We’re reading The Name of the Wind for the 10th Anniversary Edition in preparations for Doors of Stone. Today we’re focused on the prologue’s use of Felling and a man waiting to die — if you haven’t grabbed ahold of my 13 assumptions for any Kingkiller Reread, you might want to do that. Spoilers inside, of course, but as I said 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.
We’re starting with The Name of the Wind prologue. And this prologue is thick so brace yourself. I want you to remember Turner’s picture:
It will become very important in the days and weeks ahead and I’ve chosen it as the header image for this reread from here on out.
It was night—
You can see this is going to take awhile. I could talk for hours on those three words, but I’ll try to condense it to a forty-minute read.
We find out from the first words of Chapter One that :
It was Felling—
Those three words tell me all I need to know when added to the patient cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die and when added to what I remember of the trilogy, having reread it for the last time in 2011. Felling and man waiting to die.
Of course the man waiting to die could be waiting because he has cancer or some kind of poison. This story’s at least a tragedy with that last line.
He could be waiting to die because, as I said in the 13 assumptions PDF, this could be an epic horror novel: he could be a man-god, a man who became Fae after having killed a Chandrian and now is a Chandrian himself and longs for death. That could be it.
Or it could be something worse.
Something to do more with the patient part of the waiting than anything, amplified with the choice word cut-flower. A cut flower, of course, is a thing that wilts slowly over time. So it could be a metaphor for something like cancer or a slow-working poison.
But a cut flower is also a weapon in mythology.
And to understand that, we need to understand Felling.
Felling, as we have confirmed in the appendices, is the sixth day of the week:
- Theden — The prince is
- Feochen — livestock
- Orden — literally ord meaning word but also point and en so “beginning and end.” As in that’s the point. “The prince is livestock, full stop” or “What begins as a prince ends as livestock.” Also possible: “is an order.”
- Hepten — of seven (Chandrian)
- Chaen — singers
- Felling — cutting down tree or breaking tree
- Reaving — to steal spoils and plunder
- Kindling — either “into kindling” or “with kindling” leads to fire
- Mourning — …and mourning
What’s the definition of felling?
Felling means cutting down or truncating or breaking a tree. To fell as in to make it fall. And there’s a lot of broken trees in the books, starting with Kvothe’s nickname, going through the lightning strike, and ending somewhere in the future. We’ll start with the alchemy and move towards the main meaning of the broken tree. Per Lindy:
A tree (truncated) is a motif symbolizing the dismemberment phase of the dissolution (solve) a the initial deathly stage of the opus known as the nigredo.
Or “black work” emphasized by the next word in the prologue, “night.”
An emblem in Mylius’s Basilica philosophica shows a great tree being felled by an axe. Two emblems of the truncated tree accompany the fifth treatise concerning the dissolution in Trismosin’s Splendor Solis. Ripely likewise compared the dissolution of the metal or matter of the Stone to a putrefying oak tree. The truncated tree is one of a number of images expressing the torture motive that occur in alchemical texts. Other images include the cutting off of the lion’s paws, the decapitation of the bird (or cutting off of his wings) and the torture and torment of Mercury.
So, symbolically, we’re about to enter into a torture book. It’s going to have to cut Kvothe down to the stump — down to the roots — so that something new can grow. It’s Felling time.
But that’s just the symbolism. There’s also a literal piece.
Over and again, I’m going to contend that Rothfuss story is about how we measure common things like time and how those measurements come from the stages of various rites and rituals stretching back into the foggiest memories of storytelling and sacrifice. In this case, it’s a liturgy of languish for Kvothe. He’s stuck. And he’s stuck for a reason.
Why the broken tree? The truncated tree?
Through the law of similarity in sympathetic magic within indigenous cultures (according to Frazer):
As some people imagine they can hasten the sun, so others fancy they can jog the tardy moon. The natives of New Guinea reckon stones and spears at the moon, in order to accelerate its progress and so to hasten the return of their friends, who were away from the home for twelve months working on a tobacco plantation. …The Shuswap Indians believe that they can bring on cold weather by burning the wood of the tree that has been struck by lightning. The belief may be based on the observation that in their country cold follows a thunder-storm. Hence in spring, when these Indians are travelling over the snow on high ground, they burn splinters of such wood in the fire in order that the crust of the snow may not melt.
So there exist superstitions about lightning striking trees and the way to manipulate the lightning in the tree.
But to explain all of that, I need to explain the Golden Bough, which is the title of Frazer’s book and the main resource you need to pick up to follow along. That, Campbell’s The Hero with 1,000 Faces, Lindy, Burckhardt, Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories, and Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man would all be helpful at different stages. But Rothfuss’ main source is Frazer. Whether he’s satirizing or promoting Frazer, I’m not quite sure yet, but he’s in firm dialog with Frazer for sure.
What is the Golden Bough?
It’s an attempt to explain the weird rites of the priesthood of Diana at Aricia. Turner’s picture:
…is this dream vision of a woodland lake of Nemi called “Diana’s Mirror.” Alban hills. In the real Nemi, Frazer says, “Diana herself might still linger by this lonely shore, still haunt those woodlands wild.”
But this site was the site of a tragedy. A recurring tragedy. Some would say an endless tragedy:
“On the northern shore of the lake, right under the precipitous cliffs on which the modern village of Nemi is perched, stood the sacred grove and the sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis or Diana of the Wood. The lake and the grove were sometimes known as the lake and grove of Aricia. But the town of Aricia (the modern La Riccia) was situated about three miles off, at the foot of the Alban Mount, and separated by a steep descent from the lake, which lies in a small crater-like hollow on the mountainside.
“In this sacred grove there grew a certain tree round which at any time of the day, and probably far into the night, a grim figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand he carried a drawn sword—”
Let’s say, for kicks, the name of the sword was Folly.
“—and he kept peering warily about him as if at every instant he expected to be set upon by an enemy. He was a priest and a murderer; and the man for whom he looked was sooner or later to murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead. Such was the rule of the sanctuary. A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying the priest and having slain him, he retained office till he was himself slain but a stronger or a craftier.
