Gene Wolfe is the relative unknown whom all the famous fantasy and sci-fi authors like to venerate. Kinda like lots of famous bands all listen to relative unknowns King’s X (or did a decade ago, according to a VH1 countdown I watched as an undergrad…) Even the stars need to feel like fan-boys and -girls every now and then.
I’ve been occasionally picking away at Wolfe’s books and short stories for around 4+ years now. Some are pretty challenging– Fifth Head of Cerberus is fascinating, but feels a bit like a riddle which I will have to reread a few times before I get it. His Wizard-Knight duology (really one novel in two volumes– The Knight and The Wizard) is much more accessible, as is his recent novel Pirate Freedom. Both are very similar in the voices of their first-person narrators, though I haven’t read enough Wolfe to say whether this is peculiar to these novels, or typical of Wolfe’s protagonists. There are some similarities to Severian in the Book of the New Sun, but the narrators in WK and PF seem a lot more… well, naive and innocent are the words that come to me, as well as plain-spoken, but none of those descriptions necessarily fit. More on that below. For now, I will say that both WK and PF feel like Wolfe is attempting to take on two classic boyish-adventure genres and inject them with some postmodern originality (sometimes subtle, sometimes not so much) while still retaining/valuing the “boyishness” of the genres. I use the term “boyish” deliberately– the protagonist in each novel is male, and has a very “boyish” voice, and the world which we see through the narrator’s words at times seems to stem from a very “boyish” vision. Some reviewers have complained about this– one in particular felt like all the women in PF were idealized, and while I disagreed at the time, I think it is a reasonable reading of the book, if expected, considering the narrator.
That said, I think a closer look reveals something a bit subtler going on in the narrator’s voice and his telling of events (you will have to decide for yourself whether the women are truly idealized or not– I am of two minds at the moment, but certainly in WK there are both men and women of varying degrees of moral perfection, and no one seems absolutely perfect to me). Wolfe is notorious for using unreliable narrators. Sometimes the unreliability of the narrator is deliberate and duplicitous– the case in particular for one of the narrators in Fifth Head. There is a chance that we have a similar extreme of unreliability in these books– the narrators in WK and PF may both be delusional, and there are at least some hints that that may be the case in WK (though these hints may also be interpreted in a way consistent with the “in-world” narrative– Michael Andre-Driussi’s Wizard-Knight Companion makes some point on several possible interpretations)– but I think we have the unreliability of the narrators treated differently here. For one thing, the narrators are up-front about the fact that they don’t want to tell you everything, and some of the most intriguing bits of WK are the places where Able/Arthur says “I saw something really amazing there, but I will never tell anyone about it”. For another, the plain-spoken, even boyish and self-deprecating voices of the narrators are misleading. In both books the narrator manages to retain the “innocent” voice, as well as a sense of idealism and honor, while demonstrating in words and actions that he is anything but naive. Much fantasy in the last 10-20 years, especially the big post-Robert Jordan epics (Martin, Goodkind, Ericksson), has been interested in showing just how corrupt, dirty, and horrible things can be in a medieval-ish world. OK, good to burst the bubble of infantile fantasy medievalisms, but I feel like Wolfe is specifically trying to show a man of real “honor” surviving and shining in a narrative which acknowledges that same “dirt”, both inside and outside the character of the narrator himself. Maybe another way to put it: Wolfe attempts to answer the question “How can a boy become a man, act with honor and do Good, while living with the fact that he himself and the world around him fall short of that ideal?” It does feel very “boy-centric”, how to “be a man”, as I said, and so it may be less meaningful to some female readers than it is to many guys, but again, I’ll leave it to you (for now) to decide whether or not this “boy-centricness” goes too far. There are certainly some strong women in the book– but the narrator very clearly buys in to the world’s hierarchy, and that includes gender roles (meaning, women are powerful within those roles set out for them). But again, it is a medieval world which is being shown, and we cannot really blame the book for giving a narrative which works according to those rules.
On to the world itself. The Wizard Knight reminds me more of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia in its use of mythology and legend, rather than of Tolkien’s work. Tolkien certainly borrowed from the various medieval sources which he studied, but the world he created was designed to stand on it’s own–whereas Lewis’ strategy (and Wolfe’s) is to borrow in such a way that the borrowing is clear, a deliberate homage, transparently blending bits of otherwise unrelated mythologies, and more openly intertextual. It reminds me “mythpunk“, to borrow Valente’s term, though I haven’t read much in the genre itself– but my point is, it deliberately plays on the canonicity of myths, fairy tales and legends, as well as on the later reception of the same (for example, not just Norse mythology, but Wagnerian Norse mythology). WK deals primarily in Norse Mythology, Arthuriana and Chivalry, and Christianity. Wolfe is Catholic, and I have to say, this is the most “Christian” of his book that I’ve read. The comparison to Narnia is valid in more than simply the mode of mythological borrowing.
That said, please don’t use these books as a resource for finding out about Norse mythology. One of the best arguments for the entire narrative being a post-9/11 delusion of an injured teenage Arthur (=Able) is the fact that the mythological bits look like fanciful reconstructions and syntheses of a boy stuck at a cabin alone while his older brother is gone, with nothing but books on knights and mythology to read. Not that we necessarily have to interpret the narrative in that way, but the Norse material, at least, could only have been borrowed in the direction Our World > Supernatural(/Fictional) World. I say this because the names and characters in this supernatural world are not systematically coherent in their own world– for example, the -r ending of certain nominative noun forms in Old Norse is included in some of the Norse-derived names in the book, but just as part of the “Norse coloring” of the names, not in terms of its actual grammatical function. In other words, it is our world’s mythology and fairy tale which generates this Other World, rather than this Other World which generates the myths and fairy tales of our world. Again, I think this is typical of Mythpunk– at least I see similar things going on in the way Michael Swanwick (one of those Gene Wolfe fans) uses Norse sources in The Dragons of Babel, but more on that some other time.
Well, this review has gone on long enough. I expect I will return to this book in more detail at some point (the potential connections to 9/11 are worth an article in their own right), but for now I will say that it is very enjoyable and original. It is probably vulnerable to various criticisms, non-trivial in my view (the issue of women, which again, I am of two minds on, and the fact that the flesh-eating bad-guys are conflations of Mongol and Arab culture, while all the good guys are conflations of various White mythologies), but it is also possible that these could be resolved in reading the series as stemming from the delusion or imagination of the narrator as the young boy he is at the very start of the narrative. In any case, I hope it stays in print, because it is worth far more than the vast bulk of best-selling fantasy novels that are out there now.