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The Knight
Gene Wolfe
Tor, 430 pages

The Knight
Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe is one of the most respected writers in the field, and one of the few authors in the genre whose stories have been accepted in mainstream publications such as The New Yorker. Nominated 19 times for a Nebula Award, he has received the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement. He is known for strikingly audacious novels such as The Fifth Head of Cerberus, but most readers will probably have learned to appreciate his writing in The Book of the New Sun series, and the associated Long Sun series. Wolfe lives in Barrington, Illinois, USA.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: A Walking Tour of the Shambles
SF Site Review: Peace
SF Site Review: Sword and Citadel
SF Site Review: Shadow and Claw
SF Site Review: In Green's Jungles
SF Site Review: Free Live Free
SF Site Review: The Urth of the New Sun
Gene Wolfe Tribute Site
Gene Wolfe Tribute Site
Gene Wolfe Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

In music, the notes that aren't played can be just as important as the ones that are. As much as the actual sounds, the silent rests define the musical experience.

Same thing with literature. What the writer doesn't tell you is sometimes as important as what he does. Perhaps that's the difference, or at least one element of the difference, between fiction intended purely for entertainment and fiction with higher ambitions. Where one works it out so you don't have to think too much about it, the other leaves you pondering how the spaces should be filled.

Which is also one way of distinguishing the literary fantasy of Gene Wolfe versus "by the numbers" fantasy.

Case in point is his most recent novel, The Knight, the first of a projected two volume sequence (The Wizard is forthcoming in November). Here Wolfe takes the elements of the Perceval and the Holy Grail story -- a young knight whose foolish innocence results in a successful quest for the venerated object that has become the model for virtually all Tolkien-esque fantasies -- and refracts it with modern acuity.

The plot has many of the features you'd expect: an inexperienced lad cut off from his family encounters various personages -- including Bold Berthold who mistakes the boy for a long-lost brother (a recurring theme where it is uncertain whether the narrator might actually in fact be what others perceive him as, simply as a result of that perception, even if not the narrator's) -- both knightly and fantastical who help him realize his true identity, whatever that might be. While the boy's idealism leads to minor disasters, the experience strengthens character and ultimately enables him to triumph over dire circumstances. There is, of course, a love object, whose affection is to be gained by proving valor in battle. And, at the conclusion, there is a hint of yet a greater adventure to come.

But always beneath the familiar trappings, Wolfe keeps pulling out the rug from under us. Battle scenes are curiously flat, almost besides the point, when in conventional fantasy they are the main event. And then there's the subtle comedy aimed at the various fantastical motifs, such as a running joke in which some solemn event is interrupted when a character feels compelled to intrude to correct someone else's grammar.

The narrator is a contemporary teenaged boy who takes a wrong turn down a wooded path and somehow or another (and a lot of what takes place is no clearer that "somehow or other") is mystically transported to a medieval alternate reality. The boy is relating the story to his older brother, Ben, in what is presumably a memoir of his otherworldly experiences, though exactly how it is intended to end up in Ben's hands is unknown. Indeed, such missing details characterize the narrative, with frequent foreshadowing of events that are never fully explained, or even mentioned again. Whether these lapses will be filled in the sequel remains to be seen. The intention could be to mimic the source material for contemporary fantasy, the ancient texts that assumed knowledge of events now unfamiliar to a reader today. Or, it could be these missing puzzle pieces require user assembly. Most likely it's all of the above.

Equally likely is that the confused ramblings are supposed to indicate an unreliable narrator. Indeed, the boy confesses he is uncertain what he remembers from his own world and the fantastical one where time does not always flow in equal measure, intermingles the two and discusses events out of sequence. And who at times has to ask, "Does this sound crazy?" Well, of course it does. It's supposed to. The unreliable narrator is a literary device signifying the disorder of personal experience and expression in a daily reality that is no longer static, no longer rational, as we are meant to believe it is.

Reinforcing this notion is that we never know the narrator's "real name," only the one given him by an "an old lady with too many teeth" he encounters shortly upon his arrival in Mythgarthr, one of five interlocking worlds or levels of existence. She informs him, "'You are Able of the High Heart.' That got my attention, and I told her my old name.'"

Beneath the surface of this seemingly simple exchange lies depths of complexity. Our adventurer has a new name for his new life. Names are significant, particularly in fantasy. The name connotes both expectations of competency and goodness, a not unusual characteristic of a hero, patterned in the noble terminology of chivalric knighthood. Note that this naming gets the narrator's "attention." Well, why shouldn't it? But why does the narrator (and the uber-narrator Wolfe) think it important to make mention of this? Perhaps because paying attention is useful not only to our hero (who frequently fails to do so) but the reader as well. And not just to pay attention, but to examine implications. Because, paradoxically, the more we pay attention to the tale, the more questions we can't possibly answer because we aren't privileged to know the narrator's complete history (in either world). Neither what he was (our "real" world), nor what he will become (the "fantasy" world). And, other than hints, he isn't telling.

"I told her my old name." Note he doesn't tell us readers his real name. In part that's because the narrator is ostensibly relating the story to his brother Ben, who should know his brother's name already. But we don't and because in reality this is a story written by yet another narrator (the author), the fact that this name is not revealed is notable. Indeed, when he mentions his "old" name, whatever that might be, the old lady chastises him, "What I say aright, do not you smite."

It's a new reality, with new rules, signified by a new name which, rather than reflecting a character's attributes, hints at what they will become. Not only is this the rite of passage typical of epic fantasy, but it is the rite of passage of every adolescent. Or, as the old lady puts it, "You shall sink before you rise, and rise before you sink."

This kind of close reading is the difference between art and mere mimicry. There's a reason Wolfe is leaving these missing stretches, to engage, perhaps, our own rite of passage experiences. The Tolkien-drones imitate the perspective because it's an expected part of the formula; the artist takes the form and plays with it, provokes us, makes us think about it.

Though to what ultimate end in this particular case, I'm not entirely sure. I look forward to finding out what revelations The Wizard may conjure.

Copyright © 2004 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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