Someday I will reread and review the four parts of The Book of the New Sun – one of the most imaginative books I have ever read. The consensus seems to be that Wolfe never topped that, but the appraisal for his other work is less unisono.
My own experience is similar. The Fifth Head of Cerberus went down relatively well, as did Urth of the New Sun, and I liked the first two parts of The Book of the Long Sun – a lot, at times – but dropped out of the third.
Enter The Wizard Knight – a later work, published when Wolfe was 73. The nature of this work is a bit unclear: is this a duology or one novel in two parts? The Knight was published a few months before The Wizard, some say for commercial reasons – Kill Bill: Vol. 1 came out in october 2003 and might have set a trend. The omnibus The Wizard Knight was published fairly quickly, in 2005.
Lots of reviewers seem to treat this as one novel – it sure is one story. However, the back of my Tor paperback of The Wizard starts with this quote from Publishers Weekly: “The Wizard stands alone and might even be best if read before The Knight, but will surely drive readers to the first as well….”
So I think it is fair to review The Knight separately, as the first part of a series, but I’ll reserve my judgement about the full story for when I’ve read the final volume too.
After the review, I’ll make some remarks about Wolfe’s politics as a reaction on an essay of his about The Lord of the Rings – that might be of interest to some readers, even if they aren’t interested in The Knight.
As for what order to read these books: based on The Knight, I’d say that it should be read first, as it seems to describe what happens first, and besides, publication order seems most in line with author’s intent. I’m curious if my perception will change after reading The Wizard, and I’m curious why Publishers Weekly wrote what they wrote. And while The Knight ends at a logical point, the story is not finished. Book one definitely isn’t a standalone, even though book two might be.
A story on Faerie obviously suits Wolfe. Sleight of hand, deception, shape-shifting, broken promises, parallel worlds, hidden portals, mystic blood oaths.
And while Wolfe again presents us with a narrator that seems to fail at coherence at times, Sir Able of the High Heart doesn’t seem to be untrustworthy. All reviews I’ve read agree: this book is straightforward and accessible, it doesn’t have the complexity of some of Wolfe’s other books.
Still, one has to pay attention: the nature of some events only become clear a bit later one, and some important stuff is glossed over. As such, this is classic Wolfe for sure – and indeed, you can even buy a 132-page companion, written by Michael Andre-Driussi, published in 2009.
That companion seems to focus on the intertextual web Wolfe has woven – as it explores “the Norse, Celtic, and Arthurian sources for names and words in the novels”, since “there is hardly a piece of northern European heroic literature from which Wolfe doesn’t borrow with his usual scholarly flair”.
Let me cut to chase here. The first two thirds were great, but the last third was a bit of a slog. But it needs to be said loud and clear I’m enamored enough by the first 2/3rds to want to read on – The Wizard Knight in full might very well redeem itself.
Why did it become a bit of bore? Because Wolfe doesn’t keep things varied – his prose remains the same, his tricks remain the same, and the story more or less remains the same.
Why am I enamored? Because Wolfe manages to weave mystery and wonder and brutal moments into something that’s quite addictive and – most importantly – original. Stories about Faerie have been done countless of times, but Wolfe manages to bring something new to the table, even though it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly. It might be the marriage of all these sources hinted at above, all given the typical Wolfean treatment. That last addition is important, because I do not have the feeling Wolfe formally brings something new to his own legacy.
We’ll see how the balance of excitement and boredom sets itself in book two – based on other reviews, I’m hopeful.
If you are new to Wolfe, my advice would be to start with The Shadow of the Torturer, the first book of the New Sun. Just dive right in: it is glorious, unlike anything else. If it works for you, it might drive you to The Knight eventually.
As a coda, for those of you who are interested in such a thing, there’s one more thing I’d like to talk about, and that is Wolfe’s politics.
On fellow speculative fiction blog Who’s Dreaming Who I came across a 2001 essay on The Lord of the Rings by Wolfe. Let me quote extensively from it – below are both its beginning and its end. The bold highlights are mine. If you read those, you’ll know enough to follow my thoughts afterwards, but the entire quote is an interesting illustration of certain modes of thought.
