I think my most basic reaction is that it's good but not Wolfe's best -- not up there with The Book of the New Sun or The Fifth Head of Cerberus, say. That it's well written is not in doubt: it's by Wolfe, after all. But I had some problems with it -- some of which are probably in my head, some of which are in the work, and some of which are in the chemical mixture of the two.
It's hard to criticize Wolfe, though, because of his reputation as a trickster: if you present a negative opinion of anything the man writes, you instantly lay yourself open to the charge that you just didn't get it. And not infrequently the charge will be valid. But it won't always be valid: Wolfe is human, humans are imperfect, and even Shakespeare wrote some clunkers. And while a lot of aspects of Wolfe's fiction are far more complex than they appear even at third glance, other aspects are, finally, not: they are straightforward, despite the efforts of Wolfe's more serious fans (an overlapping but not identical group to Wolfe's more serious readers) to try and make them so.
And, for me at least, it's even more intimidating when the backs of the books are filled with breathless praise from some of my other favorite writers: Neil Gaiman! Kim Stanley Robinson! Everyone seems to agree that this is the very best book since Wolfe's last very best book, and you just have to love it!
Well, I didn't. I liked it, but also had some real problems with it. So at the risk of derision for missing the point, I'm going to begin with some straightforward critiques of a writer who (in John Clute's apt words) "has never in his life told a straightforward tale".
I think the first half of The Knight was slow. There were a number of places where, if the book hadn't said Gene Wolfe on the cover, I would have given up. Partly this was because the book, while being slow, presented itself mostly as an adventure book: it was not slow in the good way that, say, Proust is. It was slow where it shouldn't have been. For me, at least, this lessened as I went along, and by the end of The Knight I was fully gripped, and stayed so through The Wizard.
In a related criticism, the book was unevenly paced. This is related, not identical, because I'm not just referring to the first half of volume one. The rest of volume one and the first two-thirds or so of volume two, while never (for me) dull, proceeded at a stately pace through the events of the tale -- leaving the ending to be told at breakneck speed and with more-than-usual abridgement. Parts of this are due to Wolfe's habit of telling the most serious parts of his stories by indirection -- but only, I think, parts.
Wolfe's uneven pacing is actually habitual for him -- there are traces of it in The Book of the New Sun, and it's a more serious problem in The Book of the Long Sun. And at this point I'm coming around to the belief that while this is partly due to careful authorial craft, it is also partly a failure of it: Wolfe simply gets too wrapped up in the early stages of some of his adventures and tells them at (at times) tedious length.
Wolfe, as has been frequently noted, writes puzzles, works which hint at stories and cosmology and theology which are only partly and obscurely visible on the surface. But he also writes (and clearly likes to write and, from what he's said of his reading tastes, likes) adventure stories which form the surface under which those puzzles move. And while Wolfe is a genius at writing puzzles, he is, I think, uneven at writing adventures. He likes it more than he's good at it. And I find that my favorite Wolfe works are often those where he doesn't try -- in his short stories, for instance, in which he is often simply doing something else.
There are a lot of interpretive puzzles in The Wizard Knight, as there are in all of Wolfe's work. Some of them I got the first time around. Others I didn't; still others I probably even missed the existence of. And I feel that if I reread it -- particularly, if I reread it right now, with the first reading fresh in my mind -- I would probably get a lot more of them -- might understand, to pick one example out of many, what the complex relationship between Mythgarthr and America was supposed to be, a relationship (along with the relationship of parallel or crossing characters) which Wolfe hinted a lot about but did not make clear -- at least to me -- on the first reading.
But, frankly, I didn't like it enough to want to reread it -- certainly not now. (Other Wolfe works I have liked enough to reread them, whether I found time to or not.) I'd rather read something else -- even something else of Wolfe's. Wolfe's puzzles are marvelous, but if the supporting structure isn't good enough, I don't want to take the time to figure them out. And at least in the case of The Wizard Knight, I didn't.
On to other topics.
I think Wolfe's writing of Able's voice was profoundly uneven. Usually in a high and archaic register, it would lapse at times into slang -- into (to my ear) outdated slang, slang that uneasily mixed contemporary life (macs) with some sort of parody of fifties usage (swell!). The slang itself was jarringly inconsistent; and the mixture of slang into otherwise unbroken pages of high-register speech (both dialogue and the narrator's voice) was frequently awkward in the extreme. Wolfe has said in an interview that he didn't have any trouble writing a modern teenager, since he knows them and lives near them; but I think there was a real failure of tone here. Now, maybe, this is all part of some complex Wolfean trick, some deliberate mixture of tone which served some thematic, portraiture or other purpose... but I sure didn't see it. Until someone convinces me otherwise, I think this is simply a failure on his part.
