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From: "Robert Borski" <rborski@coredcs.com>
Subject: (urth) Ascians
Date: Mon, 29 Mar 1999 01:22:46 


In THE CITADEL OF THE AUTARCH, the concluding volume of Gene Wolfe's New
Sun quartet, a very strange scene takes place. A battle between the Ascians
and the Commonwealth has been raging; during a temporary lull, however,
Severian, our narrator and the novel's protagonist, notes the following:

"The savages seemed to have vanished. A new force appeared in their place,
on the flank that had now become our front. At first I thought they were
cavalry on centaurs, creatures whose pictures I had encountered in the
brown book. I could see the heads and shoulders of the riders above the
human heads of their mounts, and both appeared to bear arms. When they drew
nearer, I saw they were nothing so romantic: merely small men--dwarfs, in
fact--upon the shoulders of very tall ones." (CITADEL, 180)

Only later, as Severian immerses himself in the fray, does he realize the
even more bizarre aspect of these ridden tallmen:

"One of the tallmen dashed forward...As he drew nearer he slowed, and I saw
that his eyes were unfocused, and that he was in fact blind." (181)

Possibly, dear friends, these passages sound familiar in a déjà lu kind of
way--especially if you've traveled the larger Wolfe universe. Because these
blind tallmen with their dwarf riders actually first appear in "'A Story,'
by John Marsch,'" the middle novella of THE FIFTH HEAD OF CERBERUS. John
Sandwalker, along with his newly-made allies, the Shadow children, is being
stalked by four marshmen at this juncture. Fortunately, Sandwalker and
company are anything but defenseless:

"A man loomed in front of him and Sandwalker kicked him expertly, then
drove the head down with his hands to meet his knees; he took a step
backwards and a Shadow child was on the man's shoulders, his fleshless legs
locked around the throat and his fingers plunged into the hair. 'Come,'
Sandwalker said urgently, 'we have to get away.'

" 'Why?' The Shadow child sounded calm and happy. 'We're winning.' The man
he rode, who had been doubled over in agony, straightened up and tried to
free himself; the Shadow child's legs tightened, and as Sandwalker watched,
the marshman fell to his knees."

Somewhat later, then:

"The marshman who had dropped to his knees a moment before rose shakily,
and guided by the Shadow child on his shoulder's staggered away [back
toward the pit]... The four men were there, three of them with riders on
their shoulders, the fourth moaning and swaying, scrubbing with bloodied
hands at the bleeding sockets of his eyes." (p.104-105, Scribners).

Given that the Shadow children of FIFTH HEAD are pygmy-sized, and the
taller, ridden marshmen have been blinded--the same particulars being
recapitulated with the tallmen cavalry in CITADEL--is Wolfe trying to tell
us something about the Ascians--that, in fact, they're Annese in origin?
Surely, this is not that subversive an idea; remember, according to Wolfe,
the abos of Ste. Anne are actually deracinated Adamic stock, having come to
the green world in several earlier migratory waves. Could not, at some
future's remove, the Annese, aided and abetted by the reintroduction of
spacefaring, make their way back to the mother planet? Indeed, Severian
himself claims such returns are quite normal in THE URTH OF THE NEW SUN, as
he's travelling from Briah to Yesod. "In ancient times," says he, "the
peoples of Urth journeyed among the suns. [And while] many others stayed on
that world or this, many came home at last." [1] So it's certainly well
within the Wolfean range of ideaspace that such a repatriation may have
taken place. But other than the tallmen riders, is there any other evidence
for this?

Well, consider the alzabo. Somehow, it manages to makes its way from Sainte
Anne to Urth (this, of course, presupposes you accept the ghoul bear =
alzabo notion). It's possible the Annese may have brought it back with them
as zoetic transport--imported fauna from home to populate a vivarium and
perhaps provide a study or nostalgia base for future generations.

Then there's green Lune. Might not the original impulse behind its
forestation be to remind the displaced Annese of their home world? It's
also been orbitally shifted, if we're to believe old Rudesind, who
describes a painting of a smaller, grayer moon thusly: "Doesn't seem so big
either, because it wasn't so close in." Again, by moving the moon in to
make it appear larger--a faux sister world--could this have been done by
the heartsick Annese, pining for Sainte Anne?

