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From: "Robert Borski" <rborski@coredcs.com>
Subject: (urth) 17
Date: Thu, 25 Mar 1999 00:48:31 


The number seventeen comes up a number of different times in the narrative
of the New Sun, and each time it does it appears to carry a sinister

The first time we encounter it is in the library of Master Ultan. One of
the books shelved next to The Book of the Wonders of Urth and Sky is
entitled Lives of the Seventeen Megatherians, and Blaithmaic is credited as
its author. We're not privy to any of the book's passages, but given that
at a later point Abaia, one of Urth's principal monsters and an enemy of
the New Sun, is described as the "great beast Abaia," and knowing that
megatherian means "great beast" in Greek, it seems safe to postulate the
book concerns Abaia, Erebus, Arioch, and Scylla, along with their lesser
counterparts. And how many of these malign alien beings have crossed the
gulfs of space and taken up residence in the Urth's oceans or beneath its
crust? Seventeen, I postulate. Hence one possible context on its use as a
number of charged sinisterness. 

The second time we encounter seventeen is on the Field of Sanguinary
Conflict. To announce their presence, the various combatants customarily
shout out their names, and one such combatant identifies himself as "Cadroe
of the Seventeen Stones." Seventeen Stones seems to refer to a place or a
locale here, but we're given no further reference to any such place, so its
use remains somewhat enigmatic, although I do note that the second syllable
of Cadroe is "roe"--i.e., fish eggs--and that many of the Seventeen
Megatherians appear to be aquatic. So perhaps Wolfe is merely seeking,
however obliquely, to expand on this aspect of their nature.

The third time we encounter the number seventeen is in CLAW, when Severian
reveals there are seventeen cells per wing in the Matachin Tower. If you're
a prisoner here, obviously you're in dire circumstances, and the
retrofitter of the tower (in actuality, a rocket ship) may have picked
seventeen to convey exactly this notion. 

Lastly, in CITADEL, we hear of the Group of Seventeen, the ruling polity of
the Ascians. The Ascians are the longtime enemy of the Commonwealth and
have aligned themselves with Abaia, Erebus, Arioch, et al--in other words,
the Seventeen Megatherians. Their use of seventeen in both title and
membership thus seems designed as an honorific to commemorate this
alliance. But as Michael Andre-Driussi also points out in his fine LEXICON
URTHUS, typical membership in the former Soviet politburo comprised
seventeen, so there's this additional likely resonance, especially since
the Ascians, lacking shadows/souls, come very close to the ideal godless
practitioners of Communism.

But how is it that Wolfe the author has chosen seventeen to take on these
various sinister shades? Why not some other number? Is it meant strictly to
reflect the politburo connection? Wolfe, after all, as a man of deep
religious convictions, might well have a particular horror of political
systems that preach atheism.  

The answer, I believe, can be found in Genesis 7:11:

"In the year when Noah was six hundred years old, on the seventeenth day of
the second month, on that very day, all the springs of the great abyss
broke through, the windows of the sky were opened, and rain fell on the
earth for forty days and forty nights." 

In other words it's meant to signify the coming of the Megatherians,
monstrous creatures of the abyss, Wolfe's posthistoric equivalent of
Lucifer and the other Infernals. [1] And not only, it seems, have the skies
opened up figuratively, but literally, just as Genesis notes. Because there
are several references to a great flood that may have taken place in Urth's
past. Severian, in describing the fourth and lowest level of the Citadel,
mentions how "mud had seeped into the corridors until it lay to the
thickness of one hand." Two sentences later he tells us, "Yet the water had
never been high here." Water, of course, always seeks the lowest level, so
bad plumbing and a great leak (though never mentioned) might account for
it, but how about mud several inches high four floors beneath the surface?

Additionally, when Jonas and Severian are riding atop the baluchither bound
for Vodalus's forest stronghold, Severian describes their jostling motion
thusly: "I feel now that I'm traveling through the Citadel in a flood,
solemnly rowed." Look, however, at the reaction this produces in Jonas: "At
that Jonas looked so grave that I burst out laughing at the sight of his
face." But why does Jonas appear so disturbed? Sev's remark hardly seems
anything but casual. And yet, as we recall, Jonas seems to know quite a bit
about the Megatherians; notably, about how, because of their behemoth-like
nature, they've confined to pelagic waters. He's also attempted to explain
why the Great Wall has been built with his tale of the black beans, which
unfortunately for us he never concludes. But do the black beans, besides
calling to mind the beans of Jack and the Beanstalk, also refer to black
beings--i.e., the Megatherians? (Keep in mind the punning nature of these
various little embedded tales; monitor for minotaur and thesis for Theseus,
for example, in "The Tale of the Student and his Son.") Are the black beans
meant to be sown like AeŽtes' dragon teeth and produce warriors to combat
Typhon? Since all of the Brown Book's tales are conflational, combining a
number of different myths and archetypes, Cadroe's stones might also
represent not only the missile David slew Goliath with, but the stones
Deucalion threw after the flood that Zeus sent, although in the latter
"great beasts" may have come forth from the waves, not men. Jonas, having
been a servitor of the Hierodules, knows full well the facts behind his
little tale, even if he doesn't share them, and this is why he reacts so
gravely--if the creatures brought by the flood triumph, it means that he
and his masters will have labored in vain, and that the New Sun will be
guttered like a candle dropped into the sea.       

[1] Notice how in part the Genesis quote is echoed by Maxellindis' uncle,
the boat captain. Though he does not know it, the night before, he has
heard undines and possibly Abaia moving upriver, but in describing the
strange activities that have taken place--sort of a Second Coming of the
Megatherians--he says, "Sometimes I felt like I wasn't on old Gyoll at all,
but on some other river, one that run up into the sky, or under the
ground." (CITADEL, Chapt. XXXVII)

[2] It's possible the zoetic transport ship mentioned in URTH, being the
future equivalent of Noah's ark, plays to the flood myth, but I feel it's
more likely that the ship will be used to transport live animals to the
mountainous Cursed Town--or possibly later to the Whorl.

Robert Borski

*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

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