Let me start this review off by saying that I am wary of high fantasy novels. And by wary, I mean that I usually run for the hills whenever anyone recommends a high fantasy series to me. There are a few reasons for this:
- Many high fantasy authors try to reach the height and depth of Tolkien’s gorgeous prose, story, and characters. And they crash and burn. Because they are not J.R.R Tolkien.
- For some reason, authors think that writing high fantasy gives them the license to take one hundred pages to clear their throats. It seems like most high fantasy novels are at least 700 pages long, and there are always around fifteen books in the series…cough…Robert Jordan…
- Almost all high fantasy follows the same storyline. The exact same one.*
*Except in George R.R. Martin’s books where everyone just… Dies.
Now, as far as complaint number three goes, there is a reason that so many high fantasy novels are exactly the same, with a few shades of nuance here or there. Willa Cather once wrote, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” One of these stories is the story of the archetypal Hero. Joseph Campbell wrote about the archetypal Hero in his renowned book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell explored many of the texts that have survived throughout the centuries—the stories of heroes like Gilgamesh, Odysseus, and Beowulf—and found that the important myths of different cultures around the world have many unifying aspects and share a similar structure. Campbell called this “monomyth,” and summed up the story of the Hero, writing:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
So very many high fantasy stories follow this model. And I’m not saying that is a bad thing, as I find it fascinating that so many stories from different cultures and parts of the world follow this structure. It’s just not something I’m necessarily willing to read all of the time. Then I recently read Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, a book that takes the story of the Hero and turns it on its head.
The Name of the Wind is a story within a story. In a tavern over the span of three days and nights, a Hero agrees to recount his life story to a scribe. This hero, named Kvothe, is an adventurer, musician, arcanist (something akin to a sorcerer), and a killer of kings. “I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings,” He says. ” I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs to make the minstrels weep. You may have heard of me.” Kvothe grew up in a traveling troupe of performers, and after his family is brutally murdered by supernatural beings, he decides to attend the land’s University, in order to learn a type of magic so that he can avenge his family.
This plot sounds incredibly similar, does it not? Kvothe ventures forth on a journey to defeat the supernatural, make a name for himself, and win the girl. And yet, with the way that Rothfuss structures his book, the reader knows that Kvothe will go on to do great things, but his journey to those great things is filled with many tongue-in-cheek twists on Campbell’s monomyth. My favorite example of this is when Kvothe seeks out a wise, mentor figure (see: Obi Wan Kenobi, Merlin, Dumbledore, etc.) whom he knows can teach him a powerful form of magic. Kvothe is so desperate to become this man’s pupil that he pulls an incredibly dangerous stunt, in order to prove how far he will go to learn from this man. Instead of being impressed and taking him on as a student, the man says that Kvothe is much too unstable and reckless to learn his type of magic and leaves. In this way, Rothfuss subverts reader expectations throughout much of the book.
Kvothe is aware of the myths in his own world, and subverts many of them while telling his own story. He says at one point, “I am a myth… A very special kind of myth that creates itself. The best lies about me are the ones I told.” Because of this, The Name of the Wind is a breath of fresh air in high fantasy, as it plays with the very ideas and structure that comprise the genre itself. Rothfuss is a very talented writer, with a wry sense of humor and a flair for storytelling. So thank you, Patrick Rothfuss, for breaking through my high fantasy cynicism. I’m off to request the sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear, at my library now.
For more on Joseph Campbell and the Hero, here is a great essay by Christopher Vogler.