Adrift on Brook Madregot

Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun is a Daedalean masterpiece of literature and illusionism for a whole host of reasons, but centrally because of its narrators. This paper investigates the personality of the narrator-protagonist Severian by recourse to the psychological literature, specifically Alexander Luria’s study of the mnemonist Solomon Shereshevsky.


Reviewers of Gene Wolfe’s Urth Cycle—centrally the four volumes of The Book of the New Sun and their coda The Urth of the New Sun1—have likened the author to an illusionist, a cardsharp (Budrys 195), and a builder of labyrinths (Wolfe, “A Solar Labyrinth”; Borski). Misdirection, slight of hand, and torturous paths that circle back on themselves are the stuff of his oeuvre and the five books epitomize this style. Within the Urth Cycle, the narrators are cast in major obfuscatory roles. First there is G.W., the intradiegetic translator of the manuscript, which he2 has somehow received from the future, so that he has to borrow many words from our past as “suggestive rather than definitive” stand-ins for words of a language that “has not yet achieved existence.” (Wolfe, The Shadow of the Torturer 211; appx.) And then there is Severian, the author of the manuscript—at least in a superficial sense.3

Severian, later known as Severian the Great and Severian the Lame, has a peculiar mental condition that lends him extraordinary mnemonic abilities but also comes with more elusive side effects. Like many other books by Gene Wolfe, the Urth Cycle puts us into this extraordinary mind, so that we may understand its nature and overcome its limitations. Trusting Merryn’s words of wisdom that “There is no magic[,] only knowledge, more or less hidden” (Wolfe, The Claw of the Conciliator 404; ch. 31), reviewers have long tried to achieve the latter; this paper will attempt the former by highlighting how the first-person narrative mirrors Severian’s cognition.

Such a narrow focus is indispensable in a discussion of a cycle that has been analyzed in several books, numerous articles, and countless mailing list posts over the course of three decades. No less focused approach could come to any conclusion within just a few thousand words. Said focus, however, also necessitates that many intriguing tangents be cut short if they do not circle back on the gist of the paper. The cited literature is recommended to anyone interested in investigating these further.

The structure of the following is such that after a short summary, one section will briefly highlight some of the effects of the text on the reader. Then the principle section will expand on these observations to encompass many key elements that help unlock the story that lies obscured by the narration. Penultimately, a more speculative section will take a few tentative steps into the story thus revealed, until finally the conclusion will summarize the findings.

Plot Summary

This summary is meant to guide a reader who wants to follow the arguments in this paper without having read the Urth Cycle in its entirety. It is also highly compressed. Hence you need to take care to bear in mind that focused as it is on providing a basis for this particular paper, it is also inevitably biased. The facts that seem crucial to one reader may appear peripheral to another, but there is no way to even attempt to do justice to all the more prevalent readings in a summary without rendering it greatly more expansive than the scope of this paper would allow.4


The torturer’s apprentice Severian has drowned in Gyoll where he has been resurrected in a new body. Thinking he merely narrowly escaped death, he recovers from his trauma quickly enough to save the life of the famous outlaw Vodalus by killing a volunteer guard. Vodalus thanks him by giving him a chrisos, a valuable coin that shows the autarch’s face, but Severian interprets this as a symbolic enlistment of his person in the movement of the Vodalarii and professes to have shared their ideals.

One winter, he unwittingly resurrects a dog, smuggles it into their guild’s home, the Matachin Tower, and expertly tends to its wounds. Soon the dog scuttles off and its tracks lead him into dark tunnels underneath the Citadel—a fortified harbor for spaceships such as the Matachin Tower, which are long grounded and have largely fallen into disrepair so that they are used only as houses for about 135 guilds—where he loses its tracks and emerges in the Atrium of Time, a likely time traveling platform at the heart of the Citadel. There he meets Valeria, who he will later marry.

A while later, the Chatelaine Thecla is put into the custody of the torturers and meets Severian. Highly placed, she can request for Severian to entertain her. In an attempt to keep Severian from developing feelings for her despite their closeness, the guild pays for a trip to brothel for him where he meets the autarch but fails to recognize him from the coin. The guild’s attempt fails. When Thecla is subjected to torture, Severian enables her to commit suicide.

Expecting to be tortured and executed, Severian is surprised to find that the masters of the guild appear to be so afraid to lose the trust of the courts if Severian’s violation of guild dogma should become known that they merely exile him to a distant town.

He ventures forth into the world carrying first the valuable sword Terminus Est and soon a valuable gem, the Claw of the Conciliator, which he seeks to return to its rightful owners. Almost always he has companions at his side, most significantly the teenage yet wise Dorcas. At his next meeting with Vodalus, he gets to merge Thecla’s mind into his own, and soon his allegiances veer about 180°; still he accepts a new mission from Vodalus.

At several points—specifically in a play by a Dr. Talos, which is based on an old book, The Book of the New Sun—it is now indicated that the sun is slowly dying because it was injected with a black whole that eats it up from inside. Some of the people of Urth now hope for the coming of the New Sun (pun surely intended), while others fear the destruction its gravitational influence would wreak on Urth.

Severian’s newest mission is exhausted when he delivers a message to an agent of Vodalus’s inside the secret house of the House Absolute,5 an agent who turns out to be the autarch himself. This time Severian recognizes him from the House Azure but it is from Thecla’s memories that he, much delayed, recognizes him as the autarch.

He completes his initial mission by becoming lictor of Thrax but soon repeats, in effect, the transgression that got him exiled and has to flee the town. When his mission of returning the Claw is exhausted as well, he aimlessly joins the cavalry in the war against the Ascians.

After having been saved repeatedly by friend and foe alike, the autarch bequeaths to him his position, and as ruler of the commonwealth Severian awaits the trials of the hierogrammates that will determine whether Urth deserves a fresh sun.

To attend these trials, he travels to Yesod, an ostensibly higher6 universe with an eponymous planet ship within it. There he is told that his whole life and the lives of his predecessors on the Phoenix Throne were all part of his trial and that he has already passed it. He also learns that the reason the hierogrammates have orchestrated all this is so the hieros—descendents, they hope, of the humans of Severian’s day—would come into existence and eventually create the hierogrammates, which would then evade the demise and reconstitution of the Briahtic universe (or rather multiverse) by fleeing into the universe of Yesod.7 Hence they are working to ensure their own procreation or birth as a race.

Severian then goes on to become the Jesus-like Conciliator in the distant past, where he tells his life story while incarcerated in the Matachin Tower, whereby he uses Dr. Talos’s play to guide his narration. Another prisoner, Canog, protocols it and turns it later into a book that would become known as Book of the New Sun.

Later he steps into the future to observe the destruction of Urth, goes back to an even more distant past to become Apu-Punchau, and finally returns to the future and to Ushas, as postdiluvian Urth is called.

