Let's Read The Kingkiller Chronicle Pt 3: A Bad Case of Edema

We last left off with Chronicler blacking out after being attacked by a Scrael, leaving Kvothe to fight the beasts alone. The opening of the next chapter sees Kvothe lugging an unconscious Chronicler (whose real name is Devan, in case you're curious--everyone in these books has four or five names) back to the Waystone Inn to patch him up.

Like I mentioned last time, the pieces are basically all set to begin the story proper, wherein Kvothe narrates his backstory to Chronicler and Bast, but it takes a lot of back and forth-ing and descriptions of the shorthand notation that Chronicler uses (no, it's not relevant) before Kvothe eventually agrees to spill the beans, prodded by Chronicler's revelation that the stories about him are starting to take a dark turn in his absence. I'm going to skip over most of that and get to the good stuff.

“That said, do not presume to change a word of what I say. If I seem to wander, if I seem to stray, remember that true stories seldom take the straightest way.”

These words are a threat, and should be taken as such.

But I was brought up as Kvothe. My father once told me it meant “to know.”

I have, of course, been called many other things. Most of them uncouth, although very few were unearned.

I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.

You may have heard of me.

How badly do you want to punch Kvothe right now?

One of the things that constantly mystifies me about these books is how much--or whether--we're supposed to actually like and admire Kvothe. In both word and deed, he comes across as utterly insufferable, but the actual internal world of the story never slaps him down for his blatant immaturity or ridiculous sense of self-seriousness.

Everyone he meets who isn't evil treats him as the coolest thing on two legs. Chronicler doesn't burst out laughing at the stupid boast I just quoted, or any of the other times Kvothe displays a stunning degree of narcissism and self-importance (you could argue that he's star-struck at being in the presence of a living legend, but that realistically should fade once Kvothe gets into the meat of his tale and Chronicler realizes how boring his life story actually is). Only Bast really needles him about his ego, but even that's in an affectionate way, and it's clear that he really does find Kvothe admirable and impressive. Kvothe can't even be depressed without his sadness being treated as the very axis upon which entire lives turn, as we'll see later in the story.

Anyway, Kvothe begins his tale by talking about his cultural background and upbringing, a topic we will be covering in great detail. But first:

IF THIS STORY IS to be something resembling my book of deeds, we must begin at the beginning. At the heart of who I truly am. To do this, you must remember that before I was anything else, I was one of the Edema Ruh.

...first, we've got to discuss conlangs.

Once upon a time, JRR Tolkien made a series of fantasy novels set in an invented universe. This universe included multiple fictional languages (aka constructed languages, or "conlangs"), which he mapped out in such intricate detail that you can actually learn to speak and read them just like real languages. Tolkien was uniquely suited to this task because he was a trained linguist in his day job, and because of that his conlangs have a certain versimilitude to them. 

Then whole generations of fantasy authors were inspired by Tolkien, and they decided it would be neat to make their own conlangs for their fantasy settings as well. They were not trained linguists. By and large, their fictional languages feel exactly like what they are: random syllables slapped together without rhyme or reason, often resulting in supposedly separate languages by different authors that seem nearly identical (they usually involve a lot of vowels and apostrophes).

Patrick Rothfuss is not a linguist. Patrick Rothfuss tried to come up with his own languages. Thus, we have Edema Ruh, a phrase that would just scream "my first epic fantasy setting" even if one of its constituent parts wasn't a medical term for abnormal fluid retention. 

But the Kingkiller Chronicle's bad case of Edema is just a symptom of a larger malady. Characters frequently have bi-lingual conversations or translate words for no reason other than to demonstrate the fact that the author has invented his own languages (this is a chronic problem in fantasy novels featuring conlangs), character names rarely seem to follow any cultural or linguistic patterns and locations seem to have been christened by picking random place-names out of a hat.

The thing about Tolkien's Middle-Earth, whatever else you might think of his story-telling chops or whether you actually like any of his books, is that he undoubtably went all the way with it. Creating that universe was his life's work, and it took years of effort before he even started telling stories that anyone but die-hard lorehounds or English mythology scholars would be interested in reading. The vast majority of people who follow in his footsteps want to achieve the same effect--a huge, lived-in world with its own internal logic and rich history--but either lack the skill-set to do that or don't want to put in the vast amount of effort required. 

