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The Name of the Wind cover

The Children of Hurin cover

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:

Dear Bookseller,

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.

Enjoy!

Elizabeth Wollheim

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.



Adam Roberts is a writer and critic of SF. He lives a little way west of London.
23 comments on “The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and The Children of Húrin by J.R.R. Tolkien”
Nick Hubble

A pleasure to read such a good account of Tolkien's enduring relevance. Heroism for mortals. Eucatastrophe: courage beyond meaning and, therefore, beyond fate.

Drew

I agree with this reviewer, but then again, as noted in the article, I am one of those readers of mythology and the Classics, and I loved "The Silmarillion".
It is a shame that so much of heroic fantasy is concerned with limiting itself to fun comic books in prose form, while the weighty, interesting and detailed writing of Tolkien has fallen out of vogue.

Drew: do you really think Tolkien has fallen out of vogue? The Children of Hurin is all over the bestseller lists in numerous countries, after all.

Hannah Strom-Martin

Hi Adam,
Wonderful article. You really get to the heart of why we love Tolkien and how his language is so essential to creating his secondary world. I also like the point about how a passage from Rothfuss, picked at random, could be put in any modern novel. Your analysis of language is exqusite!
I do think you're a bit hard on Mr. Rothfuss, though. I'd argue that cosiness can be an asset in books--though I define cosiness differently than you do for the purposes of your article. I liked the cosiness of Rothfuss's novel because fantasy has lately been innundated with ultra-realistic gritty fare, like Martin--which I love, but I also appreciate that NotW takes a different approach. By painting in broader strokes and focusing on whimsy I think the novel does manage to capture something like an old tale. Obviously it isn't in high speech like Tolkien (could any modern fantasist actually get away with writing like JRR these days, do you think?) but it has Tolkien's sweetness: meaning, it has a sense of innocence and wonder about it. You don't get that from Jordan much because his characters are so relentlessly irritable and petty, and most of Martin's characters are older and all their joys are tinged with former sorrows and a deep knowledge of their darkening world. Rothfuss though, obviously picked up on Tolkien's love of joy as embodied in music (the line about Denna's voice being "burning silver" is very Tolkienesque) and scenery (which got better as the novel progressed). In his own way I think, he has created a pleasant refuge from the cynicism (not that there's anything wrong with that!) of his bigger named contemporaries.
I really liked your analysis of "escapist" literature and how art should engage the imagination. I agree that Kvothe is a "feel good" hero and Turin's predicament has the more noble and compelling level of depth--but I wouldn't discount Kvothe's charisma and humor, which certainly enchanted me like a well cast spell. He may be feel good, but he isn't mind numbing. Rothfuss puts some subtle social social disadvantages in there for him to struggle against and gives him real feelings and tenderness (he loves those poor lutes of his!). His voice is indeed modern, but as a modern woman struggling with many of the same issues: how to get money and shelter, for instance, I have to say I relate and am pleased to find the burning issues of my generation (which is also Rothfuss's) have finally been embodied in a charismatic fantasy hero. If only my struggle to feed and clothe myself in the economic helplessness of the Bush Era were so appealing! Kvothe does indeed feel familiar and modernized, but who in these dark days doesn't crave the comfort of time well spent with an old friend? For some reason Kvothe recalls for me the warm feeling I get from LOTR--so I welcome his company. His voice is modern, but it is a *distinct* voice.
Anyway, loved your article. I've read other versions of Turin but have yet to find the time to settle down with the "new" Tolkien novel! Having read your piece I am going to demand the time from the universe to do so!
Cheers!
Hannah

Thank you for the thoughtful and positive review of the Tolkien. I had allowed my fear of Tolkien retreads to be reinforced by the mainstream take on this book. It's a long time since I've bought a book purely on the strength of one positive review, and even longer since I've sat down and read a book the day after buying it. That was a Sunday evening well spent.
Mind you, I find Tolkien's rolling prose and Anglo-Saxon language deeply comforting.

