wizard-knight

Why is Gene Wolfe’s The Wizard Knight one of the most essential works of literary fantasy of the decade? What makes a work that so proudly emblazons itself with every tired, cliched hallmark of Tolkienesque high fantasy, seem so fresh, exciting and relevant almost a full decade into the twenty-first century?

Tolkien expressed sentiments to the effect that fantasy literature required a secondary world that is entirely stable, and whose reality is never in doubt or question. The reader’s suspension of disbelief, he suggested, depended on there being no doubt, within the space and fiction of the text, that the fantasy world is “real”. Compare Tolkien’s pseudo-medieval mythic milieu to, say, Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. Middle-Earth is a construct of impregnable solidity, consistency and palpable reality; you are never in any doubt, while you are reading The Lord of the Rings, that it is as real as England or Norway.

Wolfe’s world in The Wizard Knight is almost as solid, yet infintely more fantastical. An interlocking system of seven hierarchical worlds existing on different time-frames, this world in itself is an astonishing creation that gives rise to passages and images of almost stunning beauty. The human world, Mythgartr, is the middle world; beneath that lies Aelfrice, the world of the Aelf, a world of ancient, mossy forests, across whose sky the human seasons and generations play out in the space of a day. Above us lies Skai, the world of the Valkyries and of the Odin-like Valfather, whose magnificent castle some are lucky enough to glimpse once in a lifetime amidst the clouds of Mythgartr. And so on.

This seven-tiered cosmology is as intricate, engaging and wondrous a secondary world as any I have encountered in fantasy; however, in a move that would not be out of place in a modernist novel but that is virtually unheard-of in high fantasy, this world is filtered through a narrating consciousness that is dubious, naive, unsure of itself, almost certainly lost and confused, and not consistently honest. The voice is that of Arthur, a young boy, and the novel is an extended letter he is writing to his brother, Ben. Arthur seems to believe he and Ben are from America, but he is not sure where that is, or whether it is real, or why he is not in Kansas any more. He is not sure who he is, or whether his memories of Ben and America are real or figments of his imagination. And though the whole novel takes place in the “fantasy” world, there are a handful of instances where Arthur (or Sir Able of the High Heart, which is the name he ends up with) has visions that we recognize as “our” world. There is no stability to latch onto here, whether in the “fantasy” world, the “real” one, or the narrator’s perception of both. There is only a perplexed consciousness enmeshed in shifting realities.

Above all else, Wolfe is a prose stylist virtually unequalled in contemporary English-language fiction. He can write a passage about the rotting corpse of a knight magically animated as a fighting automaton and it brings a vivid chill to your spine as if you’ve just been introduced to the idea of the undead. He can describe a meagre band of knights heroically charging an army of giants and you can feel your spirits soar as if you’re fourteen and discovering Tolkien again. In The Wizard Knight, Wolfe reanimates high fantasy and conclusively demonstrates, in an era when the New Weird has captured the limelight, that there is life in the genre yet.

Just don’t expect him to give you what you expect. As always, Wolfe is poet and imagist first, and storyteller second; and Arthur/Sir Able’s narration, built on elisions, analepsis and metalepsis, hesitations, and occasional confused ramblings, only gestures in the direction of a coherent narrative. The story is there, and it does reach points of coalescence, especially in the second volume, where new levels of it come into view, but it is a story delivered in fragments. The Wizard Knight will spend chapter upon chapter building up to a grand, decisive battle, then suddenly skip forward several years, to when the battle is a distant memory.

What is it interested in, then? The main thrust of the story is Arthur/Sir Able’s love for the Aelf Queen Disiri, whom he first encounters at the start of the novel and whom, in the best courtlty love tradition, he must spend the remainder of the tale in winning. This being Wolfe, there is more to this than meets the eye, and it seems to be, especially given some late revelations concerning the nature of the Aelf, that Able’s relationship with Disiri is, at least on one level, Wolfe reflecting on the allure of fantasy itself – caught between the threat of escapism, the eternally unfulfilling, questing nature of attempting to grasp the imaginary, and yet, paradoxically, also the hope of the inspirational. In trying to be worthy of the Queen, Able makes himself a great knight, slays dragons, wins the legendary sword Eterne, becomes virtually a god.