At the risk of jumping the gun on the central thesis of this post series, the net effect of all of this is generation after generation of authors pouring time and effort into inventing languages and songs and poems and maps--things that they don't have the knowledge or experience or skills to actually do competently--and neglecting to do the one thing that they theoretically are supposed to be able to do well, which is to tell a god damn story.

...sorry, what were we talking about?

Oh yeah, the Edema Ruh.

So the Ruh (as they're more commonly known) are an...ethnicity, I guess, clearly based on the Roma and Irish Travellers. They're a class of itinerant entertainers who wander the land in wagons, earning money by staging plays, songs, music and other performances for the people of various towns and villages, most of whom hate them and think they're all robbers and thieves. 

You may have already spotted the reason why this makes no sense, but here are some other facts about the Ruh that we learn in this and subsequent chapters:

  1. Despite the stereotypes, the vast majority of Ruh are paragons of virtue who do not rob or otherwise commit crimes. Kvothe states this as an absolute fact, and nothing in either of the currently published books has yet contradicted it.
  2. Kvothe's troupe is significantly better-educated, better clothed, and in fact wealthier overall than the villagers they entertain for their livelihoods, who are portrayed as backwards, ignorant and poor.
  3. Most of them seem to be incredibly arrogant and elitist.

So, in order, here's why none of this makes any sense.

If everyone hates the Ruh so much, why do they keep hiring them to put on performances or let them anywhere near their villages? The groups they're based on historically took up professions like repairing tools and trading ("tinker", a name for Irish Travelers now considered pejorative, is an antiquated word for someone who works with tin), which were services that people needed and which they'd be willing to hire Roma or Travelers for even if they were suspicious of them. But there's nothing necessary about entertainment. There's some explanation about the Ruh guarding their stories and songs as a sort of Ye Olde Copyright Protection, but in that case people would just make up their own stories (the book somewhat bizarrely treats oral storytelling like a specialized skill-set akin to film-making that you need to be specifically educated for, even though you don't even need to know how to read or write to do it).

If the Ruh are forced to exist on the fringes of society, barred from all but one profession, and regularly abused and discriminated against...why exactly are they so virtuous? These are the kinds of conditions that cause people to turn to crime in the first place, and it seems absurd that literally all of the Ruh would be so incorruptible. If you had to work all day for people who spat on you, chased you out of town and treated you like scum, how long would it be before you started wanting to steal from them--or worse--just out of spite alone? This feels like a well-intended attempt at subverting stereotypes about minorities that went way too far in the other direction. No group on Earth has ever been uniformly noble and pure-hearted in the face of adversity, and oppression can in fact turn people hateful and angry instead of forging them into heroic resistance leaders and champions of freedom (most oppressive systems count on this happening).

Then again, Kvothe and his troupe are apparently loaded, so I guess they don't need to steal to survive. This, at least, has something approaching a plausible explanation, as we're told that Kvothe's troupe has the patronage of a wealthy lord who pays for them to entertain him twice a year at his manor. This is clearly riffing on the system of patrons and itinerant player's groups of the Elizabethan era, and it's true that some groups could indeed grow very wealthy in this system--William Shakespeare was part of one. But his King's Men attained financial security by operating a theatre where they could reliably do business, not by roaming the countryside and performing for impoverished peasants who barely had two coins to rub together.

And as to the Ruh being entitled little shits who look down on their paying customers...well actually that makes perfect sense, since it explains where Kvothe got his attitude from.

There's a severe disconnect between what the book is telling us and what it's showing us. The Ruh should, given the circumstances presented on the page, be living in poverty and struggling to survive by any means necessary (the male life expectancy for some groups of Irish Travelers is thirty-five, and that's today, in 2017, in a rich, technologically advanced country; imagine would it would be like in a renaissance-era world with no modern sanitation or medicine), facing the same problems that have historically plagued oppressed, marginalized groups. 

But instead, they're a middle-class group of educated, misunderstood artists whose sophisticated stories and music are too good for the ordinary rabble that denigrates them out of jealousy. I'm too familiar with the persecution complex mythology that certain strains of fantasy and sci-fi fans like to steep themselves in not to suspect that I'm seeing it repackaged into a flattering caricature here, which I guess is fair enough--if you want to write fiction that flatters you and your intended readership, knock yourself out. But I think Rothfuss, if that is what he's doing with the Ruh, is being irresponsible by co-opting the experiences of real minority groups who actually do suffer from real oppression and struggle with horrendous social problems on an ongoing basis.