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The Present Storyteller

July 5, 2011

Or, why I love The Name of the Wind.

The one thing that kind of sucked about being an English major in college was that 500+ pages a week of required reading didn’t leave a lot of time for reading for fun–especially fun of the big-huge-fantasy-epic variety.  As a result, I’m a little (read: about 4 years) behind on starting Patrick Rothfuss’ awesome Kingkiller Chronicle trilogy.  But now that I have, I’m totally in love.

Title: The Name of the Wind

Author: Patrick Rothfuss

Read this: Right now.  Seriously, why are you reading this post when you could be reading this awesome book?

The short version: What A Wizard of Earthsea wants to be when it grows up.

I wrote my senior thesis on frame stories, and I haven’t been able to look at one the same way since.  Fortunately, The Name of the Wind puts its particular story-in-a-story conceit to brilliant use.  The book follows ex-badass-arcanist (this universe’s professional amalgamation of mage, alchemist, and engineer) Kvothe as he recounts the tale of his heroic exploits to his aptly named would-be biographer, Chronicler.  The “ex” bit is important: in the book’s narrative present, Kvothe is a pale shadow of his former adventuring self.  He’s an innkeeper in a tiny out-of-the-way town, complete with uselessly repetitive polishing of glasses and other staples of fantasy tavern behavior.  Until Chronicler arrives to disturb his retirement, “Kote” the innkeeper does his best not to remember his colorful past–the only relic of which is his as-yet-largely-unexplained supernatural sidekick and student, Bast, who also does his best not to mention Certain Important Things.

On the surface, this is a pretty simple setup for a frame story.  “A retired adventurer walks into a tavern…”  Right?  Most of the book’s 700 pages consist of Kvothe’s first-person account of (the first third of) his past, which is a fantastic tale in its own right.  Kvothe spends his childhood as a boy genius among a group of gypsy-like traveling performers, does a brief stint as a street urchin, and later earns himself a place at a University with all the magnetic appeal of Hogwarts and a slight touch of vaguely steampunkish artifice.  Patrick Rothfuss weaves all three of these environments into a seamless page-turner that serves as a hugely promising start to a truly epic trilogy.

To get back to the frame-tale aspect, Kvothe’s tale is punctuated by “interludes” that take us back to story present and our three guys in a tavern.  These could easily have been simply moments for Kvothe to reflect wittily on his past and make cheap foreshadowing comments about the rest of the story–but they aren’t (just) that.

To put on my English major hat for a minute, narrative theory has a handy distinction between two sort of personas a first-person narrator has: the “experiencing” I, who is actually living in and experiencing the story moment by moment; and the “narrating” I, who is telling the story and reflecting on it at some later time.  Even in a story which maintains the conceit of narrating more or less instantaneously, or “writing to the moment” (e.g. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela), narrative theory maintains there’s some distance between these two facets–even if it’s only the half-second it takes to react to an event and put it into words.

For Kvothe, this distance is huge.  Young, tenacious, lucky, accidentally-swashbuckling Kvothe is worlds away from quiet, tired, grieving innkeeper Kvothe.  In an ordinary first-person narrative, we might expect to hear a great deal from present-time, narrating Kvothe regarding his reaction to certain events, or putting things into the clean cause-and-effect perspective we expect from stories but can rarely put together in the present moment of our real lives.  Rothfuss does indeed give us some of that, à la “Time is the great healer, and so on” or “Little did I know our time was quickly drawing to an end.”  (Deliberately vague examples, but spoiler-free!)

I tend not to like big sprawling epics with first-person narrators because they give themselves a little too readily to overly talky, introspective storytelling.  Too much telling, not enough showing, to follow that good ol’ maxim.  Which is why–in my opinion–Rothfuss’ frame-tale interludes are so genius.  It’s not just the story of past-tense, experiencing Kvothe and how he reacts to what happens to him; it’s also the story of how present-tense, narrating Kvothe reacts to the retelling.  By distributing these interludes throughout the tale instead of using a simpler open-and-close frame structure, Rothfuss moves the story’s center of gravity away from the story and toward the storyteller.  In The Name of the Wind, the frame structure isn’t just frosting we have to cut through to get to the big epic cake.  The book is two stories in parallel–both of them Kvothe’s, and both of them dependent on each other, far more captivating together than one would be alone.

Late in the book, supernatural sidekick Bast puts his finger on something crucial.  “It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head,” he says.  “Always.  All the time.  That story makes you what you are.  We build ourselves out of that story.”  The act of experiencing this story firsthand changed Kvothe–but so does the act of telling it, and we get to watch.  A retired adventurer walks into a tavern…  Fascinating things happened to him once upon a time, but something fascinating is also happening to him now.

I might just be stuck reading too much into frame tales forever–thanks, senior thesis.  But I think Rothfuss is onto something interesting here, and I can’t wait to see if the second book holds up to this one’s promise.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 6, 2011 9:43 AM

    ” the frame structure isn’t just frosting we have to cut through to get to the big epic cake”

    … I knew I liked you for a reason!

  2. July 6, 2011 2:06 PM

    I should’ve known you’d like the cake metaphor. ;P

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