Not in the DSM

Spending years chasing dragons and
Finding the high just often enough to
Let me taste the eternal uncanny and
Whet my appetite for it again but
I lost my access to the steady supply
Suffered the pangs of withdrawal from
The intoxicants rolled up in those papers and
Taken in through eyes and hands and nose
Eased by grinding through the baser stuff
Enough to keep me going through the pain but not
Enough to ease the longing that
I still feel
The methadone with which I dose myself now
Does not stop the cravings that wrack me and
I need no naloxone to end the high
That ended long ago even though
I still chase it across the world and
Sometimes one of the few hits I can get
Will bring a touch of that old joy again but
There is no treatment program for this addiction and
There is no cure for it for any of us
Who have taken this thing into us across the years and
Tried to make it our lives
Freebasing in the basement of the ivory tower and
Unable to ascend from its lower floors to where
A steadier supply can be had
Even if it, too, is cut with other things

Care to send some help my way?

A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 187: Ship of Destiny, Chapter 8

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

A chapter titled “Lords of the Three Realms” follows, and it opens with Tintaglia killing a bear and searching for signs of her kind after gorging upon it. She notes changes from what her ancestral memories tell her, and she worries as she continues her search.

On February 21, their world will end in fire.
Yeah, that’d ruin your day.
Image from the Pompeii movie website, used for commentary

Malta muses on her straitened circumstances as she, the Satrap, and Kekki continue downstream. The Satrap inveighs heavily, and Malta fumes at him.

Tintaglia kills again, a boar, and she arrives at the site of a ruined Elderling town, far fallen from the glories she recalls it having had in her ancestral memories. She rages against the loss and begins to despair of being the last of her kind.

Malta wakes to see the form of Kekki in a heap in the boat, and she fears the other woman is dead. She is not, although she is in poor condition, and she strikes a strange deal with Malta, offering her aid if the younger woman will help her live. The Satrap sights a Chalcedean ship and hails it despite Malta’s protestations; the Chalcedeans take them aboard in some confusion, but are persuaded of the Satrap’s identity. He begins to ply his status with them, swiftly returning to his drug use and imperious hauteur; Malta is forced to consider changed circumstances and notes the Satrap’s revealed physical form with bemused disappointment. After she has cause for concern about Kekki again, she and the Satrap have another sharp exchange, and Malta realizes the water provided for the Satrap’s bath is from the Rain Wild River; she smiles as she realizes it will scald him and pours more onto him.

I note that the issue of addiction crops up again in the present chapter as in so much of the rest of the Realm of the Elderlings corpus, and I note how often in the books that such intoxicants are ascribed to disreputable types–particularly Chalced. I note, too, that misogynist patriarchal attitudes are explicitly and repeatedly ascribed to Chalced, along with many other reasons for scorn and opprobrium. I note also that–at least at this point–Chalced is a largely unseen other; it stands outside both the Six Duchies and the Bingtowner / Jamaillian polities, with rumors of its militaristic depredations and the actions of mercenary crews–not necessarily representative of the general population, and not necessarily accorded much agency or narrative perspective–the only real depictions of them. While the point is clearly made that Chalced is bad and that the qualities most associated with it are also bad, the kind of othering taking place is…not necessarily ideal.

Too, the issue of addiction is one that touches me more than many and certainly more as I do the reread than as I read the novels earlier. Hobb makes a point of portraying some of her addicted characters sympathetically–Brashen Trell in the present series and Fitz in the Farseer novels come to mind as examples. And Fitz, especially, suffers for his reliance on chemicals to do the work he is called upon to do. And that reminds me: the sympathetic characters use the drugs they do–usually stimulants of one form or another–chiefly to do their assigned work or to recover from having done such work. It’s something I see often among the clients I see in my current job; they are hooked on illegal or illegally used substances, yes, but not because they don’t want to work. Instead, they get hooked because they do want to work, and what they take either helps them to do more or helps them not hurt so damned bad from having done more. At first, anyway.

I continue to appreciate any support that you can offer.

A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 159: Mad Ship, Chapter 21

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

A chapter titled “Salvage” follows, beginning with work to refit the Paragon ongoing under Brashen’s watch and with his help. Progress is noted, as is the difficulty the work faces of returning the long-beached ship to the sea. So is his continued difficulty addressing his addiction to cindin. And trouble emerges as the ship lashes out, frightening the work crews such that Brashen has to resort to threats to get work to continue. They extend to the ship, itself, despite the disapproval of both Amber and Althea, who look on. The three return to work, Clef joining them, and the sullen work crew resumes its own efforts.

