THE KNIGHT – Gene Wolfe (2004)

The Knight gene wolfeSomeday 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.

The Wizard Knight omnibus Wolfe

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52 responses to “THE KNIGHT – Gene Wolfe (2004)

  1. „Peace“ by Gene Wolfe even tops Earth of the New Sun! That’s a literary masterpiece.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ricardo Bastardo

    So he’s a conservative? Big deal. A lot of conservatives are better persons than a lot of progressives. I find those quite often an intolerant, narrow-minded & unrealistic lot and would gladly trade them in for a Wolfe or Tolkien.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t mind him being a conservative at all, I have zero problems with people being conservative. I’m just pointing out a few intellectual mistakes in his reasonings about a non-existant past to justify his present day positions.
      As for intolerance, narrow-mindedness and being unrealistic: I suspect that is evenly distributed across the political spectrum, I see a lot of that everywhere, left, right and centre.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I’ve tried Wolfe a couple of times and this duology was the last and final attempt. I just don’t like his writing. I don’t like the unreliable narrator and I don’t like the stories he tells or even how he tells them. He’s one of those authors that I don’t have an actual problem with, I simply don’t enjoy reading his stuff.

    As for all the other stuff you talk about, I’ve stayed away from investigating Wolfe’s views on general principle. I know he’s a devout Catholic so there will be issues there. But everything else? I want my authors to be authors, not people. People are no good in my book 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I saw your two reviews on LibraryThing after I wrote this. You kinda liked The Knight (3.5 stars) but hated The Wizard (1 star). That doesn’t bode well for the sequel. Let’s hope our tastes diverge a lot on this 🙂
      I think Wolfe gets lots of credit by a lot of people because he is supposed to be literary, difficult, etc – the Proust or Melville of speculative fiction, that kind of thing. He might also be a writer’s writer, for all his trickery – but at the same time, in a way, his prose is terrible at times, but I guess that depends on what you expect from a novel. I didn’t like New Sun for the puzzles in any case.
      I’m starting to believe his aura is mainly based on New Sun (have you read that?) and because of that it became bon ton to like him, that is, for ‘sophisticated’ readers. Also, not liking him kinda boils down to not being smart enough in the eyes of some, so I’m sure his popularity has to do with socially desirable behavior too, and people reluctant to admit they didn’t get it.
      Finally, New Sun is so good, it’s hard for fans of that to admit that all those other books he wrote might not be worth your precious time. I firmly fall in that latter category by the way. The fact that Wolfe seems to have written the same book over and over again seems to indicate he kinda falls in the same category too.
      Anyhow – don’t believe the Gaiman pull quotes on Wolfe about cool people. It’s just showing off, trying to leech on the old fart’s artistic credit.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Looking at my reviews, I think I hadn’t reached saturation point of the unreliable narrator. By book 2 I was done with it and had a lot less patience for it.

        I’d read Book of the Long Sun ( at least the first book, not sure about the entire series) back before I was recording my reads.

        While I’m pretty snobby when it comes to reading (don’t get me started on romance or paranormal romance) I’m still more a live and let live kind of guy. I also think that SFF has no business being pretentious about anything. Just because it can be be good writing or tell an intriguing story doesn’t mean it is on par with the like of Dickens or Tolstoy.

        I never believe quotes on the internet. Not even my own 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        • Comparing is always hard, and there’s great literature in SFF for sure, just as there’s lots of bad literature in regular fiction too. But I agree: live and let live.

          My advice to you would still be to at least try The Shadow of the Torturer (the first book of the New Sun). It’s nothing like the first book of the Long Sun, nor like The Wizard Knight. The fact that Severian is an unreliable narrator can be totally ignored by the way, just the story he tells face value is absolutely great.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Well, after this month where I didn’t listen to my gut and tried some books on others’ recommendation (and had them turn out crap), I thankyou for your recommendation 😉

            Liked by 1 person

            • 🙂 I hear you. But, as you can gather from some of the other commentators here: New Sun is really something else, and his other work doesn’t begin to get near that. Lots of people seemed to be bored by his other books too, so maybe reconsider one day.

              Liked by 1 person

  4. oberon the fool

    Ha! Wild, I literally just finished The Knight and started The Wizard yesterday. I read them a decade or so ago, and grabbed them off my shelf for some quarantine reading. I was fortunate enough to meet Gene a few times, as an author friend of mine was close to him. I look forward to reading your review when I get a minute, but I had to chime in on the bizarre coincidence ^_^

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for the link, Bart! I’m now very curious to read The Knight with Wolfe’s essay still fresh in my mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s about honor & wisdom – but the strange thing is that Able isn’t that honest, and doesn’t seem to learn either. Oberon says in the comments above, he won’t learn in the second part either, so at this moment, halfway the bigger story, I have absolutely no idea what the ‘message’ of this story will be.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. oberon the fool

    Ok, I had a moment sooner than I thought.

