Warning: the following may contain spoilers!
It seems that Patrick Rothfuss’ notorious protagonist is one of those characters you either love or loathe. In a quiet inn tucked away in an almost forgotten rural town, the mild and unassuming innkeeper Kote tells a scribe the story of his past as the legendary Kvothe. And in the beginning, it seems the bright-eyed, brilliant, proud and precocious young Kvothe can be no more further from the silence of the wind that he spends the rest of the next two books struggling to grasp.
All fantasy is, in a sense, “wish-fulfilment”, as Tolkien would agree. In his poem “Mythopoiea” the father of the Fantasy genre as we know it today declares proudly that “Yes! ‘Wish-fulfillment dreams’ we spin to cheat / Our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!” Kvothe, as a character who in the beginning seems too perfect to be true, is everything we would wish to be: a musical prodigy and academic genius, skilled both in magic and rhetoric, brave and flawlessly handsome, defender of justice and heroic rescuer of distressed damsels. When met with difficulty he conquers them without much difficulty with his wit and his talents. If one didn’t know he was going to end up as Kote, the meek and despondent innkeeper who seems to have lost all hope, ambition, confidence and talent, one would think Kvothe not a very likeable character indeed. This seems to be one of the major criticisms of the protagonist – perfection that doesn’t allow one to suspend disbelief.
But a star only makes waves when it falls from great heights, and a tragedy that doesn’t fall with a resounding crash would hardly be tragic at all. In the beginning Kvothe has to be perfect – just as Agamemnon was before he died, just as Oedipus was before he was brought low and exiled. And though it is not yet clear what the fatal flaw of Kvothe is exactly, Rothfuss does seem to be setting the stage for a great fall. The framing narrative of Kote, which not only frames the story of Kvothe but also intersperses it, serves as a constant reminder of dread. The future, fixed and immutable, embodied by the most frightening creature the Cthaeh of which even the Fae fear to speak, hangs threateningly over all of Kvothe’s successes – so that the more triumphant his success, the more chilling the dread.
So if I were to criticise the character at all it would not be his perfection, which is necessary for a tragic fall; if I were to pick a fault with him at all, it would be his likability. Don’t get me wrong, I love and admire the guy; but it seems some hate him with a vengeance. Okay, so I get that that some people just don’t dig cockiness, just as some just don’t get why Denna, the wild and elusive love of Kvothe, should be so desirable to all the men in the story. (Some people prefer the aloofness of cats, the elusive grandeur of eagles in flight; some like the dramatic swag of peacocks, and others like panting, affectionate and down-to-earth dogs. I’m a cat and eagles person, myself. ☺️) But these are just personal preferences – no reason to trash the book! Chill, people.
Besides, a hero doesn’t have to be likeable; he just has to be relatable. And although Kvothe is a genius he certainly is relatable. The fact that he’s a genius doesn’t make him any less relatable any more than I wouldn’t be able to relate to Einstein if he tried to engage me in conversation. Genius as he is, he is nevertheless human and subject to pain, fear and death; and the beautiful thing is that although he is perfectly gifted he is not too perfect to learn. And he does learn, eventually. It is a long journey, but he learns humility. He learns to let go of his desire for mastery, for control of a thing, and to embrace it instead with all its mystery.
In fact, it is in this, his pride, that he is most human. Pride is our fatal flaw. It makes man a Saruman, seeking always to dominate the world with our knowledge and our science and our belief that we can and should understand all things. But during his visit to Fae, Kvothe learns from Felurian, just as we do from fantasy, that even the simplest things cannot be totalised; that the name of even the smallest piece of stone, as Elodin at the start tries in vain to teach Kvothe, has a name more complex than our conscious, rational or ever-rationalising, totalising minds can ever imagine, and more complex than our language can ever grasp – a name which can only be comprehended in the silence of dreams, which are the seed of fantasy.
On the whole, though Rothfuss’ prose isn’t particularly beautiful save for the occasional few lines, and may at times be a little too trite or lacking in subtlety, his style works. Characterisation is vivid, there’s plenty of witty banter, and his language is clear, memorable, and sharp enough to make me laugh and cry not just once but repeatedly and uncontrollably (and in public – how embarrassing). Will definitely be getting the next novel.