“The ironist is always only making himself seem to be other than he actually is; thus, just as the ironist hides his jest in earnest, his earnestness in jest, so it may occur to him to pretend to be evil, although he is good.”
Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates
It is custom for posts appearing during this time of year to be a joke, but I’m afraid what I have to discuss today is no laughing matter.
I hope it is known that I am an unabashed admirer of the Kingkiller Chronicles and have even written a panegyric to it. And a large part of that adoration is because I am enamored of its lyrical prose.
“More Lyrical Prose!” is something I shout to the muses every evening after I take a draught of wine, take hold of my own dry quill, and compose many lambent songs beneath the wild moonlight.
You can imagine, then, my excitement when I first read the opening pages of The Name of the Wind, whose very title is an incantatory spell.
Shall we take some time to enjoy these magical words and their soft, quiet beauty?
“The Waystone was his just as the third silence was his. This was appropriate as it was the greatest silence of the three, wrapping the others inside itself. It was deep and wide as autumn’s ending. It was heavy as a river-smooth stone. It was the patient cut-flower sound of a man waiting to die.”
Marvelous and beautiful, isn’t it?
But what if the whole time we were reading, quivering in complete rapture with the music of Pat’s prose…Pat was actually laughing at us?
That’s right, Rothfuss is an ironist. His prose is written not with the poet’s love, but with the cynic’s sneer.
Pat very early on came out against the rusty tropes that clutter up so many of our top fantasy books. Among them were goblins, elves with bows, dwarves with axes, dragons, evil wizards who make stupid decisions, and the not-so-great-writing sitting on the pages of most fantasy books.
He also noted in one of the most over-looked interviews of the 21st century of how similar his novel was to Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, which is well known as a cunning analysis of fairy-tales and the many tropes that inhabit them. Or, as Ana from the Book Smugglers perfectly states, “this is a fairy tale that knows it’s a fairy tale.”
Behold, then, the most infamous authorial slip-up of the 21st century in which the game is given up as early as 2007. Here is Mr. Rothfuss:
“Anyway, I was listening to Beagle answer a question on the panel, he said something along the lines of, ‘I’d never want to write the Last Unicorn again. It was excruciatingly hard, because I was writing a faerie tale while at the same time writing a spoof of a faerie tale.’
“I just sat there thunderstruck. I realized that’s exactly what I had been doing for over a decade with my story. I was writing heroic fantasy, while at the same time I was satirizing heroic fantasy.” (emphasis mine)
If the Kingkiller Chronicles is like The Last Unicorn and deconstructs the tropes of fantasy, then one of those tropes must be the language of story telling.
And if Kvothe is telling the story, and we know Kvothe is a stab at the accumulated tropes from piles of fantasy stories, then the beloved language is not written in earnest, but as a joke.
The question lying at the center of this controversy of course is whether or not Kvothe is a Mary Sue.
The Length of the Kingkiller Chronicles: Or, Size Matters, Issues of Length, & Lengthy Issues 🍆
“At 1000 pages (oh dear, another one), it could have taken care of business in half the length. These are not insignificant problems. There’s too much shilly-shallying around in epic fantasies these days, with already-thin plot threads stretched out until they’re nearly transparent. And to what end, precisely?
In The Wise Man’s Fear, Kvothe can be accurately described as a young man who travels here, does some stuff, travels there, does some other stuff, and travels a third place, where he does yet more stuff. Some of it is interesting. Some of it is downright tedious. At no point does the book get your pulse racing.”
Just as fantasy authors delay the publication of their works and go on long diversions within their long epic books, so to do I wish to go on a diversion, with a wry and clever argument and a clever tale that goes “there and back again.”
It is well known that fantasy novels and indeed fantasy series themselves are notoriously overlong.🍆
Not only are these male fantasy books hugely long, their width or girth is enormous, straddling both hundreds and thousands of fantastical years and thousands upon thousands of pages.🍆
🍆This is a BIG book. DO NOT miss how important it is because it is BIG.🍆
In order to discuss this series at length, we must account for some issues of length, which, by and large, are quite lengthy. So our first task will be to take the measure of things.🍆
🍆How Big is Your Can(n)on? Because Mine is HUGE. 🍆
A Medieval Fantasy Author with a measuring stick jeers at other lesser fantasy authors from the margins of a manuscript. Source: Cambridge Library
Tolkein’s trilogy of novels span to 481,103 words and Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen measures out to an estimated 8,889 pages and 3,325,000 words.🍆
Robert Jordan’s tomes sprawled 12 books before Brandon Sanderson broke the final one down into two, wrapping up the series at a gigantic 14 books, which if one was to measure, has to be one of the longest tales ever written. The Wheel of Time series grew to over 11,916 pages (paperback count) and an estimated 4,410,036 words.🍆
Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive is only two books at the moment, with the first one stretching to 608 pages and the second one is a trouser-ripping 1088 pages. However, when we consider the length of his overall output it is one of the thickest and most massive and altogether longest of all the fantasy authors.🍆
George R R Martin’s Game of Throne’s series currently consists of 6 novels totaling only 1,770,000 million words.🍆
Tolkien’s Words: 481,103
Erikson’s Words: 3,325,000
Jordan’s Words: 4,410,036
George R R Martin’s Words: 1,770,000
What does any of this have to do with Pat’s tomes?
