A myth that creates itself: The Consistence of Story in The Kingkiller Chronicle

Here is the text of a talk I gave today for the Literary Buffs, CU English’s undergrad club. It is written as a talk, and there remain in here some cues for me about time, so feel free to ignore all that. It’s a bit light on citation and the conclusion is not great, but I think it captures something of what I see Rothfuss doing. In any case, this is some very basic preliminary work for the final chapter of Here at the end of all things, which concludes with a chapter on Rothfuss’s and Okorafor’s respective actualization of story by way of of what I call positivity, or the becoming-toldness of story. If that makes no sense in this context, never fear. It likely won’t make sense in future contexts either. Hahaha.

Anyway, here is the talk:

After I give you my basic thesis and a sense of where we are headed, I am going to break this up into two parts. The first, about twelve minutes long, will deal with the context for the more specific argument in the second part of the talk, which is about twenty two minutes long. In short, I will summarize the critical discussion of fantasy into which I am intervening and my basic position on fantasy as a genre. In the second part, which is about twenty minutes long, I will discuss Rothfuss’s The Kingkiller Chronicle. If we want, I can pause after part one for a few minutes in case people have questions they would rather know the answer to now rather rather than later.

So, my basic thesis: Patrick Rothfuss’s as yet incomplete The Kingkiller Chronicle offers an interesting example of what I call the consistence of story. Whereas many fantasies following from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings understand and present the consistence of story as an objective fact independent of those who participate in story, The Kingkiller Chronicle imagines the consistence of story as something that develops according to what stories are told, who tells these stories, where and when they are told, and so on. As in The Lord of the Rings and other fantasies, story is always true in The Kingkiller Chronicle, but this truth does not represent a perfection or essential goodness which embraces characters and provides them with their meanings and therefore allows for story to be told. Rather, this truth depends upon and emerges from the telling itself to the extent that it, the truth that is, cannot be known in advance.

Part 1: Understanding fantasy

So, here there are three basic discussion points. First, fantasy and how we define it. Second, the common critique of fantasy as a genre and the basic assumptions and underpinnings of that critique. Third, how I think about the two of these things together. This brief discussion should make clear what I mean by the terms “story” and “consistence.”

First, we can define fantasy in a number of ways. When we define fantasy, we are defining a genre, which is to say a type. In this case, we are concerned with a type of fiction, or better, a type of popular and allegedly lowbrow fiction. We are asking, “by what criteria can we place an individual instance of fantasy, such as The Name of the Wind or The Wise Man’s Fear, into the set of all fantasies?” There are a lot of complicated questions that follow from this one, but suffice it to say that we are dealing with a set and the elements that belong to that set according to some criteria that relates elements to each other and to some larger concept. There are several criteria we might deploy to group individual fantasies into the set called “fantasy.” For example, we might consider how a text is marketed and sold, how it deploys certain generic conventions, how it understands itself in relation to possibility and impossibility, or how it deploys certain narrative structures. There are other ways we might do so, but again these are sufficient and likely are familiar to many of us already. In the interests of time, I won’t go into the first three methods here as it is the fourth one that most interests me.

So, I understand fantasy in terms of the structure it deploys, a structure called story, the conceptualization of which I borrow from John Clute. In relation to fantasy, Clute offers two definitions of Story, which come together to inform my understanding of the genre. First, Story is a “narrative which tells or implies a sequence of events, in any order which can be followed by hearers or readers, and which generates a sense that its meaning is conveyed through the actual telling.” Essential here is the manner in which we come to understand a story, which is to say through its toldness. To be clear, stories must be TOLD and their meanings emerge in this telling and in their being heard or, better, experienced. We come to understand stories, which is to say that we come to inhabit stories, through our experience of them. For this reason, a story cannot be abstracted and remain a story. Any attempt to cut parts out, to create a different version of the story, to summarize it or derive some transportable value from it will result in its becoming something else, something that may remain a narrative, but will not be THE story.

