Sites of Memory in Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings

The text below was presented at the Tales after Tolkien Society‘s sponsored session–Deadscapes: Wastelands, Necropoli, and Other Tolkien-Inspired Places of Death, Decay, and Corruption–at the online 2021 International Congress on Medieval Studies; some emendations to suit the medium are made without further comment. Embedded images were not presented, but are included to aid discussion.


Robin Hobb1 is a pseudonym of Washington-state-based author Meghan Lindholm; under the pseudonym, she has written multiple works, far exceeding the output of certain fantasy authors who are her contemporaries, including the sixteen novels (along with assorted novellas and short stories) set in the Six Duchies, Bingtown, Jamaillia, and lands accessible from them–the Realm of the Elderlings corpus. Nine of those novels–the Farseer, Tawny Man, and Fitz and the Fool trilogies–center on the character of FitzChivalry Farseer, the bastard son of the heir apparent to the Six Duchies, trained as an assassin and wielding two powerful magics. The remaining seven–the Liveship Traders trilogy and the Rain Wilds Chronicles tetralogy–focus on Bingtown and the nearby Rain Wilds; characters move among the series, and the events in one series influence our outright give rise to those in subsequent series, although each can stand as an independent reading. Throughout them, Hobb nuances the tropes and patterns common in the literary traditions of which she partakes; while her work is clearly in the Tolkienian tradition,2 including those antecedents of it identified by Anderson,3 it features substantially a number of elements not frequently seen within that tradition,4 and she tends to move away from the commonplaces while remaining grounded enough in them to draw readers along. Her tendency towards nuance extends to sites of memory, not so much in denying proper honors to the dead, but in playing with the very idea of death; her specific motion away from tropes about memorials offers a further suggestion of the limits of such literary traditions as the Tolkienian and possibly points to ways they can be reclaimed and reimagined to good effect.

The Typical Sites of Memory: The Stone Quarry, the Dragon Garden, and Kelsingra

The sites of memory in the Elderlings novels that most closely correspond with the literary traditions in which Hobb operates appear initially in the third Elderlings novel, Assassin’s Quest, as a ruined city, a quarry of magic-imbued black stone and an overgrown collection of carved and colored statues of dragons and similar creatures, ranging to a winged boar and an antlered, man-faced chimera.5 The collection is even commented upon as possibly being a graveyard; “Perhaps there are tombs beneath these creatures. Perhaps this is some strange heraldry, marking the burial places for different families,” the narrator remarks.6 Called to mind are such sites as the Arthurian Avalon and the Tolkienian Rath Dínen, with the latter’s “pale domes and empty halls and images of men long dead” and separate houses for the corpses of separate families.7 Called to mind, too, are the mausoleums and cemeteries of the readers’ world that often show in darkened stone markings indicating who is interred that would not be decipherable to those not trained in reading those markings, as well as the cenotaphs that mark the fallen who could not be recovered.

There’s a reason I used this image before.
It’s Frozen History by MeetV on DeviantArt, here, used for commentary.

Both the garden and the quarry are associated in the novel with a series of roads made from the black stone of the quarry and a city largely built of the same substance: Kelsingra. That city is itself a silent memorial of a bygone civilization, empty of life but filled with memories of it that intrude into the consciousnesses of those who enter it and have the Skill to perceive them. When FitzChivalry first encounters Kelsingra, he finds it empty, perceiving no signs of life around him;8 as he searches it, he finds that “Whole domes of roofs had fallen in…outer walls had fallen away entirely, exposing the inner chambers and filling the street below with rubble” and sees, among others, “the tatters of ancient hangings, a collapsed wooden bench.”9 When another character later comes there, she finds it similarly devoid of the population it once had and cast into ruin by some long-ago cataclysm, claimed by no others, not even the creeping of vegetation and animal life that would normally swallow ruins in time.10 At the same time, the stones of Kelsingra–and of the dragon-garden–store and re-present memories to those with access to the appropriate magics; again, the stone dragons can be reawakened with the proper offerings, and even the dead city “replays” its memories for FitzChivalry as he stalks through it, immersing him in images of the daily lives of inhabitants.11 Clearly, then, the city is a testament to the departed, serving as a necropolis and, more literally than many others, as a locus of recollection.

As with much else that Hobb writes, however, she nuances her major sites of memory away from her prominent literary antecedents–given the context of the genre, particularly Tolkien, with whose work Hobb is avowedly more than familiar.12 The statues in the stone garden, all of which initially appear as sleeping creatures,13 are not grave-markers; they appear asleep because they are asleep, constructions imbued with the personalities and essences of the magic-users who carved them14 and able to be reawakened and summoned to aid with the correct combination of offerings.15 Again, the Arthurian comes to mind–the “once and future king” idea emerges prominently with a former ruler of the Six Duchies being among those carved figures.16 So does the Tolkienian, as the Dead at Erech are similarly brought forward,17 although there is a marked difference between the two, a nuancing away from Tolkien’s prevailing ideas. For while both the Dead of Erech and the stone-garden dragons are summoned by extra-natural means to help repel largely naval invading forces from the key nations,18 the Dead are addressing their earlier failures,19 while the stone-garden dragons are acting as the result of their successes.20 Indeed, the carvings are in most cases a reward for those who complete them,21 a fulfillment rather than a punishment.

