Patrick Rothfuss: The Name of the Wind

Rothfuss, Patrick (2008), The Name of the Wind, DAW Books
ISBN 978-0-7564-0474-1

Once every few years, a new star rises from the murky depths of the fantasy mainstream. His or her work is subsequently hailed as original, new, groundbreaking, mostly inaccurately. In 2007 the rising star was a young man named Patrick Rothfuss. His debut novel The Name of the Wind made a deep impression upon the scene and had success far beyond the usual circle of fantasy readers. However, while the book is certainly an outstanding read, a huge amount of fun, and quite smart, much of the hype that has aggregated around Rothfuss’ novel, the first in a projected series of three (we know how that usually works out…), is not due to any specific excellency of his but to the dire and formulaic writing that dominates this genre. Even writers such as Tad Williams, who have a lot of talent, a great imagination and energy to spare, spend much of their time coasting along on the gentle waves of a genre the closeness of which to Romance writing (I’m currently making myself read a Sandra Brown novel, hence, perhaps, the association) betrays the conservative bent of the thinking that fuels much of it. Writers like Samuel R. Delany or China Miéville are the exception, not the rule in the field. Before embarking upon the proper review, let me tell you that Rothfuss does not break much new ground, if any. He does, however, rise above many of his colleagues, since his is a smart and self-reflective take on well-worn material.

The protagonist, a man by the fetching name of Kote, runs a bar in the middle of nowhere, as we enter the book. Strange things happen the origins of which are not explained (yet), but in the course of which we learn that Kote is anything but a measly barkeep. He has certain powers. When a man who calls himself Chronicler, apparently a, well, a chronicler, a collector and teller of tales, turns up at the Waystone Inn, Kote’s auspiciously named bar, we find out that Kote used to be a hero and a legend that went by the name of Kvothe, or to give his full name: Kvothe the Bloodless. Kvothe vanished and Chronicler hunted him down to write down his story. Kvothe demands full control over the result and subsequently dictates his life story to the writer. They agree to take three days for this. Hence the full title of Rothfuss’ novel: The Kingkiller Chronicles: Day One: The Name of the Wind. The present, wherein Chronicler and Kvothe and a mysterious friend of Kvothe’s sit and create stories, keeps butting in, providing commentary but mainly disrupting the reading in a most pleasurable way, drawing attention to the telling. That is, generally speaking, something the book keeps doing, in different ways. It’s quite remarkable how consistently Rothfuss flaunts his concern with signs and narrative and how much this dominates the book. Basic genre assumptions of telling and authority are thus interrogated, if in a nice and gentle way. Rothfuss makes it easy to overlook many of these things by making them basic construction principles not objects of debate, but any good reading of the book would need to focus on these things, I think. His world is completely and utterly convincing, even now as I think back on it the smells and sounds and looks of his world rise before me. This is because he owes a large debt to Dickens, I think, at least as much as to his fellow fantasy wroters. But we’ll return to that.

Now we’ll return to Kvothe and the Chronicler. The full control Kvothe demands is not easily granted. Chronicler is used to be the storyteller, the shaper, the framer of stories, the man who writes and in writing constructs, creates an artifact that contains the basic, the salient facts of what people tell him orally. In Rothfuss’ vaguely medieval world, writing and reading is still a province of a few elite scholars, stories are proliferated by storytellers and singers. Songs especially are important. The connection between fabulation and truth-telling is a close and interesting one here. Rothfuss far exceeds most of his colleagues who, like him use songs both as described objects and as reprinted songs in the books, but, unlike him, use them for decoration mainly. Yes, Rothfuss uses them as decorative elements as well,but songs have a deeper significance, too. Most revealingly in a section early in the novel. Kvothe is part of a traveling troupe, a highly decorated and accomplished one; at the same time he is of a people called the Edema Ruh, who are but a thinly veiled allusion to Roma. All this is related in a series of nice vignettes, anecdotes, it’s all rather cozy and nice to read. Until, well, until Kvothe’s father decides to find out the truth about the Chandrian, a mythical figure that’s said to cause senseless massacres now and then. No one knows why exactly. Thousands of stories and songs about the Chandrian exist and Kvothe’s father listens to a slew of them in each village or town they pass.