“The post which he held by this precarious tenure carried with it the title of king; but surely no crowned head every lay uneasier, or was visited by more evil dreams, than his. For year in, year out, in summer and winter, in fair weather and in foul, he had to keep his lonely watch, and whenver he snatched a troubled slumber it was at the peril of his life. The least relaxation of his vigilance, the smallest abatement of his strength of limb or skill of fence, put him in jeopardy; grey hairs might seal his death-warrens. To gentle and pious pilgrims at the shrine the sight of him might well seem to darken the fair landscape as when a cloud suddenly blots the sun on a bright day. The dreamy blue of Italian skies, the dappled shade of summer woods, and the sparkle of waves in the sun, can have accorded but ill with that stern and sinister figure.
“Rather we picture outselves the scene as it may have been witnessed by the belated wayfarer on one of those wild autumn nights when the dead leaves are falling thick and the winds seem to sing the dirge of the dying year. It is a somber picture, set to melancholy music — the background of forest showing black and jagged against a lowering and stormy sky, the sighing of the wind in the branches, the rustle of the withered leaves under foot, the lapping of cold water on the shore, and in the foreground, pacing to and fro, now in twilight and now in good, a dark figure with a glitter of steel at the shoulder whenever the pale moon, riding clear of the cloud-rack, peers down at him through the matted boughs”
I quoted that last part more to emphasize Rothfuss’ language of “If there had been a wind it would have sighed through the trees, set the inn’s sign creaking on its hooks, and brushed the silence down the road like trailing autumn leaves… no music… the heat of a long dead fire… his eyes were dark and distant… deep and wide as autumn’s ending,” and the rest. All of that’s alchemical, as I’ve said before, and worth looking into in detail, but for now I want to focus on the man in the valley.
Which, as you’ll remember from yesterday, is one of the joint meanings of Valaritas: vale. Or valley.
We’ll go on, but this is my thesis in brief:
Kvothe has bound himself by blood-oath to protect the Kingkiller equivalent of the temple of Diana of the Wood making him King of the Wood. He has killed the priest-king responsible for protecting her temple, making the former priest a human sacrifice, and has now taken that priest’s place. He is waiting to die because inevitably someone will come to claim him who is stronger or craftier than he is. They will kill him as a human sacrifice and take his place as priest-king. It’s quite possible that this will be his second — and final — death.
Likely, to prevent this from happening, he has stored his death (or his soul, or his life, or all of that in his name) outside of his body. There are tons of folk-tales with external souls and people who store their death in gold (which is one interpretation of the end of the alchemical great work — the philosopher’s stone that produces gold and the water of eternal life). For instance:
“In a Siamese or Cambodian story, probably derived from India, we are told that Thossakan or Ravana, the King of Ceylong, was able by magic art to take his soul out of his body and leave it in a box at home, while he went to the wars. Thus he was invulnerable in battle. When he was about to give battle to Rama, he deposited his soul with a merit called Fire-eye, who was to keep it safe for him. So in the fight Rama was astounded to see that his arrows struck the king without wounding him. But one of Rama’s allies, knowing the secret of the king’s invulnerability, transformed himself by magic into the likeness of the king, and going to the hermit asked back his soul.”
He then squeezes the box so hard that the King suffocates. So that’s cheery.
There are stories of firebrands in the hearth that, once burned down to the bottom, sons will die and so mothers will hide the firebrand in a box. Stories of kings with golden hairs who would live forever unless the single hair was plucked. Same thing with doves in the belly of a boar: three doves that contained the soul. Horcruxes from Harry Potter, of course, are another in this line of thinking. And Hallows are the antidote (makes me wonder if Rowling herself wasn’t satirizing Frazer).
Then there’s the sympathetic link of the stone in the hydra’s head that’s connected to the life of the magician in a modern Roman version of Aladdin: the stone’s put under a pillow and he suffocates.
Stories of the same sort are current among Slavonic peoples. Thus a Russian story tells how a warlock called Koshchei the Deathless carried off a princess and kept her prisoner in his golden castle. However, a prince made up to her one day as she was walking alone and disconsolate in the castle garden, and cheered by the prospect of escaping with him she went to the warlock and coaxed him with false and flattering words, saying, “My dearest friend, tell me, I pray you, will you never die?” “Certainly not,” says he. “Well,” says she, “and where is your death? is it in your dwelling?” “To be sure it is,” says he, “it is in the broom under the threshold.” Thereupon the princess seized the broom and threw it on the fire, but although the broom burned, the deathless Koshchei remained alive; indeed not so much as a hair of him was singed. Balked in her first attempt, the artful hussy pouted and said, “You do not love me true, for you have not told me where your death is; yet I am not angry, but love you with all my heart.” With these fawning words she besought the warlock to tell her truly where his death was. So he laughed and said, “Why do you wish to know? Well then, out of love I will tell you where it lies. In a certain field there stand three green oaks, and under the roots of the largest oak is a worm, and if ever this worm is found and crushed, that instant I shall die.” When the princess heard these words, she went straight to her lover and told him all; and he searched till he found the oaks and dug up the worm and crushed it. Then he hurried to the warlock’s castle, but only to learn from the princess that the warlock was still alive. Then she fell to wheedling and coaxing Koshchei once more, and this time, overcome by her wiles, he opened his heart to her and told her the truth. “My death,” said he, “is far from here and hard to find, on the wide ocean. In that sea is an island, and on the island there grows a green oak, and beneath the oak is an iron chest, and in the chest is a small basket, and in the basket is a hare, and in the hare is a duck, and in the duck is an egg; and he who finds the egg and breaks it, kills me at the same time.” The prince naturally procured the fateful egg and with it in his hands he confronted the deathless warlock. The monster would have killed him, but the prince began to squeeze the egg. At that the warlock shrieked with pain, and turning to the false princess, who stood by smirking and smiling, “Was it not out of love for you,” said he, “that I told you where my death was? And is this the return you make to me?” With that he grabbed at his sword, which hung from a peg on the wall; but before he could reach it, the prince had crushed the egg, and sure enough the deathless warlock found his death at the same moment. “In one of the descriptions of Koshchei’s death, he is said to be killed by a blow on the forehead inflicted by the mysterious egg—that last link in the magic chain by which his life is darkly bound. In another version of the same story, but told of a snake, the fatal blow is struck by a small stone found in the yolk of an egg, which is inside a duck, which is inside a hare, which is inside a stone, which is on an island.”
