More Rumination on Writing

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to push changes to how things are done, I am trying to keep up with the writing I have been doing in my personal journal, on a couple of other websites than this, and in this webspace. Given some other things I have going on in my life at present–nothing bad, worry not, but nothing I’m set to discuss in detail here–the thought had occurred to me once again that I might try my hand at fiction-writing. I might tell stories, hoping that people would like them.

The Jim Henson Company | The Storyteller
I do not fancy myself so adept, to be sure.
Image from Henson.com, used for commentary.

I have made some attempts to do so before, of course, here and here and elsewhere. I do not flatter myself that I have done well in those attempts; I have read many stories, more than most, and I have looked deeper into them than those same most, but there is something about putting together a coherent and engaging narrative that eludes me. Or it has in the past. And I am chary of telling many of the stories that are actually mine to tell, things I have seen or that have been told to me so many times I might as well have seen them.

Many of the stories that I have to share are from parts of my life of which I am not proud. I have changed as I have aged, and not only in that my hair and beard are grayer, my belly flabbier and my arms skinnier, my skin more wrinkled. No, I like to think that I have become somewhat kinder and more compassionate–which has unpleasant implications for my younger self. Certainly, I have become more aware of inequality and inequity, and too many of the things I took for granted in my youth, that I accepted as the way things were and neutral therefore, are not the kinds of things I would repeat now. The names, at least, need to be changed, but changing them alone makes them the kind of fiction that really isn’t and that might invite rebuke from those who otherwise would have been named.

More of the stories I might tell, though, depend on context that is usually not clear; I suffer much from “you had to have been there,” the more so since I made many efforts to reduce the number of people who were there, and they have not flooded in since. I do not know what I need to explain and to whom, and it is hard to follow a narrative without such information–and harder to develop one. But most of all, I think, is that my life has been remarkably sedate. I have done little, certainly little of account, and I do not know how to make the life I have lived interesting to any save a very, very few–and they already know, for the most part.

I would hate to bore them with the repetition.

Help me and mine make it through?

A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 93: Assassin’s Quest, Chapter 34

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


The next chapter, “Girl on a Dragon,” begins with notes about the dearth of Skilled people to aid Verity before moving into an interruption of discussion. The Fool touched Verity’s Skill-overlain flesh, and Kettle tends to the Fool, directing Fitz to attend to Verity. Fitz does so, learning more from Verity about the work he has been doing to carve his dragon. When Kettricken enters and embraces her husband, Fitz is called away.

King Verity Farseer and Queen Kettricken by ElenaSilvagni on DeviantArt, here, and used for commentary

While Kettricken and Verity confer, the rest of the party and Fitz talk. The Fool is altered by his contact with Verity, his fingertips marked with the Skill that suffuses Verity’s hands and arms, and the implications of that marking are noted. Kettricken and Verity emerge from their tent, and Verity begins to eat in a way that shows it has been long since he did so. Kettle announces that they will remain on site to assist Verity, his success being the only hope the Six Duchies has in its current crisis.

As the evening draws on, the Fool relates to Fitz what he learned from his contact with Verity. The idea is that Verity will carve and waken his dragon, going thence to fight the Red-Ship Raiders alone. The dragons themselves, the Fool understands to be the Elderlings of Six Duchies legend.

That night, Fitz wakes early at Nighteyes’s insistence; Kettricken has been gone longer than she ought. They find her with ease, and Kettricken confides in Fitz the sadness she feels at the current situation. She does so near the carved image of a girl on a dragon, and Fitz feels something taken from himself suddenly.

After, Fitz speaks with the Fool again, who is testing the limits of his new abilities. They confer about their situation and the Fool’s plan to visit the girl on a dragon. The Fool also reports to Fitz much of what had led to Regal’s efforts to gain the quarry and the power dormant therein.

There is an interesting bit in the present chapter: the comments that dragons are Elderlings. It is an issue that will come up in later novels in the corpus, and it is the case that some of the ideas established in Assassin’s Quest come up for reinterpretaion. That is to be expected as narrative milieus evolve under their authors’ pens; Tolkien’s own work was hardly immune to it, as his son’s editorial comments make clear, and the successive editions of rules-sets for the tabletop roleplaying games that account for so much engagement with fantasy and medieval/ist ideas are also indications of change in progress. Still, one of the pleasures of doing a rereading is that things remembered from earlier readings are reconfirmed, and writing about them in such wise as this helps to fix them in memory, allowing for more work later on.

Things are tight here as in many places. If you can throw a little bit my way, I’d be obliged.

A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 92: Assassin’s Quest, Chapter 33

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


The next chapter, “The Quarry,” opens with notes about old tales from the Mountain Kingdom that depict ancient creatures of power. It moves on to skip several days, until Fitz’s party reaches the quarry of the title; the remains of the work once done therein stand as ruined cyclopean altars to masons long dead. They begin to make camp as Kettricken despairs of finding Verity, and Nighteyes finds a corpse. Investigation reveals it is one of Regal’s coterie, Carrod, killed through the Skill–but still in the quarry.

Verity’s Dragon by Sassar on DeviantArt, here, and used for commentary

The party begins to search out the quarry more thoroughly, finding partly-completed carvings of dragons. They also find Verity at last, and Kettricken has to be held back from rushing to him and immolating herself in the embrace of his power. Verity is haggard and distracted, and Kettricken flees from him under the weight of her own emotions; Nighteyes follows her. The Fool sets about setting up camp, enlisting Starling to help; Fitz confers with Verity as best he can, getting little information from his king but giving him a lengthy and detailed report in his turn.

Conversation makes clear that Verity is focused on carving his dragon, to the exclusion of eating and sleeping. Kettle and Fitz prevail upon Verity to take a short break from the task and attend to himself for Kettricken. And as the traveling party confers during the preparations, Kettle makes clear the scope of Verity’s still-incomplete achievement, as well as the likely threat to it that Carrod had posed as he died.

The idea of the call of the Skill as addiction seems to push itself forward as I read the chapter once again; Verity’s sleepless fixation on his task and the vagueness of mind that accompany it align with what I see from some of the people I help serve in my day-job, at least. And, as I write this entry in the midst of the coronavirus (I and mine are well as I write this, thank you, though my wife and I both count as working “essential services,” so we are not able to stay at home, really), I cannot help but see a parallel to current circumstances. Many people are fixated on the novel coronavirus, not without cause, and such has affected my sleep and eating, as well as others’. Nor am I immune to vagueness in the present situation, as I am probably making clearer than I ought as I write this entry.

It is, of course, not entirely appropriate to read the text against today when it was written more than twenty years ago, now. It cannot be responding to what had not yet then happened. But it is not entirely inappropriate, either; one of the values of any work of art is that it does speak beyond the circumstances of its own composition. And if it is the case that I am the target audience for such a text now as I likely was then, that does not mean I do poorly to hear what it says now, even against a different background noise.

Help me and mine keep on going?

An Older Bit of Roleplaying Game Design?