I should perhaps mention that there was a lot to like here, since I've so far been mostly negative. It is, as I said, well-written (save for the -- thankfully not all that frequent -- lapses in tone just noted); it is mostly exciting. The cosmology was fascinating, the magic mysterious, many of the characters quite interesting. The reinvention of by-now standard fantasy elements -- the Norse mythos, elves, and lots more -- was refreshing and fun. There's a lot to like here.
But I think my biggest complaint -- my biggest stumbling block -- was a pair of intertwined issues: the character of Able, and the ethics (even, politics) of the book.
First off, I found Able frequently insufferable. Pompous, self-righteous, frequently a bully, he also came off as a Mary Sue (at least in one sense of that polyvalent term of fan critique): not only was he the most courageous and noble person about, but he also had the writer stacking the deck for him at every turn. He had more magical allies, artifacts, assistants, companions, than you could shake a stick at: an invisible ogre doing his bidding! A sky-wolf who happened to be totally loyal! Elves (called Aelf) who were his slaves (yes, not always reliable, but often enough). A magic sword, the blessing and friendship of Odin, various other magic devices he got at the end (the helmet, another sword). Heck, he even becomes a god halfway through the work! Talk about favoritism!*
This sort of stacking the deck is hard enough to take when the writer has some self-consciousness about what he's doing, but I didn't see any sign that Wolfe did. He simply loved his creation, and showered him with so many cheats and advantages that any honor he might have accrued felt like a cheat.
Able adjusted with damning speed to the hierarchy of a medieval society. Here his American origins were least convincing, if not downright morally foul. It's natural for those raised in a profoundly hierarchical society to accept it as normal, to expect deference from the lower-born and give it to the higher. But it's inexplicable for an American -- even an American boy. It makes Able seem like a deeply immoral man -- in a way that no one else in the novel seems immoral, since after all, no one else in the novel ought to have a cultural grounding in notions of equality and the malevolence of fixed class. Oh, sure, this is not absolutely true: Able makes no effort to hide his peasant ancestry, and seems to think it doesn't matter, so he's certainly less class conscious, more egalitarian, than most of the people he meets. But he also expects an enormous level of deference from his "inferiors", and seems to regard his "superiors" has being due a great deal of it. And yes, he was frequently kind, even generous to those below him -- but in such a way that their status was perfectly clear.
For me, the incident that stuck with me was the one early on in The Knight where Able went to get a sea-berth on a ship. Quoted a price by the captain, he insisted on having the best cabin (turning the captain out) at less than half the price quoted... and to get it, he literally threatened the man's life. He acted, in short, like the brigands whose thievery he used to justify their slaughter not a few chapters before, taking what he wanted because he wanted it, and -- and in some sense this was, to me, even more damning -- because he clearly felt that it was his due as a knight.
Again, if there was any sign that all of this that Wolfe was presenting a critique of Able, that would be fine. If he was being presented as a boy who hadn't learned better, or a man trying but failing to be good... but while Wolfe's reputation as a subtle writer might make one reach for such an interpretation, I didn't see any real signs of it in the text. I got the impression that we were simply supposed to think Able was a good and admirable person, that Wolfe certainly thought so, that he was blind to all his (quite damning) flaws.
Adam Stephanides, who hated The Knight (which, I hope I have made clear, I didn't), nevertheless has a passage in his self-described "rant" about it that strikes me as sadly on the mark:
Sir Able of the High Heart, the Uberknight who his inferiors willingly submit to (if not, they're treacherous curs, whom he rightfully punishes), not any of the other characters, not the world, and not the plot, such as it was. Able doesn't behave like an adolescent, magically given an adult body or not: what he does behave like is an adolescent boy's fantasy of how he would behave if given a powerful adult body. Nor does he sound in the least like an adolescent, contemporary or otherwise. When Able talks to other characters, he sounds like the generic Wolfe Competent Male; when he's narrating, he mostly sounds like Hoof, except when Wolfe throws in some incongruous "poetic" passages, or remembers that Able is supposed to be a modern teenager and tosses in a reference to Macs or baseball.Overly-strongly put. But not, I think, fundamentally mistaken about the problems of the book.
And Wolfe's apparent (and, I believe, genuine) fundamental admiration for Able connects to the deeply problematic ethics of the work as a whole -- and, finally, to its politics.
One of modernity's powerful cultural changes was the rotting of the chivalric code. It's crucial to remember that this happened, not due to our inability to live up to, but to historical events' revealing of its essential malevolency -- at least in the context of a (technologically, socially) modern society, if not in general. The most famous articulation of this point, I believe, is Hemmingway's, in A Farewell to Arms:
Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the names of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.What I found most profoundly disturbing was the sense that what Wolfe was ultimately trying to do was to redeem words such as glory, honor, courage or hallow -- words that, for inescapably important moral reasons, have indeed become (if indeed they were not always) obscene.
