Hello, peeps! This is Alice.
In each installment of “How was I born?” I’m gonna introduce y’all a piece of fiction that has a special place in my heart – a piece of fiction that made me who I am. Today, that piece is a little novel called The Knight by Gene Wolfe, published in 2004. (Actually, it’s a two-parter – the second part is called The Wizard, but Imma be finicky and ignore that.)
It’s difficult for me to talk about The Knight. First, because it’s good – it’s about the best fantasy novel I’ve ever read. Second, because it sucks. Big time.
Okay, so… maybe I can at least describe the plot. The Knight is about a little American boy, who is transported into a magic world, where he is transformed into a full-grown man, who wants to become a knight. He goes on adventures, fights bandits, giants, demons, and dragons, and finds a magic sword.
In a word, yes. It’s that traditional. So… how could it be good?
I could talk about the gem-like language, clear and many-faceted. I could talk about the wild plot. I could talk about the sheer intoxication of having to use your own brain while reading this book. But Imma skip all that. What is best, here, is really how this story is so close to the child who is whisked away, who comes to the land of monsters and wonders, and to whom it’s all real.
We often talk BS about how authors “craft a perfect world for the reader to become immersed in”, or whatever. That’s not here, folks. This here is not “craftsmanship”. This is not “world-building” or “characterisation”. This is real.
The Knight is true. It’s true just like the first fairy-tale you heard. It lives, just as the elves and dragons live in you.
And so… how could it suck? Because, while it does all of the above, it also… well… it fails in it. It’s not true, because the craftsmanship shows at the seams. It doesn’t live, because you can hear the creak of artificial joints. It’s all a sham. And that’s… the most painful thing for me. I’m ashamed of The Knight, and I’m ashamed of myself for loving it.
Sir Able, the hero of The Knight, draws the sexual attention of every woman he meets – for unclear reasons. He also becomes an insufferable mansplainer and is more-righteous-than-thou, without being challenged. Women, in general, aren’t allowed to do much more than cheer on and be objects of desire. And, in a final stroke of hubris, Christianity is blithely set above the Aesir, and we’re just told that, “Waaall, this is the way the world works.” (Oh, and Osterlings. Gawd, Osterlings.)
That’s why this is hard for me. On one hand, The Knight is the book to end all books. On the other, it’s a fallen angel – once more beautiful than God, but which was then corrupted.
I think, though, that that’s where its true power lies. You see, I love knights, and The Knight is the quintessential knight story. Knights embody all of the greatest virtues: bravery, humility, and servitude. But knights are also human, and humans are soiled.
The Knight does it wrong, of course – the book itself is soiled, instead of presenting this dual aspect of knighthood – but it illustrates it for me. Knights strive for the highest good, and they’re doomed to fall. Yet even after their fall, they take up the quest anew.
That is the beauty of it. Pure goodness and pure evil exist nowhere in unmixed quantities. Even in the foulest villain, there is always something of the knight. Even the shiniest knight has a dash of the robber and the rapist.
Now, at the end, I’m going to point y’all into a wholly different, yet oddly related, direction. Go read The North End of the World by Hunsaker and Shy.
If The Knight does it wrong, that one does it right.