The Reader

Oftentimes a strong internal focalization has the effect of allowing the reader an insight, however superficial, into the nature of the focalized character’s thought processes and modes of perception. In many of his books, Gene Wolfe goes a step further. Internal focalization of this kind still requires the empathetic cooperation of the reader, and in novels such as There Are Doors, this empathy provides a crucial part of the reading experience, but at the same time a closely related process is going on, a recreation of the focalized characters confusion on the extradiegetic level. Readers who try to make sense of the text, just as the focal character tries to make sense of his or her life, encounter in their interpretative efforts hurdles that replicate the difficulties of the character. Empathy is no longer required to evoke the readers’ sympathy.

Wright identifies this artifice as an all-pervasive theme in the Urth Cycle. The books are replete with intertextual references to sources as diverse as Kabbalah; Tarot; Grimm’s Fairy Tales; Greek, Roman, Christian, Egyptian, Persian, and Norse mythology; various traditions of sun worship; and of course many individual authors such as Marcel Proust, Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Campbell, H.G. Wells, Lewis Carroll, John Locke, and many more. All of these are worked into the story so seamlessly that the reader has to be versed in the referenced material to even notice them, but then they open up new subtextual backdoors to countless minor mysteries of the text. The richly textured, defamiliarizing descriptions that have led reviewers to call the style of the Urth Cycle baroque (Gordon 75) are similar in effect and function, and deciphering them does not get easier when the narrator starts to shift between the many personalities he is host to. Finally, there is also the archaic, eclecticist diction, which first refracts what light one tries to shine on the events, but then, under close etymological or historical examination, reveals important (albeit limited) clues to their deeper significance. While Wolfe may mention crucial facts only once or twice in his books,8 off-handed remarks, idle metaphors, and the words themselves can give additional clues to those who look closely enough.

However interesting these facets of the text may be, Wright is wary of them for the myopia they induce, and especially in view of the tetralogy that forms the Urth Cycle proper, his apprehension is justified. Where unsuspecting readers will see a monomythical coming-of-age fantasy story with many Romantic elements, more careful readers will find a labyrinthine science fiction with self-similar riddles on all surfaces, but they would have to be almost paranoid to suspect that if they could view the structure from the orbit, they would read a mocking inscription in the patterns of its meandering paths.9

The coda resolves some of these puzzles, for which Kincaid has criticized it as “a tying up of loose ends that didn’t necessarily need tying.” Especially a character by the name of Apheta, who, fittingly, has no voice but speaks by canceling out ambient noise, makes a central one explicit. To Wright, it is the one central puzzle of the series, and he makes a good argument for its pervasiveness, but in a world where “everything, whatever happens, has three meanings,” (Shadow 190; ch. 32) there surely are more mysteries of equal rank that are still waiting to be discovered.10

What then is the origin of all this fascinating, addictive, but distracting embellishment? One of the answers lies in the cognitive predispositions of Severian, who unconsciously plunges the reader into the same noisy reality that is the only one he knows.

The Narrator


In order to attempt an examination of the unusual cognitive abilities and limitations that are mirrored in Severian’s narrative, it is necessary to make at least two assumptions that are not trivial, namely, that Severian is (intradiegetically) real and that his memories are not wholly fabricated.

It could be argued that the hierogrammates could have more easily instated the Conciliator myth by fabricating the first Book of the New Sun and leaking it to Canog rather than having Severian reenact all of it, so that Severian’s Book of the New Sun may be similarly fabricated for the purposes of manipulating its intradiegetic readers or possibly us.

Similarly, Severian may have received a much harsher punishment than exile for his violation of guild dogma, may have been locked away on the third level of the oubliette where Master Palaemon, pitying him, left him the four books Severian had fetched for Thecla, among them the brown book and Canog’s Book of the New Sun (Wolfe, Plan(e)t Engineering 15), and is at times visited by Master Gurloes who would talk with him of things no eavesdropper could understand (Shadow 56; ch. 7). Severian would retreat too easily into his rich imagination and relive his own version of Canog’s story, eventually able to write it down (time and time again for lack of anything else to do) thanks to a “quiet well of vermilion ink” (Shadow 205; ch. 35) maybe from one of his legs.11

These interpretations, however, would render much of the following considerations moot, so that they need to be temporarily put in abeyance.

The Mnemonist

Wolfe’s S.

It seems to be a repeating theme that the narrators of Gene Wolfe’s novels die shortly before the beginning of their narration. The title of the first chapter, “Resurrection and Death,” gives this fact away, which will only be explained again in the coda.12 The same chapter continues to summarize many of the crucial facts in intimations that, in some cases, will only become clear much later.

On its first page already, Severian explains the nature of his memory in a section that will become even more significant in the following:

Just as all that appears imperishable tends toward its own destruction, those moments that at the time seem the most fleeting recreate themselves—not only in my memory (which in the final accounting loses nothing) but in the throbbing of my heart and the prickling of my hair, making themselves new just as our Commonwealth reconstitutes itself each morning in the shrill tones of its own clarions. (Shadow 9; ch. 1)

Time and time again he mentions this “perfect memory”13 and uses it to pass time by counting from memory 137 soldiers who had marched past him a week or so earlier (Claw 319; ch. 18) or to recount verbatim several stories he was told, but superficially it does not seem to have a major significance for the plot.

The simile in the quoted paragraph is also a surprisingly apt description since each morning may appear a recreation of the last but is yet bound to be different from it in countless ways, just as new recall errors increasingly skew the original memory with every reactivation (Bridge and Paller).

Finally, the same section even illustrates this process. A few sentences before the quoted paragraph, we have the sentence “I would have hidden, but Roche held me, saying, ‘Wait, I see pikes,’” and immediately following it, “The men had no armor, as I could soon see by the sickly yellow light of the lanterns; but they had pikes, as Drotte had said, and staves and hatchets.”

Other examples of the mutability of his memory concern the bag Docas sews to hold the Claw and the pistol hand-off in the necropolis. As Wright (114) observes, the bag transmogrifies from “doeskin” (Wolfe, The Sword of the Lictor 13; ch. 1) into “manskin” (Urth 279; ch. 39), a very unlikely material for Dorcas to have used, and (here Wright quotes Greenland (82–85)) Severian first recalls Vodalus giving his pistol to Hildegrin, who then, being unacquainted with the weapon, hands it to Thea (Shadow 13; ch. 1), and later recalls Vodalus handing it to Thea directly (Claw 221; ch. 1).

Severian freely admits to the mutability of his ostensibly perfect memory at several places.

You that read [my story] cannot but have noticed that I have not scrupled to recount in great detail things that transpired years ago, and to give the very words of those who spoke to me, and the very words with which I replied; and you must have thought this only a conventional device I had adopted to make my story flow more smoothly. The truth is that I am one of those who are cursed with what is called perfect recollection. We cannot, as I have sometimes heard foolishly alleged, remember everything. I cannot recall the ordering of the books on the shelves in the library of Master Ultan, for example. But I can remember more than many would credit: the position of each object on a table I walked past when I was a child, and even that I have recalled some scene to mind previously, and how that remembered incident differed from the memory of it I have now. (Claw 260; ch. 8)

Known gaps in his memory do not seem to worry him; he may not have paid attention to the ordering of the books in the first place, and so it never impressed itself on his memory. Alternatively, it may be that he once knew it but not only forgot it but even forgot ever having known it. Either case would explain his indifferent attitude. Interesting is also the equanimity with which he observes alterations of his memories. Since his memory of how he had previously recalled some scene may have undergone alterations just as severe as any alterations of his memory of the scene itself, he has no way of knowing the scene itself anymore. That his original memory of it has been replaced by a fiction does not undo the fact of his forgetting, it merely conceals it, yet he does not seem to acknowledge this form of forgetting or dismisses it as inconsequential (“I searched my memory, which is perfect, except perhaps for a few slight lapses and distortions.” (Urth 244; ch. 34)).

