An entertaining book might be enjoyed on the first reading, but discarded after the second. A good book, on the other hand, gets better after the second reading, and a great one never grows old no matter how ancient. One might learn more upon the fiftieth reading of Plato’s Republic than from the first or even fifth—so remarks Fr. James Schall. Certainly, there are some books which, if they do not live up to the lofty label of “great book”, are nonetheless very good books, and get better upon a subsequent reading.
I first read Gene Wolfe’s The Wizard Knight four years ago, as a break from the preparations for my wedding; I recently read it again, as a break from the preparations for my doctoral defense. I can attest to its being better on the second reading, but more importantly to its being a book worth reading at all.
Is this book—a duology, actually—Mr Wolfe creates a believable fantasy world, and perhaps more importantly a believable mythology for that world. He draws from Norse mythology, Arthurian Legend (the main character even alludes to having been the Green Knight), and Christian Cosmology in constructing his fantasy world—really, a fantasy cosmos. The cosmos of this story consists of seven worlds: Elysion (home of the Most High God), Kleos (home of the angels, also the Norns/Fates), Skai (home of the Overcyns and their foes the Giants of Old Winter and Night), Mythgarthr (home of men and the Frost Giants), Aelfrice (home to the sprite-like Aelf), Muspel (home of the dragons), and Niflheim (the dark world in which lives the Most Low God, that is, the devil).
The central character is Arthur Ornsby, an American teenager who is transported from modern America into the world of Myhtgarthr (the circle where stories are told), the middle world in this cosmos. From there he is kidnapped (or perhaps adopted) by the Aelf and given a secret message from their leaders to deliver to the King of Celidon in Mythgarthr. He meets a Norn, who gives him a new name (Able of the High Heart), plus a blessing and a curse of sorts. The blessing, “Each time you reach your heart’s desire, your heart shall reach for something higher,” is reminiscent of St. Augustine’s observation that our hearts remain restless in this world.
The first book, then, is the story of how Able of the High Heart becomes Sir Able of the High Heart, and how he seeks the magic sword Eterne. There are several story arcs presented here, all set up splendidly in this first book.
There is the conflict between the Aelfs of Aelfrice and their creator, Khulili, whom the hero promises to fight. There is the role of Setr, a dragon of the second level (Muspel) as a liberator and ruler of some of the Aelf in their fight against Khulili, and his desire to conquer and rule not only Aelfrice but also Mythgathr. There is the struggle in Mythgathr between the peoples of Celidon and the Frost Giants to the north, a mirror of the struggle in Skai (the fourth world) between the Overcyns (whose role is a blend between the Valar in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, and the gods of Norse Mythology) and the Giants of Old Winter and Night.
There is the equally dangerous–and perhaps more imminent–struggle between the people of Celidon and the Osterlings from the east, cannibals who eat the flesh of their victims to become more human. And then there is the loyalty of our hero to his love, the Aelf queen Disiri, a loyalty tried by many a maiden throughout his adventures, a love and loyalty which survives even death.
The second book continues these story arcs and adds a few of its own: a murder mystery and a pair of wars, and the mysterious return of Sir Able from Skai to Mythgarthr. After my first reading of this story, I thought that the last half of the second book was too fast-paced, but after a second reading I see that the plot is easier to follow.
Indeed that the pacing of the last half of the second book is due to the fact that many of these seemingly different arcs are actually interwined: the secret message which Sir Able is given (and which has been kept secret even from him) is related to both the moral disorder between the worlds of Muspel, Aelfrice, Mythgarthr, and Skai, and it is also the reason behind Able’s transformation from child into man of heroic proportions.
For the careful, thorough readers, Mr. Wolfe leaves a few of the plot threads dangling, or so it seems. The intrepid reader will find scattered hints and clues which may be pieced together to solve or at least guess at the answers to some of the mysteries.
There are also many themes which will be especially edifying to Catholic readers. The peoples of each world owe reverence to the people of the next world above, but that reverence is less than the worship owed to the Most High God. Moreover, the moral order is thrown into chaos when this reverence is abandoned: some men begin to worship Aelf, and some Aelf follow a dragon, rather than the other way around.
Aelf are healed by consuming the blood of men, and indeed become more “solid” and “real” in the world of Mythgarthr when they do. At one point, Able allows his lady love—and Aelf—to drink copiously of his blood, and she becomes more human-like as a result. At another, he is “healed” by being pulled under water, a clear allegory for baptism.
With this book Gene Wolfe created a cosmos filled with magic and miracles, wonder and adventures, and a clear distinction between these. The distinction is at times almost explicit. Such as when Sir Able returns from Skai with all the powers of an Overcyn, and yet has taken an oath with the Valfather (the Odin-like ruler of Skai) not to use these powers. He explains to another character, Idnn, what he takes to be the reasons behind this oath:
“Isn’t the Most High God as high as the Valfather?”
Idnn said, “We had always understood him to be higher.”
“That’s right. But there are those who say he’s lower, inflicting on the Valfather such humiliation as they cannot conceive. If I were to use the powers he gave, there might spring up a cult to rival his, with worshipers claiming I was his superior. He would be humiliated, and they would be as far from the truth as those people [who worship the Aelf].”
One imagines Gandalf and the other Istari taking a similar oath before being sent by the Valar to Middle Earth in The Silmarillion, and for similar reasons. There are many times when Sir Able is sorely tempted to break his oath, and others when he wonders what the limits of this oath are.
Even where he does break his oath, he performs something more akin to a miracle than magic. The former has some moral purpose to it, the latter is rather raw exercise of power meant to entertain or control or destroy. It is the difference between the spectacular and the mere spectacle, a difference which Fr. George Rutler aptly explains in The Seven Wonders of the World:
The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and all human constructions for that matter, are marvels as spectacles. Christ’s wonders are marvels as miracles. A miracle quite literally is that which is mirus, wonderful…A spectacle can be wonderful too, though it causes wonder by its appearance; a miracle causes wonder just by its appearing. A Colossus, or one example, is more spectacular than an ordinary man; but an unspectacular man walking on water is miraculous…A spectacle is not by its nature unique; it can be reproduced with varying degrees of effort. But a miracle happens only once and no two miracles are identical, as no two saint are identical…The entire work of Christ would have evaporated if his deed had been exclusively miraculous. The messianic miracles point to a moral motive and demand a moral response.
So it was with the oath binding Sir Able, for it meant that though he had the power to work miracles, he had not the authority. Authority itself is always moral first, and so the use of his miraculous powers would require a moral purpose outside of his own interests, or so it seemed to him, and even then the oath was binding.
The Wizard Knight begins as an adventure-fantasy story, and rapidly evolves into a high-fantasy epic. It tells an excellent story, and is moreover morally edifying for the attentive reader. And it gets better with additional readings—truly an excellent book.