A Robin Hobb Rereading Series–Entry 3: Assassin’s Apprentice, Chapter 3

Read the previous entry in the series here.
Read the next entry in the series here.

The next chapter in Assassin’s Apprentice, “Covenant,” continues the pattern of opening with a passage from an in-milieu reference text before musing on the reestablishment of normal patterns. Fitz glosses over his integration into the daily childhood life of Buckkeep and its town, noting his reluctance to let Burrich know more of them and commenting on relationships with members of his family and people about the castle. Regal and his mother were to be avoided. Verity was distant but kind when remembered the boy. A few friends were to be sought, and several others were annoyances or dangers.

Shrewd and Fitz by sherwin-prague
It is hard to find images of Shrewd Farseer.
Shrewd and Fitz by Sherwin-Prague on DeviantArt, used for commentary / reporting.

Perhaps the most important, though, was the beginnings of his arrangement with his natural grandfather, Shrewd, King of the Six Duchies and father to Chivalry, Verity, and Regal. Shrewd makes him an object lesson for Regal, openly declaring his intent to use his bastard grandson for the benefit of the kingdom–and specifically in those ways a legitimate prince could not be used. He also swears the boy to his service, young as he is, and smilingly indulges what he hears as a petty exhalation from Regal.

At length, Fitz returns to Burrich, where he learns that the pattern of his life will be changing yet again. He will no longer be a relatively free boy at play, but will instead be put to training at the King’s behest and ultimately, for his service. Fitz is upset by the changes, and Burrich offers him some small comfort.

Fitz then glosses over the forms of change in his life, touching on the various forms of instruction in which he must now engage. He learns a bit more of what is nosed about the castle about himself, his family, and Burrich. He begins to study combat, and he is given his own room, which is described in some detail and compared to his previous lodgings in the stables with Burrich as he finds his way to sleep.

Some things stand out in the chapter:

  • The focus on the way in which Shrewd claims Fitz is of interest. He makes a point of hiring Fitz’s service–he says to him “You need not eat any man’s leavings….If any man or woman ever seeks to turn you against me by offering you more than I do, then come to me, and tell me the offer, and I shall meet it. You will never find me a stingy man, nor be able to cite ill use as a reason for treason against me,” situating his loyalty in terms of economics rather than consanguinity–rather than on accepting him as a member of his family or commanding it as his due. (Indeed, Fitz comments on it, that Shrewd “could have declared himself [Fitz’s] grandfather and had for the asking what he instead chose to buy.”) And he does so after making a point to Regal that Fitz’s heritage is both clear and something that makes him particularly useful. It has to be wondered if the terms are a misreading on Shrewd’s part of Fitz’s character or a reminder to the young Fitz, who seems neither to need it nor to understand it in the moment, of his status as an outsider–or perhaps part of a performance for Regal and any others who might be observing that the boy is marked as of use but not necessarily beloved.
  • The chapter is the first introduction of the Fool, whose presence suffuses the main line of the Realm of the Elderlings novels. The character receives attention that is denied to many others in the narrative, marking importance, but that importance is left to be imagined at present. Several of the works in the Fedwren Project focus on the Fool, and what they say about the character is more erudite and eloquent than can necessarily be reported here, but this is where the character begins in the narrative, so it is worth attention.
  • The chapter also introduces the connection between the Six Duchies and the Elderlings, which becomes an important point in the narrative. Buried amid a flood of other details, it escapes notice at first, but it is a common point of reference in many of the succeeding novels. It is a sign of Hobb’s attention to narrative detail and a commendation of her writerly craft that the image is presented without being made obtrusive, there where readers can find it but not so overtly that it smites them with its presence. More writers could stand such subtlety.

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A Robin Hobb Rereading Series–Entry 2: Assassin’s Apprentice, Chapter 2

Read the previous entry in the series here.
Read the next entry in the series here.

The second chapter, “Newboy,” follows the first chapter in opening with an in-milieu historical document, to which the narrator, Fitz, responds in the main text. He gives a brief overview of the ruling dynasty, the Farseers, and their central holding, Buckkeep, before detailing his own initial billeting at Burrich’s command. A press of people triggers an adverse reaction in him, one that prompts him to hide away until he returns to Burrich in the evening.