What seems to be truly frightening to him, though, is forgetting. The following excerpts show his fear of forgetting and the powerful mechanisms his brain has developed to conceal it from him.

I shook my head. “I don’t want to forget, Tzadkiel. I’ve boasted too often that I forget nothing, and forgetting—which I have known once or twice—seems to me a kind of death.” (Urth 174; ch. 24)

“I have forgotten! Do you remember when we flew over the armies? For a time I forgot it! I know now what it is to forget.”

There was pale laughter in his voice. “Which you will now remember always.”

“I hope so, but it fades even as we speak. It vanishes like mist, which must itself be a forgetting. …” (Wolfe, The Citadel of the Autarch 336; ch. 25)

In addition to these sections, which portray his acknowledged fear of forgetting, there is another where he describes the experience of facing his fear of phantom memories poignantly as the “most harrowing of [his] life,” The catalyst was that, as an apprentice, he has assumed that many of the upper-class prisoners given into the guild’s custody were supporters of Vodalus. Upon reading some of the clients’ court dossiers, however, he has found that none of them were, but only minutes later thinks that he has heard Vodalus’s name in a conversation though no one else seems to have heard it. He extrapolates that his whole memory of meeting Vodalus and Thea may have been a hallucination or phantom memory, that only his killing of the volunteer may have been real.

It was in this instant of confusion that I realized for the first time that I am in some degree insane. It could be argued that it was the most harrowing of my life. I had lied often to Master Gurloes and Master Palaemon, to Master Malrubius while he still lived, to Drotte because he was captain, to Roche because he was older and stronger than I, and to Eata and the other smaller apprentices because I hoped to make them respect me. Now I could no longer be sure my own mind was not lying to me; all my falsehoods were recoiling on me, and I who remembered everything could not be certain those memories were more than my own dreams. I recalled the moonlit face of Vodalus; but then, I had wanted to see it. I recalled his voice as he spoke to me, but I had desired to hear it, and the woman’s voice too. (Shadow 27; ch. 3)

These limitations, however, are marginal compared to the feats of memory he performs, for example, when retelling the same dialogue verbatim and identically several times throughout the narrative.

Fear of forgetting is one side of the chrisos, but the more optimistic side becomes evident once Severian becomes more aware of the possibility of time travel.

The chiliarch said, “We’ll stay here and die with you, Conciliator, if you desire it.”

“I don’t,” I told them. “And I won’t die.” I tried to reveal the workings of Time to them, though I do not understand them myself. “Everyone who has lived is still alive, somewhen. But you are in great danger. Go!” (Urth 279; ch. 39)

This consolation, surely unhelpful for the chiliarch, may be one that has great meaning for Severian, for whom time was gradually becoming as freely navigable as space. Hence his fear may be less of him losing his memories than of the corresponding events getting irretrievably lost in the past. A fear that only abates as he grows accustomed to time travel.

His motivation for writing his Book of the New Sun may spring from the same source. In Return to the Whorl, it is revealed that Horn alias Incanto, the narrator of The Book of the Short Sun, introduced Severian to the writing of autobiographies or memoirs, but that alone would probably not have sufficed to drive him to invest endless hours into the recording of his memories.

In his own autobiography, he laments, “But what a disease this writing business is!” (Urth 1; ch. 1) This statement suggests that he is not merely motivated but compelled to write. Moreover, he repeatedly claims not to be writing for anyone. The same volume starts with the words:

Having cast one manuscript into the seas of time, I now begin again. Surely it is absurd; but I am not—I will not be—so absurd myself as to suppose that this will ever find a reader, even in me. Let me describe then, to no one and nothing, just who I am and what it is that I have done to Urth.

His manner of publication is also not optimized for mass dissemination, distinguishing the book from the autobiographies of other famous rulers. Of the first manuscript, he gave one copy into the care of the library of Nessus, a giant, dusty archive underneath the city that is not open to the public (Shadow 42; ch. 6), then wrote a second copy from memory (surely with some unconscious alterations), sealed it in a trunk, and tossed it into space. If it had not been for G.W.’s knack for time travel and xenolinguistics, at most a librarian or two would have read it. (Johnson)

While some part of him may be unable to acknowledge that his memory, due to its silent mutability, is unreliable, he may yet be aware of it on another level, one that does not allow him to express this insight.14 His drive to write then may stem from a latent fear that without his help the events he witnessed would fade to oblivion, either upon his death or even much sooner. The reason he has never, to our knowledge, continued his autobiography further than he had, may also be due to the waning of the same fear as time travel becomes natural for him.

From this evidence it becomes clear that while Severian’s recall is exceptional, it is imperfect and subject to slight alterations, which his strong imagination disguises from him. It is also likely, though the evidence appears more tenuous, that Severian’s fear of these imperfections is the driving force behind his writing.

Luria’s S.

From the 1920s to 1950s, the Soviet neuropsychologist Alexander Luria studied the journalist and mnemonist Solomon Shereshevsky and summarized his findings in his book The Mind of a Mnemonist.15 Solomon Shereshevsky, called S. in the book,16 evinces several parallels to Severian, as Wright already observed, but also a few marked differences.

Jerome Bruner’s foreword already contains a good summary of the parallels:

For the mnemonist, S., whose case is studied in such exquisite detail in these pages, is a man whose memory is a memory of particulars, particulars that are rich in imagery, thematic elaboation [sic], and affect. But it is a memory that is peculiarly lacking in one important feature: the capacity to convert encounters with the particular into instances of the general, enabling one to form general concepts even though the particulars are lost. It is this latter type of “memory without record” that seems so poorly developed in this man.