Too, the fates of those sites differ. In traditional Arthuriana, Avalon remains “another place,”22 generally outside access despite protestations of its “real” location. In Tolkien, Rath Dínen is not much mentioned after the death of Denethor and the rescue of Faramir; it remains in place to receive Aragorn, but its tale does not extend past that.23 Kelsingra, and presumably the quarry and garden with which they are linked, end up subject to looting24–not only by FitzChivalry as he tries to survive pursuit and serve the king who has called him to his nation’s aid,25 but also by avaricious merchants.26 Although the looting does not, ultimately, occur in force,27 the fact that the potential for it is recognized and acted upon at all is a marked deviation from the idealization of Tolkien and of much other fantasy literature in the Tolkienian tradition. Attention to such concerns–the all-too-human factors of avarice and pettiness–is a hallmark of Hobb’s writing; that they manifest with regards to the deadscapes Hobb presents points towards a reimagining of the tropes with which Tolkien and those following him work, bringing fantasy literature more in line with the observable world of the reader and helping it to speak towards more attainable hopes for the readers’ world.

The Strange Sites of Memory: The Liveships

In the Realm of the Elderlings, Hobb also presents an uncommon–and unexpected–class of sites of memory: the liveships. As the name suggests, the liveships are living vessels, constructed from a substance called wizardwood and quickening to thinking, feeling life after taking in the spirits of three people of the same family–a life that depends for its stability and security upon the continued presence of a member of that family upon the ship’s decks.28 Peculiar to the Bingtown Traders, they are faster, better ships, more resistant to storm and wave, immune or nearly so to the barnacles and rot that plague other wooden vessels, and they alone can navigate the caustic waters of the Rain Wild River, from which flow the treasures that ensure Bingtown’s economic existence. As such, they are highly prized–such that a multi-generational loan, secured by potential marriages, to purchase one is not at all uncommon29–and, in some ways, are regarded as both enduring members of their owning families and the defining emblems of those same families.

Vivacia
There’s a reason I used this one before, too.
It’s Vivacia by FloorSteinz on DeviantArt, used for commentary.

Even so, the liveships are openly acknowledged to be memorials to the dead; not only do the lives in their names come from the deaths of their family members, as attested, but they take on the memories and knowledge of those family members.30 And, because they remain in service across generations, they function as repositories of their families’ histories long after their quickening; for example, one of the first such ships, the Tarman, remains in service despite having been built before the magical properties of wizardwood were known,31 and the ship remains in conference with its family even so. To ship on them, then, is to sail among the dead and alongside the dead, and while there are other stories of such things–the Flying Dutchman is only the most prominent example–they are not as common as other encounters with the departed, not as common as sites of memory and tombs visited happily or reverently, and it is certain that the liveships are valued and appreciated by the Bingtowners.32

But.

The unusualness of the floating memorials that the liveships are is not confined to the fact of their magic or their water-borne work. There are many magical memorials in fantasy fiction, after all, and Tolkien writes of the ability of water itself to recall earlier events.33 No, the chief motion away from the Tolkienian tradition that Hobb makes with the liveships is one that points back to earlier beliefs about magic as being unnatural and despicable. There is motion towards the idea early in the Liveship Traders novels, when a character who had been in training as a priest evidences concern about and suspicion of his own family’s liveship,34 although his suspicions fall far short of the reality that emerges throughout the series. For the wizardwood of which the liveships are built, and of which other items of extranatural power are made, is not wood at all, but the cocoon-material of dragons–and not all of the dragons whose cocoons were harvested were dead before their cocoons were opened and cut apart.35

More, as is made clear through the series, the dead dragons remain in the wizardwood no less than the spirits of those who die upon the ships’ decks–aware of what happens “above” them in the consciousnesses of the liveships that form from the quickening even as they are imprisoned in forms imposed upon them.36 Indeed, so powerful do the echoes of the dragons remain in the wizardwood that combining the cocoons of multiple dragons leads to the untenable instability of a ship built from such a combination.37 Marlowe’s Mephastophilis comes to mind,38 and surely being left in a state of undeath, aware but unable to interact in any meaningful way, is an ongoing hell not often seen employed and exploited by the “heroic” characters in Tolkienian-tradition fantasy fiction. Even when, as happens at least once, the underlying dragon-persona can emerge to the “front” of the liveship, its existence remains a partial and circumscribed one, far different from the free-ranging (and, indeed, imperious) life a dragon would otherwise have in the Elderlings corpus.39

The liveships, then, in addition to being sites of memory are sites of torment, legacies of oppression and exploitation that are not the less heinous because so many who perpetrate it are (kept) ignorant of the import of their deeds. Nor is it made less heinous by the individual resolutions to which the liveships come, integrating the “levels” of their personalities–dragon, human, and created liveship–into cohesive wholes; they emerge from trauma, yes, and continue to take in the lives of those who sail upon them, but they continue, too, to carry the memories of what has been done to them. And while works in the Tolkienian tradition do make much of redemption, of persevering through suffering and past it, they do not as often reckon with what befalls those who do so suffer when those who made them to suffer yet remain in the world alongside them. Yet that is what those among Hobb’s readers who have suffered must do, and in looking at that ongoing life, after the “happily ever after,” as in other things, Hobb usefully moves beyond the confines of mainstream fantasy literature.

