Let's Read The Kingkiller Chronicle pt. 9: Hammer Time

Last post, I briefly summarized Kvothe's journey to Tarbean and the circumstances that leave him alone and penniless on the city streets. I skipped over a lot of detail, so today we're going to go back and look at a few things that become relevant later on. Sort of.

In chapter twenty, the amazingly-named "Bloody Hands Into Stinging Fists" (if there isn't a martial arts film with that title, there really should be), Kvothe runs afoul of an older boy named Pike, establishing that Tarbean is prowled by violent gangs of street urchins who make Kvothe's life miserable for the next few years. Pike breaks Kvothe's lute--his last remaining possession apart from the lute case and a book, and the reason he came to the city in the first place (the strings were starting to break)--thus making the whole situation even more tragic than it was in the first place (seriously, Rothfuss should have just gone all the way and given Kvothe a friendly dog he could kill off a few chapters later).

Kvothe and Pike face off a few more times during the Tarbean interlude, but I won't summarize their clashes since Kvothe gets another, much more annoying rival once he goes to the University. Suffice to say, our hero eventually bests his foe through a combination of cunning and a new-found willingness to commit acts of violence.

The other thing that happens in this chapter is that we get some world-building on the religious situation in Kvothe's world:

“Don’t say Tehlu’s name like that,” said the boy on my left.


“‘Do not call on Tehlu save in the greatest need, for Tehlu judges every thought and deed,’” he recited.

“Tehlu and his great glowing penis can piss all over me if that thing isn’t worth twenty talents. That means we can get at least six from Diken. Do you know what you can do with that much money?”

“You won’t get the chance to do anything with it if you don’t quit saying things like that. Tehlu watches over us, but he is vengeful.” The second boy’s voice was reverent and afraid.

Most of an entire chapter is dedicated to fleshing out the Kvothe-world version of Christmas, which involves people putting on demon masks and trolling each other, as well as Kvothe getting knocked around for the third time, receiving some money from helpful strangers, and then tragically losing it in the snow (can't you just feel his woe?). Two other chapters are dedicated entirely to stories about Tehlu, the God of the primary religion in this part of the world.

Through these stories, we learn that Tehlism(?) is similar to Christianity, if the warlike and judgemental Yahweh of the Old Testament never mellowed out into the more paternal God of the New. The religion gives alms and bread to the poor, but also enforces its particular brand of morality with a fairly autocratic hand in the regions where its influence is strongest. Later, Kvothe hears an alternate version of one the religion's foundational myths from an old man, who is promptly dragged off by some of the church's theocratic goons.

Would it surprise you to learn that once Kvothe gets to the University, this whole religion angle starts to fade into the background and isn't as important as the Tarbean sojourn makes it seem?

The two current books of the Kingkiller Chronicle feel as though they were assembled from half a dozen different stories, none of which were originally meant to be related to each other. I've talked about how Haliax's villainous monologuing clashes with the tone of the rest of the story, and how the Chandrian gradually fade into the background despite being the instigating force of the plot, but we also see it here; Tarbean feels like it exists in a parallel dimension, separate from the University, which itself feels utterly distinct from the bandit forest and the hidden mercenary ninja village from The Wise Man's Fear.

I'm not saying this is actually how these books were written--I couldn't possibly know that--but it would explain a lot of the weird tonal inconsistencies and plot messiness I see in the books. And I think there is a tendency in the fantasy genre for authors to adopt a Great Work mentality, where they spend years and years banging away at one, singular tome that's supposed to be their defining masterpiece. Naturally, as time passes and their own tastes and interests change, the story changes as well, resulting in a kind of temporal cross-section of the author's development as a writer. The part that they came up with when they were twenty-five and really into gritty, dark fantasy is completely different from the later revisions they made in their thirties, when they fancied themselves serious literature aesthetes, and the less said about the remnant of the original idea they had in their teenager years, the better.

