The Citadel of the Autarch (Book of the New Sun #4) (1983) by Gene Wolfe

… in which a hero goes on a dreamlike journey… to find a shirt…

TheCitadeloftheAutarch1Rajan Khanna, at Lit Reactor, calls it “fractal.” Peter Wright, at Ultan’s Library, says “Every reading is, then, an individual resurrection.” Months after completing my first reading of The Book of the New Sun tetralogy, I’m still digesting it, like a piece of shoe leather someone dared me to eat.

In an earlier comment, I called The Book of the New Sun a basic hero’s journey. It is, but it isn’t. It’s a subverted hero’s journey where the hero moves away from violence, and toward himself.

Or maybe not. Because even after four books, we really do not know Severian. He is as deceptive and misleading as he was in the beginning.

So let’s say he moves away from violence and discovers a respect for life. And a shirt.

***Oh yeah, spoilers.***

***Not that it matters with this one.***

 The Autarch of the Citadel

In psychology, before a behavior can be extinguished, it must burst. In The Autarch of the Citadel, our lapsed torturer finds himself in the most violent of situations: war. Much is spoken of the nature of war, and there’s no doubt that Wolfe’s experiences during his draft to the Korean War influence this part of the tale. “War is not a new experience; it is a new world,” Severian tells us [205]. Severian is weaponless, too weak to fight, he spends a lot of time hiking around, an explosion happens, people die. Suddenly, this surreal tale feels slightly autobiographical: A young man’s exposure to ultra-violence turns him away from his core beliefs about violence. Was this the point all along?

Every man fights backward—to kill others. Yet his victory comes not in the killing of others but in the killing of certain parts of himself… [166]

The pacifist message of The Book of the New Sun (which doesn’t feel very pacifist until the final novel) serves a grander theme, something more akin to that of Wolfe’s faith. From its allusions to its archetypes to its overall arc, The Book of the New Sun drips with Catholic symbolism. Like the biblical tale of Adam and Eve, Wolfe begins his story with a naked (shirtless) manboy. Throughout the journey, Severian forgets about his bare skin (and so does the reader; Wolfe is very good at causing the reader forget things), and Severian only becomes aware of his nakedness when questioned later, by a young boy (also named Severian).

I used to wear a shirt… But, yes, I supposed I am a little like that, because I never thought of it, even when I was very cold. [98, The Sword of the Lictor]

This conversation, prompted by a discussion about the nature of zoanthropes (humans who become beasts) and alzabos (beasts who take on the characteristics of their human prey) says much much much about Wolfe’s thoughts on human nature, and introduces some of the most ingenious concepts in the entire tetralology. But, this is about Severian. This is about faith. And Severian’s entire development can be whittled down to this very basic, Catholic-inspired metaphors of nakedness and sin.

Severian has several earlier moments of enlightenment (particularly when it comes to chopping off the heads of beautiful women) but his turning point is not due to his love for Thecla, not his pardon of Agia, yet well before his loss of Terminus Est. Severian cannot change until he becomes aware of his nakedness. He covers himself in the final book, he shuns his violent career for good.

The Language

Wolfe adopts arcane terms from ancient Latin and Greek to name new things in his narrative. Not considering the incredible amount of work and intellect required of Wolfe to design this new vocabulary, it is essentially a typical sci-fi stunt. I’ve seen SF gurus call it “The Gauntlet,” and it can make or break a sci-fi reader.

Gary K. Wolfe (no relation) a few months back alluded to this gauntlet on the Coode Street Podcast, suggesting that modern readers treat hard SF vocabulary as “just part of the prose” (this is a paraphrase, probably) and overlook most of the unfamiliar words. Habitual SF readers learn to not fret over unfamiliar terms and the narrative eventually presents itself through context. The Book of the New Sun, despite its entertaining and detailed Appendices, should be read no differently.

So, “autarch,” “fiacre,” “peltast.” Not important. You’ll get it if you need to. (If he’s sitting on it and it moves, it’s probably a horse-like beast of some sort.)

What does matter is the density of the prose, and, more specifically, the dialogue. And why it changes between the second and third book.

