As I sat down to re-read Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind (2007) last year, the title of the Prologue struck me as significant. A Silence in Three Parts. As I’ve read the book once before, I’m knew the importance the role of music played for the main character. Born into a travelling troupe, music formed an integral – and almost habitual – part of Kvothe’s early years. I also recalled (*spoiler*) how Kvothe responded to the loss of his family, how he spent nearly a year in solitude, not speaking, but with his father’s violin as his sole companion. Thus the title of the prologue, itself almost a contrast to the title of the first book (The Name of the Wind), seemed particularly poignant.
Unlike countless other Epic Fantasies, works that tend to overrely on lengthy prologues to set up the series, Rothfuss’s prologue fits onto one page. The prologue describes the “silence of three parts”. The first and the “most obvious part was a hollow, echoing quiet, made by things that were lacking” (p. 1). The paragraph describes a nearly-empty inn, one missing the hustle and bustle of busy taverns. The second silence comes from “a pair of men huddled at one corner of the bar. They drank with quiet determination, […] they added a small, sullen silence to the larger, hollow one. It made an alloy of sorts” (p. 1). Finally, the third silence was one difficult to discern, but emanated from a red-haired man: “it was the greatest silence of the three, wrapping the others inside itself. […] It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man waiting to die” (p. 1). Three heavy silences, which sets a tone of despair and dread right from the start. And yet, the descriptions reminded of another book, but not a Fantasy or a novel at all, but a children’s picture book, The Sound of Silence by Katrina Goldsaito and illustrated by Julia Kuo. There was one key difference though, between the silence presented by Rothfuss and Goldsaito, while Rothfuss’s silence is cold, aching, a death rattle, Goldsaito’s silence is one of peace, of anticipation and reverence:
The Japanese concept of ma is the silence between sounds. It’s the moment when musicians pause together,Goldsaito, Afterword to The Sound of Silence
It fascinated me (still does), the idea that silence, the absence of sound, can have such deeply nuanced meaning, to the extent that it could evoke two opposite and contradictory emotions in the hands of different artists.
While in most other Fantasy texts, the prologue offers important world-building information or historical information essential to the understanding of the plot, Rothfuss here takes a completely different approach. Admittingly, there are rumours that the entire Kingkiller Trilogy is itself a prologue to a larger series. If that’s the case, then Rothfuss makes a shrewd choice in presenting a prologue that establishes mood and tone, building atmsophere rather than providing further information. But the prologue also introduces the idea of sounds harmonizing together, complementing each other in a way that is, while not jarring, also not comfortable. Given the significance of sound, (music and speech) throughout the first book, it seems unlikely that Rothfuss presents this idea accidentally. However, I’m still trying to uncover the full significance of silence and sound in Rothfuss’s text. (A bit difficult, as, a decade after the publication of the last book, we still don’t have a firm release date for the final book of the trilogy.)
There are perhaps further clues in the prologue of book 2, The Wise Man’s Fears (2011). The prologue shares the same title and structure as the prologue of book 1. Here “A Silence of Three Parts” has shifted slightly. The first and third silences are still the same: the first, an “echoing quiet made by things that were lacking” (p. 1); the third, “holding the others inside itself. […] was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die” (p. 1). Thus we are still haunted by the empty Inn and a lifeless man, perhaps even more so as readers return eagerly to where we stopped with Kvothe’s narrative. But the second silence has changed. It comes from a man creeping through the inn, avoiding familiar creeking boards, “Each slow step made only the barest tep against the floor. In doing this he added his small, furtive silence to the larger echoing one. They made an amalgam of sorts, a counterpoint” (p. 1). While the second silence in the first book formed an alloy to the first, a complement, this silence forms its opposite: a counterpoint. Still a barely noticeable note, but one that adds texture to the silence. Here we move from “ma” to the first deep breath before the note is blown. This counterpoint adds another layer to the sound, or of Kvothe’s story, but this time Kvothe doesn’t own the silence as he did the first three. This silence comes from the furtive creeping of a man attempting to stay silent. It is Bast of course, creeping through the inn, and one wonders whether the note he is getting ready to play is a harmonious melody or a discordant one. In a sense, then, the prologue functions as almost a Greek chorus, one that foreshadows and reflects the events of each novel. Within 1 page, 2 pages if you count the prologue of both books, Rothfuss has managed to convey so much information simply by describing the sound of silence. The sound of ma is certainly a powerful one and Rothfuss uses it here to great effect.