The Knight and the Wizard are two parts of a long story by Gene Wolfe. I’m just coming to the end of The Wizard, the audio version, excellently voiced by Dan Bittner who earns my great respect by being an American who can not only do a flawless British accent (unlike Dick Van Dyke, bless his soul) but can do a variety of local Brit accents to voice all the different characters in this complex yarn. He always keeps them apart (how, is a complete mystery to me). He no doubt has a lot of help from Wolfe’s written dialogue, but he’s managed to give them all a unique sound and character. The cat Manny (which Wikipedia tells me is spelt Mani), for example, reminds me of the “Englishman in New York”, Quentin Crisp, and that is at least as much because of Wolfe’s dialogue as of Bittner’s tone.

“The Knight”is a long and complex fantasy which places medieval concepts and principles in a way accessible to a modern reader by having the main character a boy from America who wanders into another world, a world of “faerie”, populated by knights in armour who joust and have honour and duties; by elves (thought not like Tolkien’s); and which is complicated by the existence of multiple levels (the hero arrives in one level, the elves belong in another, but the inhabitants of each level can move between levels, with limitations). There are dragons and giants and many other creatures (though no dwarves).

Others have summarized the story better than I could so I won’t dwell on that here. What fascinates me most about this series is the concept of honour and the examples of education or training.

Early on in the story, the hero, a young teenaged boy, meets a Knight and his squire. In their conversation, the Knight teaches the boy that “can” and “may” have different meanings and corrects his usage: the boy says “can” when he means “may”. This is a recurring theme (or running joke) in the first book, “The Knight”, with first the Knight, then the hero correcting others. This illustrates one of a Knight’s duties: to teach, to instruct, to correct – particularly his squire. A squire is an apprentice knight: he (presumably) wants to one day become a knight and the way you become a knight is by learning how to be one, and the way to learn that is to apprenticed to one. A knight’s squire or apprentice learns to become a knight by learning first how to be a squire. In the process, of course, the squire is learning (perhaps without being aware of it) how a knight teaches his squire.

School-teachers know that motivation is always a key, and often problematic, issue. The motivation for a squire is, of course, the desire to become a knight, thought that is not always motivation enough when the cold, the arduous chores, the beatings, etc., start to take their toll.

There is one scene which taught me very clearly the difference between a student and an apprentice, or perhaps between teaching in school and instructing an apprentice: it comes in the first book, “The Knight” (I forget which chapter and beg the reader’s forgiveness!). The boy has now become a man, at least physically, after an encounter with a lady elf, so much bigger and stronger than he was before that others who knew him as a boy cannot believe he is the same person. He finds himself under attack, alone (the Knight and he have long parted company). He escapes from a house by a back entrance to avoid his trappers and finds only a boy blocking his path, a boy whom he quickly overpowers. The way ahead lies through a forest inhabited by outlaws and who knows what awful creatures, and night is approaching. He press-gang’s the boy into his service. “We need each other: I need you to warn me of dangers ahead, and you need me to protect you from them.” He then questions the boy about who or what might be in the forest. Very nervous, the boy gives non-committal, one-word answers, but he is immediately rebuked by the hero. “I am a knight,” he says, “and you will address me as Sir Able. You will say, ‘Yes, Sir Able”, not just ‘Yes, sir,’ and you will give me complete answers, telling me everything you think I might need to know. Complete answers,” and he is about to add, “like in school” but thinks better of it (perhaps because he’s a boy recently come from America and he has no idea what kind of schools, if any, the people in this land have), and says instead, “Or I’ll break your arms!”

Now THAT’S motivation!

The hero is in the early stages of becoming a knight. It’s the encounter with the Knight and his squire that inspires him to become one, and he decides he IS one, in all but name. His methods are still, therefore, rough. Slowly, he learns to be courteous to all, even to his squire.

Another major theme in the series is honour, chivalry and duty, and I was continually surprised by the hero’s (and other knights’) decisions. In one scene, Lord Beale, who is an aristocrat with social ambitions, father of a daughter whom he hopes will marry a king, and on an ambassadorship of peace to that king. Despite facing overwhelming odds, Beale keeps his cool and his dignity, and his sense of duty. Facing the king, he makes a faux-pas, which the king (a huge giant) points out. Beale’s response: “Slay me!”

What the ….?