(urth) Long Review Essay on Wizard Knight

Stanislaus sbocian at poczta.fm
Mon Sep 24 12:44:33 PDT 2007

Hello Craig,

Monday, September 24, 2007, 6:52:41 PM, you wrote:

> On Able's morality, Wolfe did say in an interview that
> TWK was inspired as a traditional chivalric romance
> except without the Christian worldview of the Middle
> Ages. Instead, you get the harsher Norse aspect of the
> mythology.

> To me, you can take that "without the Christian
> worldview" aspect in two ways. On the one hand, it
> looks like traditional "speculative fiction" in the
> sense of "what if" novels. (I.e., what if the romances
> of the middle ages had been written without
> Christianity.) Or, you can take it as a more subtle
> moral investigation of knight culture in which Able's
> troubled morality (or "bully" nature) is both
> necessary and inadequate to his society, etc.

> Either way, I don't find Able to be in any way
> "worrying" as if it supposedly exposes Wolfe as
> idealizing the school yard bully. It seems to me that
> the two books offer much more for thought than whether
> or not we "like" the main character and can
> "sympathize" with him. If Wolfe chooses to write about
> a warlike society without any moral system that
> opposes the brutality of the sword, why should we
> react with shocked indignation when he gives us a
> character who is a product of that society? 

Wizard-Knight is a Christian book, but it does have morality, even quite exacting one.

This is a Neoplatonic book. Neoplatonism is usually thought of as the most subtle and difficult metaphysics. It entails also morality - but it is a morality very different from the Christian one. 

Neoplatonism is strictly hierarchical. In fact, the name "hierarchy" - which means "the holy authority" or "the holy rule" is strictly connected with that philosophy. Neoplatonism was the ruling philosophy and religion of the Roman Empire and, in a version Christianized by Pseudo-Dionysius, of Byzantium (although the Ortodox authors tend to condemn Neoplatonism in its pure version).


According to Neoplatonism the world was created as a series of emanations of the One; the description in the Wizard is close enough. Our task is to return to the One by ascending again the ladder of hierarchy; this can be done by mediation or by faithful service to the state (according to the pre-Neoplatonic astral piety as eg Somnum Scipionis of Cicero, the meritorious civil servants become the astral spirits, in fact - equal of gods). 

The characteristic element was the wholly negative nature of evil. Evil does not have any independent existence; it is simply a lack of good, caused by the growing distance to the One. (the Lowest God of Wolfe is an addition in Christian style). Each lower level is further from the One, and therefore worse.

An important part is that there is nothing like forgiveness, charity etc. Those that are lower, are lower because they are worse; the higher are nearer to the One or to his earthly image, the Emperor, and therefore are better. You can rise, best of all by philosophy or by service to the State, but if you do not, it is your own fault.

The Roman empire was organized exactly according to those rules. At top there was the Holy Emperor, below the hierarchy of offices glowing with His reflected light, below them the senatorial class, then the honestiores and at the end the humiliores, "humble ones" - serfs and indentured laborers.

 Wizard-Knight shows therefore a very different culture with a different view of the world and different morality.

 It is not very strange that any attempt to show anything different from the modern conceptions should cause a great deal of discomfort. It is a very well known fact that those who speak the most of "diversity", "free thought", "open mind" etc  in practice cannot suffer any world-view which differs from their own. Since the world-view shown in Wizard-Knight is nearly a mirror image of the modern one, it is reasonable that it should be the most intolerable for modern people.

Additionally, it is rather clear that the author supports neither the pitiless hierarchy of Mythgarth, nor the lack of hierarchy in the modern society. The speach of Able to Arnthor obviously represents the view of the author. It is neither the love nor hate of hierarchy; it is rather a conventional Western and particulary American view of the world. In XIX century it would be an obvious and undisputable truth.

We can see that Wolfe wanted to shown mistakes of modernity; but instead of writing about an ideal utopia, he had shown a society imbalanced in the opposite direction. This allows us to see both benefits and dangers inherent in both systems.

Obviously, if someone thinks that the courage, honor and fidelity are evil things, he will see not advantages in the Mythgarth; but this position starts from so different assumption that I think any discussion with it is impossible.

I will say only one thing. According to traditional Christian (and Neoplatonic) philosophy there are no evil things; everything which is, is good (even fidelity). But everything good can be perverted to evil. And the better thing is the worse it becomes if it is misused.

Contrary to modern view the good is infinitely stronger than evil (which is simply lack of good, not a separate thing). But if a very good thing is perverted it becomes very dangerous, and the less is the difference the more dangerous it is - since it retains much of the original good. And army of thieves and cowards is not very dangerous. An army of heroes commanded by experienced officers and serving a cruel madman is much more terrible.

Corruptio optimi pessima.

Corruption of the best is worst.

Best regards,
 Stanislaus                           mailto:sbocian at poczta.fm

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