I can remember myself as a young boy on the cusp of adolescence, and flush with my first discovery of the wonderful realms of SF and fantasy. My head swimming with the imaginative visions of Burroughs and Heinlein and George Lucas (yes, I'm just old enough to have caught Star Wars in '77), I whiled away many hours in daydreams, often to the detriment of my grades and already-pitiful social life. I was the captain of my own Enterprise-like spaceship. I was a stalwart companion of Frodo's on the road to Mount Doom, fending off Orcs and Nazgûl with my trusty blade. I brokered peace treaties between Earth and alien visitors. I was a dweeb par excellence, and I loved it. I was a daydreamer, a quintessential fantasy fan.
The adolescent propensity for flights of fancy and the sense of wonder would seem to be a thematic subtext of Gene Wolfe's The Knight, the first in a two-volume saga that constitutes 2004's first published exercise in truly extraordinary mythmaking. What if — the book seems to ask — a young boy had a chance at living his daydreams? I say "seems" because, as is often the case with Wolfe, there is much more here than meets the eye, and different interpretations of the narrative suggest themselves.
The story opens when a boy, our narrator, is transported into another world named Mythgarthr, which is in the middle tier of seven different planes of reality. He learns that he has been brought to this land by the Aelf, for he has cut the wood of a spiny orange tree to make a walking stick and the Aelf aren't happy about that. He takes on the name Able of the High Heart; Wolfe never reveals his original name, a canny touch that draws you into the narrator's dreamlike world while saddling you with barely any baggage from this one. Able doesn't want you to know his real name; he wants to be Able, and that's that. Whoever this boy was back home on Earth, it's clear he didn't care for real life or his place in it. Escapism for him has become his new reality.
Making his way through strange, windswept landscapes, Able meets a knight named Svon from whom he learns about honor, a knight's greatest possession. Able's lifelong ambition to be a knight himself is kindled, and when he falls under the spell of Disiri, a Mossmaiden of the Aelf, she physically transforms him into a muscular adult man (though his mind is still that of a boy) and charges him with the task of finding the sword that will make him a true knight.
Able declares Disiri to be his one true love, and he swears off all other women, as well as any bladed weapon but Eterne, the magical sword Disiri has charged him with finding. But his adventures, far from being the stuff of Disney films and bedtime stories, more often follow the logic of dreams...or nightmares. It quickly becomes clear, to us if not to Able, that Disiri's hold over Able isn't remotely rational; after their initial meetings early in the novel, she remains a phantom, plaguing Able's waking thoughts with unrequited desire (the pun in her name isn't exactly subtle). Able does meet several loyal friends along his travels. At the story's beginning he even gains a new brother — a rather galling conceit, actually, as Wolfe has written the novel from Able's point of view, addressing his brother back on Earth! But this new brother, a noble peasant farmer named Bold Berthold, is promptly killed by marauding giants. Able later meets a resourceful sailor named Pouk and gains a magic dog, both of whom are wholly loyal to him. But Able frequently abandons them with impunity whenever his meandering quest presents some irresistible tangent.
The thing is, Able isn't just being a jerk — he's a kid. Despite his magical transformation, he is still a boy in a grown man's body, with all the commensurate immaturity that implies. The Knight thus unfolds as one of the strangest coming of age stories ever told. Able is hopelessly lacking in self-awareness much of the time, but he realizes he's in over his head at the same time, even if he is at a loss as to how to deal with it. Slowly, as the amazing events of the story play out, Able becomes more self-assured, learns a few hard lessons about honor, integrity, and what it means to be truly a knight. Perhaps my favorite sequence in the whole book comes late in the story when Able is accompanying a baron and his retinue to a neighboring country, so that the baron's daughter Idnn can be married off to its king. Idnn has been shamelessly flirting with Able the entire journey — a temptation in which any other fantasy writer, following the Burroughs formula, would have his hero indulge masterfully. When Idnn breaks down and explains her plight to him, in the hopes he'll take her away ("to Candyland," he sneers), Able immediately lays into her with his own experiences of sleeping in rain and mud, having no money and no belongings but a set of rusty armor, and that she ought to be proud of the fact she's about to be a queen and just shut up. It's glorious.
But Wolfe doesn't always lay the smackdown on fantasy romanticism. The Knight is literally brimming over with one dazzling setpiece after another. Wolfe's world alone is a jaw-dropping concept, a series of planes stacked atop one another in ways that are often hard to conceptualize in concrete fashion (when Able is in the realm of Aelfrice, he describes looking up into the sky and seeing his friends wandering the landscape of Mythgarthr just above) but manage to make sense in the context of Wolfe's whole narrative. Able descends beneath the ocean and battles a dragon inside a volcano. And none of it ever reads like any sort of conventional fantasy novel. Which would be in keeping with Wolfe's extraordinary genre-bending career.
I have no clue where Wolfe will take this saga in its concluding volume, but I can imagine it will be well worth the journey. Gene Wolfe is the kind of writer fantasy needs, though its fans probably don't realize it. If the genre can be compared to, say, a beautiful stone, standing proud and tall as a monument to our daydreams, Wolfe is the dreamer who wants to turn the thing upside down and see what's crawling around underneath.
Followed by The Wizard.