I‘ve made nothing resembling a secret of the fact that I play tabletop roleplaying games–witness this, this, this, and this for some general examples. Nor yet have I made a secret that much of my involvement in roleplaying games has associated itself with the Legend of the Five Rings roleplaying game (L5R) in its several iterations–as witness this and its antecedents, as well as this and its antecedents, this, this, and doubtless others.

This is what it looks like now.
Banner image from the current owner, Fantasy Flight Games, here and used for commentary.

It should be no surprise that, in the years I’ve spent playing L5R that I would spend time running games–and drafting work to help me do so. And, some years ago, when L5R was in its revised third edition (it is in its fifth at the time of this writing), I put together a campaign setting for the game, one I call West of Rokugan. I forget when I started working on it; I recall that I finished it in 2010, and I have learned a lot since that point. (Hell, I’d barely passed my prospectus at that point, and I still thought I’d have the full-time continuing teaching job I had then. Ah, youth!) I had thought that I might be able to move the group I was playing with at the time towards it, but, alas, it never happened.

What did happen was what happens to many roleplaying game groups: the group fell apart. Schedules conflicted, people moved, and somehow, we never did find ourselves in another game. Nor have I been able, in the time since, to get an in-person game going–and the edition of the game has updated twice since, anyway, so the stuff that I’ve got linked above is unlikely to play well with any of the online groups to which I have access.

But I have been thinking about running a game again, and I went back through my files to look at the things that I have done as part of the prep-work for doing so. Looking back over it was…strange; it is the most involved document I’ve compiled other than my dissertation, but it has…issues. Again, I was much younger when I wrote it than I am now, and I’ve learned at least a couple of things since that point.

It’s possible, of course, that I will adapt what I have in the older materials to newer systems. It’s more likely, however, that I will pull some concepts rather than pulling the materials directly. Some things, I remain proud of; others, not so much–but it is good to be reminded, from time to time, of who and what I have been other than in my working life. And it may be that somebody gets some use out of my old efforts; I’d be gratified to learn that it happened.

Could you send a little my way to help through these strange times?

A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 91: Assassin’s Quest, Chapter 32

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


A chapter titled “Capelin Beach” follows. It begins with a brief comment about the Wit before moving into the party’s progress. It is not pleasant; the Fool is particularly annoying under the effects of elfbark. Kettle again assumes authority over Fitz and seeing to his mental stability.

A bond, indeed.
Evergreen by Lalawu29 on DeviantArt, here, used for commentary

When, at one point, the party stops, Nighteyes relates to Fitz that Kettricken has spoken to him through the Wit. After, the Fool makes conversation with Fitz, asking after Molly. Fitz notes a town near where she currently lives, after which the Fool seems to pass out; Fitz takes it for a game and stalks off. It soon after emerges that it was no game; the Fool was asleep and, when roused, was addled. Starling asks Fitz about the matter, and Fitz notes his conversation with the Fool. Nighteyes comments thereupon through the Wit, and Fitz realizes some of the import of what the Fool had said to him many times before.

Fitz makes to confer with the Fool again, laying out something like a final will and testament. The conversation reveals that the Fool had not been the earlier interlocutor, at least not consciously; he reports having been somewhat distant from what he thought a speech in dream. Nighteyes opines on the connection among them and makes a suggestion that the Fool answers, confirming the strength of the bond.

There is perhaps something elegaic in Fitz’s recognition of the carpe diem principle. He knows at this point that his survival is not expected–not that he has necessarily been expected to survive a great many things previously, and irrespective of the fact he has been dead. The realization or reminder throws into stark relief the times he had pushed things aside in favor of tending to them tomorrow, not from simple procrastination, but because he allowed other things to matter more in the moment. Admittedly, there were many times his task at hand demanded full and immediate attention, but it was not always so, not by any means.

Rereading once again overly affectively, I have to consider the times I have made similar decisions. I have been better about it than I might have been, I know, and I have been better about it than many in my positions have been, but I have not seldom set aside time with family in favor of working time or in favor of some other kind of activity. And if it has been the case many times that my presence made things far less enjoyable than they might otherwise have been–I am curmudgeonly, and it has been remarked that “nobody can have a bad time like Geoff can”–it has also been the case many times that I have not bothered to try. More and more, I regret it, as I do many things. Nor do I expect that I am alone in that regret.

Send a little somethin’ my way?

A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 90: Assassin’s Quest, Chapter 31

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


A chapter titled “Elfbark” follows. It begins with a brief comment about one of the White Prophets’ prophecies before turning to Fitz and Kettricken plotting out their next steps. Fitz and Nighteyes share a pleasant exchange before the party sets out, as do Fitz and the Fool.

Perhaps something like this is afoot?
Fitz and Nighteyes by davidkeen on DeviantArt, here, and used for commentary

As the party proceeds, Kettle accompanies Fitz, helping him keep his focus as they move towards the Skill road. That night, Fitz, the Fool, and Nighteyes go out to hunt. While they do, Nighteyes scents one of Regal’s coterie, Burl. The wolf moves to eliminate him as Burl works to Skill against Fitz. Nighteyes drives Burl off as Fitz is assailed through the magic; they make their way back to the party, where the Fool is still in the grip of the Skill. Fitz recalls him from it, finding a bond between them through the magic, and Kettle prepares more elfbark for the Fool to drink in the hope its Skill-dampening effect would protect him from further assault through the Skill for a time.

Kettricken demands explanations, which Kettle provides. She mulls over their situation afterward, and the Fool begins to make strangely lewd comments. Kettle presses on with the elfbark treatment, learning of Fitz’s long use of the substance–and of Verity’s. In the wake of the information, Kettle offers more to Fitz, citing its quelling effects; he considers taking it, but decides against doing so, and he immediately begins to suffer for the choice.

There might be something of a joke to be found in Kettle concerning herself so much with brewing in the present chapter. Less humorous, but more important for future work, is the mention that use of the Skill becomes almost intuitive; it is a small comment, but it is one that serves to vitiate complaints about deus ex machina that might be brought up.

Too, there is motion towards Fitz’s seeming addiction to elfbark (earlier noted here). Kettle’s commentary about the substance’s effects–and its uses–bring to mind the “go pills” reported as being given to operatives in the field, as well as far less savory experiments done ostensibly in the name of freedom. As with a number of addictive substances, the potential application for the Fool–in measure and as a response to a specific circumstance, including an addictive magic that lies outside control or experience–rings true. And there is something to be said in Fitz’s favor that he rejects indulging his seeming addiction, as well as that he immediately begins to feel effects associated with that rejection.

There may be more that could have been done to demonstrate the effects of the seeming addiction on Fitz. And I have to wonder about game-based treatment for addiction. But the fact that it is treated at all, that there is any verisimilitude in it, is another of the many points in favor of Hobb’s writing.

Nothing special today, but I could still use your help.

Manifestations of Medieval Religion in Robin Hobb’s Elderlings Corpus

I presented this paper at the 2019 International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan (about which, see here and here). After some thought and consideration, and given the other work that I am doing, I figured I’d post it here in the hopes that it would be of some help to others–and a better bit of work than I posted at this time last week.

I have made some few updates to the text I presented then, but not many. They are made without further comment.