We’re a ways past this…
Image from electropeach’s Tumblr, here, and used for commentary.

At the Vestrit home, Malta entertains her friend, Delo Trell. The latter passes along a missive from her brother, Cerwin, and Malta muses ruefully on her current situation. The contents of Cerwin’s missive are paltry, Malta contrasting them with what she has had to learn about the family finances. She asks about how the Trells stand and gets little useful information from it; Delo reports the argument between her father and Cerwin had echoed that between him and Brashen, frightening her. Malta mulls over what her friend says, recalling more of the events of intervening days and the sacrifices the Vestrits have been making, thinking on the increasing separation between herself and her peers. Malta retires to her chamber and considers her situation further. The room grows oppressive, and she finds herself ensnared in a dream. During it, the dragon speaks to her, demanding she help persuade Reyn to help her.

As night begins to fall, Brashen calls a halt to work on the Paragon as he wrestles with his longing for Althea, considering their strained relationship. As the work crews filter away, he pores over ledgers, tallying costs ruefully. He approaches her where she confers with Amber at the aft of the ship, and the three discuss the next day’s prospects. Althea notes updates from Grag; the Teniras’ situation is not improving. Brashen’s temper gets the better of him for a bit, and he is rebuked for it. He continues, confronting Althea with what he has intuited about her truth; Althea makes a perfunctory denial, and Brashen stalks off to where Clef has a cook fire going. He and the boy speak briefly about luck.

After Brashen leaves, Althea makes to depart. She rails against Brashen to Amber, who defends the man to her, in turn. Althea admits to the woodcarver that she would like more of a relationship with Brashen, and Amber encourages her in that desire.

Brashen’s addiction to cindin has been noted at several earlier points in the Liveship Traders books, and it joins with the problems identified in carris seed and elfbark in the Farseer novels to suggest a theme in Hobb’s novels addressing the perils of substance use. (From the vantage of a rereading, I can also note that others of the Elderlings novels speak to the issue, as well.) My own perspective, coming from administering a substance abuse treatment facility, predisposes me to look for such things, as might be expected, but even without that admitted bias, the inclusion of such things–not only the drugs and their intoxicating effects, but also their sometimes lingering aftereffects –does a fair bit to reinforce the verisimilitude of Hobb’s milieu. The drugs with mystical properties have all too mundane ones, as well, or else the mystical is only an extension of the mundane; they have the same narrative effect, really.

I shall appreciate your continued support.

A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 153: Mad Ship, Chapter 15

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

The chapter that follows, “Tidings,” begins with the Vestrit women at work in the household. Althea excuses herself to go into town; Malta asks if she is going to see Amber, which Althea notes she is, and the issue of them being lovers is brought up. Althea denies it vehemently and storms off; Malta delights in having occasioned the reaction, while Ronica stalks off in disgust. With them gone, Malta mulls over her situation and purposes to be in control and command of herself before considering a meeting with another potential suitor.

The carver at work.
Image from noodlerface’s tumblr, used for commentary.

Elsewhere, Althea confers with Grag Tenira about Malta. He reports progress on the matter of the tariffs, as well as on the Ophelia; the latter goes well, with Amber being remarkably flexible and proficient in the work of repairing and restoring the figurehead. He also notes there’s been no word of the Vivacia, though he continues to ask. Local politics also get some attention in their conversation, and Althea finds herself thinking of Brashen Trell.

Brashen, dressed well and clean, reports to the Vestrit home. Malta greets him, sneeringly, and a tense exchange ensues before he recognizes her and notes that he has news to deliver. As she stalks off to get a runner to her mother and grandmother, Brashen mulls over the changes he sees and considers Althea’s likely disposition.

Following her conversation with Grag, Althea calls on Amber. The two confer, and Amber repeats back to Althea some of her own words from the conversation with Grag. The two confer about Althea’s desires, and Amber notes the gender dynamics that inhibit Althea’s achieving them. Sexual ethics also receive some comment.

Malta returns to Brashen, treating him with better manners, and Brashen begins to feel uncomfortable with her as they discuss his siblings. His addiction to cindin tells upon him; he is distracted, and not only by Malta’s coquettishness. When he tries to excuse himself, realizing somewhat belatedly what she is doing, he almost runs into Ronica and Keffria, who have returned. He reports to them the capture of the Vivacia by Kennit, offering what information he has available. It does not do the Vestrit women any good, nor yet does Althea’s brash entrance with Malta rebuked for eavesdropping. A fracas ensues, although it is soon quelled, and the family confers as to how to proceed.

