Here are two titles for booksellers to shelve under Fantasy. Both follow the adventures of an essentially good though morally (slightly) complicated hero around a medievalised imaginary world. Both embody a sort of under-narrative about revenge, upon which are constructed varied and peripatetic adventures. There is, in both books, Evil to be combated, magic to be performed, and artefacts that have special powers. One (the Rothfuss) is an example of a genre pretty much wholly invented and defined by the other (Tolkien). Nevertheless they are absolutely as different from one another as could be imagined. One of these is, in its way, a great book. The other is a competently constructed time-whileawayer. See if you can guess which description fits which novel.
Rothfuss's tale, or yarn, or tome, or whichever term you prefer, concerns Kvothe—pronounced, we're told, 'nearly the same as "Quothe"'—who is the hero of all and the narrator of most of this sumo-sized volume. Living incognito as a humble tavern-owner in a quiet backwater, he's tracked down by a chap named Chronicler, who wants to write down Kvothe's heroic life story. Chronicler, actually, is attacked on the road by nasty evil-magic ceramic spider beasts (Kvothe rescues him) and whilst he is convalescing he transcribes our hero's story—which, with occasional interjections or requests for clarification from Chronicler, fills up almost all the rest of the book.
It's a varied and eventful tale. We get an account of our hero's childhood in a troupe of travelling players; his growing-up, his achievements and his reverses (he spends a time as a street-rat-kid in a crime-riddled city), and we get his ambition to enrol in a legendary university of magic and learn the true names of all things so that he can control them. His destiny is to become "the greatest magician the world has ever known." But it's not a straightforward path. It wouldn't be much of a story if it were.
Readers with even the most rudimentary experience of the genre will recognise all these elements from other books, and Rothfuss is clearly aware of the danger of staleness. Accordingly he tries to inoculate his book against accusations that it is merely derivative. From one of the sections where Kvothe reflects on his own story:
'I was wondering why you didn't go looking for Skarpi?' ...
Kvothe drew a deep breath and sighed. 'The simplest reason is the least satisfying one, I suppose. The truth is this: I wasn't living in a story.'
'I don't think I'm understanding you, Reshi,' said Bast.
'Think of all the stories you've heard, Bast. You have a young boy, the hero. His parents are killed. He sets out for vengeance. What happens next?'
Bast hesitated, his expression puzzled. Chronicler answered the question instead. 'He finds help. A clever talking squirrel. An old drunken swordsman. A mad hermit in the woods. That sort of thing ... he finds the villains and kills them.'
Kvothe leaned forward. 'If this were some tavern tale, all half-truth and senseless adventure ... but whilst that might make for an entertaining story, it would not be the truth. The truth is this ...' (pp.304-5)
This is the author patting the reader on her shoulder, saying "fools may be content with the old storytelling clichés, but you and I have more sophisticated tastes ..." Except that it's a lie: not only is Kvothe's tale thoroughly storybook in every particular, even the opposition invoked here between real and "literary" is precisely a device, a storytelling trick used by innumerable writers, not least Tolkien himself in The Lord of the Rings (Sam and Frodo, you'll remember, discuss how the heroic tale of their quest would differ from the actual hardships they are experiencing).
Rothfuss is a skilled writer, with good storytelling instincts and the ability to drop just enough specific detail into his worldbuilding to make his Central Casting characters come alive (or at least half-alive, like Pinnochio dolls), but not so much that it bogs down the narrative or bores the reader. There's nothing wearisome here, except possibly the sheer weight of the book itself in one's hands; overall it's a smooth-rolling reading experience that passes the time, is fairly entertaining, and has a few moments of excitement. But here's the thing: it's a fundamentally cosy book. It flatters the reader. It winks at her, promising her the real thing rather than some sanitised storybook version, at the same time sanitising anything that might genuinely unsettle, or unnerve, or wrongfoot her readerly expectations. It, like many works of contemporary fantasy, panders to a sort of imaginative tourism, a safe entry into an escapist imaginative space defined by its reassuring familiarity. Cosiness is a good quality in sweaters. It is not a merit in books.
