- Art and AllegoryA Method to Read The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe’s greatest work, The Book of the New Sun,1 has not yet received a satisfying interpretation. Though Wolfe was an adult convert to Catholicism, few have investigated if and how New Sun reflects Catholicism. Hailed as an important writer in venues as diverse as The New Yorker and First Things, the measure of Gene Wolfe’s importance in contemporary literature awaits an interpretive method that reveals his artistry and Catholic influence. Peter Bebergal in April’s New Yorker writes of Wolfe that his habit of concealing the truth makes readers “dig deep into his texts in the hope of finding clues not only to the plots and characters but to Wolfe’s larger intentions. Partly what readers are excavating is Wolfe’s Catholicism, which he is quick to say figures into his writing.” Bebergal compares this to Flannery O’Connor, who “cautions novelists to use religious concerns in ways that do not alienate the reader, to render encounters with the ineffable so that those who might not understand or care for a particular metaphor … can still be moved by it. … But Wolfe wraps his Catholicism in strange language and cryptic images.”2 This echos John Farrell’s assessment in First Things of a Catholic influence that defies “straightforward allegory” in works that science fiction as a genre decreasingly [End Page 127] accommodates for being “too religious, too difficult, and too strange.”3
Several science fiction critics have sought Wolfe’s larger intentions. Joan Gordon, an academic specialist in science fiction, saw New Sun as a messianic autobiography influenced by Boethius.4 Peter Wright, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on New Sun as situated within science fiction, later published an entirely secular reading of the book as a pseudo-religious, political autobiography taking place in “a universe lacking a spiritually transcendental dimension.”5 Science fiction critic John Clute has addressed New Sun several times.6 Soon after New Sun’s publication, Clute strongly endorsed a Catholic reading of the text, saying Wolfe “must be taken as attempting something analogous to Dante’s supreme effort.”7 Clute went on to call it “a feast and a eucharist; layer after layer,” without demonstrating why he thought so.8 In a different journal the same year, he was “more and more coming to think of [it] as a highly charged political apologia for [Severian’s] dubious (and maybe even blasphemous) assumption of the autarchy, and only secondarily a ‘confession.’”9 When Clute re-published those essays he added material to identify the protagonist’s mother, demonstrating a method of reading, “a pattern of associations,” which he thought reflected the author’s practices.10 Notably, Clute did not retract his earlier opinion of the book as “a eucharist.” Wolfe rarely explains his own work, and although he discussed its religious possibilities in a limited way in a 1992 interview,11 Wolfe has never mentioned Boethius, Dante, or any other medieval artist as influences. With fundamental questions unresolved, criticism of New Sun effectively ended a decade ago.
I will explain and demonstrate some medieval allegorical methods that open New Sun to a coherent religious reading. After showing New Sun to be a Catholic work, I will briefly consider implications for the much-needed further study of this long, subtle, and complex work. It is a dual text, a book with a modern set of meanings when read by modern methods, and quite a different set of meanings when read by an older method. Clute was correct not to choose between a [End Page 128] political secular narrative and a religious testament, because discerning a religious narrative in no way unmakes the secular meaning of the text. Textual duality exhibits a literary technique, not a genre, and both understandings of New Sun firmly reside within speculative fiction, which, if we include ancient epic under that designation, is the oldest genre of all.
In the chapter “Five Legs,” the main character, Severian, indicates the duality of New Sun as a work of secular fiction with a deeper narrative. Severian is an executioner by...