Robin Hobb is best known for her work detailing the Realm of the Elderlings, a fantastic world that partakes significantly of native North American ideas and cultures while still remaining sufficiently embedded in the tropes of mainstream fantasy literature to be easily recognizable and accessible to that genre’s readership.1 Spanning (as of this writing) sixteen novels and a number of short stories and novellas that have been coming into print since the mid-1990s, the narrative milieu of the Realm of the Elderlings has attracted a number of studies of more and less rigor, notably translation studies and investigations of how Hobb uses and subverts the tropes of mainstream fantasy literature.2

One such trope the Realm of the Elderlings does not appear to avoid is that of minimizing the presentation of organized religion–and of depicting it generally negatively when it is presented.3 The Six Duchies and Out Islands–major geographical regions in the narrative milieu–appear to lack such structures despite their clearly shared faith. So does the Mountain Kingdom that borders the Six Duchies to the west. Chalced, a south-neighboring small nation which appears mostly as a remote antagonist, has some, but it does not receive much attention. The Cursed Shores and Jamaillia, south of Chalced, ostensibly practice an organized worship of the Janus-like Sa, but it is not explored in much detail. The faith of the White Prophets, based far away from the rest, receives perhaps most development, although it is clearly framed as antagonistic across the main thrust of the corpus.

That the Realm of the Elderlings does not necessarily make much of organized religion does not mean there are no structures present to explicate, however. That the narrative milieu works from other cultures than the European medieval, broadly and often amorphously and anachronistically conceived, does not mean that it does not partake of influences from various conceptions of the European medieval. As such, there is something of medieval European religion to be found in the pages Robin Hobb writes, particularly in the Liveship Traders and Fitz and the Fool Trilogies. What that is, what it gets right, what it gets wrong, and how it functions will be the foci of this paper.

Presence of Organized Religion in the Realm of the Elderlings

That there is not much organized religion in the Realm of the Elderlings does not mean there is not much religion. The focal region of the narrative milieu (because events in it occupy nine of the sixteen novels and many of the ancillary works), the Kingdom of the Six Duchies, appears to practice an informal religion centered around the paired deities, Eda and El; the related Out Islands also venerate them. Eda is a feminine deity of settlement and earth; El is a masculine deity of wandering and motion. Both serve as figures to swear and to curse by, though it is remarked early on that El is not a deity to pray to, with dire consequences falling upon those who would do so.4 No formal cults are depicted as aligned to the deities in the novels, no priests or priestesses devoted to them minister to the faithful in the novels, but their reality appears to be broadly acknowledged in the Six Duchies and Out Islands, even if it is not necessarily dwelt upon.

The worship of Sa in Jamaillia and the Cursed Shores that begin the Liveship Traders novels as subject to it is more organized. It is an ecumenical religion, one that looks at all deities as aspects of the dual-natured Sa,5 even if there are competing faiths.6 The worship of Sa also fosters a sacral kingship7 centering on a monarch in a holy city,8 as well as fostering a formal priesthood that is clearly delineated into several degrees and distinct orders–as well as removed from daily, common, working life.9 Although a number of characters give only casual regard to the worship of Sa, there are many who are far more devout and organized, forming a sprawling church that is a dominant socializing and normalizing force in a large part of the Realm of the Elderlings.

Similarly, the religion of the White Prophets that comes to attention in the Fitz and the Fool trilogy that is, as of this writing, the in-milieu last portion of the Realm of the Elderlings novels, is centralized and organized. Initially mentioned as a sort of collection of prophecies, carefully monitored and interpreted,10 it later emerges as a despotic Illuminati-like manipulator of world events, selectively breeding and shaping those born with prophetic gifts.11 It holds some few lands directly, but it exerts substantial influence through the selective (and well compensated) revelation of divined truths,12 and its collective body–headed by four most elite Servants–works to enact the changes needed across generations to bring about a specific future, one in which humanity reigns supreme over the world in a might-makes-right order.13

Admittedly, the Realm of the Elderlings novels do not go into overly much detail on the religions or their structures. The focal protagonists are generally removed from them, even if they are or have been participants in those faiths (notably, one of the focal characters had been intended for the priesthood, only to be pulled away from it). But enough information does appear in Hobb’s work to allow for some analysis and interpretation of what the religions borrow from perceived medieval European religion, how they differ from such antecedents, and what significances accrue to the juxtapositions.

Correspondences to Perceived Medieval European Religion

Just as it is possible to read the nations and peoples of the Realm of the Elderlings as corresponding to Tolkienian medievalist tropes (if perhaps not most apt reading14), it is possible to read the organized religions depicted in the Realm of the Elderlings as corresponding to prevailing depictions of medievalist religion. Too, there are some comparisons to contemporary depictions of organized religion that might be made, which marks a welcome pivot away from the over-reliance on common understandings and misunderstandings that unfortunately pervade Tolkienian-tradition fantasy fiction.

On its initial introduction, the worship of Sa invokes tropes familiar to Judeo-Christian audiences and often associated with the medieval in popular conception. The formalized religion surrounding it appears first in interactions between one of the focal characters of the Liveship Traders novels, Wintrow Vestrit, and his teacher in a monastery–and it is explicitly called a monastery,15 linking it firmly to the medieval in popular conception even if there are many monasteries outside the medieval–where he has resided since being given over to the faith as the first-born son of his parents.16 The gift evokes Exodus 13:1-2, in which the chosen people are bidden give their first-born to God.17 So does the division of personnel at the monastery along gender lines; a figure mentioned but not depicted is one Mother Dellity,18 bringing nuns to mind and, with them, the medieval associations of the convent.

Further, Wintrow is introduced to the narrative while at work on a stained glass window,19 and stained glass is, as the April 2019 fire at Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral highlighted, strongly associated with the medieval. So, too, is the assertion that the priesthood of Sa should practice celibacy20–which was supposed to be a typifying feature of the Catholic priesthood that dominated medieval western European religious life, reaffirmed repeatedly throughout the Middle Ages.21 And so is the association of the priesthood of Sa with somewhat silly removal from “real” concerns22–which Oberman remarks is something of a commonplace in medieval satire,23 as the explanatory notes to the Canterbury Tales in the Riverside Chaucer also do repeatedly (notably in comments on the Monk, the Friar, the Pardoner),24 along with the Tales themselves throughout. Early on and repeatedly, then, Hobb offers in the worship of Sa a depiction of a religion that smacks of the medieval European in ways likely to be recognized by readers, and quickly.

The worship of the White Prophets takes a different tack. There is less an issue of centralized religious devotion than there is a veneration of a series of prophets and their prophecies. The serial aspect is emphasized; in-milieu commentary notes that “for ‘every age’ (and this space of time is never defined) there is born a White Prophet,”25 something confirmed by later comments in the same series of books.26 But even in that, the worship of the White Prophets works in a mode not unfamiliar to those focusing on the interplay of Abrahamic religions during the European Middle Ages. Judaism and Islam both recognize a succession of prophets; so does Christianity, though its specific iteration of a messianic figure deviates from that pattern. Even so, the succession of saints and the papacy, both of which purportedly extend and refine divine revelation, can be taken as an at-least similar pattern. Given the degree to which such ideas permeate what is known and believed about the European medieval, the mimicry of them in the worship of the White Prophets serves as another grounding medievalism in the Realm of the Elderlings novels.