He’s like a one-man Grimm brothers, but he is just interested in the story. By and by he assembles a mental library of tales and starts reading them closely, applying hermeneutic methods to these texts (which are at no point actual texts) and extracts from them a version of the truth which he then starts to turn into a song. The proof that the song is actually and emphatically true is in a gruesome event that ends Kvothe’s happy childhood. The Chandrian appears and murders the whole troupe, only Kvothe’s life is spared. Don’t come running and complain about spoilers. It is one of the book’s most interesting aspects that it constantly tells you what’s about to happen, its suspense is of a different kind. So, early in the book, Rothfuss rubs our noses into the fact that in his book, legends, fairy tales and songs can be made sense of within the limitations of truth-telling. Clearly, it suggests a similar reading might be applied to The Name of the Wind, too. I’m a bit befuddled tonight so the only thing that directly occurs to me is the Sinti and Roma tangent. See, traveling people such as the Roma always had a hard time, and today it’s getting worse again. Stories are told by all sorts of people but they are written down and kept and filed by authorities and in turn they help stabilize and reinforce them. The Edema Ruh just as the Roma do not get to write their stories, they sing songs, but when they die the songs die with them. Kvothe’s father’s song is forever lost. He was able to raise his voice but not to record it. So when Chronicler turns up at Kote’s bar and expects to exert full control over the material that Kvothe has to offer, Kvothe, with a lifetime of experience, stops him in his tracks and turns him into a tool. He’s using the writer, but controls him, checks what was written and decides what will be told and what won’t. His song will not be lost. His is a tale of disenfranchisement and of rising to the top despite of that. And it’s not just or even primarily about race, it’s also to a large extent about questions of class and power.

After his parents are killed, Kvothe travels to the next town where he lives on the street for the next three years, living the life of a street urchin. Far from having Gavrotte’s sunny demeanor, his experience in the streets is darkly Dickensian. This episode and much of what happens in the academy later is ‘realistic’, but in a critical manner. These early episodes of living on the street are about fear, first and foremost, about relearning one’s place in society. The trope Rothfuss is using to exemplify that are Kvothe’s feet, which he cut up during his first weeks and months, but which healed and grew thick and strong, sturdy enough to serve as shoes in the absence of money for those. Rothfuss’ gift is visible in the fact that he doesn’t merely use the trope to show Kvothe’s process in his time on the street, to be abandoned once shoes become affordable again. No, he returns time and again to his trope, refining it, proving it to be an apt metaphor for adaptive development. In fact, Rothfuss seems to use the three years in the wet and the cold, hunted by policemen and fellow urchins, sleeping in cellars and on roofs, as a launching point for his exploration of class. As I said, Rothfuss is rather mild-mannered about these issues, but his world isn’t Jordan’s where class is used a decoration, at best. The Name of the Wind returns to class as a factor in answering the question of What will I eat? Where will I sleep? Who will listen to my story? Most impressively in the events after Kvothe leaves the town that has raised him and decides to enter the academy to become what other colleagues would have called a wizard.