The chapter is an excellent one for the feminist critique that pervades the Liveship Traders novels; the discussion between Althea and Amber is a frank and largely open treatment of one of the major concerns of such discourse. It also works as a striking counterpoint to the issue of the previous chapter; Althea is not nearly so constrained in her choices as Serilla is, and without the overt threats that the latter faces, but she is still very much confined by prevailing gender dynamics. One message to take away is that even the more genteel restrictions are just that; they force people to be other than they are, diminishing them all–and all of us.

I’d still love your help!

A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 100: Assassin’s Quest, Chapter 41

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

The final chapter, “The Scribe,” opens with comments about the end of the Red-Ship war that trail off, revealing themselves to be in Fitz’s retrospective hand. His “current” circumstances are noted; he and Nighteyes have been joined by a foundling, Mishap, brought to them by Starling on one of her irregular visits to where man and wolf have made a quiet, lonely life for themselves, and taught by Fitz as best as he is able.

An apt enough image, really.
FitzChivalry by Calealdarone on DeviantArt, used for commentary

How others in the narrative fare also receives attention. Patience has taken over Tradeford, which has become an agricultural hub. Burrich and Molly live well, having had more children together and started breeding horses. Kettricken was delivered of a prince, Dutiful, who seems to be growing well if solemnly. Chade has emerged into the public eye and seems to be enjoying it greatly.; he is the subject of Starling’s major work, with which she is pleased.

The Fool was delivered to Buckkeep by Girl-on-a-Dragon, who joined the work of the other roused dragons against the Red Ships. He did not remain long, but fled.

As for Fitz, he and Nighteyes spent years wandering before returning to Buck Duchy and taking up residence near Forge. Fitz cannot help but reach out with the Skill, despondently, and he continues to take drugs to number himself to that pain. And, as the text ends, he and Nighteyes dream of carving dragons.

I wish I could take credit for having had the foresight to plan things such that the end of the book–the end of the Farseer trilogy–and the first hundred entries of this rereading series coincide as they do. It was pure chance, however; I am not prudent enough to undertake such planning, as my efforts at fiction attest. That is not to say I am not pleased by the coincidence, but it is only that.

As I read the chapter again, I find myself once again feeling contented. The ending reads as satisfying, even as it does set up more material for more work to come; Dutiful’s reign and the Fool’s flight both foretell works following them, the which Hobb delivers and to which I will turn soon enough. (I am going to take the holiday weekend off, however.) But the sense that the world continues after the events of the novel adds to the verisimilitude that marks so much of Hobb’s work; even in apocalyptic situations, things continue afterward, and the apocalypse seems to have been averted for the Six Duchies. Nor is it the case that things are always happy and pleasant for those who work toward such ends, as my day-job shows me all too clearly, and the fact that Fitz endures, largely alone, wracked by his competing addictions, while not necessarily comfortable, seems more true than would be the case if he returned so quickly to glory and honor as other novels might have had him do.

The project is not the “Farseer Reread,” though, but the “Robin Hobb Rereading,” and there are more works, not only in the Elderlings corpus, but outside it. Next, I’ll start in on the Liveship Traders novels–after Memorial Day, which I plan to spend with family. But it’ll only be a short break, after all…

Could you help me mark the Monday holiday?

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?

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.

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!

A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 67: Assassin’s Quest, Chapter 8

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

A chapter titled “Tradeford” follows, opening with notes about the status of the continued fight against the Red-Ship Raiders–including the fall of Brawndy of Bearns. It moves to a disheveled Fitz making his disreputable-looking way into a nearby town. As he takes in the local gossip–and a meal provided through a local lord’s general largesse–he learns of the “King’s Circle” and the “King’s Justice,” gladiatorial trial-by-combat spectacles that have taken the popular imagination.

Jean-Léon Gérôme‘s Pollice Verso, hosted at the Phoenix Art Museum and, by report, public domain; image from Wikipedia (here) used for commentary

A pair of locals makes to challenge Fitz, and he almost rises to that challenge, but is stopped by a voice in his head–Verity’s or his own. Moving off, he finds an inn and avails himself of it. Bathing reveals to him the extent of his travels, and shaving shows him a face unfamiliar to him. But when he makes to sleep, he finds himself restless with worry about his task, and when he does sleep, he dreams of the fall of Brawndy of Bearns and the continued valor of his daughters, Faith and Celerity. Verity again rebukes him through the Skill, and Fitz awakes.