Too, the center of that worship, Clerres, rings of medievalist depictions of capital cities. It is described at one point as “a very beautiful city on a bay on a large island named Kells in the old tongue,”27 and Kells is itself an invocation of the medieval through the famous illuminated manuscript. It is also framed in terms reminiscent of medieval descriptions of Mont-Saint-Michel, particularly in the emphasis on its fortifications and its accessibility principally via a tidal causeway.28 Medievalist depictions of cities typically attend to such details; casual glances at Tolkien’s Minas Tirith29 or Martin’s Eyrie30 point out the trajectory of the trope in medievalist fantasy, and it is often through such works (or treatments of them) that scholars enter into, and popular audiences understand, the medieval.31 Hobb giving such citing to a focal religious area, then, helps to ground the Realm of the Elderlings in the medieval yet further; seating a religion in a solidly medievalist locale cannot help but do so.

Divergences from Perceived Medieval European Religion

The most obvious differences to be found between the worship of Sa or the religion of the White Prophets and those religions in medieval Europe from which they can be read as borrowing are in their focuses of worship. It is not to be expected that a narrative world whose physics differs from that of its author and readers–as must be true of any narrative world that admits of magic–would venerate the same deities as are hailed in the surrounding existence. Quid Vestritibus cum Cristo might well be asked. Better questions, though, would look at other divergences from observed and understood commonplaces of religion.

The dominant impression of medieval European religion is that it early becomes monolithically monothestic; there may have been schisms and antipopes, but the body of faith was one, and it worshipped one god (if perhaps in three parts). The worship of Sa in the Realm of the Elderlings novels certainly admits of more diversity than its purported medieval European counterpart, looking at different religious traditions as being simply different methods of veneration of Sa rather than as pagan faiths that need to be converted or heresies that need to be eliminated. Additionally, the worship of Sa passes beyond Marianic devotions in incorporating femininity into its concept of the divine; Sa is repeatedly and explicitly noted as being both male and female, not merely masculine and feminine.32 And, perhaps most tellingly, the religion evokes Zoroastrianism, both in the aforementioned duality and in the back-formation of the name of its god. Sa has as a primary servitor the sacral ruler known as the Satrap. The title is one borrowed from the outside world and referring to a subordinate ruler, analogous to a provincial governor in a larger, often imperial, nation. It is also indelibly associated with the Middle East–and not so much the Islamic Middle East that looms large in concepts of the High Middle Ages as the earlier Middle East of the Persian Empire and its successors–where Zoroastrianism flourished before the advent of Christianity. As such, while there are points of correspondence to observed and perceived medieval European practices, because medieval Europe as commonly understood both popularly and by scholars borrows much from earlier ideologies, the worship of Sa as presented in Hobb’s novels is more unlike medieval Western Christianity than like it.

The religion that centers around the White Prophets offers a more nuanced take, as seems appropriate to its later in-text development. For one, it is not a theistic practice; it does not focus on the worship or veneration of a specific deity, but rather celebrates the unique abilities of a heritage that may be carried by anyone–or the public face of it is such. It is, in effect, a method of social control, even if it is able to deliver on many of its promises. The White Prophets are, in fact, prophets; they can divine the future, reliable, even if interpretation of their divinations is not always the easiest or most straightforward. But the prophecies they make available to petitioners–for fees that range in scope from the modest to the exorbitant and well beyond it–are not the core of their work. They are instead pieces bartered for support of their own, often abusive lifestyles,33 and for the organization’s work towards enacting one particular vision of the future it sees. And while it might be argued that such practice does align to medieval western European religious practice–the sale of indulgences criticized by Reformation theologians comes to mind as one example, the satire in Chaucer’s Pardoner another–the lack of organized and stratified observance, the lack of proselytizing, and the efficacy of practice that can only happen in a fantasy milieu all serve to make the religion centered around the White Prophets decidedly distinct from potential antecedents.

Functions of the Medievalist Religion

Ultimately, the depictions of formalized religion in the Realm of the Elderlings novels serves to critique organized religion, generally. Tolkienian-tradition fantasy literature has a fraught relationship with religious structures, generally, reflecting or responding to a perceived bias on the part of its assumed readership against such structures.34 As with much else, Hobb presents a more nuanced depiction in her works of groups more likely to be extolled–or, even more likely, condemned out of hand; she does not voice an outright condemnation of organized religion in the works, though she does not avoid pointing out the problems that inhere in such structures.

As noted earlier, Hobb does work to present ideas of religion in the Realm of the Elderlings novels that admit readerly access. The Realm of the Elderlings can be read as medievalist fantasy–with some substantial caveats, as has been attested.35 Presenting forms of religion that, while not lining up exactly with those present in the observed or understood medieval, still evoke them meaningfully helps readers to understand the narrative milieus in which the characters act and the plotlines of the novels develop. That is, doing so helps foster the “inner consistency of reality” long asserted as being necessary to successful fantasy fiction;36 the structures of faith present in the novels help the stories make more sense to readers (not least because they make religion a present concern, as many works in the Tolkienian fantasy tradition do not).

Similarly, the correspondences between the organized religions in the books and organized religions that inform much of Hobb’s putative readership allow for criticism of the latter to take place–while the separations prevent the critiques from becoming intrusive. Hobb is careful to depict many of the rank-and-file faithful, both laity and clergy, as being sincere in their beliefs and desire to serve. Wintrow Vestrit, for example, remains dedicated to his practice of aspiring priesthood even while imprisoned on his family’s ship or outright enslaved, even while serving under duress as part of a pirate crew;37 clearly, his faith is genuine, and, given its usual expression, it is admirable. It also stands in stark contrast to other practitioners, who countenance slavery and violence, and who otherwise enable iniquity–and who are often in positions of power in their organizations and the milieu more broadly.

The followers of the White Prophets are also, in the main, sincere petitioners for advice about how to live their lives as best they may–but there are many in the overall organization who are outright corrupt and decidedly malevolent, and they tend to be in positions of authority in the organization. Given the many scandals surrounding religious leadership in the years surrounding and following the novels’ publication, it is hard not to see a comment about the failings of organized religion in them. But it is also hard not to see that Hobb leaves an out for readers who feel their own faiths strongly; unlike many others, she does present some positive visions of religion and focuses no small portions of her narratives on religious figures. Indeed, the Fool, whose presence marks most of the Realm of the Elderlings novels, is a White Prophet, and it is hard to be more associated with a religion than to be one of its focal figures. Readers of faith can thus see themselves–and, perhaps, their aspirations–in the work. They are not excluded, as might be taken to be the case from other authors.

There is, of course, more to be done with the topic than can be presented in a conference paper. A more detailed examination of the novels and peripheral materials would doubtlessly provide more primary-source support and evidence of literary and other artistic parallels, while another review of such works as Mitchell and Melville’s 2013 edited collection38 and no few articles from Speculum would offer additional support. 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.

