The Knight/Wizard by Gene Wolfe

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The Knight/Wizard by Gene Wolfe

Post by Yejun » November 17th, 2009, 8:38 pm

The Knight by Gene Wolfe.
The Wizard by Gene Wolfe

It is a coming of age tale.

Where the coming of age never quite happens.

A young boy from "our" world magically leaves for another world under vague circumstances. We are treated to a different reality of multiple worlds: seven with no place for our own (There's a reason for that.). As he explores these worlds, he becomes a man (quickly), has a quest, is mistaken for another man, brother, son, and so on is propositioned by all sorts of women (of more than one magical race), learns how to fight, gains magical powers, deals with metaphysical issues, tells jokes and is pretty much living the quintessential male-adolescent power fantasy.

These two books, over a thousand pages, are one long novel in the form of a letter. Chapter 1's title is "Dear Ben" and it ends with the name of the narrator. Whether or not that is the best way to go here is questionable, it is however some of the time a charming motif. The titles aren't kidding. This is Tolkien-esque high fantasy with giants and elves, knights, kings, forbidden loves, impossible loves, battles, betrayals and so forth.

Except not quite.

I hope this isn't sounding too awkward but I'm trying to avoid any specific description of the plot: half the fun of this thing is the surprise. Some, as the reviews at Amazon seem to point out, aren't going to be too comfortable with those surprises as they aren't always explained within the narrative logic; they are, I think, explained within the psychological logic of the characters but that's not always satisfying (Yeah, I don't get why certain things happened).

Tolkien, of course, but also the Heinlein of "Glory Road," Haruki Murakami, and Neil Gaiman immediately come to mind (If you've read "American Gods" the comparison with Gaiman will be obvious). Wolfe comes dangerously close to that book (I'm not a big fan of that particular book by the way) but pulls away as he touches on many metaphysical mind/body relationship problems and then pulls away without declaring his allegiance to any particular one.

And that's the point.

I have no idea how much Wolfe understands current philosophy but he gets the idea or implies that these problems, as certain philosophy points out, that many of the problems that we take for granted are in fact pseudo-problems and are treated that way. This creates a certain flippancy at times that seems entirely appropriate to a novel for grown-ups with an adolescent (sort of) as the main character. Identity, life/death, ambition, situation, Gnosticism, love are all touched and played with here (not, I admit, always as smoothly as I would have liked).

And it is a novel for grown-ups. In at least one scene, the "sex" (I put in quotes for a reason) is described in detail, in others it almost seems Victorian. The point I think, again, is that he's taking adolescent ideas and showing, not telling, how they never really leave us. He doesn't do this in a nostalgic way (that's done all the time, usually around Christmas, and usually pre-adolescent) but in a way, that at least for me, works very well.

Gene Wolfe has often been described as America's most unsung writer. He's a genre writer and those with literary pretensions will tend to look down on these kinds of books. My difference is that I grew up on science fiction and comic books and never quite lost my taste for either. While I love Tolkien and enjoyed some Jordan, I much prefer the quirkier fantasy (what is sometimes called Magic Realism if it has literary merit or Slipstream if it's considered popular. Personally, I don't care. A good read is a good read. I suspect most of us are that way.). I think a case can be made that he should be considered a better writer than he is:
You know, I've been wondering what killed that wolf. That was dumb of me, with the answer lying right next to me. It was you. You don't have to nod, Glyf. I know it was.

He nodded anyway.

"Then you left the lamb for me, instead of eating it yourself. Maybe the brown girl had something to do with it, but it was nice of you anyhow." I tore the lower part of the lamb's leg from the upper and gave it to him.

He held it down with his forepaws, the way dogs do, and tore it with teeth that would have surprised me in a lion's mouth. Seeing them, I wondered why the wolf had not dropped the lamb and run. "Well, how is it?" I asked him.

And he grunted, "Good!"
One of the most interesting things is his use of names. In "The Book of the New Sun," his best work according to many, a tetralogy that is five books long (There's a kind of coda), is that none of the names he uses, as exotic as they may sound, are made up. They all come from English. I assume he does the same thing here. The name of the human king is Arnthor. His sister's name is Morcaine. It doesn't follow Camelot (not really) but feel free to make your own associations.

And that's what Wolfe does here. He takes from the great mythological sagas of Scandinavia and Northern Europe, mixes it up with some Christian symbolism and Middle English epic, and certainly adds a lot of other stuff that comes from somewhere, I just don't know where. About the only thing I could ask for would be a novel in metrical verse (If you're going to play with things, play with them!). But that's a story for another time:
"One time you asked if I wanted my boy to grow up like me, or did I want to be a boy again myself. I wanted him to be like me, only now I'd sooner be like him." He sighed.

I told him I had been a boy myself not long ago.

"Know what you mean."

"When I found out I'd been turned into a man. I was scared, but after that I was so happy I jumped all around yelling. Tonight I'd go back, if I could."

"That's it."
A couple of minor points:

1. It is a page turner but it slows in the middle of the second book. I got distracted and stopped for a while, read a few other things before finishing it up in about three days. How much that was simply me and how much of that was the book's fault, I have no idea.

2. I have ordered, received, and started reading Wolfe's second tetralogy, "The Book of the Long Sun" (don't ask). I thought these were that good.

I guess the literary question is always the same. Will people be talking about this book (or Wolfe in general) in a hundred years? I can't answer that. I can say that it'll be fun conversation if they do.

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