    Good review, and I agree more or less- there are so many fun and compelling ideas and images in the story that push, pull, or sometimes drag you through the inconsistent and sometimes baffling prose, with no effort made whatsoever by the narrator or author to maintain coherence. To the best of my memory, the Wizard is essentially the same, I look forward to your thoughts, as I will be reading it alongside you, apparently ^_^

    If nothing else, I have stolen a ton of ideas from this book(s) for RPGs, both consciously and unconsciously, so I definitely got my money’s worth out of it.

    As for the political sidebar- yikes. The fairy tale notions of how a Knight or a Hero should act, and how the world should react to him, are just that- a fairy tale. They never existed in reality, and trying to re/create them in reality is worse than foolish. Hell, even in these books, Able is a huge jackass to almost everyone he meets, whether he’s acting as a man-child, or as a super-hero.

    He does remind me a bit of Captain Marvel, except Billy Batson got the benefit of his adult alter ego’s Wisdom of Solomon, and poor Able ended up with confusion and amnesia instead.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Coincidence indeed, fitting for the baffling author Wolfe is. I won’t be reading The Wizard right now though, I think it’s best to leave some time in between the books – if it is more of the same, I need my palate cleansed, so I won’t start it before the end of December I think.

      I’m glad you confirm my hunches about Able’s character, I wouldn’t have expected him to change all of a sudden in The Wizard, even though Jesse of Speculiction hints at that in his review. As I wrote in another comment, with that in mind, I’m really puzzled by what Wolfe’s message with this story will be – if there is any of course. Might he had in mind to present us with a deliberately wrong example of how a knight should be? If so, are there any indications in the book that Wolfe thinks badly about Able?

      I guess trying to answer those questions will be my main focus when I’ll read The Wizard. If you should have any ideas about all that during your Wizard reread, do feel free to drop them here.


      • oberon the fool

        Based on the first couple chapters I read last night, it starts with Able returning from Skai, having grown considerably over 20 relative years there (but like, a week or so in Mythgarthr) and he does seem to have learned quite a bit, both in terms of skill and personality. But he’s still the same abstruse, slow talking mess of a character who never just says things in plain english. I swear the whole story could have fit into one book if it had just been related in a straightforward fashion.

        Anyway, there are a bunch of chapters from Toug and Mani’s POV, which do seem to fill in some gaps in the narrative, at least so far.

        Liked by 2 people

  7. The book of the New Sun is in my top 5 favourite books of all time, but everyone other gene Wolfe story felt like a slight disappointment since.

    I’ve read the wizard knight and I remember getting a bit bored in the first book. Sadly to say, the second book kept me bored the entire time. Perhaps I shouldn’t have read them back to back. It’s a sad thing to get bored by giants. Perhaps I’m done with his unreliable narrator shtick. I also read the Latro novels around that time and I felt the same boredom.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah I was planning to leave a couple of weeks if not months between the two books for that exact same reason, I need my palate cleansed. But I’m less hopeful after your comments, and those of Oberon and Bookstooge – it looks like that The Wizard is just more of the same. I hope the imaginative ideas will be still worth it.

      We’ve talked Wolfe before, and I’m beginning to fear our tastes align on this. New Sun would be top 5 for me too, and I like Urth, so on the strength of those books I stupidly bought Latro, Wizard Knight, Long Sun, Short Sun and the Island of Dr. Death all in one go. I was younger and foolish back then, I’ve have since learned to not buy too many books of one author based on just one or two books. But as I have them already, I do plan on reading them all someday, spread out over the next couple of years – or at the very least start them.


      • oberon the fool

        When I said essentially the same, I mostly meant that the narrative doesn’t get more coherent- Able does grow as a character. And we do get the story from other characters’ perspective as well, which is by turns easier and harder to follow.

        I’m just starting it again so my memory may not be trustworthy. It’s entirely possible a lot of the incoherence from the first book get resolved or explained.

        There is definitely a whole new smorgasbord of interesting ideas and imagery in The Wizard (as might be expected from the title), I definitely recall that much.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks for clearing that up!! Both this and your other reply make me more hopeful – I was starting to fear I would have to start The Wizard with a wrong mindset.


