Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Review of "The Wizard Knight" by Gene Wolfe

In spite of its title and cover art, there are many things that Gene Wolfe’s The Wizard Knight is, and many things it is not.  Though published in 2004, the lengthy two-part novel is not the latest entry into modern, gritty, sword and sorcery epics like those of Erikson, Martin, Kearney, Bakker, or Ruckley.  It is a traditional tale—and in more ways than one.  The characters may be largely archetypal, the storyline filled with typical motifs of the genre, and the underlying message one of personal growth and maturity, but for as derivative as it seems, Wolfe spins all of these high fantasy clichés into an original, imaginative story that transcends the genre and inches toward literature.  Sir Able of the High Heart is The Once and Future King in body and A Wizard of Earthsea in soul.

In classic Wizard of Oz or Chronicles of Narnia fashion, The Wizard Knight is an alternate universe fantasy.  Receiving a bonk on the head, the main character suddenly finds himself in another land—a fantasy land.  The boy, named Able, learns he is in Mythrygar, the fourth level of a Norse-like universe located between Skai and Aelfrice, and must get back to our world.  Headstrong and ambitious, Able’s adventures in Mythrygar take him through a variety of places and scenes, his development key to the plot.  Along the way the Queen of Moss Aelf enlarges his body to that of a man’s, a dragon gives him sprites as guardians, he befriends a dog, converses with a cat, and fights all kinds of beasts—dragons, frost giants, and ogres—in an imaginative journey through over- and underworlds, becoming a man for our world in the process.  

The Knight Ravd early on tells Able that “honor” is the single most important aspect of being a knight. But strength and wisdom are the traits he develops most over the course of the novel, the first half (The Knight) focusing on the former, and the second (The Wizard), the latter.  Able over confident and assertive to the point of being rude on numerous occasions, he’s not exactly a likeable character at the outset—a fact some will be turned off by.  Wolfe nevertheless advances the young man’s maturity so sublimely that, by the end of the novel readers are quietly surprised that the once noble words are now backed by noble deeds.  Able becomes more recognizant of the realities of life instead of focusing only on himself.  Readers will likewise be surprised Able does not become the “Super Medieval Man” implied by the book’s title.  Magic spells and pointy hats in fact playing no role in the story, the boy who emerges at the end is all the stronger and wiser for the experiences he’s had, proving it’s the journey that matters.  (Potential readers be warned that character development instead of action and excitement holds the lion’s share of the story.)

For readers left in consternation by The Book of the New Sun or any other of Wolfe’s more allusive novels, fear not: The Wizard Knight is a straight-forward read perfectly on par with the Book of the Long Sun.  This is not to say things are always handed to the reader on a silver platter (Wolfe is too subtle for that), but the narrative does advance linearly, characters are introduced slowly and distinctly, and most importantly, the number of immediately unexplainable occurrences that require analogous thought are extremely few and very far between.  Wolfe toning himself down, it’s almost as if he intended the book to be something a young man could identify with while growing—a real bildungsroman that takes flight in the imagination but lands in reality.  

Though this review is getting a little long, it would be remiss not to quickly discuss the wealth of knowledge Wolfe has infused the story with.  Norse myth informing the setting and many of the characters (particularly the seven layered world which Able traverses and the frost giants of Jotunland), Arthurian legend is nevertheless most responsible for the storyline.  Knights, castles, jousting, dragons, kings, queens, etc. are the story’s guiding lights.  Wolfe unable to prevent himself, Christian mythology also occupies a place in the novel.  However, it remains insignificant in comparison to the Norse and Arthurian tropes, the ending containing the bulk of it, for better or worse. 

The Wizard Knight trade paperback edition published by Gollancz, weighing in at 3 pounds and 916 pages, is not exactly an agile beast.  Not easily carried-with, it may be worth your while to invest in the two books The Knight and The Wizard, respectively, for those standing on busses and trams while reading.  

In the end, The Wizard Knight is a heavyweight in more than one dimension.  Jammed to the hilt in Norse myth and Arthurian legend, readers should expect a classic bildingsroman of a boy becoming a man in a world of knights, dragons, and faery.  The book is suitable for all ages, from a young man’s view of Able’s coming-of-age to an adult’s appreciation of the myth and fantasy background.  Magical only in imagination, readers should likewise expect Wolfe to subvert the clichés of high fantasy by developing his main character toward something more than a dragon-killing king of the land’s biggest castle, happily ever after.  Like Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle, self-knowledge is the treasure sought.  Yves Menard’s The Book of Knights and the works of Lord Dunsany serving as inspirations, fans of either will enjoy Wolfe’s book.  Though never explicitly credited, the strongest similarity may be Jack Vance’s Lyonesse trilogy.  No doubt there are numerous differences between the two, nevertheless each has an overall feel, length, quality of imagination, and bittersweet outcome not unlike the other.  Wolfe’s pacing much slower and dialogue more forthright, this comparison should be taken like an aelf’s whisper: carefully.

