Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Last week I completed reading through all of the Gene Wolfe series books. I was talking about Wolfe with someone yesterday and thought it might be good to say a word about him here.

Wolfe is in my mind one of the most brilliant writers that the US has yet produced. I would suggest that his obscurity is due to two factors. One is that he writes within the science fiction genre, the other that he is erudite and likes to challenge his readers. His books are generally full of puzzles, hints, allusions and assorted arcana. But I have always enjoyed a good challenge and love see authors who don't feel the need to talk down to their audiences.

In addition to a number of stand alone novels and short stories, Wolfe main work to date has been three inter-related series of "sun" novels. The first set deals with an earth of the far, far future, the second with a generational spacecraft (that is, a large space ship intentionally designed to be a home for several generations of colonists on their way to a new world), and the third with the settling of a new world (or pair of worlds to be more precise). All of these were excellent and tied in so many themes and ideas that it would be an exercise in frustration to even attempt to characterize them further.

In contrast, his new two volume work, The Wizard Knight, is written an essentially an adolescent level. I would not feel hesitant about having, say, an average high school senior read it. The story follows an american boy who unexplainedly finds himself suddenly in another world. This world is the world of Celtic and Norse mythology. If you've read Nikolai Tolstoy's The Coming of the King, some elements will seem familiar to you. The subject finds himself unable to remember his name or much at all of life in america beyond the name of his friend Ben, to whom he relates his story.

The focus of the story is how one becomes an honorable man. Our protagonist, through an encounter with a fairy queen early in the story, finds himself in a large, very muscular body and is give the name Sir Able of the High Heart. He is told by this fairy that he is a knight. He believs this himself and tries to act as a knight would act. Early in the tale this mostly involves bullying people to achieve his objectives. Also early inthe story he meets a "real" knight who demonstrates to Able bravery and other knightly virtues.

As Able travels around the land, his claim to be a knight is constantly challenged. He has no "gentle birth" and many he meets do not believe in the existance of fairies, and thus doubt his commission. Able's only response to these situations is to always act as he thinks a knight should act. Of course this often offends, and also brings Able into a number of dangers, many of which he is unprepared to handle.

I don't really want to summarize the plot, as it is quite a long tale and would be considerably diminished by my retelling of it. It does provide a wonderful picture, to my way of thinking, of Aristotle's idea that to acquire virtue one must do virtuous things. This has always been something of a puzzle. If one is not brave, how can one do brave things? Sir Able answers this by believing he has virtues first, then trying to practice them. He is constantly plagued by the notion that he is "just a boy", and his reflections on his actions often show that he is ashamed of much he has done, but throughout is the recognition that virtue can only be achieved through practice. It cannot be conferred by someone else.

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