Several notable things about the disorders of this mnemonist are especially fascinating from a psychological point of view. For one thing, the sheer persistence of ikonic [sic] memory is so great that one wonders whether there is some failure in the swift metabolism of short-term memory. His “immediate” images haunt him for hours, types of images that in much recent work on short-term memory are found to fade to a point where information retrieval from them is not possible after a second or so. Along with this trait there is also a non-selectivity about his memory, such that what remains behind is a kind of junk heap of impressions. …

So powerful is his imagery that this man can easily drive his pulse up by imagining running. He is flooded and disturbed by the images and impressions of childhood, and, when he was a child, his imagery of school would become so “real” that he would lie abed rather than get out from under the quilt and get ready. It is interesting that, given his mode of remembering, there seems to be no childhood amnesia, and his memories from the earliest period can cause him acute malaise and chagrin. Throughout, there is a childlike quality in the protocols, protocols that are rich beyond anything I have ever encountered in the psychological literature on memory disorders. S.’s life in some deeply touching way is a failure. He waited for something to happen to him, some great thing. In the conduct of his life, too, there was a passive-receptive attitude, almost precluding organized striving. In place of the more abstract and constructional attitude of planning, there was waiting. (Luria 5–7)

Certainly Severian’s writing is brimful with particulars and rich in imagery. More irreverently, it could be called a “junk heap of impressions.” Similarly, that Shereshevsky could “easily drive his pulse up by imagining running” is reminiscent of Severian’s description of “moments that … recreate themselves … in the throbbing of [his] heart and the prickling of [his] hair” (Shadow 9; ch. 1). But Severian seems to also know about some of the side effects of his condition:

Some say [perfect recall] is linked to weak judgment—of that I am no judge. But it has another danger, one I have encountered many times. When I cast my mind into the past, as I am doing now and as I did then when I sought to recall my dream, I remember it so well that I seem to move again in the bygone day, a day old—new, and unchanged each time I draw it to the surface of my mind, its eidolons as real as I. (Claw 261; ch. 8)

Shereshevsky found it difficult to recognize faces (Luria 64) and voices (Luria 25) because of how changeable they were. He could not extract and recognize whatever commonality most people find in the same face or voice what allows them to agree that it is indeed the same. He compared the attempt to trying to tell apart waves on an ocean. Similarly, Severian has problems recognizing faces, for example, when he repeatedly sees the old autarch but the recognition keeps being one-sided. There are also cases where he considers that people may not be the same people anymore, having changed or matured so much. In the case of his own person (Citadel 401; ch. 37), the observation is debatable on several levels, yet his readiness to accept this unintuitive nonidentity is telling.17

The same extraneous data that distracts Shereshevsky and Severian also distracts the readers from whatever patterns they would otherwise recognize. That is one of the ways in which the book forces inquisitive readers to sympathize, rather than bargaining for their empathy. One could imagine that Shereshevsky was not describing the influence of S.M. Eisenstein’s acoustic voice in this paragraph but that of Severian’s literary voice:

You know there are people who seem to have many voices, whose voices seem to be an entire composition, a bouquet. The late S.M. Eisenstein had just such a voice: listening to him, it was as though a flame with fibers protruding from it was advancing right toward me. I got so interested in his voice, I couldn’t follow what he was saying. (Luria 24)

The Urth we see is thus an eclecticist world somewhat like the House Azure, “in which the accumulation and interconnection of what were originally separate buildings produce a confusion of jutting wings and architectural styles, with peaks and turrets where the first builders had intended nothing more than rooftops,” (Shadow 62; ch. 9) except that Severian’s uncomprehending, defamiliarizing lens (aided by the translation) fuses the heterodox assemblage of numerous religious mythologies, weapons and ships from various cultures and times of Urth’s past, animals from at least nine geological epochs, and authors of various genres into a fairly homogeneous whole. Put differently, it sounds like a color blind person describing in great detail a most artful Ishihara Color Test to the reader, all the while completely missing the number depicted in the center. If the readers could look at the image directly, they would see it clearly—although different readers might see a small set of different numbers.

There are also several instances (e.g., Claw 261; ch. 8) in The Book of the New Sun where Severian gets lost in his memories forgetting the reality around him just as the young Shereshevsky mixed up the real getting up and getting to school with his imagined (third-person) version of it (Luria 151).18

Unusual stability is also common to Severian and Shereshevsky.19 The latter’s synesthetic associations remain very stable throughout his life and enable him to recall memories from decades past (Luria 12), even into his early childhood (Luria 76). Similarly, Severian’s character seems to undergo curiously little development while his position in society and his political stance change radically and repeatedly. What there is in terms of development can often be explained by him gaining knowledge and applying it in a very immediate fashion. The instances where Severian comments on his earliest memories, however, are few and fragmentary, and due to this sparsity it is not clear whether Shereshevsky’s were similar. In the first book Severian claims “From my earliest memory I remember all. That first recollection is of piling pebbles in the Old Yard” (Shadow 16; ch. 2). In the second, however, he manages to penetrate further into his past; the neonatal blur in the paragraph is very reminiscent of Shereshevsky protocols of his earliest memories:

I sought to recall that celebration of Holy Katharine’s day that fell the year after I became captain of apprentices; but the preparations for the feast were hardly begun before other memories came crowding unbidden around it. In our kitchen I lifted a cup of stolen wine to my lips—and found it had become a breast running with warm milk. It was my mother’s breast then, and I could hardly contain my elation (which might have wiped the memory away) at having reached back at last to her, after so many fruitless attempts. My arms sought to clasp her, and I would, if only I could, have lifted my eyes to look into her face. My mother certainly, for the children the torturers take know no breasts. The grayness at the edge of my field of vision, then, was the metal of her cell wall. Soon she would be led away to scream in the Apparatus or gasp in Allowin’s Necklace. I sought to hold her back, to mark the moment so I might return to it when I chose; she faded even as I tried to bind her to me, dissolving as mist does when the wind rises. (Claw 384; ch. 27)

While serendipitous here, this paragraph also shows the difficulties Severian and Shereshevsky encounter in trying to concentrate on one train of thought and not being swept away by circumstantial associations. Luria (155) writes:

There were many instances too in which images that came to the surface in S.’s mind steered him away from the subject of a conversation. At such moments his remarks would be cluttered with details and irrelevancies; he would become verbose, digress endlessly, and finally have to strain to get back to the subject of the conversation.

Wright (110) gives a lengthy example from Sword (148; ch. 27) where a red cape triggers a chain of association so tenuous and arbitrary as to appear non sequiturs, but which Severian presents as an argument for various fantastic empyrean machinations behind the piece of cloth. Of these fantastic ruminations there are several throughout the Urth Cycle.

Both mnemonists also show a surprising aptitude for seemingly unrelated cognitive tasks. Severian solves several criminal mysteries through surprising feats of ratiocination (e.g., Gunnie’s and Purn’s involvement in the killing of his steward in Urth) and Shereshevsky is able to recognize minute inconsistencies in stories and perform impressive calculations through idiosyncratic processes of visualization (Luria 102).

Apart from these many striking parallels, there are also a number of differences. With Shereshevsky, for example, the basis for his exceptional memory is in his five-fold synesthesia; no synesthesia is discernible in Severian’s case. Shereshevsky’s memory is perfectly static even over decades; Severian’s memory shows curious alterations.

Before one can assemble these into a coherent whole, more parallels between the two S.s have to be explored.

The Marionette

The first sentence of the first chapter of the first book reads “It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future”; the last sentence of the same chapter reads “It was in this fashion that I began the long journey by which I have backed into the throne.” Together they summarize well Severian’s expectations, hindsight bias, and passivity.

One of Shereshevsky’s protocols from 1937 could be that of a Severian lost in our time and forgotten by the hierogrammates.