So that’s probably relevant, considering the sword hanging on the wall. Sometimes they hide their heart in a sparrow inside a little box inside a small box inside seven other small boxes inside seven chests inside a coffer of marble inside an ocean. Or a pigeon in a camel in the ocean. Sometimes they hide their heart inside a bird. But there’s this often theme of a lake far away, an island on the lake, a church on the island, a well in the church, a duck in the well, an egg in the duck, a heart (or gold piece or stone or light itself) inside the egg which is the life or soul or death of the hero. The egg is squeezed or shattered or cast down at his feet.
There’s a Magya folk-tale that features the same stuff. It’s about how an old witch detains a young prince called Ambrose in the bowels of the earth. Which, when you think about it, would be really funny if the “princess” Kvothe rescued is actually Ambrose. And, as I hinted yesterday, the barrow king is likely the priest-king under the Valaritas rock: the king of the highest and oldest burial mound.
Some put their souls in twelve-headed serpents, golden rings, black chests with golden caskets that hold the soul of the Swan-woman.
There are stories of people doing similar things: enchanting their hearts (or deaths or lives) inside of flowers that wind about trees. Sometimes in the flower of the Acacia tree.
There’s the myth of Balder:
A DEITY whose life might in a sense be said to be neither in heaven nor on earth but between the two, was the Norse Balder, the good and beautiful god, the son of the great god Odin, and himself the wisest, mildest, best beloved of all the immortals. …Once on a time Balder dreamed heavy dreams which seemed to forebode his death. Thereupon the gods held a council and resolved to make him secure against every danger. So the goddess Frigg took an oath from fire and water, iron and all metals, stones and earth, from trees, sicknesses and poisons, and from all four-footed beasts, birds, and creeping things, that they would not hurt Balder. When this was done Balder was deemed invulnerable; so the gods amused themselves by setting him in their midst, while some shot at him, others hewed at him, and others threw stones at him. But whatever they did, nothing could hurt him; and at this they were all glad. Only Loki, the mischief-maker, was displeased, and he went in the guise of an old woman to Frigg, who told him that the weapons of the gods could not wound Balder, since she had made them all swear not to hurt him. Then Loki asked, “Have all things sworn to spare Balder?” She answered, “East of Walhalla grows a plant called mistletoe; it seemed to me too young to swear.” So Loki went and pulled the mistletoe and took it to the assembly of the gods. There he found the blind god Hother standing at the outside of the circle. Loki asked him, “Why do you not shoot at Balder?” Hother answered, “Because I do not see where he stands; besides I have no weapon.” Then said Loki, “Do like the rest and show Balder honour, as they all do. I will show you where he stands, and do you shoot at him with this twig.” Hother took the mistletoe and threw it at Balder, as Loki directed him. The mistletoe struck Balder and pierced him through and through, and he fell down dead. And that was the greatest misfortune that ever befell gods and men. For a while the gods stood speechless, then they lifted up their voices and wept bitterly. They took Balder’s body and brought it to the sea-shore. There stood Balder’s ship; it was called Ringhorn, and was the hugest of all ships. The gods wished to launch the ship and to burn Balder’s body on it, but the ship would not stir. So they sent for a giantess called Hyrrockin. She came riding on a wolf and gave the ship such a push that fire flashed from the rollers and all the earth shook. Then Balder’s body was taken and placed on the funeral pile upon his ship. When his wife Nanna saw that, her heart burst for sorrow and she died. So she was laid on the funeral pile with her husband, and fire was put to it. Balder’s horse, too, with all its trappings, was burned on the pile.
So mistletoe turns out to be pretty dangerous. In essence, his death is in the vine. Frazer takes this and then does the following with it:
THUS the view that Balder’s life was in the mistletoe is entirely in harmony with primitive modes of thought. It may indeed sound like a contradiction that, if his life was in the mistletoe, he should nevertheless have been killed by a blow from the plant. But when a person’s life is conceived as embodied in a particular object, with the existence of which his own existence is inseparably bound up, and the destruction of which involves his own, the object in question may be regarded and spoken of indifferently as his life or his death, as happens in the fairy tales. Hence if a man’s death is in an object, it is perfectly natural that he should be killed by a blow from it. In the fairy tales Koshchei the Deathless is killed by a blow from the egg or the stone in which his life or death is secreted; the ogres burst when a certain grain of sand—doubtless containing their life or death—is carried over their heads; the magician dies when the stone in which his life or death is contained is put under his pillow; and the Tartar hero is warned that he may be killed by the golden arrow or golden sword in which his soul has been stowed away.
The idea that the life of the oak was in the mistletoe was probably suggested, as I have said, by the observation that in winter the mistletoe growing on the oak remains green while the oak itself is leafless. But the position of the plant—growing not from the ground but from the trunk or branches of the tree—might confirm this idea. Primitive man might think that, like himself, the oak-spirit had sought to deposit his life in some safe place, and for this purpose had pitched on the mistletoe, which, being in a sense neither on earth nor in heaven, might be supposed to be fairly out of harm’s way. In a former chapter we saw that primitive man seeks to preserve the life of his human divinities by keeping them poised between earth and heaven, as the place where they are least likely to be assailed by the dangers that encompass the life of man on earth. We can therefore understand why it has been a rule both of ancient and of modern folk-medicine that the mistletoe should not be allowed to touch the ground; were it to touch the ground, its healing virtue would be gone. This may be a survival of the old superstition that the plant in which the life of the sacred tree was concentrated should not be exposed to the risk incurred by contact with the earth. In an Indian legend, which offers a parallel to the Balder myth, Indra swore to the demon Namuci that he would slay him neither by day nor by night, neither with staff nor with bow, neither with the palm of the hand nor with the fist, neither with the wet nor with the dry. But he killed him in the morning twilight by sprinkling over him the foam of the sea. The foam of the sea is just such an object as a savage might choose to put his life in, because it occupies that sort of intermediate or nondescript position between earth and sky or sea and sky in which primitive man sees safety. It is therefore not surprising that the foam of the river should be the totem of a clan in India.
