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January, 2004 : Criticism:

Swimming With Undines

Sex and Metamorphosis in Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun

By far the largest narrative gap in Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun occurs between the end of Shadow of the Torturer and the beginning of Claw of the Conciliator (Vol. 1 and 2 respectively). It's in the former that Severian is preparing to leave Nessus, the city of his youth, having been exiled from the Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence for allowing his lover, the imprisoned exultant Thecla, to take her own life rather than be tortured further. Traveling in the company of Dr. Talos' little theatrical troupe—besides playwright Talos, there is the giant Baldanders, Severian's resurrected grandmother Dorcas, and the former cafe waitress now known as Jolenta—and an even-more-newly-met man on a merychip, the cyborg Jonas—Severian has been caught up in the mill of traffic which is surging toward the Piteous Gate, one of four portals through the leagues-high "Wall" which surrounds Nessus. Talk turns anon to the exotic creatures seen behind windows in the giant edifice, whereupon Jonas begins a fairy-tale-like-story about the origin of the Wall. But before he can finish, a sudden commotion breaks out. As Severian notes, "My attention was distracted by the sight of daylight ahead of us, and by the disturbance among the vehicles that clogged the road as many sought to turn back, flailing their teams and trying to clear a path with their whips." Dorcas screams, "Why are they so frightened?" Then is struck by the whip of a fleeing wagoner, whom Severian pulls down. "By that time," Severian tells us, "all the gate was ringing with bawling and swearing, and the cries of the injured, and the bellowing of frightened animals." The wagoner is trampled underfoot by the fleeing crowd before Severian can suitably punish him for lashing Dorcas, and so ends Shadow in chaos and confusion, with very little hint as to what has caused such widespread havoc.

But when Severian picks up the narrative again in Claw, he is in the bucolic village of Saltus, and just waking from a dream. Granted, there are references to the Piteous Gate incident in his dream—lance-bearing soldiers turn aside the tide of fleeing travelers, and Severian loses Dorcas in the pell-mell—but Wolfe via his character provides no explanation for what's happened, either in terms of catalysis or denouement. This reader was so intrigued by the cliffhanger ending of Shadow that he could barely wait for Claw to be published—only to have the matter obliquely addressed and then dismissed in a mere half-a-dozen sentences. Fans of Gene Wolfe's fiction must learn to expect buried clues to mysterious events, and often widely scattered ones at that; for all I knew the events behind the mysterious gap would be explained in the third or fourth volumes of the narrative, and indeed, this does turn out to be the case.

Shall I now trace out for you the Piteous Gate incident and its secret collusions— Back to the early pages of Claw, then: as we're shortly to learn from Severian, he has not been totally separated from his erstwhile companions; Jonas is with him in Saltus. Apparently, torturer and cyborg have gone one way during the commotion, and everyone else another; or at least this seems implicit by a statement Severian makes later when he describes "a forest much like the one through which Jonas and I had passed after being separated from Dorcas, Dr. Talos and the rest at the Piteous Gate." No mention is made of either Jolenta or Baldanders, so it's assumed they must comprise the rest. But then, after Severian eventually rendezvous with his lost companions on the thiasus grounds of the House Absolute (this after escaping the antechamber and dispatching Jonas home via Father Inire's mirrors), another detail is revealed: Baldanders has not been with Dr. Talos and "the rest" when the separation occurred, he's accompanied Severian, but only temporarily. Here's how the crafty Wolfe conveys that particular piece of information via his narrator: "I took Baldanders to one side, an hour or so after we were all awake, and asked him why he had left me in the forest beyond the Piteous Gate." (Claw, 194) Baldanders, however, plays dumb, in essence telling Severian that he has no recollection of the event; in fact, the only thing he claims to remember about Severian is the one night at an inn when they shared a bed together (not carnally, of course--just as two people forced to sleep on the same pallet). Still, given what's happened at the gate, is there any chance at all that it's related to Baldanders' sudden disappearance after exiting Nessus with the fuligin-clad torturer? Where, in other words, does the giant go after leaving Severian? And why?

