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From: "Roy C. Lackey" 
Subject: (urth) Sev's not-so-perfect memory
Date: Wed, 9 Jul 2003 23:32:53 -0500

What follows is a post I originally tried to send in late September 2000,
but it was the night Moonmilk turned to cheese, so it never arrived. When
the list was back up and running, weeks later, the big PEACE debate was on,
so I let it slide. Recent discussion of Severian's memory seems sufficient
excuse to re-post it now.

        In my rereading of the Urth Cycle, looking for--and
finding--mistakes (most of them, hopefully, Severian's) relating to Sev's
reliability as a narrator, especially those relating to his famous memory, I
have come to develop a theory regarding Wolfe's handling of Sev's memory in
the memoir. It is unprovable, in part, because the memory-based text is all
we have to go on, and the mistakes are subtle, of course, or the issue would
have been decided twenty years ago. The theory is just this: that wherever
in the text Sev starts vaunting his perfect memory, not always, but often
enough, that the particular memory then recounted, or another close by in
the text, will be flawed.

        Those recollections, when they are of an incident which has been
related elsewhere in the text, can be verified by the careful reader, but
not so those of which we are given only the transient memory, such as piling
pebbles, crying in a basket, or those subsumed from Thecla. This second
category of memory becomes even more suspect, in light of the provable
errors of the first category.

        Sev's mistakes of memory tend to go unnoticed because the reader,
caught up in the story, becomes spellbound by it, like some of the denizens
of the Botanic Gardens, succumbing to Wolfe's wizardry as a story teller and
his sleight-of-hand and stage-magician's misdirection in his plotting.
Wolfe's style of writing is one of the reasons it is often hard to find a
particular passage, because the reader doesn't associate it with the context
of the story where it is actually found, e.g., that of Gurloes being a
master for twenty years is found in the middle of Sev's account of his
escape from the mine of the man-apes.

        In addition to the errors I have pointed out in the past (not
going/going swimming, not returning/returning to the mausoleum, etc.), or
that others have found (doeskin/manskin bag, Roche/Drotte seeing the pikes,
etc.), here are some more. Although most of the errors of memory are of
details, there are too many of them for them all to be Wolfe's mistakes. I
have endeavored to include only those of which there can be no reasonable
doubt. There are, of course, others subject to interpretation.

A) "Whatever I possess I would give to become one of you, who complain every
day of memories fading. My own do not. They remain always, and always as
vivid as at their first impression, so that once summoned they carry me off
   "I think I turned from the innkeeper and wandered into the crowd of
pushing rustics and chattering vendors, but I saw neither them nor him.
Instead I felt the bone-strewn paths of the necropolis under my feet, and
saw through the drifting river fog the slender figure of Vodalis as he gave
his pistol to his mistress and drew his sword." (II, I)

        That's not quite what happened. He gave the pistol to Hildegrin,
from whom Thea then took it. (I, I) However, the same mistake he makes above
is repeated by Wolfe in the appendix to CITADEL.

B) Shortly after returning to Saltus from the mine of the man-apes, Sev
questioned Jonas:

   "One last question," I said, "and then I promise I won't ask you anything
more. When we were going through the Wall, you said the things we saw in
there were soldiers, and you implied they..." (II, VIII)

        No, he didn't. Sev specifically asked Talos what the creatures in
the Wall were, and it was Talos who answered him, saying they were soldiers.
(I, XXXV) That Jonas doesn't bother to correct him _may_ indicate the error
is Wolfe's, not Sev's.

