Rhapsody of the Twenty-first century Hamlet
It is fairly common among critics to apostrophize every single up and coming fantasy author as II Tolkien, and if you think that I too am searching the matrix of the modern world for his reincarnation; please, reject the notion. We live in a different era, among different people, with different values in our hearts now, and reviewers are still holding their breath, waiting for Godot. Let them choke, I say. Those of you, however, capable of minding the gaps are in for a real treat of high fantasy, mixing classical motifs with non-conventional storytelling, while also balancing the scales between bitter sarcasm and the rhapsodic beauty of a bard’s tale. Patrick Rothfuss seems to know his trade, in and out. And his story is one of the most beauteous songs that has ever been blessed upon my mind.
All tales begin between two tankards of ale and a hunch of meat, and this one is no exception. Kote is the keeper of the inn called the Signstone. He is reclusive, enigmatic and a killer of kings. For many years he has lived the life of an ordinary man, along with his apprentice Bast, and nobody has ever suspected who he is. However, an unlikely meeting with the world-famous Chronicler changes everything, for he recognizes a legend when he sees one, and convinces Kote to drop his facade and become Kvothe again… for as long as his tale lasts, at least. Since Kvothe has never ever told his life’s tale to anyone, and since that tale is one of sorrow, regret is slowly killing him. The Chronicler’s need for posterity might be the only way for Kvothe to find peace, but the shadow of the axe is always hanging over his head: what he will find at the end of his tale, is not what he might be looking for.
Kvothe’s story is a vast one, spanning over decades, and telling it the way to do it justice requires three days. Each day is summed up in one book: The Name of the Wind (2007) is the first, The Wise Man’s Fear (2011) is the second, while The Doors of Stone (exp. 2014) is going to be the third and final installment of the chronicle. The first novel, with its 800 page length, is a more traditional slice of the tale, more blissful, full of opportunities, the pain of past tragedies dimmed by the melody of music and the laughter of the inns. The book has a sense of awe and adventure, like any other fantasy epics in contemporary literature, but most importantly, the feelings invoked within the characters’ breasts are real; they are human. Rothfuss is clearly the master of the mythos and the archetypical aspects of an epic: he manages to retain the essence of what made Star Wars or Harry Potter great, and fill it with believable characters. Rothfuss knows that even the smallest push sends echoes throughout life, and they are bound to shape other people: maiming them, depressing them, filling them with joy, burning them inside out. Not even Rowling or Lucas can touch him in this one.
The novel spoils the highlights of the story, not just on the back of the dust jacket, but also in the first hundred pages, an act that might make your eyebrows raise a couple of times. This is no mistake. Not even on a conceptual level. Rothfuss’ goal is to make you see the legend in the making. The tale itself is told through flashbacks, and between these are several interludes, in which the trio of Kote, Bast and the Chronicler discuss the motivations of Kvothe and what really happened in the previous chapters, without becoming too preachy.
This gives rise to heated arguments, emotional outbursts, and develops both the story that is being told and the story that is yet to be lived. By perfectly weaving the two timelines (past and present), the legend and the personal story subliminally complement each other. What the legends call Kvothe’s moment of glory is also his moment of tragedy. This way, Rothfuss infuses his book with a truly rhapsodic atmosphere, something I have not felt since I played the Reign of Chaos. It is not to be confused with melancholy. The Name of the Wind is as much of an epic, with its bucolic or negative descriptions, as it is lyrical piece of art. Not only does it have a wondrous flow to its story, but the sentences are constructed in such a way on a syntactic level, to have a melody of their own; thus creating the ominous rhapsodic feeling, an ever changing fluctuation of sorrow and hope, peaking in catharsis. Rarely does an author possess the inner spark to perform such a feat; Virginia Woolf was one of these individuals. Rothfuss is just about to join her club.
The Name of the Wind shares many traits with Robin Hobb’s The Farseer Trilogy: being told from a talented young boy’s perspective and also applying a framed narrative, but Rothfuss simply outdoes her in every way possible. Hobb’s genius lies in the purity of her writing; Rothfuss’ approach is dynamic, with layers upon layers of text, and yet he still retains much of that natural beauty that characterizes Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice, for example.
The main lead is handled just as well, and most surprisingly, Rothfuss has a Shakespearean device in store for us. The Kvothe of the present is an overcharged, omniscient character, who is dead the moment he enters the stage, very much like Hamlet. However, the promise of new blood is never lost on the author. The talented, smart, but also foolish Kvothe of the past is the exact opposite of the silent, introverted Fitz (protagonist of the Farseer Trilogy), and Rothfuss does not hesitate to use this to his advantage: snappy dialogues dripping with stinging humor and moments in which tension rises to a level that it is palpable are always involved. Because of that, unfortunately, the lack of suspense can easily be noticed, leading to a few, although beautifully written, but uninteresting chapters.
Even then, the Hungarian translation is a marvel to behold; one that would make Göncz Árpád proud. Every dialect is translated with such confidence that you are immediately immersed either in the segregated world of the countryside or the jargon-filled science of the School of Magic. The Name of the Wind is not your average fantasy flick. Patrick Rothfuss knows exactly how to bring new ideas to the table, to mix classical with the modernized, and to present them in a way for us to question where the line between high fantasy and high arts really lies.
Written by Dömösi János Gábor (Archon)