A school for people who want to become proficient in magic? Right. J.K. Rowling’s books clearly must be part of the frame of reference here. Harry Potter‘s become so inordinately famous that it needs to be considered and it’s the closest comparison that I could come up with. Usually arcane academies are less hands-on, contain less descriptions of what we would consider normal school routine. What’s more ,a comparison would be profitable, because Harry Potter‘s Hogwarts is so thoroughly different from Rothfuss school, and the main difference is probably this: Rowling’s books, especially the first one, are a paean to consumerism. Without being the least bit critical, she provides, more or less, a series of low-key fantasy examples for what Marx called the Warenfetisch, and constructs a consumerist wonderland. Yes, even in Harry Potter, there are poor people such as the Weasleys, but their poverty is exoticised, it’s cute and all in good spirits. They are jolly people who can’t always afford new brooms so younger kids have to take older siblings’ old brooms, etc. even though it’s a horribly outdated model. Compare this to Kvothe’s bloody feet. No-one, to my knowledge, is really threatened with having to leave Hogwarts on account of poverty, and is thus barred from knowledge. This, however, is the constant threat that hangs over Kvothe’s head and the academy takes steep rates, and is not in the habit of handing out scholarships, thereby ensuring that the skills and the arcane knowledge that can be gained in the academy stays in a certain circle. Kvothe has to fight and scramble to stay in the university and not starve. It’s just as realistic as necessary, but it is fantasy, after all. The mixture makes for addictive, sumptious reading. Kvothe’s struggle dominates the rest of the book, which also contains his quest to find out what exactly happened to his parents, the first beginnings of his legend.

Kvothe is a hero, as exceptional (compared to the common man) as any within fantasy. He’s almost supernaturally smart, agile and talented. But here’s exactly where he differs from the Rand al’Thors (and Harry Potters): his main superpower are his smarts. Rand al’Thor is thick as a brick basically and so are Goodkind’s and a good deal even of Hobb’s heroes. Kvothe is a born scholar, able to hold incredible amounts of knowledge in his head and break a cypher within minutes. He is more brain than brawn, although he fares well on that as well. But there, again, not something that he was born with (one of the most problematic constants in fantasy) but something that he acquired through his family business first and fighting for survival in the streets later. With this, Rothfuss cedes to a demand of the mainstream of his genre, as he frequently does; not without putting a twist to it. Rothfuss, as I mentioned before, is adamant in handing us key pieces of the plot beforehand. We know what will happen to the hero. He channels the reader’s suspense into his curiosity about the world, about its secret, its workings. To do this, one the one hand he uses and repeats certain tropes; on the other, he sends his hero off on a search for the Chandrian, fattening up the narrative with mysterious children’s songs like this

When the hearthfire turns to blue,
What to do? What to o?
Run outside. Run and hide.

When your bright sword turns to rust?
Who to trust? Who to trust?
Stand alone. Standing Stone.

See a woman pale as snow?
Silent come and silent go.
What’s their plan? What’s their plan?
Chandrian. Chandrian.

Just as this song, the book as a whole is rather simple, it wears its complexities lightly, it’s first and foremost a good fantasy read. I read it in all of two days, and enjoyed it every step of the way. Rothfuss writing is not remarkable in any way, not in a bad, as in Goodkind’s case, or in a good way, as Miéville’s. The book is a solid read, but Rothfuss proves himself a smart writer, who is aware of many undercurrents of his genre and turns that awareness into constructing devices of his book. If you like fantasy, you can’t really bypass this book. If you don’t, I guess you could be unhappy with many genre trappings that Rothfuss kept and reproduced. The Name of the Wind is, perhaps, not a very good book, but a very enjoyable one. It’s very much worth reading. I hope this review has made a good case for that.

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5 thoughts on “Patrick Rothfuss: The Name of the Wind

  1. Pingback: Patrick Rothfuss: The Name of the Wind - World Literature Forum

  2. Impressive Reading-list you got here on this blog – too bad I don’t have as much spare time on my hands as you seem to do…

    You’ll probably guess how I ran across your blog – but that’s not what I’ll comment about. Rather, I’ll take the time to add a couple of comments on “The Name of the Wind” since I’ve recently read (and liked) it myself.

    First off, I can’t help but agree with most of your analysis. However, there are a few points of interest that you missed, as well as a minor error: “The Chandrian” is not a single being, but a group, hence they should be referred to in the plural.