(A side note: the Neil Gaiman quote-fest must end.  The Wizard Knight’s cover bears the following abomination: “Gene Wolfe is the smartest, subtlest, most dangerous writer alive today, in genre or out of it. If you don't read this book, you'll have missed out on something important and wonderful and all the cool people will laugh at you.”.  If any publisher is reading this, please take note of the toad-ish qualities and cease asking Gaiman to provide copy.  2.3 seconds of thought put into this, he obviously cares more for the exposure than the recommendation itself. Don’t be an enabler.)


  1. Wolfe and Gaiman are very close friends, and my perspective is that Gaiman greatly admires Wolfe as a writer and as a person. Gaiman has probably put decades of thought into his blurbs for Wolfe's books, as they've known each other for that long.

    For example: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/may/13/gene-wolfe-hero-neil-gaiman-sf

    1. And there is also this proof:


      There is no doubt regarding Gaiman's respect for Wolfe. My complaint is that publisher's are asking Gaiman to produce a lot of copy these days, culminating in such blurbs as "...all the cool kids will laugh at you..." This and other efforts are wholly juvenile, and do not communicate well the tone of the book. Let's be honest, does reading such a quote turn you on or off to reading The Wizard Knight? Moreover, does it suit the book, or Wolfe's writings in general? "Decades of thought" put into that quote, well, I suppose it's possible...

      I've read Gaiman and I don't think he's the worst writer ever, nor do I doubt his esteem for Wolfe. I'm only bothered by the band-wagon rush publishers are doing to get his name on their books. Such repeated grasping only results in a dissipation of quality, ergo the weak cover copy for The Wizard Knight.

    2. I see. I misunderstood your original point, then. I myself am not a particular Gaiman fan, and largely ignore what he has to say about books or writing. I also don't read widely enough to know how often his endorsement is requested!

      I am also a big enough Wolfe fan that what someone else has to say about his work has no effect whatsoever on whether or not I'll read it - just the order in which I'll get to it, and maybe how many times I'll reread it!

      I will try to check out your recommendations in this article as well; I'm not familiar with them. Cheers!

    3. Thanks for not taking my reply too seriously; I realized after I posted how combative it sounds.

      Regarding the recommendations, I have not read Meynard's Book of Knights, I was just quoting Wolfe's acknowledgments in The Wizard Knight. But I have read Le Guin's Earthsea and Vance's Lyonesse, take the latter with the grain of salt I offered in the last paragraph. :)

  2. I am a big fan of your reviews and find you have very similiar tastes to myself (I can enjoy reading something literary like the ulysses to intelligent fantasy such as the prince of nothing series)I can see you have given this a rare 5 stars rating but what makes it so special? Could you expand on this slightly?

    1. Better late than never... I have no idea how I missed this comment, but I did. Apologies.

      This book, along with The Book of the New Sun, are those rare works of epic fantasy which are able to distill their epicness into the personal, and for me there is no greater lesson in life than a person taking responsibility for themselves, their actions, their decisions, and their role in family and society. Wolfe hits this nail on the head from two strong angles. One is the personal manner in which Able develops as a person (the classic bildungsroman) to becoming responsible for himself, and the other is the manner in which Able becomes an example to others - how to be responsible and inspire others around you to do likewise. The manner in which Wolfe overlays these two aspects on top of a story involving knights, dragons, death, gods, the afterlife, and beyond is utterly fascinating.

      So I guess the short answer is the perennial nature of the book's substance, along with the fact I couldn't find any flaws with Wolfe's structure, prose, dialogue - anything. There are likely many readers who bounce off the pace or lack of drama (a la George R.R. Martin), but Wolfe never set out to write such an epic - despite the motif. Perhaps I stretch too far, but this is a book that could be read as the Baghavadvita five thousand years from now (i.e. extracted and distanced from its social context and read in isolation as we do such texts today).

  3. In addition to the Norse mythology, there seems to be a bunch of Hindu mythology in there as well.

    1. You're probably right. I don't know enough about either to say definitively.