Fantasies of Hope

On January 3rd, J. R. R. Tolkien turned 126 years old. Since I’m super into current events like this, it got me thinking it had been a while since I watched the Lord of the Rings movies, or read the book—though I did reread The Silmarillion some time last year. It also got me thinking about what an immense contribution Tolkien made to my life, and the larger world of fantasy in general, and why he means as much as he does, today.

I visited Middle Earth in a rather roundabout way. I bought a ticket on a false premise: my mother, who had read the book nearly two decades before she told me about it, tried to sell the story thus. ‘There’s this world, and there are all these races, and there’s a war brewing. And this one guy has to stop the war.’

‘So who is the Lord of the Rings?’ I asked, impressed by this succinct summary.

‘He’s the rightful ruler of the world, but he’s been missing for a long time.’

‘And the guy has to find him and give his ring to him?’

‘Yes.’

If you think about it, this summary actually works, if the ‘guy’ in question is a member of the Nazgul. My mother wrote the first revisionist version of Tolkien’s epic, well before it became fashionable. How hipster.

Anyway, you can imagine that, when I actually read the story, it was completely different, the very opposite. Still, though I had been lured to Middle Earth under false premises, I fell in love with it irrevocably. I found it amazing that someone had actually made this place up, and cared enough about it to make up languages. Not just create them, literally build them, accounting for how languages developed and grew, taking into account things like movement of people and their evolving culture. It was quite spectacular.

Now, a lot of people might think that some aspects of Tolkien’s world and work are incredibly dated. The problematic portrayal of women, race and class are some of the reasons why he’s hauled up by critics, as well as the book’s lack of interest in dealing with real-world-style politics, not the kind Dany and the residents of Westeros have to. But no one can deny that Tolkien gave fantasy a mainstream standing, the sort of status make-believe worlds have in the canon and the marketplace alike. And Tolkien also gave fantasy that element that really distinguishes it, in my opinion, from myth: the gift of hope.

Daenerys-Targaryen-2

Myth and fantasy go hand in hand, yes. Fantasy as a genre borrows a lot from myth, right from the hero’s journey to various monsters and demigods that populate the trove across the world. But where myth is often messy and amoral, fantasy has much clearer vision of what is ‘good’ and ‘evil’. This is probably because they’re usually more…human, being Elves and Dwarves and magic notwithstanding. Yes, characters are increasingly growing darker and have visible shades of grey, but we still know, for all the loss of light and corruption in Westeros, that something makes the Starks more ‘good’ than many of their counterparts, or elevate Dany’s scenes to the level of ‘epic’. Where fantasy loses the vested
religiosity or belief that may be inherent in myth, it retains its ability to induce awe and adds real-world morals. We can care about the people of Middle Earth or Westeros, or any other fantasy world, because they, like us, adhere to certain unspoken ideas of good and evil. Some of them might ignore those codes, like people in the real world do, but they still exist.

The quality of hope has no better personification than Samwise Gamgee, the faithful hobbit of The Lord of the Rings. Sam is really a nobody; he’s Frodo’s gardener, who literally gets hauled into the adventure because he’s eavesdropping outside the window. He has no illusions about himself, and that’s what enables him to succeed on his quest, even where Frodo falters. He makes a promise to get a job done, and he does it. But unlike Frodo, he doesn’t lose the sense of idealism that he started out with. In fact, he periodically reminds Frodo of why they’re doing the things they’re doing, best exemplified in this line: ‘There’s still some good in this world Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.’

frodo and sam

At every point in a series, there comes a moment when someone or the other remembers something like this, that there is light (or in the case of Wheel of Time, Light) and that’s why people have to continue doing the ‘right thing’. I would argue that the best example of this sort of ‘hope’ in A Song of Ice and Fire is Dany, who has many such epic aha moments (like when she walks into the fire). The ‘good’ in Westeros is much less abstract than it is in Middle Earth or Potterverse, and everyone is chasing their own agenda, but we root for some more than others because their agendas are less obviously evil, even taking into account the cruel context.

Sam is surprisingly perceptive, and his ability to not just push through, but remain uncorrupted, is one that not many heroes, not even kid hero Harry, can boast of. I’d argue that there’s a bit of him in all of us. ‘There’s some good in this world’ is a surprisingly simple but effective slogan, and honestly, the only way, sometimes, to get through the day.

So here’s to being more like Samwise in 2016.

Reading Rothfuss

How do I celebrate thee? Let me count the ways.