Again, the view that the mistletoe owes its mystic character partly to its not growing on the ground is confirmed by a parallel superstition about the mountain-ash or rowan-tree. In Jutland a rowan that is found growing out of the top of another tree is esteemed “exceedingly effective against witchcraft: since it does not grow on the ground witches have no power over it; if it is to have its full effect it must be cut on Ascension Day.” Hence it is placed over doors to prevent the ingress of witches. In Sweden and Norway, also, magical properties are ascribed to a “flying-rowan” (flögrönn), that is to a rowan which is found growing not in the ordinary fashion on the ground but on another tree, or on a roof, or in a cleft of the rock, where it has sprouted from seed scattered by birds. They say that a man who is out in the dark should have a bit of “flying-rowan” with him to chew; else he runs a risk of being bewitched and of being unable to stir from the spot. Just as in Scandinavia the parasitic rowan is deemed a countercharm to sorcery, so in Germany the parasitic mistletoe is still commonly considered a protection against witch-craft, and in Sweden, as we saw, the mistletoe which is gathered on Midsummer Eve is attached to the ceiling of the house, the horse’s stall or the cow’s crib, in the belief that this renders the Troll powerless to injure man or beast.
The view that the mistletoe was not merely the instrument of Balder’s death, but that it contained his life, is countenanced by the analogy of a Scottish superstition. …
Frazer’s bringing this up because at the start of the book, which we quoted first, he points out how:
Within the sanctuary at Nemi grew a certain tree of which no branch might be broken. Only a runaway slave was allowed to break off, if he could, one of its boughs. Success in the attempt entitled him to fight the priest in single combat, and if he slew him he signed in his stead with the title of King of the Wood. According to the public opinion of the ancients the fateful branch was that Golden Bough which, at the Sibyl’s bidding, Aeneas plucked before he essayed the perilous journey to the world of the dead. The flight of the slave represented, it was said, the flight of Orestes; his combat with the priest was a reminiscence of the human sacrifices once offered to the Tauric Diana. This rule of succession by the sword was observed down to imperial times; for amongst his other freaks Caligula, thinking that the priest of Nemi had held office too long, hired a more stalwart ruffian to slay him; and a Greek traveller, who visited Italy in the age of the Antonines, remarks that down to his time the priesthood was still the prize of victory in a single combat.
…But Diana did not reign alone in her grove at Nemi. Two lesser divinities shared her forest sanctuary. One was Egeria, the nymph of the clear water which, bubbling from the basaltic rocks, used to fall in graceful cascades into the lake at the place called Le Mole, because here were established the mills of the modern village of Nemi. The purling of the stream as it ran over the pebbles is mentioned by Ovid, who tells us that he had often drunk of its water. Women with child used to sacrifice to Egeria, because she was believed, like Diana, to be able to grant them an easy delivery. Tradition ran that the nymph had been the wife or mistress of the wise king Numa, that he had consorted with her in the secrecy of the sacred grove, and that the laws which he gave the Romans had been inspired by communion with her divinity….
According to some, the trysting-place of the lovers was not in the woods of Nemi but in a grove outside the dripping Porta Capena at Rome, where another sacred spring of Egeria gushed from a dark cavern.
The other of the minor deities at Nemi was Virbius. Legend had it that Virbius was the young Greek hero Hippolytus, chaste and fair, who learned the art of venery from the centaur Chiron, and spent all his days in the greenwood chasing wild beasts with the virgin huntress Artemis (the Greek counterpart of Diana) for his only comrade. Proud of her divine society, he spurned the love of women, and this proved his bane. For Aphrodite, stung by his scorn, inspired his stepmother Phaedra with love of him; and when he disdained her wicked advances she falsely accused him to his father Theseus. The slander was believed, and Theseus prayed to his sire Poseidon to avenge the imagined wrong. So while Hippolytus drove in a chariot by the shore of the Saronic Gulf, the sea-god sent a fierce bull forth from the waves. The terrified horses bolted, threw Hippolytus from the chariot, and dragged him at their hoofs to death. But Diana, for the love she bore Hippolytus, persuaded the leech Aesculapius to bring her fair young hunter back to life by his simples. Jupiter, indignant that a mortal man should return from the gates of death, thrust down the meddling leech himself to Hades.
But Diana hid her favourite from the angry god in a thick cloud, disguised his features by adding years to his life, and then bore him far away to the dells of Nemi, where she entrusted him to the nymph Egeria, to live there, unknown and solitary, under the name of Virbius, in the depth of the Italian forest. There he reigned a king, and there he dedicated a precinct to Diana. He had a comely son, Virbius, who, undaunted by his father’s fate, drove a team of fiery steeds to join the Latins in the war against Aeneas and the Trojans. Virbius was worshipped as a god not only at Nemi but elsewhere; for in Campania we hear of a special priest devoted to his service. Horses were excluded from the Arician grove and sanctuary because horses had killed Hippolytus. It was unlawful to touch his image. Some thought that he was the sun. …
…These hapless lovers were probably not always mere myths, and the legends which traced their spilt blood in the purple bloom of the violet, the scarlet stain of the anemone, or the crimson flush of the rose were no idle poetic emblems of youth and beauty fleeting as the summer flowers. Such fables contain a deeper philosophy of the relation of the life of man to the life of nature—a sad philosophy which gave birth to a tragic practice.