Brian

This is an excellent exploration, not just of Tolkien or of fantasy, but of how style and story must mesh, and what fantasy as a literary mode (actually, good literature of any genre) does or can do for its readers.
Style, to a large extent, creates story. And story is only fulfilled through style. While I haven't read "The Name of the Wind," the problem pointed out here is standard among modern writing. Many authors and editors today do not read widely outside their chosen genre or time and thus cannot really possess the literary styles of the past. That limits them in many ways, but certainly in their stylistic vocabulary. So of course they write in the styles of the books they do read, which, in our time, is most often a kind of ironic flippancy that makes profundity extremely difficult to achieve. In fact, I would say the most grievous error of our modern writing is an inability to vary tone, or style, to match or even create substance.
This isn't entirely the fault of the authors. They write what they hope will be published. And prose that an editor finds difficult to read is not going to get published.
Secondly, easy fantasy tales--the endless spew of supermarket paperbacks with their papercutter titles, covers, and plots--coddle the reader and leave her/him hungry for more; literary junk food. After finishing a deeper work one can't just grab another book off the rack for one's next elf-orc fix. One needs time to digest. The deeper tales, which I would characterize as less gratifying but more satisfying, will never be as popular (barring the odd exception, like LOTR itself, which, I would venture to propose, achieve vast popularity in inverse ratio to those readers willing to dig past the surface to the very disconcerting grit beneath). Most of us, most of the time, do not want to think. We prefer to be entertained. Thinking is difficult. Frightening. Dangerous. Exhausting. But exhilarating.
It's always been this way; for every "War and Peace" and "The Magic Mountain" there were a thousand "Prisoner of Zenda"s or "Dorothy of Haddon Hall"s. There's even a good argument to be made that it's the mass of easy reading that makes the more difficult work possible. And there's nothing wrong with a McBook, once in a while. It just shouldn't constitute one's sole source of nutrition.
A really well-done review. Very impressive.

Ronald Schleyer

As a student of Wissenschaft, which leapt up like a flaming sword ensouled eons, it seems, after the Age of which we speak, I was much-taken by this deep line of Sador: "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." May I say resolutely that this is a very impressive gathering up of the Soul's origin and fate, completely independent of religion in the normal guise.
The blind bard Homer, very familiar with the dark, if one might so venture, said nothing more (though nothing less) profound in his great poem on the Soul's wandering and true fate, we now being fully alive, as perhaps Tolkien was not quite enough, to the joyful evocation of the Living Idea encompassed by that little word "Sea"!

Kyle Paysnoe

You know what the great thing about writing fantasy is? You can create a world with midieval technology, Renaissance era fashion, modern era language, and Victorian era values. Now whether or not such a world would be convincing would be up to the skill of the writer. It would be easy to criticize such a fantasy world on the basis that it's not historically accurate, but the fact is, it's a FANTASY world. A reader shouldn't judge the realness of a world based on how well it fits with our historical knowledge of what that world was roughly based upon. Rather, a world's realness should be judged based upon the how well the writer works his story and characters within the logic of his own world. There needs to be consistency within the sometimes strange boundaries that a writer sets for a fantasy world. If people talk and hold modern values in a world that is midieval technologically, then, unless there is a reason explained in the story, most people in that world will do so. It may not be historically accurate, but its internally consistent, and that's what's important in a fantasy world. When authors have the liberty to create worlds with fictional elements like monsters and magic, why should they be suddenly restricted in regards to creation of their world's language and value system for the sake of realism that has already been undermined by the inclusion of said monsters and magic? Realism should always be taken within the context the author created, not in the context of real world history.
The bottom line is, I don't believe in the need to write like Tolkien in order to create a realistic fantasy world. I rather like the mishmash of different elements from different eras of our history being stuck into our fantasy world; it makes it seem more like fantasy and less like historical fiction. Going further, I actually think that creating a strange world that is more alien to our own can sometimes allow an author to better explore human issues in more interesting and poignant ways. Not all fantasy writers can be skilled linguists with intimate knowledge of midieval culture and values like Tolkien, but that shouldn't stop them from creating an imaginative world with characters that can have real depth, and issues that can represent real world issues both directly and metaphorically.