Severian, getting no answers, must content himself with rejoining the troupe, and later that night goes on stage with them as they perform Dr. Talos' play, Eschatology and Genesis. Only this time, when Baldanders in his role of the giant Nod appears to go berserk and attack the audience, he's fired upon by one of the beset. As Severian describes the action, "Several exultants had drawn their swords, and someone—I could not see who—possessed that rarest of all weapons, a dream. It moved like tyrian smoke, but very much faster, and in an instant it had enveloped the giant. It seemed then that he stood wrapped in all that was past and much that had never been: a gray-haired woman sprouted from his side, a fishing boat hovered just over his head, and a cold wind whipped the flames that wreathed him." (Claw, 239)

Later, of course, we find out that Famulimus and Barbatus have been in the audience and that therefore, "that rarest of all weapons"—a dream—has probably been fired by one of them. But what a curious name for a weapon, especially since we already have some context for a real dream of Baldanders: the one which actually inflicts Severian when the two are bedmates upon the first occasion of their meeting. Could there somehow be a correlation between that dream and the Hierodule weapon of the same name? Well, in the sleep-wrought dream, which may, it seems, have been engendered in or transmitted to the wrong target, Severian meets the oneiric equivalents of Juturna, the undine who's previously saved him from drowning during his apprentice days—these are the so-called Brides of Abaia, who take Severian to a submarine puppet show wherein he previews his own eventual battle with a mace-wielding Baldanders. Severian at this point is wakened by the entrance of Dr. Talos, and action resumes in the real world. But later, toward the end of Claw, Severian has the opportunity once again to tryst with a Bride of Abaia—only this time it's genuine. Juturna, having swum a local tributary, subsequently makes him an offer every bit as Biblically resonant as the one Typhon offers him from the mountain top:

"You will breathe—by our gift—as easily as you breathe the thin, weak wind here, and whenever you wish you shall return to the land and take up your crown. This river Cephissus flows to Gyoll, and Gyoll to the peaceful sea. There you may ride dolphin-back through current-swept fields of coral and pearl. My sisters and I will show you the forgotten cities built of old, where a hundred trapped generations of your kin bred and died when they had been forgotten by you above...All of this will be yours there, in the red and white parks where the lionfish school." (Claw, 262)

Severian, tempted (or more likely aroused by the undine's desirability), says, "Give me the power to breathe water, and let me test it on the other side of the sandbar. If I find you have told the truth, I will go with you." (262)

But the undine immediately nixes this notion, claiming, "It is not so easily done as that. You must come with me, trusting, though it is only a moment. Come." (263)

What, at this point, however, is Juturna's real intent? To murder Severian, the future New Sun? Or something else? Recall now the answer she earlier gave when Severian asked what she wants of him: "Only your love. Only your love." (261) Is it therefore possible that, for whatever reasons, she hopes to mate with him? (We will not dwell here on the other potential meaning of Come.)

Severian, of course, is swayed from further temptation by Dorcas' screaming. But what if this same offer has also been extended earlier to that other possible candidate for the New Sun, Baldanders? A re-examination of Wolfe's description of events after the Hierodules turn their weapon on the giant reveals this possibility. The "gray-haired woman sprouted from his side" might actually represent sexual congress between Baldanders and an undine, while the fishing boat that's seen hovering over his head seems to indicate he's submerged, implying that he, having accepted a similar deal as the one offered to Severian by Juturna, can now breathe under water—just as we later learn that Baldanders is actually able to do. Indeed, might this not be his payback for mating with one of Abaia's Brides? Moreover, could not such a tryst have taken place beneath the Gyoll after Baldanders abandons Severian following the Piteous Gate incident?

I believe that the answer to both questions is yes.