C)  While camped, with Dorcas and Jolenta, by the stream where the odalisque
appeared, Sev slept, woke, and:

   "...lay down again to watch the birds voyage among the constellations and
enter that world of memory that, no matter how sweet or how bitter it may
be, is never wholly closed to me.
   "I sought to recall that celebration of Holy Katharine's day that fell
the year after I became captain of apprentices; but the preparations for the
feast were hardly begun before other memories came crowding unbidden around
it." (II, XXVII)

        Here, we have an example of Severian the deceiver. He goes on to
recall an incident from infancy, which captures the reader's attention and
distracts from what he wrote. The first part of the last quoted sentence is
worded so that the casual reader may not realize that he is referring to his
_own_ feast day, when he became a journeyman. Why he chose to phrase it that
way, I will not speculate upon. The second part of the sentence sounds
innocent enough--someone recalling a sequence of events and beginning at the
beginning. But when Sev in fact described that feast day, when he reached
the point in the ceremony where he raised the fake sword to strike, he

   "When I think back on that time, it is that moment I recall first; to
remember more, I must work forward or backward from that. In memory it seems
to me I stand always so, in gray shirt and ragged trousers, with the blade
poised above my head." (I, XI)

        The second sentence in the above second quoted passage I included
because it, too, I believe, contains an error. When Sev gave his brief
account of the feast day when he became captain of apprentices, he wrote:

   "We apprentices were to serve the feast, and before we did so were to
doff the relatively new and clean clothes we had been given for the
ceremony." (I, V)

        The clothes worn by the apprentices for the ceremony were their
version of their "Sunday best". If they had been their normal rags, there
would have been no need to change clothes, so I doubt that Sev was wearing
"ragged trousers" for his own elevation.

D)  When Sev first visited the jacal of the two sick children in Thrax, he

   "I braced my hands on the mud and wattle wall beside the door and
straightened up. The boy said, 'You see she is very sick, sieur, My sister.'
He held out his hand again.
   "I saw it--I see it before me now--but it made no immediate impression on
my mind. I could think only of the Claw; and it seemed to me that it was
pressing against my breastbone, not so much like a weight as like the
knuckles of an invisible fist. I remembered the uhlan who had appeared dead
until I touched his lips with the Claw, and who now seemed to me to belong
to the remote past; and I remembered the man-ape, with his stump of arm, and
the way Jonas's burns had faded when I ran the Claw along their length. I
had not used it or even considered using it since it had failed to save
Jolenta." (III, III)

        Wrong. The second paragraph contains not one, but two errors. Sev
touched the uhlan's forehead, not his lips, with the Claw. (II, XIII) And he
used the Claw again on the broken arm of the herdsman at whose hut they had
stayed. (II, XXIX; last paragraph)

E)  From the top of the donjon at Acies Castle, Sev recalled the view he had
had from the top of the Matachin Tower:

   "When I had gone there to make my farewell to the only place I had known,
I had stood at one of the loftiest points of the Citadel, which was itself
poised atop one of the highest elevations in the whole area of Nessus. The
city had been spread before me to the limits of vision, with Gyoll traced
across it like the green slime of a slug across a map; even the Wall had
been visible on the horizon at some points, and nowhere was I beneath the
shadow of a summit much superior to my own." (III, II)

        Contrast the above quote with what he actually wrote about the view
from the top of the Matachin Tower:

   "The mountains [to the north] I could see with my mind's eye, but not
with the body's: only the rolling expanse of the city with its million
roofs. And to tell the truth, the great silver columns of the Keep and its
surrounding spires blocked half my view." (I, XIII)

        Either he had a panoramic vista from the tower, or he didn't.
Perhaps his memory of home became idealized in his exile. Neither did he
make any mention of being able to see the Wall from there at the time,
though he did say, later, as they approached the Piteous Gate: "I've spent
my life so near the middle of the city that the Wall was no more than a dark
line on the northern horizon when we looked from the glass-roofed room at
the top of our tower." (I, XXXV) Note that he said the Wall was visible only
at the one point, not "some points".