    Secondly, poverty and bloody feet. Nice image, albeit rather unrealistic – especially when the hero returns to running barefoot months later, unscathed. That may work in the jungle, but probably won’t on rooftops. But you allow for it being Fantasy, after all. What I don’t get is the comparison to Rowling, and especially your saying that the Harry Potter-books are “a paean to consumerism”. How about a couple of examples? What will stick eternally in my mind as a memory of my first perusal of the first HP-novel is the image of the boys standing in front of a shop-window and raving about the latest broom-model (read: car). This is social satire, not an uncritical consumerist wonderland. Granted, Harry has got tons of gold, and the Weasleys are a jolly Walton-family – but where do they ever indulge in the Warenfetisch? When they buy all-flavour-beans? As to noone having to leave Hogwarts on account of poverty – possibly so, but people have to leave because of racial discrimination (Lupin) or political scheming (Dumbly). There’s a lot of social criticism in HP, of the media, the government, the law-system. However, Hogwarts is a sanctuary of sorts in a less than perfect world, and as such quite unlike the University in “The Name of the Wind”. Which brings me to point three:

    While I agree that Harry Potter is THE shared text of our generation, I wouldn’t say that the acclaimed University in “The Name of the Wind” is necessarily directly influenced by Hogwarts. Ok, both feature the one nasty teacher-topos, but that’s a stock-device in the boy-adventure-novel. With “The Name of the Wind” I was rather more reminded of Umberto Ecos forbidding libraries (and who knows if the similar title isn’t a hint), or of LeGuin’s Roke Island School of Magic which also aims at controlling and channelling magical power so as to render it harmless. Even the White Tower of Jordan’s Aes Sedai comes to mind, and I’m sure there’s more that I haven’t read about or forgotten. The university is a classic locus (not only) in Fantasy, where apprentice boys/girls/(wizards) usually have to undergo Rites of Passage and Initiation while learning to become an adult and shoulder responsibility, typically undergoing a development from amnesia to self-development, from bondage to freedom. That seems to be the case in “The Name of the Wind”, too, barring further developments in the upcoming sequels. Moreover, it is also almost traditional that there be an exclusivist elite in the university opposed to the outsider-hero(ine), who has to fight for the right to attend – compare Terry Pratchett’s novel Equal Rights. Thus, Rothfuss makes good use of a classical device here, to which end remains to be seen.

    Last but not least, the magical system. As rather unsubtly hinted at in the novel’s title, Rothfuss utilizes the idea of “True Names” – another device typically used in Fantasy literature, and one that, again, one can find examples for in LeGuin: Just like the “True Speech of Creation” in her story The Farthest Shore, knowing the true names of things (and therefore, supposedly, their “essence”) in “The Name of the Winds” confers power over them. We’ll see where Rothfuss will take this concept, but it is certainly a classical device that occurs, for instance, in Fairy Tales such as Rumpelstiltskin – and one that posits a platonic ideal behind the mundane appearances, as well as an identity of signifier and signified, of appearance and essence, or, one might add, of telling and story. Only by telling does Kvothe’s story come to life – only his expert words have the transformative power to make it real, to show the true nature of things. Like you said, this idea recurs several times in the novel. On the other hand, it turns out in this first day of storytelling that the old stories, too, are precisely that, real – and dangerous: name the evil one and he’ll appear (which is another well-worn topos that Rothfuss manages to freshen up). Like I said, it remains to be seen where he takes this concept; however for the time being I don’t quite see how exactly his comparatively conventional, if clever and refreshing interlacing of signs and meanings, of fictional reality and “real” fiction serves to “interrogate basic genre assumptions of telling and authority.”

  3. Thank your for the comment.

    I don’t see HP as critical. There is no indication in the book, you want it to be critical, it’s not. In fact, the ideological structure of the whole book, its attitude towards tradition, good and bad modern influences, journalists, the racially structured idea of magic (you are born a wizard, unless I’m mistaken). Even the satire is benign and, au fond, affirmative. The whole use of wealth and money. Someone should write a paper on this, come to think of it. Maybe we can convince Eske Bockelmann. ;) But I’ve read the first HP nine, ten years ago, and haven’t reread it since, so it’s not unlikely I’m wrong.

    The Eco idea doesn’t fit, because while Eco interrogates archives and tradition, Rothfuss’ fascinating game of reading fables and myth and mining them for Truth (note the capital T) couldn’t be further at odds with Umberto. He may have intended something else but the results speak a different language, I think.

    Dito the Aes Sedai. They are radically different. I always read them as a wildly misogynistic fantasy that owes more to images of covens and other entrenched misogynist tropes. It’s not the only place where Jordan engages these kinds of tropes, so that always made sense to me. The fact that this kind of imagery plays little to no role in Rothfuss’ book tells me that the Aes Sedai reference is far off, I think. But, once again. AGes ago, and no reread. I’m basically guessing here.

    I see HP as a point of reference especially in those places where the inner workings of the university are shown. How the friends meet in the mess hall, how they discuss things in the dormitory, and more importantly, the way that intrigue is engaged not in an adult sense, but in the fleeting, cartoonish way that HP does it. Apparently your opinion is a different one, but so many scenes within the university struck me almost like pastiches of JKR’s writing, but twisted and laced with comment.

    I completely forgot LeGuin, I’m awfully badly read in fantasy literature, I’ve only read Earthsea and that ‘un some 12, 15 years ago. You are probably very right about LeGuin. I’m not sure though that I would trace the naming business back to her. It’s, as you said, a classical device and a well-worn and well-used trope.

    However, and I mentioned this in the review, Kvothe’s storytelling serves a different purpose, I think. The evil one doesn’t appear because he’s named. This is not about names, not about mysticism, not about fairy tales (inside), this is from the outside, I think, it’s about reading. Kvothe’s father read folk tales, folk songs and fairy tales and analyzed them, he stripped them for their essence and came up with THE TRUE STORY. This is why he was killed. The preoccupation with this concept is threaded throughout the book. How does the telling of a story influence THE TRUE STORY hidden in it? In the review I was tempted to compare that story, which is elusive, to Lacan’s réel. It’s tempting, no? There is only one true story that we know of and we don’t, actually, know it. We know ABOUT it, from Kvothe’s story, but he is the teller. He doesn’t read the story or analyze it. he tells it and, so the book tells us, hides the TRUE STORY within the folds of it. In every fantasy novel I read, storytelling is sacrosanct, in a way. Fantasy relies on tropes of a certain kind of story, it perpetuates that process, and you can read Rothfuss’ book in the same way. However, through other, maybe more contradictory elements, like the opposition of reading and writing, he, in a very subdued way, slips in interesting questions. And I haven’t even gone into the fascinating role that symbols, codes (all texts in the book are coded, in different ways, with different kinds of readers and awarenesses engaged and some objects and acts are used in a comparable way) and images play, because I couldn’t resist Lacan’s lure in this, not tonight.

    Thank you, again, for the comment. It’s much appreciated, especially given, you know.

  4. Wow, it’s remarkable to think someone could read Rothfuss’ book and not think it was MASSIVELY to do with the importance of names. From true names, to the influence of names on Kvothe himself, and even it smaller things like his “Jackass Jackass” song. I’ve read the book quite a few times (14) and disagree with roughly a quarter of what is written here. You are very good at analyzing many facets of a text, but after reading a few of your reviews, I find you remarkably lacking in some basic categories.

  5. Interesting. It’s certainly about names, but relatively, compared to other books, its emphasis is about other issues, obviously. Reading texts is not a self-contained exercise, it’s about relationships and comparisons. The fantasy genre is quite frequently obsessed with names, and I suspect you’d find it difficult to seriously claim that Rothfuss puts more emphasis on names than a mediocre writer like Jordan. So talking about the importance of names would be largely redundant given the genre context.

    My reading horizon is limited, often, granted, but I am quite open about it. In what categories do you find my reviews lacking? I made conscious decisions to include what I did in my reviews, because my basic training would lead to writing pages and pages on the texts, and so I form reviews according to what aspects I find most interesting upon writing the review. Often, I include a list of possible further aspects in the last paragraph. I suspect that most of the lacks you see are actually conscious omissions.

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