We know, after all, that undines have actually been spotted swimming within the confines of Nessus itself. Occurring very late in Citadel, this is the upshot of what Severian learns from the boat captain who is Maxellindis' uncle; Severian, at this juncture, has just returned to the Citadel as Autarch, and along with former companions, Drotte, Roche and Eata has rented a boat, intending to seek out Ouen, his once-met father. As the boat negotiates the Gyoll, however, Severian hears a strange tale from her captain. "There was things in the river up till first light," he begins. "There was mist, too, thick as cotton." (299) As a result of the poor visibility, when a large ship approaches, Max's uncle hears it first:

"You can't count how many sweeps there is with a good crew pullin', because they all go in and come up together, but when a big vessel goes fast you can hear water breakin' under her bow, and this was a big one. I got up on top of the deckhouse tryin' to see her, but there still wasn't any lights, though I knew she had to be close. Just when I was climbin' down I caught sight of her—a galleass, four-masted and four-banked, no lights, comin' right up the channel...Of course I only saw her for a minute before she was gone in the mist again, but I heard her a long while after." (300-301)

But this is hardly the only mysterious thing that has occurred on the Gyoll the previous evening. As the boat captain continues to tell us:

"There was things in this river I never saw before. Maxellindis, when she woke up and I told her about it, said it was the manatees. They're pale in moonlight and look human enough if you don't come too close. But I've seen 'em since I was a boy and have never been fooled once. And there was women's voices, not loud but big. And something else. I couldn't understand what any of 'em was sayin', but I could hear the tone of it. You know how it is when you're listenin' to people over the water? They would say so-and-so-and-so. Then the deeper voice—I can't call it a man's because I don't think it was one—the deeper voice'd say go-and-do-that-and-this-and-that. I heard the women's voices three times and the other voice twice. You won't believe it, optimates, but sometimes it sounded like the voices was coming up out of the river." (302)

This, of course, is because the voices are coming up out of the river. The female voices belong to the Brides of Abaia. The male voice is either Abaia's or perhaps Baldanders'; we do, after all, see the homuncular Dr. Talos pay Severian a visit on the same night as the river's strange occurrences. Moreover, the large vessel that Max's uncle has briefly glimpsed in the mist is almost certainly the Great Beast Abaia himself. (Compare the description we receive of this mysterious "ship" with that of the Monitor from The Tale of the Student and His Son: "His form is that of a naviscaput, which is to say that to men he appears a ship having upon its deck—which is in truth his shoulders—a single castle, which is his head, and in the castle a single eye." Claw, 146.) As for why Abaia and his minions have made the long hazardous journey from their undersea realm to Nessus, in all likelihood it's because of Severian's elevation to Autarch, which means he'll now be eligible to take the Hierodules' test; given, too, that this has probably already been anticipated, Abaia has earlier attempted to wage a final desperate assault with his Ascian legions (As Master Ash has earlier speculated to Severian, "For some reason your foes have need of an immediate victory and are straining every limb.") Having failed to overrun the Commonwealth, however, the Great Lord now needs either to kill Severian or parley some sort of political deal, and indeed, when Severian returns from his quest to find Ouen, he finds "urgent messages from Father Inire and from the House Absolute" waiting for him. (Unfortunately, we never learn the import of those messages, making perhaps for a second large lacuna.)

But also notice how Abaia and the undines have come calling—not by the bright light of day; rather by mist-shrouded night. This is almost certainly because they would have been sighted by the pandours of the Autarch—the very soldiers Severian has seen earlier behind the glass enclosures built into the Wall, and whose mission, according to Dr. Talos, is "to defend [the Wall] just as termites defend their ox-high earthen nests on the pampas of the north." (Shadow, 299) Surely, given their sentinel-like-and-first-response nature, the pandours would never allow the Great Lord and his mermaids to access Nessus by its Piteous Gate conduit. (Wolfe never tells us how proximal the Gyoll is to the Piteous Gate, but since entrance to and egress from the city are monitored, it makes much more sense to combine checkpoint facilities than to maintain separate ones for water and pedestrian traffic. Certainly, we know the river is close; Severian, after leaving Nessus, travels directly to Saltus, which is situated on the Gyoll, but only some ten leagues distant. Therefore, if not directly channeled through Piteous, it must flow into Nessus at a point nearby.) Now for some speculation, however: is it possible that on an earlier occasion Abaia has attempted to make the same journey up the Gyoll—say, for the ostensible purposes of meeting with Baldanders, the lone other legitimate candidate for the New Sun—only by day, where he's sighted by the Autarch's pandours, who, as they sally forth in defense of the Wall, frighten the living wits out of those waiting to exit by the Piteous Gate? This might well explain the sudden sense of panic and fright experienced by the crowd, compounded by the blue lancers' attempts to block the road on the other side. (It seems likely the lancers are deployed outside the gate to prevent those leaving Nessus from continuing by road once they are outside the city. Travel in such a manner has been banned since the Autarchy of Maruthas. The Cornet Mineas—who's first killed by a notule, then resurrected by Severian—is similarly clad and posted to a stretch of old road beside the Gyoll for seemingly the same purpose. This is not to suggest that the incident at the Piteous Gate has been started by the lancers; they have been merely caught up in its aftermath, attempting to keep the emerging exitus from accessing the forbidden road.)

