Friday, October 9, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 11, Part 2

But as they bore her toward it, the wheel appeared to blur and change. In the light of the candles, it seemed at first that serpents, green pythons with jeweled heads of scarlet and citrine and white, writhed from it. Then it was seen that these were flowers, roses in the bud. When the maid was but a step away they bloomed (they were of paper, concealed, as I well knew, within the segments of the wheel).... The maid gave no answer but reached out and touched the wheel, which at once fell to pieces, collapsing with a clatter to the floor, all its roses gone. "Behead her," demanded Maxentius, and I took up the sword. It was very heavy.... I knew that the sword in falling would do her no harm - I would direct it to one side, tripping an ingenious mechanism that would elevate a wax head smeared with blood while the maid draped her own with a fuligin cloth. Still I hesitated to give the blow. She spoke again from the floor at my feet, and her voice seemed to ring in my ears. "Strike and fear not." With such strength as I was capable of, I sent the false blade down. For an instant it seemed to me that it met resistance; then it thudded into the block, which fell into two. The maid's head, all bloody, tumbled forward toward the watching brothers. Master Gurloes lifted it by the hair and Master Palaemon cupped his left hand to receive the blood. "With this, our chrism," he said, "I anoint you, Severian, our brother forever." His index finger traced the mark upon my forehead. "So be it," said Master Gurloes, and all the journeymen save I. The maid stood. I knew even as I watched her that her head was only concealed in the cloth; but it seemed there was nothing there. I felt dizzy and tired. She took the wax head from Master Gurloes and pretended to replace it on her shoulders, slipping it by some sleight into the fuligin cloth, then standing before us radiant and whole. I knelt before her, and the others withdrew. She raised the sword with which I had so lately struck off her head; the blade was bloody now from some contact with the wax. "You are of the torturers," she said. I felt the sword touch either shoulder, and at once eager hands were drawing the head mask of the guild over my face and lifting me.
This is based on the legend of St. Catherine that I referred to in the previous post. The bit about the roses sprouting from the wheel isn't in the version of the legend I found. Severian calls it all a show, but his own perceptions seem to contradict that. He says that the sword was "no more than a wooden batten provided with an old hilt and brightened with tinsel," but also "It was very heavy" and "for a moment I feared it would overbalance me." When he "pretends" to behead Katherine, "I sent the false blade down. For an instant it seemed to me that it met resistance; then it thudded into the block, which fell into two." He doesn't mention anything about it being a trick block, either. He also doesn't really explain how she could perform the sleight of hand with the wax head when he was presumably standing within several feet of her. I believe Wolfe is pointing out that religious ceremonies are simultaneously metaphoric and literal. You can pantomime being born again, or sacrificing something to a god, and view it as symbolic. But in another sense you really were born again, you really did give the god something. Another interesting possible interpretation is that even when religious ceremonies are performed by people without faith (like Severian, who believes the ritual to be fake), they still have the desired effect. The wheel is a symbol of torture, but it has a few other meanings, too. Add to those the meanings of the circle, and we have an embarrassment of riches. Then Gene throws serpents and roses into the mix, and interpretation becomes complicated, just the way he likes it. I'll give it a try, though: The blooming wheel is reminiscent of the blooming staff of Aaron in Numbers 17, showing Katharine's favor from Omniscience. The wheel is also a sun symbol - you can never have too many. There is a form of a Christ monogram that looks like a wheel, which also looks like the alchemy symbol for malachite, which is used in jewelry to suggest peacock's eyes. "The peacock was believed by the ancients to have flesh that does not decay after death, and thus became a symbol of immortality. This symbolism was adopted into Christianity, and the peacock appears in many early Christian mosaics and paintings." - This brings us around full circle. The torturer's wheel obviously represents pain, maybe it's the suffering caused by the cycle of samsara, which is sometimes represented by a wheel. Many of the religions that samsara is part of also have a concept of cyclical time, which the wheel could also represent. So the roses, which could symbolize the sun, love, and/or the blood of Christ, sprout from the wheel of suffering and time, and then destroy it. I mentioned in a previous post that this ceremony might be the torturers' version of Confirmation. In Confirmation, "the Holy Ghost is given to those already baptized in order to make them strong and perfect Christians and soldiers of Jesus Christ." "[A bishop] anoints the forehead of each with chrism." Chrism is holy oil; here the ceremony is corrupted, and Severian is anointed with blood. A related interesting fact: "Christ" is the Greek translation of "Messiah," not a different title, and they both mean "anointed (one)." Then all the torturers say "so be it," which is the literal meaning of "amen." After the anointing, the bishop "gives each a slight blow on the cheek saying: 'peace be with thee'." From the wikipedia page on Confirmation, "the touch on the cheek that the bishop gave while saying 'Pax tecum' (Peace be with you) to the person he had just confirmed was interpreted in the Roman Pontifical as a slap, a reminder to be brave in spreading and defending the faith: 'Deinde leviter eum in maxilla caedit, dicens: Pax tecum' (Then he strikes him lightly on the cheek, saying: Peace be with you) (cf. the knightly custom of the accolade)." Severian receives the accolade from Katherine, and then he is officially a torturer.

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