by Gene Wolfe
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Gene Wolfe’s writing style is not particularly accessible, but, as with many things which require thought and work, his novels are rewarding for those who stick with them. The Knight, in many ways, is less accessible than much of his writing because in it Wolfe demonstrates his knowledge not only of mythology, but also of the romances of the Medieval world.
The novel tells the story of Sir Able of the High Heart who is, in reality, a young boy pulled from our own world into a world modeled on both Norse mythology and Medieval history. Sir Able’s quest is set up quite early when a chance encounter with Disiri, a queen of the Aelf, who helps him towards manhood, although he remains, in essence, a teenager in a man's body. Disiri promises Able the sword Eterne and he sets out, in suitable knightly fashion, to find the sword, refusing to wield any other sword until his goal is achieved.
Along his way, Sir Able, who declares himself a knight, although he must prove himself time and again, encounters a variety of people and creatures who help or hinder him, sometimes both. Frequently, these meetings, and the relationships Sir Able strikes up with the individuals, seem random, although Wolfe, naturally enough, provides each of them with a role in the story. More importantly, these relationships, whether Sir Able's nearly unaccountable love for Disiri or his later friendship with Pouk or Garvaon, mirror the types of relationships which exist in the romances of the Medieval world, from Chrétien de Troyes to Wolfram von Eschenbach. If the seem strained to readers of modern fantasies, it is only because Wolfe is going back to an earlier style of storytelling.
Wolfe makes it clear that Sir Able is a twentieth century boy, and throughout the novel, even as he clings to the noble ideals of honor (much better, it must be said, than a more experienced and older man would), he also shows a cavalier cruelty to those around him who are his social inferiors according to the structure of the world in which he finds himself. At the same time, Sir Able treats his social superiors with bravado and haughtiness, demonstrating that he shares their attributes in his attempt to join their ranks.
For readers who are used to the epic fantasy writings of Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, or Raymond E. Feist, The Knight will seem disjointed and foreign. In many ways, it is a less approachable novel than J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. While Tolkien, like Wolfe, based his world and his story on the Medieval tales, Wolfe attempts (and succeeds) in emulating the style of those older tales.
Sir Able is clearly a hero in The Knight, and is recognized as such by nearly all who meet him, even those who don't recognize his knighthood. For the reader, however, Sir Able is not reliable despite his constant attempts to adhere to the truth. As an American boy in the land of Mythgarthr, he is a stranger, only learning how that world (and its parallels) work. His memory of his own world fades as well and there is always the lingering question of how much he knows. Although it it clear that he has a brother, Ben, in America, it is never clear whether Bold Berthold, who claims to be Able's older brother in Mythgarthr, is wrong in his assessment (and the fact that there are vague nomenclatural similarities between Ben and Bold Berthold as well as each man's respective mates strengthens the ambiguity).
While Sir Able's quest comes to a successful conclusion, in the course of seeking Eterne, he gains additional duties and responsibilities which his sense of honor require him to see to their successful completion. Wolfe has therefore provided the perfect staging for the subsequent novel, The Wizard. While that book will certainly share the narrative complexity of The Knight, it may provide additional clues to the reality of the new world inhabited by Sir Able.
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