"You know what the great thing about writing fantasy is?" 'The' thing?
Let a thousand flowers bloom, a thousand schools of thought contend. I'm not sure you've entirely taken the force of my thesis, here; but that's OK. If you take what I'm saying to be 'you shouldn't enjoy Rothfuss! You shouldn't!' then of course you're going to react against it. I don't think I was saying that, but still.
Your argument here seems to be: it's OK for Fantasy to be inconsistent so long as it's not inconsistently inconsistent. Which doesn't wholly make sense to me. Specifically, you're saying it doesn't matter if there are large-scale inconsistencies in a Fantasy novel so long as it's 'internally' consistent, but I'm not sure I see the distinction. If Legloas, riding throught Rohan, pulled out a cell phone gave Gandalf a call, would that be a problem? If Gandalf has a phone as well, then it's internally consistent that characters carry cell phones. So that would be alright, then?
Fantasy novels are, in their way, exercises in historical writing. Of course, a writer may write them in ways that are innocent of History, or even ignorant of it; and may entertain many of her readers doing so. But to write better books, and even great books, will need some sense of history as more than just dressing-up and Disneyland castles.

Shaun

I appreciate your review on Tolkien, but I think you might be oversimplifying The Name Of The Wind. You say that the narrative suffers that its renaissance era world is told in a modern narrative. For one thing, I think this might be a genuine strength or an innovation in the genre, if it's not just the result of carelessness but expressed in a coherent, authentic world-building. Then, the narrative stands in several traditions of autobiographical romance harking back quite a long time, probably into the middle ages, thus actually linking the modern and the 'solemn' historical.
I just wanted to put these general theses forth, sorry if they're not adequately worked out or linguistically flawed (I'm no native speaker).

Freddy

Okay, just found this while browsing review for The Name of the Wind on Google. Although it is an old blog, what you wrote compelled me to write a comment.
Saying that you have to use Middle-age values, morals and way of talking because the story is set in the middle-ages is wrong. Which authors do this anyway? Tolkien did it, and that's who I know of, off the top of my head.
Remember, it is FANTASY. If it was a novel set in our middle-ages you would have a point. Now, I've read both of these books and enjoyed both, but Name of the Wind is probably one of the best fantasy books I've read. Tale of Hurin does not feel more real or right because Tolkien used Middle-age values and way talking etc. A fantasy world does not follow our time-period. What if there hadn't been more inventions from, say, year 1500 to our time, so that we would still live like people at that time, but that morals, values and way of talking developed and became less strict.
That's the problem with what you're saying. You're placing too much emphasis on how OUR middle-ages were. Besides, the reason you picked up on this was because some lady had reviewed it and said it was classic high fantasy style, which you clearly believe to be a la Tolkien. But is it? People like Jordan certainly didn't write like that. And I would say that's classic fantasy, at least how the story is built.
Anyway, it's not classic high fantasy style anyway, not in story or way of telling it. Just because this lady said so, doesn't make it so. I think you are too focused on how our own middle-ages were, when it's a fantasy world. I for one enjoyed the Name of the Wind much more than Tale of Hurin Turambar.

"that's who I know of, off the top of my head"
I can't argue with this level of expertise. I concede all your points, Freddy. You have comprehensively demolished all the points I made in my review.
"What if there hadn't been more inventions from, say, year 1500 to our time, so that we would still live like people at that time, but that morals, values and way of talking developed and became less strict?"
What indeed.

Freddy

That last bit; I meant if technology didn't advance like it had for us. And yeah, I could've used more time coming up with a response, but from what I saw your idea of a fantasy being consistent to the age it was set in is way too rigid. You compare it to ours, when it's another world (fantasy world), where things like technology, language, beliefs and values could've evolved differently.

The thing with consistency is that it's not a single, homogeneous thing. As Adam Roberts said, cell phones in the world of the Lord of the Rings would make no sense; there's no framework for them. In the same way, modern diction without modern lifestyles and institutions makes little sense in a medieval world. That's not to say that things need to exactly follow our own. It's possible to create a radically different world and do what you want with it. It's also possible to carefully alter aspects of our own to create a logical deviation from what we know, ala K.J. Parker. But every element of a world needs to be connected. If people think in a modern way, then that needs to effect how they behave, otherwise they're actors plopped into an unfamiliar set that they had no part in shaping.