Storytelling forms the backbone of Patrick Rothfuss’ acclaimed Kingkiller Chronicle. The bulk of the narrative is, quite literally, a tale narrated by its protagonist to a scribe (or, to use his given name, Chronicler). Within this narrative are embedded a multitude of stories, told by professional storytellers, by laymen and women, sung in verses by travelling bards and troupers. The leading character and narrator, Kvothe, is himself a hero out of story, whose reputation is steadily bulked up through his life by the tales others have told of his feats. It is not often that you find a hero who responds to these stories by creating one of his own.

The premise of the series (there are two so far: The Name of the Wind and its sequel The Wise Man’s Fear) is pretty much that of any other epic fantasy. The world is going mad, even the farthest corners of it (largely populated by sheep and goodhearted, thick headed farmers) are being intruded upon by demons and men with less-than-noble intentions. Something big is going on in the busy world outside, but in this village, the usual gang continues to meet at the Waystone Inn, drink their ale and tell stories, served by the quiet innkeeper with the ‘true flame’ red hair. The innkeeper is the legendary Kvothe, Kingkiller, University-trained ‘Arcane’, dragonslayer, now hidden away in a humble guise. Why? That, my readers, is what we are supposed to find out.

And that’s just where the uniqueness of Rothfuss’ rendering begins.

I think that, with the surge in fantasy publishing and movie-making, writing good, original books/movies/plays in this genre is getting increasingly difficult. Everyone seems to follow a pattern (read: prophesied hero found in poor, often neglected orphan boy who overcomes obstacles and defeats evil dark lord), recreating, however loosely, the Hero’s Journey recognized by Joseph Campbell. This is largely because mainstream Western fantasy relies heavily on myth for its structure (and aspires to the same universal level, as laid down by Tolkien), so there’s not much room for basic plot reconstruction. Books like Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire are very rare. Your success at storytelling is largely based on how well you can create your world and whether you engage your readers’ attention well enough for them to forgive and forget that they have heard this story a hundred times before.

ImageRothfuss, though he begins with a familiar premise, destroys all notions of ‘copycat’ shortly into the first book (The Name of the Wind). In this review, I will proceed to lay out five major plot points/character constructions that make him different from other fantasy authors I have read, five reasons why you should, if you are a jaded fantasy fan, pick him up. If you are not a particularly jaded/experienced reader, you should pick him up anyway.

#1: Kvothe is not your run of the mill hero

Okay, this is a huge point, and one that almost completely made the books for me. Kvothe is not, wait for it, a prophesied hero. He has not been hailed with cryptic words, not been designated a saviour, not been forced onto a path that will lead, eventually, to the slaying of an evil foe. He doesn’t seem born to fulfil any particular ‘purpose’, though he has talents and skills that certainly appear beyond the ordinary. The quest that he sets himself seems driven purely by personal desire, with absolutely no relevance to the people around him. In fact, most of those around him don’t even know of this self-appointed mission.

And can I just say how relieving it is to meet a fantasy protagonist who is aware of his strengths and plays to them? While I love the trope of the innocent, unsure hero who is humble and ignorant of his own potential, I do love the worldly-wise, sharp Kvothe as well. It’s so hard to pull off a brazen, intelligent character who doesn’t piss off his readers, but somehow, Rothfuss manages. His tone communicates clearly the distinction between the more hardened, experienced voice of Kote the innkeeper, and the younger tone of Kvothe the student and wanderer.

In all, Kvothe is a breath of fresh air, different from the other fantasy heroes one tends to come across. It’s hard not to love him.

#2: Denna

If Rothfuss does well with Kvothe, he outdoes himself with Denna. As the love interest and main female character (there are a number of female characters, none stereotypes), I feared for a moment that she might suffer the fate assigned to most of her breed- be reduced to nothing more than a romantic outlet for the hero’s passion or assigned the damsel in distress role. Denna, much like Egwene, defeated my gloomy expectations. She is literally as described by one of the characters, a ‘shower of sparks from a whetsone’, a spate of blazing light that throws into shadow everything around her. She is feisty, intelligent and so damn independent that you want to cry in relief that yes! Here is a fantasy heroine you can love, you can admire a la Katniss Everdeen. Here is a woman who enters the story as a love interest but is SO MUCH MORE. I love Denna, and I think that I would continue to read this series even if Kvothe sucked, only because I love her so damn much.

#3 The Stories

And there are a fair few of them. Rothfuss weaves beautiful tales, building a mythology for his world. Like in most fantasy novels, characters describe the wonders of a bygone era, one that possessed arts and ‘magics’ that the current one has lost. Besides these token tales of a mysterious past (which will no doubt prove important in the final book), there are a number of shorter, less grandiose stories in the books: folk tales, fairy tales, told by common men and women to pass the time around a fire. I’m going to go all lit-student here and comment on how Rothfuss uses the device of the storyteller not only to frame his narrative, but also to reflect on heroism in general. What is Kvothe but the stories people tell of him? What happens when those stories are done, where does he rest in between? The Kingkiller Chronicle is that rare thing: a story performing itself, showing us what a hero does after he has walked off into the sunset. It’s a bold narrative choice, but one that Rothfuss is executing wonderfully.

