Ten years ago, I read Name of the Wind and felt captured by a kindred spirit who cared deeply about the state of the world, the fantasy canon, and the capacity of prose to be poetry and myth. Five years later, I read Wise Man’s Fear and the feeling compounded as I started noticing layers: I knew I would end up obsessing over this book. In the back of my mind, I always paid attention for news on the Doors of Stone release, but I seriously doubt my life would be more improved than Patrick Rothfuss’ life if the book came out. From my perspective (and Neil Gaiman’s) Rothfuss owes me nothing and has already given me a great gift.
In fact, to be frank: from my perspective I deserve nothing and therefore feel free to obtain everything precisely because there should be nothing good, nothing sweet, nothing beautiful in my life and yet there is. I have deep gratitude for sunlight, let along for a book.
Kingkiller’s simply one part of that sequence.
QUICK NOTE: Turns out that a TON of you had Google Alerts set for “Doors of Stone Release,” which honestly never crossed my mind. Massive oversight, sorry. This is a reread in the spirit of “Hey, since Rothfuss came out with a 10th anniversary edition, I should probably get my ass in gear and reread his series in case he happens to finish and sets a date for the Doors of Stone release BEFORE I finish my long-procrastinated reread of the canon.” It is not some sort of leaked announcement.
Apologies for any confusion.
Also: if you’re going to read any further, this post — and all of these posts — will contain spoilers of all of Rothfuss’ work. Don’t read on unless you’ve read the canon. Of course, only a culture starved for wonder would care about spoilers. In eras filled with wonder like the Middle Ages, they loved a good spoiler. The reason I don’t care about spoilers is precisely because grass still surprises me even after all these years. So does rain.
But I’m also not a jerk, so to those of you who care, consider yourself forewarned.
At the time I read the first book, I was getting my minor in ancient literature and mythology (majored in rhetoric, essentially), which meant sitting down one-on-one with the academic dean to read stuff like Bel and the Dragon and Bulfinch, The Edda and The Chinook Ship Monster. One of my favorites is the god that vomits out creation. A mentor of mine once said that “makes us all a bunch of little pukes.”
I came across a future teacher named John Granger and thought I was cut out for professional criticism. I wasn’t. But I thought I was. This blog had done well for being only a year and a half old and I started writing things about Kingkiller.
I said some stupid things, some merely ignorant things, but I also noticed some things that others ignored. To put a fine point on it, alchemy is now a major part of the discussion because of my early questions and Jo Walton gave a headnod to me in the back of the 10th Anniversary edition for my early spotting of Felurian’s meter.
But at the time the shame of my own ignorance convinced me I’d gotten on the wrong path and right before we moved to New York, I took down over 1,000 posts and hit a hard reset on this site.
I’m only just now starting to understand what I want it to become.
Well a honeymoon, three failed novels, a lot of small successes with articles and stories and poems and scripts (and the lesser crafts like copywriting), several collaborations, two artist support groups and a move to NYC to work with a nonprofit that helps artists here all passed. Three years of more minor successes in NYC and something happened a few weeks ago:
I realized my original love of Name of the Wind — my original anticipation of the Doors of Stone release — wasn’t the book itself or its high probability to by studied critically. Though I hope in writing this, I can convince John Granger to read it.
Rather my original love stemmed from this: I, as a reflective reader, student of mythology, fumbling author, and advocate for the poor felt stirred by the depth of this series. Still do. It has a ton of heart.
Then the 10th anniversary edition just came out.
And I remembered what Stephen King once said: a good book should stand up to two readings — one for the heart and one for the mind.
I’d read it for the heart and guessed at some interesting things, but hadn’t really given it the reflective read it deserved. One glance at the cover shows why I feel stirred once more:
Black, white, red.
And a whole helluva lot of gold.
It screams Literary Alchemy.