Jay Sherman

We don't really know what the social norms would be like in a magical low tech world. That they would have our own current social norms though, is very unlikely. Most books to a very high degrees do go ahead and give the people our social norms. Just usually not quite as much as Rothfuss. But the further away you go from reality, the more likely you're:
1. wrong.
2. people just can't relate.

Alex

This was an excellent review and discussion!
I am currently doing a rough copy-edit of a book my friend is writing. He's of the Tolkien mind where language in the fantasy world should be reflective of the language of a similar time/era in our own history. This leads to complications for me, the reader. I have had to "google" so many heraldry terms that it interrupts the story.
The point? I think that part of telling a story is the consideration of your audience. If a doctor relates a story about a medical condition to a patient or to a fellow doctor, the words, language, and flow will be quite different. I like Rothfuss' writing because it allows me to focus on the story and not get stopped by the language.
That being said, I can see the appeal and artistry behind epic tales that use more medieval language. And, in a way, how this creates a world that is even more set apart...
Anyway, great discussion everyone! Thank you.

Ruzz

Nice. I'm not wholly convinced by the Tolkien analysis, if only because my love for the Lord of the Rings was increasingly eroded by the release of the back-catalogue. I appreciate that this is a wholly inadequate basis for dismissing CofH - and your ringing in endorsement has me tempted to order a copy and put my money where your mouth is.
But where I wholly agree with you is the Rothfuss analysis. And it is a relief to read what you've written because it makes me recognise the extent to which I've been trying to talk myself into enjoying the Rothfuss series more than I do. For what it's worth, I have enjoyed the Name of the Wind moderately, but it is the enjoyment of familiarity - the commedia dell'arte figures tread out the familar steps. You make some nice points about the way in which the mindset of the characters is both the innovation (sort of) but also the discord in the book.
I am conscious that I'm posting this looong after your original - and also at a time when the sequel to the NoWind has appeared, and has proved (for me) very meagre pickings (a nice review by Penny Arcade here: http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2011/4/11/ ). So thank you for your thoughts.

Xaios

It's worth noting that, while I'm not certain it was intended to be so, Ruzz's closing argument against The Name Of The Wind and The Wise Man's Fear is based on a false assumption, due to the fact that he probably didn't read the accompanying blog post, which can be found here: http://www.penny-arcade.com/2011/4/11/
While it's true that Mike and Jerry (aka Gabe and Tycho) were poking fun at the inherent silliness of that particular aspect of The Wise Man's Fear, they actually enjoy Patrick Rothfuss' books quite passionately. Gabe posted about his initial encounter with The Name Of The Wind here: http://www.penny-arcade.com/2010/3/3/name-wind/. This particular post was actually what inspired me to pick up The Name Of The Wind in the first place. Poking fun at the tropes of the video games and the works of those whose audiences bleed into their demographic is simply their modus operandi, and can't really be taken at face value.
Commenting on the subject of this post, I can see where you're coming from, but when I try to walk in your footsteps and follow your line of reasoning, I arrive at a different conclusion. I agree with you that fantasy literature should maintain a consistent internal logic, and that mixing post-modern morality with a medieval or even renaissance setting can very easily muddy the brand because it often times leads to cognitive dissonance. And you're right, Kvothe's sensibility does seem to be significantly out of step with those around him.
But in this case, it works. Kvothe's character is intended to be a veritable wunderkind from the very start, and the story goes to great lengths to explain that he's always had an almost unnatural savvy that surprises even his parents and his teachers. Kvothe is a man out of his time, and both he and everyone around him knows it. He's also accutely aware of his legend and infamy, which is why he's taking pains to explain how some of it was earned, but a great deal of it was the result of rumour and heresay. This is a great deal less fantastical than the stoic heroes that Tolkien tended to write about, because let's face it, how many great historical fiures were truly as flawless as they're venerated to be? If authors ought to be more mindful of historical consistency, as you say, shouldn't they be equally mindful of how fallacious historical accounts tend to be? Because if so, you're argument could then be reversed to say that MORE fantasy writers should approach the genre from Patrick Rothfuss' point of view, not less.
The point I'm trying to make (and I'm not really certain that I've made that point) is that both archetypes have their place. You already know that it's harder for people to truly enjoy stories featuring flawless heroic exemplars simply because they're harder to identify, and people will naturally tend to gravitate towards characters like Kvothe who, despite their setting, possess sensibilities that could translate into real-world people. But is that so wrong? You speak as if people who can't digest characters like Turin are of a lower societal caste than those who seek them out. I read Lord of the Rings when I was in high school and I found it to be incredibly boring. I may be mis-remembering, but from what I recall Tolkien simply couldn't grasp the scope of some of the events that he was writing about, such as the battle of helms deep. Reading that section of Two Towers, it felt like he was describing kids on a jungle gym, not the siege of a great fortress. And most of the characters were drawn in such broad "live by the sword, die by the sword, paragon of virtue, beacon of light to mankind" strokes, it just became tiresome. Kvothe on the other hand, despite his incredibly gifted nature, is clearly not perfect. His hubris and pride is often his undoing. However, if I recall, there was another great writer in the annals of history who wrote about how characters were often undone by their own pride and ambition. His name is Shakespeare, you may have heard of him.
(Sorry, I just had to throw that in, it's more a reference to Kvothe's catchphrase than anything.)
Anyways, I still found this blog post to be a fascinating read and, despite the fact that I don't agree with the conclusion you've arrived at, I've definitely learned something today and I have another tool in my chest with which to examine and understand the works that I endeavor to take in.
All the best.