Of course, this is all just going off what's been published so far. We know that the old man who tells the forbidden story crosses paths with Kvothe again--he's the one who tipped Chronicler off to Kvothe's location--so it could be that these religious themes will be back with a vengeance in the third book.

Before we move onto something else, I want to focus more heavily on the first story that Kvothe hears, because it's totally bonkers. It's the Tehlin equivalent of the Jesus story, and it involves Tehlu impregnating a woman, who then gives birth to Tehlu himself, in the form of a baby that grows into adulthood in the space of a few weeks. Then he invites all the wicked sinners to repent and join him, but first he whacks them with a big hammer to punish them for their sins.

“Then what does it matter which side a man is on?” It was Rengen asking these questions. He was a large man, one of the few that was taller than dark-eyed Tehlu. But he was shaken by all that he had seen and heard in the past few hours. “What is on our side of the road?”

“Pain,” Tehlu said in a voice as hard and cold as stone. “Punishment.”

“And your side?”

“Pain now,” Tehlu said in the same voice. “Punishment now, for all that you have done. It cannot be avoided. But I am here too, this is my path.”

It's like a version of Christianity where Jesus is a protagonist from an Ayn Rand novel.

The story contains a lot of regressive attitudes about women and sex, which, based on how those topics are discussed later, I think we're meant to infer is a relic from when the story was first devised, rather than an attitude that's common in Kvothe's time. If so, this is kind of neat, because it demonstrates a fantasy universe actually changing with time; most fictional settings are completely static affairs where not just technology but attitudes, customs, beliefs and social norms remain unchanged for millenia at a time.

(Don't go thinking that this makes the Kingkiller Chronicle enlightened and progressive, though. It tackles gender themes more directly at several points, and it's a complete disaster).

Interestingly, both this and yet another story that the book takes an entire chapter to tell have fairly obvious references to the Chandrian, although under different names and contexts:

In the end, seven stayed on the other side of the line. Tehlu asked them three times if they would cross, and three times they refused.


But there was one demon who eluded Tehlu. Encanis, whose face was all in shadow. Encanis, whose voice was like a knife in the minds of men.

The other tale that Kvothe hears from Skarpi tells a supposed backstory for Haliax, which I won't go into too much detail on (basically: he was a legendary hero in an age of war and strife, but when his wife died he learned spooky dark magic to try and bring her back to life. It didn't work, so he turned into an edgelord and decided to destroy the world. How much of this is actually true remains to be seen).

There's a glimmer of interest here. I said before that these books are at their best when they deal with untangling myths and legends to get at historical truths, and that's clearly what we're seeing a bit of here.

If you go back through the history of any country, culture or religion, you will eventually reach a point where the narrative breaks down into obvious mythology, usually involving nations being created by gods or people descending from supernatural beings. But in between myth and real history is a hazy twilight region, where the events described are just plausible enough that they might have happened, but far enough in the past that it's impossible to prove. Frequently, these stories bear obvious political agendas which suggest they were deliberately engineered for a certain purpose (they often involve the reigns of legendary kings and emperors, who later rulers could claim to be descended from in order to justify their positions).

This is, essentially, what we're seeing in these Tehlu myths. The origin of the Chandrian has been buried behind multiple layer of obscuring legend, much of it deliberately spun for a political agenda, and Kvothe is picking out the grain of truth in the middle. But it falls flat for two reasons:

1) As I have stated repeatedly and will continue to state going forward, the Chandrian cease being relevant for at least the next 1000+ pages, assuming they ever become relevant again in the last book.

2) Kvothe doesn't go investigating or searching for this information. He just gets handed it, completely randomly. This holds true for most of the story; over and over again, he discovers important information simply by virtue of being in the right place at the right time for someone to dump it into his lap, or as a result of doing something else entirely. He takes no agency to seek it out, which makes the whole thing feel less like an intriguing mystery and more like a grudging concession that the plot has to move forward eventually.