I could begin this particular article on a metalinguistic key, telling of the coincidence that occurred just the other day, when I had just finished this book and suddenly heard the song “A Forest” playing in a bar. But this would be stretching the truth a little bit, and, even though Gene Wolfe had said in an interview that no narrator is reliable, after all, I’d rather tell the truth: I’m writing this article listening to King Crimson instead of The Cure.
The Devil in a Forest was published in 1976, right after Peace, and it’s considered a minor work. It doesn’t even merit critical texts in the Aramini or Clute books, maybe because it’s kind of a no-brainer: This is a short novel that focuses on a rather simple story, apparently inspired by a snippet of the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas,” according to the author. In medieval times (the exact year is not revealed), a young man (fourteen years of age, according to what little he knows about himself, having been orphaned) called Mark gets unwittingly involved in a skirmish of sorts. (Again, little about the exact setting is very clear, because the story doesn’t take place properly in a village—all we see are a handful of buildings, most notably the inn and the church, and also two or three houses.)
The great antagonist in this story is apparently a highwayman by the name of Wat the Wanderer. He is a crafty man not unlike Robin Hood, but he is far from being the leader of a merry band. By the middle of the narrative we gather that he studied to be a priest but didn’t want to become attached to the Church and absconded in order to become the only thing a poor man could be in his situation: a thief. (On a very unrelated note, because I don’t remember having come across this word in the book: The term villain originally meant only someone who lives on a village. Maybe not so unrelated, seeing how Gene Wolfe loved linguistics. Onwards.)
We will see much more of older words—words that are today practically unused—in The Book of The New Sun. But a few examples, such as chatelaine, appear in The Devil in a Forest, which seems to be a (not “the”—the distinction is significant) kind of test tube where Wolfe first tried, in a very timid way, his hand with a medieval setting. This was my very first reading of this book, and I confess I’d been expecting (though I already knew this wasn’t the case) things to take a wild turn—for the medieval setting to suddenly transform itself into a post-apoc future, perhaps. It wouldn’t be that simple.
Wolfe doesn’t cop out. He sticks to the end with the medieval setting, and the narrative of how Mark will be overtaken by the events unfolding around him, barely understanding them until the very end. How he will be manipulated by Wat, who apparently wants the boy to join him, and Mother Cloot, an old woman (but maybe not so old) who’s purported to be a witch (but not quite magical), each one with their own agenda. But what agenda can one possibly have in the English countryside of (presumably) a thousand years ago?
Their agenda ultimately seems to be simply survival. Nobody wants to have their homes ravaged by Wat; Wat, by his turn, doesn’t want to be pursued endlessly by soldiers. So everybody does what they can do to avoid such dire fates: They lie, they cheat, they run.
Mark is caught in this web of deception more than once—when he is returning from the forest (by the way, why “a forest”? Could it be that this kind of narrative belongs to an ur-forest, a primordial forest, as in so many fairy tales?) with Wat and one of his mates, Gil. After encountering the corpse of Paul, the sexton, who he didn’t kill but merely—by what reason Mark himself couldn’t say—disentangled from a tree to which the body’s feet had been tied. The sexton had been murdered using an axe, and Mark, who had left his house earlier carrying only a knife, now sports a hatchet (given to him by Wat), and he is accused by Mother Cloot of being the killer. The abbé seems to be the only person who believes in Mark, telling him that the runes cast by Mother Cloot to reveal details of the crime are nothing but an elaborate trick, because she had probably seen him and Wat finding the body. But right after that Wat appears, bullying Mark into joining his band, convincing him that the abbé doesn’t really believe in his innocence. Mark doesn’t really have a chance, and goes with him.
The only direct mention of the so-called Devil of the title occurs when Mark goes to sleep that same night and experiences something between a dream and a vision:
The figure was passing the inn now. Moonlight must be shining upon him; the moon would be at the full tonight, and the figure, the sleeper who had waked at last, was clearer than before. Mark saw the horns rising from the helmet with the moon tossing between them. The steps were quicker now. The house trembled and rattled with each. His face, as he turned down the village in front of the inn, was moving closer and closer to the invisible line that stretched through the wall to Mark. He was aware of the darkness beneath the helmet’s brim, and the glow of the eyes.
Who is this devilish figure? Wat? Or the mysterious captain of the guard that appears immediately afterward, with a band of soldiers who imprison all the villagers, making the situation all the more dire for everyone?
To be honest, I’m not sure I much cared for this Devil here. What seemed clear to me from this reading is that virtually every person in this narrative (even other less frequently appearing characters like the sergeant of the guard) has something devilish about them—that is, a dark side (a Jungian shadow, perhaps). But there is one small clue that, though it doesn’t seem to tell us anything about the concepts of good and evil, gives us a lesson in narrative: “In spite of all tales you may have heard, people seldom bury money outside their homes.” This is not only common sense—it may also be a clue as to Wolfe’s thinking? This might be a devil (pardon the pun) of a stretch, but all the same: Doesn’t a writer always write from her/his perspective, using personal history and beliefs to flesh the characters out? Even if said story takes place in the far past? But again, here we see Wolfe’s views on the problem of evil, presented through the lens of not only an unreliable narrator (Mark) but through an entire cast of unreliable characters.
Maybe this book is a minor piece of work because it doesn’t go too far in terms of elaborating. The story is relatively short, many things happen and the end—well, the end is less than what we would ideally expect from Gene Wolfe. Two chapters before the end, the narrator surprises us, telling us that the events of the story are already thirty years in the past, and Mark can still remember many things that happened then (this section also gives us one of the most beautiful sentences ever crafted by Wolfe: “The arrow still quivered, fresh shot, in the new raw wood of the cross—somewhere.”) This revelation doesn’t lead us anywhere, however, since the narrative goes back to the point where it stopped in the earlier chapter. And, when it finally finishes, the last scene is a dialogue between a couple, that might as well be Gene and Rosemary, talking about the antiquity of the text. And that’s that.
Suddenly it’s as if The Devil… is really preparing us for something bigger. Maybe this novel is just an appetizer, an entrée for the main dish that would be the tetralogy, The Book of The New Sun.
Again, this was my very first time reading this book, and I should note that I can’t wait to read it again in a few years—for even a minor Gene Wolfe book is a very good book. I look forward to hearing your thoughts…
See you all on Thursday, August 8th, for a discussion of The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories…
Fabio Fernandes started writing in English experimentally in the ‘90s, but only began to publish in this language in 2008, reviewing magazines and books for The Fix, edited by the late lamented Eugie Foster. He’s also written articles and reviews for a number of sites and magazines, including Fantasy Book Critic, Tor.com, The World SF Blog, Strange Horizons, and SF Signal. He’s published short stories in Everyday Weirdness, Kaleidotrope, Perihelion, and the anthologies Steampunk II, The Apex Book of World SF: Vol. 2, Stories for Chip, and POC Destroy Science Fiction. In 2013, Fernandes co-edited with Djibrilal-Ayad the postcolonial original anthology We See a Different Frontier. He’s translated several science fiction and fantasy books from English to Brazilian Portuguese, such as Foundation, 2001, Neuromancer, and Ancillary Justice. In 2018, he translated to English the Brazilian anthology Solarpunk (ed. by Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro) for World Weaver Press. Fabio Fernandes is a graduate of Clarion West, class of 2013.