Now consider the possible evidence from Shadow that seems to support this. As Severian, on his first night of exile, is told by the lochage on the bridge that overlooks the Water Way, "There's been some kind of trouble on the river, and they're telling each other too many ghost stories out there already." (134) This, of course, prefigures the later intimation of strange doings that we hear from Max's uncle. In addition, one day later, when Severian accidentally falls into the Lake of Birds, observe what happens when he attempts to retrieve Terminus Est—which he's dropped as he's attempted to right himself. Diving down, he locates and grasps his sword. But then, "At the same instant, my other hand touched an object of a completely different kind. It was another human hand, and its grasp (for it had seized my own the moment I touched it) coincided so perfectly with the recovery of Terminus Est that it seemed the hand's owner was returning my property to me, like the tall mistress of the Pelerines. I felt a surge of lunatic gratitude, then fear returned tenfold: the hand was pulling my own, drawing me down." (201)

Thus ends abruptly Chapter XXII; but notice how Chapter XXIII begins:

With what must surely have been the last strength I possessed, I managed to throw Terminus Est onto the floating track of sedge and grasp its ragged margin before I sank again.
Someone caught me by the wrist. I looked up expecting Agia; it was not she but a younger woman still, with streaming yellow hair. (202)

This, of course, is Dorcas—who was not present when Severian first fell in. Moreover, she's pulling him up, while the hand which seems to be returning TE to him has been pulling him down. This to me indicates the presence of two different personages—Dorcas above, and someone else below. Otherwise, we're required to believe that newly-resurrected Dorcas has at one point been pulling Severian down, but then after Severian breaks her hold and manages to rise to the surface, somehow outraces him to the top, climbs out of the water, and extracts the sodden torturer from the lake herself—all without Severian noting her passage. This is plainly impossible. I'd therefore like to suggest that the hand pulling him down belongs to Juturna or a similar undine; her returning the sword to him also parallels an Arthurian episode—the Lady of the Lake performing a similar deed, handing Excalibur to the Once and Future King. And just as Maxellindis attempts to explain her uncle's undine sightings as manatees, notice what Severian believes he sees in the very last sentence of Chapter XXIII: "For some time we rowed in silence; I saw geese...and once, like something in a dream, the nearly human face of a manatee looking into my own through a few spans of brownish water." (209) Again here, note the oneiric allusion—like something in a dream—and recall how Severian has intercepted the dream originally intended for Baldanders. (Baldanders claims he never dreams, which may be a result of his own self-tinkering, especially on his brain—this might also explain his apparent dim-wittedness and memory lapses at times. I also believe Abaia may have used stellar-level technology to beam the "dream" Severian receives by mistake, missing the giant by a meter or so.) And so it appears that at least one other time the Brides of Abaia have managed to swim into Nessus undetected—perhaps to do reconnaissance for their Megatherian husband-father; perhaps to attempt to lure Baldanders into some sort of amorous tryst. This may also account for the giant's eventual leaving of Severian after the Piteous Gate incident—where just as the dream weapon of the Hierodules seems to hint, Baldanders mates with an undine, and the direct result may be the giant blond-haired child Severian finds in Baldanders' castle at the end of Sword. Severian first opines the child to be Baldanders' catamite, but by the end of Urth seems to have accepted that the child is more likely the union of Baldanders and a Bride. This child—in embryonic form—may even be with Baldanders and Dr. Talos when they part company with Severian and Dorcas at the end of Claw. As Dr. Talos notes about the abandoning of most of his stage props, "Baldanders is the only one of us with the strength to carry our baggage, and though we have discarded much of it, there remain certain items we must keep." (245) Perhaps, nestled in among the hologram projectors and rolled up scrims, there's an egg, bassinet or vivarium with Baldanders Jr. inside (depending on how you view the reproductive physiology of undines).

