Green knights

by Henry Farrell on February 16, 2004

The incomparable “Michael Dirda”: does a full-page review of Gene Wolfe’s The Knight in this week’s Washington Post. Dirda says that Wolfe “should enjoy the same rapt attention we afford to Thomas Pynchon, Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy” and he’s not blowing smoke. I’ve “blogged before”: on Wolfe, who’s perhaps my favourite living writer. _The Knight_ isn’t quite as wonderful as Wolfe’s “New Sun” books, which together constitute his masterpiece, but is still quite wonderful indeed. Its setting most closely resembles that of his juvenile novel, _The Devil in a Forest_, but its story is rather more complex; as Dirda says, the surface smoothness of Wolfe’s language is “that of quicksand.” The prose-style of _The Knight_ is plain, plainer by far than the archaisms and loanwords of the _New Sun_ books, but it is possessed of the same gravity and music. Wolfe is staunchly conservative, and the book shows it. _The Knight_ presents a vision of chivalry and fealty in the Dark Ages that borrows from “Tolkien”:, and that is likely to be signally unsympathetic to most lefties. But there’s something important there; like other good writers on both left and right, Wolfe’s understanding of human nature and society runs deeper than his immediate political sympathies. His depiction of life in a society on the margins of civilization (caught between the depredations of barbarism and the efforts of the monarchy to impose order) is note-perfect; Wolfe not only has an ear for the music of language, but for the rhythms of society. If you haven’t read Wolfe before, I still recommend that you start with the New Sun books (Shadow and Claw, and Sword and Citadel); but _The Knight_ is a worthy companion.



chun the unavoidable 02.16.04 at 7:34 pm

As the world’s leading anonymous and unpublished authority on Wolfe, I must say that The Fifth Head of Cerebus is the book to read first and that the four New Sun books are part of a series of twelve, without which the first four do not make any sense at all. This is an important–and neglected–point.

Watch my blog for my own review of Knight.


Henry Farrell 02.16.04 at 7:49 pm

Chun – disagree slightly on TFHOC – wonderful book (at least parts I and III), but I think that _New Sun_ is better. My personal favorite is _Peace_, but that takes some getting into. On the _New Sun_, I’ll grant the necessity of reading _Urth of the New Sun_, but I really wasn’t impressed with the Short Sun books at all, and the Long Sun series, while much better, didn’t add much to my understanding of the New Sun books. Perhaps I need to read the essay on Wolfe that you’ve been talking about writing for the last few months to understand what you’re getting at ;)


chun the unavoidable 02.16.04 at 7:53 pm

Not to be short, but being “impressed” is irrelevant. What’s relevant is that necessary information about what’s going on is only revealed in the last eight books (including the Long and Short).

My paper may address this, but I think it’s reasonably clear that the entire series has to be reevaluated in light of what you learn later.


Matt 02.16.04 at 7:59 pm

I’m an avid Wolfe reader… but I have to wonder how many repetitions we’re going to see of the One Plot. Young guy goes on long journey; discovers world, self.


Matt 02.16.04 at 8:00 pm

I’m an avid Wolfe reader… but I have to wonder how many repetitions we’re going to see of the One Plot. Young guy goes on long journey; discovers world, self.


--kip 02.16.04 at 8:32 pm

But Matt–there is only one plot. And Henry: how dare you! You’re shaking the very foundations of how the left is perceived–we aren’t supposed to enjoy works that don’t fit our narrow, doctrinaire outlook!

(Though I still can’t shake the queasiness I feel at the fact that Ken Hite really wants Bush to be president some more…)

The Knight is–interesting, so far; spell-bindingly good in the sense of conjuring up another, Other world, and putting you inescapably there. But I don’t agree that Able’s story is, or could be, as Dirdan suggests, “a kind of rewriting of Severian’s story”; for one thing, Severian was in some crucial way more self-conscious than Able (perhaps the figure that a torturer cuts in an epic is more loaded with a necessary ironic undertow than a boy grown suddenly into a Conanical knight?)–and that makes some difference, at least to me, here and now, 2/3 of the way through the first half of a diptych, and years away from the last time I read New Sun, and I should maybe do something about that.

