Severian as Christ-figure

by Stephen Palmer

Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun is one of science fiction's greatest achievements, and it is generally recognized that the books conceal rather more than is initially apparent. Wolfe, a Catholic, used his faith to underpin a monumental work. This article looks at some of the religious implications, and hopes to draw comment from others.

If Severian is the Concilliator, who then is the Concilliator? Christ seems to the answer, the Christ of the Parousia. There are several clues. The first Concilliator is described as having a shining face, as Christ had during the Transfiguration; one of the Concilliator's attributes is that he will return to Urth, as the Bible claims Christ will; the Concilliator performed healings and miracles in the manner of Christ.

Severian's name may also be a clue to his nature if it is a future corruption of Steven, the name which comes from the Greek stephane, meaning a crown (the stephane was a fillet of silver or gold worn on the forehead). The crown which the undines saw on Severian's brow, and which is implied by the hierodules' use of the term Liege to address him, is perhaps mirrored in his name. The name Severian does have another history, however, and is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary thus: "a member of the Encratite or Gnostic sect of the 2nd century which condemned marriage, etc."

The dictionary goes on to note that the name may be derived not from a founder called Severus but from the austerity of the typical Severian's life (ie. from the Latin severus).

There are also hints in Father Inire's effusive letter to Severian at the close of volume four. Father Inire refers to Severian the Autarch as Surya, the Indian god of the sun, Helios, the charioteer who pulled the sun on its course, and Hyperion, the father of Helios. Severian's nature is also revealed at the end of the fever dream in the lazaret, golden rays pouring from him as he stands with the Cumaean and Master Malrubius; light which falls on the Earth and gives it new life. There is also a 'missing' name in the Holy Trinity; we hear of the Increate (Holy Ghost) and the Pancreator, but never of any son. The Concilliator, supposedly the greatest of good man (this author would take issue...) must be this figure. And there is the dual meaning of sun and son.

During his wanderings across Urth, various mystical events occur around Severian. The most remarkable is the appearance of blood on his forehead when, in the House Absolute, he looks into the mirror-leafed book bound in manskin. It seems that Severian has experienced a book bound metaphorically with his own death; he blurts out that he saw his own dead face in the leather. The eclipse carved in the cabinet door that conceals this book refers to such a death, the hiding of the sun, and Severian's blood is then that produced by the Crown of Thorns. Earlier, when drinking with Jonas, water becomes wine. When he drinks with Dorcas, as she is about to leave him, wine becomes water. He carries a sword with a blunt end on his travels - a cross.

Two of Severian's personal symbols acquired during his childhood in the Necropolis are significant. The ship refers to his voyage to Yesod, but the other two may have religious connotations. The fountain, though it seems to correspond to that of the House Absolute, is also an ancient symbol of life (sometimes depicted as a waterfall), while the rose is a symbol of Christ dating from the Middle Ages.

Wolfe, then, wrote a Parousia in which Severian was either Christ or an equivalent figure (there are echoes in him of the Greek god Apollo, the god of the sun). But if Severian is Christ there are other figures to account for, most importantly the Antichrist (the Beast) and the False Prophet. It would seem that Baldanders is the former and Dr. Talos the latter.

Baldanders, who experiments upon the world and spends the proceeds on himself, is an ideal Antichrist, for, despite his brutal nonchalance, he embodies an aversion to humanity; understated, but an aversion nonetheless. He is a direct opposite to Severian. The pair duel at the end of book three, as foreseen in an underwater dream of Severian's. Baldanders is the narcissistic little boy for whom the world and all its inhabitants are just constructions of his own imagination, lacking reality, while Severian is the man fully connected with himself and the world, who does not need to place himself at the centre of the universe to live sanely. Baldanders is his own greatest work, and his only work; but Baldanders has nothingness within him, desiring money, power and facts, while Severian epitomises all humanity.