Each book of the Kingkiller Chronicles, both The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear are extremely long winded tales (perhaps literally idle fantasies) in which little of anything important or truly exciting can be said to actually happen.
By stretching out the plot and “shilly-shallying around,” Rothfuss is mocking canonical fantasy authors like Tolkein, Jordan, Sanderson, Erikson, and George R. R. Martin.
One commentator points out how well Rothfuss is skewering these other fantasy authors with his exceedingly long tale:
“Like I say, this is a long book. A long, long book….It’s long. It’s wordy. The author bio on the inside back cover describes Patrick Rothfuss as somebody who “loves words, laughs often, and refuses to dance” and he seems to have chosen to demonstrate his love of words by including a great many superfluous ones.”
When its all been sized up, this amounts to insuperable evidence that the Kingkiller Chronicles are meant to be understood as satire, as sneering jabs at the fantasy genre, as “heroic fantasy that satirizes heroic fantasy.”
🍆The Importance of Dithering & Extension (Or, How To Make Yourself Bigger)🍆
Just as the fantasy author of great renown delays and postpones his next epic fantasy book so too did I delay and postpone this epic fantasy blog post meant for the cool whims of early April but delayed until the hot and sultry month of May and then delayed once more to the dry winds of October more than a year later. And then I delayed and delayed again until finally in April two years later I was pushed to publish this piece.
Not only must these books be physically large and extend over vast periods of fantastical time (and, note well, perhaps time is always fantastical) but these enormous fantasy volumes must stretch across vast periods of physically-lived time as well.
Unlike Steven Erikson who foolishly completed his tumid fantasy series in a speedy flash of 12 years, Robert Jordan’s series was so long and drawn out he never managed to complete it before passing. He began writing in 1984 and left it to Sanderson to finish in 2013. That is a series that took 29 years to complete.
(Sanderson, it should be noted, is more than likely not a human being but a time traveling literary robot created by Google in the distant future and sent back in time to complete the fantasy series of authors who took too long to complete their books.)
George R. R. Martin looks to be following the same course as Robert Jordan.
The first Game of Thrones book was published in 1996, which brings Martin within threatening distance of Jordan’s 29 year marker.
I think it is of utmost importance that we pause here and take care to resolve one of the biggest fantasy controversies of the 21st century.
Namely, why is it taking so long for George R. R. Martin to finish his fantasy series?
The answer must be obvious at this point.
He is in a classic male measuring contest.🍆
Martin simply cannot publish the conclusion to his books within the next 9 years because he would only tie Robert Jordan.
He must wait at least 10 years to conclude his fantasy series, which will make his tale longer, if not the longest ever written amongst all fantasy authors anywhere ever.🍆
Making things even more difficult and dire is the fact that his series, which is on the threshold of a startling conclusion, currently only totals 1,770,00 words which means he has to figure a way to essentially triple the word count or face a humiliating short coming when compared to the utterly massive length of Jordan’s gigantic series.🍆
(As an aside, I actually believe Game of Thrones was only a trilogy. But that is a thesis for another day.)
What does this have to do with the Kingkiller Chronicles?
Rothfuss has wryly delayed his own final novel (which he started when he was 17 and is now 42) as part of this grand mockery of the fantasy tradition.
In interview after interview he claimed the series was completed and that books two and three would follow along at one year intervals, while puckishly knowing that he would in fact not publish them at this pace.
Take for example an interview with Publisher’s Weekly.
When explicitly asked what the publishing schedule would be, Rothfuss replies:
The next two books will come out in one-year intervals. I’m able to do this because when I started writing, I had no idea how long a book was. I just kept blazing a trail until I came to the end of Kvothe’s story. When I finally finished, I looked back and realized I had a trilogy’s worth of material.
Again, this is an excellent moment of satire, of Rothfuss following all the way through with his gag on the epic fantasy community.
Either Kvothe is a Mary Sue or Kvothe is Not a Mary Sue. Either Way You Will Regret it.
via penny arcade https://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2011/04/11
If Kvothe is a Mary Sue, then Rothfuss is earnestly writing himself into this character and Kvothe’s language, the language of Patrick Rothfuss, is flowing from Kvothe’s mellifluous lips. (This makes for some awkward reading of scenes like losing one’s virginity to a saucy sex fairy, and actually being so skilled in the carnal arts that the lamia is enthralled with an otherwise unimpressed erotic neophyte.)
To repeat, just like a fantasy author must repeat all of his first book in the first half of his second book, to repeat again, this is the only way Patrick Rothfuss’s prose can be sincerely poetic: if Kvothe is a Mary Sue. Otherwise the language is just part of Kvothe’s performance.
There has already been an extensive and assiduously gathered collection of Kvothe’s Mary Sueness and I encourage readers to refamiliarize themselves with these exquisite examples of literary criticism.