And then he returns to the flowers — mindful of the external souls and the priest-kings who waited to die — at the end:
It is not a new opinion that the Golden Bough was the mistletoe. True, Virgil does not identify but only compares it with mistletoe. But this may be only a poetical device to cast a mystic glamour over the humble plant. Or, more probably, his description was based on a popular superstition that at certain times the mistletoe blazed out into a supernatural golden glory. The poet tells how two doves, guiding Aeneas to the gloomy vale in whose depth grew the Golden Bough, alighted upon a tree, “whence shone a flickering gleam of gold. As in the woods in winter cold the mistletoe—a plant not native to its tree—is green with fresh leaves and twines its yellow berries about the boles; such seemed upon the shady holm-oak the leafy gold, so rustled in the gentle breeze the golden leaf.” Here Virgil definitely describes the Golden Bough as growing on a holm-oak, and compares it with the mistletoe. The inference is almost inevitable that the Golden Bough was nothing but the mistletoe seen through the haze of poetry or of popular superstition.
Now grounds have been shown for believing that the priest of the Arician grove—the King of the Wood—personified the tree on which grew the Golden Bough. Hence if that tree was the oak, the King of the Wood must have been a personification of the oakspirit. It is, therefore, easy to understand why, before he could be slain, it was necessary to break the Golden Bough. As an oak-spirit, his life or death was in the mistletoe on the oak, and so long as the mistletoe remained intact, he, like Balder, could not die. To slay him, therefore, it was necessary to break the mistletoe, and probably, as in the case of Balder, to throw it at him. And to complete the parallel, it is only necessary to suppose that the King of the Wood was formerly burned, dead or alive, at the midsummer fire festival which, as we have seen, was annually celebrated in the Arician grove. The perpetual fire which burned in the grove, like the perpetual fire which burned in the temple of Vesta at Rome and under the oak at Romove, was probably fed with the sacred oak-wood; and thus it would be in a great fire of oak that the King of the Wood formerly met his end. At a later time, as I have suggested, his annual tenure of office was lengthened or shortened, as the case might be, by the rule which allowed him to live so long as he could prove his divine right by the strong hand. But he only escaped the fire to fall by the sword.
It only remains to ask, Why was the mistletoe called the Golden Bough? The whitish-yellow of the mistletoe berries is hardly enough to account for the name, for Virgil says that the bough was altogether golden, stems as well as leaves. Perhaps the name may be derived from the rich golden yellow which a bough of mistletoe assumes when it has been cut and kept for some months; the bright tint is not confined to the leaves, but spreads to the stalks as well, so that the whole branch appears to be indeed a Golden Bough. Breton peasants hang up great bunches of mistletoe in front of their cottages, and in the month of June these bunches are conspicuous for the bright golden tinge of their foliage. In some parts of Brittany, especially about Morbihan, branches of mistletoe are hung over the doors of stables and byres to protect the horses and cattle, probably against witchcraft.
The yellow colour of the withered bough may partly explain why the mistletoe has been sometimes supposed to possess the property of disclosing treasures in the earth; for on the principles of homoeopathic magic—
Which is another one of the phrases Frazer invented like “sympathetic magic.”
—there is a natural affinity between a yellow bough and yellow gold. This suggestion is confirmed by the analogy of the marvellous properties popularly ascribed to the mythical fern-seed, which is popularly supposed to bloom like gold or fire on Midsummer Eve. Thus in Bohemia it is said that “on St. John’s Day fern-seed blooms with golden blossoms that gleam like fire.” Now it is a property of this mythical fern-seed that whoever has it, or will ascend a mountain holding it in his hand on Midsummer Eve, will discover a vein of gold or will see the treasures of the earth shining with a bluish flame. In Russia they say that if you succeed in catching the wondrous bloom of the fern at midnight on Midsummer Eve, you have only to throw it up into the air, and it will fall like a star on the very spot where a treasure lies hidden. In Brittany treasure-seekers gather fern-seed at midnight on Midsummer Eve, and keep it till Palm Sunday of the following year; then they strew the seed on the ground where they think a treasure is concealed. Tyrolese peasants imagine that hidden treasures can be seen glowing like flame on Midsummer Eve, and that fern-seed, gathered at this mystic season, with the usual precautions, will help to bring the buried gold to the surface. In the Swiss canton of Freiburg people used to watch beside a fern on St. John’s night in the hope of winning a treasure, which the devil himself sometimes brought to them. In Bohemia they say that he who procures the golden bloom of the fern at this season has thereby the key to all hidden treasures; and that if maidens will spread a cloth under the fast-fading bloom, red gold will drop into it. And in the Tryol and Bohemia if you place fern-seed among money, the money will never decrease, however much of it you spend. Sometimes the fern-seed is supposed to bloom on Christmas night, and whoever catches it will become very rich. In Styria they say that by gathering fern-seed on Christmas night you can force the devil to bring you a bag of money.
Thus, on the principle of like by like, fern-seed is supposed to discover gold because it is itself golden; and for a similar reason it enriches its possessor with an unfailing supply of gold. But while the fern-seed is described as golden, it is equally described as glowing and fiery. Hence, when we consider that two great days for gathering the fabulous seed are Midsummer Eve and Christmas—that is, the two solstices (for Christmas is nothing but an old heathen celebration of the winter solstice)—we are led to regard the fiery aspect of the fern-seed as primary, and its golden aspect as secondary and derivative. Fern-seed, in fact, would seem to be an emanation of the sun’s fire at the two turning-points of its course, the summer and winter solstices. This view is confirmed by a German story in which a hunter is said to have procured fern-seed by shooting at the sun on Midsummer Day at noon; three drops of blood fell down, which he caught in a white cloth, and these blood-drops were the fern-seed. Here the blood is clearly the blood of the sun, from which the fern-seed is thus directly derived. Thus it may be taken as probable that fern-seed is golden, because it is believed to be an emanation of the sun’s golden fire.