Notes

  1. Geoffrey B. Elliott, “Moving beyond Tolkien’s Medievalism: Robin Hobb’s Farseer and Tawny Man Trilogies,” in  Fantasy and Science Fiction Medievalisms: From Isaac Asimov to A Game of Thrones, ed. Helen Young (Amherst, NY: Cambria P, 2015), 183-98.
  2. Geoffrey B. Elliott, “The Fedwren Project: A Robin Hobb Annotated Bibliography,” last modified 14 January 2020, https://elliottrwi.com/research/hobb-bibliography/.
  3. Geoffrey B. Elliott, “Unchurched: On the Relative Lack of Religion in Tolkienian-Tradition Fantasy Literature” (presentation, International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, MI, 9 May 2014).
  4. Robin Hobb, Assassin’s Apprentice (New York: Bantam, 1996), 186-88.
  5. Robin Hobb, “Homecoming,” in Legends II: Shadows, Gods, and Demons, ed. Robert Silverberg (New York: Del Rey, 2004), 52.
  6. Robin Hobb, Ship of Magic (New York: Bantam, 1999), 394.
  7. Hobb, “Homecoming,” 10.
  8. Hobb, Ship of Magic, 82.
  9. Hobb, Ship of Magic, 11-19.
  10. Robin Hobb, Royal Assassin (New York: Bantam, 1997), 300-303.
  11. Robin Hobb, Fool’s Quest (New York: Del Rey, 2015), 85-87.
  12. Hobb, Fool’s Quest, 95.
  13. Robin Hobb, Fool’s Fate (New York: Bantam, 2004), 355.
  14. See note 1, above.
  15. Hobb, Ship of Magic, 13.
  16. Hobb, Ship of Magic, 175.
  17. Exod. 13: 1-2, RSV.
  18. Hobb, Ship of Magic, 13.
  19. Hobb, Ship of Magic, 11-12.
  20. Hobb, Ship of Magic, 158.
  21. Herbert Thurston, “Celibacy of the Clergy,” New Advent, last modified 2017, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03481a.htm.
  22. Hobb, Ship of Magic, 158.
  23. Heiko A. Oberman, Forerunners of the Reformation: The Shape of Late Medieval Thought, trans. Paul L. Nyhus (Cambridge, James Clarke & Co., 2002), 7-8.
  24. Larry D. Benson et al., explanatory notes to The Canterbury Tales in the Riverside Chaucer, 3rd ed. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), 795-1116.
  25. Robin Hobb, Golden Fool (New York: Bantam, 2003), 460-461.
  26. Hobb, Fool’s Fate, 354-355.
  27. Robin Hobb, Assassin’s Fate (New York: Del Rey, 2017), 113.
  28. Hobb, Assassin’s Fate, 113.
  29. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (New York: Ballantine, 1983), 24-25.
  30. George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones (New York: Bantam, 1996), 367-368.
  31. Paul B. Sturtevant, The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination: Memory, Film, and Medievalism (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2018).
  32. Indeed, gender identity and expression is something of a recurring theme in Hobb’s writing, not only the Realm of the Elderlings works, but also the Soldier Son trilogy.
  33. Hobb, Fool’s Quest, 87.
  34. See note 3, above.
  35. See note 1, above.
  36. J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York: Ballantine, 1966), 33-99.
  37. Wintrow’s experience can also be read as partaking of, though not necessarily corresponding to, the many religious works that focus on carceral experiences. The articles in HLQ 72, no. 2 (June 2009) collectively offer a useful introduction.
  38. Lynette Mitchell and Charles Melville, eds., Every Inch a King: Comparative Studies on Kingship in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds (Boston: Brill, 2013).

I was bound for Kalamazoo once again; help me defray the costs that remain?

A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 89: Assassin’s Quest, Chapter 30

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


A chapter titled “The Stone Garden” follows. It begins with a note about a lost keep in the Six Duchies. It moves then to the party’s continued travel–off of the Skill road and onto a normal, now-overgrown track that occasions complaint from all save Fitz and Nighteyes. Fitz puts the matter of Starling to the Fool; the Fool, in turn, deflects the conversation with accustomed mockery. It does not help matters.

Yep. There it is.
Dimple or Dangle by MoriMann on DeviantArt, here, used for commentary

As they press on, Fitz ruminates about Molly and Burrich. And, as a surprise, they come to a statue of a dragon. Described in detail, it unnerves Fitz; his Wit reads it and the other dragon statues as living. His warnings do not dissuade the other members of the party from investigating the statues further. Fitz and Kettricken confer about their surroundings, and Kettricken purposes to search for Verity in the one place shown on their map that they have yet to reach.

As they make camp, Fitz purposes to go off hunting. Starling offers to accompany him, which surprises him, but he does not refuse her. She proves something of a distraction to Fitz as he works with the wolf, the more so as she tries to explain herself and her stance to him. Fitz is taken aback by it, and they confer with unaccustomed frankness. In the wake of the talk, Starling offers herself to Fitz; he ineptly deflects the offer. And that night, he dreams strange dreams once again.

As I read the chapter again, I remembered that the text is presented as if composed by Fitz many years after the events being depicted. I do not question the character’s recall; enough things are glossed over, and enough is made of his training in various mental disciplines, that it does not pass credulity. But I am struck by the degree to which he recalls his dreams; I rarely if ever do, and certainly not for long after I have them. That is, I occasionally remember that I have dreamt, and I remember waking with the memory of a dream in mind, but I almost never remember the content of my dreams with any detail. I know I am not necessarily representative in this; a lot of people remember their dreams vividly. But it is something that stands out to me.

Too, Fitz’s sudden insight into Starling’s situation resonated with me. It is clear to me that part of the way in which Fitz subverts expectations of common fantasy protagonists (about which I write somewhat ineptly here) is in treating such concerns; protagonists typically either need not treat them or never know they need to do so. Fitz may belatedly realize others have the perspectives that they do, but he does come to realize so much, and that marks him as rare among his kindred–both in the milieu and in the genre.

It’s almost Tax Day in the US; help me meet my bill?

A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 88: Assassin’s Quest, Chapter 29

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


The next chapter, “The Rooster Crown,” starts with a brief description of a Mountain Kindgom game before moving into Fitz and Kettle’s return from their sortie. Kettricken notes that the Fool seems to be improving, and Fitz considers both the presence of Regal’s coterie and his own actions. He very nearly falls back into a Skill-reverie, but Kettle calls him out of it before he can slip in, but after the night passes, he is pulled into the Skill Regal plies through his coterie.

A key scene that will matter more later
The Rooster Crown by AreyMA on DeviantArt, here, used for commentary

Fitz is understandably shaken by the vision, and Kettricken and Kettle make to ease and redirect him. The party proceeds uneasily, but doggedly, and the Fool notes that his present illness seems to be a natural occurrence for his kind. He also elaborates on that kind to Fitz as they proceed, as well as laying out more of the scope of his prophetic powers and his purpose in plying them.

The next morning, the party sets out with more vigor. Nighteyes offers to have the Fool accompany him and Fitz on the hunt; the Fool accepts, surprising Fitz. As they proceed, they come to a place where once a village stood; Fitz and the Fool are both swept into the place’s history and visions. The rest of the party is able to pull them out of it, and Kettle berates them both, but the Fool exults in renewed confidence, and they press ahead with something very much like joy.