Then there are several passages in CITADEL that echo either implicitly or
explicitly similar passages in FIFTH HEAD. Witness, for example, Ava's
remark to Severian in the lazaret where she is a Pelerine postulant and he
a recovering patient: "Ascians are not human." Compare this with the
account of Mrs. Blount in 5H, who describes the native Annese with similar
dispassion: "We called them the abos or the wild people. They weren't
really people, you know, just animals shaped like people." And for
something almost directly echoic, consider Dr. Hagsmith's remark about how
the abos are "not...really human."

Meanwhile, back on Urth and still in the thick of battle, Severian apprises
us of yet another salient detail: "I think I must have cut down half a
dozen Ascians before I saw that they all looked the same--not that they all
had the same face, but that the differences between them seemed accidental
and trivial...All had large, brilliant, wild eyes, hair clipped nearly to
the skull, starved faces, screaming mouths, and prominent teeth." This too
has a parallel in FIFTH HEAD, where, as we're told by Number Five, because
of the small population base, "most of us have a kind of planetary face."
And how very much like some mad machination of Maitre, whose outsourced
Wolfe clones, especially if they're allowed to reproduce, might well come
to dominate the Sainte Croix gene pool. Indeed, though the words are
Appian's, the following might well summarize the end, if subconscious,
result of Maitre's cloning experiments--even more so if they're continued
by Number Five and his successors: "They [the Ascians] wish the race to
become a single individual...the same, duplicated to the end of number."
Granted, the Wolfes of Saint Croix are hardly Annese autochthons (except
for possibly Aunt Jeannine); but even if refractive, I still maintain the
parallels are germane.

But what about the abos' characteristic lack of manual dexterity? Is there
anything in the New Sun books that seems to indicate the Ascians are any
less impaired? In my opinion, no. From what Severian tells us the Ascian
regulars are equipped with energy spears--not exactly weapons that appear
to require a great deal of cheiral finesse. And while the dwarf tallriders
also utilize bows-and-arrows, if the marshmen of Sainte Anne can weave and
deploy fishing nets, it does not seem that big of a stretch to imagine them
notching an arrow and pulling back a bowstring (recall as well Victor's
expertise with ropes and knots--Dr. Marsch being most impressed with this
if we're to believe his diary entries).

Even Severian the Great eventually seems to realize the Ascians are
something other than simple battle foes. At least that's how I interpret
his asking Appian, "Who are they?" Or as he elaborates in asking for yet
further clarification from the old autarch, "I asked who they are, sieur. I
know they're our enemies, that they live to the north in the hot countries,
and that they're said to be enslaved by Erebus. But who are they?" What
exactly, however, isn't covered by Severian's précis? Could it be planet of
origin? A not-so-much who are they, but what are they? At any rate he's
told by Appian, "Who they are you will discover in due time," although we
never hear Severian disclose any such result within the New Sun narrative
frame. (And yet he does spend a year with them later. Is this a clue?)

But if indeed the answer to Severian's triply-asked question is that the
Ascians are our old friends and lost cousins, the abos of Sainte Anne,
let's consider the delicious irony of this. In classical mythology, because
they live in the torrid zone, the Ascians have no meridian shadow twice
yearly (Ascian actually means 'without shadow'). If we accept the notion
that shadow represents soul--a popular motif in fairy tales--and that
having souls makes us uniquely human [1], it seems possible to connect the
shadowlessness of the Ascians with their enslavement to Erebus, one of
Urth's alien great monsters. Having apparently returned to their mother
world in some glory (imagine the resources needed to terraform and shift
the moon), rather than be content with this, the Annese/Ascians have chosen
to cast their lots with megatherian Erebus, a being named after the
underworld darkness beneath Hades through which all dead must pass. In
other words, now soulless, the former Shadow children have gone apenumbral,
becoming in a completely different sense, well, yes, shades--and by so
doing forfeit both humanity and future.

But then in many respects this is what FIFTH HEAD is about, even if it does
unofficially conclude in a series about transcendence and resurrection: a
descent through various levels of darkness, and ending in hell.

For surely, repatriated to Urth, but mocked by forested green Lune in the
skies above them, this is where the Shadow children and their brethren have
wound up--enslaved by an alien overseer, condemned to speak in stock
phrases, shadowless in the dying, sun-impoverished inferno of home. In
which case Severian's year-long sojourn among them might well represent not
so much diplomatic niceties, but the harrowing of hell itself.

[1] Actually, I reversed clauses for effect here. Your indulgence is

[2] Wolfe as Master Ash seems to endorse this view when he has Ash relate
the tale about how "a man sold his shadow and found himself driven out
wherever he went." Why? "No one would believe that he was human."

Robert Borski

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

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