Kingkiller Alchemy: Refining Kvothe

I wondered about the alchemy question when I read the first words of the series, “it was night again.” However, having spent all last year in academic study of Harry Potter, thanks to my long-distance friend & mentor John Granger, not to mention my entire wedding ceremony based around alchemical purification (yes, the video and running commentary are coming soon. . .), I did not want to jump the alchemical gun. (1) I could be wrong. (2) It could ruin the experience. . . emphasis on could. (3) There might be better discussion elsewhere on the Name of the Wind or Wise Man’s Fear.

But then I read the opening lines of Wise Man’s Fear: “dawn was coming.” At first, seeing that WMF’s prologue read as a one-page metaphor of a three-part silence, I thought he actually copied and pasted the whole thing from the first book. I didn’t mind it, in fact it set the tone well for WMF. But then, halfway through the reading, I pulled out both prologues & made a comparison. Here’s the differences between the two, with NOTW on top of each couplet & WMF on bottom:

It was night again
Dawn was coming

hollow, echoing quiet
vast, echoing quiet

NOTW: a wind it would have sighed through the trees, set the inn’s sign creaking on its hooks, and brushed the silence
WMF:  a storm, raindrops would have tapped and pattered against the selas vines behind the inn.
Thunder would have muttered and rumbled and chased the silence

a crowd. . .handful of men. . . filled with conversation & laughter. . . clamor of a drinking house
travelers stirring in their rooms. . . grumbled the silence away like fraying, half-forgotten dreams

a pair of men huddled at one corner of the bar
a dark-haired man eased the back door closed behind himself

NOTW: they drank with quiet determination, avoiding serious discussions of troubling news
WMF: moving through the perfect dark, he crept through the kitchen, across the taproom, & down the basement stairs With the ease of long experience, he avoided loose boards that might groan or sigh beneath his weight. Each slow step made only the barest tep against the floor.

small, sullen silence to the larger hollow one.
small, furtive silence to the larger echoing one.

It made an alloy of sorts, a counterpoint
They made an amalgam of sorts, a counterpoint

listened for an hour. . .feel it in the wooden floor underfoot and in the rough, splintering barrels behind the bar.
listened long enough. . .feel it in the chill of the window glass and the smooth plaster walls of the innkeeper’s room.

NOTW: It was in the weight of the black stone hearth that held the heat of a long dead fire. It was in the slow back and forth of a white linen cloth rubbing along the grain of the bar
WMF: It was in the dark chest that lay at the foot of a hard and narrow bed.

And it was in the hands of the man who stood there, polishing a stretch of mahogany that already gleamed in the lamplight

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And it was in the hands of the man who lay there, motionless, watching for the first pale hind of dawn’s coming light.

. . .and he moved with the subtle certainty that comes from knowing many things
. . .and he lay with the resigned air of one who has long ago abandoned any hope of sleep

Then we finish with the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die, having already mentioned his “true-red hair, red as flame,” and “his eyes were dark and distant.”

Well, that was nice, Lance, but WTF?

For those needing an entry-level synopsis, head over to Hogwarts Professor to read up on Alchemy. John’s got a. . . ahem. . . couple of posts on the subject. For you seasoned vets, you’ll remember that Alchemy is not a form of chemistry at all, but rather an esoteric form of meditation practiced by medieval Gnostics (See my review of Burckhardt’s Alchemy). They believed that in the progressive states of meditating on the soul, the heavenly bodies, & various metals, they could attain purification. Layman’s terms? They believed they could change their jacked-up “leaden” soul into a holy and righteous “golden” soul through the philosopher’s stone – a symbol of Christ. (Hang with me, I’m not preachin’ here. . .)

This meditation broke down in to three (or four) major sweeps or stages or “works”, whereby the soul would move closer and closer to golden purity. The three are nigreddo, albedo, rubedo with the occasional citrinus between the last two. These Latin words merely mean “black”, “white” and “red.”

In the nigreddo, or black stage, the “vessel” (a word for the soul or initial metal, in our case it’s Kvothe) needs to become ash, for only with ash can we truly know that all “vile odour” and “impurity” has been purged. At the end of the purging process, we begin adding new information…

In the albedo or white stage, the “vessel” receives new information and substance. Added to the prima materia, the raw stuff of earth or tohu va vohu, the new information starts to form a new substance. Insight and light are gained, and the vessel becomes “brilliant” – a double entendre for smart & shiny…

In the rubedo or red stage, the “vessel” stands in the center of a collision between the red king (sulfur) and the white queen (quicksilver). There’s a death of the two, and out of the beautiful collision, the alchemical orphan or philosopher’s stone or climax or gold or perfected man is born.

