I was a little hard on The Knight in my earlier comments—and I’m not only saying that because the second volume, The Wizard, redeems the first so completely. I was just a little hung up on the Wolfeisms about it that annoyed me, and so didn’t dwell on the stuff that was good about it.
Somewhere in the first quarter of The Wizard we actually get a fair chunk of exposition (gasp!) and a plot that sticks to one event (the mission to the land of the Giants) for a good half of the book. Things splinter again after that, but come together in the end. Reading The Knight you could never be quite sure if Wolfe was telling a fantasy story or was spinning some meta-tale riff on boyhood fantasies. With the second book the verdict decisively shifts toward “a good fantasy story,” and events in the first book look differently in retrospect as a result. But the whole thing is an awfully rich affair, so that’s not to say that there aren’t some meta-narrative riffs in there or other subtleties I haven’t even picked up on yet—just that that stuff doesn’t overwhelm the most important thing, a good yarn.
Jim once told me that the key to understanding any Wolfe novel is figuring out the point when the narrator dies but doesn’t realize it. Things are a little clearer here: Sir Able dies and does realize it, at the end of the first book when he kills the dragon. But in between the books he’s taken up into Skai (think Valhalla) and spends a good bit of time there. But his love for an Aelf drives him back down to middle earth, though he cames as a being from above forsworn not to use his full powers. In some ways he still is the boy-knight of the first book, because those years in Skai work something like a dream, and little time has passed for his friends on earth. All this makes his arc a heck of a lot more interesting. He’s still—if you set side by side all his decisions and step back and look at them—not all that bright, as he himself admits, but the twist on his fate makes his arc in the second book well worth following. I doubt I could have taken another 400 pages of Sir Able from The Knight.
But this is really an ensemble piece. Sir Able meets at least as many people in this book as he did in the last, and all the ones from the last one are still around, such that there are a dizzying amount of characters. And the animals are the best—Gylf, his loyal hound, Mani the talking cat, Cloud, his horse. All the way through I gave a shit about a good many of the characters, which is more than I can say about Book of the New Sun. They’re both the sort of works that you need to reread before you really have a handle on them. Maybe someday I’ll get around to rereading New Sun; The Wizard Knight I’ll read again within a year, for sure.
More in-depth ramblings later, maybe, if anyone’s interested. Who else has read these books?
UPDATE: A quick peek at what the serious Wolfeheads have to say on a Gene Wolfe mailing list has me wanting to reread these books right away. The extent to which the characters and situations are tied into real-world mythologies is much greater than I at first supposed, and I have a feeling that what the books have to say about honor is probably more profound than I would have given them credit for at first.
Reread Wolfe, or start Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell? Decisions decisions…