I read a great deal and always identified myself with one of the heroes. For I saw them, you know. Even at eighteen I couldn’t understand how one friend of mine was content to train to become an accountant, another a commercial traveler. For what’s important in life isn’t a profession but something fine, something grand that is to happen to me… If at eighteen or twenty I’d thought I was ready to marry and a countess or princess had agreed to marry me—even that wouldn’t have impressed me. Perhaps I was destined for something greater? … Whatever I did, whether writing articles, becoming a film star—it was just a temporary thing.

At one point I studied the stock market, and when I showed that I had a good memory for prices on the exchange, I became a broker. But it was just something I did for a while to make a living. As for real life—that’s something else again. But it all took place in dreams, not in reality…

I was passive for the most part, didn’t understand that time was moving on. All the jobs I had were simply work I was doing “in the meantime.” The feeling I had was: “I’m only twenty-five, only thirty—I’ve got my whole life ahead of me.” In 1917 I was content to go off to the provinces. I decided to get in with the movement. So I was in the Proletcult, ran a printing shop, became a reporter, lived a special sort of life for a time. But even now I realize time’s passing and that I might have accomplished a great deal—but I don’t work. That’s the way I’ve always been. (Luria 157–158)

Had Shereshevsky become the monarch of South America and later the Jesus-like cynosure of that continent’s predominant religion, these feelings would, in retrospect, have seemed presentient.

Having always, on some less rational level at least,20 expected his ascent, Severian goes along with it docilely and unquestioningly—and that is the essence of what he does, too. There are few major decisions by Severian that are not forced by circumstances or dictated by authorities, and even these decisions, like allowing Thecla to die, serve to mark the passing of the authoritative leash on Severian from one authority to another (in this case from the masters of his guild to Vodalus). When the decrees (or maybe “rescripts” (Urth 138; ch. 19)) of the authorities diverge, Severian seems to simply follow the one he perceives as greater rather than to decide for himself.

His upbringing has of course reinforced this docile nature, for the torturers “carry out the sentences that are delivered to [them], doing no more than [they] are told, and no less, and making no changes” (Shadow 81; ch. 12).

Furthermore, he places great importance on symbols, which may either render him susceptible to magical or mythical thought that relies on symbols and to those who employ symbols as means of control, or which may be a result or symptom of a pre-existing disposition to magical thought. Maybe it is a mutually reinforcing cycle.

Certain mysteries 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.21 (Shadow 11; ch. 1)

It is certainly true that there are many specific “things weaker than our words for them,” but that does not mean that all things are an undifferentiated hodgepodge; Severian is probably underestimating “things” here. Such constructivism has been criticized on various grounds, crucially that of its self-refutation and related problems (boghossian2006fear e.g., 66).22

However if a coin or a gem can alter one’s loyalties and attitudes so dramatically, it is probably a reassuring illusion to believe that nature is inherently so malleable or ambiguous so that it is not just one’s conception of it that is being manipulated. He comments on these tokens, or Vodalus’s coin in particular, a few pages later:

We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges. (Shadow 14; ch. 1)

More concretely again, he later recites a verse that his older friend Roche told him would keep hidden items from being discovered by others. Severian uses it to protect the coin he had received from Vodalus and observes that he “was somewhat astonished to discover that [he] was now old enough not to be ashamed of it” (Shadow 25; ch. 3). His concern here is with having overcome his adolescent fear of appearing childish, which veils the age-independent superstition in trying to use such a charm. He does, however, dismiss more inconvenient aspects of the spell, showing a certain divide between what he feels and what he knows. Then again, he shows less reflection when commenting on the “sensation of being watched” (Shadow 33; ch. 4). The chapters are riddled with similar episodes.

Another section highlights his internal conflict between the rational appraisal and the distractive magical intuitions. In the Garden of Endless Sleep, he considers a hyacinth23 while the others who are with him think, guessing from his circumstances and countenance, that he is considering his own death.

Is it possible the flower came into being only because Dorcas reached for it? In daylight moments, I know as well as the next that such things are impossible; but I am writing by night, …. (Shadow 147; ch. 24)

This propensity is not unknown to Shereshevsky:

One time when I was planning to go to Samara, Misha [his son] developed stomach pains. We called in a doctor, but he couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him …. Yet it was so simple. I had given him something that was cooked with lard. I could see the pieces of lard in his stomach …. I thought to myself I’d help him. I wanted him to digest them …. I pictured it in my mind and saw the lard dissolving in his stomach. And Misha got better. Of course, I know this isn’t the way it happened … yet I did see it all. (Luria 144)

Luria summarizes this aspect as follows:

With each individual there is a dividing line between imagination and reality; for most of us whose imaginations have distinct limits, this is fairly clear-cut. In S.’s case the borderline between the two had broken down, for the images his imagination conjured up took on the feel of reality. (Luria 144)

The difference is that Shereshevsky was not, according to Luria’s account, exposed to any manipulation that he would have to disguise from himself. Severian is, and Wright points particularly to the Claw’s psilocybin-like psychedelic influence described at the very end of the third volume:

Seeing it thus without its case of sapphire, I felt profoundly an effect I had never noticed at all during the days before it had been taken from me in the hetman’s house. Whenever I looked at it, it seemed to erase thought. Not as wine and certain drugs do, by rendering the mind unfit for it, but by replacing it with a higher state for which I know no name. Again and again I felt myself enter this state, rising always higher until I feared I should never return to the mode of consciousness I call normality; and again and again I tore myself from it. Each time I emerged, I felt I had gained some inexpressible insight into immense realities.

At last, after a long series of these bold advances and fearful retreats, I came to understand that I should never reach any real knowledge of the tiny thing I held, and with that thought (for it was a thought) came a third state, one of happy obedience to I knew not what, an obedience without reflection because there was no longer anything to reflect upon, and without the least tincture of rebellion. (Sword 200; ch. 38)

If you are tasked with destroying most life on Urth so that it can re-emerge to evolve into something better (by the standards of the hierogrammates), then “obedience without reflection” is surely inevitable lest the magnitude of the risks and uncertainties become apparent. The claw lends Severian the comfort of the illusion that he is integral in something overwhelmingly grand and good, and as the old autarch told him, “You came for pleasure, did you not? If a dream adds to your enjoyment, why dispute it?”24

Another way to dismiss the global near-omnicide and all considerations of necessity, proportionality, and effectuality is to dismiss consequentialism in favor of some brand of moral philosophy that concerns itself with intentions only—which of course are good so long as obedience to a perceived god is considered incontrovertibly good: “Until we reach the end of time, we don’t know whether something’s been good or bad; we can only judge the intentions of those who acted.” (Urth 237; ch. 33)


Given that in the Urth Cycle “everything … has three meanings” (Shadow 190; ch. 32) and seeing the ambiguity that facilitates such versatility, great caution is necessary when forming sweeping theories of the text. In its vast repository of facts it is too easy to let ideology blind oneself to gaps and contradictions. As a preemptive countermeasure, this section will try to introduce its hypotheses with all their qualities and shortcomings in so far as they were apparent to the author.

