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‘A Psychopomp’
Impressions of Chapter 17 of Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer
Reading from pages 107-111 of Shadow & Claw
The Challenger
As Severian shops for acceptable clothing, bartering with the hideous-faced shop-keeper, whose familial features make him the brother ugly just as those same factors render his sister lovely, as the shopkeeper bargains relentlessly for his sword and cloak, marking the protagonist as a time-traveler in his own setting, belonging to a guild many thought extinct. During this process an officer of the imperial cavalry enters the shop and challenges Severian to a duel, by handing to him an odd seed. Severian is put aback enough by the prospect of dueling with swords, as he understands only the executioner’s blade, and then discovers that he is to duel with the deadly flower known as the avern or face persecution.
At this juncture it becomes obvious that Severian has been marked for punishment for is aiding the painless passing of a traitress, that he is somehow known by men of great power. In such a world as Nessus, bound to its myriad traditions, the disobedience of one can ripple like a stone of prophecy dropped into the well of collective souls and draw oligarchic wrath like a magnet draws iron.
At this point in his narrative, Severian the author, the supremely alienated Autarch, steps back out of the story, identifies himself to the reader directly and speaks of being Autarch and how the office is suffused with religious prophecy. This discussion devolves into that of free will:
“We say, “I will,” and “I will not,” and imagine ourselves (though we obey the orders of some prosaic person every day) our own masters, when the truth is that our masters are sleeping. One wakes within us and we are ridden like beasts, though the rider is but some hitherto unguessed part of ourselves.”
The concept of divinity and humanity existing in a trilogy is then completed as an obliquely exposed circuit for the readers as Severian, reflecting on his youthful journey, discusses how he always felt such a full when wearing a disguise.
The seed of the avern, the lethal flower of contest, equates to that within the person which may be accessed by the divine, awakening an inner driving tyrant in some and rendering all of us self-consciously aware of our social masquerade as we make our misunderstood way through life.
Such, momentum-arresting asides by a retrospective protagonist, have earned this most thoughtful of fiction epics into a work often disliked by female and adolescent readers for such interruptions of the social mechanics of the narrative for the generally loathed purpose of our illumination. One might characterize Wolfe’s take on narrative as a masquerade ball at which the gusts are unmasked at the door and told that as they danced they must address some point of theology of philosophy, in contrast to most narratives in which the focus has a tendency to weld the mask of artifice to a certain actor in such a way as to render them indivisible.
The author then reasserts narrative harmony by then returning to Severian’s youthful enthusiasm to engage in a lethal duel, largely because a lovely woman has agreed to accompany him to the field of contest.
Diction of note
-psychopomp, escort of departing souls
-hipparch, horse commander
-Avern, a deadly flower
-monomachy, one-to-one combat
-oriflamme, a military weapon
-palmer, alms-beging pilgrim
Menthol Rampage
prev:  ‘Dr. Talos’     ‹  before the rising sun  ›     next:  ‘Holy Domnicellae’
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the gods of boxing
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