit (Boehme’s “divine wrath-fire”), it is also Lucifer, the most beautiful of God’s angels, who after his fall became the fire of hell itself. Eleazar says: “This old Father-Begetter will one day be drawn from the primordial Chaos, and he is the fire-spewing dragon.” The dragon floating in the air is the universal Phyton, the beginning of all things.”
–Ibid, pg 441
(How do you like the creepy synchronicity of the two salamander references in the whole Mysterium appearing on pages 144 and 441? One of these days I should look through the blog and see how many citations I’ve pulled from pages which involve 44; it feels like the answer is ‘an inordinate amount’. We will later notice even the conflict with Typhon takes place on page 144 of my copy of the book.)
And then there’s this interaction, which is super important and marks Severian not only as an introverted Christ (Jesus of Nazareth had no choice at the time but to accept the help of Simon of Cyerene to bear his cross, whereas Severian has a choice and refuses), but it demonstrates an affinity between Hethor and Severian; and it is an affinity which Severian rejects. Hethor, this simpering, stuttering, weak part of himself which slavers after Severian’s most violent duties and wretchedly pursues beautiful women, is the dragon which Sol must slay before being slain or mutilated, himself. As the lion has its paws clipped off, so too does Severian have his foot crushed, and end up Severian the Lame; and I need not mention how in Urth, Severian, as Apu-Punchau, is chased down and killed by his own people, a sacrificial god-king.
Also note Hethor (which is a type of flower and therefore a symbol of the Self a la a rose or a lotus) is increatum because he is from out of time, being as he is a sailor; he is a knowing servant of the Increate, as signaled by the fact that he staffed “the limping ship” (therefore a macrocosmic version of Severian if not literally Severian himself eventually ascended to the status of seraph a la Tzadkiel, but we will talk about that possibility when we talk about quantum immortality in Urth), and he knows Severian’s destiny, as well.
I also love this scene because I love Dr. Talos trying to wiggle his way out of an awkward and weird interaction by being ultra casual and pretending the other person isn’t a total freak, which should be a familiar experience for anyone interested in the occult.
Yet a less impressive figure would have been difficult to imagine. He was small of stature, and because his clothes were too large for him, seemed smaller still. His weak chin was covered with stubble; as he approached, he pulled a greasy cap away to show a head on which the hair had retreated at either side to leave a single wavering line like the crest of an old and dirty burginot. I knew I had seen him somewhere, but it was a moment before I recognized him.
“Lords,” he said. “O lords and mistresses of creation, silken-capped, silken-haired women, and man commanding empires and the armies of the F-f-foemen of our Ph-p-photosphere! Tower strong as stone is strong, strong as the o-o-oak that puts forth leaves new after the fire! And my master, dark master, death’s victory, viceroy over the n-night! Long I signed on the silver-sailed ships, the hundred-masted whose masts reached out to touch the st-st-stars, I, floating among their shining jibs with the Pleiades burning beyond the top-royal sp-sp-spar, but never have I seen ought like you! He-he-hethor am I, come to serve you, to scrape the mud from your cloak, whet the great sword, c-c-carry the basket with the eyes of your victims looking up at me, Master, eyes like the dead moons of Verthandi when the sun has gone out. When the sun has g-g-g-one out! Where are they then, the bright players? How long with the torches burn? The f-f-freezing hands grope toward them, bu the torch bowls are colder than any ice, colder than the moons of Verthandi, colder than the dead eyes! Where is the strength then that beats the lake to foam? Where is the empire, where the Armies of the Sun, long-lanced and golden-bannered? Where are the silken-haired women we loved only l-l-last night?”
“You were in our audience, I take it,” said Dr. Talos. “I can well sympathize with your desire to see the performance again. But we won’t be able to oblige you until evening, and by then we hope to be some distance from here.”
Hethor, who I had met outside Agilus’s prison with the fat man, the hungry-eyed woman and the others, did not seem to have heard him. He was staring at me, with occasional glances toward Baldanders and Dorcas. “He hurt you, didn’t he? Writhing, writhing. I saw you with the blood running, red as pentecost. Wh-wh-what honor for you! You serve him too, and your calling is higher than mine.”
Dorcas shook her head and turned her face away. The giant only stared. Dr. Talos said, “Surely you understand that what you saw was a theatrical performance.” (I remember thinking that if most of the audience had had a firmer grip on that idea, we would have found ourselves in an embarrassing dilemma when Baldanders jumped from the stage.)
“I u-understand more than you think, I the old captain, the old lieutenant, the old c-c-cook in his old kitchen, cooking soup, cooking broth for the dying pets! My master is real, but where are your armies? Real, and where are your empires? Sh-shall false blood run from a true wound? Where is your strength when the b-b-blood is gone, where is the luster of the silken hair? I w-will catch it in a cup of glass, I, the old c-captain of the old limping sh-ship, with its crew black against the silver sails, and the C-c-coalsack behind it.”