Clute’s second definition of story tells us that story is the grammar or structure of fantasy (although not every fantasy will deal with story in the same way). Clute writes, “Part of the definition of fantasy is that its protagonists tend to know they are in a Story of some sort, even if at first they do not know which one; at moments of Recognition they find out just which Story it is that has, in some sense, dictated them.” We see this sort of recognition as Sam and Frodo climb the stairs of Cirith Ungol in The Two Towers during their approach to Mordor. There, Sam and Frodo discuss how the best tales to hear are the worst tales to be stuck within, because the sorts of adventures we want to hear about involve dangers and horrors we do not want to face. Specifically, Sam discusses the horror experienced by Beren and Lúthien during their quest to recover the Silmaril from Morgoth in the First Age. At this moment, Sam Recognizes, however, that Story has embraced Frodo and himself. He exclaims, “But that’s a long tale, of course, and goes past the happiness and into grief and beyond it–and the Similril went on and came to Eärendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got–you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?” Sam here refers to the gift Galadriel made to Frodo of a light that will shine in the darkest places. This light was captured from a star formed when Eärendil, Elrond’s father, sailed into the sky with the Silmiril recovered by Beren and Luthien on his brow. In short, Sam and Frodo are part of this same ongoing story, a story that is an objective fact that, in the present context, we might oppose to a history that is accidental and interpretable as such. This understanding begins to make clear that Sam and Frodo’s lives have meaning, one guaranteed by the impersonal story that embraces them. As such, story can be understood in The Lord of the Rings and similar fantasies as the essential truth of the world, that to which the members of the quest belong, that which guarantees them a true place in creation and the meaning of their lives. This is a meaning beyond meaning, and it stands opposed to history and the meaning that we find in history. And here we can turn to the second point of part 1 of this talk, on the criticism of fantasy.

Any number of critics have suggested that fantasy is escapist. Darko Suvin, for example, once called the genre a “pseudo-fascist literature of mystification.” Fredric Jameson has argued that, at best, fantasy represents our desire to free ourselves from the problems of history without actually solving those problems in a properly historical manner. Carl Freedman and others have made similar claims. In history, according to these arguments, we solve properly historical problems of class, politics, and so on by way of our labor, which is material. In fantasy, so the argument goes, characters solve problems through magic or through other contrivances of plot. Such solution does not require any labor, in the sense that these critics use the term. Although they do not refer to Story in their arguments, these critics suggest the concept that the term names when they make these claims. They would challenge and oppose story and the meaning it guarantees as ideological, as a sort of false consciousness that might cause someone to buy into authoritarian claims about social, racial, gendered, and other hierarchies or about the right of this nation or people to rule over that nation or people. Given that much of our understanding of fantasy and story derive from The Lord of the Rings—written by a privileged English man and containing unquestionable elements of racism and colonialism, not to mention a nostalgia for England’s feudalistic past—we should not be surprised by this line of criticism.

To clarify some of this, let’s note that these sorts of critics, who tend to operate from positions we can define as historical materialist, follow Marx and, in somewhat roundabout fashion, Hegel in understanding history as the context for human events and human meaning. In history, the human subject labors to produce its meaning. Labor, for Marx, is the origin of all value and, in the context of this argument, the origin of all meaning (meaning and value being rough synonyms for one another). Story suggests, in contrast to this produced, accidental, and contingent meaning, a given, necessary, and absolute one. In terms I borrow from French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, we can call life in an historical context existence, a term that implies an out-of-syncness between one’s being and one’s meaning. In existence we seek to reconcile our being with our meaning by way of our labor in the world. By contrast, life within Story involves consistence, a congruity of being and meaning characteristic of god or of Adam and Eve’s lives in the garden before the fall. The fall from the garden is, in this argument, a fall out of consistence and Story and into existence and history.