Dr. Talos would seem to be the False Prophet. It is interesting that several times Severian is reminded of a stuffed fox when Dr. Talos' face appears. If the letters F-O-X- are taken according to Cabala traditions they make 6, 15, 24, ie. 666, the Number of the Beast. This is perhaps the means by which Dr. Talos is marked in Severian's imagination. Meanwhile, Dr. Talos' main task seems to be wandering the Urth performing his ignoble play; that is, misinforming the people about the Concilliator. For example, at the very end of the play it is Baldanders who breaks his own bonds to achieve freedom.

As for the Devil, he is trickier to pin down. According to the Book of Revelations [sic] Satan manifests as a dragon. I wonder if Erebus is the Devil? Or perhaps Abaia, the father-husband of the undines? Erebus' minions are Severian's enemies, though in Greek mythology Erebus is a region passed through on the way to Hades.

The Book of Revelations suggests that the Parousia will occur at a time of great strife, and indeed the Ascian (Asians? Americans?) are in conflict with the Autarch's forces throughout the main part of the work. As for xanthoderm, that means yellow-skin.

The Claw itself is steeped in Roman Catholic tradition. Severian refers to the blue shell as a pyx when he finds the Claw wedged between rocks. A pyx is the box or container in which the consecrated host, the Eucharist, is kept, and it can also mean the container in which supplies of wafers for the Eucharist are kept. Meanwhile, the Pelerines wear scarlet in the Catholic tradition (Pelerine derives from the Latin for pilgrim). Angels and archangels make appearances, too. Hierodules (holy slaves) are angels, while hierogrammates are archangels. The hierodules wear angelic white. Of the latter class, there are two explicitly referred to, Gabriel and Tzadkiel, perhaps paralleling the only two angelic figures mentioned in the Bible, Gabriel and Michael. Tzadkiel appears extensively in the final volume showing his shape-changing ability, while in the fourth book there is Melito's story about birds and an angel who clearly has the same transforming ability.

It is also possible that Wolfe worked in the Wandering Jew into his amazing story, although this figure is an invention of later centuries, and does not appear in the Bible. According to legend, the Wandering Jew taunted Christ as he dragged his cross to Golgotha. Christ responded by saying that his tormentor would wander the Earth until the time of the Second Coming. Could Hethor correspond to this figure?

Then there is the problem of Mary. Wolfe intentionally presents us with an enigma here; there are various candidates for Severian's true mother, but is it correct to assume that he had one mother? There are two Severians, after all. Using the scene at the end of the fourth book at the Inn of Lost Loves, it seems that Dorcas is related to Severian because of facial likeness - probably she is his grandmother. However the mother of the 'second' Severian, the carrier of the Claw, would seem to be Cyriaca, a.k.a. Catherine or Katherine, she who recognized Severian even though his mask was on then tried to cover her tracks. Incidentally, Catherine is derived from the word for pure, which could be translated as virginal.

A curious parallel comes when the Cumaean is considered. This figure seems to be an acho of the sibyls of Roman times, for like them the Cumaean is a prophetess, as seer. But there is a further point, since the Cumaean is sleeky reptilian under her disguises, when seen by Severian from is extended temporal perspective; that is, serpentine. In the days before Judaism and Christianity had destroyed the ancient matriarchal religions, that of the Goddess, the snake was the symbol of female potency, wisdom, and prophetic ability. Even today, 'pythoness' means 'prophetess'. So it is perhaps significant that the acolye Merryn refers to the Cumaean as 'Mother'.

Perhaps other readers can enlighen me further...! There are many things I still don't understand. For example, who is Hethor really? Do the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse make any appearances? Does Severian commit incest? What is the connection between the undine Juturna and Lake Diuturna? (same pronunciation, different speling). Why does the mandragora in spirits refer to Severian as brother when Severian explores the Autarch's rooms? The most puzzling enigma for me is the status of Father Inire. The name Inire seems to be related to INRI, King of the Jews, but are we to make anything of that?

This article first appeared in Vector 162, published by the British Science Fiction Association, in August 1991. Stephen Palmer's first sf novel was published in April 1996 in the UK, and the second is set for April 1997 publication.

He can be e-mailed at STEPHEN.PALMER@LUTON.AC.UK All messages are welcome!

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