It’s hard to know exactly what to make of this odd little book. An earnest primer on values that takes the whimsical form of a letter from an imaginary medieval knight to his children, it falls somewhere between celebrity vanity project and quirky philosophical commonplace book. For starters, “Rules for a Knight” asks us to imagine a reader who says, “I am in need of spiritual guidance; I will turn to . . . Ethan Hawke.” Is this not a little like “Donald Trump’s Guide to Humility,” or maybe “Ben Carson Explains Ancient Architecture”?
Given the actor’s erratic private life, it’s hard not to snicker when he loftily advises his daughter, “As you grow into maturity, do not concern yourself with aging. A rose is striking in full bloom . . . as are the dark petals of autumn. Each wrinkle is a crack in the shell of our conceit.” According to the tabloids, the dark petals of autumn were not striking enough to keep this particular knight from seeking a younger blossom.
Still, those who are able to separate the book’s wisdom from its author might find a certain charm in its formulations. “Rules for a Knight” is divided into brief reflections on 20 heady abstractions, ranging from “Courage” and “Justice” to “Speech” and “Death.” Each homiletic is followed by a brief parable demonstrating its principles. The entry on “Faith,” for example, is followed by a concise retelling of the Buddhist parable of the mustard seed, wherein a grieving mother learns faith through empathy. That Hawke, who seems so quintessentially contemporary, should have chosen such an archaic mode for conveying eternal truths is certainly eccentric, but not devoid of value.
Hawke’s book is a cento — a patchwork of maxims gleaned from other sources — and a reminder that such pithy formulations can have value and force. Clumsy but earnest, it is an attempt to boil down the wisdom of the ages into a portable, illustrated compendium. (The drawings are by his second wife, Ryan.) It is hard to summon up much irritation with Hawke in his latest literary effort. The actor, best known for playing ponderous hunks in such films as “Boyhood” and “Before Sunrise,” is also the author of two novels, but here forgoes fiction for a different vehicle. After all, reminding readers that “happiness is not an objective. It is the movement of life itself,” or that “sometimes to understand more, you need to know less,” is hardly the worst use of a celebrity platform, even if the execution is rather fey and strained.
In “Gratitude,” the knight gives thanks for “the tangible bond of friendship, a snowball fight, warm water on your skin, laughing until your stomach hurts,” adding that “the simple joys are the great ones. Pleasure is not complicated.” It took me a moment to summon the association this passage triggered: the speech Hawke’s character gives in his breakout film, “Reality Bites,” in 1994. “I take pleasure in the details,” he tells a young Winona Ryder. “Quarter pounders with cheese — those are good. The sky about 10 minutes before it starts to rain. The moment when a laugh becomes a cackle.” Somehow, the earlier version just seems more vivid.
Michael Lindgren is a writer and musician in New Jersey.
At 7 p.m. on Nov. 11, Ethan Hawke will be in conversation with Margaret Talbot at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW, Washington.
By Ethan Hawke
Knopf. 169 pp. $18