The Wizard Knight by Gene Wolfe

April 3, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 5 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

I have always found Arthurian lengeds to be rather distasteful. Generally when it comes to such stories I err on the side of favoring the harsh, grim reality, not fluffed up fables. How can one sit back and enjoy the story of a knight tromping around trying to do heroic deeds when you know he is supported by an oppressed and illiterate peasantry and following a moral code that has less to do with morals and more to do with chaining the knight to the nobility he serves? In any case, the core theme of those stories (like the Asian equivalent underlying most martial arts movies) are the twin ideas of warrior invincibility (that a warrior cannot be defeated, ever, by a warrior of lesser skill) and a correlation of skill and mental strength (that, depending on the story, morality, strength of will, or divine favor have more than a small influence on combat ability). Both ideas seem to result from the potent combination of wishful thinking and propoganda, not reality.

So why is it that I would not only like a two book sequence that explores what it means to be a knight and the code of chivalry, but consider it one of my favorite books? For starters, it’s written by Gene Wolfe. Those who have read his work will know his authorship means a book will not only be well-written but will have a few unforgettable moments and incredible ideas. Then there’s the borrowing of Norse theology. I’m something of a sucker for Norse mythology. However, upon reflection, although it seems to play a huge role, it is really the names, faces, and places of Norse myth without the ideas, and in truth it is the ideas I find so interesting. Odin is not interesting because he is blind in one eye and the father of Thor, but because he knows he will die at Valhalla but continues to prepare and try to win. However, ultimately Norse mythology has more influence on Lord of the Rings than it does on The Wizard Knight.

This is not Wolfe’s best book from a technical standpoint. The narrative has a peculiar lack of focus, even by his standards. Characters drift in and out and emotional setups seem to often go without payoff. However, lest you think Wolfe is asleep at the wheel, the intricate plot fits together perfectly. For a Wolfe book this is a pretty accessible story, but it wouldn’t be a Wolfe book if the reader could understand everything after a single read through. As in the past, Wolfe creates a world too complex for his narrator, or the reader on the first try at the very least, to truly understand, but he always leaves the firm conviction it is understandable and there are hidden rules governing it. And while this may not be Wolfe’s objectively best book, it at least for the moment is my favorite of his, and therefore one of my favorite by any author.

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