And for those that have followed awhile, you know I care a bit more about the implementation of literary alchemy than I do about the interpretation of it. I’m the guy who structured his wedding alchemically. I’m hoping, rather, in trying my best as a reflective reader and amateur critic to attract voices like (for the third and final time) John Granger who could throw a serious critical eye upon these books before the Doors of Stone release.
That said, I’m not going to read fan theories. I haven’t seriously read the forums or the subreddit or the wiki or even the TOR reread for years. I’m going to approach this fresh, which means I’ll miss some of the Iax / Jax nuance and forget about copper daggers. We may return to them after I’ve reread all of the stories, but for now I’ll have to defer to those of you who have scoured the book for nuanced references to Lackless.
However, the benefit to starting here is that I can read through everything in a compounding sort of way. I can start with the appendices and map, the prologue, read through Name of the Wind, then The Wise Man’s Fear, then Slow Regard, the Bast story, and use Mr. Whiffle as a sort of guiding light in some ways. What I miss in plot, I hope to make up for in thematic conversation.
That said, I decided to bundle my assumptions into a sort of reader’s guide that you can have at your side while reading along with me. I’ll summarize them here before we begin, but if you want the full explanation of each, go here.
Assumption One: Amateur Reflective Reading
I approach the work as a layman reflective reader and not a professional critic. There are benefits and drawbacks to this. The drawbacks are obvious. As to the benefit, I’ll quote Lewis:
“I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself. If an excuse is needed (and perhaps it is) for writing like this, my excuse would be something like this. It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than the master can. When you took the problem to a master, as we all remember, he was very likely to explain what you understood already, to add a great deal of information which you didn’t want, and say nothing at all about the thing that was puzzling you. I have watched this from both sides of the net; for when, as a teacher myself, I have tried to answer questions brought me by pupils, I have sometimes, after a minute, seen that expression settle down on their faces which assured me that they were suffering exactly the same frustration which I had suffered from my own teachers. The fellow-pupil can help one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago that he has forgotten. He sees the whole subject, by now, in such a different light that he cannot conceive what is really troubling the pupil; he sees a dozen other difficulties which ought to be troubling him but aren’t.
“I write as one amateur to another, talking bout difficulties I have met, or lights I have gained—“
From the Kingkiller Chronicles with the hopes that this might at any rate interest and sometimes even help other inexpert readers. I am “comparing notes,” not presuming to instruct.
Blind leading the blind, in other words. Which happens all the time in New York when someone’s first learning how to use a seeing eye dog or a blind man’s cane. It also worked pretty well for John Newton and John Milton and, as it turns out, St. Francis near the end:
Brother fire, I pray you be tender with me.
Before they seared out his cataracts.
One of the things Rothfuss cares about the most is the economic reality of the lives of most people. He started a nonprofit to address these issues WAY sooner than any other author for starters, but he did it precisely because he understands that money given earlier helps sooner: it’s not right for him to hoard wealth his entire life and then start a foundation that props up the same broken system. Sometimes I think we wouldn’t have to hold galas for poverty relief in New York City were they never sponsored by Goldman Sachs. Participation in the system itself is the start of the problem and obedience (meaning not stealing from the poor in the first place) is better than sacrifice (meaning giving from your dragon hoard only after you’ve taken everything).
That said, I’m putting this first because it’s the one that matters most and to remind everyone that Worldbuilders is coming up again, so donate.
But I’ll also pay close attention to the sorts of things he’s saying about poverty, wealth, power, fear, and weakness. If nothing else, he seems to be critiquing the rags-to-riches stories of Horatio Alger — and the American Dream — saying two things: one, this is an exception that proves the rule, not the rule. And two, what happens to the guy who gets everything he wants? Is there a corollary of riches to rags?
Was Scrooge once poor?
And are the poor some of the most blissed people in the world because of this?
Assumption Three: Literary Alchemy.