Example from the end of the first novel:

“Lords,” he said. “O lords and mistresses of creation, silken-capped, silken-haired women, and man commanding empires and the armies of the F-f-foemen of our Ph-ph-photosphere! Tower strong as stone is strong, strong as the o-o-oak that puts forth leaves new after the fire! And my master, dark master, death’s victory, viceroy over the n-night! Long I signed on the silver-sailed ships, the hundred-masted whose masts reached out to touch the st-st-stars, I, floating among their shining jibs with the Peliades burning beyond the top-royal sp-sp-spar, but never have I see ought like you!…” The final chapter of the first book, The Shadow of the Torturer

Example from the beginning of the third novel:

“It was in my hair, Severian,” Dorcas said. “So I stood under the waterfall in the hot stone room—I don’t know if the men’s side is arranged in the same way. And every time I stepped out, I could hear them talking about me. They called you the black butcher, and other things I don’t want to tell you about.” The opening paragraph of the third book, The Sword of the Lictor. The exact halfway point of the series.

Dialogue in the first two novels is dense, arcane, ambiguous whereas the dialogue of the last two novels is direct (at least in words, if not in meaning) and colloquial. It suggests an end to much of the dreamlike meandering and a return to reality. And, whadayaknow, Severian happens to be in the place where he was headed in the first place. Were the previous adventures complete follies?

But the Women

Severian is a flawed and unreliable narrator who blatantly lies about his eidetic memory. His portrayals of the women in his life are bound to be influenced by his limited and manipulative POV. Naturally, Severian’s recollection of these women will be flat in personality BUT NOT FLAT IN THE BOOB AREA BECAUSE MAN, JOLENTA’S ARE LIKE THE SIZE OF HIS HEAD. So he tells us.

So female readers, and allies who are equally put off by sexualized female characters, can be comforted by the fact the we don’t really know these women who enter Severian’s life, and they may not actually be as dull, ditzy, manipulative, needy, and carnal as Severian describes them. And, anyway, those traits may be the only way women can survive in this Dying Earth setting.

But, no.

It’s too much. It’s too much pointless sexualizing. Too much pointless tussling with the crazy women. What is the point of Jolenta? What is the point of Agia? Do they really serve the structure in the best way possible?

I’m not convinced, and I may be reacting to my natural discomfort from reading about female characters who hike around with thighs so thick they cannot walk, and with dresses torn just so the breast can flop out. (This did not feel like intentional mocking of the fantasy subgenre.)

Wolfe, to his credit, selected the best devices to expose his problematic worldview, without having to accept much flack for that worldview. Chris Gerwel, at A Dribble of Ink, sheds more light on Wolfe’s personal gender problems with more authority than I have, and his conclusions lend credence to my personal reaction to these female depictions. Despite Severian’s sucky worldview, Wolfe’s hand is visible here. His deterministic influence is palpable. And icky.

But Skillz, Man!

TheCitadeloftheAutarch2Gene Wolfe is an intentional and subversive writer. His plot is the structure, and the structure reveals the real story. He drafts and redrafts, he layers and threads. He has a sixth sense about readers; he knows what we will overlook during the first pass, and he knows how and where to hide things. Obfuscation is his game, and it’s impressive.

But do I care? A faith-based morality story with sexualized female characters is still a faith-based morality story with sexualized female characters, with or without the linguistic and narrative manipulations. So what if he weaves words the way a wizard weaves spells?

I’m going to set aside these thoughts for a couple of years, and do a reread before I read the Coda, Urth of the New Sun (1987). Maybe that tasteless shoe leather will be fully digested by then, and I will have absorbed more of its magical, literary nutrients.

That would be like saying that the writing in this book, over which I have labored for so many watches, will vanish into a blur of vermilion when I close it for the last time… [162]

 Oh, Gene… go cover yourself.

Click here for my previous antics exploring the Urth universe.

43 thoughts on “The Citadel of the Autarch (Book of the New Sun #4) (1983) by Gene Wolfe

  1. romeorites says:

    My least favorite one of the series.


  2. Widdershins says:

    The thing about trying to digest shoe leather is that one feels like one has been stomped on by the afore mentioned shoes.


