Thursday, March 17, 2011


The little guy came home from school yesterday with his mom just moments after I arrived at the homestead myself, and he wasted no time roping us into a new bit of imaginative play which was utterly, immediately recognizable in its specificity. Despite already knowing the answer, after maybe half an hour of this my wife asked the little guy, “Did your class read the Three Little Pigs today?” And yes of course they had, as the previous thirty minutes of huffing and puffing had more or less given away.

It was amusing, and honestly heartening, to watch the little guy directing us in how he wanted his mother and I to play Three Little Pigs with him. Sometimes he was the Big Bad Wolf and my wife and I were little pigs in our houses. Sometimes the little guy was a little pig and one of his parents had to be the Wolf. Sometimes we were all little pigs looking out for approaching wolves, and sometimes we were all wolves in one big bad howling, house-blowing-in chorus. I also think at one point my wife was a little pig at ease in her house while the little guy and I were both wolves, but we were nice wolves who didn’t blow down houses anymore and were going to go find some houses to fix.

I trust that the reasons all of the above were amusing are self-evident, but I found it particularly heartening in every deviation from the source material, because this of course is one of my particularly manic obsessions. I am unabashed in my love of stories not just in the folkloric sense but in the commercial property sense, and in that sense there’s just the one right way that stories go. And I deeply internalize all those details right down to the signature quotable dialogue; I’m the insufferable geek who not only quotes movies but corrects other people when they muff the quotes themselves. And I’m eager to share that love of “the classics” with my bairn but at the same time I’m nervous about impressing that philosophy on him too early and stifling his inborn creativity. He’s already said “That’s not how it goes” many, many times when I’ve deliberately mixed up stories that have been read to him repeatedly. It’s just reassuring to know that both mindsets are still available to him, one that can hold onto the proper shape of a primary source, and another that can remix the elements at will and have fun with the idea of a Big Reformed Wolf who is thinking about maybe getting into a career as a home inspector.

You don't want to get stuck with a big mortgage and a bad chimney, is the thing, see.
So hey, speaking of fairy tales, let me get back to The Wise Man’s Fear (and also retain my title as Segue Master Supreme).

One detail I glossed over in my synopsis yesterday is that Kvothe’s parents are murdered by creatures called the Chandrian. Kvothe comes back to his troupers’ camp at the tail end of the slaughter and sees one of the creatures and even talks to him, as the evil being taunts him a bit and then departs. Kvothe yearns for revenge which would be hard enough for a young boy going after supernatural evil. But beyond that, no one in his world believes in the Chandrian. They’re characters from fairy tales. He ends up at University hoping for some solid info on them but only ever finds fictions and shadows, and scant little of that. In the second book, his adventures away from school begin with an attempt to gain favor with a powerful nobleman who would have the ability to grant Kvothe access to other information sources, official records repositories and so forth. This plan meets with mixed success. It’s incredibly frustrating for Kvothe and, in that sympathetic way characters have with their audience, it’s frustrating in a certain sense to read, too.

Arguably that’s one of the central lines of the whole Kingkiller Chronicle but there are parallels to it everywhere. Kvothe’s reason for being is the acquisition of knowledge, because knowing something gives you power over it, in every sense from the political intrigue one can safely navigate if one knows the players involved and their motivations and so on, to the arcane powers he can magically call on if he knows certain secrets. Not knowing anything about the Chandrian, and not being able to find any knowledge of them even when he searches whole-heartedly, is one of his major failures. The other is his relationship with a girl named Denna, which constantly stumbles and falters despite the fact that both are obviously smitten with each other. Kvothe constantly complains that he doesn’t understand her and believes he could make their relationship work perfectly if he did. And in the framing device, the scholar is looking for the backstory of a legendary hero named Kvothe, but at several points in the telling there are inconsistencies and impossibilities and an endless litany of questions raised which really get at the notion of what a “hero” is and what “legends” actually mean.

Kvothe is alone in the framing device so presumably he never does win the heart of Denna, not for happily ever after, at any rate. Clearly Kvothe’s story is going to have an element of romantic tragedy to it, and equally clearly if he ends up remembered as a kingkiller and feels the need to go into hiding as an unassuming innkeeper, it’s going to have some heroic tragedy as well. And quite possibly the entire thing is going to be one horrific tragedy. This is what worries me about the whole trilogy. Two-thirds of the way in, with absolutely no movement in the frame story toward Kvothe’s triumphant resumption of the mantle of the Epic Legendary Hero, it seems more and more likely that such redemption will never come. Kvothe seems pretty adamant about the fact that the mythical figure of Kvothe the Arcane or Kvothe the Bloodless is just that, a myth. The scholar at the inn claims to be looking for the true story of the man behind the legend but Kvothe is the only one aware of the fact that one precludes the other. The process of telling his life story is literally one of disillusionment. He points out that some things attributed to him are exaggerations or outright falsehoods and that other things can be explained due to unglamorous hard work and that he has many flaws and has made his share of mistakes, none of which squares with the legends. Discovering the true man who gave rise to the legend shatters the illusion of the legend’s central figure. Conversely, looking for a real flesh and blood man who possessed all the attributes had done all the deeds and in the widespread tales about Kvothe will always be a fruitless search. It’s like chasing fairy tales. Which, again, is Kvothe’s primary obsession in his own life story: chasing the fairy tale creatures who (he believes?) murdered his parents.