Image result for buckkeep
One of John Howe’s takes on Buckkeep
Image used for reporting/commentary.

As the chapter progresses, Fitz settles into life at Buckkeep, noting the events at large as he does so and describing both the keep and its town. He also describes meeting Molly, the daughter of a drunkard who makes his onerous presence known. Fitz reacts adversely to him, as well, and betrays his juvenile lack of understanding before falling in with other children and passing an idly delinquent summer with them.

At length, Fitz encounters Burrich while about his delinquency. Burrich moves to take him in hand and uncovers that Fitz has the Wit, a magic that allows him to commune with animals–and that is widely regarded as perverse and unnatural. Burrich takes from Fitz the pup with which he had bonded, Nosy, and Fitz falls into depression from the sudden loss.

The second chapter builds upon the first, setting up a pattern of loss for Fitz. He is bereft of familial ties, and those bonds he tries to set up in place of what should be innate connections are threatened by the inflicted loss of one of them. While it is true that psychoanalyzing characters in a story is something of a fallacy, the affective reading I still cannot help applying to Hobb’s novels tells me that such things happening cannot help but traumatize a child, instilling fears and problems that may never be resolved.

Perhaps more important to the overall Elderlings corpus is the introduction in the chapter of the Wit. The inborn magic is one that exerts substantial influence throughout the novels, and its social regard is a matter of much consideration. It is easy to read it as a metaphor for homosexuality, given its depiction in the novels and peripheral materials, though doing so introduces some problems (the association with animals, for one; it is a mistaken commonplace that homosexuality leads to or is closely akin to bestiality, which commonplace is often used to oppress and abuse homosexuals). Later novels destabilize the metaphor further, as I found and will doubtlessly discuss, though I seem to recall it being clear enough for me at the time.

I’d also note that there is some clear foreshadowing at work in the chapter. The first female character to receive any substantial narrative attention, Molly, could be assumed to have…particular roles later in the novels. How fully Hobb engages those expectations remains to be seen in later parts of the reread, and exploring them–as well as many other things in the novels–promises to be enjoyable.

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A Robin Hobb Rereading Series–Entry 1: Assassin’s Apprentice, Chapter 1

Read the previous entry in the series here.
Read the next entry in the series here.

The first entry into the Elderlings Corpus is Robin Hobb’s 1995 Assassin’s Apprentice. It is not the first of the Elderlings novels I read, though. In time, it has also become other than the first work to take place chronologically in the milieu. But it remains the first book in the main narrative arc of the Elderlings Corpus, introducing characters whose deeds occupy most of the stories Hobb has told as of this writing. It remains, therefore, the best place to start rereading the novels again.

I have this one, yes.
Image from RobinHobb.com, used for reporting/ commentary.

The text of the novel opens with a chapter titled “The Earliest History.” Its first paragraph is an excerpt from a piece being composed within the milieu, not unlike the Encyclopedia Galactica from Asimov’s Foundation novels. It moves thence swiftly into the recollections of the piece’s author, who muses on the indulgences shown to him and the enthusiasm of his earlier teachers before beginning his own recollections.

The narrator–and the Farseer books, as well as the series that follow them, the Tawny Man and Fitz & the Fool trilogies, work in first-person narration–asserts that his memories begin on a day when he was some six years old, and he questions their validity and their source. I recall it being a point at which I fell into what I would later learn to call affective reading; I identified wit the narrator at that point, having little if any recall of what happened before I was six, and wondering if what I remember is what happened or what I was told happened, my family repeating the same stories again and again until my perspective on the events cemented as if I were there and could bring them to mind.

Too, I find I cannot escape sentimentality; I cannot help but feel for the narrator as he describes being taken by his grandfather from his mother and delivered, without affection, to a keep over which his illegitimate father was king-to-be. He is taken to his uncle, named Verity, and thence dispatched to the care of his father’s footman, Burrich. Burrich takes the boy in hand, calling him Fitz for his bastardy, and the narration passes over some time until an incident in which Verity and Regal confer, with Burrich attending, on his fate. Regal proposes killing him; Verity ignores the suggestion, but heeds the command from their father, the king, that his illegitimate nephew is to be brought to the royal court at Buckkeep. In advance of Fitz’s arrival there, his father abdicates his claim to the throne; Fitz never sees his father in the flesh. It’s not something I can comfortably imagine, either as a son or as a father, though I know it is the case for many, many people.