  3. Hestia says:

    I love it. This is much the same way I felt after I finished it — there are incredible elements here, but all in the service of a story that I found vaguely unpleasant and ultimately pointless.

    On the other hand, he’s undeniably influential; China Mieville’s writing in particular reminds me of Wolfe’s (though backed by a significantly different ideology.)


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Yeah, I saw somewhere that Mieville called him “a god,” and I was like, “Calm down, dude.”

      That’s an interesting take on Mieville’s writing. Perhaps I’m reading him wrong because my only disappointment with him is that he’s not nearly as subversive or risque as I expect him to be. I always find his narratives to be rather straightforward, but pleasantly so, not schlock. I do see social justice “lessons” in his work, but not nearly so abstract as Wolfe’s metaphors.


      • Hestia says:

        I think it’s that they both create wild, imaginative set pieces, which sometimes overshadow their characters. But you’re right, where Wolfe’s stories invite the reader to find allusions, I feel like Mieville’s writing actively resists attempts to find them.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I think the Book of the New Sun is less a book you read for the plot, and more a book you read for the layer upon layer of allusion, illusion, literary allegory, and mythological metaphor… that you need to unwrap, decode, then stew over.

    I mean, you caught that Nessus is actually far-future Buenos Aires on a dying earth, right? Right?


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I got that Urth is far-future dying Earth, yes, but I didn’t catch that Nessus is Buenos Aires. Does Bueno Aires mean something significant?

      I actually thought this Urth is so far-future that geography as-we-know-it has completely changed, and even the glass and concrete of our world has weathered to the sand of Severian’s world. The final book mentions the war with Ascia, and I thought I picked up some Mediterranean references, so I kind of pictured a more Eurocentric world, but all tectonically smashed together. But then I remembered he got in that “ship” and it seemed he was taken him somewhere across what seemed to me to be the Atlantic, so I figured it wasn’t quite the nuvo-pangaea that I thought it was.

      I didn’t give it too much thought because assigning future history to old geography isn’t really a big deal. Even Pangborn envisioned a decaying Earth East Coast and messed up Atlantic Ocean 20 years before this. So that didn’t impress me, unless these locations have some sort of greater significance that I am not aware of.

      I think the biggest thing I’m lost on is the biblical stuff, which I am so very ignorant about. It felt so religious to me.

      …Now researching your Buenos Aires comment, and now I’m seeing that there is an “actual identity of Dorcas” that I completely missed. It certainly demands a reread.


      • fromcouchtomoon says:

        I seriously had to look up the Buenos Aires thing because I thought you were bullshitting me. ;-P

        Liked by 1 person

      • Does Bueno Aires mean something significant?
        I have no idea, other than making the entire cast POC and those Ascian invaders into North Americans. The first time I read it, I’d assumed it was on another planet or something, and was of the age where “and they were on earth all along” twists still surprised me. 🙂 That and the setting is a big homage to Vance’s Dying Earth, which I did notice since it was my favorite book at the time.

        Dorcas isn’t the only character whose speculated “identity” is all weird and cyclical. Pretty much everyone else is in a similar boat… Little Severian could be one of a dozen things depending on who you talk to. Crazy stuff, which is why I went with the Buenos Aires part instead (so if you thought I was pulling your leg with that…). The rabbit hole of speculation is dark and fill of terrors.

        I think the biggest thing I’m lost on is the biblical stuff, which I am so very ignorant about. It felt so religious to me.
        I’m told Wolfe has a lot of religious allegory in all his works, but I don’t have enough of a background in catholic dogma to find it.

        TBH I remember liking the first two books best and blanked out on all the boobage you found. (Then again, when I last had enough free time to read the full series I was in high school.) Urth explains a bit more detail, but it’s a weird coda. And I have to say, I prefer Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun, probably my favorite book ever. Slightly clearer in prose and plot—at least in the first two books (so the inverse of what you see here)—makes it a bit more accessible, yet it’s still rich in allegory and meaning.


        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          I need to get around to reading Vance. I keep hearing great things about his work.

          “The rabbit hole of speculation is dark and full of terrors.” I am simultaneously intrigued and deterred by that statement.

