The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss is both highly traditional as well as innovative as far as modern fantasy goes. It’s a return to an eagle-eye focus on a single interesting protagonist, rather than ten or more like something akin to Game of Thrones. But it also uses its frame narrative to cleverly make comments about, or self-deprecate the genre. This makes for a fantasy adventure that, despite its hefty length, is quite light on the fantasy, heavier on the lyrical prose, and devoted to a character study of an intrepid, singular, Sherlock Holmes-esque intellect.
That character is Kvothe (“pronounced almost the same as ‘quothe.’”), a fiery haired man who in the present portion of the narrative runs a bar and hides from the world, and in his autobiographical retelling reveals that his life started as the young member of a traveling theatre troupe and musician. He and his family eventually began travelling with a scholar who Kvothe becomes enamored with when he sees the man control the wind. His teachings under this man, along with his natural talent and smarts, is one of the things that would propel him to the location where much of the narrative takes place: the University. The other elements that would inspire his journey to this institution are, of course, heartbreak, tragedy, and the mysterious creatures known as the Chandrian.
It’s a simple narrative, which is perhaps part of its charm. Rothfuss, like his central hero, understands that it’s all in the telling: “you have to be a bit of a liar to tell a story the right way. Too much truth confuses the facts. Too much honesty makes you sound insincere” (183). As a result, Kvothe is offered up as a cocky, bravado wielding legend in the third person narrative, and a shy but sure student in the large third person portion. Seeing how he grows from one to the other, and how he portrays himself, is naturally part of the enjoyment.
The prose follows suit, being almost minimalistic if not for Rothfuss’ dramatic style, that plucks heart strings just at the right moments, not unlike the manner in which Kvothe plays his beloved lute. Take this scene as an example, from a chapter less than a page long, that recounts the quiet feeling of friendship experienced by Kvothe as he walks home with his mates after a musical victory:
The three boys, one dark, one light, and one- for lack of a better word- fiery, do not notice the night. Perhaps some part of them does, but they are young, and drunk, and busy knowing deep in their hearts that they will never grow old or die. They also know that they are friends, and they share a certain love that will never leave them. The boys know many other things, but none of them seem as important as this. Perhaps they are right. (395)
As mentioned, the fantasy elements in The Name of the Wind are significantly downplayed. In fact, “magic” in the Kingkiller Chronicle universe takes more inspiration from science and the conservation of energy principle than your typical portrayal of wizardry. It’s called “Sympathy,” and is just another academic subject, similar to mathematics or philosophy, taught at the University. There is of course the manner of controlling something by knowing it’s true name, a la the wind, but present day Kvothe says little about this and past Kvothe sees it as being largely shrouded in mystery, despite his dogged interest. It seems to work on a similar concept though, and it is a theme of a deeper emotional and intellectual understanding opening up the world that pervades Kvothe’s journey, and his mastery of these two disciplines is perhaps one source of his eminent skill and notoriety.
So, as you may have gleaned, The Name of the Wind can be an odd bird at times. Don’t go in expecting a swashbuckling magical adventure, as essentially what you’re getting is a man’s detailed biography of living in a fantasy world. Magic is minimal and pragmatic, creatures are wrapped up in myths and hearsay similar to our own, and the country has that oh so familiar fantasy Europe feel. But it’s the subtlety of it that makes The Name of the Wind unique, and the story’s willingness to critique itself makes it all the more enjoyable. Kvothe’s patient listeners, and their reaction to the reveal of the first supposed “dragon” in his tale is testament to that, one simply shrugging and citing his obedience to record the tale without question, and the other saying he can seem shocked if it will make Kvothe feel better. “There are few things as nauseating as pure obedience,” (545) says Kvothe in turn. We’ve all seen dragons, Kvothe. What we perhaps haven’t seen, is the next thing in literary fantasy: the tale that is great in it’s telling because of honest deeds done, not because of too much flash or trickery. A tale of a man who does not have the wind at his back, but eagerly searches for its name before him.
Rothfuss, Patrick. The Name of the Wind. Great Britain: Gollancz, 2007. Print.
Kvothe overlooks a town. Digital image. Forbes. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2016. <http://blogs-images.forbes.com/erikkain/files/2015/10/Kingkiller-Chronicles-1024×669.jpg>.