(urth) Long Review Essay on Wizard Knight

Stephen Frug sfrug at post.harvard.edu
Tue Sep 18 10:45:03 PDT 2007

Greetings Urthlings.  I've read this message list before, but never 
posted to it.  (Unless this message is itself a duplicate... the 
first time seems to have gotten lost...)  But I just wrote a long 
review of Wizard Knight which I posted to my blog 
(http://stephenfrug.blogspot.com), and I thought that readers here 
would be interested in it -- and I am definitely interested in 
responses -- so I am cross-posting it.  Hope that's okay.  If my 
links & block-quote formatting don't come through, you can go to the 
blog-version to get them.

I just finished reading Gene Wolfe's two-volume novel, The Wizard 
Knight, made up of The Knight (2004) and The Wizard (2005). The 
following is a long essay reviewing (in some sense) the work, 
focusing on what I found problematic about it, rather than the (quite 
considerable number of things) I liked in it. This review-essay will 
have spoilers -- not major ones, but existent ones -- for the 
entirety of the work. Now, I'm not spoiling, I don't think, any of 
the Big Secrets from the book -- certainly not from the second half, 
where the cluster. So, in my opinion, there's nothing here that would 
really "spoil" a first reading of the work if you haven't read it 
yet. But if you want to approach it with no knowledge whatsoever, you 
should stop reading here. (Oh, and I guess there are spoilers for The 
Lord of the Rings too.)

I think my most basic reaction is that it's good but not Wolfe's best 
-- not up there with The Book of the New Sun or The Fifth Head of 
Cerberus, say. That it's well written is not in doubt: it's by Wolfe, 
after all. But I had some problems with it -- some of which are 
probably in my head, some of which are in the work, and some of which 
are in the chemical mixture of the two.

It's hard to criticize Wolfe, though, because of his reputation as a 
trickster: if you present a negative opinion of anything the man 
writes, you instantly lay yourself open to the charge that you just 
didn't get it. And not infrequently the charge will be valid. But it 
won't always be valid: Wolfe is human, humans are imperfect, and even 
Shakespeare wrote some clunkers. And while a lot of aspects of 
Wolfe's fiction are far more complex than they appear even at third 
glance, other aspects are, finally, not: they are straightforward, 
despite the efforts of Wolfe's more serious fans (an overlapping but 
not identical group to Wolfe's more serious readers) to try and make 
them so.

And, for me at least, it's even more intimidating when the backs of 
the books are filled with breathless praise from some of my other 
favorite writers: Neil Gaiman! Kim Stanley Robinson! Everyone seems 
to agree that this is the very best book since Wolfe's last very best 
book, and you just have to love it!

Well, I didn't. I liked it, but also had some real problems with it. 
So at the risk of derision for missing the point, I'm going to begin 
with some straightforward critiques of a writer who (in John Clute's 
apt words) "has never in his life told a straightforward tale".

I think the first half of The Knight was slow. There were a number of 
places where, if the book hadn't said Gene Wolfe on the cover, I 
would have given up. Partly this was because the book, while being 
slow, presented itself mostly as an adventure book: it was not slow 
in the good way that, say, Proust is. It was slow where it shouldn't 
have been. For me, at least, this lessened as I went along, and by 
the end of The Knight I was fully gripped, and stayed so through The 

In a related criticism, the book was unevenly paced. This is related, 
not identical, because I'm not just referring to the first half of 
volume one. The rest of volume one and the first two-thirds or so of 
volume two, while never (for me) dull, proceeded at a stately pace 
through the events of the tale -- leaving the ending to be told at 
breakneck speed and with more-than-usual abridgement. Parts of this 
are due to Wolfe's habit of telling the most serious parts of his 
stories by indirection -- but only, I think, parts.

Wolfe's uneven pacing is actually habitual for him -- there are 
traces of it in The Book of the New Sun, and it's a more serious 
problem in The Book of the Long Sun. And at this point I'm coming 
around to the belief that while this is partly due to careful 
authorial craft, it is also partly a failure of it: Wolfe simply gets 
too wrapped up in the early stages of some of his adventures and 
tells them at (at times) tedious length.

