Reading The Shadow of the Torturer – Chapter II: Severian

SYNOPSIS: The guild of Torturers (formal title: the Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence) recruits new members by taking in orphaned or otherwise unwanted boys. Adults are not admitted. Orphaned girls are given over to the Witches’ Keep by the ancient decree of Ymar the Almost Just (he felt that woman made for excessively cruel torturers). Severian’s earliest memory is playing in the Old Yard southwest of the Witches’ Keep. As he grew older, he and his friends began to play in the nearby necropolis, as well as exploring the Citadel of the torturers and the nearby grounds.

Severian recounts the incident in the river Gyoll that occurred just before the events of chapter I. While swimming through the river, Severian gets tangled up in some roots and nearly drowns. He has a vision of the late Master Malrubius, and of a woman who lifts him up. Drotte manages to pull him out of the river.

ANALYSIS: This chapter is mainly an exposition dump – albeit a very atmospheric and picturesque one. Although it is easy to miss, Severian’s description of the Citadel indicates that it is actually a defunct spaceship.

A moment suffices to describe these things, for which I watched so long. The decades of a saros would not be long enough for me to write all they meant to the ragged apprentice boy I was. Two thoughts (that were nearly dreams) obsessed me and made them infinitely precious. The first was that at some not-distant time, time itself would stop…the colored days that had so long been drawn forth like a chain of conjuror’s scarves come to an end, the sullen sun wink out at last. The second was that there existed somewhere a miraculous light – which I sometimes conceived of as a candle, sometimes as a flambeau – that engendered life in whatever objects it fell upon, so that a leaf plucked from a bush grew slender legs and waving feelers, and a rough brown brush opened black eyes and scurried up a tree.

As becomes apparent in the narrative, there is indeed something wrong with the sun. This is perhaps the first suggestion of the big question of the series: will life on Urth continue to decay and die out with the sun, or will both be rejuvenated?

Incidentally, it is worth pointing out here that there are two readings of the word, “Urth”. One is to see it as a derivative spelling of our, “Earth”, another is as a rendering of “Uror”, one of the Norns in Norse mythology. Urth is a little bit like Tolkien’s Middle-Earth;  although ostensibly located in our future, it seems distant enough that it transcends normal history, in a sense.

We were in greater danger from the inhabitants of the many-storied tenements that lined the filthy street down which we walked. I sometimes think the reason the guild has endured so long is that it serves as a focus for the hatred of the people, drawing it from the Autarch, the exultants, and the army, and even in some degree from the pale cacogens who sometimes visit Urth from the farther stars.

Aliens do factor into this world. From Severian’s perspective, the difference between normal travel and space travel is one of distance, rather than kind. Extraterrestrial’s tend to fall into the, “hated/feared foreigner” category rather than the “wow, aliens!” one. “Cacogen” is itself something of an epithet which, if memory serves me correctly, Severian stops using later on in the series. It seems to come from the word “cacogenic”, which dictionary.com informs me is another way of saying “dysgenic” (there is a book, “Lexicon Urthus”, which acts as a nifty reference guide for the more obscure words used by Wolfe. Alas, someone else checked it out of the library).

Severian offers a justification for his profession:

The executions I have seen performed and have performed myself so often are no more than a trade, a butchery of human beings who are for the most part less innocent and less valuable than cattle.

But what about the effect of this on the man carrying out the executions? As underlined by the previous quote, it comes with at the bare minimum being made something of a pariah. Even putting aside the warped sense of justice involved in what the torturers do, violence always comes with profound psychological and spiritual consequences to the one who inflicts it.

The incident in the river Gyoll marks the first vision of Master Malrubius, who will pop up in some other scattered visions throughout the book. Intriguingly, the text suggests that a nearby onlooker also saw the woman in Severian’s second vision. There is an explanation for what is going on here, but you won’t find it in the first book.

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About Josh W

A Catholic; an occasional writer.
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