          “I blanked out on all the boobage you found.” On one hand, it’s not THAT much boobage, so much as how blatant it is. Just one scene of some dude’s balls hanging out of his shorts, or his balls being casually referenced in description would probably make you feel pretty uncomfortable. It would probably make you think the author is a bit of leery creeper.

          I’m not done, but I need a break. I think I will enjoy, er, appreciate it more the second time, now that I’ve got the superficial narrative down. I am very curious about the identities of these peripheral characters… stupid Dorcas…


          • On one hand, it’s not THAT much boobage, so much as how blatant it is.
            To be honest, that sexism is the thing that’s made me hold off on re-reading New Sun. While his other works are much better in that regard, Wolfe is part of a much older generation whose assumptions and values are now being reevaluated. For good reason, I should think.

            I am very curious about the identities of these peripheral characters… stupid Dorcas…
            Dorcas being one of the more metaphorically complex characters in the series 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

          • Jesse says:

            I haven’t commented on your reviews of The Book of the New Sun yet (I think), but I’ve been following, and enjoying. And I whole-heartedly agree with your notes on the sexist aspects. Wolfe didn’t do himself any favors, to put it lightly. Regarding the religious allegory, certainly there is some. But, believe it or not, there may be just as much pagan (if/when you read Urth, you will see) as well as “Dawn of Civilization” symbolism. Overall, the transition of Severian’s character is more in line with barbarian to morally responsible, civilized person, than pagan to Christian. The Book of the Long Sun is where the symbolism becomes overtly Christian.

            I am not Christian, but I still enjoyed The Book of the Long Sun, and would second Admiral Ironbombs’s recommendation. (Funny enough, KSR also recommends it! 🙂 On one hand the religious allegory is transparent (transition from pantheism to monotheism), but so too is the story, making for fewer befuddling moments that require re-reading/puzzling out. Interestingly, Wolfe also switches up his presentation of female characters. There is a bordello, and a prostitute is a secondary Mary Magdalene-esque character, but there are also two other strong female characters, a “nun” and an army general, which go against the ‘heaving bosoms’ and ripped bodices of New Sun.

            In other words, there is room for your conversation with Gene to continue.


          • fromcouchtomoon says:

            I do plan to read on, but I need to reread this first, and I need to stew on it, as Chris suggests above.

            Although I see a lot of Christian symbolism in this series, I only played up the Garden of Eden thing because of the missing shirt issue reminded me so much of a literal fig leaf to Severian’s figurative fig leaf (turning away from violence). I agree that the general arc is a best described as torturer to respecter of life, rather than any act of “being saved.”

            Speaking of nuns, one of my notes from The Citadel of the Autarch reads: “He didn’t have sex with the nun.” That was pretty noteworthy.


          • chris t says:

            “I had hoped to perform the excruciation we call ‘two apricots’.”


          • fromcouchtomoon says:

            I see what you did there. Not quite enough to establish balance, but okay.

            Doing a re-read?


    • Anonymous says:

      I’m nearly completely certain that Gyoll is the Mississippi/Missouri after some glacial melt, especially because Severian very clearly passes Mt. Rushmore after escaping Thrax. Swap North/South (maybe the magnetic poles have flipped and caused disaster far in the past), and other stuff starts to line up. But I’m less familiar with the geography of other parts of the world, so maybe it was just too easy for me to see this one.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Steph says:

    I don’t know of what you speak…I always wear dresses for the purposes of them being ripped so my breasts can flop out…Actually my dresses have always been well made and my breasts have never been in danger of flopping:) I guess I do know what you are talking about…


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Oh, Steph, you always make me lol.

      I think that may be the ultimate barrier with this work. Even the comments I get on these posts demonstrate a strict gender divide. And I’m typically more forgiving of classic SF gender crimes.

      But why is he reinforcing the Harlot archetype as late as the 1980’s?


      • Steph says:

        I don’t know. Part of it was the time. You can never look at a work outside the vacuum of the time it was created but it doesn’t mean we have to enjoy that particular piece of it. Understand-yes, like-not a chance.