Later, that joy is somewhat blunted when Kettricken points out Starling’s affections and evident jealousy to Fitz. Fitz denies the allegations made against him, and Kettricken notes some attraction to him before leaving him alone.

The action in the present chapter was easier for me to follow on this re-reading, which pleases me; I had been worried about my ability to follow a narrative anymore. The discussion of the Fool’s upbringing and abilities, too, seemed to make sense to me, and it seems to me, too, that there is something of a parallel between what the White Prophets are described as doing and the work of humanistic study.

The chapter describes the brand of prophecy the Fool practices as being more of a backward look than a forward one. That is, there are omens and portents and visions, but it is only after events have come to pass that those prophecies can be understood for their full meaning. (Connecting back to earlier comments about the series and its evocation of Asimov’s Foundation novels, I am reminded of the equations displayed by the Prime Radiant in the later-in-milieu books; psychohistory can predict to some degree, but events as they happen occasion adjustments to and recalibrations of the mathematics.) Similarly, the remarks those who study the humanities make, using the works of human minds and hands to help understand the human conditions (and, yes, there’s a reason I’m using the plural), can only be understood fully in retrospect–and even then, as with the Fool’s visions, the interpretations change as new information comes to light.

Of course, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Give me something to crow about?

Re-Presentation: Shades of Steel-Gray: The Nuanced Warrior-Hero in the Farseer Trilogy

The paper below was the first one I had published (in the now-defunct Studies in Fantasy Literature); it was written early on in my graduate schooling. Since it’s out of print–and has been for a while–and I was looking back over old work, I figured, eh, what the hell.

Mind the changes, which include use of a now-outdated citation style. And please let me know in comments what all you think of them (though note that comments are moderated in this webspace).

I do not remember a time in my life when I have not been reading fantasy literature. Over my years of readings I have encountered fantasies well- and poorly-written, those that make sense and those that do not, those that try to cloak their otherworldliness and those that flaunt it. Not until I reached the end of my undergraduate work in college, however, did I begin to look at the scholarly criticism of that genre in which I had and have so long delighted; when I looked, I was surprised to learn that aside from the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and, more recently, J.K. Rowling (and I do not mean to imply that the works of these authors do not merit study), almost no academic criticism of fantasy literature exists.

This finding was at once a source of annoyance and a source of encouragement for me. The annoyance stemmed (and stems) from the implication of a lack of scholarly criticism: unworthiness; I have been reading fantasy literature for many years, and to imply that the activity on which I have spent so much time is worthless is insulting to me. The general dearth of scholarly treatment of the genre means, however, that the field for working with that genre is wide open, hence the sense of encouragement; if others have not or do not treat fantasy literature seriously, then I have a great deal of space in which to so do, and I can be on the “ground floor” of a body of critical work on the genre if such a thing ever comes to be (as it should).

This paper rises from that sense of encouragement, and is an attempt to begin, if only in a small way, to create the body of fantasy criticism that is the natural outgrowth of Tolkien’s assertion (made in “On Fairy-stories” and with which I agree) that fantasy literature has the same intrinsic value as any other mode of literature and should be treated similarly. In it I intend to analyze how Robin Hobb nuances in her Farseer trilogy one of the central tropes of fantasy literature: the warrior-hero. This will require a brief discussion of the nature of the warrior-hero in fantasy literature, and contextualization of Hobb’s work within the genre of fantasy literature.

I. The Importance and Definition of the Warrior-Hero in Fantasy Literature

Fantasy literature cannot function without the warrior-hero. From its earliest incarnations to its most recent manifestations, fantasy literature concerns itself almost exclusively with the interactions of warrior-heroes with the worlds in which they exist, whether those interactions are those of a student coming into adulthood or those of a tried and proven combatant asserting power or those of a past master passing on a lifetime of experience to the next generation.

Here’s a typical image.
Oberon by GENZOMAN on DeviantArt, here, used for commentary

The epics, which are the earliest examples of fantasy literature (that being literature which employs a significant element of non-human or non-humane beings or non-technological abilities, usually evidenced in “races” such as elves or in powers commonly called “magic”), center around the dealings of warrior-heroes; the Iliad recounts the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon, both warriors of renown, at Troy; Beowulf the exploits of its eponymous character whose hand-grip employs the strength of thirty men and whose fame comes chiefly from his displays of combat prowess. Later works that can easily be called fantasy or which certainly have fantastical elements also center around the doings of warrior-heroes; Book 1 of Spenser’s Faerie Queene relies on the fighting of the Redcrosse Knight and Prince (not yet a king, acting not as the “standard” legend states but as a young nobleman of the Middle Ages “ought to” and performing errantry) Arthur, and Le Morte D’Arthur is nothing but a series of actions of warrior-heroes. Moreover, the plot of The Lord of the Rings, that lynchpin of fantasy literature, would not have been able to occur without Aragorn or Éomer, warrior-heroes both.

These fantastical warrior-heroes, and many others like them, exhibit certain common qualities. Principal among these is martial prowess; one cannot be a warrior-hero without being a warrior, and one cannot be a warrior without knowing how to fight and fight well—victory in the fight contributes in no small way to becoming a warrior-hero. Additionally, the warrior-hero is nearly always sworn to something greater than him- or herself; Gilgamesh is obligated to the realm he rules, the heroes of the Greek epics are at Troy to answer a vow, Beowulf is described as the “thane of Hygelac” (Beo. line 192), and though both Aragorn and Éomer become the rulers of their respective nations (which positions are in some respects positions of servitude and require swearing to the realms and to one other’s realms) they both also explicitly serve others, most notably Théoden, during the course of the narrative in addition to showing Gandalf no small amount of deference.

Martial prowess and deference to higher authority are not enough, however, to create the warrior-hero; many competent fighters honorably discharge their sworn duties to their nations and are not warrior-heroes in the sense of the fantasy trope. A fantasy warrior-hero is in a position of command; Gilgamesh is “called a god and man” (15), Agamemnon and Odysseus are both the kings of their respective nation-states, Beowulf is in the royal line and becomes king of the Geats, and knighthood such as held by the Knights of the Round Table is often a position involving governance—many of Arthur’s comrades are lords over their own territories. Further, a warrior-hero does not govern from a place of safety, but hazards him- or herself alongside his or her fellow warriors; Achilles (when he fights) is perpetually at the center of the battle, the Redcrosse Knight and the Knights of the Round Table engage in repeated single combat, and Aragorn and Éomer meet “in the midst of the battle” for the Pelennor Fields after literally having cut their ways there (Tolkien, Lord of the Rings V.6.135). Additionally, the fantasy warrior-hero is from his or her earliest incarnations directly connected to the otherworldly, and typically in a “good” way, by descent or equipment or friendship or a combination of them; Achilles’ descent from Thetis and arms from Hephaistos (Il. 1.276-79, 18.330-616), Odysseus’ enjoyment of the favor of Athena (Od. 1.51-55), Arthur’s Excalibur and his advisor Merlin, and Aragorn’s descent from all the major houses of both Elves and Men—which include a being who existed before the world (Tolkien, Silmarillion 379-382, 390, 423)—all exemplify this.