I’ve remarked before, I believe, that Fitz’s beginning is hardly the most auspicious. He is a bastard, and one effectively abandoned by his closest kin. While his more extended family does take some measures to bring him in, they are hardly kindly ones, and it is not to be wondered at that things proceed as they do for Fitz as the novel–and, indeed, the Elderlings corpus as a whole–proceeds.

A couple of other thoughts on the chapter to close out:

  • It occurs to me that Chivalry, the narrator’s absent father, is “supposed” to be the hero. The name suggests that he is an embodiment of honor, and descriptions of the character reported by others generally confirm it. That he fathers a bastard son whom he never appears to see or to acknowledge (though others in the family do) suggests either a failure on his part or a comment by Hobb about the ultimately flawed nature of chivalric constructions. There is no end of scholarship on the latter idea, as even a casual Google Scholar search shows–and there are better searches to run, to be sure, though those rely on more restricted resources.
  • Following up on the idea of commentary, if Fitz is the bastard by-blow of Chivalry, does the profession he enters–foreshadowed by the title of the novel, really–serve as the sign of chivalric failure? That is, does Fitz’s formal profession serve as the illegitimate but seemingly inevitable product of putatively upright conduct? For many or most chivalric narratives admit readily of bastards; in Malory, even the most noble of knights–Galahad (since he achieves the Grail)–is the illegitimate child of the most worshipful Lancelot, and Mordred is the natural son of Arthur. How necessary is such a thing, then, given the tension between what should be and what is? I’m not yet sure, but it’s something on which to think.

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A Robin Hobb Rereading Series–Entry 0: Background and Context

To follow up on the material in the last post, some background and context for my proposed series of posts working through a rereading of Robin Hobb’s works seems in order. As noted before, I’ve long been an avid reader of Hobb’s works; I began reading them in the later 1990s, having had the Liveship Traders novels suggested to me by the owner/operator of a local bookseller, Books to Share in Kerrville, Texas. I plowed through the novels greedily, almost salivating as I waited for the last one to come into print, and I soon found myself picking up the earlier-authored Farseer novels, chewing through them with the same relish.

When later novels in the same milieu emerged, I again and again found myself buying them without counting the cost and losing myself for joyful hours among their many pages. It was the kind of reading that pushed me to become an English major when I had to give up on the goal of becoming a band director, the kind of reading that made grad school seem a good idea.

It was the kind of reading that I did not get to do as much as I would have liked in the intervening years. Even though I did my master’s thesis on Hobb’s works, becoming one of the earliest to make a formal, academic study of them, reading for academic work is not the same as reading for love of it. And though there are things that the focused, interrogative reading rewarded by academic humanistic study reveals that no other reading can, I missed reading for the love of the words.

I was not the best student when I was doing the initial reading–at least not of the world outside the classroom. I have since worked to keep a journal, but I did not do so then, not in any way the is currently helpful. My memory is not as good as it used to be. So I am not in a position to do as Luke Shelton did in his own work recalling Tolkien; I do not recall many of my first impressions of the books. (There are a few such things, admittedly: here, here, here, here, here, and here. I am more proud of some than of others.)

Consequently, I will not be giving first impressions, except incidentally as I may end up remembering them while I read. Instead, I will be reading the novels again, following the main narrative arc and going back after to pick up some of the incidental and subsidiary materials. I generally don’t do fandom studies; I don’t much engage fandom anymore, for reasons I’ve noted. I might welcome comments from those who do engage such materials; I would love for a discussion to be ongoing. But I can hope that the reflection on such things from years after my first readings will offer some insights that those initial readings would not have done, and I can hope that they will be of some value other than just to me.

Read the next entry in the series!

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A Note on an Upcoming Project

At this point, I am back from my conference trip (about which I’ve remarked), and things are slowing down a bit for me. They are not slowed as much as would let me get started on what I want to do (I’ve got two gigs coming up, and my daughter is performing this weekend; such things need preparation.) Thus, as before, I’ll have to ask for a bit of forbearance as I get going again.

