I just finished reading Patrick Rothfuss’ novel The Name of the Wind. I had no less than six different people rave and tell me about the awesomeness of this book, who shared John Scalzi’s breathless review of it, and also heard about it on episode 2 of BoingBoing’s Gweek podcast. Normally this kind of passionate overflow is a turnoff, and out of sheer spite I will deny sharing in the flavor of the week. But I found myself in Toronto, with nothing to do for a day, and figured I would fall back on the thing I always do when I’m bored and have nothing better to do: go book shopping. So I picked up The Name of the Wind.
Like many fantasy stories this novel involves magic, monsters, faeries, music and food. And you can find synopses galore if you wish to find them. That’s not really what I want to talk about here. The story, while absolutely gripping, meant less to me than the subtext of the book and the mechanics of the world. I know that sounds incredibly dorky, but hear me out on this one. The Name of the Wind is more than just a story about a heroic bard who lived a hardscrabble life who rises to power and prominence. It is really the story about the power of language, the power of perception, and the knowledge of how to wield the two of them properly.
There are two moments in the city of Tarbean when narrators other than Kvothe begin a meandering tale down a road paved with religious mythology. The first is Trapis, who Kvothe believes may be a former priest of Tehlu. Trapis tells the story of how Tehlu bound Encanis to the iron wheel. Within that story there are elements of truth, but those elements are often obscured by the religious pretext of the story as it is told. Within this novel we never discover which of them is which, but there is a clear importance to the inclusion of this story. Secondly is the story told by Skarpi the wandering tale-teller in the pub. Skarpi tells the story of an ancient empire and the betrayal of Selitos by Lanre, and the founding of the Amyr knights. He concludes his story that Tehlu, their God, is but one of these many knights. This earns him the ire of the priesthood of Tehlu and he is escorted off stage to answer for crimes of heresy. The very explicit statement here is that the church may not be giving us the whole story. That for whatever reason they have chosen to believe and enforce the belief in an entirely separate mythos, where Tehlu is born of a virgin, descended of himself, and comes to this earth to cast out demons.
Who knows whether either of them is correct. But given that the story of Lanre is what led to the protagonist’s first dramatic loss, I think we can see which way the author is leaning. However, it’s not their correctness that is really the point, it’s their incompleteness. Each of them is a shadow of the truth. These stories are half-remembered whisperings of people who lived and fought and died eons before. If the chaos of the Archives* is any indicator, and I believe it is a huge one, it should just be assumed that no one really knows the truth of anything. The very few, who know oh so little, are the ones who have lost their minds in order to find that truth.
Much like Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea there is an intense focus on the power of naming things. However, unlike Earthsea the reality is that very few people understand or know these names. Much like the stories of ancient peoples, faeries, and Gods, the true names of things are lost to them. Only in brief glimpses of deep, deep understanding or subconscious upswell do any of these names come forth. They are primal. They are the foundation of the world. They are something more than a word. They are the very nature of being. In this sense Rothfuss is touching on the ineffable names of things we see in mystical traditions like Kabbalah, where inscribing a word of power on a clay mannequin would bring it to life, and removing a single letter would make it crumble to dust. This kind of understanding is something that the Kvothe has been pursuing all his life, however short that life has been at this early stage in his tale. But again, their understanding suffers, because the world has moved on, languages change and names of power are lost in the chaos of the world.
The other important element running through the novel is the discrepancy between outward appearance and interior nature. Kvothe, as a trouper, was skilled in the art of changing faces, being what he needed to be when he needed to. He forgets that skill early on, as a result of his young tragedy. But time heals all things and he regains his ability to become who he needs to be. My mind turns again to magic, specifically the art of glamour. This is a common faerie story element. The faeries appear to us as shining, beautiful creatures, haloed in light and full of grace and poise. And yet, when that glamour is cracked, the truth of what lies beneath is revealed and we see the dark and ugly things that they may be. People are not so different. Ambrose certainly may look like Prince Gallant, but he is a lech, a bully, and harbors murder in his heart. Kvothe on the other hand projects an image of steel, passionate fire, and sprinkles the school with tales of his unnatural heroism. Deep inside him, he has doubts, he questions his ability to do things, and yet in moments of crisis he is able to tap into his projected persona and make the miraculous happen. Sometimes these things will never be known, or never known in their truth.
All of these elements are woven into each other throughout the course of the novel. There are many things that we know. There are vast oceans of things that we don’t know. There are things that were known, but are lost to us. There are things that we believe we know, but which upon examination betray how much we don’t know.
The Name of the Wind asks the reader to develop his Alar so that he can believe that there is a fundamental, objective truth to all things and at the same time believe that he will both know it and never fully understand it. The stone will fall and it will fly away at the same time.
And that is why this book is brilliant.
* And oh yes, I was totally geeking out about the library. Especially the delicious madness of medieval filing systems, and the ineffability of subject analysis.