I read The Name of the Wind as a bound proof. The cover of this pre-edition is as black as Spinal Tap cover art, save only for a white-printed letter from Elizabeth R. Wollheim, DAW's "President and Publisher." Now, the purpose of this letter is to let booksellers know what a great book The Name of the Wind is:
You hold in your hands an Advance Reading Copy of the most brilliant first fantasy novel I have ever read in over thirty years as an editor. After reading the first hundred pages of Patrick Rothfuss' THE NAME OF THE WIND, I knew I had to publish this book.... A tale told in classic high fantasy style, THE NAME OF THE WIND is a masterpiece that carries a fresh and earthy originality all its own. It transports the reader to the interior of a wizard's soul and to the world that helped create him. It is the story of a legendary hero and the truth that lies behind his legend. Kvothe is a genuine hero created to walk alongside the greatest heroes of our imagination.... Join me in welcoming a writer who ranks with Tad Williams, George R R Martin, Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan and Terry Brooks as a great writer of high fantasy. Exciting and rousing, intimate and personal, THE NAME OF THE WIND doesn't just describe what it is to be heroic, it is heroic.
There's a slight awkwardness in praising the book for its "fresh and earthy originality all its own" and then listing the authors (Williams, Martin, Goodkind, Jordan, Brooks) of whom it is—as she rightly says—very very reminiscent. But we understand that this is a kind of code, and we take it as such. It says "you like Robert Jordan? You'll like this!"—information presumably useful for people who still enjoy Robert Jordan despite having wheeled themselves all the way to the end of his enormous, time-sucking series. I suppose there are such people in the world. That's not the problem I have with this letter. The problem I have with this letter is this part:
A tale told in classic high fantasy style ...
But no. The Name of the Wind is a tale told in the bourgeois discursive style familiar from the modern realist novel. A passage picked at random:
I settled onto the stone bench under the pennant pole next to my two friends.
"So where were you last night?" Simmon asked too casually.
It was only then that I remembered that the three of us had planned to meet up with Fenton and play corners last night. Seeing Denna had completely driven the plan from my mind. "Oh God, I'm sorry Sim. How long did you wait for me?"
He gave me a look.
"I'm sorry," I repeated, hoping I looked as guilty as I felt. "I forgot."
Sim grinned, shrugging it off. "It's not a big deal." (p.427)
This could be three pals from any novel set in the 20th or 21st centuryl; and hundreds and hundreds of similar passages serve only to show the author has not entered into the pre-industrial medieval mindset that his medieval pre-industrial world requires—to, for example, understand the crucial point that not guilt ("I looked as guilty as I felt") but shame was the key moral dynamic for the period. But to understand that would involve shifting about the psychological portraiture of the entire project; it would have meant writing characters less like, and therefore less appealing to, a 21st-century readership disinclined to make the effort to encounter the properly strange or unusual.
This speaks to a broader state of affairs in which style—the language and form of the novel—is seen as an unimportant adjunct to the "story." It is not. A bourgeois discursive style constructs a bourgeois world. If it is used to describe a medieval world it necessarily mismatches what it describes, creating a milieu that is only an anachronism, a theme park, or a WoW gaming environment rather than an actual place. This degrades the ability of the book properly to evoke its fictional setting, and therefore denies the book the higher heroic possibilities of its imaginative premise.