As you can see, with a trilogy, it makes it simple to walk through with each book serving as a stage in the opus alchemicum, the alchemical great work. Let’s take a look at those quotes again, bearing in mind that NOTW = black stage & WMF = white stage:

  1. We see in the black that IT WAS NIGHT AGAIN, and at the beginning of the white DAWN WAS COMING.
  2. We contrast hollow with vast. One speaks of emptiness, the raw form of the black work. The other speaks of magnitude, as in “a brilliant idea.”
  3. NOTW shows a wind sighing through the trees, ambiguous, raw in the darkness. Remember how Kvothe’s mind felt both when he learned Alar & when he called the wind?
    WMF shows a storm, raindrops & thunder. These are CRUCIAL signs for identifying the albedo, perhaps the easiest of all three to find. Snow, rain, baptism (a character getting dunked, see Nolan’s Inferno) all reveal a cleansing, a washing with new information. This is amplified, quite literally (in the true sense), by the thunder.
  4. The clamor of the drinking room contrasts dreams. This one’s also HUGE because of the nature of chaos. You can’t discern any coherent message between groups of people in a drinking house, but dreams are different. Dreams can hold messages. Dreams even foretell. It’s a good image for the albedo, for at night (black) we go to bed with our worries, under the light of the full moon (albedo) we dream and our mind is illuminated and healed, and with the rising of the sun (rubedo) we awaken to new possibilities, or even “new mercies.”
  5. This one’s not that significant.
  6. Neither is this one (unless you see something I don’t). I think these are just dramatic flair and flavor of #4.
  7. sullen contrasts with furtive; hollow with echo. If you use synonyms of the first two, we could call it “gloomy emptiness,” perfect for nigreddo. If you do the same with the second pair, it’s “hidden repetition”. BOOM! Hidden repetition?! That’s these prologues, baby! Pat’s showing his cards, and he’s talking to you and I:
    Psst… I’m talking about alechemy.”
  8. alloy & amalgam: The first is a metal made by combining two or more metallic elements. You could bend the collision of sulfur & quicksilver over lead to mean this, or just quicksilver with lead. Amalgam? That’s a mixture in chemistry. Alchemy’s not a chemistry, but it’s close enough for confusion and/or poetic comparison. Pat’s doing number two.
  9. Hear it in the wood/hear it in the glass. The wood? Opaque. Rough. Natural. Raw. The glass? Clear. Smooth. Shiny. Silver even. Another nigreddo/albedo comparison.
  10. black stone earth & dead fire speak of the current black work, but the white cloth foretells the coming white work. Black chest at the foot of the bed (with assumedly white sheets), head nods to the previous work and moves into the white work – where Kvothe will be illuminated.
  11. We end up back at Kvothe – his red hair – polishing the mahogany (a dark wood) or waiting for the pale hind of light (an “white work” refernce).
  12. subtle certainty (thinking he’s got it all figured out) & resigned air (worrying about the future, waiting for a mental breakthrough)
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So what?

Well, many things. Let’s just start by assuming two things: (1) with all the connections, Pat’s probably talking about Alchemy. (2) Alchemy – outside of The University & Ambrose’s plumb bomb – means “the science of the purification of the soul” in the majority of literature.

Because of this, Pat’s showing us how Kvothe will first be stripped down (was he beat or torn down or did he fall on a bad stream of luck in book one?) in order to receive new insight (did he learn or gain access to the archives or discover something out about the world in book two?) so that, in the end, he can be equipped to fight the hardest fight of his life: Ambrose/Chandrian.  If he’s using literary alchemy, there are many conclusions and insights that could branch off of this:

Look throughout Name of the Wind & Wise Man’s Fear for any (or all) of thesesymbols. Each holds a key spot in literary alchemy, and I’ve found most in the series already. You need to put three things: (1) the symbol you’re referring to (2) a brief quote from the book and (3) the page number & book. Here’s the list:

  • ravens or jackdaws (or jackasses)
  • the peacock’s tail
  • a rainbow (the colors ROY G BIV in order)
  • water
  • snow
  • the color silver or mirrors
  • frogs
  • dragons
  • blood
  • an alembic
  • a chemist’s fire
  • cockatrice / basilisk
  • midnight or new-moon
  • dawn or twilight
  • red lion
  • white griffyn
  • unicorn
  • a fleeing stag
  • the color white
  • raw matter
  • purified substance
  • new info/insight/breakthroughs
  • the color red used in conjunction with “flame” or “death”
  • reference to living water or the spring of life
  • dark clouds
  • delirium or craziness or confusion
  • sound mind or focus or insight

That’s a good list to get us going. Happy hunting & you have one week. I’ll be in New York City until a week from this Sunday, and will not respond until then. The only thing I’ll post is a 46 @ 23.

Keep reading, those who (like me) haven’t finished!

(If you comment below with anything past the prologue of WMF, please give a spoiler alert to those who have not finished WMF.)

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