Coda

Again, Hobb writes within the Tolkienian tradition, borrowing from medieval and medievalist antecedents as well as other influences and working to nuance and adapt the prevailing tropes of that literary tradition. In her alterations to common depictions of wastelands and deadscapes, of sites of memory, as in her shadings and nuances of other tropes,40 Hobb provides a more authentic, accessible, verisimilitudinous fantasy literature than do many of her contemporaries and predecessors, which allows the quiet messages that emerge from her work to lodge more deeply and powerfully with readers. Those messages, speaking among others to the problems of colonialist agendas, to concerns of gender identity and equality, to political and interpersonal theories, to self-determination, and to increasing inclusivity, are well worth hearing; anything that makes them come across more easily and to more people is to be prized, therefore, and the more so in that it repudiates the ongoing misuse of the observed medieval and of medievalist fantasies by execrable groups with opprobrious ideologies that deserve all opposition.

Notes

  1. I note that I write this while living on land once inhabited by the Lipan, Gaigwu, and Nʉmʉnʉʉ peoples and from which they have been in large part displaced by colonialist misdeeds–from which too many continue to suffer and against which much more needs to be done. The acknowledgement does not suffice, but to fail to do even so much is not acceptable.
  2. Geoffrey B. Elliott, “Shades of Steel-Gray: The Nuanced Warrior-Hero in the Farseer Trilogy,” Studies in Fantasy Literature 4 (2006): 70-78.
  3. Douglas A. Anderson, introduction to Tales before Tolkien: The Roots of Modern Fantasy, ed. Douglas A. Anderson (New York: Del Rey, 2003).
  4. 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 UP, 2015) 183-98.
  5. Robin Hobb, Assassin’s Quest (New York: Bantam, 1998), 578-79.
  6. Ibid, 580.
  7. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (New York: Ballantine, 1986), 109.
  8. Hobb, Assassin’s Quest, 512.
  9. Ibid, 519-20.
  10. Robin Hobb, Ship of Destiny (New York: Bantam, 2001), 163-66.
  11. Hobb, Assassin’s Quest, 512-14.
  12. Robin Hobb, “A Bar and a Quest” in Meditations on Middle-earth, ed. Karen Harber (New York: St. Martin’s P, 2001), 85-100.
  13. Hobb, Assassin’s Quest, 580.
  14. Ibid, 696-700.
  15. Ibid, 738.
  16. Ibid, 738.
  17. Tolkien, Return, 67-68.
  18. Hobb, Assassin’s Quest, pgs. 737-49; Tolkien, Return 167-68.
  19. Tolkien, Return, 67-68.
  20. Hobb, Assassin’s Quest, 499.
  21. Ibid., 697-99; Robin Hobb, Assassin’s Fate (New York: Del Rey, 2017), 843-44.
  22. Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, ed. Oskar Sommer (London: David Nutt, 1899), https://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/cme/MaloryWks2/1:23.7?rgn=div2;view=fulltext
  23. Tolkien, Return, 388-90.
  24. The related city of Frengong, lying under the city of Trehaug, is looted almost entirely; it is the source of the wizardwood of which the Bingtown liveships are made, as well as many other treasures taken from the remains of the dead. There is something of a colonialist theme at play in the Elderlings novels; explicating it lies outside the scope of this paper.
  25. Hobb, Assassin’s Quest, 525-26.
  26. Robin Hobb, City of Dragons (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), 125-29, etc.
  27. Robin Hobb, Blood of Dragons (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 409-15.
  28. Robin Hobb, Ship of Magic (New York: Bantam, 1999), 47-49.
  29. Ibid, 47, 337, 625-26, 714.
  30. Ibid., 160.
  31. Robin Hobb, Dragon Keeper (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 20.
  32. The example of the Paragon in the Liveship Traders novels is a notable exception, of course–but it is remarked upon by many of the characters in those novels as being an exception, and despite the problems attendant upon the ship, many characters see value therein.
  33. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (New York: Ballantine, 1982), 8.
  34. Hobb, Ship of Magic, 152, etc.
  35. Robin Hobb, Mad Ship (New York: Bantam, 2000), 43-47, etc.
  36. Hobb, Ship of Destiny, 138, etc.
  37. Hobb, Mad Ship, 558-59.
  38. Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus 3.75.
  39. Hobb, Ship of Destiny, 156-66.
  40. See, for example, Geoffrey B. Elliott, “Manifestations of Medieval Religion in Robin Hobb’s Elderlings Corpus,” ElliottRWI.com, 15 April 2020, https://elliottrwi.com/2020/04/15/manifestations-of-medieval-religion-in-robin-hobbs-elderlings-corpus/.

Help me keep doing this?

One thought on “Sites of Memory in Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings

Leave a Reply to A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 201: Ship of Destiny, Chapter 22 – Elliott RWI Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s