Xaios

Heh, re-reading my post, I my line of thinking does tend to wander a bit. I guess that's why I'm neither an author nor a professional critic. 😉

Ruzz's closing argument against The Name Of The Wind and The Wise Man's Fear is based on a false assumption
No, it isn't. In fact, Ruzz doesn't have a closing argument, they simply say that they found Wise Man's Fear "very meagre pickings" and link approvingly to the Penny Arcade strip. Anything else Gabe and Tycho might have posted (and how they might actually feel about the series) is completely irrelevant.

CJ

Thankfully, the nature of the internet and the enduring interest of Tolkien's works do not demand contemporaneous dialogue 🙂 The internet will store the conversation with no regard for pauses, even long ones, and Tolkien will still be relevant.
I am at the place with a manuscript where I am deciding upon its flavor. For lack of a better word I use this one to convey a literal barrow-load of component parts with their own names all of which you already know.
I was curious about certain things, language style being one, and in this day and age when one can do such a thing, I typed in a few words at the Google water cooler and ended up here.
Fabulous essay. Thank you. I like intelligent discussion, even if I am sidelined by a need to read everything of value twice 🙂 Every intelligent argument you hear, pro or con, adds a layer to your understanding. Enough layers and you approach wisdom, or so is the lofty goal.
That said, I wanted to say this: (for no other reason than I had a Picard ... The line must be drawn here... moment while reading the comments)
The argument that fantasy is allowed to do what it pleases because it's fantasy is ... what? inane? boring?
Well, of course it can, authors may write what they want in any genre.
For goodness sake ...
But here's a thing: there IS a science to communication. In short, you can not only predict but, to some degree, control how people will respond to communication. Good communication is not just the words and the order in which they are put or the rhythm of their delivery ... it is their fundamental "rightness" in the context they are placed. The average human may not know WHY it feels wrong to say "Hail good man, wanna get a shake at McDicks, but first I must whisper to the three winds the secret words of enchantment." but s/he will certainly know it's wrong. So, while the fantasy writer can certainly make his or her own rules, it does s at the peril of that "rightness" that takes a fair/middling/good story with fair/middling/good writing to a great book.
Bottom line: You can mess with how worlds work - but you can't mess with how readers work.
All that long winded boo-ha-ha to say "gosh, that was a good read, thanks for writing it".

"Kvothe, an individual who overcomes various life obstacles to triumph has plenty in common with Lance Armstrong."
Indeed.

 

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