Baldanders: an Introduction
“He is indeed a creature of evil; but so are you, and so am I.” —Severian the Lame
Sometimes I am drawn to monstrous characters in stories, as are many other people; many root for King Kong or Godzilla, and against the soldiers of their own (or Japan’s) defense forces. One of the most fascinating characters in James Clavell’s novel Shōgun, for me, is Buntaro-sama, “the neckless maniac” who passionately loves warfare and killing, and who had his own mother put to death for supposedly dishonoring the family name—yet who goes into a kind of Zen-like trance and becomes an incredible, phenomenal bowman, and furthermore is a true master of the Japanese tea ceremony. The strange combination of brutality and higher consciousness is very intriguing to me, a stark and fascinating contrast. I like stark contrasts, like black ink on white paper, or wisdom and intelligence in an opulently attractive woman.
Also I really like symbolism in art, and figuring it out, or rather intuiting it out.
So both of these likings of mine apply to a character in Gene Wolfe’s magnum opus The Book of the New Sun, including its “coda,” or sequel, or conclusion, The Urth of the New Sun. For the purposes of this essay I will consider the four volumes of the Book and the single volume of the Urth as one story, which they are. But before discussing in detail the intriguing, monstrous character of Baldanders, I suppose I should describe and endorse this masterpiece of a book, or rather the five books or volumes of the story.
The entire story is a vast epic far beyond the scale of Moby-Dick, and in some ways, at least, as good and profound as Moby-Dick or maybe even better. The events of the narrative take place in a far distant future, long after a time when the human race had colonized tens of thousands of worlds, and the earth itself, or rather “Urth,” had exhausted its resources and had fallen back to a level of civilization approximately equivalent to the late Middle Ages. Furthermore, the sun has somehow acquired one or more black holes in its center which are eating it away and killing it, and consequently of course slowly killing the Urth as well. As the sun cools and grows dimmer the ice caps spread farther from the poles, the crops die of increasing frosts, a new and final Ice Age approaches, and the people pray for the coming of a New Sun, and the second coming of the christlike Conciliator who will bring it.
The story’s protagonist is Severian, a man born into a guild of torturers and executioners who falls in love with a woman sentenced to a grisly execution, and who disgraces himself and his guild by allowing her to kill herself quickly and relatively painlessly. He is banished from the ancient capital city and begins wandering the Commonwealth, which once included the entire Urth, plus maybe other worlds besides, but has been reduced to little more than a portion of the South American continent. He eventually becomes Autarch of the Commonwealth himself, and even proves to be the awaited Conciliator (being a true representative of humanity by possessing the full human spectrum of darkness and light, ruthlessness and compassion, yang and yin), but that is irrelevant to what follows. What is relevant is that Severian in his travels meets several times with a gigantic man called Baldanders.
Baldanders is around nine or ten feet tall when Severian first encounters him, is correspondingly thick, and is slow and dull in appearance, evidently a real slow thinker. He appears to be the slave or servant of a traveling showman and rogue called Dr. Talos. Baldanders acts in Talos’s plays and carries all the gear for the shows on his huge back. Baldanders obviously has emotional issues, occasionally flying into insane rages, and he is occasionally beaten and driven by a stick-wielding Dr. Talos.
But gradually Severian and the reader of the story come to realize that things are not as they seem. Baldanders is not the slave or servant of Dr. Talos, but rather is his master—in fact he is his creator. It turns out that Dr. Talos is a kind of homunculus, an artificial man designed by Baldanders to counterbalance his own weaknesses. The reason why Baldanders is a giant is because that is how he prolongs his life: he has found a way to avoid aging and decrepitude by continually growing, like a tree or a reptile. At one point the doctor explains, “It's his glands, Severian. The endocrine system and the thyroid. Everything must be managed so carefully, otherwise he would grow too fast. And then I must see that his weight doesn't break his bones, and a thousand other things.” The doctor also manages worldly affairs, like money issues, which Baldanders considers to be beneath his consideration. It turns out that Baldanders is a genius, a hulking, brooding, slow talking, amoral one, but still a genius.