These hypotheses will concern the parallels and differences between Shereshevsky and Severian. Though the true relationships of cause and reaction may be more convoluted, it appears that for Shereshevsky his synesthesia was integral to his mnemonic abilities, which in turn caused his cognitive limitations due to the noise he had to consciously sift through in order to recognize any patterns. So how can Severian perform such similar feats and be subject to such similar limitations with no noticeable synesthesia? And how come that some of his memories change when Shereshevsky was so notable for his prefect recall even after decades?

The Man Your Mother Bore

Urth gave away many a secret that people like Kincaid would have liked to figure out or had figured out themselves. One of them is Severian’s nature as aquastor. In a particularly revealing conversation with the hierodules25 Barbatus, Famulimus, and Ossipago, this is made explicit.

“But if Apu-Punchau is myself, what was the body I found on Tzadkiel’s ship?”

Nearly whispering, Famulimus sang, “The man whom you saw dead your mother bore. Or so it seems to me from what’s been said. Now I would weep for her if I had tears, though not—perhaps—for you still living here. What we did here for you, Severian, the mighty Tzadkiel accomplished there, remembrance taking from your dead mind to build your mind and you anew.” (Urth 359; ch. 50)

She is of course wrong in the sense that Severian had died and was rebuilt in much the same fashion several times26 before that incident, but had they been talking about Severian’s death by drowning in Gyoll that starts the narrative, then she might have been right.

Much earlier, the aquastor of Master Malrubius, created from Severian’s childhood memories of him, explains his nature thus: “Once you met a woman named Cyriaca, who told you tales of the great thinking machines of the past. There is such a machine on the ship in which we sailed. … But we are maintained in the physical world by the energies of the machine, and its range is but a few thousand years.”

This immediately suggests that Severian, as aquastor, may be able to draw upon the storage capacities of a computer, maybe the ship computer of the Matachin Tower, in order to augment his memory, and the interaction of these memories with his biological body may introduce occasional inaccuracies.

Furthermore if Severian was created as aquastor not just after his first death but from his birth, created according to the designs of the hierogrammates or their subordinates, then he could have been born without the help of a father, though some gruesome scenes in Baldanders’s castle suggest that a female host was necessary to create Dr. Talos (Sword 176; ch. 33). This would also underline the Christian mythological imagery with Severian being born to a virgin thanks to advanced alien technology.

An alternative would be that he only became an aquastor a few years later in his life, an event that would, in retrospect, be marked by his first memory (“That first recollection is of piling pebbles in the Old Yard” (Shadow 16; ch. 2)).

The text does not seem to provide much evidence for the theory of Severian’s ontogenesis by design to the degree Dr. Talos was designed; Ouen is rather assuredly Severian’s biological father; and furthermore Severian’s mother Catherine may have taken the vows of abstinence of the Pelerines, thus giving her a motive to lie about Ouen’s fatherhood and outfitting the appropriately subverted allegory in any case.

However, the second theory does hold some appeal as the Old Yard, either by name or by implication, is repeatedly invoked in dying visions or dreams of Severian like an echo of an early, unremembered trauma.27 Furthermore, it is where Severian is shot and probably killed once again in ancient times resulting in the breach of the curtain wall (Urth 255; ch. 36). Finally, the Old Yard has been the site of executions and probably excruciations,28 and is located close to the Bell Tower with its Bell Keep the apprentices are forbidden to enter for unknown reasons, so it may be a rather hazardous place.

But the evidence for a first death when Severian was barely old enough to stack pebbles is thin and as a means of explaining his extraordinary memory fails to account for one important phrase in the cycle.

Our Own Shadows Race Into the Past

“I don’t forget much,” (Citadel 402; ch. 37) is how Ouen explains that he has learned reading and writing without formal education. Ouen being Severian’s biological father, this suggests that Severian has something akin to an inherited predisposition for great memory.

But that does not yet explain the memory itself. Absent any solid cause and grounding of his gift, such as highly developed synesthesia or the hard drives of a ship computer, it seems necessary to assume that Severian’s memory is no better than average.

In the same conversation with the familiar trio of hierodules, Severian learns that his ability to time-travel—or to walk the Corridors of Time—is dependent on the energy of the star he identifies with and that he cannot draw on it in the day of Apu-Punchau (until after the death of that version of him) because the light of the star had not yet reached Urth. It should be noted that—with the exception of his decade-long sojourn as Apu-Punchau among the autochthons of the stone town—he can draw on this source of energy throughout his whole life.

There are also many indications that his awareness of this energy source maybe aids his conscious control over it but that it can work quite independent of this awareness. In a different context Severian explains:

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.29 (Shadow 14; ch. 1)

Examples are the countless cases where he resurrects beings—starting with Triskele before he receives the Claw—but continually misattributes the causes.

Dorcas, also attributing the phenomena to the Claw, gives a parsimonious explanation of the workings behind the events even though she does not even consciously know that Severian would attain the ability to time-travel:

“Severian, when you brought the uhlan back to life it was because the Claw twisted time for him to the point at which he still lived. When you half healed your friend’s wounds, it was because it bent the moment to one when they would be nearly healed. And when you fell into the fen in the Garden of Endless Sleep, it must have touched me or nearly touched me, and for me it became the time in which I had lived, so that I lived again. …” (Sword 60; ch. 11)

Severian later lends extra emphasis to this statement by recounting himself retelling the episode verbatim to Miles (Citadel 217; ch. 3).

With Severian’s unusual ability to resurrect reduced to a manipulation of time, it becomes even more parsimonious to explain his unusual memory in the same terms. Not physically transferring himself into the other time but just bending time for his consciousness now to meet his consciousness then might require much less skill, focus, and energy,30 so that he could master it at a much younger age and still several resurrections away from the Severian who would go on to become the Conciliator.

The inaccuracies of his memory may then be grouped into three categories in order to explain them in terms of this system. First, it is possible that from a certain present different pasts whose differences have proved inconsequential for the present are are blurred to a degree and thus hard to distinguish for the time traveler. Hence Severian’s different versions of the pistol hand-off in the Necropolis, where, in both cases, the pistol soon ended up in Thea’s hands. Second, Severian may be loath to enter into the trance-like state that his casting back into the past entails for his present body, especially when he had just done so and still thinks that he remembers (with his ordinary episodic memory) what he saw in his transtemporally enhanced remembrance, so that he misremembers facts just as anyone would, for example, who spotted the pikes first. Third, his ordinary semantic recall may be subject to production errors. A moment’s reflection would have convinced him that there is no way Dorcas would have used human skin for his little sack, but since the sheath of Terminus Est was fashioned from something called “sable manskin” (Shadow 90; ch. 14) and both were items very dear to him that he carried with him across the Commonwealth, he might have momentarily mixed them up.

The fluidity of the dividing line between this travel in his imagination and actual time travel is exemplified when he dreams on the shores of Ushas, is told in his dream that he no longer dreamed, and soon emerges, wholly physical, as Apu-Punchau in spe. When he returns to the approximate time of his departure, he learns that a wraith-like aspect of his had the whole time remained where he had slept, one that the priest of this new religion of Ushas professed to be able to sense.