Although many fantasies try to actualize this consistence, they all inevitably fail because all fantasies are products of limited human beings operating within existence, within historical circumstances they cannot, finally, transcend or escape. Even Tolkien knew this, as Frodo and Sam are not, in the end, able to simply escape. They return to the Shire, but this homecoming cannot return them to the innocent state they possessed before they knew of the ring and Sauron’s desire for it, a state of innocence Tolkien clearly desires. Frodo is, for example, too broken—the wound from the Morgul knife and from Shelob’s sting will not heal. He can only achieve consistence and participate in the meaning story promises by leaving Middle-earth and going across the sea to elf-heaven. Notably, the consistence that Frodo theoretically achieves there is not represented in the text. In fact, it cannot be represented because representations always involve some gap between reality and what we say about it. This is the nature of existence, where we might say this means that but must always acknowledge how contingent such claims are. By contrast, in consistence, there will be no such gap. Consistence in Tolkien reminds us of the language of god, which does not simply point to things that already are, but actually creates those things by way of its fundamental interaction with material reality itself.

To wrap up part one of the talk, I can now say a bit about why I am interested in all of this. While many scholars of fantasy reject the line of argument that runs from Suvin through Jameson and Freedman, I accept it in many respects. Other scholars might, for example, insist that fantasy does in fact deal with properly historical concepts. That is, for these scholars, fantasy encodes in its narratives class conflict, political strife, and so on. The task of the critic is therefore one of decoding: the ring is a nuclear bomb, Mordor is Nazi Germany or industrial capitalism more generally. While I appreciate this sort of argument, I do not see it as very productive, for two reasons. First, we have plenty of literature that does this sort of thing better, including the realist novel and science fiction. If fantasy has anything to teach us, I don’t think that something has to do with some kind of accurate, but nonetheless hidden, representation of history. Second, the problem of history will not be solved, I think, by more history. I can’t go into this here, but it does not seem to me that historical processes produce final meanings or true belonging, things that I believe are hard to come by under capitalism, especially in its contemporary neoliberal variety. As such, I want to find in fantasy something else, something that is non- or even ahistorical.

To this end, in my current book project, Here at the end of all things: Fantasy after History, I develop a vocabulary, including the terms story and consistence, as a means to describe what fantasy does. Again, I agree with the critics who say that fantasy is escapist, but I disagree with the moral conclusions they draw from their understanding of the genre. If fantasy is escapist, we have to ask what we need to escape from and, more importantly, where we might escape to. I do not believe that fantasy simply allows us to escape from our circumstances, but I would argue that, through concepts such as story and consistence, we can identify in genre fantasy certain ways of thinking that oppose the assumptions that dominate our present situation. (~12 minutes to here)

Part 2: A myth that creates itself

Patrick Rothfuss’s The Kingkiller Chronicle comprises two extant volumes, The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear, published in 2007 and 2011 respectively, and a forthcoming third volume, The Doors of Stone. The trilogy is set in a world called Temerant and tells of the story of Kvothe telling his own story. For reasons that are not yet entirely clear, Kvothe—the kingkiller in question and perhaps the most legendary person in Temerant at the start of The Name of the Wind—has adopted the name Kote, withdrawn from public view, and is living as an innkeeper in a small, out-of-the-way village. The Name of the Wind begins here, when the historian known as Chronicler discovers that Kote is Kvothe and convinces him to tell his story. This story will be told over three days, each day represented by a volume in the trilogy. Whereas Kvothe’s story, as narrated to Chronicler, is told in Kvothe’s voice, from his point of view, the frame tale in which Kote and Chronicler (and Kvothe’s Fae apprentice Bast) interact is told from the point of view of a relatively omniscient, third person narrator whose voice only occasionally breaks through. This narrator tells us, repeatedly and matter-of-factly, that Kvothe has withdrawn to this inn and this life in order to wait out his own death.

Kvothe’s story begins in youth, when Kvothe was a trouper with the Edema Ruh, a family of performers known for their skills in acting and music and, just as often, reviled as alleged criminals and corrupters of children. As a child, Kvothe begins to learn a form of magic, called sympathy, as well as science and other subjects from a man who briefly travels with his troupe. His family is then murdered by the mysterious and demonic Chandrian, who seem to have been drawn to Kvothe’s father for the fact that he was writing a song about them. Kvothe witnesses the aftermath of the Chandrian’s slaughter of his family and troupe and escapes to a nearby city where he spends years in a post-traumatic fog. Eventually, he finds his way to the University, a center of learning that makes up the setting for much of the remainder of the two volumes. There, Kvothe makes friends and enemies and proves to be one of the best musicians in the world and one of the great adepts at various forms of science and magic. He also goes on several adventures, mainly in pursuit of knowledge of the Chandrian and the Amyr, a perhaps disbanded or apocryphal order of priests or knights who may or may not be the sworn enemy of the Chandrian. At the close of The Wise Man’s Fear, Kvothe has just returned to the University with some financial security for the first time in his life but with little concrete information about the Chandrian or how to find them. He suggests that his story is about to turn dark and we already know that he will be kicked out of the University and, eventually, murder the king and cause Temerant to descend into war. He is still waiting to die.

