Saturday, September 12, 2009

James Frazer and 'The Name of the Wind': Rothfuss, Sympathetic Magic, and Donuts

Now that my poster job run has come to end, I’ve finally gotten a worry-free day off. Although I still have a week as a poster job ‘helper,’ it’s a position with little to no responsibility and stress, which leaves me with un-weighted shoulders. Since my poster-partner Ian has gone on to other things, I decided to spend the day here in the recently-renovated Red Roof Inn, Secaucus, doing one of my favorite things – laying in bed all day reading, in pajamas, greasy-haired and sandy-eyed. I had pizza delivered and got out of bed long enough to go to Dunkin’ Donuts.

My book of choice was Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind. It is a fantasy story about a young orphan who goes off to magic school in order to become a conflicted but brilliant young magician, pretty much in the vein of Harry Potter and Ged of EarthSea. The main character, young Kvothe, is a clever and gifted boy with a traumatic past, who has an innate ‘knack’ for learning anything and everything, and who turns out to be an extraordinarily powerful magic-user. He is also witty, swaggering and brash, but with the appropriate amount of humility, self-consciousness and insecurity thrown in at all the right moments. He loves one girl with all his heart and hates the requisite pair of enemies - a petty, troublesome and jealous human rival as well as a more world-endangering, all-powerful, malevolent foe. He is part FitzChivalry, part Locke Lamora and, yes, part Harry Potter. In other words, he is a fantasy hero that reader’s love to love, an addictive, engaging and indisputably perfect protagonist.

Young Kvothe is also a trouper, a musician/actor/storyteller. Rothfuss has created a character who breathes stories, who recognizes and contemplates structures and archetypes. He is familiar with plays, poems and songs, and when in a bind, can pull an Indiana-Jones-buying-tapestries-at-the-castle and fall right into the needed persona. Stories and myth are a constant part of Rothfuss’ world and there is even a mythical hero for bards, Illien, who composed the most famous and best epics ever to charm the ear.

The Name of the Wind is a story concerned with stories, even down to its very shape. Within the arc of the book, our main character recites his own history to a listening bard, and the telling of that tale is meant to take three days. The first book of the trilogy, The Name of the Wind, is mostly made up of the first day of that telling, while the second and third books of the trilogy (I assume?) will cover the subsequent two days. After all, the subtitle of the book is ‘The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One.’ Rothfuss here alludes to the tradition of oral poetry, a favorite topic for classicists. Twentieth-century research has emphasized the story-telling tricks of bards who can recite enormous epics over multiple days. It has been suggested, for example, that Homer’s Iliad was thus performed, broken up into three days.

Another feature of the epic tradition is repetition, and thus Rothfuss’ book begins and ends with ‘roughly’ the same passages, similar, in a way, to Robert Jordan’s 'Wheel of Time' ("The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades into myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again."). But for Rothfuss, although his corresponding prologue and epilogue surround a sonorous tale rife with music, singing, and the telling of tales, his repeated passage is a meditation on the three kinds of silence.

It is not just to the oral tradition that Rothfuss looks, but also to the early masters of anthropology, most recognizably Sir James Frazer. Frazer’s theory of magic finds its echo in the laws of magic found in Rothfuss’ world. I consider this worthy of note because 1) I’m interested in ancient magic, 2) I’m interested in historiography and religious theory and 3) I will be closely examining Frazer’s compatriots, The Cambridge Ritualists, in my dissertation. One of Frazer’s most indelible and long-lasting ideas was that of Sympathetic Magic. In his Golden Bough, he says “If we analyze the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed. The former principle may be called the Law of Similarity, the latter the Law of Contact or Contagion. From the first of these principles, namely the Law of Similarity, the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it: from the second he infers that whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not. Charms based on the Law of Similarity may be called Homoeopathic or Imitative Magic. Charms based on the Law of Contact or Contagion may be called Contagious Magic.”

Kvothe, in a quite memorable scene from his time at the magical University, describes the laws of sympathetic magic thus: “First is the Doctrine of Correspondence which says ‘similarity enhances sympathy’…the more things resemble each other, the stronger the sympathetic link between them will be.” (Rothfuss, Kindle passages 5061-5073). He continues, lecturing to a class of students, “Second is the Principle of Consanguinity, which says, ‘a piece of a thing can represent the whole of a thing’…An easy way of thinking of it is, ‘once together, always together.’” (5061-5090). While explaining these things, our hero constructs a voodoo doll made of wax in perfect accordance with the idea of Sympathetic Magic that Frazer championed.

But Frazer believed the sympathetic magic system to be a “spurious system of natural law,” “always an art, never a science,” with its practitioners “in complete ignorance of the intellectual and physiological processes.” Rothfuss, in contrast, has created a system of magic that does bear the signs of science. He adds a law to Frazer’s list: “Third is the Law of Conservation, which says ‘energy cannot be destroyed or created.” (5061-7) His magicians (or arcanists, as they’re called) must be cognizant of energy sources and percentages of transference – magic requires energy, often heat, but the efficacy of one’s sympathetic working effects how much of that energy can be transferred in the whole process of ‘like produces like.’ That is, burning the foot of a voodoo doll with a candle won’t do much to the victim, since it is, after all, only a candle flame. An arcanist will have to find a more scorching heat to do any real damage. Meanwhile, to become effective magic users, Rothfuss’ University students must all have an understanding of other topics like anatomy, physiology, engineering, etc. We’ve moved beyond Frazer’s “spurious science” and “bastard art.” Rothfuss has concocted an endlessly interesting magical system that allows for a great deal of creativity on Kvothe’s part but that also has an inherent and stable logic.

On top of sympathetic magic, Rothfuss’ follows the general trend in emphasizing the power of names, but that’s a whole other barrel of fish which I’ll talk about some other day.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed The Name of the Wind. How could I not? It has all those elements that you’re supposed to enjoy: tragedy, dashing heroics, witticisms, lovelorn teenagers, and earthy idioms. If occasionally the characterizations were a little vague and unfocused around the edges, it didn’t matter much; my first act upon finishing the book was to try and buy the sequel. Alas, it’s not ready yet. Once again, the perpetual pain of starting a book series that hasn’t actually been finished. There’s always Frazer, though, if I’m desperate for some sympathy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


"The Name of The Wind" was the second book I finished after getting back from WC. The first was Padaer's "The Inferior".

I really enjoyed tNotW too. In addition to the points you made about "sympathy" in Rothfuss's system of magic I found the necessity for absolute belief to be interesting. Kvothe has to learn to believe different ideas, ideas which are sometimes contradictory simultanously. Talk about the impossible.

Further, he learns to subdivide his own mind to facilitate these contradictory beliefs. I loved how his own life was reflective of that ability to subdivide his mind. When Kvothe played the dutiful son, the player, the urchin, the scholar, the Bard, and the theif all with equal skill and all seemingly independent of each other yet each aspect adding to and complementing the whole. I can't wait to see what roles he takes on next.

I throughly enjoyed tNotW. I'm eager to get my grubby hands on "The Wise Man's Fear."

I'm reading Acacia now by David Anthony Durham (he was at the BWB party).

Great review.