Then, the “likes” aren’t bothering me at all, and though I’m trusting there’s a reason for why they’re doing what they’re doing, Uri and Baki are bothering me, quite a bit, so what do I know? –Not so much.

And my favorite Wolfe, which is far from his best, to be sure, is Free Live Free. Which is weird, since I usually like him much better in first person than third.


Henry Farrell 02.16.04 at 8:43 pm

Yeah – FLF is the only longer work by Wolfe in third person that I really like. It’s wonderfully funny – the scene where the lights go out in the lunatic asylum is just extraordinary. There are bits of it though that I’ve never fully understood (but that’s true of everything else that he’s written).


Carlos 02.16.04 at 10:11 pm

Y’all might want to check out Yves Meynard’s _The Book of Knights_, in an odd coincidence also published by Tor. Wolfe dedicates _The Knight_ to him.

It’s fairly obvious that much of the background in the later Sun books is an afterthought or a retcon to Wolfe’s original vision. The most obvious is the conceit that Wolfe was translating Severian’s autobiography from a baroque descendant language far removed in time from our own… but in later Sun books, English, French, Spanish, Arabic and ecclesiastical Latin are shown to be nearly contemporary with the earlier setting. The vast expanses of time implied by Wolfe’s setting are shortened in other ways as well. But I digress.


chun the unavoidable 02.16.04 at 10:44 pm

Actually it could be the same situation with languages in the later books, with those being used as analogues. The cabalistic terminology in Urth, especially, suggests that it is set in an imaginary history somehow prior to yet not the same as ours.


Carlos 02.17.04 at 2:48 am

If memory serves, the French language is referenced by name (by Patera Remora, again, if memory serves) as one of the languages the Chrasmological Writings are written in.

I would be very careful in inferring anything grandly cosmological from the terminology Wolfe uses. _Pace_ Andre-Driussi, it’s not a very kabbalistic cosmology.



chun the unavoidable 02.17.04 at 4:34 am

That, in itself, only means that “French” is the chosen analogue.

Wolfe, unless you subscribe to a particularly esoteric interpretation, uses a loose cabalistic metaphor (and terminology) to describe different levels of reality in Urth of the New Sun. Are you saying that the business about white and black holes in that book can be explained by something other than “universe-jumping?” I tend to think so, myself, but I have an exceptionally esoteric interpretation of the series.


Carlos 02.17.04 at 5:20 am

That, in itself, only means that “French” is the chosen analogue.

At some point most of us prefer to shave with Occam’s razor. The multilingual wordplay in the Book of the Long Sun (including some from Arabic and Irish to English), and the character named Roger in the most recent trilogy, among many other details, IMO make your interpretation the more tendentious.



chun the unavoidable 02.17.04 at 5:25 am

Wolfe states, for whatever it’s worth, that expressions such as “terminus est” are not Latin, but a chosen analogue. The Whorl was launched about a thousand years before Severian was born. Do you see where I’m going with this?


Carlos 02.17.04 at 4:54 pm

Yes, and I think you’re mistaken to put all the weight of your argument on that single statement, made in the early books.

Jonas, in a joke you might or might not think of as canon, refers to a Czech-settled world, which definitely implies that Wolfe had the idea of contemporary ethnic groups settling other planets in the context of the series.

The Book of the Short Sun shows, very clearly, ethnic groups not dissimilar to ones we know, settling other planets. Not merely in terms of language, but other pieces of ethnic cultural apparatus as well.

But I suspect you’re about this close >< to going off into Howard Alan Treesong mode again, which is counterproductive for everyone involved. So I'm ghost. Write the paper already, and I will see how well it holds up. C.


Douglas 02.19.04 at 11:01 pm

I attempted the four books of the Long Sun, and was mightily disappointed. Tricksy ‘unreliable author’ narrative, plus a resolution in the last book that appeared hasty and botched, to say nothing of the many stories that were not resolved at all. But so many people whose opinion I respect like Wolfe, that I have to suspect I’m missing something.

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