Hence the paradox. Baldanders is a monstrous hulk of a being capable of unspeakable atrocities, subject to fits of rage and unnatural lusts, yet he has an insatiable hunger for knowledge (knowledge being power), which has given him, with his vast intellect, knowledge capable of understanding the world very deeply, and potentially of conquering it.
Baldanders has been interacting with nonhuman visitors to the earth called Hierodules, or “Divine Slaves,” in his quest for any and all knowledge which may be useful to him. The Hierodules know that he is amoral and quite dangerous, yet allow him to continue with his studies and experiments (many of them very gruesome ones on live humans) out of the almost equally amoral intention that his accumulated knowledge, after his eventual defeat and fall from power, will somehow benefit the human race in the long run. Nevertheless they eventually stop helping him, stop providing him with knowledge or alien technology, which Baldanders bitterly resents.
There has also evidently been some attempted interaction, at least, with gigantic beings who live in the oceans, and who are working towards enslaving the entire human race on Urth. In fact the servants of Abaia, one of these oceanic giants, accidentally find Severian when they try to access Baldanders’ dreams, as Severian shares a bed at an inn with him. Baldanders himself eventually is required to live under the sea also, at first to escape from Severian, but also because his ever increasing size renders living on land and supporting his own weight more and more difficult.
Some time after Baldanders is defeated by Severian and dives into a lake to escape him, the homunculus Dr. Talos explains to Severian, “Oh, I'm quite sure he survived. You didn't know him as I did, Severian. Breathing water would be nothing to him. Nothing! He had a marvelous mind. He was a supreme genius of a unique sort: everything turned inward. He combined the objectivity of the scholar with the self-absorption of the mystic….”
Yet there is much more to Baldanders than immensity, objectivity, and self-absorption. As has already been mentioned, he also was prone to occasional fits of violent rage, and Severian discovers that he also had been keeping a gigantic catamite, evidently a kind of artificially oversized boy sex slave. Baldanders is not simply a profound thinker and philosopher, but is amoral and ruthless, and has a dark, undeveloped emotional side. He is not simply evil, however. He is clearly amoral and ruthless, but does not perform gruesome experiments on captured rustics out of malice or desire to cause pain—he is, rather, insatiable to gain knowledge, in part to maintain his life (though he maintains it in part to prolong his quest for universal knowledge), and willing to kill or maim anyone in his quest. By comparison, a truly evil character in the book is the ancient autocrat Typhon, who evidently enjoyed harming others and exercising total dominance over them, and began a centuries-long narcissistic fashion of carving mountains into the likenesses of humans, starting with himself. Baldanders isn’t that bad, though he is definitely a kind of monstrosity.
Also, Baldanders, like monsters in general, is very dangerous. An advanced nonhuman being called Apheta, evidently more of an angel or goddess than an alien, observes, “The giant you saw might have mastered the Commonwealth, had Severian not defeated him.” Thus along with his size and his knowledge, his formidable power also grows, potentially without limit.
Before attempting to explain my symbolic interpretation of Baldanders the towering intellectual, which will be the purpose of the next installment, I suppose I could give a hint by discussing the names of the giant and his artificially created doctor.
Wolfe named Baldanders after a figure in 17th century Germanic folklore, or popular culture. Bald means “soon” and anders means “different” or “another” in the German language—thus, Soon Another, or continually changing. According to the Wikipedia article on the subject, “the Baldanders is a creature that is symbolic for the continual change in nature and society as well as the importance of familiarizing oneself with the common from another perspective.” His appearance, as seen in the illustration below, was as a kind of chimera, a being composed of the parts of many beings, who furthermore carried a book containing images of all the forms he had assumed in the past, the goal apparently being to assume as many forms as possible, and to record them.
|the original Baldanders|
The poet Hans Sachs, who invented the original Baldanders, based him in turn upon the god Proteus in Homer’s Odyssey, a monstrous sea god associated with the constantly changing nature of the sea, and with the spirit of prophecy. Thus, like the fictional Baldanders in The Book of the New Sun, the original god lives underwater (as Baldanders eventually comes to do), has great power, and can see the future.