From these examples, a workable definition of the fantasy warrior-hero can be created; the fantasy warrior-hero is a figure of authority “blessed” by that which exists beyond the normal bounds of reality and who possesses significant martial prowess which is directed toward “greater” ends than him- or herself. The protagonist of Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy does in many respects meet this definition, albeit not in the way the examples from which the definition is formed do. This is perhaps related to the fairly nuanced place Hobb herself occupies in the field of fantasy writers.

II. Hobb’s Position in the Genre of Fantasy

In many respects, Hobb’s writing is typical of the fantasy genre; her works occur primarily in a loosely Western feudal society in which a sovereign king holds the allegiance of lesser nobles (all of whom field their own military forces) and in which, though there is a definite division between social strata, even the lowest-born have certain rights and prerogatives upon which even the king cannot tread—“The welfare of the people belongs to the people, and they have the right to object to it if their duke stewards it poorly” (Hobb, Apprentice 1, 65, 83-84, 139, 271; Quest 205, 332, etc; Royal 97, 231, etc). She also, as do a number of other fantasy writers, invokes decidedly non-Western societies, some of which are wholly of her own invention rather than allegories of other cultures in the “real” world (Hobb, Apprentice 70, 344+; Quest 120-134, 198, 381, 530). The primary society in her work, that of the Six Duchies, follows in the tradition established by Tolkien and boasts technology roughly equivalent to that available in Western Europe between the Second and Third Crusades, utilizing axe, sword, bow, mail, and boiled leather in warfare, dwelling in fairly large—and clean—stone castles, and utilizing both oar and sail in their ships (Hobb, Royal; Tolkien, Lord of the Rings V). Hobb also echoes Tolkien in portraying a war where the primary society is beleaguered the consequences of which will reach far beyond the realms directly involved in the fighting, though Hobb diverges from Tolkien’s model in that the Duchies display a far greater equality of genders than does Middle-earth (Hobb, Apprentice 58-62, 83-84; Royal 117-18, 153, 304, 499-506; Quest 389-93, 739; Tolkien, Lord of the Rings V.61-62). Hobb’s writing further treats magic liberally, much more so than does Tolkien’s, noting as is common with fantasy writers high and low forms of that otherworldly power (Royal 1-2; Quest 2-3, etc.).

Hobb, however, utilizes in the Farseer trilogy the technique, unusual to fantasy literature, of a first-person retrospective narrative interspersed with notes almost editorial in their form; fantasy literature typically employs a third-person omniscient narrator, while Hobb’s protagonist provides the details of the action in the text, freely intermixing simple recountings of events with bouts of nostalgia. With this technique, she portrays her protagonist, FitzChivalry Farseer, as an older man, scarred by battles, addicted to the use of magic and a drug that eases the first addiction, removed from the fellowship of most other people, and honored in only the most covert ways for the deeds he narrates, similar to the way in which Tolkien depicts Frodo Baggins at the end of The Lord of the Rings (Hobb, Apprentice 1-3; Quest 754-57; Tolkien, Lord of the Rings VI.341). While Frodo is not strictly a warrior-hero, FitzChivalry Farseer, about whose combat exploits songs are sung—his “deeds sung of as noble and now near legendary” by a minstrel—and who literally dies—“confined to dungeon and then coffin”—in the process of serving the royal line of the Six Duchies, certainly is one, and it is his warrior-heroism that Hobb deftly nuances (Hobb, Royal 332-34, 510; Quest 2-3, 236-37).

III. How Hobb Nuances the Warrior-Hero

As stated above, in fantasy literature the warrior-hero is a figure of authority “blessed” by that which exists beyond the normal bounds of reality and who possesses significant martial prowess which is directed toward “greater” ends than him- or herself. Discussing how FitzChivalry Farseer incorporates each part of that definition will demonstrate how Hobb nuances that fantasy trope.

Throughout the Farseer trilogy, FitzChivalry holds a position of authority, though that authority is never absolute and shifts dramatically based on the situation in which he finds himself. From the opening of the first book, when the first-person narrative begins, he assumes some authority over even the reader; he is the mediator through which the reader experiences the Six Duchies and the events of the Red Ship War. Shortly thereafter, FitzChivalry begins to relate his own experiences rather than presenting his musings on the nature of history, and the reason for his peculiar name is made plain; he is the bastard son (hence the “Fitz,” which is quickly applied to him) of the heir apparent to the throne of the Six Duchies, a man named Chivalry (Hobb, Apprentice 5-11). While bastardy is not the most auspicious origin for a warrior-hero, it does have certain advantages; soon after FitzChivalry is brought to the capital of the Six Duchies, his grandfather, King Shrewd, lines these out to the youngest of his own three sons. Being “a diplomat no foreign ruler will dare to turn away” or the potential foundation of “[marital] alliances” is certainly more in line with the traditional warrior-hero concept than illegitimate origin, though even this is nuanced by the king’s mention of the utility of having a bastard to work “the diplomacy of the knife” (49-51).

The authority FitzChivalry holds is invoked and evoked at several later points in the trilogy. He is at one point sent along with his uncle, Verity, to investigate and correct a deficiency in one major nobleman’s execution of his defense duties; while on this trip, he ostensibly serves as a dog-boy to his uncle, but is bidden to be ready to execute the King’s Justice in the form of assassination should it be needed—both positions of authority, albeit dubious—and in the former guise sharply issues orders to the wife of the major nobleman in question before counseling her to steer her husband to a better course of action (127-62). Later, he represents Verity—who awarded him a heraldic emblem of his own—to his fiancée in a politically-based marriage, a position of honor if of mixed intent, for FitzChivalry is bidden to kill the heir to another realm while on that journey (355-426). Some time later in the trilogy, FitzChivalry is offered lands and a title although he rejects them, and still later serves as a formal witness to a ceremonial request made of the king by a prince of the realm, again a post of honor though an inactive and minor one (Hobb, Royal 323-25, 374-81, 595-96). Partly as a result of the request he witnessed, FitzChivalry is offered a chance at regency of the Six Duchies, which would be an exceedingly elevated position save that the offering skirts the very edge of treason—“not treason, quite, and yet…” (591-98). In each instance of FitzChivalry being offered or exercising power, there is a taint or a twist that shades it.