Perhaps I should say here that at the time I paid little attention to the rush and stumble of Hethor’s words, though my ineradicable memory enables to recreate them on paper now. He spoke in gobbling singsong, with a fine spray of spittle flying through the gaps in his teeth.
[…] “Stowage? There’s no one better for it than I, the old s-supercargo, the old chandler and steward, the old st-st-evedore. Who else shall put the kernels back on the cob, fit the f-fledgling into each egg again? Who shall fold the solemn-winged m-moth, with w-wings each like stuns’ls, into the broken cocoon left h-hanging like a s-s-sarcophagus? And for the love of the M-master, I’ll do it, for the sake of the M-master, I’ll do it. And f-f-f-follow anywhere, anywhere he goes.”
A touch at my shoulder took me from my reverie. It was Hethor, who must have come up silently from his position in the rear. “Master,” he said.
I told him not to call me that, and explained that I was only a journeyman of my guild, an would probably never attain mastership.
He nodded humbly. Through his open lips I could glimpse the broken incisors. “Master, where do we go?”
“Out the gate,” I said, and told myself I said it because I wanted him to follow Dr. Talos and not me; the truth was that I was thinking of the preternatural beauty of the Claw, and how sweet it would be to carry it to Thrax with me, instead of retracing my steps to the center of Nessus. I gestured toward the Wall, which now rose in the distance as the walls of a common fortress must rise before a mouse. They were black as thunderheads, and held certain clouds captive at their summit.
“I will carry your sword, Master.”
The offer seemed honestly made, though I was reminded that the plot Agia and her brother had conceived against me had been born of their desire for Terminus Est. As firmly as I could, I said, “No. Not now or ever.”
“I feel pity for you, Master, seeing you walk with it on your shoulder so. It must be very heavy.”
I was explaining, quite truthfully, that it was not as burdensome as it appeared, when we rounded the side of a gentle hill and saw half a league off a straight highway running toward an opening in the Wall.
—Wolfe, Gene, The Shadow of the Torturer, XXXV: “Hethor”, pg 203-206
So, yes, Hethor is gross (and possibly trying to get Terminus Est for Agia, for whom he may already be working), but he knows who Severian is and is completely devoted to him, the Increate, and, specifically, the entropic, destructive face of the Increate. It is also notable that neither Hethor nor Agia will die, although by the end of the series they will have almost killed him many times; indeed, they both receive a promotion from Father Inire, who establishes her as the figurehead of Vodalus’s followers in place of lackluster Thea, therefore furthering the link between the dark anima figures. This act of promotion is a kind of purification; all the more because it demonstrates how, though there may be superficial dissent, the Commonwealth is a unified empire from the point of view of the Autarch. Even the war against the Ascians is necessary and therefore part of the unity.
There are also, however, negative unities, such as the unity of death. The alzabo is a kind of death incarnate; it is a horrible, red-furred, alien hyena which speaks with the human voices of the people it has consumed. Like a black hole collecting information rather than destroying it, the alzabo is also comparable to a more cognizant, walking oubliette. It is not a place where unconscious, unenlightened souls are forgotten; rather, it is where they are comingled, and identified with nothing/everything. It can come only in the dark and it is practically unkillable; indeed, Severian does not manage to defeat it, but instead only bargains it away for a time sufficient for the widow Casdoe to escape. In theory, at any rate. When death is delayed, it will always return when it has promised to, and it does; not only do Casdoe, her father and son encounter a violent tribe of zoanthrops (sub-human beings who have engineered or drugged away their humanity so as not to suffer the pains of consciousness) about which Severian does nothing until the alzabo shows up in time to prevent Casdoe’s rape. Then Severian shows up, doing too little too late, and lo, only Little Severian has survived the encounter. (Agia, for the record, escaped during the initial alzabo fight by wiggling through a hole in the thatched roof).
Note it is not the threat of death, but the moment of rape which triggers Severian into action. Yet again, the main problem is not death, but sex, specifically sex when it is utilized for negative purpose. And, because he should have been motivated by simply the threat of death and not just of sex, the widow and her senex father are slain, leaving being a homeless orphan.
Of steps in the alchemical opus, the third one is generally xanthosis, or the ‘yellowing’, which is where the negative toxins are extracted. But, because that is where they make their appearance, it is often the most unappealing, unpleasant and challenging step in the whole thing, which is why, as we discussed in Part I, xanthosis was often skipped by many alchemists. It is important to confront one’s demons, however, and to purify the shadow; the entire operation depends upon it. An alchemical sequence inherently concerns a great deal of pain. It begins with the pain of the nigredo and the pain does not end there; but Book III of The Book of the New Sun is essentially a treatise on suffering. I personally got to love Little Severian fairly quickly in the story, which was my mistake; but I don’t think I got to love him until Severian, in describing their journey, takes a moment to talk about the stories he read to the boy from Thecla’s brown book. The particular story he chooses for his example, “A Boy Called Frog”, gets its own four-section chapter; it begins with a creation story, and then it goes on to tell the story of a boy named Frog, who is the son of a woodcutter who introduces him to the “Red Flower” of fire. This woodcutter is then slain by a smilodon AKA a saber-toothed tiger, and the boy wanders off and ends up being raised by wolves…and then at the counsel of wolves something called the Butcher tries to claim that the boy doesn’t belong, but the boy is vouched for by two entities called the Black Killer and the Naked One, and…
…Wait a fucking minute.
This is the Jungle Book.
I HOPE YOU READ THAT JUNGLE BOOK ESSAY, READER. Yes; on his journey with Little Severian, Big Severian reads him what amounts to a folktale variant of The Jungle Book, corrupted and altered by various telling through the millennia but still essentially the same. Section Four even opens with the admission that if all the adventures of Frog were recounted, “they would fill many books.” And I don’t need to remind you that “Mowgli” simply means “Frog”, do I?
I just fucking love Gene Wolfe, man. I can’t even tell you how much I love this device, that moment of reading the fairy tale and going, “Oh, wait, no, holy shit, I know this story.” That moment of realizing you know the story they’re reading tickles you so much (or, at least, it did me) that you become somehow all the more endeared to the characters. One almost hopes that because Severian reads to his little counterpart the stories of a puer eternis who does not die, it is a sign that Little Severian might live a happy and adventuresome life.
But, well, we must come down to Urth. Their adventures together are short and its ending is so tragically abrupt that one hardly even realizes what has happened, much like Severian, himself. There is a magical duel which is reflective of the magician Severian will encounter in Urth, but in this case it is Hethor’s creature which essentially allows the Severians to have a chance to escape; as ever, the Increate works in mysterious ways. The two then make it into the ‘cursed town’ in the mountains; and, after exploring and encountering a two-headed corpse, they make their way along mountains carved into the shape of a monarch in hopes of acquiring a gold ring which waits upon one of the carved fingers. Little Severian sees the ring, runs to it, and is immediately electrocuted to death.
Horrible, and depressing—but we know not only why it happens, but that it must happen. Little Severian’s death is a kind of bait-and-switch in the unconscious. As I mentioned, the mechanics of quantum immortality are revealed in Urth, but by all appearances, Severian does not ever die in the first books; nonetheless, the mortificatio must occur to a Severian. The lion has its paws clipped off, but Sol must die; and because, in the plot of the tetrology, Severian’s death is not called for or not possible until he has achieved conscious immortality, another Severian must die. This is why the Father sends his Son to die for the sins of the world, and why it is dangerous when Severian begins to think of Little Severian as his son.
To put it another way: the problem which alchemy, and indeed all such psychological operation, confronts, is the problem of death. One can build an entire empire, colonize a galaxy—and yet someday, the sun will still go out. The monarch will still die. And then? How is it possible for that which exists to suddenly not exist from its own perception? Is it possible for the observer, once it begins observing, to ever truly cease its observation? Can consciousness, once established, permanently be extinguished? And if such a thing is possible, does anything matter at all? The death of Little Severian points to the apparent hopelessness, from the material standpoint, of the alchemist’s efforts: conjure up as many an innocent-hearted puer auternus as you’d like, Matter seems to say; you will still die. It is also significant that the boy dies by touching a golden ring, for the golden ring is a wonderful image of the Self, and Jung and von Franz both commonly describe the dangers of the early phases of alchemy, or any work with the unconscious. It is all too easy for a person to fail to submit to the forces which are working upon them, and to instead think that all of this comes from themselves and their ego. Little Severian, who might well believe Big Severian summoned the notule and who looks to him for complete protection, is like that slowly-inflating ego which, before one knows it, will foolishly seek to grasp the ring of the Self because they feel they are invincible, and die for their mistake. The puer is traditionally an immortal figure who is usually delivered from his danger; and he will be, in eternity, by the works of Severian. It is also valid to say that the primary concern of BotNS, alchemy and so on is the problem of evil, which we have touched on previously; but when men do not understand death, or entropy, death and entropy become inextricably tied with evil. Yet, it is Juturna, servant of entropic Abaia, who is responsible for rescuing Severian when he is a young boy near drowning; or, rather, it is her miraculous, divine intervention which makes explicable his first instance of quantum immortality, which, we will come to understand, occurs because in the future he has become immortal. It is strange to understand when one is first introduced to the concept, but Severian himself will someday struggle to explain that everyone who has died is ‘still alive somewhere’, and we will investigate this at the proper juncture.
Tragically, Severian does not know that, and after the puer‘s death wanders in a daze back the way he came. This leads him past that two-headed corpse he saw before, and surprise, not only has it reanimated—it is an entity which calls itself Typhon.