Near the end of the epic story, Baldanders emerges from the sea, now perhaps more than 12 feet tall, and comes to the throne of the Autarch to give warning that the world is soon to end, that the New Sun will melt the icecaps and cause so much havoc that most people on Urth will die. He comes at the same time as a more stereotypical female prophet, whose prophecies are based more upon faith and intuition that on Baldanders’s intellect. But Severian says to them, “You are both prophets, although of different kinds; and each of you has prophesied as the Increate instructed you,” the Increate being God.
There is a strange scene in the story in which Baldanders is playing a part in one of Dr. Talos’s money-making plays, and he suddenly goes berserk and rushes out into a crowd of aristocrats at the House Absolute, the dwelling of the Autarch. He evidently was enraged by the presence of some angel/alien Hierodules in the audience. This scene is one of the most enigmatic for me, and I can’t say that I really understand it. Baldanders’s own explanation for his behavior is this: "You must know why I keep my temper in check. You have seen me lose it. To have them sitting there, watching me, as though I were a bear on a chain—” So it may have been simple pride combined with emotional immaturity that caused his outburst, though I have considered that, since Baldanders is highly intelligent and has the intellectual equivalent of a spirit of prophecy, that is a great facility at extrapolating the future based on present data, he was outraged at the likelihood of the Hierodules refusing to share their knowledge with him any longer, which in fact did happen later on in the story. Although while writing this paragraph it suddenly occurred to me that his own explanation may be the right one, but not through simple pride—rather Luciferian pride. The Hierodules, or Divine Slaves, are practically angelic, and Baldanders, who has little use for veneration, considered himself degraded by acting in a play before them. But the Hierodules have their own purposes for him, and so they used their weapons against him in self defense only enough to stop his attack, not to kill or maim him.
The name of Dr. Talos is also symbolic, as the name is derived from a huge bronze automaton created by the god Hephaestus to guard the woman Europa on the island of Crete. Those of you who have seen the old 1963 movie Jason & the Argonauts may remember the scene in which a cheesily animated giant statue is killed by Jason (played by Todd Armstrong) by opening a plug on his heel to let out the molten metal of his blood; well, that animated statue was Talos. So obviously the correlation is that both Dr. Talos and his original namesake were both automatons created by a technological genius. (The name Talos, incidentally, is allegedly based on the ancient Cretan word for “sun,” so a solar motif may also be present here.) If the ancient Greek mythological themes were pushed farther, then Baldanders might come closer to the Cyclops, or to the pagan god Hephaestus, with Severian perhaps being a future Odysseus, but that is neither here nor there.
In a late scene, apparently shortly before Dr. Talos is killed the first time in Baldanders’s reconstructed castle, the author indulges in some ironic allusion by having the good doctor tell Severian that certain archetypes survive for countless ages in the human heart, yet some are so momentous that they cast their effects backward, from a distant future:
…Dr. Talos whispered, “Look about you—don't you recognize this? It is just as he says!”
“What do you mean?” I whispered in return.
“The castle? The monster? The man of learning? I only just thought of it. Surely you know that just as the momentous events of the past cast their shadows down the ages, so now, when the sun is drawing toward the dark, our own shadows race into the past to trouble mankind's dreams.”
In other words, the doctor compares the Gothic scene with the ancient story of Dr. Frankenstein, except in this latter, supposedly original case the creation is the mild mannered doctor, created by the monster, who also happens to be the mad scientist. But Baldanders as mad scientist will be the theme of the next installment.
|the "original" Talos|