Wolfe, as has been frequently noted, writes puzzles, works which hint 
at stories and cosmology and theology which are only partly and 
obscurely visible on the surface. But he also writes (and clearly 
likes to write and, from what he's said of his reading tastes, likes) 
adventure stories which form the surface under which those puzzles 
move. And while Wolfe is a genius at writing puzzles, he is, I think, 
uneven at writing adventures. He likes it more than he's good at it. 
And I find that my favorite Wolfe works are often those where he 
doesn't try -- in his short stories, for instance, in which he is 
often simply doing something else.

There are a lot of interpretive puzzles in The Wizard Knight, as 
there are in all of Wolfe's work. Some of them I got the first time 
around. Others I didn't; still others I probably even missed the 
existence of. And I feel that if I reread it -- particularly, if I 
reread it right now, with the first reading fresh in my mind -- I 
would probably get a lot more of them -- might understand, to pick 
one example out of many, what the complex relationship between 
Mythgarthr and America was supposed to be, a relationship (along with 
the relationship of parallel or crossing characters) which Wolfe 
hinted a lot about but did not make clear -- at least to me -- on the 
first reading.

But, frankly, I didn't like it enough to want to reread it -- 
certainly not now. (Other Wolfe works I have liked enough to reread 
them, whether I found time to or not.) I'd rather read something else 
-- even something else of Wolfe's. Wolfe's puzzles are marvelous, but 
if the supporting structure isn't good enough, I don't want to take 
the time to figure them out. And at least in the case of The Wizard 
Knight, I didn't.

On to other topics.

I think Wolfe's writing of Abel's voice was profoundly uneven. 
Usually in a high and archaic register, it would lapse at times into 
slang -- into (to my ear) outdated slang, slang that uneasily mixed 
contemporary life (macs) with some sort of parody of fifties usage 
(swell!). The slang itself was jarringly inconsistent; and the 
mixture of slang into otherwise unbroken pages of high-register 
speech (both dialogue and the narrator's voice) was frequently 
awkward in the extreme. Wolfe has said in an interview that he didn't 
have any trouble writing a modern teenager, since he knows them and 
lives near them; but I think there was a real failure of tone here. 
Now, maybe, this is all part of some complex Wolfean trick, some 
deliberate mixture of tone which served some thematic, portraiture or 
other purpose... but I sure didn't see it. Until someone convinces me 
otherwise, I think this is simply a failure on his part.

I should perhaps mention that there was a lot to like here, since 
I've so far been mostly negative. It is, as I said, well-written 
(save for the -- thankfully not all that frequent -- lapses in tone 
just noted); it is mostly exciting. The cosmology was fascinating, 
the magic mysterious, many of the characters quite interesting. The 
reinvention of by-now standard fantasy elements -- the Norse mythos, 
elves, and lots more -- was refreshing and fun. There's a lot to like 

But I think my biggest complaint -- my biggest stumbling block -- was 
a pair of intertwined issues: the character of Abel, and the ethics 
(even, politics) of the book.

First off, I found Abel frequently insufferable. Pompous, 
self-righteous, frequently a bully, he also came off as a Mary Sue 
(at least in one sense of that polyvalent term of fan critique): not 
only was he the most courageous and noble person about, but he also 
had the writer stacking the deck for him at every turn. He had more 
magical allies, artifacts, assistants, companions, than you could 
shake a stick at: an invisible ogre doing his bidding! A sky-wolf who 
happened to be totally loyal! Elves (called Aelf) who were his slaves 
(yes, not always reliable, but often enough). A magic sword, the 
blessing and friendship of Odin, various other magic devices he got 
at the end (the helmet, another sword). Heck, he even becomes a god 
halfway through the work! Talk about favoritism!*

This sort of stacking the deck is hard enough to take when the writer 
has some self-consciousness about what he's doing, but I didn't see 
any sign that Wolfe did. He simply loved his creation, and showered 
him with so many cheats and advantages that any honor he might have 
accrued felt like a cheat.

Abel adjusted with damning speed to the hierarchy of a medieval 
society. Here his American origins were least convincing, if not 
downright morally foul. It's natural for those raised in a profoundly 
hierarchical society to accept it as normal, to expect deference from 
the lower-born and give it to the higher. But it's inexplicable for 
an American -- even an American boy. It makes Abel seem like a deeply 
immoral man -- in a way that no one else in the novel seems immoral, 
since after all, no one else in the novel ought to have a cultural 
grounding in notions of equality and the malevolence of fixed class. 
Oh, sure, this is not absolutely true: Abel makes no effort to hide 
his peasant ancestry, and seems to think it doesn't matter, so he's 
certainly less class conscious, more egalitarian, than most of the 
people he meets. But he also expects an enormous level of deference 
from his "inferiors", and seems to regard his "superiors" has being 
due a great deal of it. And yes, he was frequently kind, even 
generous to those below him -- but in such a way that their status 
was perfectly clear.