And while they do bear repeating, they essentially boil down to the point that Kvothe is better than everyone at everything. He is brilliant, handsome, fierce, and gifted at magic.
Or as Dan over at ferretbrain writes, “Kvothe is awesome. He meets people who tell him how awesome he is, and they teach him to be even more awesome. The end.”
However, the examples are so compelling that they actually prove the exact opposite of what their commentators have set out to prove–that Kvothe is a Mary Sue.
Now, if Kvothe is not a Mary Sue, then we as readers are in a rather humiliating and embarrassing situation.
For if this is true, then Rothfuss is using Kvothe’s language as part of that character’s grandstanding, and as so many have pointed out Kvothe is very much in performance mode (he hails from a theatre troupe, tropetastically enough).
So how can we resolve this, which surely must be the most perplexing issue of literary criticism in the 21st century?
I am going to look at the most telling example where the tale slips up and reveals its own tail.
Either Kvothe is Unadulterated Male Fantasy or Kvothe is Not Unadulterated Male Fantasy. Either Way, You Will Regret it.
To dispel any and all doubt, the Fae is where the narrative slips up and gives itself away as a fulsome mockery of fantasy itself as such. And how apposite! The ideal locus to mock a fairy-tale would be in fairy-land itself. Not only is the fantasy genre being skewered, fantasy itself as such is being ridiculed.
Behold the passage which has been universally scorned as ridiculous male fantasy:
[quote]Some of the fire left her, but when she found her voice it was tight and dangerous. “my skills ‘suffice’?” She hardly seemed able to force out the last word. Her mouth formed a thin, outraged line.
I exploded, my voice a roll of thunder. “How the hell am I supposed to know? It’s not like I’ve ever done this sort of thing before!”
She reeled back at the vehemence of my words, some of the anger draining out of her. “what is it you mean?” she trailed off, confused.
“This!” I gestured awkwardly at myself, at her, at the cushions and the pavilion around us, as if that explained everything.
The last of the anger left her as I saw realization begin to dawn, “you…”
“No,” I looked down, my face growing hot. “I have never been with a woman.” Then I straightened and looked her in the eye as if challenging her to make an issue of it.”
Felurian was still for a moment, then let her mouth turn up into a wry smile. “you tell me a faerie story, my kvothe.”
I felt my face go grim. I don’t mind being called a liar. I am. I am a marvelous liar. But I hate being called a liar when I’m telling the perfect truth.
Regardless of my motivation, my expression seemed to convince her. “but you were like a gentle summer storm.” She made a fluttering gesture with a hand. “you were a dancer fresh upon the field.” Her eyes glittered wickedly.[/quote]
The two most prominent reactions are either to attempt to fit this into the logic of the story or to complain that there is no way to fit this into the logic of the story. For those in the later camp this is usually where they cast aside the Kingkiller Chronicles as a ridiculous piece of male fantasy wish fulfillment. Which it is.
The later reaction is most sensibly expressed by Dan H when he writes,
“the story of Kvothe’s night with Felurian is just – well – exactly what it says on the tin. There’s no clever twist or double meaning, no unexpected subversion of our expectations.”
And this is where thousands of readers have gone wrong and missed the most telling and perhaps the most ironic passage written in the 21st century.
This passage finds Rothfuss not simply smiling behind his beard, but drooling into his beard between hearty bouts of laughter. “Seriously, who actually reads this kind of thing? How foolish do you have to be to go in for this kind of thing? Remember when you actually had ridiculous dreams like this?”
In reality, this logic can actually be employed across the entire series and applies to each and every sentence. Rothfuss can be seen pausing after each “lyrical” line, arching his eyebrow and asking the reader, “Really? You believe this?”
Thus we know Kvothe is definitely not a Mary Sue in the traditional sense of that trope. But we now have a new question before us.
What “Is” A Mary Sue? Is it Different in the 21st Century?
The modern Mary Sue is still an idealized set of recognizable tropes. The Mary Sue now is simply ironized, or balanced. What does that mean?
Having flaws has become part of the ideal character, has become part of being a Mary Sue.
Mary Sue’s of the 21st century are just as bland and predictable as the original Mary Sue. They cuss, have drug habits, are arrogant, unreliable, selfish, self-loathing, cynical, and sarcastic.
They are always undervalued by their society and are always outcasts. Then, they are always empowered and always thrust themselves into the center of that society and are thrust into the center by their society, which fills them with an existential unease, and they always retire to the margins and are always retired to the margins.
And thus Kvothe is definitely a Mary Sue.
But, dear reader, does this sound like someone you know or someone you might wish to be?
Admit it: you yourself are a Mary Sue! (and authorial stand in.)
You Yourself Have Cuckolded Yourself. Or, Are You Yourself a Mary Sue?
In fact, I don’t believe you are sincerely reading the Kingkiller Chronicles either.
How could you?
Irony is the rule of our age. Everyone is clever and they have glasses, coffee mugs, and trendy jackets and shoes to prove it.
Everyone is clever, no one is deceived.
To believe in something is to be fooled by something (or most likely someone). And no one wants to be the fool, which is why we are living in an age of fools, “for the deceived is wiser than the one not deceived.”