Rules for a Knight
By Ethan Hawke
192 pages, $18
By Christopher Schobert
Ethan Hawke is an actor who has pulled off something all too rare: the ability to appear in a genre flick one month, in a razor-sharp indie film the next, a stint on Broadway in between, and top it all off by writing a novel. Who would have expected the pretty, vacant face from 1989’s “Dead Poets Society” would have such a lengthy, diverse career?
Consider that in recent years, the actor-author-sometime-director top-ined horror hits “Sinister” and “The Purge,” starred and co-authored Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight,” and played the father in Linklater’s Oscar-nominated “Boyhood.” These, of course, follow roles in projects as diverse as “Training Day” and “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.”
In addition, he has served as director (his latest was the well-received documentary “Seymour: An Introduction”) and written three novels. The first two emo navel-gazers, “The Hottest State” and “Ash Wednesday,” were, to put it mildly, not well-received.
His latest tome should fare better. The enjoyable “Rules for a Knight” is a slim (130 pages) novel that is part self-help guide, part knight’s tale. And unlike his previous books, it is aimed squarely at an audience of children and families.
“Rules” opens in cheeky fashion, with an editor’s note in which Hawke explains that the text, one long letter, “was discovered in the early 1970s in the basement of our family farm near Waynesburg, Ohio.” The final written words of Sir Thomas Lemuel Hawke, it is a collection of stories and aphorisms intended to guide his children through life.
“Please tell me how I should live,” Sir Thomas asks his grandfather at the book’s start. Grandfather, it seems, was awaiting this day. One of “four surviving arrow retrievers for King Henry V’s longbowmen at the Battle of Agincourt at age eleven,” grandfather was later knighted himself.
Sir Thomas came onboard as the knight’s squire – he was just “Thomas” then – and his learning began at once. Sprinkled among the stories of his training are short definitions (accompanied by the art of Hawke’s wife, Ryan Hawke). Words like grace are defined with pleasant directness: “Grace is the ability to accept change. Be open and supple; the brittle break.”
Often, Sir Thomas speaks directly to his young ones, recalling their births, or the wooing of their mother. (“It’s a long, embarrassing story for me, but you deserve to know,” he writes.) Through it all he talks with the air of a man who knows the end is near. Hawke impressively captures this tone of somber guidance, and despite some dull patches, keeps things brisk and highly readable.
Readable, that is, for adults. Will children have the patience to make it through these tales of gallantry and honor on their own? Hard to say. The book might be more effective if read aloud by an adult. Perhaps that is what Hawke intended; as the father of four, he surely knows the power of an entertaining and insightful children’s book, especially one meant to be shared.
It is intriguing, really, that Hawke – who is just 45 years old – would move into the realm of kid-friendly fiction. “Rules” is yet another unique bullet point on the resume of Ethan Hawke, and an indicator that he will continue to move beyond the constraints of the Vacant Leading Man. For that, he should be applauded.
Christopher Schobert is a frequent contributing movie and book reviewer for The News.