Readers who followed the link and read the essay about alchemical salt to which I previously referred will already know a little about Typhon in alchemy, and they will also have noticed the two references to Typhon which came up in tandem with the north. Severian’s interaction with Typhon is 100% my favorite scene in the whole series, and it is the scene which made me realize I was reading the most heavy metal cover version of the Bible ever written. We’ll get to why that is in a second, but let’s talk about Typhon in alchemy. To do that, we’ll have to talk about alchemical salt. Salt is necessary for the alchemist’s work; part of the alchemical triad of salt-mercury-sulphur, it is also one of the least-understood symbols of the Work. It has links to the feminine in that it is associated with earth and sea, and it is symbolic of immortality because when water evaporates, the salt is left behind. It is emphasized again and again in a great many texts that salt is vital to the water of the work: and I remind you of Baldander’s prophecy which we will detail in our investigation of Urth of the New Sun: “…I have heard the currents that scour the black trenches and the crash of the waves upon your shore…You can’t order the waves to be silent, madame. They are coming, and they are bitter with salt.”
That Baldanders is an alchemist is, by that point, a given; that Gene Wolfe is acutely aware of his own alchemical tradition is just as given. And that the bitterness of salt is important to the alchemical process, well—I will let Jung handle this one. As always, emphasis mine; we will see how directly the bitterness of salt concerns alchemical xanthosis very quickly.
I’d also like to take a second before we go on to mention the origin of the name of Nessus, Severian’s home city. Nessus was a centaur who was also a ferryeman; he carried Heracles’s wife across a river and then attempted to rape her, and was shot by Heracles’s hydra blood-tainted arrow, which poisoned him, much as the Gyoll is poisoned. While dying, Nessus convinced Deianeira, said threatened wife, that his blood would make Heracles love her forever, and she turned around and stupidly spread it on a cloak which finally caused the great hero’s death. The blood of Nessus, then, is a poison which inhabits a tunic not unlike Severian’s fuligin cloak. It is the poisonous, black face of toxicity which must be cast off to reveal the higher Self and Truth. Additionally, Nessus is an alternate name for ‘Nestos’, a river and river god who is the son of Oceanus.
b. the Bitterness
Inseparable from salt and sea is the quality of amaritudo, ‘bitterness’. The etymology of Isidore of Seville was accepted all through the Midle Ages: “Mare ab amaro.” Among the alchemists the bitterness became a kind of technical term. Thus, in the treatise “Rosinus ad Euthiciam,” there is the following dialogue between Zosimos and Theosebeia: “This is the stone that hath in it glory and color. And she: Whence cometh its color? He replied: From its exceeding strong bitterness. And she: Whence cometh its bitterness and intensity? He answered: From the impurity of its metal.” The treatise “Rosinus ad Saratantam episcopum” says: “Take the stone that is black, white, red, and yellow, and is a wonderful bird that flies without wings in the blackness of the night and the brightness of the day: in the bitterness that is in its throat the coloring will be found.” “Each thing in its first matter is corrupt and bitter,” says Ripley. “The bitterness is a tincturing poison.” And Mylius: “Our stone is endowed with the strongest spirit, bitter and brazen (aeneus)”; and the Roasrium mentions that salt is bitter because it comes from the “mineral of the sea.” The “Liber Alze” says: O nature of this wondrous thing, which transforms the body into spirit!…When it is found alone it conquers all things, and is an excellent, harsh, and bitter acid, which transmutes gold into pure spirit.”
These quotations clearly allude to the sharp taste of salt and sea-water. The reason why the taste is described as bitter and not simply as salt may lie first of all in the inexactness of the language, since amarus also means ‘sharp’, ‘biting’, ‘harsh’, and is used metaphorically for acrimonious speech or a wounding joke. Besides this, the language of the Vulgate had an important influence as it was one of the main sources for medieval Latin. The moral use which the Vulgate consistently uses makes of amarus and amaritudo gives them, in alchemy as well, a nuance that cannot be passed over. This comes out clearly in Ripley’s remark that “each thing in its first matter is corrupt and bitter.” The juxtaposition of these two attributes indicates the inner connection between them: corruption and bitterness are on the same footing, they denote the state of imperfect bodies, the initial sate of the prima materia. Among the best known synonyms for the latter are the “chaos” and the “sea,” in the classical, mythological sense denoting the beginning of the world, the sea in particular being conceiveda s the “matrix of all creatures”. The prima materia is often called aqua pontica. The salt that “comes from the mineral of the sea” is by its very nature bitter, but the bitterness is due also to the impurity of the imperfect body. This apparent contradiction is explained by the report of Plutarch that the Egyptian regarded the sea as something impure and untrustworthy, and as the domain of Typhon (Set); they called salt the “spume of Typhon.” In his Philosophia reformata, Mylius mentions “sea-spume” together with the “purged or purified” sea, rock-salt, the bird, and Luna as equivalent synonyms for the lapis occultus. Here the impurity of the sea is indirectly indicated by the epithets “purged or “purified” The sea-spume is on a par with the salt and—of particular interest—with the bird, naturally the bird of Hermes, and this throws a sudden light on the above passage from Rosinus, about the bird with bitterness in its throat. The bird is a parallel of salt because salt is a spirit, a volatile substance, which the alchemists were wont to conceive as a bird.