For me, the incident that stuck with me was the one early on in The 
Knight where Abel went to get a sea-berth on a ship. Quoted a price 
by the captain, he insisted on having the best cabin (turning the 
captain out) at less than half the price quoted... and to get it, he 
literally threatened the man's life. He acted, in short, like the 
brigands whose thievery he used to justify their slaughter not a few 
chapters before, taking what he wanted because he wanted it, and -- 
and in some sense this was, to me, even more damning -- because he 
clearly felt that it was his due as a knight.

Again, if there was any sign that all of this that Wolfe was 
presenting a critique of Abel, that would be fine. If he was being 
presented as a boy who hadn't learned better, or a man trying but 
failing to be good... but while Wolfe's reputation as a subtle writer 
might make one reach for such an interpretation, I didn't see any 
real signs of it in the text. I got the impression that we were 
simply supposed to think Abel was a good and admirable person, that 
Wolfe certainly thought so, that he was blind to all his (quite 
damning) flaws.

Adam Stephanides, who hated The Knight (which, I hope I have made 
clear, I didn't), nevertheless has a passage in his self-described 
"rant" about it that strikes me as sadly on the mark:

     Sir Able of the High Heart, the Uberknight who his inferiors 
willingly submit to (if not, they're treacherous curs, whom he 
rightfully punishes), not any of the other characters, not the world, 
and not the plot, such as it was. Able doesn't behave like an 
adolescent, magically given an adult body or not: what he does behave 
like is an adolescent boy's fantasy of how he would behave if given a 
powerful adult body. Nor does he sound in the least like an 
adolescent, contemporary or otherwise. When Able talks to other 
characters, he sounds like the generic Wolfe Competent Male; when 
he's narrating, he mostly sounds like Hoof, except when Wolfe throws 
in some incongruous "poetic" passages, or remembers that Able is 
supposed to be a modern teenager and tosses in a reference to Macs or 

Overly-strongly put. But not, I think, fundamentally mistaken about 
the problems of the book.

And Wolfe's apparent (and, I believe, genuine) fundamental admiration 
for Abel connects to the deeply problematic ethics of the work as a 
whole -- and, finally, to its politics.

One of modernity's powerful cultural changes was the rotting of the 
chivalric code. It's crucial to remember that this happened, not due 
to our inability to live up to, but to historical events' revealing 
of its essential malevolency -- at least in the context of a 
(technologically, socially) modern society, if not in general. The 
most famous articulation of this point, I believe, is Hemmingway's, 
in A Farewell to Arms:

     Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were 
obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the names of roads, 
the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.

What I found most profoundly disturbing was the sense that what Wolfe 
was ultimately trying to do was to redeem words such as glory, honor, 
courage or hallow -- words that, for inescapably important moral 
reasons, have indeed become (if indeed they were not always) obscene.

And this, at least, I don't think was my simplifying the work of a 
complex writer. (Rather, I think this was my (liberal) reaction to an 
essentially very conservative writer.) For Wolfe said as much in an 
interview he did with Neil Gaiman. -- True, he can be as cagey and 
mysterious in interviews as he is in fiction... sometimes. But not 
always: and I submit that anyone who sees the following as other than 
straightforward is probably over-reading. Here is the exchange (I've 
abridged Gaiman's question):

     Gaiman: [A] hundred years from now... a teenager [reads The 
Wizard Knight]. Where do you hope The Knight and The Wizard will take 

     Wolfe: To a country where honor, courage, and fidelity actually 
mean something. The whole knightly ideal came into being because the 
fighting was so close. Ordinary people saw who defended the castle 
and who hid in the wine cellar, who went for the enemy while his 
followers, well, actually followed instead of doing all the fighting 
for him. Communities were small; everybody knew how everybody else 
behaved. I want her to see what those qualities can mean to the 
person who has them and to those around him.

     Gaiman: That's really cool. And, for want of a better word, noble.

Actually, I don't think it's cool. And I certainly don't think it's 
noble. I think it's, at a minimum, profoundly disturbing... arguably 
even, in Hemingway's word, "obscene".