One of the most striking formal aspects of The Kingkiller Chronicle is its use of first person narration embedded within an objectively narrated frame tale. Although immersive fantasy often makes use of first person narrators, such use is less common in portal-quest fantasy, a form to which The Kingkiller Chronicle undoubtedly belongs. In immersive fantasy, readers are rarely given any means by which to navigate the world in which the fantasy is set. Characters who already understand that world move within it and never bother to explain what the reader is seeing. This form of fantasy tends to be rather challenging as readers cannot assume anything about these impossible worlds and must piece together how they work according to hints and implications. In portal-quest fantasy, by contrast, unexperienced or even innocent protagonists start in places of relative safety and venture out into the larger, more dangerous world as they begin their quests. They thus gain experience with the reader and often benefit from guide figures such as Gandalf, Dumbledore, or Obi-wan Kenobi who explain to them what they are seeing and thus also explain to the reader how the world works. Importantly, these guide figures do more than offer the protagonist and readers facts. They also offer moral frameworks through which facts can be organized and understood. Perhaps most famously, Gandalf does not only tell Frodo about the ring and about Sauron, but also that Sauron is unquestionably and irreducibly evil. With this grounding principle in place, Frodo is able to categorize each new fact he encounters according to a binary logic: whoever wishes to destroy the ring and Sauron is good; whoever supports Sauron or desires the ring for him or herself is evil. This sort of narrative, and the absolute morality it deploys, brings us back to story. Good and evil are objective facts in Middle-earth, rather than being relative positions. This sort of objectivity is conveyed nicely by third person narration, a form of narration that masks the subjectivity, biases, assumptions, and prejudices of the narrator by presenting them as being just so. Because the protagonist and the reader know so little about the world in question, they cannot ask any meaningful questions about it and therefore cannot think critically about the facts or moral frameworks forced upon them by their guides. The Kingkiller Chronicle is therefore something of a rare thing, namely a portal quest fantasy told in the first person, a form of narration that immediately calls into question any claim to objectivity.

We should note that this sort of thing has become increasingly common over the last decade or two. Writers such as NK Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, and others have given us portal quests with first person narrators as well, and George RR Martin has famously given us a long fantasy series told from multiple points of view (although most of them are conveyed through third person narration). Marlon James’s recent Black Leopard Red Wolf is told from the point of view of Tracker, and the next two volumes of James’s Dark Star trilogy, so we are told, will narrate the events Tracker has already described, but from the points of view of other characters we have already met. In every one of these cases, the objectivity we associate with portal quests is undermined by the first person narration, although to very different effects in each instance. Importantly for our purposes here, these fantasies rethink story in both senses of the term. With regard to the first sense, in which story is a narrated sequence of essential events whose meaning emerges in the telling, these fantasies suggest that telling is, in fact, as subjective as we might imagine. In The Lord of the Rings, some stories, such as the story of Beren and Luthien, are told and retold by different characters belonging to different races. Nonetheless, each of these tellings and retellings seems to be equally true, each dependent on and referring to an essential truth that can be corrupted but has not yet been entirely destroyed. In contrast, fantasies by Jemisin, Okorafor, James, and others suggest that either story is a matter of perspective, a question of point of view on a given event or object or, more radically, that different points of view, and the power that accrues to the subject positions thereof, produce different truths. These different truths are not simply different interpretations. Rather, they involve themselves with the material of the world on a fundamental level. When, in Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, Onyesonwu rewrites the Great Book and frees the Okeke people from the tyranny of the Nuru, she does not offer a new spin on an historical problem. She rewrites history itself such that what had happened becomes what has never happened. In the world of Who Fears Death, what might have happened had things been otherwise becomes newly possible in a world that is no longer determined by this story, but becomes determined by that story.

