A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 15: Assassin’s Apprentice, Chapter 15

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

One of the Stones, image source in image, used for commentary

The chapter that follows, “The Witness Stones,” opens with musing on the Skill before pivoting to Fitz’s continued training with Galen. How the students progress is noted, as is how the seasons do, and Fitz reflects on his separation from others and his connection to Smithy.

Fitz considers his initial contact with the Skill and his certainty that he would be able to learn it. Galen is incensed by it, and more so by Fitz’s success at hiding from him such things as Chade, the Fool, Smithy, and parts of his youth. He also reflects on a meeting with the Fool not long after making that first contact. In that meeting, the Fool warns Fitz about Galen once again, noting that the Skillmaster is ruthless enough to put an end to Fitz altogether. Fitz, arrogant as youth can be, proclaims himself ready for the challenge.

In the event, he is not. During training, Galen attempts to take over his mind with the Skill. Fitz defends himself until he is wept up by the magic’s intoxicating effects; Galen uses the chance to batter him physically, bloodying him badly. The other students, seeing only that Fitz has succumbed to the Skill, join Galen in his obloquy.

In the wake of the attack, Fitz manages to drag himself to his chambers, seeking comfort from Smithy. Burrich comes to him in the night, and, when Fitz wakes, he finds that he has been tended by the stablemaster. Burrich asks Fitz what has happened, and the boy replies as he can before taking the medicine Burrich offers and falling asleep.

Fitz wakes to find Burrich in a good mood, and the mood remains in place as Fitz convalesces. At length, Fitz ventures out into town, meeting Molly and hiding his melancholy from her. Later, Burrich examines Fitz and bids him get back to his training in the castle; Fitz demurs, but a later encounter with the Fool, in which the latter explains how Burrich battered Galen into relenting in his dismissal of Fitz from Skill lessons, convinces him to resume the lessons.

One of the focal events of the chapter is one that is presented only in the Fool’s report to Fitz, that Burrich bested Galen in combat before the Witness Stones and thereby won for Fitz the right to resume his training in the Skill. Trial by combat is a mainstay of medievalist fiction, of course; a notable instance marks Katharine Kerr’s Deverry series, for example, and much is made of it in Martin. Jacqueline Stuhmiller notes in Iudicium Dei, iudicium fortunae: Trial by Combat in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur” (Speculum 81 (2006), pgs. 427-62) that it was a historically common practice, as well, at least for a time. She also notes that it was problematic; it should produce justice independent of personal ability, but it does not (any more than modern legal standards bear out guilt or innocence without regard to the parties’ pocketbooks and access to legal counsel). “God, wherever he may be, does not fight on anyone’s side in these contests,” she writes (460).

Neither, it seems, do the Witness Stones as Burrich beats Galen. This is not to say that Galen did not deserve substantial punishment for his conduct; even aside from his battering Fitz, he imposes harsher discipline on his students than is acceptable, and his uneven treatment of them by gender is far from admirable. This is also not to say that Burrich has no justification in enacting revenge for Fitz; he is as close to a dad as the bastard boy has, and, as a dad, I feel the impulse to hurt anything that causes my kid harm.

There is a clear implication that Burrich is doing something heroic, or is regarded as doing so, by administering the beating; the Fool’s narrative valorizes him, and earlier depictions of Galen make him out to be a not-entirely-petty tyrant worthy of censure and repudiation. That implication, though, is problematic in ways I have long recognized. It is not the case that the person in the right is the one who will be the victor in a fight; indeed, the very idea is repudiated as the ad baculum fallacy. Too, as someone who has been right but not in a position to prove it by arms, I am all too familiar with the disjunction. Burrich may well have been in the right with Galen–Galen was certainly in the wrong with Fitz–but his victory in the fight does not make it so.

I can still use your help.

6 thoughts on “A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 15: Assassin’s Apprentice, Chapter 15

  1. […] The following chapter, “Through Stones,” opens with a passage from Chade’s writings about the Witness Stones and Skill-pillars before returning to Fitz’s attendance on the ill Fool and his messages through the Skill to Chade about the same. Fitz dithers about leaving his friend behind but is persuaded by Prilkop, Thick, and the Fool himself to depart in favor of the Fool’s continued convalescence and conference with Prilkop. Fitz offers to return swiftly, though Prilkop advises against rapid successive use of the Skill-pillars, and Fitz takes Thick to and through the Skill-pillar back to Buck and the Witness Stones. […]


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