Who tells a hero’s tale?
We’ve had heroes since the dawn of time–from Achilles and Odysseus to Frodo and St. George, they’ve always been around to kill dragons and fight evil. But telling their own stories has never really numbered among their feats (almost as if storytelling were not a heroic skill, though Scheherazade would probably beg to differ). A blind bard sang of Odysseus’ peregrinations, Virgil paid homage to the founder of Rome, and, in our day, Tolkien told of Frodo and Bilbo. How different would our favorite stories have been if Luke Skywalker had been the one narrating his battle against the evil Empire? If Odysseus had been the one to brag about his deeds?
Kvothe, however, is an exception even among heroes. The man who’s talked to Gods, made the minstrels weep, and learned the name of the wind has managed a feat that few other heroes succeeded at: telling his own story. And, as a result, we get The Name of the Wind, which Patrick Rothfuss likes to call a hero’s story told from backstage.
The tale begins–insofar as one can say that something begins anywhere, because, as Rothfuss has made abundantly clear in his book, the beginning of a story is really hard to find–in a darkened inn, in a nondescript town in an unnamed magical land. An enthusiastic Chronicler, the one who’s debunked the myths about dragons and wants to find the truths behind legends, finds the red-haired man they once called Kvothe now hiding as an innkeeper by the name of Kote. Over three days (one day per book, with The Name of the Wind being the first of three), Kvothe tells his story.
In the process, he creates a cunning exploration of what we expect from heroes–or, rather, what we don’t. We expect heroes to kill dragons. We don’t really expect heroes to tell us about how they learned to wield the sword that killed the dragon, or about how much beer they had in the pub afterwards. That would be mundane. Or would simply pale in comparison compared to fire-breathing monsters.
But, luckily, Mr. Rothfuss is a man with no patience for those kinds of clichés. His hero fights dragons, drinks beer in the pub afterwards, and tells us all about it. It’s a difficult feat: a hero must, by definition, be above other man, braver, cleverer, grittier, the one who can stand against unbeatable odds and overturn them. Yet he must also avoid being a flawless, and therefore flat, figure. Thankfully, Kvothe is both flawed and heroic. He’s proud, arrogant, way too clever by half, better at everything than a man should be for his own good, and thus fundamentally human.
Mr. Rothfuss’ attitude towards clichés extends to the rest of his invention, too. . We’re about 50 years away from Tolkien these days, and Rothfuss is very adamant that we need to move past elves and dwarves and do something new with fantasy literature. Not because Tolkien is bad, but because he’s so good that attempting to imitate him is a battle long lost. And Rothfuss is most certainly doing something else. He creates a magical land that doesn’t feel like Middle Earth (and he’s also bothered to figure out the logistics and technicalities of a fictional society). There’s magic that’s not comprised of wizards conjuring in weird hats.
The author’s system of magic almost resembles the laws of physics in our world: energy cannot be created or destroyed, simply transferred. “Magic” means harnessing this energy and transforming it in ways unfamiliar to us. There are principles, laws, and even percentages to calculate. It’s physics-magic, or math-magic. And there’s a University to learn all this magic at that doesn’t actually feel like Hogwarts in a day and age when “school of magic” is almost a synonym for Rowling’s school of witchcraft and wizardly.
And, though my praise draws to an end soon, I would be remiss if I did not note Rothfuss’s prose. At some point, long ago, there was a wordsmith who coined the word wordsmith. That person clearly had a love of language, for he used care and reverence to shape a word describing those who are devoted to language. Mr. Rothfuss is such a man, a wordsmith who shapes words and molds sentences. He doesn’t have the lofty, sometimes heavy prose that George R.R. Martin occasionally plagues his readers with, but neither is his prose nondescript. He pulls off the hardest trick in the book: he writes beautiful language in such a different way that you don’t notice it, but you know it feels good.