To return to Rothfuss, we can consider the passage from which I draw my title. Before he starts telling his own story, Kvothe has a conversation with Chronicler about whether he is willing to in fact tell that story. Kvothe, a bit like an aged thief in a heist film being asked to come in for one last score, is being enticed to tell his story. He asks Chronicler what benefit telling this story would be to him. Chronicler tells him that the story would remind people that he is alive. Kvothe responds that he prefers that people believe he is dead and Chronicler responds again by telling Kvothe about those people who never believed he was alive, that he never existed. To those people, Kvothe is just a myth. Kvothe responds, “I am a myth […] A very special kind of myth that creates itself. The best lies about me are the ones I told” (NotW 48).

There is a lot to unpack here already, so let me linger over this passage for a moment. In Kvothe’s usage, myth seems to refer to a sort of grandiose lie, an extravagant story whose relation to material fact is, at best, questionable. This understanding of myth largely corresponds with how the term is deployed now, to reference accounts of the world that are false. According to this usage, when we refer to “Greek myth,” we imply that, although the Greeks believed that Apollo rode the sun around the Earth each day, we know better now and can say, therefore, that the story the Greeks told themselves was false. It fit with appearances, but not the deeper facts of the matter. Thus myth refers to a problem of representation and therefore existence, both of which imply a gap between the world and what we can say about it. Beyond this sense of myth-as-lie or, better, myth-as-bad-interpretation, Kvothe’s use of the term myth might also seem to imply another meaning of the term, one in which myths are not just stories of dubious provenance and truth but frameworks for understanding the world and our relation to it. In this sense, we live within certain myths now, about, for example, American exceptionalism or the necessity of capitalism. We don’t simply believe in such things, but organize our lives according to them. Even with this understanding in place, however, we are still in the realm of existence, wherein this framework produces false or, at best, limited understandings of the world. There may be a truth out there, but this sort of myth will always distort it.

With regard to consistence and story, neither of these notions of myth apply. Gandalf tells Frodo any number of facts about Middle-earth, about the ring, and so on. Elrond tells him about the past, and Galadriel about the nature of the elves and their relation to the land. What Frodo hears from these figures are not representations or accounts to be questioned. They are truth, essentially so. In Middle-earth there is no representation, no competing interpretations of events or objects (except from those who are clearly corrupt, such as Sarumon, Wormtongue, Denethor, and so on). Moreover, the moral framework Frodo comes to inhabit by way of the accounts he hears from these and other authority figures is the correct framework, the one based upon and revealing of story. The very word “framework” fails to tell us much here because it implies that there might be others. There are no others. There is only the truth and what departs from the truth. In short, at least in an ideal sense, there is story and there is consistence. There is, again ideally, a perfect congruity between objective being and subjective meaning.

And if we think about what Kvothe is saying in these terms, as something said within genre fantasy and participating in the structure of that genre, we can begin to come to grips with what is taking place in The Kingkiller Chronicle. Kvothe did not simply create myths about himself in the sense that he created false stories about himself, although that is also the case. In creating these myths about himself, he created STORY. That is, he created the truth about himself. To put this another way, in The Kingkiller Chronicle story does not reflect, more or less accurately, some material reality but, rather, creates that material reality in the course of its being told. Of course, we intuitively understand such to be the case insofar as any fantasy novel that sets itself in a secondary world—a world that is not our own—literally creates that world in the only way that matters, by way of a description of it in language and paratexts such as maps. Tolkien himself makes this claim in “On Fairy-stories” when he notes that the successful writer of fantasy becomes a sub-creator who, by way of his or her successful art, creates a self-coherent world in which the reader believes while that reader is reading. (~12 – 13 minutes to here)

To be clear, I am arguing The Kingkiller Chronicle offers us something of a meta-fantasy, a fantasy that not only does what fantasy does—tell us a story and reveal to us the presence of story—but also shows us something about how this process works. This self-reflexivity is important for at least two reasons. First, it allows us to read other fantasies and understand how they achieve their effects, for good or for ill. Second, it pushes the boundaries of what is possible within the genre. I will return to this second point in my conclusion, but for now I want to stay with Rothfuss and Kvothe because I really have only made an assertion and not yet an argument. I have said that Kvothe’s storytelling creates story in the Kingkiller Chronicle but I have not yet offered much evidence in support of this claim. So let me discuss three important aspects of The Kingkiller Chronicle that should help a bit: Kvothe’s narration, the nature of story of in Temerant, and the Chandrian.