And this, at least, I don't think was my simplifying the work of a complex writer. (Rather, I think this was my (liberal) reaction to an essentially very conservative writer.) For Wolfe said as much in an interview he did with Neil Gaiman. -- True, he can be as cagey and mysterious in interviews as he is in fiction... sometimes. But not always: and I submit that anyone who sees the following as other than straightforward is probably over-reading. Here is the exchange (I've abridged Gaiman's question):
Gaiman: [A] hundred years from now... a teenager [reads The Wizard Knight]. Where do you hope The Knight and The Wizard will take her?Actually, I don't think it's cool. And I certainly don't think it's noble. I think it's, at a minimum, profoundly disturbing... arguably even, in Hemingway's word, "obscene".
Wolfe: To a country where honor, courage, and fidelity actually mean something. The whole knightly ideal came into being because the fighting was so close. Ordinary people saw who defended the castle and who hid in the wine cellar, who went for the enemy while his followers, well, actually followed instead of doing all the fighting for him. Communities were small; everybody knew how everybody else behaved. I want her to see what those qualities can mean to the person who has them and to those around him.
Gaiman: That's really cool. And, for want of a better word, noble.
And along with honor and glory and fidelity come hierarchy, and servitude, and subservience, and caste: all right there in Wolfe's book, just like the world. Along comes all the horrors of pre-modern society that were destroyed by it, even as it introduced new horrors of its own.
Now a great deal of fantasy -- not all of it, but a lot of it -- is written in a spirit of nostalgia for the pre-modern world. This nostalgia takes different forms and has different (moral, literary, personal) meanings. But I must admit I've never found it as disturbing as in Wolfe's Wizard Knight. For comparison, let me talk about Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, not only the inescapable point of comparison for almost any high fantasy work (at least in a basic sense, i.e. a fantasy work set in a world different from our own), but as a book which Wolfe and I (and half the reading world) share a love for. Because, despite Tolkien's clear nostalgia for pre-modern times, I didn't, and don't, find it nearly as problematic as I did Wolfe's Wizard Knight. Why?
Well, first off, Wolfe brings a purportedly modern voice and perspective into his pre-modern times... and has it swallow them whole. Tolkien, of course, sets his work wholly within a different time, so the lack of a modern ethical perspective is reasonable, even essential. But for Wolfe not to confront these issues implicitly ratifies things that Tolkien needn't deal with.
More importantly, for Tolkien, the good is more complex than it is for Wolfe, at least for Wolfe here. While Tolkien's characters strive to do right, The Lord of the Rings is above all about the corruption of power, the corruptibility of good intent, and the terrible dangers for even those who strive to do right. I don't see any of that in Wolfe's Wizard Knight. As my favorite reader of Tolkien, T. A. Shippey, has noted, the ring and its thematic motif of the corrupting nature of power bring into Tolkien the one modern element in an otherwise pre-modern work. That is, Tolkien brought into his work some of the complexity from the modern world -- and it made his work as rich as it is. Wolfe brought in a modern element, seemingly just to show that nothing from America really needed saving or really had any valuable perspective lacking in the pre-modern world.
Similarly, for Tolkien, the evil seems far more evil than it does for Wolfe -- and far more tied to the basic issues of war and power. It is the desire for control, for gain, that is fundamentally wrong in Tolkien's work... and we see, quite powerfully, their result in things such as the powerful, Great War Trench-influenced depictions of the broken land of Mordor, and in the vivid depictions of the scouring of the shire.** Now, we see, at the end of The Wizard, some of the ruinous effects of war... but not with anything like the vividness and power in Tolkien. More to the point, Wolfe doesn't portray this as the outcome of war, but the outcome of the good guys loosing: you don't see any sense that if the humans had simply beat the Osterlings (and we are told very specifically that this begun with a raid on their lands for gain, something presented as straightforward and not at all morally troubling) that there would be anything wrong. In Tolkien, war is shown as something necessary due to a fallen world, something which is itself part of the corruption even of the good: in Wolfe, it's only too bad when you loose, and all the jousting and ridiculous fights of honor he portrays are simply something it would be jolly good to have back. (I exaggerate, but not as much as I wish I did.)
And finally, of course, Tolkien was writing long before our time -- before my time. The Lord of the Rings was written, in significant part, during the Second World War; The Wizard Knight was written, in significant part, during the so-called War on Terror. The world is different now. And that means I experience the works differently.
And here we get to something which is probably more my failure than anything else.
You see, I am far, far more suspicious of "words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow" in the present -- say, the last six years -- than I am from before. And I think that is because so many Americans experienced the attacks of September 11 as an immediate and unproblematic redemption of them. Yet it seems to me that one crucial component of the horrible mistakes and unforgivable evils that our country has committed in the past six years was precisely that redemption: of our thinking, far too much, about glory and honor and courage -- not to mention "evil doers" -- and far too little about the names of villages.
