Gene Wolfe

 

The Knight

(Book 1 of The Wizard Knight)

 

Well, not to put to fine a point on it, this is a fabulous book.

 

Hey, there’s a lot of buzz about Gene Wolfe, which I didn’t quite get after my first encounter with him in Soldier of the Mist. This book was pretty much guaranteed to put me to sleep after about ten minutes. Not so with The Knight which kept me happily up for hours, and had me squeezing into any gaps I found in the day.

 

I can see why some people might find some aspects annoying – like the childish perspective and style of the narrator. But that deal with the boy in a man’s body worked for me. I enjoyed this exercise in dropping an innocent into all sorts of dire situations, not as a mere victim, but as a power for good. To some degree Wolfe is running with the idea of the strength of innocence as a shield from certain temptations and dangers that undermine others, something I’ve seen in Card and George MacDonald (perhaps the closest hero I can think of to Sir Able of the High Heart is Curdie). This also reminded me, as did the settings, mood and quality, of Neil Gaiman’s excellent Stardust (and Gaiman is a fan, as reflected in his droll praise for The Knight quoted on the cover of my edition: “If you don’t read this book you are missing out on something important and wonderful and all the cool people will laugh at you”). Although, in contrast to Stardust’s less Herculean protagonist, in making Able such a bad-ass fighter he is also able to go along with this, ‘A knight doesn’t count his foes’ bravado and get away with it. At one point a character says to Able something along the lines of, “You’re more than just a good fighter – you’re something out of legend.” This dialogue is showing a deal of bravado on the author’s part – but he gets away with it too! That’s the glory of this novel (well, the chief one anyway, but there are other pleasures): Wolfe hasn’t (like, say, a Jordan, a Goodkind, or a Kay) just claimed a legend, but (like David Gemmell) actually created one. There are so many striking scenes where Able *is* inspiring. He has the highest ambitions and chivalric code, and lives by them. Wolfe isn’t just hinting at a grand past but actually paints a present that you realise has legendary implications.

 

I suspect part of the reason that Wolfe’s hero towers above those of lesser authors is that he appears to have read a lot of the old material, not just diluted contemporary fantasies loosely based around them. Able is far more a Percival or Galahad than your usual good-hearted boy with some secret bloodline granting some mystic skill or strength. He is not quite of this world, but generally too humble to realise. The settings include your stock fantasy line of mythic medieval ships and castles and the like, but the interplay between faery and gods is anything but. It’s not totally new, but it’s tapping into less mined (and rich) traditions – which probably bugs readers who don’t want their hero suddenly nipping off into some surreal alternative plane in the middle of an adventure. But Able, wonderfully, doesn’t work to normal agendas. Indeed, it’s great the way he just drops everything if there’s a whiff of his fey pseudo goddess/love, Queen Disiri – who brings in elements of courtly love, allowing Able to show utter pure devotion which (though he would smite you at the very suggestion) outshines the object of his adoration.

 

There’s nothing particularly special about Wolfe’s high ambition – every man and his dog in this genre seems to be setting out to write something epic. Instead they tend to just write something with a lot of pages (that sometimes would have been quite good had it been edited down to one medium sized book instead a series of thumpers). But I think, with The Knight at least, Wolfe has managed something as ambitious as creating a legendary knight. And Wolfe knows about knights – not so much the real historical ones, but the fabulous idealised ones: yeah, that’s what I want. Look, he even has the audacity to throw in an archangel, and thank goodness Michael gives us a sense of awe (cf. C.S. Lewis’ Voyage to Venus) that calls to mind Daniel or Revelation, a terrifyingly blithe power rather than the appalling popular sappy good-fairy versions. It reminded me of one of my favourite bible passages about angels, in the book of Joshua (5:13-14), where the victorious general at the head of his army challenges a lone figure with a drawn sword:

Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, "Are you for us or for our enemies?"

"Neither," he replied, "but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come."

Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, "What message does my Lord have for his servant?"

Now that’s an angel: an utterly implacable warrior who can’t even be bothered raising contempt for an entire human army. And a gorgeous reversal:

“Are you for us or for our enemies?”

“Neither.”

Killer.

And Joseph, with the whole of Canaan melting in fear around him (like the generally fearless and mighty Sir Able upon meeting Michael) has only one possible response.

 

I realise I’m skating on some thin ice here: as a Christian I don’t see Michael as a fictional character, which, of course, he is in ‘The Knight’. But I do appreciate that in borrowing from Christianity – something that underpinned so much of the medieval material that Wolfe is drawing upon to evoke his knight – he doesn’t cock it up.

 

But I digress (Oh really?)…

 

Like Gemmell, Wolfe gives us a genuinely heroic hero: he says and does good things, not just petty or flashy or selfish ones. But Wolfe also manages to soar, to have a high spirit running through the whole thing. Gemmell is able and very enjoyable, but sometimes his plot drags him along rather than the reverse (even though there’s the wisdom of Druss saying that kings come and go, what can you do but maintain your own courage and integrity in the face of a world you can’t change – Gemmell still seems to at times mistakenly feel he has make his characters historically pivotal, which can actually lesson the book’s potency). With Able there is some sense of progression, but I’ve just realised that really there is no central quest, no grail or magical ring or uber-baddie. Sure he’s after Eterne, but that is incidental. He desperately hopes to see Disiri, but gets on with his life, just being ready to jump if the wind is blowing right. The central quest, if anything, is simply to be a good knight (which is more about courage and will than anything else). We’re not needing some countdown or final showdown to kick us over the line: Able and his adventures are good enough company alone. That’s really cool, and frees us from all sorts of potentially unhelpful conventions.

 

Hey, I raved about George R.R. Martin’s opening ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ book, A Game of Thrones, only to be disappointed with sequels. But I really hope ‘The Wizard’ can live up to ‘The Knight’. It was a lot of fun getting to be with a real knight. How satisfying will it be if, like Mary Stewart’s Merlin, or Ursula K. LeGuin’s Ged, Wolfe can give me some time with a real wizard in the next book?

 

June 2007