F)  When Sev and his motley crew of lake people arrived at Baldander's
castle, he:

   "...asked--a rhetorical question--if they knew from where the sky ship
above the castle had come. And when they assured me they did not, I
explained that I did (and so I did, Dorcas having warned me of them, though
I had never seen such a thing before), and that because of its presence here
it would be better if I...". (III, XXXII)

        Well, no, Dorcas didn't say any such thing. She made no mention of a
spacecraft or its occupants. It was Cyriaca who had warned him: "...that
cacogens had landed somewhere in the north." (III, XII; first page)

G)  Sev to Miles-Jonas at the lazaret:

   "But Jonas, Jolenta is gone--I watched her die, and..." (IV, VI)

        No, he didn't. He was passed out in the mud when he was awakened by
Dorcas calling him. He returned to the roof of the tomb to find "...Dorcas,
alone, bent over the body of Jolenta." (II, XXXI)

H)  Of his jungle prison cell, following the flier crash, Sev wrote:

   "I, who had worked outside so many, thrusting in trays of food to the
disfigured and demented, now knew again a cell of my own." (IV, XXVI)

        Not true. Sev was a journeyman-in-good-standing for less than 72
hours, and apprentices were forbidden interaction with "clients".
Apprentices carried trays for the inmates down to the oubliette, but it was
up to the journeymen on duty to disperse them. In fact, the day Sev returned
from the library with the four books, Drotte was busy with a client and
asked him to "'...finish shoving their food at the rest for me, if you've
got a moment.'
   "I hesitated. Apprentices were not supposed to deal with those committed
to the guild's care." (I, VII)

        The same objection applies to what he wrote three pages later, when
Agia visited him and "...described the torments she and Hethor had contrived
for me when I was strong enough to endure them. When she finished, I told
her quite truthfully that I had spent most of my life assisting at
operations more terrible..." That is a lie, both to Agia and the reader.

        BTW, it also means that Gurloes was probably lying when he said that
when he was Sev's age, they had him "cranking the alternator".

I)  On the morning that Sev, then autarch, passed through the necropolis,
with Drotte, Roche, and Eata, on the way to see Ouen, he wrote:

   "The death roses I had hesitated to pick for Thecla still showed a few
autumnal blooms, and I found myself thinking of Morwenna, the only woman
whose life I have ever taken..." (IV, XXXVII)

        Not true. From chapter XX: "One of the enemy put her head from
behind a clump of brush some way up the slope. My contus struck her with a
bolt of flame; she leaped by reflex, then curled up as spiders do when
someone tosses them among the coals of a campfire."

J)  During the blackout aboard Tzadkiel's ship:

   "In my youth, when I had traveled from Nessus to Thrax with Dorcas, and
from Thrax to Orithyia largely alone, I had carried flint and steel to
kindle fires." (V, VI)

        Wrong again. Oddly, for all the dearth of detail in his accounts,
that specific lack is addressed in the accounts of both those legs of his
journey. By the stream mentioned in C), above, and when he found the dead
soldier, Miles:

   "We had broken a good many and laid our fire before I remembered I no
longer had my striker, having left it with the Autarch, who must also, I
felt certain, have been the 'highly placed servant' who had filled Dr.
Talos's hands with chrisos. Dorcas had flint, steel, and tinder among her
scant baggage, however, and we were soon comforted by a roaring blaze." (II,

   "...I had the impulsive need to kindle a fire.
   "There had been no fire-making gear in his pack, but I knew every soldier
must carry such things. I searched his pockets and found a few aes, a
hanging dial with which to tell time, and a flint and striking bar." (IV,

K)  Sev, just before his "Examination", having cried upon seeing the eidolon
of Thecla:

   "If I had ever wept before, it was when I was so small I can scarcely
remember it--apprentices learn not to..." (V, XVIII)

        He wept when he left Dorcas in Thrax. (III, XII) He wept when he
found, among the rocks below Baldander's castle, the remnants of the gem
which had held the Claw. (III, XXXVIII) He wept in the autarch's pavilion
when he saw the claws of the cat-women. (IV, XXIV)



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