#The University

Anyone who ever wanted more of pure Hogwarts goodness, the rivalries between its students, it Houses, its classes without the more dramatic story of Harry Potter; anyone who loved New Spring precisely because it showed us a Tower (however briefly) before the advent of the Dragon Days; anyone who loves the Citadel sections of A Dance with Dragons will warm to the large swathes of text that deal with Kvothe’s tenure at the University. Here you have long, detailed visits to the academic centre of ‘The Four Corners of Civilization’, a look at all the different classes Kvothe takes, the students he meets, the professors, even the exams (here they’re called ‘Admissions’). You have a hero trying to make it on a less than ideal student budget and working while he studies. No plush ticket to five star meals and four poster beds for him. Kvothe lives in a dorm for a while before making his way to better off-campus housing.

I think Rothfuss has time and little urgency in the University chapters precisely because (as referred to above) Kvothe’s ‘quest’ is not one that involves the rest of the world. His friends are not prepping him for an inevitable showdown, nor does all of civilization appear to be moving towards a confrontation. Because of this, life goes on at its usual pace, and we, as readers, are allowed to see the world as it exists well before chaos and confusion (and the drums of war) seeps in.

#5 The Fae

The Fae in Rothfuss’ world greatly resemble the ancient, dangerous Fair Folk of old Irish tales, the People recreated in books like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. They are, quite literally, fey, not human in aspect, expression, voice or (most chillingly) laughter. Their paths do not often cross the human world’s, and their customs and societies seem as varied, if not more so, than that of their more mundane neighbours. Rothfuss, though he does not engage in a detailed exploration of this realm (not yet, at least) offers enough tantalizing glimpses to make the reader yearn for more. His writing in these parts acquires an almost poetic bent (you’ll see what I mean), communicating thereby the almost transcendent beauty and ungraspability of these beings. They are not here to help or hinder, particularly. What they do is to remind us of how very large and varied Rothfuss’ world is; how, even two books in, we are not entirely done with exploring it.

Though I have recorded quibbles with his writing, I have to admit that he has the ability to weave an original, arresting story. Get yourself a copy of his book and trust me, you won’t be disappointed. I myself can’t wait for the next.

Halfway through the Memory

I am halfway through the final book of the Wheel of Time series.

Wait, let me process that.

I am halfway through the FINAL BOOK of the Wheel of Time series.

I have been reading this series since my fourteenth birthday. I can remember exactly where I was when I finished the Prologue to ‘The Eye of the World’. I remember the heady feeling of wonder and sheer energy that zinged through me when I finished the first book, and clamoured for the second. I was lucky, I didn’t have to wait interminably between books, at least until the eleventh (‘The Knife of Dreams’) came out.

I wrote this review for a paper shortly after I read the first book. The series was by no means new, but I didn’t think it was well-known enough in India, and wanted to do my bit.

After that, I was relegated to the read-and-find-out-in-a-few-years band of fans, some of whom had been reading the series since it first came out in 1991. I did what a lot of others did, to stanch that longing for more Randland. I joined a forum.

The first website that claimed my allegiance was wotmania. I joined in discussions, speculations, started a few myself, made friends on the forums, read their fanfiction (and, in turn, sicced my own on them), chatted with fellows in faraway Norway, and learned much about people in other countries, as well as, of course, people in other, fantasy universes.

Wotmania closed down, and then I shifted my attention to dragonmount.com. I have not been as personally involved on dragonmount as I was on wotmania, preferring to lurk and listen to other people’s discussions than step in myself. I have loved my time there however, and intend to linger on post apocalyptic Tarmon Gai’don.

Being part of this series, in the small way I have, has been an amazing experience. Whether it was waiting to see what the moderator would present us on Fan Art Friday (she would trawl the internet and present, each week, different artists’ versions of events, places or characters from the WOT universe), reading Mashiara Sedai’s theories on ‘WOT if…’, taking part in polls on the forum, discussing the nitty gritties of channeling, politics, damane or defending my indefensible crush on Demandred, super cloaked super-villain, I have loved every moment of it.

I can’t believe it’s going to end, in a small way. There are no more Wheel of Time books after this.

I guess I’ll deal with the creeping grief at the close, when the battle’s lost or won, when the hurlyburly’s done.

Till then, onward with Tarmon Gai’don!