What Happens at the Piteous Gate?

In The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, Severian and his traveling companions have an enigmatic and mostly off-screen encounter at Piteous Gate as they leave the city of Nessus at the end of book one.

Since book two picks up only after the encounter has concluded, we never get a direct explanation of what happens. This leaves many readers, myself included, wondering what took place there, and why Severian leaves it out.

For the record, I’m pretty convinced what Severian elides is an encounter with uhlans who were attacking people trying to leave the city. In short, after they cross the threshold of the Gate, they encounter a panicked scene where travelers are running away from the uhlans. In the fracas, Dorcas is hurt, and Severian becomes enraged, and kills some of the uhlans (and maybe some civilians as well).

He has a dream about this in chapter 1 of Claw of the Conciliator:

When I found light at last, it was the green road stretching from the shadow of the Piteous Gate. Blood gushed from Dorcas’s cheek, and though so many screamed and shouted, I could hear it pattering to the ground […] Dorcas was torn from my arms, and I drew Terminus Est to cut down those between us and found I was about to strike Master Malrubius, who stood calmly, my dog Triskele at his side, in the midst of the tumult..

This is scene is foreshadowed in chapter 13 of The Shadow of the Torturer, when  Master Palaemon is preparing to send Severian away from the guild. Master Palaemon asks:

“You know of the roads? […] I mean to warn you against them. They are patrolled by uhlans under orders to kill anyone found upon them, and since they have permission to loot the bodies of those they slay, they are not much inclined to ask excuses.”

It is also recollected in chapter 12 of Claw:

The day before, we had seen uhlans on patrol, men mounted much as we were and bearing lances like those that had killed the travelers at the Piteous Gate.

And again in chapter 1 of The Citadel of the Autarch:

At last the path joined a true road, something I had heard of often, but never trodden except in decay. It was much like the old road the uhlans had been blocking when I had become separated from Dr. Talos, Baldanders, Jolenta, and Dorcas when we left Nessus

And, lastly, in chapter 34 of Urth of the New Sun:

“They’ll be fixing dinner for us in Saltus, sieur. A good inn’s there.”

I answered, “I know,” thinking as I did how Jonas and I had walked therethrough the forest after the uhlans had scattered our party at the PiteousGate, of finding the wine in our ewer, and many other things.

None of this bullet proof evidence, but taken together I think it amounts to a fairly tenable position.

What was left out of the end of book one is not lost, but rather is scattered throughout the narrative, as though Severian could only conceal it from us, not get rid of it altogether.

Or, that Severian writes from the perspective of someone with perfect memory, and so does not consider the difficulty of tracking so many questions beyond the horizon. When the answers finally appear, we don’t even remember we were looking for them, so we usually don’t pay attention. Our eyes keep moving, looking for whatever is related to the present moment, unconcerned with the distant past. 

And then there is the old Wolfe trick of hiding things in plain sight, where we are least likely to see them. I don’t know how many times my eyes have passed over those five separate, clearly-stated explanations for what I would once have called a real enigma.

This is a common variety of puzzle in The Book of the New Sun: Severian edits his narrative to distract from the parts he’s not proud of, but leaves in enough for us to infer what actually happened. I’ve suspected that all the riddles in this book are solvable, and I would guess that, like this one, most are a matter of reading the books more attentively than we are usually capable of.