Gene Wolfe, The Knight:
Book One of the Wizard Knight
reviewed by Danielle L. Parker
Author: Gene Wolfe
Publisher: Tor, 2004
Hardcover: 430 pp.
Price: $25.95 US
I don’t know how many readers of this column are themselves writers: judging from the number of entries in our story contest, maybe a lot of you. It doesn’t matter whether you’re published yet or not; you’re still a writer if you’re doing it. There are probably plenty of you out there like me, working hard on The Novel. In my case, that’s a futuristic noir mystery-thriller, combining elements of two genres I love: science fiction and mysteries, the hardboiled kind.
Recently, in the spirit of background research, I caught up with a famous detective that I’d never really gotten acquainted with before... Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer. I wasn’t quite sure I was doing the right thing at first. Would such a heavy dose of another writer influence my own style too much? Would my prose sound too derivative under the recent digestion of three Archer novels and a collection of Archer short stories? But when I reached the short story collection, a comment by the author himself reassured me. He noted that early in his own career, he himself was very influenced by Chandler (a writer I can almost quote verbatim) and Hammet. He commented it took him time to find his own voice, and reading those early short stories, I could see what he meant.
But today Lew Archer stands tall on his own gumshoes right next to Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade (I’d add Travis McGee to the Mystery Mt. Roosevelt list, but that’s another coffee-shop argument). In any case, I thought, maybe it’s part of the learning curve for any new writer: out of those writers we admire and ingest, from our own nature and our own experiences, from trial and error, we somehow blend our own brew.
But I don’t think the process of influence ever really stops. When I picked up Gene Wolfe’s new tale, The Knight: Book One of the Wizard Knight, there was a dedication to Yves Meynard, author of The Book of Knights. Gene Wolfe’s new story reuses a key idea of that earlier work: a boy becomes a physical man instantly, but remains the child within.
From there the two stories diverge unrecognizably from each other, but they share that one key idea, as well as a spiritual and emotional exploration of what truly constitutes a knight. Gene Wolfe, one of the acknowledged masters of the fantasy and horror genres, found inspiration at the fountain of another writer just as we novices do. It was a discovery that made my day, I must admit.
In The Knight, a young boy from America is transported into a universe of magic. There is much that feels Wagnerian in this new realm, and any fan of the Ring will recognize the layered worlds of sky-father and hero and fire-breathing dragon and Norn. The wandering boy who is named Able of the High Heart by the old woman who spins the threads of fate is hired to guide a knight, Sir Ravd. But he is lured away by a queen of the fairy Aelf, inhabitants of Aelfrice, the world below. There, for her own pleasure, she causes the boy to become a man. He returns, like any victim of fairy, remembering little, and finding years have passed in the upper world of man.
Though Able is adult of body he is still no more than the boy inside. But though he has no horse, no sword, no liege lord, his queen of air and darkness has knighted him with her own sword and bade him, like the doomed hero of the Ring, to seek a magic sword that will be proved against a dragon. His quest will take him over and under the sea, into a tower in the sky, into the realm of the giants, and at last, on the wings of a griffin and the kiss of a Valkyrie, into the sky-father’s castle.
I need not belabor the quality of Gene Wolfe’s writing for those who have read his previous works. His heroes are never ordinary, I might say almost never normal men, and Able is no exception. I remember the jolt I felt when I first read Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer series: that frisson that occurs when one realizes that the speaker whose thoughts echo in one’s mind is in fact a very, very strange man, and not a being one would like to meet in the flesh, either.
Able, who worships the queen of the Moss Aelf and who at one point offers to kill a child for her sake, is another eerie but thoroughly real Wolfe protagonist. The book itself is a complex spin of myth, magic, Wolfe’s usual moral and religious themes. Like most Gene Wolfe novels, it requires reading more than once to grasp its subtleties.
The most jarring note in the story was the childish American boy slant (gee that’s swell sort of thing) interleaved with Wolfe’s more normal poetic writing style. It was unusually annoying to find in something written by this author, a little like reading A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court all over again (and I don’t know about the rest of you, but by the end of that one, I was getting more than a little weary of that chipper Yankee and wishing Merlin could have turned him into a toad).
The boy-in-a-man’s-body theme worked much better in Meynard’s The Book of Knights because that boy was a native of his own world, and a serious, direct child at that. His innocent purpose translated naturally into knighthood. Able is not a boy of the world he inhabits, neither is he, in many ways, what I would call innocent. The scattered Americanisms stick out like a bump in the floor that the reader keeps smashing a toe on. I suppose I may see in Book Two just what was the value-added of the American-boy-in-exile spin, but I don’t find it in this first book.
I am reading the sequel, The Wizard Knight. In the meantime, buy, borrow, or check out the first in the series... a story that will reward you with multiple readings and a fantastic journey with an eerily strange knight. Enjoy!