          • oberon the fool

            It occurs to me that if you haven’t already read it, and you like the core concept (person from Earth gets yanked into a semihistorical fantasy world and becomes a heroic knight), you might enjoy Poul Anderson’s classic Three Hearts and Three Lions better. It’s a much more straightforward narrative, and although it has a lot of similar beats (the hero befriends characters along the way and has to deal with knightly obligations), it’s much more accessible.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve come across a reference to Three Hears in another Knight review, but didn’t really follow up. I will now.

              As for the theme, I think Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry is amazing, if you haven’t read that, do check it out. And as a young kid, I was heavily under the spell of the Dungeons & Dragons animated TV series of 1983-1985. I really think that was probably the first big formative influence on my developing speculative fiction taste.

              I have yet to read Anderson by the way, I’d been considering Tau Zero as one of my next reads for quite a while now, maybe after I finish Starship Troopers. I also have a copy of The Broken Sword lying around.


              • oberon the fool

                Three Hearts and Three Lions is one of the inspirations for the Law and Chaos alignment concept in early D&D (along with the better known Moorcock stuff), and the primary reference for the original Paladin prestige class (like Strongheart, who appears in the cartoon). There are worse places to start! I still remember playing redbox in the lunchroom with my friends- you had to be careful not to roll the d20 off the table, or it would bounce halfway across the cafeteria.

                Thanks for the rec, I’ll put it on the list!

                Liked by 1 person

      • Having read The Best of Gene Wolfe some years ago, your mention of The Island of Doctor Death prompted me to try to recall what short stories I found essential in that collection – I’m sure there were a few, but even looking at the table of contents, the only ones I recall with any certainty are The Death of Doctor Island and Seven American Nights, both included in TIoDD. (Seven American Nights is a nice distillation of Wolfe’s nested-unreliable-narrators shtick, a bit like The Fifth Head of Cerberus in that regard.)

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’ll probably read TIoDD after The Wizard, another long form Wolfe after Wizard might be too much. Good to know you found at least some of it’s stories essential.


  8. Interesting! I’ve got the first two books of New Sun on my shelf (thanks to your recommendation ;)), will start reading them after I finish KSR’s Aurora (halfway through) 😀

    As for the political side of things, I will cheer you on, Bart! I get so fired up by things like this that I can totally relate to your position here 😉 But I think that to an extent this type of thinking was a sign of times – not only in literature, but also in philosophy and social sciences, this longing for a communitarian ideal. Bauman for example was also partial to it, for a time, and it all seems to harken back to Tönnies’s Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft. Oh, the lure of dichotomies! 😀
    Wolfe’s vision is a mirage, that’s for sure, but one that tries to point out what’s missing from the reality. So while I agree that it’s unrealistic and outright utopian, I’m of opinion it’s mostly harmless as it stays within the sphere of dreams and fantasies. It is based on false premises, true, and he’d do well to read some Medievalists like le Goff, but he uses it mostly to criticize the shortcomings of our own age – and I do believe our age deserves a bit of criticism 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, as I wrote, Wolfe is not the sole perpetrator, but it’s interesting you frame it a bit wider, none of the names you mention rings a bell for me.

      I think it’s more than a “longing for a communitarian ideal” though, I have the feeling there’s a strong sense of elitism and know-your-place to Wolfe’s ramblings too.

      Wolfe may be pointing out what is missing, and as such could be considered to try and better society, but again, imo he misses the point, because what he thinks is missing is actually more present today than it was in the Olden days.

      I’m a bit in doubt about the “harmless” part. I agree Wolfe’s impact on world or local politics is probably zero, so in that sense his ramblings are harmless, but this kind of thinking overall isn’t when it’s held by those in office. In that sense, writings like these (and there’s a lot of it next to Wolfe) validate & support the opinion of others that do have practical effect on policy.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Oh, I fully agree that’s a very elitist point of view; we have the same problem in Poland with the history of feudalism; nobody wants to remember that indentured serfs were treated worse than slaves by the nobles… so any real equality was only among a very elitist group; the rest were treated like animals. And it’s not a problem of only old states – New World changed the subject of their definition of the Other, but not the essence: indigenous people were similarly mistreated and abused.

        What I mean by harmless with regard to Wolfe’s fantasy is its relatively small influence today. Most people – in politics especially – can’t afford to be seen as paying any real attention to such delusions. Which is not to say they don’t entertain similar fantasies of the past. So it may well regain more influence now in times of pandemics and economic crises and rising xenophobia…

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’m not sure that train of thought has a relatively small influence today: the rightward turn in more than a few European countries, and the dominant ideology in the USA is in essence fueled by that: the meritocratic idea of personal responsibility, and the idea that if you fail, you are the only one to blame. Wolfe in this essay seems to support these notions with his fictional historical narrative. (Coincidentally, yesterday I came across the interesting idea that the newish term “financial illiteracy” places the burden of failure on the individual to educate himself, as if the system isn’t stacked against the have-nots, like you hinted at in your other comment.)

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          • I consider these two notions deeply entwined but separate; the conservative illusion of Utopian past and the myth of total individual responsibility for one’s place in life (particularly economic) and achievements. The second is prevalent in our Western societies indeed. The first – not as popular but more universal, as it is entrenched in non-Western societies too.

            Liked by 1 person

    • Basically, everybody that just advocates “more personal responsibility” over structural reforms to solve society’s ills hugely underestimate the advances of science has made the last few decades in explaining how poverty and the likes is handed down over the generations, even biologically. For just a glimpse of that, read this 2014 article:

      Liked by 3 people

      • Similarly, this article gives a bit of insight on how science is starting to unravel how structural issues hinder “more personal responsibility”, even if people would have a biological level playing field to start with:

        It’s sad so many people are ignorant of all this (or worse, ignore it) and basically advocate for simplistic, unrealistic solutions (just more meritocracy!) from an era when the mechanisms of behavior were much less understood.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ah, i know all about it from my sociology studies 😉 People who actually manage to beat the system are few and far between, and rightly hailed as heroes and role models – but the predominance of their stories muddles the reality that the system is much more powerful than any single, however determined, person. As usual, it can be boiled down somewhat simplistically to a narrative combat between haves and have-nots.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. A capable review and a fine essay. I must say that I agree that your analysis of how things have changed in terms of what’s regarded as the ‘natural order of things’ between the early medieval period and now, and yet that that change doesn’t apply uniformly. Still, I’m not sure I want to read many more Tolkienesque fantasy such as Wolfe seems to have produced here, any more than I want to read further recreations of what the ‘Arthurian’ Dark Ages were supposed to have been like—I got a lot of these out of my system some time ago. It would have to take an outstanding author to reinvigorate these now rather tired subgenres for me, which they could do by bringing something new and original to the mix.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Wolfe’s essay is amazing, and I admire you for spending the time to respond to it so patiently and seriously – for me this (apparently written in 2001!) is even more a fairy tale than his novel. And quite an enjoyable fairy tale, until you realise it was meant as a serious political proposition.

    It doesn’t mean I don’t respect Wolfe as a writer. “Book of the New Sun” is superb, “Knight/Wizard” was very enjoyable – on Goodreads I gave five stars to the first one and only four to the second, but I recall it was mainly due to the length of the entire thing, there were some very good chapters in “Wizard” and I really liked most of the POVs.

    “And there surely is no shame in enjoying well made stories like this as a grown-up.” – exactly, every now and then, and when you want a story like this, perhaps it helps if their writer is a true believer…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for this comment, I think it really hits on some essential stuff. I also think the essay is an amazing piece of writing, regardless of the fact whether I agree with certain parts or not.

      I’ve also been a long time believer in the fact that one should separate the art and the artist. The current tendencies (especially on the left) to disavow certain art because of certain stuff an artist said or did is toxic in itself, and your final paragraph lays bare an essential aspect of all this.

      I’m not sure if you are familiar with (extreme) metal, but to me the essence of listening to that is a certain transgression – I’ve always been puzzled by the fact that in the last ten years some fans started to mind that some of the musicians actually are (or were) fascists & murderers: it’s as if they hadn’t been paying attention to the lyrics & the music in the first place.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s my main issue with the current left (its small, but very influential part), their tendency to value ideological purity above all else… right wingers are much more pragmatic these days. There’s a delicious dialogue about that in Netflix’s “Chicago 7”.

        I’m not a big fan of metal, my main contact these days is from weekly posts by Wordaholicanonymous’ Dave 😉 but I know what you mean… Sabaton is quite popular in Poland, because they have a piece about some glorious Polish battle. It was fun to watch when some local fans discovered they also have a song about Rommel’s Ghost Division 😉

        It is of course one thing when we discuss a writer and wannabe political philosopher that got out of touch with modern times, and another when it comes to actual murderers or rapists. That’s a whole new issue, and pretty complex.


        • Mmm, I don’t know Chicago 7, will look into it. Most Polish metal I know is rather nationalistic, but of the heathen/pagan kind – the band I like best is Graveland from Rob Darken, who also has a neo-folk band, Lord Wind. Ideologically I don’t feel related however – he’s against race mixing etc. There’s also the excellent death metal band Vader, their early albums are classics. Behemoth might be the biggest Polish band at the moment, but I’ve quickly lost interest after their first few releases – a bit too poppy these days.