Now, like fern-seed, the mistletoe is gathered either at Midsummer or at Christmas—that is, either at the summer or at the winter solstice—and, like fern-seed, it is supposed to possess the power of revealing treasures in the earth. On Midsummer Eve people in Sweden make divining-rods of mistletoe, or of four different kinds of wood one of which must be mistletoe. The treasure-seeker places the rod on the ground after sundown, and when it rests directly over treasure, the rod begins to move as if it were alive. Now, if the mistletoe discovers gold, it must be in its character of the Golden Bough; and if it is gathered at the solstices, must not the Golden Bough, like the golden fern-seed, be an emanation of the sun’s fire?
The question cannot be answered with a simple affirmative. We have seen that the old Aryans perhaps kindled the solstitial and other ceremonial fires in part as sun-charms, that is, with the intention of supplying the sun with fresh fire; and as these fires were usually made by the friction or combustion of oak-wood, it may have appeared to the ancient Aryan that the sun was periodically recruited from the fire which resided in the sacred oak. In other words, the oak may have seemed to him the original storehouse or reservoir of the fire which was from time to time drawn out to feed the sun. But if the life of the oak was conceived to be in the mistletoe, the mistletoe must on that view have contained the seed or germ of the fire which was elicited by friction from the wood of the oak. Thus, instead of saying that the mistletoe was an emanation of the sun’s fire, it might be more correct to say that the sun’s fire was regarded as an emanation of the mistletoe. No wonder, then, that the mistletoe shone with a golden splendour, and was called the Golden Bough.
…. Further, we can perhaps see why in antiquity mistletoe was believed to possess the remarkable property of extinguishing fire, and why in Sweden it is still kept in houses as a safeguard against conflagration. Its fiery nature marks it out, on homoeopathic principles, as the best possible cure or preventive of injury by fire.
These considerations may partially explain why Virgil makes Aeneas carry a glorified bough of mistletoe with him on his descent into the gloomy subterranean world. The poet describes how at the very gates of hell there stretched a vast and gloomy wood, and how the hero, following the flight of two doves that lured him on, wandered into the depths of the immemorial forest till he saw afar off through the shadows of the trees the flickering light of the Golden Bough illuminating the matted boughs overhead. If the mistletoe, as a yellow withered bough in the sad autumn woods, was conceived to contain the seed of fire, what better companion could a forlorn wanderer in the nether shades take with him than a bough that would be a lamp to his feet as well as a rod and staff to his hands? Armed with it he might boldly confront the dreadful spectres that would cross his path on his adventurous journey. Hence when Aeneas, emerging from the forest, comes to the banks of Styx, winding slow with sluggish stream through the infernal marsh, and the surly ferryman refuses him passage in his boat, he has but to draw the Golden Bough from his bosom and hold it up, and straightway the blusterer quails at the sight and meekly receives the hero into his crazy bark, which sinks deep in the water under the unusual weight of the living man. Even in recent times, as we have seen, mistletoe has been deemed a protection against witches and trolls, and the ancients may well have credited it with the same magical virtue. And if the parasite can, as some of our peasants believe, open all locks, why should it not have served as an “open Sesame” in the hands of Aeneas to unlock the gates of death?
Which, by the way, is how you open a lockless door — the gates of death. Lockless boxes are for storing souls (deaths or lives). You open them literally with an open sesame.
That door Valaritas?
You can likely open it with a fern seed, a sesame seed, or a bit of mistletoe in which lightning has been stored.
Now, too, we can conjecture why Virbius at Nemi came to be confounded with the sun. If Virbius was, as I have tried to show, a tree-spirit, he must have been the spirit of the oak on which grew the Golden Bough; for tradition represented him as the first of the Kings of the Wood. As an oak-spirit he must have been supposed periodically to rekindle the sun’s fire, and might therefore easily be confounded with the sun itself. …And in general we may say that in primitive society, when the only known way of making fire is by the friction of wood, the savage must necessarily conceive of fire as a property stored away, like sap or juice, in trees, from which he has laboriously to extract it. The Senal Indians of California “profess to believe that the whole world was once a globe of fire, whence that element passed up into the trees, and now comes out whenever two pieces of wood are rubbed together.” …
A tree which has been struck by lightning is naturally regarded by the savage as charged with a double or triple portion of fire; for has he not seen the mighty flash enter into the trunk with his own eyes? Hence perhaps we may explain some of the many superstitious beliefs concerning trees that have been struck by lightning….
Can they have thought that the mistletoe dropped on the oak in a flash of lightning? …
To conclude these enquiries we may say that if Balder was indeed, as I have conjectured, a personification of a mistletoe-bearing oak, his death by a blow of the mistletoe might on the new theory be explained as a death by a stroke of lightning. So long as the mistletoe, in which the flame of the lightning smouldered, was suffered to remain among the boughs, so long no harm could befall the good and kindly god of the oak, who kept his life stowed away for safety between earth and heaven in the mysterious parasite; but when once that seat of his life, or of his death, was torn from the branch and hurled at the trunk, the tree fell—the god died—smitten by a thunderbolt.
And what we have said of Balder in the oak forests of Scandinavia may perhaps, with all due diffidence in a question so obscure and uncertain, be applied to the priest of Diana, the King of the Wood, at Aricia in the oak forests of Italy. He may have personated in flesh and blood the great Italian god of the sky, Jupiter, who had kindly come down from heaven in the lightning flash to dwell among men in the mistletoe—the thunder-besom—the Golden Bough—growing on the sacred oak in the dells of Nemi. If that was so, we need not wonder that the priest guarded with drawn sword the mystic bough which contained the god’s life and his own. The goddess whom he served and married was herself, if I am right, no other than the Queen of Heaven, the true wife of the sky-god. For she, too, loved the solitude of the woods and the lonely hills, and sailing overhead on clear nights in the likeness of the silver moon looked down with pleasure on her own fair image reflected on the calm, the burnished surface of the lake, Diana’s Mirror.