Literary alchemy is a way of using the symbol system of esoteric alchemy in order to demonstrate the internal change of the main character that moves them towards some sort of irrevocable choice. It’s confusing because often people confuse alchemy with chemistry — including some of the alchemists — so people don’t realize that not everyone wanted to turn literal lead into literal gold. Because we’re talking about magicians in a story who unbind principles and platonic forms and combine them in such a way that they may, in fact, turn literal lead within this literary work into literal gold, it compounds the problem in a meta kind of way.
But Rothfuss is nothing if not self-referential.
Essentially what you need to know for now is that alchemy uses a series of symbols that show how the main character first strips off the old self, gets filled with new ideas, and then implements those ideas in his new self. In this case, we’re talking about Kvothe — what happened to him, how it changed him, what he did about it. Typically the system employs, at very least, the color black for purging (Notw), the color white for filling (WMF), and the color red for the resulting irrevocable action and permanent change we will see in the final Doors of Stone release.
I won’t get into sublimation and whatnot for now. You can download the longer version if you want all of that.
Assumption Four: Parody of Tropes
We’re talking about a man who has read more fantasy and science fiction literature than most of the editors in the genre. He’s like my wife: I can imagine him getting grounded for reading. It’s the exact opposite experience that I had growing up, where the jocks and burly guys of Southern Illinois made fun of me for reading so that I had to sneak it in wherever I could find it, mostly at home.
No. This guy knows the tropes.
Which is why — at very least — we’re dealing with a sort of reverse Hero’s Journey. Instead of going from the familiar to the foreign to the familiar again, instead of going there and back again, we’re coming back and then going there again. Most Hero’s Journey stories start with some sort of zone of comfort that the hero’s in — some hometown or prison or steady job. Then they hit the road and enter something unfamiliar.
Kvothe was literally born on the road. Then he entered stability. I’m willing to bet he returns to the road at the end.
To compound matters, almost every DnD campaign that ever was begins with random strangers meeting at an Inn. In this case, the campaign focuses not on the guests, but on the innkeeper himself: he’s the one who has seen the world, who has settled down, who sees all sorts of people come through his pub, and from the wisdom of experience, he simply serves.
But what if he hit the roads again?
Assumption Five: Nested Stories
People typically notice the frame story and the backstory, but this is a story about the nature of stories. It’s far more complicated than that. Kingkiller works less like Arabian Nights and more like Russian dolls. By my count, there are at least seven stories going on:
- The story of Silence
- The frame story
- Kvothe’s version of events. What I’ll call the waking myth: the old magic and the poor.
- Chronicler’s version of events. What I’ll call the demythologizers: the team that literally Lacks Less than others.
- Bast (and Bast’s people’s) version of events
- What happened in reality: history
- What was made to happen through narrative and the realm of the Fae: mythology
I’ll try to parse them as much as I can, but it’s tricky as we’re only getting snippets of anything but the obvious. And to compound matters, Kvothe’s purposefully unreliable because…
Assumption Six: Names are Stories because Identities Are Narratives
Though the download is filled with all of the relevant quotes and elaborations, I’ll quote Treebeard the Tree Shepherd here:
“I am an Ent, or that’s what they call me. Yes, Ent is the word. The Ent, I am, you might say, in your manner of speaking. Fangorn is my name according some, Treebeard others make it. Treebeard will do.”
“An Ent?” said Merry. “What’s that? But what do you call yourself? What’s your real name?”
“Hoo now!” replied Treebeard. “Hoo! Now that would be telling! Not so hasty. And I am doing the asking. You are in my country…. Who calls you hobbits, though? That does not sound elvish to me.”
“Nobody else calls us hobbits; we call ourselves that,” said Pippin.
“Hoom, hmm! Come now! Not so hasty! You call yourselves hobbits? But you should not go telling just anybody. You’ll be letting out your own right names if you’re not careful.”
“We aren’t careful about that,” said Merry. “As a matter of fact I’m a Brandybuck, Meriadoc Brandy Buck, though most people call me just Merry.”