As the expulsion of the spirit was effected by various kinds of burning (combustio, adustio, calcinatio, assatio, sublimatio, incineratio, etc.), it was natural to call the end-product “ash”—again in a double sense as scoria, faex, etc., and as the spirit or bird of Hermes. Thus, the Rosarium says: “Sublime with fire, until the spirit which thou wilt find in it [the substance] goeth forth from it, and it is named the bird or the ash of Hermes. Therefore saith Morienus: Despise not the ashes, for they are the diadem of thy heart, and the ash of things that endure.” In other words, the ash is the spirit that dwells in the glorified body.
–Jung, C. G., Mysteirum, III. The Personification of the Opposites, pg 193-194
We will revisit this passage later on, when we meet Master Ash, and continue this line of thought; but for now it is enough to see how Typhon will become, for Severian, the personification of all of his worst qualities.
Rape is terrible. But in the context of the series of symbols being invoked, it is almost necessary that Severian be, on some level, a rapist. I have not yet mentioned Master Gurloes’ casually-mentioned iron phallus (or maybe I myself have casually mentioned it). Rape and torture and death are all forms of corruption to which the materialized soul is subjected. Even if these things do not happen to us we must witness them in the world around us, we must be threatened by them if we are a woman or an imprisoned man or really any person who is not in a position of full social power. These things exist in the world and if there is a Pancreator, as is often mentioned throughout BoTNS and sometimes identified with Erebus, then there, also, must be an Increate. Alchemy is the solution of that problem: and lest we forget, ‘solution’ is a chemical term.
Severian’s solution, we will find, is to punch his personified evil in the head and throw it out the window, which, in my personal opinion, is fucking awesome. More awesome, dare I say, than the peaceful and benign response of his predecessor.
Both within and without the context of Urth’s universe, Typhon’s conversation with Severian is very similar to the conversation had with the Devil during the Temptation of Christ. (Again, sorry, atheists, Gene Wolfe is a Catholic and this symbolism is far, far too deliberate to be missed.) As a negative, introverted Christ, however, it is a more negative, introverted interaction, and deals implicitly with some of the concepts we’ve discussed in this essay. First, from Matthew: Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist and, while coming up from the water, sees a vision of the Spirit of God descending in the form of a dove and alighting upon him; a voice from heaven declares him its Son, “the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
We then immediately cut to
The Temptation of Jesus
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put your Lord God to the test.’” [Ed. ‘And you’re testing my patience, boy.’]
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Of the three books describing this event in the Bible, this one and the one in Luke are similar in terms of detail, though the order of the second and third events is flipped. But, however you hash it, the scene breaks down into a few key factors which we will recognize very well from Severian’s journey:
- The encounter comes after a long time of famished wandering
- The tempter (unnamed in the Bible) offers or suggests food
- The tempter offers power in a holy city
- The tempter suggests putting quantum immortality to the test from a mountaintop
- The tempter is successfully dismissed
So, remembering that shortly before his death, Little Severian asks Big Severian if they are going to starve, the pattern repeats itself almost perfectly in Severian’s encounter with Typhon. Much as the Spirit of God deliberately leads Christ into the desert to face his temptation, so too does Severian unconsciously resurrect Typhon—or does the Increate cause the backward flow of his time—to trigger the temptation.
Let us also briefly discuss the qualities of this devil, because ‘Satan’ is not a name; it is a title which means ‘adversary’. This particular tempter is not actually named in the Bible, and ‘Lucifer’ as a name was not commonly ascribed to the Devil until Dante used it for his Inferno. Furthermore, when the temptation relents, it reveals angels who arrive to wait upon Christ; there is a divine nature to this entity. The concept of the Devil or Satan being cast down into Earth as the result of a war in Heaven is from Revelations, but, again, this particular entity is not named. It is generally derived that the angel in question is Samael, who has been discussed in previous essays on this blog; and Samael is generally identifiable as an archetype similar or Typhon, although Typhon is more a ‘dark god’ type of entity in the sense of a demiurge, and Samael is a servant of God and thereby a convenient receptacle of God’s dark qualities. That Typhon, the two-headed God-monster, should be utilized in the Briah Cycle, is deeply symbolic of the more inclusive view of the Godhead taken by the Pancreator/Increate duality established in BotNS.
There have been many times when I have felt I have gone mad, for I have had may great adventures, and the greatest adventures are those that act most strongly upon our minds. So it was then. A man, larger than I and far broader of shoulder, stepped from between the feet of the cataphract, and it was as though one of the monstrous constellations of the night sky had fallen to Urth and clothed itself in the flesh of humankind. For the man had two heads, like an ogre in some forgotten tale in The Wonders of Urth and Sky.
Instinctively, I put my hand on the sword hilt at my shoulder. One of the heads laughed; I think it was the only laughter I was ever to hear at the baring of the great blade.