Before that, he also pointed out how halloween bonfires and corn gods establish a sort of dying-and-rising god motif build on the shifts in nature that led to an attempt to control it with human sacrifice.
- Theden — The prince is
- Feochen — livestock
- Orden — literally ord meaning word but also point and en so “beginning and end.” As in that’s the point.
- Hepten — seven (Chandrian)
- Chaen — do not be
- Felling — cutting down tree or breaking tree
- Reaving — to steal spoils and plunder
- Kindling — either “into kindling” or “with kindling” leads to fire
- Mourning — …and mourning
Or, put another way:
Thaw — is what happens to ice that melts. And the thing that melts it is its love for that which heats:
Caitlyn — is the English form of Katherine which either comes from the Greek (via Etymonline):
Αικατερινη for either ‘Εκατερινη (Hekaterine), which came from ‘εκατερος (hekateros) “each of the two”; it could derive from the name of the goddess HECATE; it could be related to Greek αικια (aikia)”torture”; or it could be from a Coptic name meaning “my consecration of your name”. In the early Christian era it became associated with Greek καθαρος (katharos) “pure”, and the Latin spelling was changed from Katerina to Katharina to reflect this.The name was borne by a semi-legendary 4th-century saint and martyr from Alexandria who was tortured on a spiked wheel. The saint was initially venerated in Syria, and returning crusaders introduced the name to Western Europe. It has been common in England since the 12th century in many different spellings, with Katherine and Catherine becoming standard in the later Middle Ages.
That last bit should tickle the fancy of Tehlu fans. Assuming, again, that Rothfuss prefers layered meaning whenever possible, there’s no reason with my assumptions and tomorrow’s thesis that the day couldn’t mean all of these. But it’s of note that Hecate was the goddess of magic, crossroads, ghosts, and necromancy. Of particular import is that as Hecate Phosphorus (Venus) she lit the sky during the Siege of Philip II in 340, revealing the attack to the inhabitants. She’s a pre-Olympian chthonic goddess who was often depicted in three forms sharing the same body and requiring a holocaust. She’s essentially the liminal goddess. There’s tons of interesting stuff in the Wiki worth perusing.
Equis — As in the month of the horse. Also the day of the X — typically the things we draw over the eyes of emojis who have died. This will be important later on.
Solace — The month of comfort or consolation. For what? A death.
Lannis — “Lani” is Hawaiian for heaven.
Fallow — Is the thing we do to ground we plow and we harrow, but we leave unsown.
Reaping — Is the thing we do to a crop. As in the crop that matures in spite of being dragged to death by horses, mourned, gone to the afterworld, and left in the grave, but comes to life anyways. Kind of like a corn god.
Dearth — …And how even that falls short (at least in Rothfuss’ world) because it requires another death the moment it begins to Thaw again.
Kvothe is, I maintain, the priest-king (Theden) of Diana (likely Denna — Caitlyn) and has killed her former priest in place of a livestock sacrifice (Feochen). That’s the whole point (Orden). In loving her (Thaw) he likely provokes the wrath of Felurian (either Egeria or Artemis / Hepten) because he stops loving (meaning sleeping with — erros) all other women (he’s a bit nympho if you haven’t noticed). She has him dragged behind horses (not necessary, but with the month of Equis — unless it’s just X for dead — it’s fun to consider) and then Diana in her Solace rescues him from Lannis or he himself preserve his life (or death or soul) in a bit of gold or mistletoe inside a lockless box that can only be opened with an open sesame that itself contains thunder. She disguises his face so that he looks old, even though he’s young, and he hides (Fallow) at the outskirts of the empire defending her grove or oak (potentially the oak and wood of the Inn itself?) waiting for someone to break the taboo to try to destroy their married trees (Chaen) find his life in the gold or mistletoe or the egg, steal it (Reaving) and cast it at his feet, dying a second time (Reaping), becoming a human sacrifice (Kindling), provoking Mourning, and then being replaced by the next priest who will sit with the silence that’s a “patient, cut-flower sound of a man waiting to die.” (Dearth)
At which point high mourning ensues — the syncing of the day Mourning with high mourning.
In other words, it’s a story contained in the months of the year and the days of the week: the mythology behind our rituals and ways of counting time. Curious too that the Fae doesn’t have time so much as seasons you move around inside — different realms of the fae control different seasons and days.
It has beautiful potential for a story — and a world — particularly because he can get multiple uses out of it. He can do it for Yll, Modeg, Ademre, and Caeld. In each case using something like a new calendar to explain how the empire not only took away their language and currency, but also their mythology and therefore their religion. How the empire itself screwed up local contracts and traditions that the gods still own. How the things we use today like coins and flowers all have roots in mythology of local folk. It’s a postcolonial fantasy story, you see, which is needed now more than ever in America. Lord of the Rings was also postcolonial in its own right, though much heavier on the “post” side than anything. It’s a difficult story to write, so kudos to Rothfuss for even attempting it.
But it does have its drawbacks, primarily in the underlying assumptions. It’s the job of the critic — whether a mere amateur reflective reader like me or a professional like Granger — to judge first whether a given work of art is beautiful (Kingkiller is) and second whether a given work of art is true (Kingkiller may not be). I think in this case, if Rothfuss isn’t satirizing the Golden Bough but holding it up as truth, The Name of the Wind is more beautiful than true. That is to say its main truth is in its beauty but is main beauty doesn’t lie within the propositions it asserts: everything in the book seems to be well and beautifully said but the main point, assuming he agrees with Frazer. The main point, in my estimation, is a bad point well told. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for tragedy.
But it does mean that all myths aren’t the golden bough or all ideas of sacrifice come down to Diana’s grove.
Again, assuming Rothfuss agrees with Frazer in the end.