          I agree that there’s a big difference between Wolfe & criminals. I just brought it up as an extreme example of people living their art. As for the actual murderers etc in metal – the Norwegians that have become famous because of their crimes were basically teenagers at the time. That only adds to the complexity.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Behemoth’s leader had some legal trouble because of his public anti-catholic stance (that included destroying a copy of Bible…), and he’s also on the right side of our current political troubles, but I couldn’t get into their music. I did listen do Vader a bit, years ago, that was interesting, but never a significant part of my playlists.

            I’ll listen to Graveland a bit, out of curiosity. After a few songs – something for the special moments when I’m in a mood, definitely not for casual listening 😉

            I’ve read a few times that metal is actually where Polish musicians do best, internationally, but I don’t really care about such things any more, I’m not going to take any blame for what my government does, nor any credit for some random strangers’ accomplishments, even if we share our first language 😉

            Liked by 1 person

            • Graveland has a very diverse and huge output, they went to quite a few different phases. My favorites are the very first ’94 The Celtic Winter ep, which is fairly raw black metal, and the more recent 2013 Thunderbolts of the Gods, which has a more Bathory-like epic flavor.

              Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN – Gene Wolfe (1980-83) | Weighing a pig doesn't fatten it.

  12. The Dark Ages was truly bright and the peak of our western culture. You say nowadays solidarity is tried by the democratic governments but back then CHARITY (!) was the rule that didn’t require any governmental plan. Gene Wolfe doesn’t misrepresent the past, it is just that you see history in a progressist way. One could simply look at the recent world wars to acknowledge how more barbarian man became. The disregard for life, indifference, alienation, poverty, totalitarianism. This is all much more prevalent today. You are blinded by current technological benefits, but they did not make man any better, on the contrary. Never was mass destruction so easy and widespread.

    Some authors like Pitirim Sorokin, Christopher Dawson, René Guénon and Johan Huizinga can help you in seeing the past for what it really was.

    Like it is said: the worst King is still better than the best president.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment, appreciated.

      I’m familiar with the narrative, but I don’t subscribe to it. All the authors you list were born in the 19th century and were brought up in a spirit of Romantic idealization of the past.

      Much more recent scholarship, including The Evolution of Moral Progress by Buchanan and Powell, which I’ve reviewed a few weeks ago, offers fairly clear proof that most people in the Western world live better lives than they did before the advent of human rights.

      You talk about charity, but you forget that charity is still very much a feature of today’s society too. Indeed, partly as a part of government & legislative systems in most of Europe, Canada and other parts of the world, but besides those, there are still tons of non-institutionalized NGOs, foundations by billionaires, foundations by the remnants of nobility, charity by the churches and other religious actors, etc. that actively pursue charity. Crucially, lots of people in my surroundings actively participate in private acts of charity, without any government involvement, and that’s on top of them paying taxes. I’d say charity is STILL the rule, even more so as in the Middle Ages, as on top of the individual practice, lots of societies have installed durable and systematic charity by law, hence broadening & stabilizing its reach.

      You cannot seriously claim there was no disregard for life, indifference, poverty and totalitarianism in the Middle Ages. Just for starters I can point to slavery, serfdom, burning witches at the stake and a general life expectancy well below current levels. Steven Pinker – while I’m not a fan – has shown levels of violence and cruel punishment have declined significantly. If you claim these things are more prevalent today, I’d kindly ask you to provide some research that backs up such a claim.

      Obviously technology has played a role, both ways: as a positive force, and a negative one. I’m well aware of technology’s downsides. Why do you think I’m blinded by it?

      As for widespread mass destruction: Pinker has numbers about that too. As a % of population, much less people die in wars and violent death than they used to, even if you take bombs and automatic riffles into account, even in the last two world wars. The idea of both World Wars as the pinnacle of human depravity is a myth.

      I agree on alienation though, that could very well be more prevalent today – but there I’d echo Brecht’s ‘Erst kommt dass Fressen, und dann die Moral’.

      From your comment I get the sense that you might be an American, brought up with the small government ideology that is prevalent in that country. From an American perspective, I can understand your sentiment: USA politics has been dysfunctional for quite some time. I would not, however, long for the days of European Kings because of that.


      • oberon the fool

        As an American, this guy does not represent us. We’ve got way too many regressive thinkers here, it’s true, but most of us wish we could all just be a little kinder to everyone and things would be better.

        Liked by 1 person

        • This reminds me of someone I knew that once answered to a journalist he didn’t know ‘What Americans thought on the matter?’ as he did not know most Americans personally.


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