“Why are you alarmed?” he called. “I see you are as well equipped as I am. What is your friend’s name?”
Even in my surprise, I admired his boldness. “She is Terminus Est,” I said, and I turned the sword so he could see the writing on the steel.
“’This is the place of parting.’ Very good. Very good indeed, and particularly good that it should be read here and now, because this time will truly be a line between old and new such as the world has not seen. My own friend’s name is Piaton, which I fear means nothing much. He is an inferior servant to that you have, though perhaps a better steed.”
Hearing its name, the other head opened wide its eyes, which had been half closed, and rolled them. Its mouth moved as though to speak, but no sound emerged. I thought it a species of idiot.
“But now you may put up your weapon. As you see, I am unarmed, though already beheaded, and in any case, I mean you no hurt.”
He raised his hands as he spoke, and turned to one side and then the other, so that I might see that he was entirely naked, something that was already clear enough.
I asked, “Are you perhaps the son of the dead man I saw in the round building back there?”
I had sheathed Terminus Est as I spoke, and he took a step nearer, saying, “Not at all. I am the man himself.”
Dorcas rose in my thoughts as if through the brown waters of the Lake of Birds, and I felt again her dead hand clutch mine. Before I knew that I was speaking, I blurted, “I restored you to life?”
“Say rather that your coming awakened me. You thought me dead when I was only dry. I drank, and as you see, I live again. To drink is to live, and to be bathed in water is to have a new birth.”
“If what you tell me is true, it is wonderful. But I am too much in need of water myself to think about it now. You say that you have drunk, and the way you say it implies at least that you’re friendly toward me. Prove it, please. Haven’t eaten or drunk for a long time.”
The head that spoke smiled. “You have the most marvelous way of falling in with whatever I plan—there is an appropriateness about you, even to your clothing, that I find delightful. I was just about to suggest that we go where there is food and drink in plenty. Follow me.”
–Wolfe, Gene, The Sword of the Lictor, pp. 137-138
So we see already how qualities are being fulfilled. We have been told by a chapter heading and by the events which occur there that this is not just an abandoned city, but a cursed one; therefore, it is the polar opposite of the Holy City to which the Devil takes Christ for his temptation. Christ has been starving for weeks in his wanderings and yet rejects the Devil’s suggestion that he turn stones to loaves of bread; Severian requests food and water, and agrees to follow the Devil to it.
The lesson here is very simple: the extroverted Son shuns the Devil; the introverted Sun takes advantage of him. In alchemy, the concept of the Spirit Mercurius is synonymous with not only the Devil, but with this kind of relationship with the Devil. The Spirit is a trickster and tempter just like the Devil; he is trapped in matter and must be released in order to be properly utilized. And I have seen time and time again that no matter what medium he is in, no matter how unaware his creators were, the Spirit Mercurius is always not only hyper-aware of himself, his role in the world and possibly even the fact that he is trapped in a work of fiction; he is also almost always the most plastic character in the work, and this, I cannot help but feel, is true of Typhon, who swings onto the scene in a way which is not only more individual and lively than some of the other background characters on Urth: it is also familiar. I cannot explain it, but the Devil as he appears in works of fiction has a certain kind of ‘voice’ which inevitably shines through whatever depiction he takes; and I do not mean the man with pointy horns and a red pitchfork, but I mean works of fiction where the Devil is really allowed to run rampant, like the film Barton Fink, the television show Hannibal, or my own forthcoming series, The Disgraced Martyr Trilogy. As Typhon and Severian take a transport craft (one of the hovercars which Severian calls ‘flyers’, something like a space ship’s lifeboat) to what Typhon claims will be food (stranger danger was not a lesson taught at the Guild, apparently), they have a conversation in which that distinctly devilish voice comes out to share a particularly Satanic backstory. Remember before we go on that the Devil is often called “the Prince of this World”.
“True courtesy,” he continued, “earns the name. It is courtesy that is truthful. When the plebeian kneels to the monarch, he is offering his neck. He offers it because he knows his ruler can take it if he wishes. Common people like that say—or rather, they used to say, in older and better times—that I have no love of truth. But the truth is that it is precisely truth that I love, an open acknowledgment of fact.”
All this time we were lying at full length, with hardly the width of a hand between us. The idiotic head the other had called Piaton goggled at me and moved its lips as he spoke, making a confused mumbling.
I tried to sit up. The two-headed man caught me with an arm of iron and pulled me down again, saying, “It’s dangerous. These things were built to lie in. You wouldn’t want to lose your head, would you? It’s nearly as bad, believe me, as getting an extra one.”
The boat nosed down and plunged into the dark. For a moment I thought we were going to die, but the sensation became one of exhilarating speed, the kind of feeling I had known as a boy when we used to slide on evergreen boughs among the mausoleums in winter. When I had become somewhat accustomed to it, I asked, “Were you born as you are? Or was Piaton actually thrust upon you in some way?” Already, I think, I had begun to realize that my life would depend on finding out as much as I could about this strange being.