There is certainly something about The Wizard Knight‘s whole-hearted adoption of the courtly medieval ethic that is troubling. It is, at heart, a paean to a hierarchically-ordered society with the King firmly at the top and God above him, and Able gladly adopts a rigidly codified ethics where he does not hesitate in violently striking his best friend for speaking out of place to a nobleman, feeling that it is his duty to do so since he is a knight and his friend a commoner. This makes Able  a distinctly unpleasant protagonist at times, and it’s a brave move – rarely is the protagonist as irrevocably a part of the secondary world, even in a moral sense, as Able is.  It’s certainly possible to argue that high fantasy as a genre is essentially predicated on such a hierarchical order of existence, and The Wizard Knight is without a doubt the first novel since Tolkien to have made me care so passionately about the divine right of kings. It cannot, of course, simply be taken as Wolfe’s elegiac lament for the good old days of monarchy and nobility; I am more inclined to think it is Wolfe’s way of confronting the reader with the political and ethical underpinnings of medieval fantasy, another aspect of the novel’s unfolding of the simultaneous dangers, raptures and possibilities inherent in the act of fantasy. It is, at any rate, another layer in this astonishingly dense, brilliant work, a novel that, like everything Wolfe writes, virtually demands multiple readings before revealing its secrets. The Wizard Knight is perhaps not Wolfe at his very best, but it is an essential work, another masterpiece, and confirmation that he stands among the greatest writers of his generation.

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If any confirmation were needed, last night’s packed gig at MITP underlines what has been obvious for the past couple of months: Brikkuni have become the first bona fide superstars of the Maltese alternative scene. Yesterday’s gig united virtually every subculture, from punks to indie kids and literati, under one roof, mixed in with curious casual observers checking out what all the fuss was about. The turnout wasn’t just impressive – I don’t think MITP has ever been quite so crowded, and it goes some way towards illustrating the impact Brikkuni have had on the local scene.

I realize I haven’t written about the album itself, though I don’t think much else needs to be said. That it’s the best piece of recorded music to ever come out of these islands has become a cliche, but it’s no less true for that – and nor should it be taken as damning with faint praise. I consider Kuntrabanda one of the albums of the year, irrespective of country of origin, and, in conjunction with this year’s also-excellent Areola Treat EP, it suggests that the time has come to stop thinking of local music as somehow handicapped or disadvantaged. Kuntrabanda may not be a perfect album, but it can hold its own with the best of them, and the reason isn’t just that it’s a polished, musically inventive, exciting piece of songcraft. What truly makes the album great – and, unfortunately, what makes it virtually unexportable – is that it recombines all the genetic traits of Maltese culture – band marches, ghanja, spaghetti westerns on late-night Sicilian channels – into a whole that seems both intimately familiar and thrillingly new. It’s like a shift of a few degrees in viewpoint that suddenly makes everything fall into place. Before Kuntrabanda – and I realize this is entirely a failing in my own make-up as a writer – I couldn’t imagine good music being made in Maltese, or any art – music, but also films or novels – so specifically Maltese in character. Now, anything seems possible.

This was Brikkuni’s first gig after the album launch; for the first time, their audience came to the show knowing the songs inside out. This couldn’t have been more obvious yesterday – every single one of the songs on Kuntrabanda has become an anthem. Familiarity hasn’t dulled the impact of these songs; rather, it has further energized the audience. Half the crowd was singing along from beginning to end, and the scorching, energetic set had the feel of a victory march – Brikkuni have won their place, now it’s time for the celebration. 

Among all the familiar songs, of course, a standout moment was the inclusion of the band’s first new post-Kuntrabanda song. If there’s anything to complain about in Kuntrabanda, it’s that Mario Vella’s lyrics too often fall back on bile, sarcasm and satire – it works, and it’s the basis of the most anthemic songs on the album, but it does give rise to the mistaken impression that Brikkuni are a Xtruppaw-like “joke” band, and I can’t help but wonder what Mario can do with more varied material. The newest addition to the repertoire at yesterday’s gig, “L-Ufficju”, suggests they’re on the right track – a mellow (by comparison) ballad that makes bittersweet poetry out of the daily grind, it’s an encouraging indication of a band attempting to widen their horizons and not resting on their laurels. I can’t wait to see where they go from here.