According to this theory, Ouen’s good memory may be not so much the genetic precursor and foundation for Severian’s gift but a latent ability of his to access the energies of the new sun due to his close relation to Severian. A gift handed back in time. Such notions are not foreign to the text, where Dr. Talos observes that “just as the momentous events of the past cast their shadows down the ages, so now, when the sun is drawing toward the dark, our own shadows race into the past to trouble mankind’s dreams.”31 (Sword 186; ch. 35)

Symmetrically, the same counterchronological influence may be the reason for Valeria’s association with the Atrium of Time. Borski (1–9) presents a convincing argument that two of the women Severian has a relationship with, Dorcas and Valeria, are both his grandmothers. This is clear in the case of Dorcas, but there is also ample evidence (detailed in Solar Labyrinth) that Severian’s mother Catherine is the daughter of Valeria and her second husband Dux Caesidius, and that it is her who is sent back in time on the final day of Urth.

Further evidence of this theory is that the period Severian lives as Apu-Punchau—the only one, as noted earlier, when he cannot draw on the energy of the new sun—is kept very short despite its many years in story time and contains no direct speech until right before the end when he can escape to the future again. Severian has not scrupled to render the language of the Ascians in his own in his account, so the foreign language they speak is not likely to be the reason for the stylistic break, and the content of the two chapters is close to what someone with ordinary memory would be able to remember of the events.

Conversely, there are several unexplained visions of the past embedded in the cycle, which Andre-Driussi (93) has compiled under the headword “Corridors of Time,” thereby implying the same conflation of memory and time travel that may be at the basis of Severian’s mnemonic ability. At least two of these visions take place before he has obtained the Claw and one of them clearly reaches back much further than his own lifetime.

What further corroborates the theory is that it repeats the pattern of annular fusion, the circular or mutual recursion that is found all throughout the Urth Cycle, be it in the schemes of the hierogrammates who want to ensure their own creation by ensuring the genesis of the humans of Ushas who will evolve into the hieros who created the hierogrammates, or be it in Canog’s Book of the New Sun, which serves as blueprint for Dr. Talos’s play Eschatology and Genesis, which Severian uses to guide his account of the future that Canog protocols and eventually turns into the first book. Severian’s mnemonic ability is the reason he is enlisted by the hierogrammates and his mission eventually is the counterchronological cause of the same ability.32

Father Inire may have the same gift as Severian. Borski (43–70) makes a good case for Inire reappearing throughout the cycle as a father figure in various guises. He is usually distinguished by this stature, size, abilities, manner of walking, manner of social interaction, and significantly his impressive eyes, either directly or in that he tries to hide them.

The ostensible hierodule and machine Ossipago is likely to be one of these guises. He is the one who enables the other two hierodules of the trio to step through time (Urth 360; ch. 50), and reduplicating himself throughout time is probably also the way Inire manages to stay “alive so long beyond the span of his short-lived kind.”33 (Citadel 405; ch. 38) So when Famulimus says that “Only Ossipago here has memory like yours” (Urth 405; ch. 38), she may have meant memory that has transtemporal access to all brain states all throughout the persons lifetime.34

For That Were You Chosen

Some previous sections have already pointed toward the enhanced manipulability through myths and symbols and scintillating gadgets that may be a concomitant of a memory that does not filter any noise, but the hierodules Barbatus, Famulimus, and Ossipago imply that Severian’s memory capacity itself may have been an even more immediate and forcible reason,35 but not necessarily because of any record he would write, though lethe36 suggests that interpretation.

Barbatus’s pleasant baritone flouted the gloom. “You’re conscious. What do you remember?”

“Everything,” I said. “I’ve always remembered everything.” Dissolution was in the air, the fetor of [Severian’s own former body’s] rotting flesh.

Famulimus sang, “For that were you chosen, Severian. You and you alone from many princes. You alone to save your race from lethe.” (Urth 353; ch. 50)

This description, as well as previous, identical descriptions of the nature of aquastors, suggests that the accurate recreation of a person is aided by good memory. Anticipating37 that their marionette would die repeatedly on his journeys, the hierogrammates hence selected someone they could recreate almost losslessly from his own memories.

That is, if the hierogrammates are even the directors of the play. Father Inire, genius architect and adviser to all autarchs over maybe 1,000 years, is a formidable contender for the role, but as hierodule, he may be just the subcontracted architect of the hierogrammates. Finally, Sergei Novikov may also be behind it all, seeing how the future may dictate, through the self-consistency principle, all the less likely events of the past that caused it. But such speculations would go beyond the scope of this paper.


First, the reader of The Book of the New Sun gets to experience the overwhelming deluge of data and associations that cause mnemonists like Shereshevsky and Severian to perceive much less clearly patterns that would be obvious to most people, a condition that also seems to entail passivity and, with Severian, docility, the latter of which is reinforced by his upbringing. These processes are detailed by reference to the research of Luria.

Second, and more fundamentally, there is the search for the basis of Severian’s condition. Cause and effect cannot be assumed to be clear-cut in a medium as interconnected (or curiously disconnected) as our brain, but to the reader of Shereshevsky’s case history it would seem like his synesthesia is the foundation for his mnemonic feats, while the latter are the cause of some of his peculiar character traits. The absence of any such synesthesia in Severian forms a conspicuous lacuna—a clear sign that it is up to the reader to interpolate.

One argument that reconciles these similar symptoms with their dissimilar causes draws on Severian’s latent ability to navigate time, which is only fully revealed in the coda of the cycle. Various fragments of evidence can be marshaled from the text to substantiate this hypothesis.


  1. Somehow it is rarely called a sequel, maybe to express its finality or because of coda’s more lupine etymology. 

  2. Assuming G.W. is an intradiegetic version of Gene Wolfe. 

  3. It could be argued that just as Severian writes his autobiography, so the hierogrammates have written the story of his life, all of which, in turn, is the work of Gene Wolfe. 

  4. For a much more expansive summary, see the first appendix to Lexicon Urthus (389). That summary, however, is focalized on Severian at the respective times. 

  5. A “hidden house … everywhere coextensive with the public one” (Claw 333; ch. 20) and surely an allusion to the Urth Cycle itself. The secret house is a product of the architectural genius of the vizier to all autarchs for the past millennium, Father Inire. 

  6. According to the Kabbalah, Yesod is a sefiroth of Yetzirah, a lower created world than Briah, but maybe it is lower along one dimension and higher along another. Jordan 

  7. There are indications that time in Yesod runs counter to time in Briah, so that the hierogrammates may not so much be trying to ensure their procreation in the next Briahtic manvantara but their own birth. 

  8. Which has led reviewers to miss the fact that the narrator of Peace is dead although it is said outright on page 17. Hall 

  9. Wood (5) makes a distinction between reliably unreliable and unreliably unreliable narration. The Urth Cycle may well fall into the latter category for there are many themes, such as roses or gold, that indicate important relationships in the text that Severian has probably remained unaware of. In some cases, these same themes are then used to seemingly lead the critics astray throughout most of the text and mock them subtly in the last volume. 

