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The Devil in a Forest
by Gene Wolfe

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted January 31, 2022

Out of Print. Check Amazon, eBay, or BookFinder.com for used copies, or buy for Kindle. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.

Gene Wolfe's third novel would be a good starting point for most readers. It's not really a fantasy, since everything that might seem so can be explained away as superstitious beliefs, or dreams, or visions after a traumatic event. There are several mysteries, but they are treated in a more straight-forward fashion, not the typical Wolfe way of making things cryptic and confusing. It is set in medieval Europe, although I think some elements might be based on English stories. He said he came up with the idea while contemplating the lyrics of "Good King Wenceslas," specifically the second verse by most accounts.

Hither, page, and stand by me,
If thou knowst it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?
Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes fountain.

Wenceslas was not a king, but actually a Duke of Bohemia in the 10th Century. There were some who still held to pagan beliefs, especially in the depths of the forests and mountain regions. Saint Agnes's fountain was a natural spring whose waters were believed to have healing properties. The village nearby is never named, and its population has dwindled since fewer make pilgrimages to the fountain's chapel, mainly due to the highwayman Wat, and those who follow him. He might be based on Wat Tyler, who led a peasant's revolt in 14th Century England. Or, as I thought on my first reading years ago, he may be a forerunner of the Robin Hood myth, a story which as had many versions over the centuries. Some consider Wat a hero for their cause, others think him a cutthroat who should be hanged. But the main character is Mark, a fourteen year old apprentice to the village's weaver. There is also a blacksmith, a cobbler, an innkeeper, but that's about it for the village itself. Others live in the forest and fields outside it, shepherds and charcoal burners, several of the latter being allies of Wat. There is also old Mother Cloot, descriptions of whom evoke the tale of Baba Yaga.

The prologue shows the murder of a peddler, a crime for which Wat later boasts, saying such men are vermin who cheat the unwary. The abbé (French for abbot) gathers the other men at the inn, suggesting they form a militia to capture Wat and bring him to justice. On the evening after that meeting, Mark and Josellen, the innkeeper's daughter, take a walk in the forest and up the mountain, where they encounter Mother Cloot. When they reach her forest lair they find Wat there. His actions are somewhat contradictory to Mark's expectations. Wat is not antagonistic, even though it seems he is aware of the villager's intentions. After spending the night at Mother Cloot's, Wat sends Josellen back to the village to present them with an offer, but he takes Mark to the charcoal burner's camp to join up with his second-in-command, Gil. I'll skip a few other incidents, to get to Wat's proposal. He promises to leave the area if the villager's aid him in one more robbery, so as to finance his journey, while offering them a cut of the profits. It's actually just a diversion, to get several of them out of the village, so Wat can be up to other mischief. Mark vacillates between admiration for Wat, and fear of him. The fear was the wiser action.

Some synopses of this book say it's a grand tale of "Good versus Evil," but I think it's simpler than that. Almost all the characters, including Wat and Mother Cloot, occasionally do good things, and even the abbé does a few things that he later regrets. No matter the trappings, it's not Christiantiy versus paganism, it's about compassion versus greed. Basically a juvenile tale, as Mark faces the harsh realities of life. He's an orphan who is only vaguely aware of how old he is. He learns the weaver's trade from his master Gloin, and gains more esoteric knowledge from the abbé, although he has not yet learned to read. Secrets he learns about Wat confuse him, but also help him realize that Wat must be stopped. What we don't know at the end is if Mark returns to the village to continue the weaver's trade, maybe marry Josellen and help her with the inn, or stay in the city to learn another trade or pursue an education. I feel confident he would be successful no matter his decision. Again, a story that should please the general reader, while those who like fantasy and fairy tales might be disappointed those elements aren't more clearly specified. The more observant may be able to figure out some of the mysteries ahead of time, others will have to wait until the full reveal. It is unfortunately out of print, but there have been enough editions that it shouldn't be difficult to find a reasonably priced copy, or settle for the e-book (Kindle, Nook, Kobo, etc). No matter where or how you find it, it is recommended. Then maybe you'll be prepared for one of Wolfe's more complicated narratives.


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Gene Wolfe


Finalist for:
Ditmar (1986)

Out of Print. Check Amazon, eBay, or BookFinder.com for used copies, or buy for Kindle.

A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.