The Children of Húrin, on the other hand, does feel real. It's a book by a man who knew intimately not only the facts and paraphernalia but the mindset, values, and inner life of his relevant historical period—more Dark Age than medieval, this time, but assuredly not modern. The most obvious, although certainly not the only, level on which this registers is that of the style, which actually does approach the classic elevation that Wollheim wrongly identifies in Rothfuss. The Children of Húrin's syntax is compact, declarative and unafraid of inversion ("Great was the triumph of Morgoth"). Its vocabulary is almost entirely purged of words not derived from Old English sources: so much so that the occasional Anglo-French term—for instance, the phrase "Petty-dwarf" with its petit-derived qualifier—jars a little. More, it is a prose written with a careful ear for the rhythms of English; a prose with a very satisfying balance of iambic and trochaic pulses, sparingly leavened with unstressed polysyllables (it reads well aloud). It also distils frequently into compact phrases of surprising resonance and power. Here is the seven-year-old Túrin in conversation with the family servant Sador and trying to come to terms with the death (from sickness) of his beloved little sister Lalaith:
'Then Lalaith will not come back?' said Túrin. 'Where has she gone?'
'She will not come back,' said Sador. 'But where she has gone no man knows; or I do not.'
'Has it always been so? Or do we suffer some curse of the wicked King, perhaps, like the Evil Breath?'
'I do not know. A darkness lies behind us and out of it few tales have come ... it may be that we fled from the fear of the Dark, only to find it here before us, and nowhere else to fly to but the Sea.'
'We are not afraid any longer,' said Túrin, 'not all of us. My father is not afraid, and I will not be; or at least, as my mother, I will be afraid and not show it.'
It seemed then to Sador that Túrin's eyes were not the eyes of a child, and he thought: 'Grief is a hone to a hard mind.' (p.43)
That last eight-word phrase has a poetic feel in part because the unfamiliar formality and alliteration of Tolkien's style provides us with some of the estrangement that poetry does; and partly because its rhythm (two dactyls and a spondee) make it sound like the second half of a Homeric hexameter. It's appropriate, too, encapsulating in little the theme of the novel as a whole; the way a heroic temper such as Túrin's responds to continual hardship and grief by becoming harder and more edged. Which is a roundabout way of saying that Tolkien was a very skilled writer of this sort of prose.
The Children of Húrin is set in Tolkien's First Age, thousands of years before the events of the Third-Age Lord of the Rings. There are no hobbits, wizards, ents, or Tom Bombadils. There are, however, elves, men, and orcs—lots of the latter. Sauron is mentioned in passing, because at this point in Tolkien's imaginary history Sauron is only the lieutenant of a far greater evil: Morgoth, or Melkor, a character who is, essentially, Satan himself. Húrin, a man from Mithrim, takes part in the battle of Nirnaeth Arnoediad, in which elves and men confront Morgoth's hordes. The bad guys win. Captured by Morgoth, Húrin's family is cursed, and then he is tormented by being placed in a magic chair that preserves him from death and compels him to watch as this curse works its malign influence upon his wife, son, and daughter. This takes us up to chapter 3 (of 18). Most of the rest of this book is given over to Húrin's son Túrin, and a little bit to his daughter Niënor.
In the two paragraphs below I outline the story, with many spoilers; but I have fewer qualms about this than I otherwise might because the story will already be familiar to many people. For one thing, it has appeared in print before: Tolkienist Michael Drout (at his blog Wormtalk and Slugspeak) tabulates previous publications:
1977 in The Silmarillion as "Of Túrin Turambar" (prose)
1980 in Unfinished Tales as "Narn i Hîn Húrin" (prose)
1984 in The Book of Lost Tales, Part II as "Turambar and the Foalókë" and "The Nauglafring" (prose)
1985 in The Lays of Beleriand as "The Lay of the Children of Húrin" (verse in alliterative long-lines)
1994 in The War of the Jewels as "The Wanderings of Húrin" (prose)
For another, the story itself is an amalgamation of a number of celebrated mythic precedents: one is the story of Kullervo from the Finnish epic Kalevala; the other is Siegfried from the Nibelungen epic. But where the familiarity of Rothfuss's story registers as belatedness and tiredness, the familiarity of Tolkien's gives it the resonance and inevitability of myth.