First, I have said that The Kingkiller Chronicle is a portal quest fantasy. In a portal quest fantasy an innocent protagonist leaves a place of safety for the wider, more dangerous world and comes to understand that world even as the reader does. The protagonist and the reader both benefit in such fantasies from the presence of guides who already understand the world and provide facts and frameworks through which the world can be understood by others. Of course, the young Kvothe does leave a place of safety, his troupe, after the Chandrian attack. He has been already instructed in certain things by his father and mother, his troupe, and by Abernathy (the man who teaches him sympathy). However, none of them prepare him for the wider world he encounters as a child on his own. Even when he manages to get to the University as a very young man, he finds himself without any real guides. His friends are often just as ignorant as he is about how to navigate adulthood and his teachers often hate him for various reasons or are, as in the case of Master Elodin, utterly inscrutable and therefore no help whatsoever. When he comes into the service of the nobleman known as the Maer in The Wise Man’s Fear, this man does not teach him much either. Other members of the Maer’s court try, but are mainly self-serving. When he travels to visit the Adem near the end of that volume, he is taught grudgingly and under the threat of severe penalties for failure. Rarely do his teachers explain anything to him and he is largely left to navigate difficulties by himself. Moreover, in his quest for the Chandrian, no one can help him because almost no one believes they really existed in the past, much less in the present. In short, we have here a portal quest fantasy in which the lack of a guide should prohibit our understanding of what is taking place.

However, there is a guide here: Kvothe himself. In the frame tale, Kvothe not only talks about telling the story, but also offers a framework in which that story might be understood, most importantly by way of his claim that he is a myth that creates itself. I do not doubt the truth of the story, but I nonetheless believe that the truth of the story is internal to it rather than external to it. That is, the story does not necessarily refer to events as they literally happened, but rather creates those events. This is not a fabrication in the sense of being a lie, but rather a material construction of the world. What Kvothe says and believes becomes true in the world, the stories told about him and by him becoming story itself through their toldness. As I said before, these books are the entirety of Temerant. What they say is true about Temerant because there is nothing external to them that we might use to disprove what Kvothe says. Of course, none of what Kvothe says is true about our own world, but this is precisely the point. Rothfuss proves himself to be a successful sub-creator, someone who creates a world inside of a book, a world whose dimensions and metaphysics are one with story itself and the possibilities thereof.

To make this point clearer, we need to think more about story in The Kingkiller Chronicle in general. Near the end of his time in Tarbean, where he lived for years dealing with the aftermath of his troupe’s murder, Kvothe hears a story about the legendary Lanre and, it seems, the origins of the Chandrian from a storyteller named Skarpi. At the conclusion of the story, Skarpi tells Kvothe a bit about the nature of story. Especially important in the present context is Skarpi’s claim that “all stories are true” but that the present story, about Lanre, “really happened.” I am not sure that we can reconcile this contradiction between the inherent truthfulness of stories and the superior representative capacity of this particular story in the context of history, existence, and representation. In that context, we might say that stories have *A* truth, in that they might teach some moral lesson, despite not being accurate representations of material and real events. That is, all stories have some truth in them, but some stories have a greater relation to material fact than others. But Skarpi does not seem to be making this distinction, as the text nowhere offers us any sense that stories in The Kingkiller Chronicle have any moral dimension to them. In other words, the truth of stories and the factual nature of their representational capacities cannot be distinguished from one another according to two different notions of truth, one ideal and eternal and the other material and historical. However, if we try to treat the two types of stories—the ones that are true and the ones that actually happened—as if they both adhere to the same notion of truth, we also run into difficultues. If, in other words, we say that all stories accurately represent reality, then the second part of Skarpi’s claim becomes superfluous in that we need not specify a special truth for some stories over and above their regular truthfulness. Why say that all stories are true but this one is truly true? There is a solution to this problem, however: stories do not represent the truth of some external condition, but rather create that condition, even in the past. Thus all stories are true—they create their own truth—when told, and this story “really happened” precisely because it was so told. If we accept this claim, then we can also accept the idea that Kvothe, by narrating his own story and creating the framework through which we are to understand that story, creates the world as it was, as it now is because of what its past has just now become. If he has condemned himself to death in the frame tale, then this is because whatever story he tells about himself will end with the beginning of the frame tale and thus with the condition in which he finds himself. Kvothe creates the past that leads to this present and thus creates a future that can be no other way but the one he imagines in that present. (7 more minutes)

