Let's Read The Kingkiller Chronicle pt. 6: Story Time

We're approaching the major inciting incident of Kvothe's story, the moment that put him on the path toward becoming a legend, but first I want to stop and examine this comment:

When we are children we seldom think of the future. This innocence leaves us free to enjoy ourselves as few adults can. The day we fret about the future is the day we leave our childhood behind.

Was anyone's childhood actually like this?

Childhood, both in fiction and outside of it, is often described in these idyllic, Utopian tones, but that never rings true for me. I think even an "ideal" childhood (which mine was, in many ways) involves a lot of anxiety and insecurity; in fact, I think children can be more fretful about their situation in life than adults can, because they lack any power to change their circumstances. When we grow up, we tend to view this through the thickest of rose-tinted lenses--oh, those carefree days when everything was taken care of for us--but we forget the unsettling flipside of being entirely dependent on other people for one's survival and livelihood, which is that your life is quite literally in another person's hands. Far too many children directly discover the dark side of this situation, but I think even those who don't are more aware of the possibility than most adults assume.

Of course, Kvothe's entire childhood is kind of absurdly pollyanna-esque to a degree that's making me nauseous, so let's move onto the next major story beat.

I tracked him down to my parent’s wagon. I heard the three of them long before I saw them. Their voices were just murmurs, the distant music that a conversation makes when it’s too dim for words. But as I was coming close I heard one word clearly: Chandrian.

Ah, the Chandrian.

The Chandrian are, supposedly, one of the central plot elements of the Kingkiller Chronicle. In just a few short chapters, they'll be divesting Kvothe of his parents and setting him on his hero's journey, and he will theoretically spend his University days pursuing them--the entire reason he goes there is to track down information about them from the University's great library.

I'm using words like "supposedly" and "theoretically" because they...don't actually factor into the plot very much. As in, there are probably two-dozen side characters with a bigger direct impact on the story. The scene where they kill Kvothe's parents is the only time he's actually encountered them directly; he very briefly gets near one of them again in The Wise Man's Fear, but this amounts to a cameo so inconsequential that he doesn't even realize it until well after the fact.

There's nothing wrong with a villain who stays in the background and pulls strings indirectly--it can make them seem more menacing and mysterious--but they don't actually seem to be doing anything; their known activities consist of assassinating people who get too close to finding out that they're real and not mere fairy tales, and hiding from an (even more nebulous and inconsequential) group of legendary heroes. Even Kvothe himself frequently seems to lose interest in finding them.

This goes back to what I said in our first installment, about stories and promises. It is not inherently poor storytelling to start off with the Chandrian but then tell a story that leaves them behind. Some great narrative works have been built on confounding expectations and telling a different story to the one the reader thought they were getting. But the books keep insisting that the Chandrian are important. Whenever Kvothe stops drifting through the narrative and takes some sort of proactive measure, it's always in pursuit of the Chandrian. At the climax of The Name of The Wind, he drops everything and jeopardizes his University career on the merest hint that they might have come out of hiding. And the various meandering digressions that make up the back half of The Wise Man's Fear all attempt to justify their existence by giving Kvothe tiny morsels of information about them.

The story itself keeps telling us that the Chandrian are important, continue to be important, and will become even more important, really soon now, any minute, just you wait...but it doesn't seem to be interested at all in actually making good on that promise. It uses the Chandrian as a carrot to endlessly entice the reader through long, self-indulgent chapters of world building or Kvothe faffing about in pointless digressions that add nothing to either the story or his character development.

But enough complaining. What even is a Chandrian, you ask?

“The first thing I need to know is how many there actually are,” my father said. “Most stories say seven, but even that’s conflicted. Some say three, others five, and in Felior’s Fall there are a full thirteen of them: one for each pontifet in Atur, and an extra for the capitol.”

“That I can answer,” Ben said. “Seven. You can hold to that with some certainty. It’s part of their name, actually. Chaen means seven. Chaen-dian means ‘seven of them.’ Chandrian.”

“I didn’t know that,” my father said. “Chaen. What language is that? Yllish?”

“Sounds like Tema,” my mother said.

“You’ve got a good ear,” Ben said to her. “It’s Temic, actually. Predates Tema by

That rant about conlangs doesn't seem so overblown now, does it?

Skipping past all of that, we learn that the Chandrian are a group of evil, quasi-demonic entities who occasionally appear out of the blue and wreak terrible havoc for no clear reason (hello, foreshadowing). Most people consider them to be a myth, and a particularly childish one at that, but Kvothe's father has been researching them for a song he's writing. It turns out that Ben takes them more seriously than most, to the point of not wanting to speak their names out loud, much to the surprise of Kvothe's parents.

“Good sensible fears for a trouper to have,” Ben said. “Fears that townsfolk don’t appreciate. Every place has its little superstitions, and everyone laughs at what the folk across the river think.” He gave them a serious look. “But have either of you ever heard a humorous song or story about the Chandrian? I’ll bet a penny you haven’t.”

My mother shook her head after a moment’s thought. My father took a long drink before joining her.

“Now I’m not saying that the Chandrian are out there, striking like lightning from the clear blue sky. But folk everywhere are afraid of them. There’s usually a reason for that.”

From a storytelling perspective, there is something to all of this.

The conversation Kvothe overhears is far too long and ponderous and spends a lot of time on translations of invented languages and detailing the religions of Kvothe's world and a whole lot more besides, but the core idea--of untangling a web of myth, fairy tale and superstition to find the truth buried in all of it--is fascinating. Real anthropologists and historians do look to folk tales and stories, and it's been suggested that some oral traditions actually record information from the very distant past--for example, that some traditional Scandinavian tales are based on a fragmented memory of the last ice age, or that the various flood myths found in the middle east are based on catastrophic flooding that geology suggests occurred in the past. Those theories are impossible to verify and unscientific by their very nature, but I still get chills just thinking about them.

A story that was about this--about chasing down legends and picking apart myths to find hidden nuggets of buried truth--could be fascinating. Even better, it could justify all of the world-building minutiae and fake languages, as culture and language would be vital to such a quest. But that's not what the Kingkiller Chronicle is about, even if it sometimes pretends that it is. It's just background detail. The story doesn't spend enough time on it for it to ever take centre stage, but it spends enough time on it that it feels like an anchor around the entire plot's neck.