Image result for harried man public domain
It sometimes feels like this.
Image from PublicDomainVectors.org.

I am going to get going, though, and soon. And I know what I am going to be doing for a fair bit of it. Making reports on a class that meets online, and I am teaching one, seems a bit odd to me at this point; I think I’ll be on-site again soon enough, and I’ll make the usual reports at that point, but until then, no. Too, I may still do some of the In Response to posts that pervade this webspace; I run into things as I look at the world that seem to call for attention, and it does not hurt me to give it them. Neither, though, will be my focus moving forward for a while.

No, what I’ll be working on most will be something like my colleague Luke Shelton has had going on his website. (Check it out; it’s good stuff.) I’ll not be working on Tolkien, though; he’s already amply covered, and, after my recent conference trip, I feel so far behind in that research that I’ll not be able to catch up. Instead, I’ll build on the work I’ve been doing (less diligently than I ought to be) in the Fedwren Project and do an annotated re-reading of Robin Hobb’s novels. I had occasion to do some re-reading as I wrote the paper for the recent conference, and I was reminded in doing so of the love for the material I’ve felt for quite a while now. It sustained me through writing my MA thesis, and I realize I really ought to have pursued it more diligently in my research through the rest of my career in academe. (I might still have such a career had I done so, in fact, but that’s a different matter altogether.)

So, in the coming months, I’ll be working on that kind of thing in this webspace. I don’t know how long it’ll take me to do it, but I think it’ll be rewarding. I can hope I’ll not be the only one to see or feel the reward; I know what I’ve done on the topic has already helped at least one other person, and I wouldn’t mind adding to that, whether in the project itself or in others that I can hope might grow from it.

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A Reflection on #Kzoo2019 from an #AcademicExpatriate

Over the weekend just past, I was once again in Kalamazoo, Michigan, for the International Congress on Medieval Studies, hosted by Western Michigan University. Once again, attending was a good thing for me, even if I was only there for part of the proceedings (rather than the whole event, as I have generally been–though that has not been the case most recently). It was also good to have gotten done what I took a brief hiatus to get done, and I am looking forward to getting back to work at home and on the various projects that are represented in this webspace. But there are some things that I do need to address about the conference before I move on.

It looks much the same as last year–but not quite exactly–in this picture I took.
I still cannot take credit for the title, though, even if I might continue using it.

I could remark on the commonplaces of the Congress. Issues of accommodation and access deserve consideration, after all, even if I am not necessarily the best equipped or the best situated to offer that consideration. Yes, I can crack wise about the conditions of my room, shown in the relevant picture (which originally appeared on my Twitter feed, @GBElliottPhD), and I do note that there is some value for me, if perhaps less so for others, in being a bit removed from the comforts and convenience of my daily life. But I am also aware that things which serve as comforts and conveniences for me are much more important for others, and I am trying to be better about listening to scholars of differing abilities about such things.

The aforementioned picture of the room. Not bad, in all.

Also important to note–because I am not about to get into the issue of comparing circumstances, and I have no desire to be taken as moving towards that issue at all–is the more-pronounced-than-usual whiteness of the Congress this time around. There was a boycott of it by a number of scholars, and I am sympathetic to it. (I was also not as aware of it as I perhaps should have been, for which I apologize.) What I read of the comments about it going into the Congress (which is less than I likely ought to have done, for which I apologize) suggested that one thing I could do to demonstrate support was to call attention to the issue in my own panels–and I believe I did so. In a business meeting I chaired, as well as in my paper presentation, I made explicit the need to do better with such things. For example, the conclusion of my presented paper:

Further study of other religious practices at work in medieval Europe than those commonly associated with medievalist tropes would also seem to be warranted, particularly as concerns depictions of in-milieu disadvantaged populations and their correspondences with real-world counterparts and analogues. Entirely too little has been done in that vein, with putatively mainstream audiences focusing more on themselves and those like them than upon respectful examination and appreciation of difference, and it has allowed rhetorics of ignorant hate to flourish entirely too much. It falls to further work on this project, and on any project, to work against such things with all possible vigor; I can hope that refinements to the current paper will serve that end.

