Gene Wolfe, the writer for writers, has a new book out for the readers. It's The Knight, the first in a two-part series called The Wizard Knight (The Wizard, the second book, will be out in November). It's not as complex or as dense as his books usually are (although its themes are still recognizably Wolfe's), and therefore is very readable; its 430 pages flew, and kept me awake and reading long into the night. Wolfe uses simple language and sentence construction, and the handful of unusual words are placed in enough context to make their meanings clear.
The Knight is about a teenager from America who is magically transported to another world, Mythgarthr, which is similar to medieval Britain. He's given the name Able, the full-grown body of a man, and a Quest. He must face the dragon Grengarm to find the sword of legend, Eterne -- haunted by the ghosts of all who've borne it, whose blade can only be sharpened with a dragon's claw but can never dull. Along the way, he encounters other knights, nobles, shapechangers, witches and wizards, beautiful Aelfmaidens of fire, forest, and water; cannibal pirates, talking animals (including a purr-fect black cat and a faithful dog who detest each other, naturally), ferocious giants, and other creatures from the realities both above and below Mythgarthr (there are seven realities, counting Mythgarthr -- three above it, and three below, depicted in the front of the book, along with a list of characters, for easy reference). Able is also aided by a magical bowstring of destiny that gives him nightmares and visions at night. Through it all, he must prove himself a knight, and thereby a man -- not only in body, but in mind and in spirit.
The title of "knight" has fallen into disrepute in modern times, with the dubbing of what seems like every celebrity in England. Wolfe reminds us of what a true knight is, and what being a knight means. Herodotus spoke of the Persian youths, trained "to ride, shoot straight, and speak the truth," and Wolfe explains this and expands on it without sounding like a curmudgeon who begins speeches with "In my day, we didn't have it easy like you. . .", or talks about long uphill walks to school in the snow.
This book is not just for adults, but for those in that awkward, seemingly endless stage known as adolescence, as well. Its action and excitement has the flavor of what used to be called "juveniles," but this book is not so naive. The Knight is wiser and more knowing than any juvenile I ever read, and can therefore be cherished by adults both young and old.
So, in just one book, Wolfe has advanced two genres to the next level of excellence; future heroic fantasy and "young adult" books have a new target at which to aim, and a new standard with which to be compared.
Those who have encountered Wolfe before may recognize concepts and ideas they've seen in his other books, although The Wizard Knight has no connection, in setting or characters, to any of Wolfe's other series. He has not abandoned his puzzles, mysteries, and first-person narration that make you wonder what is really going on; he's sprinkled plenty of secrets throughout, without slowing the quick pace. Those who love to ponder on such things will have plenty to think about, while those who just want a good story will have one. The puzzles are there, on a deeper level, but don't have to be understood to enjoy the book.
Wolfe manages to explain the advantages of the sword over other weapons, how to fight with sword and shield, the reason jousting made good practice for battles, and he does it all without slowing the narrative flow. For those who are easily bored by essays, long explanations or swaths of detail, this book should make a perfect introduction to the works of Gene Wolfe. The book is lighter fare that still manages to cover some serious topics.
While the mention of a story about an American transported to Arthurian Britain immediately calls to mind A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, The Knight is much different from Mark Twain's humorous but didactic text. The Knight may be funny at times, and tragic at others, but it's never preachy. Wolfe has sprinkled some satire in this book, but what little there is is directed at modern-day America. We like to think ourselves superior to our ancestors, in morality and intelligence, but is that really so?
Where Twain pointed out that democratic America was an improvement over hierarchical Europe, Wolfe reminds us that not all that we left behind in the Old World was bad -- that the self-respect, honesty, and courage represented by the knight are virtues that we all can and should strive for and encourage in others. As Wolfe ably demonstrates here, these characteristics are rare enough as it is.
If you thought everything that could be written about medieval chivalry had been, The Knight will shatter that conception and leave you wanting more. For that, you'll just have to wait until The Wizard, in November.
Copyright © 20004 Thomas G. Bates
Thomas Bates is a computer programmer living in Alabama. He recently crawled out from under his pile of books, saw his shadow, and predicts six more weeks of winter. He does not see a knighthood from the Queen in his future. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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