Reading The Shadow of the Torturer – Chapter I: Resurrection and Death

My ability to churn out posts on here has entered into a bit of a dry period. In order to keep at least some content going, I’ve decided to get the ball rolling on a project I suggested a couple of months ago: a chapter-by-chapter dissection of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. The idea is to try for about a chapter a week. I dunno if this will attract any readers, or if I’m even good at this sort of thing, but I suppose we’ll see how things play out.

So let’s get started with the first volume, The Shadow of the Torturer.

The Shadow of the Torturer – Chapter I: Resurrection and Death

SYNOPSIS: The apprentice Torturer Severian attempts to break into a graveyard at night with his three friends, Drotte, Roche and Eata. They are found by some volunteer guards. Eata runs ahead into the graveyard. After some cajoling, the other apprentices enter with the guards to find the boy. However, some grave-robbers – including the rebel Vodalus and his mistress, Thea – are in the middle of stealing a woman’s corpse. A fight breaks out between the robbers and the guards. Impressed by Voldalus’ courage, Severian enters into the fray, and helps save the man’s life. Vodalus gives him a coin before departing, and Severian decides to identify himself with his cause.

ANALYSIS: Before talking about the chapter proper, it is worth paying attention to the epigram at the beginning of the book. Although no source for it is indicated, it is a quoatation from “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”, a hymn by Isaac Watts, which itself is an adaptation of Psalm 90. Here is the full hymn:

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

Beneath the shadow of your throwne,
Your saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is your arm alone,
And our defence is sure.

Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received its frame,
From everlasting you are God,
To endless years the same.

A thousand ages in your sight
Are like an ev’ning gone,
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all our lives away;
Thy fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the op’ning day.

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be now our guide while life shall last,
And our eternal home.

Although most of the narrative of BOTNS takes place within a small amount of time and space, it is set against a massive cosmic backdrop. The brevity and smallness of human life will be a point driven home. But it is interesting to note that, with the use of Watts’ hymn, this brevity is contrasted with the eternity of God.

It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future. The locked and rusted gate that stood before us, with wisps of river fog threading its spikes like the mountain paths, remains in my mind now as the symbol of my exile. That is why I have begun this account of it with the aftermath of our swim, in which I, the torturer’s apprentice Severian, had so nearly drowned.

This opens the novel proper. I’d like to think that there is some clue as to Severian’s approach to his own narrative here. Incidentally this explains the wording of the chapter title: his escape from drowning is the ‘resurrection’ followed by encountering death in the graveyard.

Certain mystes aver that the real world has been constructed by the human mind, since our ways are governed by the artificial categories into which we place essentially undifferentiated things, things weaker than our words for them. I understood the principle intuitively that night as I heard the last volunteer swing the gate closed behind us.

I am pretty sure that this is a reference to Kant’s transcendental idealism. Which makes me feel smart for catching it.

It is my nature, my joy and my curse, to forget nothing. Every rattling chain and whistling wind, every sight, smell, and taste, remains changeless in my mind, and though I know it is not so with everyone, I cannot imagine what it can mean to be otherwise, as if one had slept when in fact an experience is merely remote.

Severian’s claim to remember everything is a key point. First of all, his relationship to these events is more, ‘present’. As he narrates them, he at times tends to bleed into his younger self. His attempts to edit and interpret his own story thus tend to stick out a bit. Secondly, he has too much data to work with, and hence fumbles a bit at figuring out the significance of what has happened to him.

Vodalus uses a laser gun, something Severian has never seen before. Another character fights with an axe. The backwater setting of BOTNS is underlined by the mixed levels of technology on display.

We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges…I did not know that then, but it is a profound mistake to believe that we must know of such things to be influenced by them, and in fact to believe so is to believe in the most debased and superstitious kind of magic. The would-be sorcerer alone has faith in the efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all.

The question at stake here is whether or not we live in a logocentric world. Is ‘meaning’ something that is bigger than humans, or, as in the quote a little earlier, is it something imposed by humans on the world? The former, I would argue, also implies a theocentric world. All those symbols, if they are not just a part of a self-referential language game done by us, must terminate in something. And indeed, the Genesis account of man being made in the “image and likeness” of God, humans are, in a sense, themselves symbols.

But, more metafictionally speaking, do the events and characters of BOTNS really add up to a coherent and meaningful story, or is it all just in our subjective interpretation of Severian’s subjective interpretation of what’s going on? The series brings into play both pomo and pseudo-medieval notions of interpretation, and hence kinda flirts with both options.

It was in this fashion that I began the long journey by which I have backed into the throne.

In case you were wondering where he’s going with all of this.

About Josh W

Scribbler and doodler
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3 Responses to Reading The Shadow of the Torturer – Chapter I: Resurrection and Death

  1. I have read Gene Wolfe’s Latro in the Mist (combining both Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete). A friend of mine has made me interested in BOTNS, though he says that the main character is reprehensible. I remember being fascinated by Wolfe’s fluency with the Classical world and Catholic thought, and you have made me curious to see how these enter into the realm of science fiction.

    Time to take out a new library book!

    • Josh W says:

      Severian is, to put it mildly, not a very likeable man. The setting and characters in general lean towards the grim side.

      Wolfe is certainly erudite, and part of the fun of BOTNS is his playfulness with language. It provided the fodder for one of my undergraduate papers.

  2. Pingback: Brief Thoughts on The Shadow of the Torturer | Aquila et Infans

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