Is there any news, Reshi? – (A Contrast of The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear – Chapter 1)

I’m taking a break today from the University 411/811 blog to read some fantasy fiction. I’m not sure how long I’ll keep up a running commentary of a comparison between Book 1 and 2 of Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles (which I began here), but for now it’s amusing me to see the similarities and contrasts.

“A Place for Demons”, Chapter One of The Name of the Wind, begins simply

It was Felling night, and the usual crowd had gathered at the Waystone Inn. Five wasn’t much of a crowd, but five was as many as the Waystone ever saw these days, times being what they were.

Old Cob was filling his role as storyteller and advice dispensary. The men at the bar sipped their drinks and listened. In the back room a young innkeeper stood out of sight behind the door, smiling as he listened to the details of a familiar story.

The Name of the Wind, p. 3

It’s an interesting way to introduce the hero of the story. “A young innkeeper,” no other identifying markers except age and job title. He’s not even in the scene, but standing just out of sight, listening to the events on stage – the gossip and folktales relayed by his 5 customers – and not contributing anything himself until two pages later. When he does speak, his customers evidence surprise: “The men at the bar seemed surprised to see Kote standing there. They’d been coming to the Waystone every Felling night for months and Kote have never interjected anything of his own before” (p 5). It’s almost comical, that the minor characters in this story are shocked to see the protagonist and to hear him speak. It’s also noteworthy that it takes 5 pages before the readers are even introduced to our hero’s name. Of course, as the narrative continues, Rothfuss fully puts his reader through their paces in interrogating the protagonist’s actions as heroic. Kote’s uncertain status is established just a few sentences later, as the passage continues: “Not that you could expect anything else, really. He’d only been in town for a year or so. He was still a stranger” (5). We still have no details of Kote, except his name, that he’s a stranger, and he evidently has detailed knowledge of half-completed idioms, but brushes off this knowledge as “Just something I heard once” (p. 5).

The mystery of Kote only continues in chapter 1 as a missing companion joins them, hurt and bloodied, and carrying the body of the beast that attacked him, “a spider as large as a wagon wheel, black as slate” (p. 7). Kote immediately identifies the creature as as a “scrael,” cleans and sews up Carter with fourty-eight stitches, and takes the leads in identifying the scrawl as a “demon” by pressing a piece of iron on the body. In each case, Kote attempts to hide his authority as knowledge-keeper by dismissing them: as sources of gossip (a traveller told him about the scrael); or a common saying (that demons react to iron); or by telling his student-companion Bast to spread a rumour about (in this case, that his grandfather was a caravan guard, as explanation for his stitching skills). He also confirms in his conversation with Bast that he made sure they properly disposed of the scrawl (burning it in a fire made of rowan wood and then burying in a pit that was at a suitable depth): “They took it to the priest. He did all the right things for all the wrong reasons” (p. 12). That Kote knows more than a priest, a person who holds secret, divine knowledge, suggests that Kote is at once more learnéd than a person who puts their stock in faith, while also functioning as a figure who had knowledge of deep mysteries itself. The question on hand, after all, is the presence and explanation of a *demon* and while the reader – like the minor characters – might be considering explanations for this mysterious beast, the fact that it reacted to iron in a physical way (smoke arising from burnt flesh where the iron touch), gives the reader a sense of a supernatural mystery that the novel in their hands will hopefully give some answers to. Taken together, the reader is also quick to pick up on the clues that Rothfuss lays out: that our hero is a skilled and knowledgeable person that is in hiding. Rothfuss makes this plain when he finally introduces Kote properly on page 10:

He called himself Kote. He has chosen the name carefully when he came to this place. He has taken a new name for most of the usual reasons, and for a few unusual ones as well, not the least of which was the fact that names were important to him.

The Name of the Wind, p. 10

Who then is Kote? What is his real name, and why did he take a new name? One presumes that the “usual reasons” are because he’s hiding, but hiding from what? And why are names important to him? Clearly there is something significant here, given the title of the book: The Name of the Wind.

In contrast to The Name of the Wind, Chapter One of The Wise Man’s Fear (“Apple and Elderberry”) sets a slightly different mood. As I discussed when examining both prologues, while the beginning notes in The Name of the Wind worked together as a “complement” (NotW p.1), The Wise Man’s Fear adds a “counterpoint” (WMF p.1 ), another layer to the melody. Instead of a scene set at night with a nearly-empty room (5 customers with Kote off-stage), we begin in the morning, in early dawn, with Bast standing in that same room alone and bored. The set piece stays the same, but the scene has changed. Instead of fanciful gossip of demons – “The word ‘demon’ was being spoken, but it was with smiles half-hidden behind raise hands” (NotW p. 16) – we move now to the very real and serious aftermath of a man’s death – “Bad business last night. Chances are, that would be all Graham would had to say about the death of a man he had known his whole life” (WMF p. 7-8). There are echoes between both chapters in the form of gossip of serious topics, demons and death, but while the first is treated with half-amusement and small caution as both townspeople and the reader are unable to confirm fact from fiction, the latter is treated with proper gravitas as both the townspeople and the reader are contemplating the death of a man at the end of the previous novel. The note of this somber counterpoint is reinforced in the final paragraph of chapter 1 in WMF:

The only sounds were the rhythmic creak of the wood and the slow patter of the cider as it ran into the bucket below. There was a rhythm to it, but no music, and the innkeeper’s eyes were distant and joyless, so pale a green they almost could have passed for gray.

The Wise Man’s Fear, p. 11

These final sentences of chapter one closes with a careful evocation of rhythm without music, a feeling of a joylessness, distant, grey, setting a mood similar to the one from NotW, but with a deeper resonance that conveys a forced and false normality.

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