Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 15, Part 2

I bestrode a great, leather-winged being under a lowering sky. Just equipoised between the rack of cloud and a twilit land we slid down a hill of air. Hardly once, it seemed to me, the finger-winged soarer flapped her long pinions. The dying sun was before us, and it seemed we matched the speed of Urth, for it stood unmoving at the horizon, though we flew on and on.

At last I saw a change in the land, and at first I thought it a desert. Far off, no cities or farms or woods or fields appeared, but only a level waste, a blackened purple in color, featureless and nearly static. The leathern-winged one observed it as well, or perhaps snatched some odor from the air. I felt iron muscles beneath me grow tense, and there were three wing strokes together.

The purple waste showed flecks of white. After a time I became aware that its seeming stillness was a sham born of uniformity - it was the same everywhere, but everywhere in motion - the sea - the World-River Uroboros - cradling Urth.

Then for the first time I looked behind me, seeing all the country of humankind swallowed in the night.

When it was gone, and there was everywhere beneath us the waste of rolling water and nothing more, the beast turned her head to regard me. Her beak was the beak of an ibis, her face the face of a hag; on her head was a miter of bone. For an instant we regarded each other, and I seemed to know her thought: You dream; but were you to wake from your waking, I would be there.

Her motion changed as a lugger's does when the sailors make it to come about on the opposite tack. One pinion dipped, the other rose until it pointed toward the sky, and I scrabbled at the scaled hide and plummeted into the sea.

Severian seems to be riding a type of dragon: leathern wings, beak, somewhat human face, a miter of bone. The beak shaped like an ibis' suggests the Egyptian god Thoth. The Greeks viewed Thoth as the equivalent of Hermes (a.k.a. Mercury, a.k.a. Odin, see a previous post). Maybe Wolfe is riffing on a theme here, or it could just be the syncretic nature of religion causing these coincidences. Some people believe that Jesus was attempting a syncretism of Judaism and Buddhism. I wonder if Wolfe alludes to that theory anywhere.

Thoth is no doubt dear to Gene Wolfe because he is said to have invented writing. In fact, "The Egyptians credited him as the author of all works of science, religion, philosophy, and magic." Thoth mediated between good and evil, order and chaos. He judged souls in the underworld. He was god of the moon, and therefore the regulation of events and time. He also is important in the Osiris myth, giving Isis the proper incantation to resurrect him. I take all this together to mean that he is the personification of the Word of God or The Law. It's interesting that he invented and subsumes "science, religion, philosophy, and magic," which are therefore all aspects of the same thing. Today they are all viewed as completely separate.

The composite winged creature and hag suggests the Harpies. I just learned that the Harpies infest the suicide's wood in Dante's second circle of Hell. That's interesting, because "The vision I had in Gyoll when I had so nearly drowned rose before me, and it possessed (as it had then) a sullen yet strong attraction." That vision is much like the second half of this dream, which I'll get to. It involves what are essentially Sirens; the Harpies were originally wind spirits, and their bird-woman form could be a confusion with the sirens. The sirens were originally bird-women (much like angels), but we have our own confusion nowadays, and tend to think of them as mermaids. Men went to their deaths willingly when they heard the Sirens. So could this vision be symbolic of suicide? Sirens were seen as in medieval times as a symbol of temptation. That interpretation is easier to rationalize, but I think I'll keep the suicide angle in mind as I'm reading.

The "miter of bone" also has religious overtones, and suggests the dragon is a bishop. I can't figure that one out, though. I'll just assume Wolfe used it because it's a nice phrase.

It's fascinating that all these gods and beings are so blended together, by accident or by design. I think Wolfe is interested in this, too, and the brown book that Severian carries may be a "Mythology of the Twentieth Century" as seen by citizens of the far future.

I'm sorry if all this seems scattered, I just can't find a way to explain all this linearly.

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