Finally, let us briefly turn to the Chandrian themselves. The Chandrian are demonic figures, but ones that never appear in any credible story. People often seem to have heard of them, but few actually believe in them because they only appear in children’s stories and songs. Only on very rare occasions does Kvothe ever encounter anyone who takes them seriously and never does he encounter anything like a hard factual account of them. On one occasion he receives a description of a piece of stoneware that included what might have been a painting of the Chandrian on its side, and this from a child. Another time, during his stay with the Adem, someone sings him a song about the Chandrian but does not allow him to ask any questions and demands that he not sing the song for a number of years after he has heard it, and then only after traveling hundreds or thousands of miles. The Fae woman Ferulian implies that the Chandrian are very real, but refuses to speak of them and threatens Kvothe with incomparable harm should he ask her any more questions on the topic. The University archives contain no useful information about them and Kvothe’s friends, were he to tell them about his obsession, would likely laugh at his childishness.

However, the Chandrian are clearly real in Kvothe’s story. He saw them after his parents and troupe were killed. He knows that his father was writing a song about them, a song he later reveals likely included some or all of their true names. The song Kvothe hears from the Adem also includes the true names of the seven Chandrian, which is why he is told not to ask questions about it or sing it in the near future—invoking their names, especially in repetition, draws their attention to the singer. But what if something else is at work? The Chandrian seem to have only a momentary existence. They disappear, it seems, for hundreds or even thousands of years at a time and only appear when they are properly named in a story. This only happens on rare occasions because no one believes in the Chandrian except, perhaps, children and the childish. When it does happen, it may be because someone has discovered the art of the true story, the means by which one becomes a creator and makes true the story one tells by way of the practice of naming. If such was the case, then the Chandrian would be the best example in The Kingkiller Chronicle of the consistence of story. They would be the best example of the utter congruity between meaning and being, a group of beings who come to be only when they are told, only when they are dictated, only when they are placed within a proper story.

I am happy to discuss this at further length, but let me wrap up by saying why all of this is interesting. As I mentioned, fantasy has been and can be defined according to different criteria. After the structural approach I favor, which investigates story and how it is used in various fantasies, the next most appealing has to do with possibility and impossibility. Insofar as fantasy plays the game of the impossible, anything is possible within it according to the rules the storyteller creates for his or her world. However, far too often fantasists limit themselves in this respect. Yes, they include magic or impossible creatures in their works, but they very often simply leave it at that. They rarely play with narrative structure or think of ways to present to us contradictions that can only be resolved according to material principles alien to our own materiality. The Kingkiller Chronicle, insofar as it presents to us a myth that creates itself, moves beyond simplistic magics that accomplish this or that task, or even those magics that stand as objective facts in the world. Rather it gives us a world that is magic all the way down, a world where subjective forces interact with objective forces in a process that creates the world even as we are reading it. Thank you.


2 Responses to “A myth that creates itself: The Consistence of Story in The Kingkiller Chronicle”

  1. I am teaching a class which includes Rothfuss and this is fascinating and so helpful. Thank you!

    • Very cool. I would love to teach him someday, but the books are so long (except for Slow Regard, which I am not sure works by itself). In any case, very glad you found this helpful

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