Gene Wolfe, 1931–2019

Thoughts on the passing of a literary hero

Levi Nunnink
Apr 15 · 3 min read

We can think only of creatures, of things He’s made. Creatures are all we know, and can be all we know until we know Him.
- Gene Wolfe, The Wizard

Today Notre Dame burns and Gene Wolfe is dead. These two images seems sadly connected in my heart.

I first came across Gene Wolfe about fifteen years ago when I found The Knight in my local library. I was trying to write a fantasy novel myself and I was looking for “inspiration”. I’d heard that Wolfe was an author I should read and so I got whatever the library had. I remember sitting in the reading room on my lunch break, opening up that gorgeous, hardbound book and reading, “Dear Ben…” I didn’t know then what I was getting myself into but my writing and my life would not be the same after that.

It seems like all my writing since that day has been an attempt, in some small way, to write like Wolfe. Whenever I sit down to write a story he is the one who looms largest in my mind. His prose, from the poetic, Proustian style of his early work to the terse, Hemingwayesque sentences of his later writing, spoke with a mastery of language that escaped me no matter how hard I tried to imitate it. But even more than the language, his mind fascinated me: here were stories with mystery upon mystery, revelations folded into revelation, old tropes ignited into new fire, situations brimming with wry humor, all delivered by a deeply Christian imagination.

The fact that Wolfe was a devout Roman Catholic is no secret but it is often overlooked by the largely secular Sci-Fi community. Even for a fellow orthodox Christian I often found his work challenging and disturbing. (The messianic protagonist in Wolfe’s sci-fi masterpiece, Book of the New Sun, is a torturer who murders, fornicates, and even commits cannibalism. Not exactly the “Christ figure” that usually appears in faithful literature.) But ultimately his work is brimming with powerful insights and overall a fascinating orthodox exploration of the catholic faith.

Indeed, to me he always appeared as one of those comically saintly figures that have shown up throughout history: A tall, bulbous man who gave the impression in public appearances as someone who was gentle, a bit shy and even simple — not the sort of sharp, erudite mind who could conceive of such ingenious epics that at once entertained and delighted but also daunted and mystified even the most astute interpreters. He had something of St. Thomas’s “Dumb Ox” to him: the sort of happy genius that is so above the common intelligence that it appears childish to those of us who look upward from the crowd.

Wolfe will certainly live on in his writings. I expect that their importance and recognition will only grow as the years pass. But even as the fire that burns Notre Dame cannot consume the catholic faith, the faith of Wolfe will not be consumed by death. In the words of the Eucharistic prayer, “Therefore with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we proclaim your great and glorious name, for ever praising you…” One of the great Christian imaginations has joined that company today, along with Chesterton, Tolkien, and Lewis and all the rest.

Thank you, Mr. Wolfe. I am forever grateful for your work, which I may never fully understand and will certainly never equal.

If you have never read Gene Wolfe, I recommend starting where I did with The Knight, which is a gentle introduction to his fiction. He’s not an easy author but he rewards the diligent reader. The best things in life are not easy, after all, and that includes books.

Levi Nunnink

Written by

I’m a Lutheran layman currently living in California. I occasionally write about theology here. Try to contain your excitement.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade