Gene Wolfe’s Fantastical Language

A few of my favorite passages (so far) from Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun.
Shadow of the Torturer - Gene Wolfe

Following Gene Wolfe’s death last month, I’ve been re-reading his most famous series, The Book of the New Sun, trying to get in a couple of chapters every night and paying closer attention to the story’s intricate details and references. And one thing that’s become quickly apparent while doing so is the man’s gorgeous, florid writing style.

It can be incredible obtuse and arcane at times. Wolfe’s writing is full of words like “fuligin,” “chatelaine,” “hipparch,” “lochage,” “optimate,” and “carnifex” — words that aren’t made up, but rather, culled from ancient languages and given a unique spin. (Which made sense given the books’ conceit that they were actually translations from pre-existing manuscripts, and Wolfe had to fill in the gaps where no accurate translations existed.)

But it can also be incredibly beautiful, and beautifully strange. Here are some of my favorite passages so far. The first is when Severian, the series’ protagonist, is sent on an errand by his guild master and finds himself lost in a massive, tomb-like library. There he encounters the master librarian who expounds on the library’s riches:

His grip on my shoulder tightened. “We have books here bound in the hides of echidnes, krakens, and beasts so long extinct that those whose studies they are, are for the most part of the opinion that no trace of them survives unfossilized. We have books bound wholly in metals of unknown alloy, and books whose bindings are covered in thickset gems. We have books cased in perfumed woods shipped across the inconceivable gulf between creations — books doubly precious because no one on Urth can read them.

The second is when Severian receives his sword from the guild master prior to being exiled for the crime of showing mercy to a prisoner (a no-no since he’s been training to be a torturer since childhood):

I shall not bore you with a catalog of her virtues and beauties; you would have to see her and hold her to judge her justly. Her bitter blade was an ell in length, straight and square-pointed as such a sword’s should be. Man-edge and woman-edge could part a hair to within a span of the guard, which was of thick silver with a carven head at either end. Her grip was onyx bound with silver bands, two spans long and terminated with an opal. Art had been lavished upon her; but it is the function of art to render attractive and significant those things that without it would not be so, and so art had nothing to give her. The words Terminus Est had been engraved upon her blade in curious and beautiful letters, and I had learned enough of ancient languages since leaving the Atrium of Time to know that they meant This Is the Line of Division.

Then there’s this passage, which finds Severian waxing pretty existential (while also giving readers a glimpse of the strange phenomena of Severian’s world):

Beside me, Dorcas plucked a water hyacinth and put it in her hair. Except for the vague spot of white on the bank some distance ahead, it was the first flower I had seen in the Garden of Endless Sleep; I looked for others, but saw none.

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, and then, when I sat in that boat with the hyacinth less than a cubit from my eyes, I wondered at the dim light and recalled Hildegrin’s remark of a moment before, a remark that implied (though quite possibly he did not know it) that the seeress’s cave, and thus this garden, was on the opposite side of the world. There, as Master Malrubius had taught us long ago, all was reversed: warmth to the south, cold to the north; light at night, dark by day; snow in summer. The chill I felt would be appropriate then, for it would be summer soon, with sleet riding the wind; the darkness that stood even between my eyes and the blue flowers of the water hyacinth would be appropriate then too, for it would soon be night, with light already in the sky.

The Increate maintains all things in order surely; and the theologicans say light is his shadow. Must it not be then that in darkness order grows ever less, flowers leaping from nothingness into a girl’s fingers just as by light in spring they leap from mere filthiness into the air? Perhaps when night closes our eyes there is less order than we believe. Perhaps, indeed, it is this lack of order we perceive as darkness, a randomization of the waves of energy (like a sea), the fields of energy (like a farm) that appear to our deluded eyes — set by light in an order of which they themselves are incapable — to be the real world.

This final passage is from the end of Shadow of the Torturer, and describes the massive walls surrounding the city of Nessus:

No doubt you, who have perhaps seen the Wall many times, and perhaps passed often through one or another of its gates, will be impatient with me; but before I continue this account of my life, I feel I must for my own peace spend a few words on it.

I have already spoken of its height. There are few sorts of birds, I think, that would fly over it. The eagle and the great mountain teratornis, and possibly the wild geese and their allies, but few others. This height I had come to expect by the time we reached the base: the Wall had been in plain view then for many leagues, and no one who saw it, with the clouds moving across its face as ripples do across a pond, could fail to realize its altitude. It is of black metal, like the walls of the Citadel, and for this reason it seemed less terrible to me than it would have otherwise — the buildings I had seen in the city were of stone or brick, and to come now on the material I had known from earliest childhood was no unpleasant thing.

Yet to enter the gate was to enter a mine, and I could not suppress a shudder. I noticed too that everyone around me except for Dr. Talos and Baldanders seemed to feel as I did. Dorcas clasped my hand more tightly, and Hethor hung his head. Jolenta seemed to consider that the doctor, with whom she had been quarreling a moment before, might protect her; but when he paid no heed to her touch at his harm and continued to swagger forward and pound the pavement with his stick just as he had in the sunlight, she left him and to my astonishment took the stirrup strap of the man on the merychip.

The sides of the gate rose high above us, pierced at wide intervals by windows of some material thicker, yet clearer, than glass. Behind these windows we could see the moving figures of men and women, and of creatures that were neither men nor women. Cacogens, I think, were there, being to whom the avern was but what a marigold or a marguerite is to us. Others seemedbeasts with too much of men about them, so that horned heads watched us with eyes too wise, and mouths that appeared to speak showed teeth like nails or hooks. I asked Dr. Talos what these creatures were.

“Soldiers,” he said. “The pandours of the Autarch.”

Jolenta, whose fear made her press the side of one full breast against the thigh of the man on the merychip, whispered, “Whose perspiration is the gold of subjects.”

I particularly like this last passage because it gives a sense of the sheer strangeness of Severian’s world, which is Earth, but millions of the years in the future (and now called “Urth”). There’s the ancient-yet-advanced technology that was obviously employed to build the massive Wall, the strange creatures (some alien, some perhaps the result of genetic engineering) that populate its innards, and even the quasi-religious worship of the Autarch, the supreme ruler of Severian’s world.

Like Wolfe’s writing in general, Severian’s world is quite bizarre, but also incredibly imaginative, compelling, and fascinating.

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