The book traces the increasingly terrible lives of Húrin's children under the withering curse of Morgoth. Son Túrin is high-minded, noble, taciturn, and darkly charismatic. Daughter Niënor is a much less successful piece of characterisation, little more than a passive beauty (it's almost as if Tolkien can't do women...). Túrin flees his northern home and takes refuge for a time with the elves, who love him; but his haughty manner and his disinclination to speak up for himself leads to him being—unjustly—banished. Armed with a terrible and magical black sword, he takes up with some outlaws, leads men, becomes a prince of the hidden city of Nargothrond, and finally—in some very powerful chapters given added heft by the sheer density and momentum Tolkien's focussed prose accumulates as it goes along—fights and kills the terrible dragon Glaurung.
But Túrin's destiny is consistently infelicitous. His pride contributes to the fall of the city he is sworn to defend; he accidentally kills his best friend; and later he inadvertently marries and impregnates his sister who, when she learns what has happened, drowns herself in a river. At various moments in the narrative Túrin comprehends what he has done, and is driven from his wits; but he recovers them, propelled as he is by the ferocity of his will to revenge. But after this last incestuous transgression has been revealed to him by the dying Glaurung, he finally gives up.
Then he drew forth his sword, and said: 'Hail, Gurthang, iron of death, you alone now remain! But what lord or loyalty do you know, save the hand that wields you? From no blood will you shrink. Will you take Túrin Turambar? Will you slay me swiftly?'
And from the blade rang a cold voice in answer: 'Yes, I will drink your blood, that I may forget the blood of Beleg my master, and the blood of Brandir [Túrin's best friend] slain unjustly. I will slay you swiftly.'
Then Túrin set the hilts upon the ground, and cast himself upon the point of Gurthang, and the black blade took his life. (p.256)
This is based on Kullervo's suicide, also preceded by a conversation with his magical sword. Moorcock's Elric is only one of many contemporary fantasy variants of this venerable notion.
The Children of Húrin is relatively short; novella length, although published here in a thoroughly gorgeous volume (lovely paper, beautiful typeface generously spaced, a fold-out two-tone map, and eight handsome full-colour illustrations from Alan Lee) that has been plumped-up with a preface, introduction, note on pronunciation, family trees, and a couple of appendices. I knew the story before I picked it up, but I read it nevertheless with enormous and unexpected pleasure. It commanded my full attention and it generated the emotional charge of a much longer novel. It is a tragedy, not in the Aristotelian sense (for there is precious little catharsis here) but in the northern-European sense of humans encountering an overwhelming fate with defiance. And that is at the heart of Tolkien's conception of heroism; precisely not achievement, but a particular and noble-hearted encounter with failure; not how you triumph, but the spirit with which you resist the fate you know to be unavoidable.
The question is whether Tolkien's style here is accessible enough to attract the sort of readership likely to enjoy Rothfuss's more calculated blandness of tone. Or to put it another way: what must a writer of Fantasy do to reach the many Fantasy fans whose potential enjoyment of (say) Njal's Saga or Chrétien de Troyes is blocked by the works' archaic style? How to make a bridge between our modern sensibilities and the medieval matter? Rothfuss's solution, for good and ill, and mostly for ill, is simply to write the pre-modern as if it is modern. In The Silmarillion Tolkien was widely criticised for writing his antique matter in an unadorned antique style ("like the Old Testament," reviewers complained; although actually it is rather unlike the Bible in tone and much more like the northern Sagas). Plenty of ordinary readers couldn't stomach it, although Old English specialists and medievalists, who are used to reading this kind of thing, usually speak of the book in much warmer terms.
The Lord of the Rings was amongst other things one attempt at a solution to this problem, constructed by braiding together modern perspectives (the cosy bourgeois hobbits) and pre-modern (the medieval Gondor, the Old English Rohan), not only in terms of story but style—the hobbit chapters are of course written with a kind of early-20th-century contemporaneity of narratorial voice, where the later sequences inhabit a more antiquated and high-flown idiom, full of inversions, dated vocabulary, invocative and rhetorical stiffness, although at the same time rather splendid and suitably heroic.
