I an only two thirds of the way through the first book in this four-volume series, so if the answer to my question is dealt with later, I would be grateful if answerers could specify this, and offer non-spoiler details, please.

The work of the Guild of Torturers, to which the protagonist belongs, is obviously grim and disturbing. However, the reason as to why the society of Urth requires such a horrid guild are only hinted at.

It seems that victims are sent to the Torturers either as a form of punishment, or as a means of obtaining information. Yet in one instance, a prospective "client" outlines relatively minor crimes for which she has been committed:

"I paid bravos to fire her thatch. She lost a feather bed, a few sticks of furniature, and some clothes. Is that a crime for which I should be tortured?"

As if suffering were not enough, there are veiled hints through the early parts of the book that clients never leave the torturer's tower alive - that their torment is always to the death?

Yet in spite of their vile practice, Severian hints that they are well-respected as well as feared. Indeed he and the other guild members seem to feel no great guilt about what they do, in spite of being otherwise moral beings. I cannot now find the quote, but I seem to recall that on his trip to the archives, he suggests that his guild is seen as superior to that of the archivists: in other words that on Urth, torturers are seen as better than scholars.

What's been particularly bugging me is this quote:

"I was something worse than a slave (I mean in the eyes of the common people, who do not really understand the functions of our guild)"

Which hints that the purpose of the torturers goes beyond the stated ones of punishment and interrogation.

Are there any clues as to what these "functions" are? And do they explain the relative esteem the guild is held in, the severity of the punishments they are require to inflict for minor infractions, and the lack of conscience displayed by its otherwise apparently humanitarian members?

2 Answers 2


These are just my personal opinions from the many times I've read this book:

It is clear that the guild has fallen far from its glory days, being reduced to just two Masters and a handful of Journeymen. One gets the impression that the torturers are not the elite interrogation arm of a tyrannical despot so much as an almost forgotten sub-branch of an inefficient and impersonal bureaucracy. Ultan the librarian would fall into the same category.

The torturers themselves seem to focus entirely on the perfection of their craft, and actually take pride in having no interest in why they are asked to torture and execute their clients (there is a scene where Severian is chastised by one of the Masters for not having pretended to not hear the speech of a tortured prisoner).

I see this as a kind of organisational drift over a long period of time which is in keeping with the book's far future setting in which everything is really old and based on thousands of years of history.

Another example from the book is the strange prison in the House Absolute where Severian and Jonas are confined. It started off as a waiting room for people wating to petition the Autarch and, over time, as these people were never seen, gradually turned into a jail. At the time Severian encounters it, few even remember why people are confined there, just that they are and that there are traditions and rituals to be followed.

The Torturers are a bit like that. It doesn't have to make sense, they're just doing what they've always done.


The Torturers' Guild is properly named "The Order of the Seekers of Truth and Penitence". As you point out, though, the torturers care little about the truth and just carry out punishment blindly.

We carry out the sentences that are delivered to us, doing no more than we are told, and no less, and making no changes.

Severian is told during his training that "nothing said by a client under questioning is heard by you" (in fact, a past practice was that "the journeymen of our guild were deafened"); this rule is more specific in the book The Urth of the New Sun:

It had been a rule among the torturers that one should not speak to a client, nor understand anything a client chanced to say.

However, we do see the torturers carrying out another function in one scene, which seems counter to this: Interrogation. We see it most explicitly in Dr Talos's play in The Claw of the Conciliator (where the character of the Torturer, played by Severian, is accompanied by an Inquisitor), but that might be fictitious and not based on the guild's (current) operations. In The Shadow of the Torturer, however:

The client was put to the question last night – perhaps some of you heard her.

The phrase "put to the question" could be a euphemism, a term from the earlier days when the guild were truly the seekers of truth, but this "client" seems to be the maidservant of Thecla and she does seem to have been interrogated when she later says this:

Just as were about to leave the woman said, "I don't know. Only, oh, can't you believe I wouldn't tell you if I did? She's gone with Vodalus of the Wood, I don't know where."

The "Penitence" of the guild's name is more relevant. The Matachin Tower of the torturers obviously functions as a penitentiary, although the torturers don't care about any repentance.

So the main function of the Guild is to imprison criminals, so they can repent (to themselves or the Increate; the torturers and the Autarch themselves don't care, at least until the Autarch visits the Tower himself near the end of The Citadel of the Autarch), to carry out sentences of torture for the judges of the Autarchy, and seemingly sometimes to interrogate prisoners (presumably at the direct order of the Autarchy).

It's worth noting that although it still seems to fill some of the functions you'd think the guild would be responsible for, it has strayed from its original function. Severian notes this several times during the narrative, most explicitly near the end of The Citadel of the Autarch when he has several thoughts on how the guild should be changed or reformed. (I'm leaving out any explanation here in case you still haven't read that far yet, but it's pretty clear in the text.)

By the way, here's an article about "Torture and confession in Wolfe's Book of the New Sun" which you might find interesting.

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