The Kingkiller Chronicle is a story about stories, how they’re told and what they mean and what people think they mean, all of which is of course the meaty kind of metafiction that I gobble right up. I hate to prejudge something before it’s finished, but I’m finding it hard to help myself, as I keep seeing this terrible possibility that the whole trilogy is actually going to be about the inherent falseness of stories. That it’s all going to end with the scholar realizing the man he came looking for doesn’t exist, and Kvothe explaining that he never avenged his parents because the whole Chandrian involvement was his child’s mind trying to process a random tragedy into a meaningful narrative, when in fact sometimes terrible things just happen and people just die and there’s no millennia-spanning conspiracy of silence explaining why you can’t gain more insight into it than that. And maybe along the way he’ll admit he never did get the girl because it’s impossible to ever really know another person and he let that be a barrier to experiencing the human closeness that has to be close enough. All of which would be thematically consistent and philosophically valid but MAN it would also be a stone-cold bummer.

I want to believe I’m wrong about all that nihilism, by the by. As soon as I finished reading The Wise Man’s Fear I started casting about on teh interwebs looking for any evidence I could find that, actually, Rothfuss had realized the story needed more room to breathe and it was actually going to be a five volume series after all. That would effectively reset me mentally to my original theory, because maybe the tipping point for Kvothe re-discovering his inner hero could happen in the third book and the fourth and fifth could encompass him Saving the World. The results of my search were not encouraging. I found plenty of direct quotes from Rothfuss saying the story was planned as a trilogy, and remains a trilogy, and the final volume is totally mapped out to the point where he feels confident he can finish the third book in much less time than the second one ended up taking (though not necessarily fewer pages). And furthermore he doesn’t want to be a one-trick pony, that guy who writes those Kvothe books, so one might assume the possibility of letting the trilogy swell further would not be terribly appealing to him. But, at the same time, he acknowledged that he built a world which so many people fell in love with that it would be kind of cruel to close the door on it forever and never look back. I also found some random ‘netizens who seized on that last statement and somehow asserted that the third book in The Kingkiller Chronicle would conclude at the inn on the end of the third day with Kvothe finishing telling the story of his final adventures and retirement from adventuring, good night, and the dark world outside the inn keeps on turning … and maybe Rothfuss would write some other stuff for a while BUT eventually he would write another trilogy which was all about Kvothe taking up the sword and the shadow-cloak again and, yes, Saving the World. Which I like the sound of a lot but also recognize as sounding way too good to be true.

(Also in the course of my web-searching I ran across several discussion forums where people loudly opined that The name of the Wind was grossly overrated and they couldn’t care less that The Wise Man’s Fear had finally been released because they wouldn’t go near Rothfuss ever again. I wish other people’s negative attitudes like that didn’t bug me so much, I really do.)

So I find myself having traversed a lot of emotional territory in relation to this particular series. I started out enjoying the first book immensely and then telling various people how stunning it was, finding out with no small gratification that they agreed with my assessment once they read it for themselves. I waited longingly for the second volume to arrive and when it did I was elated. But there was an undercurrent of sadness almost from the beginning of The Wise Man’s Fear because I knew it wouldn’t take terribly long to read the whole thing, and then I’d be right back to a multi-year wait for another fix again. And then that sadness started to be echoed by a sense that the series wasn’t turning out in the shape I had expected, and then mirrored again in the fact that it had become an inherently sad story which was foreshadowing a lot more unhappy endings to come in the final installment. Of course sad works of art or entertainment can still be great, but you have to recommend them in a more qualified way, I think. And this is actually relevant right now because, on the day The Wise Man’s Fear arrived at my house, my wife made an offhand comment about how she knew I really loved the preceding book and she needed to get around to reading it herself one of these days. I filed that away with a mental note to pick up a paperback copy of The Name of the Wind, which would be infinitely easier for my wife to read with one hand while tending to newborn feedings (she caught up on some reading when the little guy was a tiny nursing-pooping machine, too) than the hardcover copy I read and have stowed in the basement. But now I feel this odd hesitation about putting the book in front of her, because it would end up sucking her into this very compelling tragedy.

She’ll read this first though, of course, and she’ll make up her own mind, and rightly so. Maybe I shouldn’t feel any hesitation at all, or any inclination to shelter people from the unhappier side of the spectrum. Life itself is a very compelling tragedy: a bunch of stuff happens to a bunch of people, a lot of it fascinating, and then everybody dies.

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