And along with honor and glory and fidelity come hierarchy, and 
servitude, and subservience, and caste: all right there in Wolfe's 
book, just like the world. Along comes all the horrors of pre-modern 
society that were destroyed by it, even as it introduced new horrors 
of its own.

Now a great deal of fantasy -- not all of it, but a lot of it -- is 
written in a spirit of nostalgia for the pre-modern world. This 
nostalgia takes different forms and has different (moral, literary, 
personal) meanings. But I must admit I've never found it as 
disturbing as in Wolfe's Wizard Knight. For comparison, let me talk 
about Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, not only the inescapable point of 
comparison for almost any high fantasy work (at least in a basic 
sense, i.e. a fantasy work set in a world different from our own), 
but as a book which Wolfe and I (and half the reading world) share a 
love for. Because, despite Tolkien's clear nostalgia for pre-modern 
times, I didn't, and don't, find it nearly as problematic as I did 
Wolfe's Wizard Knight. Why?

Well, first off, Wolfe brings a purportedly modern voice and 
perspective into his pre-modern times... and has it swallow them 
whole. Tolkien, of course, sets his work wholly within a different 
time, so the lack of a modern ethical perspective is reasonable, even 
essential. But for Wolfe not to confront these issues implicitly 
ratifies things that Tolkien needn't deal with.

More importantly, for Tolkien, the good is more complex than it is 
for Wolfe, at least for Wolfe here. While Tolkien's characters strive 
to do right, The Lord of the Rings is above all about the corruption 
of power, the corruptibility of good intent, and the terrible dangers 
for even those who strive to do right. I don't see any of that in 
Wolfe's Wizard Knight. As my favorite reader of Tolkien, T. A. 
Shippey, has noted, the ring and its thematic motif of the corrupting 
nature of power bring into Tolkien the one modern element in an 
otherwise pre-modern work. That is, Tolkien brought into his work 
some of the complexity from the pre-modern world -- and it made his 
work as rich as it is. Wolfe brought in a modern element, seemingly 
just to show that nothing from America really needed saving or really 
had any valuable perspective lacking in the pre-modern world.

Similarly, for Tolkien, the evil seems far more evil than it does for 
Wolfe -- and far more tied to the basic issues of war and power. It 
is the desire for control, for gain, that is fundamentally wrong in 
Tolkien's work... and we see, quite powerfully, their result in 
things such as the powerful, Great War Trench-influenced depictions 
of the broken land of Mordor, and in the vivid depictions of the 
scouring of the shire.** Now, we see, at the end of The Wizard, some 
of the ruinous effects of war... but not with anything like the 
vividness and power in Tolkien. More to the point, Wolfe doesn't 
portray this as the outcome of war, but the outcome of the good guys 
loosing: you don't see any sense that if the humans had simply beat 
the Osterlings (and we are told very specifically that this begun 
with a raid on their lands for gain, something presented as 
straightforward and not at all morally troubling) that there would be 
anything wrong. In Tolkien, war is shown as something necessary due 
to a fallen world, something which is itself part of the corruption 
even of the good: in Wolfe, it's only too bad when you loose, and all 
the jousting and ridiculous fights of honor he portrays are simply 
something it would be jolly good to have back. (I exaggerate, but not 
as much as I wish I did.)

And finally, of course, Tolkien was writing long before our time -- 
before my time. The Lord of the Rings was written, in significant 
part, during the Second World War; The Wizard Knight was written, in 
significant part, during the so-called War on Terror. The world is 
different now. And that means I experience the works differently.

And here we get to something which is probably more my failure than 
anything else.

You see, I am far, far more suspicious of "words such as glory, 
honor, courage, or hallow" in the present -- say, the last six years 
-- than I am from before. And I think that is because so many 
Americans experienced the attacks of September 11 as an immediate and 
unproblematic redemption of them. Yet it seems to me that one crucial 
component of the horrible mistakes and unforgivable evils that our 
country has committed in the past six years was precisely that 
redemption: of our thinking, far too much, about glory and honor and 
courage -- not to mention "evil doers" -- and far too little about 
the names of villages.

The truth is, I read The Wizard Knight with these words -- Wolfe's 
reaction to the 9-11 attacks -- ringing in my ears:

     We will be told that the perpetrators (and only the perpetrators) 
must be punished, and that the greatest pains must be taken to make 
certain no innocent person suffers. That sounds much better than 
saying no action should be taken, but it comes to the same thing. The 
perpetrators cannot be punished. They died in the planes they 
hijacked and are beyond our reach. It is not possible to fight a war 
(not even a losing war) without causing innocent people to suffer.

