A Tunnel in the Sky

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The Knight
by Gene Wolfe

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted January 17, 2004

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This novel from Gene Wolfe is the first in a two-part tale, to be known collectively as The Wizard Knight, with part two (The Wizard) due out in November. It is a pure fantasy, as opposed the the science fantasies for which he is perhaps best known, the Sun Sagas in particular. At the beginning, and on the surface, this seems to be a simple tale and possibly Wolfe's most derivative story to date, but history has proven that the surface of a Wolfe story is a lot like that proverbial iceberg. The Knight at first reminded me a lot of Wolfe's earlier The Devil in a Forest (unfortunately out of print, but available from alternate sellers through amazon.com), although there are many more fantasy elements to this newer tale.

That resemblance disappeared quickly, along with any notion that this was just another in a long line of Tolkien clones that have been so prevalent of late. No, Wolfe strips the genre to its bare bones, and I got the idea that he was envisioning the story much as would have a storyteller from the era in question. There is only one element I'm puzzled by, that of the narrator being a contemporary American teenager, inexplicably transplanted to the mystical realm of a seven-layered world. It seems apparent that Wolfe utitlzed many myths from the Norse pantheon (as did Tolkien), but I think there may have been several others incorporated as well, although I have not done any research on that matter.

I feel confident I can relate quite a bit of the narrative myself without spoiling it for other potential readers. Wolfe's tales are so nuanced, with many intriguing characters, much of the meanings hidden between the lines rather than revealed outright. The story is told as a journal, as the young man attempts to relate his adventures to his brother Ben back in the "real" world. As with many of Wolfe's narrators, this one also slips in little hints of events not to be fully revealed until later (if at all), and as I correctly surmised many in this first book won't be known until the second part of the story is published. Two in particular mentioned at the very beginning are that he thinks he knows a way of getting this journal back to Ben, and that sometime in the future of the story he has seen Ben in this new world, "...sitting by our fire–my own brother—there on the battlefield..."

Wandering in the woods near their hunting cabin, he cuts a walking stick from a branch of a strange looking tree, which he later learns is known as a spiny orange. He eventually tires, and lays down to gaze at the clouds overhead, seeing in their shapes "...an old man with a beard that the wind changed into a black dragon, a wonderful horse with a horn on its head, and a beautiful lady who smiled down at me." He also sees a six-sided castle, complete with turrets and flags waving in the wind. He is quickly convinced that the vision is not a cloud, because the shape does not change even though it moves with the wind as the clouds around it are constantly reforming. He gets up and attempts to get closer to it for a better look, and is convinced it is stone, not a cloud. But night comes quickly and he realizes he is lost far from the cabin. As he stumbles down a steep slope, unseen hands grab him, and he is startled by a shouted plea—"Who comes to Aelfrice?"

The next thing he remembers is waking in a cave near the sea, where an old hag sits spinning thread that seems to be alive. He has the impression that a long time has passed, but he has no recollection of what may have transpired in the meantime. When he asks how he got there, the old woman, who identifies herself as Parka, tells him the Aelf brought him to her, but in answer to his question of who the Aelf are she only replies, "Don't you know, Able of the High Heart?" Somehow he knows that is not his real name, but he cannot recall what it might actually be. She gives him the string she has woven and tells him it is for his bow. When he protests that he does not have a bow, she points to the stick he had cut from the spiny orange tree. He thanks her and leaves the cave, crosses a small spit of land uncovered by the retreating tide, and spends the night in the ruins of a castle on a nearby island.

The place in which he finds himself, and in which the majority of the action takes place, is Mythgarthr, the fourth and middle layer of this seven-layered world. I may have just missed mention of two of them, but I believe only five of the layers were identified in this first book, at least that is all that are on a list of names and places provided in an introduction. Above Mythgarthr is Skai, with Kleos above that. The worlds below are Aelfrice and Muspel.

[NOTE: My copy of the book is an Advance Reader's Copy in trade paperback format. I've now seen the hardcover edition, which contains an illustration of the seven worlds that my book lacks. The two other layers are Elysion (above Kleos) and Niflheim (below Muspel).]

If I read correctly, inhabitants of the higher worlds are as gods to those below them. Parka (who is from Kleos) tells Able that the Aelf worship him, and later two inhabitants of that realm speak of great deeds he will accomplish in order to liberate them. Disiri, queen of the Moss Aelf (with whom he falls in love), tells him of a sword he will find, Eterne, which had been forged by a man from Mythgarthr who later became king of the Fire Aelf. The passage of time is different in Aelfrice than in Myhtgarthr, and on his return he again realizes that much time has passed in "his" world (Mythgarthr) and he also has little recollection of what happened when he was in Aelfrice. Most surprising is the fact that inwardly he still feels like a boy, but by outward appearance he is now a large, muscular man.

He had already encountered Sir Ravd, a knight from a duchy to the north, and had come to the decision he would become a knight himself, eager to emulate the courage and nobility he witnessed in Ravd. And even though he thereafter presented himself as a knight, it was difficult for some to accept that since he refused to wield any sword until he found Eterne. Ravd had been killed (or captured?) in a raid by the Angrborn, barbaric giants from the northlands, and Able journeys to Sheerwall, the castle of Duke Marder (Ravd's patron) to offer his services. Along the way he encounters many other colorful characters, befriending some and making enemies of others, and surprising even himself with his fighting ability on several occasions. I'm not going into details about a lot of this, but there are several of the characters that I assumed would be playing a larger part in the narrative, but some disappeared shortly after their introduction, never to be heard from again (at least in Part One).

I already mentioned that Norse legends are probably the basis of much of the story's background, and yet I was struck by the similarity of some names that led me to believe Wolfe mined a few others as well. Early on Able is told that Skai can also be referred to as Sky, so possibly that is a concept similar to ours of Heaven. The king of Skai is known as Valfather, a name that is close to the Norse Valhalla. The Valfather's people are known as the Overcyns, which if pronounced the way I think, sounds like "over-seeings" (possibly angels?). One from Kleos who appears before Able is Michael. Able is surprised to recognize a name from the America he barely remembers, but I immediately thought of the Archangel Michael, especially because he is sporting gigantic wings. I am no scholar of myths, so I am not sure of all the possible progenitors of other well-known stories, but here are a few other names that struck me as suspiciously familiar. The country that Able travels through is Celidon. The king of Celidon is Arnthor (Arthur?), his queen is Gaynor (Guenivere?), and his sister is Morcaine (Morgana?). And what of Mythgarther itself, maybe the Myth of Arthur? I realize I could just be grasping at straws with these comparisons, and even Wolfe might be surprised at my conjectures, but I may as well mention one other that I'm willing to admit is a bit far-fetched. Garsecg is a man Able meets in Aelfrice, whom he later sees transfromed into a dragon named Setr. It turns out that he is a dragon who had a human father, and he is also Arnthor and Morcaine's brother. Arthur's father was Uther Pendragon (Setr = Sir Uther?).

As I say, that is a bit far-fetched, and there are probably some reading this that may be laughing at my naivete. I have recently discovered that I had a mistaken notion about an earlier Wolfe book and have had to edit my comments about it in the Sun Sagas article. That may be the case here too, but for now I am just reporting what I thought of while reading The Knight. Even though this book does come to a somewhat satisfying conclusion, we of course know there is a great deal left to tell of Able's story. I am anxious to continue it, as I feel confident will be the case with most anyone else who experiences it. And I know I will be rereading this one before tackling The Wizard.

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Gene Wolfe


Nominated for Nebula & World Fantasy Award

Available from amazon.com

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