“And I’m a Took, Peregrin Took, but I’m generally called Pippin or even Pip.”
“Hm, but you are hasty folk, I see,” said Treebeard. “I am honored by your confidence; but you should not be too free all at once. There are Ents and Ents, you know; or there are Ents and the things that look like Ents but ain’t, as you might say. I’ll call you Merry and Pippin, if you please — nice names. For I am not going to tell you my name, not yet at any rate.” A queer half-knowing, half-humorous look came with a green flicker into his eyes. “For one thing it would take a long while: my name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say. It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say and to listen to.”
We’ll talk about this when we get to Kvothe’s introduction of his many names in chapter seven, but this passage of LOTR is key: what others call him and what he calls himself. It has to do with the etymology of the word “quothe” and its ties to the verb “to know.”
Assumption Seven: Story is Magic
Whatever happened to Kvothe’s name, whatever happened with the magic of the story knots, it’s pertaining to the very tale we’re reading. Rothfuss — I hope — seems to be less a part of the Bloomsbery crowd who treat fiction as a sort of self-congratulatory dopplejournalism and more a part of the Inkling crowd who treat fiction as mythopoetic and an act of subcreation.
Making, in other words, is story. And story is an act of making.
Why does it take exactly three days to tell this story?
Spell preparation makes the most sense to me. MUCH more on that in the download.
Assumption Eight: Genre Surprise
Pat has said at multiple readings of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle and now at the end of the book that he likes stories that surprise him. And not just surprise in the traditional sense of “I didn’t guess the ending” but rather “I didn’t even get the genre right.”
If you haven’t read the Princess and Mr. Whiffle, watch it now:
Okay, assuming you’ve done that, read on.
The Princess and Mr. Whiffle is a story about a cute little girl who is scared of monsters and so she eats them. It’s a story about a cute, cuddly little cannibal.
Whatever the first chapters of Name of the Wind are queing up, they’re queing up tragedy.
And if I’m the one guessing, I’m willing to bet it’s a tragedy from the perspective of the villain.
A tragedy from the perspective of the monster. Or at least someone like Tom Bombadil or Beorn, to whom there’s more than meets the eye.
It’s quite likely that we are reading epic horror novels and Stephen King’s books might help us more than Narnia.
Assumption Nine: Magic’s in the Music and the Music’s in Me
Again with the theme of identity, there’s some sort of spell casting going on with the singers that the formal magicians know little about — badass bardic magic our modern age normally overlooks. True musical magic of the sort we see in Lucy’s horn or the song-spells of Lord of the Rings or the sirens of Greece all comes down to matching the resonant frequency of the soul with a song. If you can know the timbre of a thing, you can manipulate it as easily as if you knew its name. It’s different than invocational magic — summoning a demon, for instance. It’s incantational. The words and sounds matter.
Assumption Ten: Sympathy
The basic assumption of sympathetic magic, historically, is that like produces like or that an effect resembles its cause and second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact is severed.
The Law of Similarity.
The Law of Contact (or Contagion)
Charms based on similarity are homeopathic or imitative.
Charms based on contact are contagious magic.
The end result is a long serious of things to do and things to leave undone. Positive precepts are charms. Negative precepts are taboos.
A great deal of the series depends upon my source for this information, and we’ll get into it in depth. For now, know that sympathy plays as much of a hand as true names.
Assumption Eleven: Tech Depends on Magic, not the other way around
There’s an article by Heiddeger I won’t reference here, but it’s about how inventors and develpers do what they do because they can, not because they should. There’s little thought for the ethical implications of technology because ultimately technology is mystifying: it is predicated upon magic.
And therefore can be used for good or evil.
Assumption Twelve: Meaning
We start with the author’s intended meaning, but we don’t stay there forever.
I’m not a reader’s response kind of guy. But I do believe that any work of art is a dialog between author and reader. More on that in the download.