Reading The Shadow of the Torturer – Chapters V-VI

SYNOPSIS: At the Feast of Holy Katharine, Drotte and Roche are elevated to the rank of Journeymen, leaving Severian as the senior apprentice. He is later sent to deliver a message to Master Ultan of the guild of Curators. The message turns out to be a request to provide books for the Chatelaine Thecla, who is now in the custody of the Torturers.

ANALYSIS: Since Chapter V is short and more of a set up for VI, it seems like it would be a good idea to combine the two.


So the official feast day of the Torturer’s guild is the feast of Holy Katharine, whom I assume bears some relationship to St. Catherine of Alexandria. According to legend, St. Catherine confronted the emperor Maximus for his cruelty towards Christians. This led to him sending various thinkers to debate her into apostatizing. That plan backfired and led to some conversions, so Maximus had her imprisoned and tortured. When that only led to more conversions, Maximus proposed to marry her. She rebuffed him and declared Jesus to be her true spouse, so he decided to torture her on the wheel. The wheel broke, so she was beheaded.

When we actually see the Feast of Holy Katharine play out a little bit later on, the legend is recounted in a rather different fashion (although my memory is a little bit vague). She is a somewhat ironic patroness for torturer’s to adopt, to say the least.

After I had walked at least a league among these enigmatic paintings one day, I came upon an old man perched on a high ladder. I wanted to ask my way but he seemed so absorbed in his work that I hesitated to disturb him.

The picture he was cleaning showed an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape. It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner. The visor of this figure’s helmet was entirely of gold, without eye slits or ventilation; in its polished surface the deathly desert could be seen in reflection, and nothing more.

Conversation with the man reveals that the landscape in this picture is the moon (which is now both terraformed and closer to Urth). So what Severian is looking at is an astronaut, likely holding onto an American flag. Exactly how that picture wound up here is anyone’s guess.

Chapter VI is heavily inspired by one of Jorge Luis Borges’ stories. As I have never read the man, I’m unable to comment on that.

he [Master Ultan] was a head and a half taller than I, a true exultant.

The exultants, who form the aristocracy of Severian’s world, are not just socially but physically different than the other classes. Since we don’t really know much about what a ‘normal’ person looks like in this world, it is difficult to gauge how alien the exultants are supposed to look.

“Do you apprehend any termination to this aisle?”

“No, sieur,” I said, and in fact I did not. As far as the candelight flew there was only row upon row of books stretching from the floor to the high ceiling. Some of the shelves were disordered, some straight; once or twice I saw evidence that rats had been nesting among the books, rearranging them to make snug two-and three- level homes for themselves and smearing dung on the covers to form the rude characters of their speech.

Evidently the vermin of the future are a little bit more intelligent than we’re used to.


“Indeed it is. My master was Gerbold, and for decades it appeared that he would never die. Year followed straggling year for me, and all that time I read – I suppose few have ever read so. I began, as most young people do, by reading the books I enjoyed. But I found that narrowed my pleasure, in time, until I spent most of my hours searching for such books. Then I devised a plan of study for myself, tracing obscures sciences, one after another, from the dawn of knowledge to the present. Eventually I exhausted even that, and beginning at the great ebony case that stands at the in the center of the room we of the library have maintained for threee hundred years against the return of the Autarch Sulpicius (and into which, in consequence, no one ever comes) I read outward for a period of fifteen years, often finishing two books in one day.”

The library and Master Ultan reminds me of Robarts Library , a rather imposing, massive, brutalist building which I have spent much time in over the years. To quote Wikipedia:

The elevation is mostly concrete, albeit differing in textures and directionality: smooth concrete lines the façade in a horizontal manner, the rough concrete lining vertically. The steel-framed windows are situated onto the bays protruding from the façade, and are reminiscent of overhanging towers in medieval castle architecture. Ironically, the bay windows seem to elevate upwards, opening up the two lowermost levels into voids enclosed with steel-framed glazing, making these elements seem lighter than they really are. To stretch further one’s imagination, it is as if these elements are elevators that transport the “scholar[s] anxious to escape the noise and turmoil of the vulgar press [into]… a dream palace enshrining in its holy mysteries the power of the word.”

Comprising fourteen storeys, plus two underground floors, the brutalist and futurist structure features raised podia and a suspended fourth floor.[4] A mezzanine level physically connects Robarts Library to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library building at its southeastern side, and to the Claude Bissel Building, housing the Faculty of Information, at its northeastern side. The concrete waffle slab floor plates are adorned with triangular-patterned tessellation. A hexagonal central circulation atrium is enclosed at the core of the building and through the middle of the mezzanine level.[4] The gross area of the building is over 1,036,000 square feet (96,200 m2).

While I have yet to run into a Master Ultan, I would not be surprised if I did. And, as someone who once considered pursuing a degree in library science, I feel the pull of immersing oneself in archives. Even though I find the architecture to be hideous, I have often spent time in there to just get away from it all and read. Indeed I suspect that some students are just consumed by the library and are never heard from again.

“In every library, by ancient precept, is a room reserved for children. In it are kept bright picture books such as children delight in, and a few simple tales of wonder and adventure. Many children come to these rooms, and so long as they remain within their confines, no interest is taken in them.”


“From time to time, however, a librarian remarks a solitary child, still of tender years, who wanders from the children’s room…and at last deserts it entirely. Such a child eventually discovers, on some low but obscure shelf, The Book of Gold


…Then the librarians come – like vampires, some say, but others say like the fairy godparents at a christening. They speak to the child and the child joins them.

This is a nice description of how one becomes a serious reader. I believe that in the Castle of the Otter (I can’t seem to find my copy at the moment) Wolfs says that Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth was the Book of Gold for him – and indeed BOTNS is itself a sort of re-imagining of Vance’s work.

As I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I was not much of a reader as a child. I can remember my mother reading Rudyard Kipling, C.S. Lewis and E.B. White to me, and so they have become part of the ambiance of my childhood. But I didn’t do much on my own. In my adolescence I read Stephen King’s The Gunslinger and Don Quixote, and they changed things. I also read Tolkien, but am not sure as to where he fits in here.

“You, of all men, will excuse me when I tell you I tarried a moment to read a few lines of this book. Master, you know of the corpse-eaters, surely. I have heard it said that by devouring the flesh of the dead, together with a certain pharmacon, they are able to relive the lives of their victims.”

This is an early mention of something that will become important to the plot and narration in the next volume.

About Josh W

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