The Devil in a Forest was first published in Britain as part of the wave of enthusiasm for all Gene Wolfe’s books that followed hard on the appearance of The Book of the New Sun quartet. I first read it as a successor to that defining tetraology, not realising that it was a predecessor, and a book of radically different scope and ambition.
This is neither SF nor Fantasy, the consummate mingling of which is one of the many marks of the New Sun series. It’s a historical adventure and, like the later Pandora by Holly Hollander, is best regarded as a ‘juvenile’, seemingly aimed at a younger audience than those usually devoted to our Master of Trickery.
Needless to say, I was vastly disappointed.
I remember reading it on a Sunday coach journey, an office weekend down south somewhere, pegged around a Staff vs Partners cricket match at the Senior Partner’s cricket club, and a marquee buffet/disco in the evening. A somewhat mangled Manchester office bleared onto the coach, and I curled up with headphones on, cassette tapes and this ‘new’ Gene Wolfe. It was not the best of circumstances in which to concentrate, and I did not keep the book all that long. I was much older, and much more practiced in reading Wolfe, before I bought it again, in the Orb series of reissues.
The Devil in a Forest is as simple and straightforward a work as Gene Wolfe has ever produced, with no apparent understory to be teased out by careful reading. It is set in medieval times, in what would, many centuries later, become Czechoslovakia, in an unnamed village not far from St Agnes Fountain, of ‘Good King Wencleslas’ fame.
Mark, an orphan aged somewhere between fourteen and fifteen, is apprenticed to Gloin, the weaver. The village is plagued by a footpad, a wild, dangerous raider named Wat, who begins the story by putting an arrow through the neck of a pedlar, whose body is discovered outside the village.
The Abbe of the village tries to raise a militia to challenge Wat, in the naive hope that, if confronted by a show of force, he will leave the area. The calibre of the villagers being lined up for this militia makes this a highly unlikely plan, even before the initial meeting, in the Inn, takes place with two interlopers, one a charcoal burner named Gil, who is an old friend and ally of Wat, and the other the local witch, Mother Cloot.
Though it is not established until later in the story, one of the villagers, Paul the Sexton, has already been killed. Mark will be blamed for the death, and there is little enthusiasm for process of law or anything, accusation (by Mother Cloot) being sufficient for everybody’s needs.
Wolfe establishes very early on the condition of life for everyone. The village has no prosperity. Pilgrims to the shrine have dropped away since its heyday, and the presence of Wat diminishes any chance of this changing. Mark is permanently scraping for food, for scraps of food, as there is not at the webstery where he lives since Gloin has taken him in.
It gets him into the trouble the book works through. He goes out at night to the inn, where the innkeeper’s daughter, plump, redheaded fourteen year old daughter, Josellen, Mark’s sweetheart (and the only other ‘child’ in the village or even unmarried woman) may have scraps for him. The two go walking into the woods, they meet Mother Clot, they help her back to her squalid hut, and they encounter her guest: Wat.
Wat is an arrogant man, and an evil man, the two aspects being born of one another. Not without reason, he considers himself better than the villagers, who are of peasant stock, low and mean. To him, they are sheep, and he the wolf and by this status entitled to do anything he can to them, whenever he feels like it.
Mother Cloot is also evil, but of a different order. She is mean and malicious, and a witch, though Wolfe never allows us any evidence as to whether she has any ‘powers’ beyond those lent her by superstition and fear. She is simply a foul person, who delights in cruelty for its own sake, and knows of no other way to treat people: when she has power over them, she is highly dangerous, and when she has not, she is cutting and vile.
Now Mark is in Wat’s hands, he finds himself to be a puppet. Wat wants to corrupt him, partly because Mark is clearly quick-witted, and a different cut to the villagers, but as much if not more because Wat simply wants to corrupt him. And not just Mark: as a counter-offer to the unthreatening militia, Wat proposes the villagers ‘buy’ him off, by helping him raid a party of rich pilgrims.
But the pilgrims don’t exist: Wat intends to use his new and greedy ‘allies’ to raid the home of Philip, the cobbler, and steal his hoard. It is far too easy to persuade those villagers who have gone with him to turn against one of their own.
Mark is ever conscious of his own position. At heart, he doesn’t want to get involved with Wat, yet his weakness as a boy leaves him unable to flee or refuse, and if he goes too far with Wat, he will be tainted forever. His position is under risk already: he finds Paul’s dead body, which has been buried and exhumed, and attempts to sink it in the river, but when he returns to the village, after speaking to Old Susan, Paul’s wife and the Abbe’s housekeeper, he’s accused of being the murderer by Mother Cloot, who wants to torture the ‘truth’ out of him.
A point that Wolfe makes, subtly, is that there is no Law to deal with this situation. Authority is incredibly distant, both physically and mentally. The Abbe has requested soldiers to deal with Wat, though the villagers don’t welcome the idea since they will have to billet and feed the soldiery when they can barely sustain themselves, and when the soldiers arrive, under the dual command of a Sergeant whom Mark nicknames the Boar, from his overlapping tooth and the absent Forester, Sieur Ganelon, they are a disaster for the village, beating, destroying, burning and undoubtedly raping if Josellen isn’t put into hiding.
Because the soldiers don’t care about the Villagers. They are beneath notice, beneath contempt, just as much as is Wat. Everyone is guilty and will be treated as such. Slowly, the villagers are killed, even those who are arrested. Mark dodges from situation to situation, whilst the Abbe tries to unravel knots.
This is a foretaste of a very Wolfian trope: the analytical man, who gathers together disparate threads and discerns the pattern beneath, the model of what the reader must do.
Only, not in this book. Unless I am missing one hell of a lot, the closest we come to that in The Devil in a Forest is when Sieur Ganelon finally comes on stage. Mark recognises him instantly, with fear. Not until the final chapter is the connection admitted, but then it’s not like we have much by way of options: Ganelon is and can only be Wat, playing a double role.
His fate is left unsettled. Wat/Ganelon is captured, Mark survives, to plan to marry Josellen and take over the Inn, left to do so by the man who, at the end, sorts out the mess, a man who is neither named nor his station defined, but who is the ordering factor. If we are meant to deduce his identity in a public figure, then the question is beyond me.
Because Gene Wolfe is who he is and writes what he does, this novel is still lazily presented as fantasy, but Wolfe has described the impetus for it as coming from a verse of ‘Good King Wenceslas’ and an attempt to imagine into clarity the life of a mediaeval peasant. I think of it as an historical level, and on that level it is utterly convincing, and if it’s slight, and far more straightforward than anything else Wolfe has written, it is still valuable in those terms.
And I have a certain suspicion about a concealed detail. There is a brief epilogue, in the present day, a dialogue between husband and wife, discussing a plaque commemorating the Fountain, and making deliberately ignorant comments about this past in a part of Europe from where their ancestors came. I can’t believe in the ignorance, but I can believe in Gene and Rosemary Wolfe…