FitzChivalry’s magic is similarly nuanced; in him are combined the “highest” and “lowest” of mystical disciplines, the royal Farseer Skill—which allows human minds to touch one another and speak and can allow a greater dominance by one over another than does any physical force—and the much feared and hated animal-magic of the Wit—which fosters a sense of the life of the world and a permits a sharing of being, not dominance but union in mind and heart and spirit, between human and animal—respectively (Hobb, Royal 1-3). The former, in which he is trained at the king’s express command and—“the Skill is not taught to bastards”—against all tradition (Hobb, Apprentice 248, 254, 262), allows him to lend mental strength to his prince for the defense and maintenance of the Six Duchies (Hobb, Apprentice 287-88, 332-33, 425-26; Royal 326-27; Quest 697, 699, 711-17). The latter, the Wit, is reviled in the Six Duchies, a foulness considered curable only by hanging, drawing and quartering, and burning its practitioners—“it was never accounted a crime, in the old days, to hunt them down and burn” users of the Wit—though to point up a nuance, all people have a measure of it (Hobb, Apprentice 38-43, 263; Royal 652-55, 674-75; Quest 606, 673-76). FitzChivalry uses both Skill and Wit throughout the Farseer trilogy, sometimes to good ends and sometimes to bad, but they ultimately operate in juxtaposition to their “popular” perceptions; FitzChivalry and his prince are betrayed almost to the point of ruin through the Skill, and FitzChivalry wakens the salvation of the Six Duchies through the Wit—“Blood and the Wit…can wake the dragons” in which Verity places his hopes for the salvation of the Six Duchies (Quest 480, 610-58, 738). The noble becomes a device of treachery and the base saves all; magic becomes nuanced.

Nuanced, yes.
Squeal like a pig by baccanal on DeviantArt, here, used for commentary

More nuanced than the supernatural aspect of the character of FitzChivalry Farseer is his martial prowess. That he excels at killing other human beings is not an open question; he is trained from a very early age to work “the diplomacy of the knife” and excels in his work as an assassin—his teacher notes his “gift for this,” FitzChivalry notes that “over three months [he] killed seventeen times for the King,” and he is able to manipulate circumstances to inflict a shame worse than simple death (Hobb, Apprentice 50, 71-78, 84-89, 323-24; Royal 114-21, 256-67; Quest 174-87). Sneaking about in silence and stealth to slip blades between the ribs of the sleeping or slipping poisons into food and drink and other things are not, however, typically named the activities of warriors; Hobb acknowledges this in the titling the Farseer books “Assassin,” a term with few, if any, pleasant associations. Yet FitzChivalry also acts as a warrior in a more traditional sense of the term. As was mentioned earlier, his warrior exploits are set into song, as befits one who charges headlong into a fight to defend besieged comrades or his queen (Hobb, Royal 144-45, 332-34, 499-509; Quest 236-37). As was also mentioned earlier, he is acknowledged to be of royal blood even through his bastardy; he is, accordingly, trained to make war (Hobb, Apprentice 58-62, 68, 306; Royal 270-73, 312-21). Even so, he does not have the best of luck in direct combat; he suffers considerable injury nearly every time he engages in an open fight—Verity notes that “the most distinctive part of [FitzChivalry’s] fighting style is the incredible way [he has] of surviving it” (Hobb, Apprentice 257-63, 406, 422-23; Royal 265-70, 284-85, 618-20; Quest 374-80, 729-39). FitzChivalry fights, but instead of a warrior’s clarity, he finds confusion and nuance.

Martial prowess, though, can be directed against right, magic against the wise, and authority against those who grant it unless those who have those things hold fast to their devotion to powers greater than themselves. For the most part, FitzChivalry is loyal to the Farseer dynasty; in his youth, he is claimed for the dynasty by his grandfather—though in purchase, which nuances what might have been normal filial piety; in his upbringing, he comes to love and trust his mentor; in his manhood, he comes through love to follow Verity and Verity’s queen (Hobb, Apprentice 50-52, 56, 86, 89-101, 147; Royal 6-7, 15, 53, 60, 84, 124-30, etc.). Yet even this loyalty, this devotion to duty that impels FitzChivalry to drug himself—knowing the risks of so doing—and set out in a berserker rage while Verity’s queen, Kettricken, escapes from danger by a route he plans—an action that ends in his own death—is shaded away from purity (Hobb, Royal 557+). From his childhood, FitzChivalry dislikes and mistrusts the youngest son of King Shrewd, one Regal, to whom he does owe loyalty as a member of the Farseer dynasty—though the dislike and mistrust are justified in part because of Regal’s childhood mistreatment of him and later attempt to have him killed as part of a plan to overthrow Verity, providing further nuance (Hobb, Apprentice 15-18, 47, 405-423). The antagonism between the two continues throughout the trilogy, and is in its repeated manifestations justified, imbedding greater complexity in the relationship between FitzChivalry and his legitimate relatives; Regal orders that FitzChivalry be tortured and later hires a hunter specifically to pursue him, while FitzChivalry in turn attempts to kill Regal and eventually uses his Farseer magic to brainwash Regal into zealous, if short-lived, loyalty to Kettricken and her child—he notes that “[the] fanatical loyalty [he] had imprinted on him would be [his] best memorial…Queen Kettricken and her child would have no more loyal subject” (Hobb, Royal 647-52, 661-66; Quest 49, 185-89, 374-80, 751). The FitzChivalry/Regal antagonism leads also to a complication of other devotions FitzChivalry holds; after his aborted attempt to kill Regal, Verity, the Farseer to which FitzChivalry is most loyal, lays FitzChivalry under a geas that does not let him rest until he comes, after a not inconsiderable and quite dangerous journey, to stand in Verity’s presence (Hobb, Quest 192+). Devotion to a greater power, which should be a thing unmarred and easily defined, becomes nuanced in FitzChivalry as do the other traits of a fantasy warrior-hero.

IV. Conclusion

The fantasy warrior-hero is a figure of authority “blessed” by that which exists beyond the normal bounds of reality and who possesses significant martial prowess which is directed toward “greater” ends than him- or herself. FitzChivalry Farseer is a figure of authority, possesses abilities that transcend “normal” reality, is a capable combatant, and devotes himself to the kingdom of his upbringing. He is also reviled, cursed, repeatedly injured, and provoked to treason and to a sundering of his active service. He is a warrior-hero, and he is also a man much like any other; no happy ending is guaranteed to him, but he ends up doing as well for himself as anyone can truly expect to do, if not far better. Given that his warrior-heroism is as nuanced as Hobb makes it, his leaving it behind at the end of the Farseer trilogy is no tragedy, adding one final nuance to the many shades of steel-gray of his life.

Works Cited

  • Beowulf. Eds. C.L. Wrenn and W.F. Bolton. 1953. Exeter, England: Univ. of Exeter Press, 1996.
  • Gilgamesh: A Verse Narrative. Trans. Herbert Mason. 1970. New York, NY: Mentor, 1972.
  • Hobb, Robin. The Farseer: Assassin’s Apprentice. 1995. New York, NY: Bantam Spectra, 1996.
  • —. The Farseer: Assassin’s Quest. 1997. New York, NY: Bantam Spectra, 1998.
  • —. The Farseer: Royal Assassin. 1996. New York, NY: Bantam Spectra, 1997.
  • Homer. Iliad. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974.
  • Homer. Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961.
  • Malory, Thomas. Le Morte D’Arthur. Ed. John Matthews. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, 2004.
  • Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Book 1. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Eds. M.H. Abrams et al. 7th Ed. Vol. 1. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2000. 628-771.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. 1955. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1983.
  • —. “On Fairy-stories.” The Tolkien Reader. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1966.
  • —. The Silmarillion. 1977. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1982.

I’ve come a fair way, I think; help me go further!