But it's surprising how few writers have attempted to imitate Tolkien's stylistic strategy in this, although of course they have stolen plenty of other things from his writing. There are other ways of tackling this problem: for instance, rather than sacrifice a modern style many Fantasy writers have given up the medieval setting: there's clearly no problem with using a 19th-century novelistic voice to describe a basically 19th-century world, as in the work of Ian MacLeod and China Miéville. But though vibrant this remains, I suppose, a minor part of the market for Fantasy; Wollheim pitches her "Dear Bookseller" letter at a climate she knows is still hungry for Heroic Fantasy.
Heroic Fantasy, we know, takes as its setting a pre-industrial world, in which some of the conveniences accorded to modern humanity by machines fall within the purview of magic, whilst others are dispensed with altogether. The former strategy enables escapist fantasy about the empowerment of magical skill; but the latter strategy also enables escapism, by giving the readers access to an earthier, more authentic, more empowered, more physical existence than they have as pale wageslaves snagged in the webs of Civilisation And Its Discontents.
Now, the standard defence of escapism goes something like this: "what's wrong with escapism? Who is it that opposes escape? Jailers!" It's an incomplete logic, although there is a grit of truth in it. If you are a parent, and your teenage child spends eight hours a day upon their bed in heroin-induced lassitude as a strategy for escaping the anomie of modern teenagerdom, you don't need the soul of a jailer to want him, her, to stop. Art is about modes of engagement with the world, not modes of avoiding it. The key thing is that some forms of engagement are liberating, and others enslaving; and simple "distraction" falls under the logic of the latter.
Escapism isn't a very good word, actually, for the positive psychological qualities its defenders want to defend; it's less a question of breaking one's bars and running away (running whither, we might ask?); it's more about keeping alive the facility for imaginative play, that faculty that only a fool would deny is core to any healthy psychological makeup. Kids are good at play, and have an unexamined wisdom about it; adults, sometimes, forget how vital it is. What's wrong with Art that insists too severely on pressing people's faces against the miseries of actual existence is not that we shouldn't have to confront Darfur or Iraq, poverty or oppression; it's that such art rarely gives us the imaginative wiggle room to think of how things might be improved, or challenged, or even accepted. Imaginative wiggle room, on the other hand, is something SF/Fantasy is very good at.
An art that simply depresses is liable to be an ineffective art because it will tend, by putting people off, to disable rather than enable imaginative engagement. But even more depressing than reading Celan on the Holocaust is reading the blithe, upbeat, escapist holocaust-fiction of (say) the Left Behind series. I am not, in this review, saying that Tolkien is simply a better writer than Rothfuss; although, as it happens, I think he is. But Rothfuss is certainly an accomplished storyteller; it's just that he has not thought-through the implications of writing Heroic Fantasy in the way Tolkien did.
The irony is that the readers who read Fantasy because they want the uplift of a heroism with which they can identify—and who believe that heroism has no place in the modern world—are actually reading about precisely modern heroes. Kvothe, an individual who overcomes various life obstacles to triumph has plenty in common with Lance Armstrong or that guy in The Pursuit of Happyness. His is a didactic and a feel-good heroism. Túrin, on the other hand, is an individual who fights against a doom greater than he, despite knowing that he cannot win, simply because defiance in the teeth of an inevitable doom is the strength given to humans. His world—where triumph and glory are localised and temporary, and always give way to subsequent defeat—is in the deepest sense our world. That is what it means to be mortal. We are all going to die; it's demeaning to waste our energy in schemes or fantasies that tell us otherwise. What matters, as with Túrin, is the character with which we face that annihilation. Of the two heroisms presented by these books, his is the greater; and the most relevant.
Adam Roberts is a writer and critic of SF. He lives a little way west of London.