At some point I need to write about Gene Wolfe in my history posts, but this time I want to focus on two of his books and one of the several theses they advance. Specifically, his two work Wizard Knight books and what they say about the status of non-humans in fantasy.
That was vague and specific at the same time, an impressive feat. Gene Wolfe has been around for forever, I suppose, and he’s one of the best writers I’ve ever read. His Book of the New Sun is one of the best things I have ever read. Same with The Fifth Head of Cerberus. The Wizard Knight is more traditionally fantastic than either of those, so it’s appropriate I start there, in a way. But it also uses Norse mythology to examine the ways in which we think about non-humans such as elves, fairies, and even gods.
The books feature a boy from our world being transported into the magic world. It’s a traditional fantasy story, and when I started it I was looking forward to Wolfe’s spin on things. Among many is the main character’s inability to remember much before waking in a cave next to one of (possibly the only?) weaver of fate. It turns out he bears a message from the Aelf (elves, or in Norse myth a vast array of magical people, as in this book) for the king of the human kingdoms. He goes in and out of several worlds, including the human world, Skai – home of a very Norse pantheon – Aelfrice, home of the elf people – and Muspel – home of the dragons.
Norse cosmology posited a multitude of worlds, nine I think, with our world being in the middle – Midgard, or, yes, middle earth. Wolfe’s books have the same structure, but delve into the metaphysical implications of such a system. If the gods live above Midgard, who lives above them? Eventually, and out of reach entirely in the novels, is the realm of the Most High God. Wolfe is very Christian and it’s not surprising that there’s an ultimate single god above the pantheons he borrows and builds in this novel. Able, the main character, goes into every world but two, and meets entities from one of the two he cannot reach. So the Most High God exists in a state of mystery, much like the Christian god in our world (the residents of the next-to-highest world are basically angels, and serve the Most High God). Each world contains the evil expelled from the world above. So the top world is perfect, the next nearly so, the third home of gods plural, mostly good but acting like gods in pantheons do. Fourth is our world, and fifth is the world of the elves.
That’s where the cosmology of the novel begins to question, or possibly just correct, the assumptions we make about elves. I remember reading Lord of the Rings for the first time, and the absolute sense of wonder at Tolkien’s elves. They altered the face of magical races in fantasy forever after. They are wondrous, in and of themselves, and humans in Tolkien’s world envy them. But Tolkien himself did not, and in some of the stories in The Silmarillion he discusses their basic lack of what we would term an immortal soul. Elves pretty much all go to a kind of heaven place, end of story. Humans don’t. Their lives end, are shorter than elves’, and they pass on into another place that is not the same as the world they knew. The elves envy the humans for that.
Basically, traditionally elves and other magical creatures don’t have souls. They have magic, but no lives, no humanity. I’ve read more than one story wherein elves of one sort or another try to get priests to shrive them, baptize them, or what have you – and if the priest is foolish enough to try he always fails, because it’s impossible. They are essentially outside the order of God’s creation. They don’t exist in the same metaphysical realm. That is what allows them their magic.
The creatures of Aelfrice are the same. I think there’s something to what I’m saying because Able falls in love with the one queen of an Aelf tribe (the others are led my males, or entities from Muspel). But when he uses a helm of truth to look at her, he sees a disgusting mixture of mud, rocks, bile, and sticks. He sees the same with all the Aelf he looks at using the helm. His king, who is part Aelf himself, forbids Able to use the helm on him. Able sees they are creatures with no souls, constructs of an elemental creature called Kulili who made them in her loneliness. She was the inhabitant of Aelfrice – she was the thing not good enough to live in Midgard with the humans. The elves are her creations. They cast her out and try to kill her from time to time.
The message Able bears to the king bears directly on this, too. The Aelf beg the king to try to make people better, because humans are actually gods to the Aelf. Each race is god to the race below. The gods of Skai are all patently the Norse gods, and the deities of the humans in the novel. The gods of Skai worship the entities in the world above them, and the Aelf ought to worship the people of the human world.
But we’re shitty. We’re selfish and petty and, through long disuse, have mostly forgotten how to interact with our worshippers. Able learns how, and lets his lover drink enough of his blood to be semi-divine herself, making her nearly human – and, importantly, no longer a creature of sticks and mud when he sees her through his helm. Humans, many of them, actually worship the Aelf, because they can perform magic. The Aelf, in turn, worship the dragons of Muspel because, being greedy and conniving creatures, the dragons want more power, want indeed to make their way to the human world.
Worshipping the Aelf, the humans miss the point of their cosmology, to point their eyes upward. Wondering at elves, who have magic but are not human, is to miss a similar point, according to Wolfe. I think we can have it both ways, of course, as we do in Tolkien’s work itself. The elves there are not the same as the elves in Norse myth, or in Wolfe’s novel, or in many of the novels that came in between. They are, however, still lacking in something that all humans share as a matter of course – the possibility of redemption and passing into another world. Tolkien, of course, was also Christian, like Wolfe. So to simply look up wonderingly at the elves and to wish to be one of them (something that, I think, informs much of the fiction about elves we see now), is to ignore what’s great about being human.