I acknowledge that my backgrounds in racial and ethnic studies, in feminist studies, in gender studies more broadly, and in disability studies, as well as in many other areas of inquiry, are not as robust as could be imagined or hoped. The positions from which I have approached academe have shaped me in ways that have highlighted other issues that intersect with such fields but are not congruent with them, and I know I have had the privilege of looking at other things. I do not claim to have any particular expertise in them. But I can apply the expertise I have to at least point out the gaps in itself; I can refuse to pretend that my inexpertise with a thing means the thing is not worth expertise. No few humanities scholars complain of those outside the academic humanities ignoring the broad field because they do not work within it; how many of them will do the same thing with smaller areas of inquiry closer to them? I, at least, will try not to do so.

It is a small thing, I know, put against a large, large problem. But it is to be expected that the work I would do would be small; I am largely out of academe, an expatriate rather than an exile only in that I am allowed to return from time to time at gatherings such as the International Congress on Medieval Studies. I can hope that, in the coming years, others who have been here and would be here can well be here again–and I know that they can only be so, and should only be asked to be so, when they are treated with consideration and dignity. And I believe them when they tell me that they have not, even when and where I have not seen it.

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A Brief Progress and Status Note

I have been working to post to this webspace at least every Monday and Friday, and I’ve generally done well with it in the past months. Occasionally, however, I have other things going on that keep me from doing as well with it as I might like. This is one of those times; I am preparing materials for the 2019 International Congress on Medieval Studies, and doing so is taking most of my attention and effort. I will try to have something up for the next scheduled posts, but I cannot promise it; I hope it will not be too much of a disappointment to have only such brief notes as this for a short time.

After the conference, though, I have ideas about how to proceed. I expect I will be able to spend some more time with them, and I hope they will be worth the wait.

A Rumination on Slowing

Time was, I drank coffee more by the quart than the cup (or by the liter rather than the cup for my metric-using friends). When I was an undergraduate, for instance, and worked in the campus coffee shop, I drank espresso like it was drip coffee, and I could knock it back by the cupful and go straight to sleep. As a graduate student, I would drink the bitter black brew–for I stopped taking cream or sugar in my coffee before I started driving–as long as it was ready to hand, which was most of the day each day. My consumption ran at times to multiple pots in a day, and I remember one day that I was into double digits.

The cup in question, mostly empty again.
Photo is mine.

Now, I am aware that I was not the smartest in doing so. My body served to remind me of it at times then, and I am chagrined at my youthful follies independently of those reminders now. The idea seemed good at the time, of course, else I’d not have done it–but so did various bouts of drinking that left me puking down stairwells or falling down them, and so did provoking arguments that left me sprawled on the floor against the opposite wall from where I had begun. (Clearly, I have not always had good judgment. Perhaps I have not often had it.) I felt I had need or would benefit–or both, as when I finished drafting my dissertation more than seven years ago, now.

Consequently, I have reduced my intake a fair bit. Rarely do I drink more than a pot in a day, anymore, though I seem most days to drain a pot or its equivalent. And I seem to drink it more slowly than I used to; even a year and a half ago, I would drink three cups in the morning before heading out ton work, but now, I drink only two. Nor is it the only thing I seem to do less swiftly now than before, though the list of such things is longer than I care to recount at the moment. (It is also not universal; there are some things I do faster now than before. Typing is one. I suppose the persistent practice is helping.) And I find that that is somewhat worrying.

As I write this, I am in my mid-thirties. I can anticipate a long life ahead of me, still more of it than has already passed. If I am slowing now, then I would expect that I will slow more–and, paradoxically, more rapidly–as I move through the remainder of my life. At some point, I would grind to a halt, and that might be the end of it, but if it is not…it is not a comfortable thing to contemplate. And even if it is, if I am at such a place in my life that things will get worse, and more worse than better, from here, surely that is also not a thing about which to be happy.

I have to hope that slowing down is not going to be a bad thing for me. But what I have been able to do, I have done because I can do things quickly and well. Losing part of that does not seem like it has much good in it.

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