The head that spoke laughed. “My name is Typhon. You might as well call me by it. Have you heard of me? Once I ruled this planet, and many more.”
I was certain he lied, so I said, “Rumors of your might echo still…Typhon.”
He laughed again. “You were on the point of calling me Imperator or something of the sort, weren’t you? You shall yet. No, I was not born as I am, or born at all, as you mean it. Nor was Piaton grafted to me. I was grafted to him. What do you think of that?”
The boat moved so rapidly now that the air was whistling above our heads, but the descent seemed less steep than it had been. As I spoke, it became nearly level. “Did you wish it?”
“I commanded it.”
“Then I think it very strange. Why should you desire to have such a thing done?”
“That I might have life, of course.”
–Ibid, pg. 139
Pretty black and white there; the boat they are in then begins to ascend and Severian suggests it is controlled by light, for “when light flashed about us, it stopped at once. In the lap of the mountain I had suffered from the cold, but there was nothing to what I felt now. No wind blew, but it was colder than the bitterest winter I could recall, and I grew dizzy with the effort of sitting up.”
The place where they have arrived is the inside of the mountain carved in the shape of Typhon’s head; Typhon is bitterness itself, and the association of the Spirit Mercurius with wind and air is so limitless that I dare not get far into it here. Typhon notably reveals he is stealing Piaton’s breath, which is why the former guard onto which Typhon was grafted cannot speak, but the interaction notes a key (gross) detail about Typhon:
“He can’t get his breath, poor fellow,” Typhon said. Now I saw that he had an erection, which he nursed with one hand. “As I told you, I control all the voluntary functions—I will control the involuntary ones too, soon. So although poor Piaton can still move his tongue and shape his lips, he is like a musician who fingers the keys of a horn he cannot blow. When you’ve had enough of that snow, tell me, and I’ll show you where you can get something to eat.”
Yuck, right? But that’s such a key symbolic detail slipped in there after this whole essay spent talking about Severian’s relationship to his act of rape, the possible normalcy of pederasty in the Commonwealth, and the issue of Baldanders, which will be discussed in our next essay. This confrontation with Typhon is a final, very serious confrontation with this grotesque, dark side of the human sexual instinct: he is sex as power and abuse and violence and shame. We will see in a moment how he desires ‘fair women and boys’ and one can only cringingly imagine what would have been demanded of Severian had he actually submitted.
Once Severian has finished quenching his thirst and repressing the fact that the recently-resurrected monarch is sadistically yanking it in front of him, Typhon shows him wonderful food and insists that only by giving him the Claw can he open the cabinet, Severian shows him the small gem but does not take the oath Typhon commands him to swear by the artifact. The journeyman astutely observes, “You said you loved truth. Now I see why—it is truth that binds men,” and puts the Claw away seconds before Typhon wrestles him into submission and drags him to one of the circular windows which are the statue’s great eyes. The resurrected monarch then dangles him out the window and, when he tries to get up, punches him in the face.
The temptation to draw my sword, raise myself again, and strike with it was almost too great to resist. Yet I knew that I could not do so without giving Typhon ample time to see what I intended and let me fall. Even if I succeeded, I would die.
“I urge you now…” Typhon’s voice came above me, seeming distant in that golden immensity. “…to require of your talisman such help as it can provide you.”
He paused, and every moment seemed Eternity itself.
“Can it aid you?”
I managed to call, “No.”
“Do you understand where you are?”
“I saw. On the face. The mountain autarch.”
“It is my face—did you see that? I was the autarch. It is I who come again. You are at my eyes, and it is the iris of my right eye that is to your back. Do you comprehend? You are a tear, a single black tear I weep. In an instant, I may let you fall away to stain my garment. Who can save you, Talisman-bearer?”
He pulled me back up, and I clung to him as the boy had once clung to me, until we were well inside the great chamber that was the cranial cavity of the mountain.
“Now,” he said, “we will make one more attempt. You must come with me to the eye again, and this time you must go willingly. Perhaps it will be easier for you if we go to the left eye instead of the right.” [Ed. This seems to the author of the essay a deliberate reference to Severian’s nature in the Kabbalistic sense, in that he is of the column of severity despite his right-handed journey through mercy.]
He took my arm. I suppose I could be said to have gone by my own will, since I walked; but I think I have never in my life walked with less heart. It was only the memory of my recent humiliation that kept me from refusing. We did not halt until we stood upon the very rim of the eye; then with a gesture, Typhon forced me to look out. Below us lay an ocean of undulating cloud, blue with shadow where it was not rose with sunlight.
“Autarch,” I said, “how are we here, when the vessel in which we rode plunged down so long a tunnel?”
He shrugged my question aside. “Why should gravity serve Urth, when it can serve Typhon? Yet Urth is fair. Look! You see the robe of the world. Is it not beautiful?”
“Very beautiful,” I agreed.