There is one very real sense in which the Dark Ages were the brightest of times, and it is this: that they were times of defined and definite duties and freedoms. The king might rule badly, but everyone agreed as to what good rule was. Not only every earl and baron but every carl and churl knew what an ideal king would say and do. The peasant might behave badly; but the peasant did not expect praise for it, even his own praise. These assertions can be quibbled over endlessly, of course; there are always exceptional persons and exceptional circumstances. Nevertheless they represent a broad truth about Christianized barbarian society as a whole, and arguments that focus on exceptions provide a picture that is fundamentally false, even when the instances on which they are based are real and honestly presented. At a time when few others knew this, and very few others understood its implications, J. R. R. Tolkien both knew and understood, and was able to express that understanding in art, and in time in great art.
That, I believe, was what drew me to him so strongly when I first encountered The Lord of the Rings. As a child I had been taught a code of conduct: I was to be courteous and considerate, and most courteous and most considerate of those less strong than I — of girls and women, and of old people especially. Less educated men might hold inferior positions, but that did not mean that they themselves were inferior; they might be (and often would be) wiser, braver, and more honest than I was. They were entitled to respect, and were to be thanked when they befriended me, even in minor matters. Legitimate authority was to be obeyed without shirking and without question. Mere strength (the corrupt coercion Washington calls power and Chicago clout) was to be defied. It might be better to be a slave than to die, but it was better to die than to be a slave who acquiesced in his own slavery. Above all, I was to be honest with everyone. Debts were to be paid, and my word was to be as good as I could make it.
With that preparation I entered the Mills of Mordor, where courtesy is weakness, honesty is foolishness, and cruelty is entertainment.
it is not just my own belief but a well-established scientific fact that most change is for the worse: any change increases entropy (unavailable energy). Therefore, any change that produces no net positive good is invariably harmful. Progress, then, does not consist of destroying good things in the mere hope that the things that will replace them will be better (they will not be) but in retaining good things while adding more. Here is a practical illustration. This paper is good and the forest is good as well. If the manufacture of this paper results in the destruction of the forest, the result will be a net loss. That is mere change; we have changed the forest into paper, a change that may benefit some clever men who own a paper mill but hurts the mass of Earth’s people. If, on the other hand, we manufacture the paper without destroying the forest (harvesting mature trees and planting new ones) we all benefit. We engineers will tell you that there has been an increase in entropy just the same; but it is an increase that would take place anyway, and so does us no added harm. It is also a much smaller increase than would result from the destruction of the forest.
I have approached this scientifically because Tolkien’s own approach was historical, and it is a mark of truth that the same truth can be approached by many roads. Philology led him to the study of the largely illiterate societies of Northern Europe between the fall of Rome and the beginning of the true Middle Ages (roughly AD 400 to 1000). There he found a quality — let us call it Folk Law — that has almost disappeared from his world and ours. It is the neighbour-love and settled customary goodness of the Shire. Frodo is “rich” in comparison to Sam, though no dragon would call Frodo rich; Sam is poor in comparison to Frodo, though Sam is far richer than Gollum, who has been devoured by the tyranny and corruption of the One Ring. Frodo does not despise Sam for his poverty, he employs him; and Sam does not detest Frodo for his wealth, but is grateful for the job. Most central of all, the difference in their positions does not prevent their friendship. And in the end, poor Sam rises in the estimation of the Shire because of his association with Frodo, and rich Frodo sacrifices himself for the good of all the Sams.
A different illustration is found among the elves of Lorien, in their love of beauty and their love of nature. They are Sylvan Elves (East Elves) but the rulers they choose to obey are Eldar (West Elves). They choose to be ruled by people better than themselves, in other words, exactly as we choose to be ruled by people worse. Most clearly of all it is shown in their will to preserve the wisdom of the First Age.
Earlier I asked what Tolkien did and how he came to do it; we have reached the point at which the first question can be answered. He uncovered a forgotten wisdom among the barbarian tribes who had proved (against all expectation) strong enough to overpower the glorious civilizations of Greece and Rome; and he had not only uncovered but understood it. He understood that their strength — the irresistible strength that had smashed the legions — had been the product of that wisdom, which has now been ebbing away bit by bit for a thousand years.
Having learned that, he created in Middle-earth a means of displaying it in the clearest and most favourable possible light. Its reintroduction would be small — just three books among the overwhelming flood of books published every year — but as large as he could make it; and he was very conscious (no man has been more conscious of it than he) that an entire forest might spring from a handful of seed. What he did, then, was to plant in my consciousness and yours the truth that society need not be as we see it around us.