Let me respond to Frazer and not to Rothfuss, because we don’t know for sure what Rothfuss is doing yet:
For one, the idea of comparative mythology is itself colonial — a thing of empire. It’s a tu quoque fallacy. The emperor who gathers gods into his pantheon as he gathers languages and currencies and everything else says in his jingoistic way, “These are all common in American” meaning “I know how to govern and take care of economy and communicate and worship and you do not.” And the student (and scholar, if they can be called that) of comparative mythology says, “These all are common in uneducated societies that believe in magic” meaning of course, “I have the answer to your magic and folklore and you do not.” Thor is not Jupiter, but we can’t tell the difference because both got turned into idols. That is to say that mythology is not religion, for the religion goes deeper and older and doesn’t start with fictions but direct encounters. Ultimately, people in this category of comparative mythology make the same mistake of people in comparative religion, which is to say that listing things and showing how they’re alike eliminates their distinctions. Per Chesterton:
“We are accustomed to see a table or catalogue of the world’s great religions in parallel columns, until we fancy they are really parallel. We are accustomed to see the names of the great religious founders all in a row: Christ; Mahomet; Buddha; Confucius. But in truth this is only a trick, another of these optical illusions by which any objects may be put into a particular relation by shifting to a particular point of sight. Those religions and religious founders, or rather those whom we choose to lump together as religions and religious founders, do not really show any common character. The illusion is partly produced by Islam coming immediately after Christianity in the list; as Islam did come after Christianity and was largely an imitation of Christianity. But the other eastern religions, or what we call religions, not only do not resemble the Church but do not resemble each other. When we come to Confucianism at the end of the list, we come to something in a totally different world of thought. To compare the Christian and Confucian religions is like comparing a theist with an English squire or asking whether a man is a believer in immortality or a hundred-per-cent American. Confucianism may be a civilisation but it is not a religion.”
…”I confess I doubt the whole theory of the dissemination of myths or (as it commonly is) of one myth. It is true that something in our nature and conditions makes many stories similar; but each of them may be original. One man does not borrow the story from the other man, though he may tell it from the same motive as the other man. It would be easy to apply the whole argument about legend to literature; and turn it into a vulgar monomania of plagiarism. I would undertake to trace a notion like that of the Golden Bough through individual modern novels as easily as through communal and antiquated myths. I would undertake to find something like a bunch of flowers figuring again and again from the fatal bouquet of Becky Sharpe to the spray of roses sent by the Princess of Ruritania. But though these flowers may spring from the same soil, it is not the same faded flower that is flung from hand to hand. Those flowers are always fresh.
“The true origin of all the myths has been discovered much too often. There are too many keys to mythology, as there are too many cryptograms in Shakespeare. Everything is phallic; everything is totemistic; everything is seed-time and harvest; everything is ghosts and grave-offerings; everything is the golden bough of sacrifice; everything is the sun and moon; everything is everything. Every folk-lore student who knew a little more than his own monomania, every man of wider reading and critical culture like Andrew Lang, has practically confessed that the bewilderment of these things left his brain spinning. Yet the whole trouble comes from a man trying to look at these stories from the outside, as if they were scientific objects. He has only to look at them from the inside, and ask himself how he would begin a story. A story may start with anything and go anywhere. It may start with a bird without the bird being a totem; it may start with the sun without being a solar myth. It is said there are only ten plots in the world; and there will certainly be common and recurrent elements. Set ten thousand children talking at once, and telling tarradiddles about what they did in the wood, and it will not be hard to find parallels suggesting sun-worship or animal worship. Some of the stories may be pretty and some silly and some perhaps dirty; but they can only be judged as stories. In the modern dialect, they can only be judged aesthetically. It is strange that aesthetics, or mere feeling, which is now allowed to usurp where it has no rights at all, to wreck reason with pragmatism and morals with anarchy, is apparently not allowed to give a purely aesthetic judgement on what is obviously a purely aesthetic question. We may be fanciful about everything except fairy-tales.”
This is just one of Frazer’s contemporaries writing a critique of him. And that’s just the problem. Most people associate Frazer with comparative mythology just as they associate Campbell with comparative mythology and therefore they find them in an assigned class or on an assigned shelf in the library. They do not seek out those who critique — and therefore do not believe — comparative mythology. It’s a classic silo problem: if I want to study how to be a good democrat, the last thing I think to do is to read republican critiques of bad ones. If I want to study comparative mythology, the last thing I think to do is to ask whether or not there’s anything similar at all. Chesterton’s only the surface, (though the first two of his critiques of this philosophy are worth quoting in full — you can download those here). Many, many others, ancient and modern, critique this philosophy. I’m also thinking of N.T. Wright’s seminal work comparing the historicity of resuscitation, resurrection, and revival, in which he compares more dying and rising god motifs than Frazer and does it in a much, much deeper way — one connected to history rather than a disjointed series of tellings loosely associated with one another. Therefore he’s, frankly, a much more reliable historian. That’s just two among a great cloud that comparative mythologists
It could be that Rothfuss is satirizing even the Golden Bough. It could be he’s making precisely Chesterton’s point.
I hope he is, but I doubt it, precisely because so few people seem to even know what The Golden Bough is and for one, shared experience is required for satire. It would be much, much easier for him to satirize The Hero’s Journey which, in a way, is the opposite of a landlocked priest. For another, very, very few people have read enough Chesterton to even find the above critiques — I say that as someone who has read more of Chesterton than all of the friends I have with PhDs in literature and philosophy and theology and I have barely even scratched the surface of Chesterton. The guy wrote a hell of a lot — it’s daunting.
If that’s the case of just one of the critiques of The Golden Bough, what about others? My point is that most people don’t realize those texts even exist, let alone critiques of those texts in long form.
We’ll see what happens.
For now, that’s all I have to say about two phrases:
It was Felling night.
A man who is waiting to die.
Kvothe has killed a king-priest.
Kvothe is now a priest.
Kvothe is now a king — The King of the Wood.
Kvothe has broken a tree with thunder and fire in mistletoe or a golden bough and will inevitably become a broken tree.
More to come. Grab hold of 13 assumptions for any Kingkiller Reread, if you haven’t.