Monday, 20 June 2011

Reflections on The Knight

I recently finished reading The Knight (2004) and have now moved on to the second volume of the Wizard Knight series, The Wizard (2004). Although the two books can be said to form one long novel (as is the case with most of Wolfe's series), I thought it would be worthwhile writing some thoughts and impressions on The Knight first.

The Knight follows a young american boy who, when wandering in the woods one day, finds himself in another world: Mythgarthr. There he is given the name "Able of the High Heart," is magically transformed into a well-built adult man, and becomes a knight. During his journeys across land and sea, he takes on various companions, including a half-blind sailor named Pouk, two female Aelf, and a talking dog named Gylf.

Discussing an excerpt from The Knight (part of which is available online) John Clute notes that although the story "may seem at first glance to inhabit a straightforward medieval secondary world with seers and swords, just another Arthurized Version of fantasyland," the book's setting in actuality "resembles fantasyland only superficially, and for just a few pages" (Pardon This Intrusion, 2011, p. 139). This observation echoes exactly what I was feeling as I read the book. At first I was taken aback by the apparent simplicity of the story and its setting: boy goes through Portal to typical Arthurian fantasy world, encounters valiant knights, mythical creatures and magical objects, blah, blah, blah. But it soon becomes apparent that the world Wolfe has created is far from typical. Mythgarthr, it turns out, is the fourth of seven worlds, which exist in parallel and interact with each other in complex and powerful ways. Each world also has its own distinct creatures and cultures. Able's past is also far more mysterious than it first seems, for is revealed that he has spent time in one of these other worlds before, although the experience has been wiped from his mind.

The story also has a fascinating and complex religious element, and a strange cast of mythical creatures from different traditions. One character, versed in magic, says that the human beings of Mythgarthr were created by "the God of the highest world," and we are also told that the Valfather, who lives in a floating castle in the higher world of Skai, is often called the "Most High God" (although mistakenly, for the Valfather abides in Skai, not the highest world of Elysion). These higher worlds also seem heaven-like, and one of them, Kleos, is even populated by angelic beings (the 'angel' that visits Able is named Michael—no kidding). The lower worlds, in turn, often seem hell-like by comparison. However, the small nuggets of information we are given in The Knight aren't much to go on, and I expect these interesting story lines to be developed further in The Wizard.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Knight and thought it was a fantastic return to the rich style of The Book of the New Sun, the four volume series for which Wolfe is probably best known. We again have a first-person narrator who journeys through a strange and fantastic world with a constantly-changing cast of companions. The story is again much more complex than it first appears (and I have no doubt it will become even more so as I make my way through The Wizard). And finally (and this is important) there is once again an excellent balance between conversation and action/narrative. Many (including myself) have struggled with the sheer amount of conversation in some of Wolfe's recent work, such as An Evil Guest (2009) and Home Fires (2011). In the latter of these, for instance, there is a considerable amount of important action involving the novel's central characters that is skipped over, only to be described (repeatedly and in great depth) in conversation later. This is not the case in The Knight, in which we have a fast-paced narrative with enthralling descriptions of Sir Able's adventures, and his epic battles with ogres, giants, dragons, and other knights. Although some conversations are rather long, they are not unwelcome, for they are fascinating and well written, and usually well separated.

There are, of course, also many differences that set The Knight apart from The Book of the New Sun. The language of The Knight is not as complex, and Wolfe refrains from using obscure and archaic words, something that was common in his earlier series. The setting is also very different, for The Knight is set in a fantasy world, whereas The Book of the New Sun (and, indeed, the whole solar cycle) took place in a thoroughly science-fictional universe (although it often felt like a fantasy world, and the interplay of genre in the series is often debated). In short, I would certainly recommend The Knight to anyone who has enjoyed Wolfe's previous series, and would also consider it a good introduction to his work.

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