The next morning, Fitz again avails himself of elfbark and prepares to move on to Tradeford from the small town. The small effects of the drug and the depression that follows its use attract his attention, bespeaking his addiction. And as he leaves the town, he sees recently built–and still-occupied–devices of torment and execution, and he thinks of Chade.

Soon enough, Fitz comes to Tradeford and marvels at it. In a short time, he is able to get a bit of work, and he listens to gossip while he does the work, noting the lack of talk of the Red Ships and reference to Regal by his mother’s name of Mountwell. He also learns more about the King’s Circle and is disgusted by it. And he learns about Tradeford Hall, the now-royal palace, which he surveys, marveling again at the splendor on display. The disjunction between easy life inland and his own upbringing shocks him–and he realizes what will come if Buckkeep falls.

Two things come to mind most forcefully for me as I reread the present chapter. One is the trial-by-combat concept and its problems; Jacqueline Stuhmiller writes of such things in another area of inquiry, and even if Fitz himself accepts the utility of what might generously be called alternative forms of justice, the nature of trial-by-combat as spectacle is dangerous even in his mind. But the notion of such a thing looms large in the chapter, hence the selected illustration above, and I am once again hard-pressed not to comment on the novel’s intersection with current events (I write this in mid-January 2020).

The other is the final passage in the chapter, in which Fitz juxtaposes the grandeur of Tradeford with the sullen, obstinate strength of Buckkeep. There is a bit of jingoism to be found in the comment, even if it is accurate, and even if it is mollified by Fitz’s longing for the kinds of nice things he sees, his assertion that a ruler having such things for the people ennobles the people. As with many other things in the series, there’s a lot to unpack, more than the present task admits of handling; it may well be another thing to which I return someday…

Pay it forward; help me out!

A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 64: Assassin’s Quest, Chapter 5

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

A chapter titled “Confrontations” follows. It begins with a brief rumination on the reciprocal nature of the Wit before moving to Fitz describing fretful sleep and uncomfortable dreams. He wakes to an offer from one of the minstrels of intimate company, which he rejects; Fitz returns to sleep and dreams of being watched by Will, then of being the victim of Red-Ship raids in progress. Verity joins him in the dream and sends Fitz back to himself.

Not quite elfbark, but close.
Image from Wikipedia, here, and used for commentary

Fitz wakes in pain from his Skill exertions and sets about brewing elfbark tea to ease himself; the work occasions rebuke from the minstrels, who note its use in suppressing slaves in other countries. At length, the group heads out, failing to make the next town before nightfall. They make an uneasy camp that is soon relaxed as Fitz cannot help but betray some of his skill-set once again. The betrayal earns an invitation to join the group more permanently, which Fitz ineptly refuses.

The next day, the group sets out again. Through the Wit, Nighteyes warns Fitz of Forged Ones nearby. There is little time to brace for the attack that comes, and Fitz has trouble defending himself, as do his companions. Nighteyes takes injury, as do the minstrels, though the Forged Ones are defeated. In the wake of the battle, however, Fitz is rebuked for what appears to have been his cowardice, since he had moved off to engage Nighteyes’s opponent amid the fight.

Fitz sleeps and dreams again, and in those dreams, Will assails him through the Skill. Through the Wit, Nighteyes defends Fitz, and Fitz wakes in a sweat from what he explains as a nightmare. Through the Wit, Nighteyes signals his understanding that they must kill Regal and his inner circle, lest they be forever pursued.

I’ve not hidden that I work in addiction treatment at the moment (and am likely to do so for some time), although I am not a counselor. Inexpert though I am in such matters, and suspect as any diagnosis of a literary character must be, it does seem that Fitz is indeed addicted to elfbark; his swift recourse to that remedy is but one sign of it. The US NIH, among others, notes that fatigue and depression are observed aftereffects of certain illicit stimulants. While it is the case that elfbark is a fictional plant, it does bear some superficial similarities to the coca plant; it is not an exact analogue, but it is evocative. And it does have some explanatory power, offering another layer of verisimilitude to Hobb’s work; the fictional stimulant acts much like observed real ones, making it more believable for readers who do not have access to it. In a world that admits of magic, having a touchstone, even an unfortunate one, to the reader’s world is an aid to understanding and engagement, as Hobb herself notes.

I still continue to appreciate any support you can offer.