Reading The Shadow of the Torturer – Chapter IV: Triskele

(I have been wondering whether or not to include spoilers from later parts of the series in these posts, and have met with something of a compromise: spoilers will appear in whited out form. Highlight them at your own risk!)

SYNOPSIS: Severian finds a dog that has been left to die near the Bear Tower. Calling him Triskele, he smuggles the dog into the guild and looks after it. One day Triskele disappears, and Severian goes searching for him. He winds up in the Atrium of Time, where he meets a girl called Valeria. Triskele has evidently found someone else to look after him, and drops out of Severian’s life.

ANALYSIS: This chapter is something of a counterpoint to the previous one. While in “The Autarch’s Face”, we see medical techniques being put in the service of torture, here Severian uses his training to help heal a wounded dog. Technology, medicine, crafts etc. are, I think, not just morally neutral, but actually positive goods. But they can be put to perverse use.

All our guild cloaks are voluminous, and this one was more so than most since the brother I had replaced was large of frame. Furthermore, the hue fulgin, which is darker then black, admirably erases all folds, bunchings and gatherings so far as the eye is concerned, showing only a featureless dark.

I quote this mainly because I find the idea of the fulgin cloak really cool. I’ve noticed animators from time to time creating a similar effect in their shows by animating the movement of the fabric while keeping the patterns of the clothing static.

I had been a man (if I was truly a man) such a short time; I could not endure to think that I had become a man so different from the boy I had been. I could remember each moment of my past, every vagrant thought and sight, every dream. How could I destroy that past? I held up my hands and tried to look at them – I knew the veins stood out on their backs now. It is when those veins stand out that one is a man.

In a dream I walked through the fourth level again, and found a huge friend there with dripping jaws. It spoke to me.

I often do wonder about the degree of continuity and discontinuity in my own life. Things tend to feel like they always have been the way they are now. I often feel as though I have always been Catholic, for instance. It is only upon allowing me to drift in my memories that how different the past has been at various points in my life. All this is, I suppose, somewhat tangential, but it came to mind.

This is the first time I noticed what the dream in the second paragraph is about:  it’s the Alzabo, a particularly horrifying creature that won’t make an appearance until The Sword of the Lictor. Here is a weird thought: what if Severian actually did run across the Alzabo here, and remembers it only as a dream? Perhaps they were keeping one in the Bear Tower? Or perhaps the guild was just keeping one here for their own nefarious purposes?

This doesn’t seem too plausible, as the Alzabo seems well-nigh impossible to tame, and tends to leave a high body count in its wake – something which doesn’t seem to be suggested in the narrative here. It is more likely that this is just an easter egg thrown in for alert readers.

I found myself crawling onto the ice-covered pedestal of one of those old, faceted dials whose multitudinous faces give each a different time. No doubt because the frost of these latter ages entering the tunnel below had heaved its foundation, it had slipped sidewise until it stood at such an angle that it might have been one of its own gnomons, drawing the silent passage of the short winter day across the unmarked snow.

The space about it had been a garden in summer, but not such a one as our necropolis, with half-wild trees and rolling, meadowed lawns. Roses had blossomed here in kraters set upon a tessellated pavement. Statutes of beasts stood with their backs to the four walls of the court, eyes turned to watch the canted dial: hulking barylambdas; arctothers, the monarchs of bears; glyptodons; smilodons with fangs like glaives. All were dusted now with snow. I looked for Triskele’s tracks, but he had not come here.


She [Valeria] looked younger than I, but there was an antique quality about her metal-trimmed dress and the shadow of her dark hair that made her seem older than Master Palaemon, a dweller in forgotten yesterdays.

The most obvious purpose of the Atrium of Time is that it once told the time for nearby residents. The slantedness of the sundial perhaps indicates how the passage of time has lost its meaning for a civilization so soaked in history.

Considering that Valeria winds up becoming Severian’s wife it is peculiar how absent she is through much of the narrative. Her own dialogue, and her description, suggests that she is one of a series of clones of some woman from the past.ab

They have mottoes. ‘Lux dei vitae viam monstrat.’ that’s ‘The beam of the New Sun lights the way of life.’ ‘Felicibus brevis, miseris hora longa.’ ‘Men wait long for happiness.’ ‘Aspice ut aspiciar.’

According to Wolfe’s own afterword to this book (which will be discussed more thoroughly in due time) the use of Latin is not meant to be taken literally – it is merely meant to suggest an ancient dead language. Valeria’s translations are also very loose. Here are my own amateurish attempts:

Lux dei vitae viam monstrat:  The light of God shows the way of life.

Felicibus brevis, miseris hora longa: happy hours are short, miserable ones long.

Aspice ut aspiciar: Look to look better




About Josh W

Scribbler and doodler
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