A Lycanthrope in Wolf’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Wizard’

The Wizard is the second half of The Wizard Knight and in many ways is just a continuation of it: more of the same, only different. yet it is different from its predecessor, though not to such a degree that I find it more engaging.
When it starts, Sir Able of the High Heart is believed dead, having disappeared twenty years previously, by passing into Skai, the third world, that which is above Mythgarthr as Aelfrice is below it. In Skai, Able has had his memory of below removed as he serves the Valfather, and this is only returned when he is released to return to Mythgarthr. Time passes at different rates between the various levels of this seven-story world: it has been no more than a week in the world below.
The two main differences in The Wizard, largely in the first half of this book, is that firstly there are several scenes narrated that Able is not present to see, and only learns of later from a participant, usually his servant and follower, Toug (which are narrated in the third person, including copious dialogue). And secondly, there is a more cohesive and purposeful story for much of the book, albeit with a long aftermath period covering more than the last hundred pages of the story.
That story involves an expedition into Jotunland, a land of giants, led by Lord Beel, whose daughter, the beautiful and highly intelligent Idnn, is to be presented to their King as his Queen (a mind-boggling prospect given the massive difference in size between the human girl and the King’s, ah, member alone.)
The expedition fails and the Osterlings retaliate by a prolonged attack on the humans of Mythgarthr, leading to devastation and destruction and ultimately requiring Able to act as the titular Wizard, breaking his oath not to use the powers granted him in Skai by the Valfather. Ultimately, these powers enable him to turn his beloved Disiri into a human woman, and the pair retire to Aelfrice in peace, where Able is able to compose his 900 plus page letter to his brother Ben, back home in America.
He even signs the letter with his ‘real’ name, Art. Or Arthur Ormsby. Arthur, eh? Who’d have guessed?
So the second book feels more integrated and less episodic, to its credit, although the subject matter remains high fantasy, with decided overtones of Norse and other mythologies, interlaid with Arthurian notions of chivalry and honour. The problem is again mine, that I don’t find myself responding to these in the way that many others do.
I came into Fantasy via The Lord of the Rings, without any kind of hinterland in what, to me, always feels like cheap, formula heroic fantasy. The older works, the likes of Eddison and Dunsany, have never struck me as palatable: I literally couldn’t read Eddison, whilst the little I have read of Dunsany was readable but remained distant, accounts of things taking place at some point above to which I was unable to relate.
The subject of The Wizard Knight is not to my immediate interest. The things this kind of fantasy is concerned with are outside my normal sphere: I can’t help but draw a contrast with The Devil in a Forest, whose milieu is similarly medieval, but which concerns itself with the realistic lives of the lowborn rather than the stylised machinations of the seemingly highborn, and those who aspire to stand alongside them.
Like the second and third instalments of The Book of the New Sun, and in particular The Book of the Long Sun, Wolfe chooses to cast his story with multiple speaking parts, each distinguished by a separate accent, brogue or mode of speaking that enables any of them to be identified from dialogue alone. Yet like that series, the sheer profusion of characters is itself a problem, in that at least one reader finds it wearying having to deal with so many different voices over and over again, especially those who require a more extreme form of prose to specify their speech. And after a certain point in both books, the feeling creeps in that, rather than this being essential to the story, it’s an exercise in technical proficiency for its own sake.
This is especially the case with those characters, like Sir Able himself, who are prone to verbosity, and to the sin of over-explaining and over-over-explaining until there is little or no momentum in events and the story does not so much lag as encamp for a fortnight.
We’ve seen this on a minor scale in earlier Wolfe books, the competent man who reads situations and correctly analyses them from subtle cues, but who then insists upon explaining them at a length that isn’t always brief or wanted. It’s grown to massive proportions with both Silk and, in The Wizard, Able, but in this instance it’s compounded by the number of people around him who are guilty of the same failing.
Both volumes of The Wizard Knight were published in 2004, by which time Wolfe had been a professional writer for thirty five years, and was himself in his Seventies. The collected work is a book of just over 900 pages, a massive achievement for someone of his age, and simply by its weightiness, must be accounted a major work, whatever my personal response to it.
Ahead of him lay a further seven novels, only one of which I consider to be sufficiently substantial to class along Gene Wolfe’s major works, although in that I am again at odds with a considerable number of Wolfe fans and scholars who think it a major falling back from his standards. Certainly, all the rest are at best middling works, each with their merits, but not really to be set against the works of Wolfe’s prime.

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