  10. The same evidence that Wright enlists to show how closely all of Severian’s life has been stage-managed by the hierogrammates, centrally many episodes where parts of the story are staged in real or dreamed theater plays, could also be read to indicate that Severian’s career itself was very literally a play to entertain the hierogrammates without all the existential significance that Apheta imbues it with. Yesod certainly feels like a stage with its house specifically constructed for Severian’s trial and its trapdoors that lead to backstage areas with giant fly lofts and backstage exits from the planet (Urth 164–169; ch. 23). Apheta reveals in the same chapter that visiting the surface of the planet is a rare reward for them who labor inside the planet. Gunnie then references Dante’s Inferno just as they are about to exit it again, maybe a hunch she has about the pleasure-seeking disregard the hierogrammates might have for the lives of their actors. Such an interpretation would also turn much subtextual “writerliness”—such as etymology and history linking the names of characters or themes of roses and gold linking families—from an extradiegetic influence by Wolfe into an intradiegetic influence of the hierogrammates. 

  11. Flaying of the leg is described as inducing a “slow, generalized welling of blood” (Shadow 23; ch. 3), but any form of torture would require a judicial decree, and in the ostensible story at least, the guild tries to cover up their internal issue so not to lose the trust of the Autarch’s courts. Then Severian’s wound might be self-inflicted. 

  12. The curious order of the words in the title may indicate the perspective of the hierogrammates and hierodules for whom time runs in the opposite direction, or Death actually refers to Severian’s first homicide in the chapter, rendering him in effect Death for the first time, a name and role he would subsequently assume with frequency and varying degrees of willingness. There is another related, collocationally surprising but apposite inversion in the title of the play that would serve as blueprint for Canog’s Book of the New Sun, Eschatology and Genesis

  13. It is never called eidetic but maybe just because the term might have been anachronistic for Severian. It was coined by Erich Jaensch in the 1920s. (OEtyDEidetic

  14. Compare, for example, Vargha-Khadem, Isaacs, and Mishkin

  15. Wright (108) notes that “as Wolfe took ‘beginning and advanced courses in Abnormal Psychology’ at Miami University in Ohio in the late 1960s, and an introductory course at the University of Houston, it is probable that he was familiar with the clinical studies of the psychology of mnemonists when he began writing The Book of the New Sun.” 

  16. An ineffectual pseudonymization not only because Shereshevsky was a well-known mnemonist but also because both his first names are mentioned in the text (Luria 50). 

  17. He is yet unaware of having died and having been recreated as aquastor. 

  18. The parallels between the mechanisms behind Shereshevsky’s alter ego—who does onerous things Shereshevsky himself is loath to do (Luria 153) or behaves in socially awkward manners so Shereshevsky gets spared the embarrassment (Luria 156)—and Severian’s alzabo-induced legion of them seem merely nominal. 

  19. It should be fair to call Severian’s memory unusually stable despite its slight mutability. 

  20. Maybe it can be imagined as a feeling akin to Romain Rolland and Sigmund Freud’s so-called oceanic feeling, only with the additional feature that it puts the subject in some key position. Such a similarity would also provide a basis to explain the Romantic themes that Severian perceives. 

  21. Another example may be the way Severian often conflates ocean-going and space-going ships while to us they are starkly different. 

  22. Severian’s musings are also reminiscent of the debate over whether language determines thought or vice versa, which, on account of the intertwined, often inseparable nature of the two concepts, probably has to be answered differently. 

  23. However, this thought sequence may have several more meanings. In “The fiacre drew up to her with the skittish animals dancing to one side as though she were a thyacine” (Shadow 112; ch. 18), Severian indirectly and counterfactually likens Agia to a thyacine. He, however, stands close behind her in the scene, so it is possible that they shied away from him as much as from her. This interpretation is corroborated by the fact that thyacine is a misspelling of thylacine, “the native Tasmanian ‘wolf’ or ‘zebra-wolf’” (Andre-Driussi 348), and, obvious extradiegetic associations aside, the wolf is typically associated with Severian (Andre-Driussi 17). Hence the thought sequence about the hyacinth may mirror Severian’s possible drowning or near-drowning in the lake, since Dorcas saved him by plugging him from the water (and from the other hand that tried to pull him down) just as she plugged the hyacinth moments later. In an inversion of it, it must have seemed to amnesiac Dorcas as if she came into existence to save Severian, when really the saving had been mutual. When Dorcas finally insists that he had been thinking about dying, Severian does not again contradict her. Furthermore, thanks to the misspelling (the only appearance of the animal in the books), the word shares a sequence of six characters with hyacinth, a common type of hint in the cycle, which, in this case, may have the additional function of intimating Agia’s family bonds with Severian (Borski 10–17). It should also be noted that Hyacinth is the name of the wife of the protagonist of Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun, who (the protagonist) is subtly linked to Severian. 

  24. The quotation is of course taken out of context, but then again an earlier section has already drawn attention to the similarity between the House Azure and the reality of Urth as we might see were it not for Severian’s consciousness and the translation filtering our perception. Then the quotation might not be out of context after all and might even be directed not only at Severian but at the reader, reminding the reader to consider dismissing the very thought they have at that instant. 

  25. Though Ossipago may be a machine or Father Inire in disguise. 

  26. Assuredly once but likely more often. 

  27. “I knew he was looking for me in the Old Yard below.” (Shadow 12; ch. 2) “The deepest bell in the Bell Tower was ringing.” (Urth 65; ch. 9

  28. “By ancient custom, we must not use the steps (although I have seen Master Gurloes assist his vault to the scaffold with his sword, in the court before the Bell Tower).” (Claw 234; ch. 4) “It’s no more than it seems, just a stake to immobilize the hands, and a thirteen-thonged scourge for correction. It used to stand in the Old Yard, but the witches complained, and the castellan made us move it down here.” (Shadow 81; ch. 12

  29. While his conclusion is surely correct in most cases, the argument is invalid, since the proposition that things can have an effect without our knowledge of them does not imply that our knowledge of them is necessarily without effect, but this is unrelated to the argument of this section. 

  30. Barbatus suggests that the amount of energy at one’s disposal is crucial for determining the number of people one can ferry through time. (Urth 361; ch. 50

  31. “Dreams,” here, can be taken quite literally since the fight in the ensuing chapters had been foreshadowed in one of Severian’s dreams in the first volume. 

  32. Or at least why he ended up as the successful candidate if Baldanders was a previous one but was found to be too egotistical and ambitious for the job. 

  33. Hierodules typically “live only a score of years, like dogs.” (Sword 178; ch. 33

  34. If instead Ossipago is really only a machine rather than a machine with Father Inire inside, then this statement would seem to corroborate the theory that Severian’s memory is owed to cloud-sourced storage augmentations. 

  35. And at least in dismissing Severian’s faith in the Claw, they have been remarkably (surprisingly) honest with him (Sword 184; ch. 34). 

  36. “The river of oblivion, one of the streams of Hades, the waters of which possessed the quality of causing those who drank of them to forget their former existence.” The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia 

  37. Trivial for beings who can contravene time or whose “clocks run widdershins round both … suns” (Urth 360; ch. 50) by design. 

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