The truth is, I read The Wizard Knight with these words -- Wolfe's reaction to the 9-11 attacks -- ringing in my ears:
We will be told that the perpetrators (and only the perpetrators) must be punished, and that the greatest pains must be taken to make certain no innocent person suffers. That sounds much better than saying no action should be taken, but it comes to the same thing. The perpetrators cannot be punished. They died in the planes they hijacked and are beyond our reach. It is not possible to fight a war (not even a losing war) without causing innocent people to suffer.And I thought a lot of things about them. For example, I thought that with only the smallest tweaking, they could sound like the justifications that the 9-11 attackers might themselves have used: oh, unlike what Wolfe is saying, the "perpetrators" that they would have been talking about were probably not doing crimes that I would say were clearly such. But the argument would have been the same: we can't fight a war without causing innocent people to suffer. If we aren't willing to kill the innocent, then we can't do anything. The actual perpetrators (say, the government of the U.S.) are beyond our reach, but that doesn't mean that no action should be taken. And so forth.***
(I don't want to get too sidetracked here, but of course Wolfe's comment makes an assumption, the basic mistake that has been at the root of so much of our national crimes and mistakes and lost opportunities in the past six years: assuming that "action" means "war", and that no war means no action. After all, in the legal prosecutions of criminal gangs, it is possible to make sure that only the guilty suffer -- or, at least, far, far more sure than in any war. That if we had responded to Al Queada not by comparing them to the Nazis, but by comparing them to the Mafia, all might have been different.)
But hate it or not, the politics clearly effected me here. I'm sure that the complexities in Tolkien that were lacking in Wolfe's Wizard Knight are a large part of my reaction to it. But the fact that Wolfe, a conservative writing in my time, a time when conservatives have done so much horrible damage to our country and the world, was a big part too.
And I hate this. I hate that my experience of what is, after all, a fantasy story unconnected to the present day, is colored by politics. I hate that my experience of the writer who, for all his failings, is one of the best writers working today (in fantasy or out of it), is colored by my knowledge of his politics.**** I hate that I can't just see the dragons and The Knights, but instead see the calls for further U.S. crimes and blunders and wars.
One of the personal things I blame Bush and his followers for is that they have created such a terrible, poisonous, and down-right evil atmosphere that I am far less capable of seeing things in political terms than I used to be -- far less capable than I would like to be.
I suspect that even in happier times I would have found The Wizard Knight flawed -- for its pacing, for its main character, and, yes, for its deeply problematic medieval ethics. But only nowadays would I experience this as finding it flawed for its politics.
In this sense, and this sense only, I guess I, too, wish I could go back to simpler times.
Update, 9/18: In a "where angels fear to tread" spirit, I cross posted this review to the Gene Wolfe discussion board at urth.net. As you might expect, the people who frequent that board are, typically, huge Gene Wolfe fans (as am I, really, this review notwithstanding). So there have been a few responses to my review -- three so far, although I hope there will be more. So if you're interested in a fairly different perspective than mine here, surf over there and check it out (the link is to the first post; clicking "next post" should get you to the other two). Later Update: there have indeed been more posts; lots of interesting points of view. Keep clicking next post from that link above, or see this page for links to all the responses.
* Other writers have complained about the split focus in The Wizard between Able and Toug. I, actually, felt that that was one of the things that The Wizard had going for it: it spent more time focusing on people who were more complex, less Blessed by The Gods (i.e. by Wolfe), and thereby were, to me, far more sympathetic and (ultimately) admirable characters.
** Not in the films: to me, this was the single least excusable change in Jackson's adaptation.
*** Well, if he was worried we wouldn't kill enough innocent people, Wolfe can rest assured that we have done a bang-up job of it. (/political bitterness)
I don't mean here to say that any support of a war is equivalent to terrorist thinking; I'm not a pacifist. (Why do we always feel we have to say that? That must be one of the most repeated sentences in the country in the last few years.) I don't think war is always wrong. But I don't think war should be used to punish; I think it should be use to defend. And the latter involves not killing civilians. I'm not talking about anything more complicated than just war theory here -- a theory that the Catholic church has done a lot to develop, mostly (from what little I've seen of it) along extremely sensible lines. Wolfe, famously, is a Catholic; but I don't see the influence of Catholic thinking about war in this statement.
**** Wolfe has said (I don't have the reference handy) that he used to be a Bucklean conservative, but that now his politics are unique and personal. Of course, there are a number of political positions in this country -- minority positions, but ones with millions of followers -- whose adherents frequently view themselves as possessing unique, personal, non-partisan politics which they alone have the objectivity and distance to see. Many of these are some variety of conservative; and I think there's plenty of evidence that Wolfe fits into one of these camps. If someone wishes to correct me -- not by saying I shouldn't use his politics to judge his works (I agree), but that I've gotten his politics wrong -- then please do so.