“It can be your robe. I have told you that I was autarch on many worlds. I shall be autarch again, and this time on many more. This world, the most ancient of all, I made my capital. That was an error, because I lingered too long when disaster came. By the time I would have escaped, escape was no longer open to me—those to whom I had given control of such ships as could reach the stars had fled in them, and I was beseiged on this mountain. I shall not make that mistake again. My capital shall be elsewhere, and I will give this world to you, to rule as my steward.”
I said, “I have done nothing to deserve so exalted a position.”
“Talisman-bearer, no one, not even you, can require me to justify my acts. Instead, view your empire.”
Far below us, a wind was born as he spoke. The clouds seethed under its lash and gatehred themselves like soldiers into serrried ranks moving eastward. Beneath them I saw mountains, and the coastal plains, and beyond the plains the faint, blue line of the sea.
“Look!” Typhon pointed, and as he did so, pinprick of light appeared in the mountains to the northeast. “Some great energy weapon has been used there,” he said. “Perhaps by the ruler of this age, perhaps by his foes. Whichever it may be, its location is revealed now, and it will be destroyed. The armies of this age are weak. They will fly before our flails as chaff at the harvest.”
“How can you know all this? I asked. “You were as dead, until my son and I came upon you.”
“Yes. But I have lived almost a day and have sent my thought into far places. There are powers in the seas now who would rule. They will become our slaves, and the hordes of the north are theirs.”
“What of the people of Nessus?” I was chilled to the bone; my legs trembled under me.
“Nessus shall be your capital, if you wish it. From your throne in Nessus you will send me tribute of fair women and boys, of the ancient devices and books, and all the good things this world of Urth produces.”
He pointed again. I saw the gardens of the House Absolute like a shawl of green and gold cast upon a lawn, and beyond it the Wall of Nessus, and the might city itself, the City Imperishable, spreading for so many hundreds of leagues that even the towers of the Citadel were lost in that endless expanse of roofs and winding streets.
“No mountain is so high,” I said. “If this one were the greatest in all the world, and if it stood upon the crown of the second greatest, a man could never see as far as I do now.”
Typhon took me by the shoulder. “This mountain is as lofty as I wish it to be. Have you forgotten whose face it bears?”
I could only stare at him.
“Fool,” he said. “You see through my eyes. Now get out your talisman. I will have your oath upon it.”
I drew forth the Claw—for the last time, as I thought—from the leathern bag Dorcas had sewn for it. As I did, there was some slight stirring far below me. The sight of the world from out of the window of the chamber was still grand beyond imagining, bbut it was only what a man might discern from a might peak: the blue dish of Urth. Through the clouds below I could glimpse the lap of the mountain, with many rectangular buildings, the circular building in the center, and the cataphracts. Slowly they were turning their faces away from the sun, upward, to look at us.
“They honor me,” Typhon said. Piaton’s mouth moved too, but not with his. This time I heeded it.
“You were at the other eye, previously, “ I told Typhon, “and they did not honor you then. They salute the Claw. Autarch, what of the New Sun, if at last he comes? Will you be his enemy too, as you were the enemy of the Conciliator?”
“Swear to me, and believe me, when he come I shall be his master, and he my most abject slave.”
I struck then.
There is a way of smashing the nose with the heel of one’s very hand so that the splintered bone is driven into the brain. One must be very quick, however, because without the need for thought a man will life his hands to protect his face when he sees the blow. I was not so swift as Typhon, but it was his own face his hands were thrown up to guard. I struck at Piaton, and felt the small and terrible cracking that is the sigil of death. The heart that had not served him for so many chiliads ceased to beat.
After a moment, I pushed Typhon’s body over the drop with my foot.
–Ibid, pg 143-145
The pattern is therefore identical to Christ’s, if Christ killed the Devil instead of peacefully resisting his temptation. But it is necessary in this case because of what Typhon represents. It is not enough to ignore urges of sexual violence, or, to put it another way, it is not enough to ignore the violence with which society taints sexuality. Sex removed from the context of our society is a good, beautiful, generative thing; but our society bleakens and poisons it, thanks in no small part to early perceptions of the Church about the noxious nature of the body. This is, indeed, the place of parting: it is the point when the saint gives up his former perverse predilections and turns fully to God. Yes, Severian will still have sex after this encounter, but unless I misremember, not until Urth, when he begins to engage in affairs which are otherworldly and therefore indicative of a purer, spiritual kind of sex which seeks union with the divine. Between the encounter with Typhon and his marriage to Valeria, he spends most of Book IV either in the military or being considered a holy man, which we will discuss later.
Sadly, we will also have to put off Baldanders, and the first appearance of Ossipago, Barbatus, and Famulimus: but maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to cover all of them and the events of Book IV next time. If you enjoy reading these essays and The Book of the New Sun, then you may also enjoy my novel which alchemically blends fantasy and science fiction, The Lightning Stenography Device. Get your copy in ebook, paperback and hardback now and support the blog today, then come back in two weeks for the next essay!