        • Steph says:

          Glad I could make you laugh;)

          Liked by 1 person

        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          Ah, but it was the 1980’s and I was 2 years old. Sexism is not supposed to exist in my life time! We had She-Ra, for crying out loud! ;-P

          Liked by 1 person

          • Steph says:

            Yes but in the 80’s science fiction was mainly written by males for males…yes, yes, we were exceptions but it was mostly for men. Dresses ripping for breast flopping I’m sure got quite the positive response from the larger audience of the time. That said I’ve never thought ‘flopping breasts’ was all that sexy

            Liked by 1 person

  6. Rabindranauth says:

    You couldn’t resist ending your review that way, eh :p


  7. fromcouchtomoon says:

    I couldn’t. I really, really couldn’t.




  9. marzaat says:

    But did Severian tell you all he promised?

    There got a point where I started to find Wolfe’s Christian imagery and allusions boring and wished he would either stop or go all the way into allegorical territory a la a medieval romance.

    In the end, it’s just another hero saving his people.

    And those way too frequent nested stories were annoying.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Yeah, he lays on it pretty thick, but I suppose that was point, in order to hide the many interpretations. I will give it another try, but this may just be another case of me lacking the intellect to appreciate puzzles and symbols and things.


    • Tasos Alexiadis says:

      But did he save his people really or his race? There is a difference.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. marzaat says:

    I’d be curious, if you ever decided to read Charles Harness, to hear you compare and contrast these books and Harness’ “The Paradox Men”.


  11. “…like a piece of shoe leather someone dared me to eat.” Congratulations. You have won the similie of the day award.

    This: “Gene Wolfe is an intentional and subversive writer. His plot is the structure, and the structure reveals the real story. He drafts and redrafts, he layers and threads. He has a sixth sense about readers; he knows what we will overlook during the first pass, and he knows how and where to hide things. Obfuscation is his game, and it’s impressive.” is how you convince me I should read this after all. But pretty much everything else you say has me thinking, no, no, she’s read them and written about them so you don’t have to. Hmm.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Yeah, I think I read a story that day about a guy who was dared to eat his shoes… it made my jaw hurt. And so does Gene Wolfe!

      I don’t know what to recommend. It is an experience, I’ll say that. I think a completist like you will have to read it some day, but I suspect you’re satisfaction will be limited like mine.

      Then again, the benefit of a book blogging community is to read vicariously. So if I have helped to revise your TBR through my experience, I say LIKEWISE 🙂

      If nothing else, at least you know that Wolfe is both super brill and super ick. (Ooh, new superhero ideas!)


  12. sjhigbee says:

    I really enjoyed this detailed and very fair-minded review. I have a love/hate relationship with Wolfe – there are books of his that are the very best in the genre. And I couldn’t get past the first few pages of the first book in this series, before it went flying across the room… But I have never felt it was because he was an unthinking idiot – and I really appreciated that you waded through the series on my behalf and took the time and mental energy necessary to unpick what he is trying to say.
    Thank you!


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Thank you! No, Wolfe is no unthinking idiot, not at all. I’m already preparing for my re-read, this time to delve beneath the superficial narrative and I’m already more intrigued. I think the second reading will be more illuminating.

      I hope I’m able to crack my discomfort and come up with a valid theory for the apparent sexism. I’ve yet to see a satisfying explanation for this problem, but I’m sure it’s out there.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. […] journey through The Book of the New Sun with Gene Wolfe by posting a half-hearted review of The Citadel of the Autarch (1983). But don’t all first-time readers get a free pass if they don’t grasp most of […]


  14. […] to read) that’s a vehicle for something more, making it similar to the experience of reading The Book of the New Sun, Viriconium, and, more recently, Glorious Angels. Deep, patient reading is […]


  15. Tasos Alexiadis says:

    You write “I agree that the general arc is a best described as torturer to respecter of life, rather than any act of “being saved.”” This is what makes this story a tragedy. Because bringing the New Sun will require a heavy price, a “blood price” if you will. This and the role of the Hierrogrammates and their servants the Hierodules is the true story behind the surface story. And the true story is beautiful. The main themes behind it are death and rebirth, transcendence and the power of faith and symbols.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s