Sam Rayburn, a politician of vast experience, once said that all legislation is special-interest legislation. Of our nation, and of the 20th century, that is unquestionably true; but it need not be. We have — but do not need — a pestilent swarm of exceedingly clever persons who call themselves public servants when everything about them and us proclaims that they are in fact our masters. They make laws (and regulations and judicial decisions that have the force of laws) faster and more assiduously than any factory in the world makes chains; and they lay them on us.
It need not be so. We might have a society in which the laws were few and just, simple, permanent, and familiar to everyone — a society in which everyone stood shoulder-to-shoulder because everyone lived by the same changeless rules, and everyone knew what those rules were. When we had it, we would also have a society in which the lack of wealth was not reason for resentment but a spur to ambition, and in which wealth was not a cause for self-indulgence but a call to service. We had it once, and some time in this third millennium we shall have it again; and if we forget to thank John Ronald Reuel Tolkien for it when we get it, we will already have begun the slow and not always unpleasant return to Mordor. Freedom, love of neighbour, and personal responsibility are steep slopes; he could not climb them for us — we must do that ourselves. But he has shown us the road and the reward.
Whatever your personal stance about small government, the arguments Wolfe presents boil down to a reactionary, ill-informed and simplistic worship of a Romantic past that never existed but in the propagandist literature of the courts.
It’s almost funny he simply dismisses every counter-argument to be made out of hand – an effective rhetoric trick, at once acknowledging and ridiculing other positions, and making a genuine, honest conversation impossible a priori.
Well, you can’t have your cake and eat it. The past was brutal – as are parts of the present. Human life wasn’t worth a thing – and whether a word was still worth anything more than it is now kind of feels irrelevant in the light of torture, slavery, stakes and pyres.
If you paint with a broad brush – not counting exceptions – it is as easily established that most people today also know what good rule means: do no harm, don’t lie, etc. That knowledge – the golden rule, so to say – has not fundamentally changed. What has changed is national and international institutions that try to hold Power accountable to those rules. These institutions aren’t perfect and have flaws, but the net effect is less bad kings, less burned witches.
So, Wolfe not only misrepresents the past, he also misrepresents today: our freedoms and duties have never been more defined than today, and there never has been more shoulder to shoulder solidarity than there is today. The social democracies of Europe & Canada indeed try to make solidarity real. Their systems are not perfect obviously, but it is foolish to claim the servant in the Dark Ages had it better than most servants today in First World countries – just because they somehow knew their duty and their defined place.
Believing one day rules will be simpler is hopelessly naive. Obviously laws and institutions can be bettered – and that sometimes means made simpler, I’ll grant Wolfe that. But the complexity of the global world with global trade and cultural diversity will not disappear. The only way to get more judicial simplicity worldwide would be a movement away from nationalism, towards a truly global international union – but I doubt that was what Wolfe had in mind.
As long as people will want to have their version of traditional customs & culture & laws enforced on their own turf, there will be a need for an apparatus – both military as diplomatic as judicial – that deals with issues arising from meetings at the border. Simple this will never be – as the Shire lost its innocence when it came into contact with the world beyond.
The Knight has a pompous title, and Wolfe makes pompous claims to Truth – like other fathers of boomers might make. Part of The Knight‘s appeal indeed is the Romantic idea of an heroic past that never existed. Lots of boys want to be the unacknowledged son of the king – as Richard Rorty once said. And there surely is no shame in enjoying well made stories like this as a grown-up.
There might even be value in stories like this to teach children the value of honesty or compassion – even though I would not want my children to take Sir Able of the High Heart as an example – quarrelsome, reckless, violent, and morally inconsistent as he is in this first part. Able makes lots of promises he doesn’t keep. I hope Sir Able – and with him Wolfe – will redeem himself in book two, that allegedly focuses on the Bildung of wisdom indeed.
Entertainment or boyish guilty pleasures notwithstanding, with adult wisdom, and an honest acknowledgement of the plethora of human atrocities committed in the name of God, Truth or the King, we have to acknowledge it for what it is, this idea of an heroic past that Wolfe perpetuates – to his defense, like so many others do. It is an honest, misguided dream maybe, a naive longing for something that never was.
There’s truth in names, sometimes: it will forever be a Fantasy.