And I thought a lot of things about them. For example, I thought that 
with only the smallest tweaking, they could sound like the 
justifications that the 9-11 attackers might themselves have used: 
oh, unlike what Wolfe is saying, the "perpetrators" that they would 
have been talking about were probably not doing crimes that I would 
say were clearly such. But the argument would have been the same: we 
can't fight a war without causing innocent people to suffer. If we 
aren't willing to kill the innocent, then we can't do anything. The 
actual perpetrators (say, the government of the U.S.) are beyond our 
reach, but that doesn't mean that no action should be taken. And so 

(I don't want to get too sidetracked here, but of course Wolfe's 
comment makes an assumption, the basic mistake that has been at the 
root of so much of our national crimes and mistakes and lost 
opportunities in the past six years: assuming that "action" means 
"war", and that no war means no action. After all, in the legal 
prosecutions of criminal gangs, it is quite possible to make sure 
that only the guilty suffer -- or, at least, far, far more sure than 
in any war. That if we had responded to Al Queada not by comparing 
them to the Nazis, but by comparing them to the Mafia, all might have 
been different.)

But hate it or not, the politics clearly effected me here. I'm sure 
that the complexities in Tolkien that were lacking in Wolfe's Wizard 
Knight are a large part of my reaction to it. But the fact that 
Wolfe, a conservative writing in my time, a time when conservatives 
have done so much horrible damage to our country and the world, was a 
big part too.

And I hate this. I hate that my experience of what is, after all, a 
fantasy story unconnected to the present day, is colored by politics. 
I hate that my experience of the writer who, for all his failings, is 
one of the best writers working today (in fantasy or out of it), is 
colored by my knowledge of his politics.**** I hate that I can't just 
see the dragons and The Knights, but instead see the calls for 
further U.S. crimes and blunders and wars.

One of the personal things I blame Bush and his followers for is that 
they have created such a terrible, poisonous, and down-right evil 
atmosphere that I am far less capable of seeing things in political 
terms than I used to be -- far less capable than I would like to be.

I suspect that even in happier times I would have found The Wizard 
Knight flawed -- for its pacing, for its main character, and, yes, 
for its deeply problematic medieval ethics. But only nowadays would I 
experience this as finding it flawed for its politics.

In this sense, and this sense only, I guess I, too, wish I could go 
back to simpler times.

* Other writers have complained about the split focus in The Wizard 
between Abel and Toug. I, actually, felt that that was one of the 
things that The Wizard had going for it: it spent more time focusing 
on people who were more complex, less Blessed by The Gods (i.e. 
Wolfe), and thereby were, to me, far more sympathetic and 
(ultimately) admirable characters.

** Not in the films: to me, this was the single least excusable 
change in Jackson's adaptation.

*** Well, if he was worried we wouldn't kill enough innocent people, 
Wolfe can rest assured that we have done a bang-up job of it. 
(/political bitterness)

I don't mean here to say that any support of a war is equivalent to 
terrorist thinking; I'm not a pacifist. (Why do we always feel we 
have to say that? That must be one of the most repeated sentences in 
the country in the last few years.) I don't think war is always 
wrong. But I don't think war should be used to punish; I think it 
should be use to defend. And the latter involves not killing 
civilians. I'm not talking about anything more complicated than just 
war theory here -- a theory that the Catholic church has done a lot 
to develop, mostly (from what little I've seen of it) along extremely 
sensible lines. Wolfe, famously, is a Catholic; but I don't see the 
influence of Catholic thinking about war in this statement.

**** Wolfe has said (I don't have the reference handy) that he used 
to be a Bucklean conservative, but that now his politics are unique 
and personal. Of course, there are a number of political positions in 
this country -- minority positions, but ones with millions of 
followers -- whose adherents frequently view themselves as possessing 
unique, personal, non-partisan politics which they alone have the 
objectivity and distance to see. Many of these are some variety of 
conservative; and I think there's plenty of evidence that Wolfe fits 
into one of these camps. If someone wishes to correct me -- not by 
saying I shouldn't use his politics to judge his works (I agree), but 
that I've gotten his politics wrong -- then please do so.

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