However, the child may not, in fact, be Baldanders' at all. Look, after all, at how the child is described at length by author Wolfe. "He was a small child, though he stood nearly as tall as I, a naked boy so fat his distended paunch obscured his tiny generative organs. His arms were like pink pillows bound with cords of gold, and his ears had been pierced for golden hoops strung with tiny bells. His hair was golden too, and curled; beneath it he looked at me with the wide, blue eyes of an infant." Of signal importance here is the color of the child's hair—i.e., gold. As I've argued elsewhere, Wolfe very circumspectly uses this attribute only in conjunction with people related to Severian by blood. I'd therefore like to speculate that the giant child Severian finds in Baldanders' bedchamber is his.1 As for when the child was procreated, let's go back to the Botanic Garden scene where Severian is being pulled down deeper and deeper into the water by the mysterious hand. That he's gone a long time seems implicit in the fact that Dorcas is nowhere in sight where he first falls in. (Agia, of course, would be perfectly content if Severian drowned—then brother Agilus wouldn't have to face him in monomachy; once they subsequently hired a diver to salvage Terminus Est for them, they'd be set for life. This is why you don't see her attempting to haul Severian out of the water or screaming for help.) Also remember, as he's told later—although this is actually earlier for the imparter, given her reverse sense of time—Juturna wants only his love, in return for which she'll bestow upon him a certain gift. Is this why Severian doesn't drown when he's under the waters of the Lake of Birds so long—because he's mated/mating with Juturna? Possibly. But also consider what happens to Severian when much later, at the end of Urth, he attempts to commit suicide by jumping from Eata's boat. As Severian tells us, "Water closed over me, yet I did not drown. I felt I might breathe that water, yet I did not breathe." (331) This, except for a single word, repeats exactly two sentences from the dream Severian has on the night he sleeps next to Baldanders. "The water closed over me, yet I did not drown. I felt that I might breathe water, yet I did not breathe." (Shadow, 140) Fish, of course, do not breathe water, they derive their oxygen from the water via gills; hence Severian's asking Juturna for the ability to breathe water is likely the result of scientific naivety on his part. In other words, having done as the undine has wished—mated with her—Severian appears to have acquired the ability to respire underwater, whereupon he goes for an extended benthal tour of the world whose destruction he's wrought, adept as any merman.

Then again, as the soon-to-be piscine Sleeper god of new Ushas, he's perfectly at home—at least for a little while.


  1. This does not mean there's no issue born to an undine by Baldanders. The "pandours" in Trason's boat may represent such offspring, and I've often wondered if Idas, who later attempts to assassinate Severian aboard Tzadkiel's starship, might not be the giant's daughter. Severian's first guess is that she's ten years old, which would make her the right age. She also proudly admits to burning the letter from Malrubius proclaiming Severian to be the true Autarch of Urth—something which may have especially grated upon her father, since he too was once in the running for the New Sun candidacy. And lastly, Idas is a nested name—save for one letter, being derivable from Baldanders—a pattern Wolfe uses over and over in BotNS to confer relatedness.

Works Referenced

Wolfe, Gene. The Citadel of the Autarch. New York: Timescape Books, 1983.

———. The Claw of the Conciliator. New York: Timescape Books, 1981.

———. The Shadow of the Torturer. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

———. The Urth of the New Sun. New York: TOR, 1987.

Copyright © 2004, Robert Borski. All Rights Reserved.

About Robert Borski

Robert Borski, in addition to writing the entry for Gene Wolfe in the recent Supernatural Fiction Writers (Scribners, 2003), has penned a series of essays about Wolfe's novels for The New York Review of Science Fiction. While he finishes off his book-length examination of the author's New Sun cycle (which will include "Swimming with Undines"), he continues to maintain a website ( devoted exclusively to Wolfe's early enigmatic work, The Fifth Head of Cerberus.


Feb 21, 00:00 by John Frost
The forums weren't around for issue I.1, but there's it's never too late to talk about Gene Wolfe!

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