A Review of Heather Radke’s Butts: A Backstory

I received a copy of Heather Radke’s Butts: A Backstory (Simon & Schuster, 2022, ISBN 978-1-9821-3548-5) as a belated holiday present (with the gift message “sorry it’s a little behind…”) and took the opportunity to read it in bed across the ensuing several nights. I found the series of interrelated essays, grouped into seven sections (Origins, Sarah, Shape, Norma, Fit, Bootylicious, and Motion, plus an introduction, conclusion, and other back matter) to be a reasonably informative and overall enjoyable read. Radke stakes out clear theoretical positions (which, I acknowledge, some will find objectionable) from which to approach her overall topic, using her own experience as a means of entry into broader consideration of the human butt, and the woman’s butt more particularly. Obvious jokes aside (and there are no few such, hardly a problem for me, although I know that some will not appreciate such humor), Radke’s book is an engaging read, one I felt was well worth doing; I might well have bought the book myself had it not been given me as a gift.

The cover, from the publisher’s website.

The overall approach of the text, moving from a personal introduction through the physical and physiological to a focus on others’ experiences and broader cultural contexts, returning irregularly but not seldom to personal reflection, struck me as generally sensible. Humanizing the topic by beginning with embedded personal experience is often a useful rhetorical maneuver, engaging both situated ethos (“I can talk about this thing because I have experience with this thing”) and pathos (“You should care about this thing because it affects people, clearly, and you are, I assume, a people”). That Radke acknowledges the limits of her approach is also a useful rhetorical move. She explicitly disclaims universality of experience and understanding, and she notes that the text emerges, in part, from her desire to address her own concerns about her butt (13). What this does is position her and her text not as a determination against which resistance can be made, but more as a report or a series of them; limiting her claims reduces the angles from which she can be attacked for her writing.

“Reduces” is not the same as “eliminates,” admittedly. As I note above, Radke takes clear ideological positions in her work, and while she does make efforts to acknowledge them explicitly, there are others that come across without being made overt. That they largely align with my own understandings does tend to make the text sit better with me than it might otherwise, but even in my overall agreement with and acceptance of her reports, I know that the unexamined assumption is often problematic. And even the examined assumptions are likely to provoke outcry from some quarters, some of which Radke anticipates–but only some. I can see places where Radke might be called out for her words, although I was not reading to look for such things; I have to think that those who would look for fault will find it. Admittedly, they would anyway, but there are some places where Radke makes it easier for them than might be hoped.

(I do not think Radke is lying, although I know that she, as all, misses some things and does not report on others. None of us can really report on what we do not observe, and the vantage point from which we operate does much to determine what we will and will not observe. Too, there are limits on the ability to convey what is observed, language being a blunt tool for some details, and there are always constraints on any given work. Standard stuff, really, although not always things about which readers think, and rarely things discussed by those who will decry a work for its content or what they are told is that content.)

In all, though, I enjoyed reading the book, and I commend it to others. I think I may well revisit it, when time and circumstances permit. It seems, among others, the kind of reading that would reward the kind of treatment I give other works for money: lesson plans and discussion questions…and I do need more writing samples…

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A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 237: Fool’s Errand, Chapter 17

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

A chapter titled “The Hunt” comes next, opening with a selection from Badgerlock’s Old Blood Tales before pivoting into a dream shared between Fitz and Dutiful. In the dream, the two–and others, a woman and a cat–realize that they are pursued and attempt to evade that pursuit, only to be found out in a way that leaves Fitz in pain and craving elfbark. Through the burgeoning pain, Fitz tries to press for Dutiful’s recovery; the Fool dissuades him and tends as he can in the absence of elfbark to his spreading pain.

Cat Hunt
Illustration series for the Fool’s Errand by Robin Hobb
I do so love her work…
Katrin Sapranova’s Cat Hunt, here, used for commentary.

There is little rest for him; Fitz-as-Badgerlock and the Fool-as-Golden take part in a hunt the next day, with their preparations and setting-out detailed. The hunt proceeds, and an excuse for Badgerlock to part from the rest of the hunters is made; he seizes upon it, and makes for Nighteyes, who has been attacked by Dutiful and the cat. Fitz attends to his long-time companion as he can and receives such report as the wolf can make; Fitz reluctantly returns to the hunt in time to see it end, and the two plot to head out to pursue Dutiful as soon as possible. Fitz makes shift to prepare for their departure but is informed that they will not be able to leave easily; still, an excuse for Badgerlock to be away from festivities is concocted, and Fitz begins the search for Dutiful anew.

I’ve noted before my appreciation for the Asimovian device with which Hobb opens the chapters of the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies, the citation of in-milieu reference works. It’s not only because I retain some nostalgic fondness for Asimov (I am aware of how…problematic a figure he is, but the books read in youth tend to stick in the mind far past it.) There is a certain humor in a work narrated by a character featuring work by that same character in such references–but then, I cite myself often enough that I have to regard myself as the butt of such a joke in my turn. It’s fortunate, then, that I’ve long since learned to laugh at myself, if perhaps not to do so kindly. But then, I have it coming.

Aside from that, I’m not sure I have any comments about the present chapter. There’s probably something to mine in the contemplation of mortality that marks it, but I’m not really in a place where I can do that kind of work. At least, not at the moment…

Help me keep going?

A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 173: Mad Ship, Chapter 35

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

T he following chapter, “Trehaug,” opens with Keffria, Malta, and Selden in the titular city on the Rain Wild River, Selden exulting in the new location and what it offers. Malta is less sanguine, musing on the political situation–Bingtown is under a blockade–and environmental hazards–serpents cluster around the mouth of the Rain Wild River. She notes that her skin is changing, but the healer who calls in on her bids her be up and about to recover. Malta voices agreement but muses on her inward refusal and rehearses recent events, assessing her surroundings. Trehaug is described in some detail, some of it sinister.

Trehaug sketch
A view of the titular city…
Trehaug sketch by liara-renard on DeviantArt, used for commentary.

Malta is roused by the touch of a gloved hand on her face; it is Reyn, and she is not pleased. He pleads his case with her, and she rails at him. He takes a knee and apologizes for his error, frankly and without evasion; it takes her aback, and she avers her forgiveness of him as she reassesses him. At her insistence, he offers information about the status of Bingtown–it is not good–and she cuts him off as she recalls her trip form Bingtown to Trehaug through a fog of injury and memory. After a pause, conversation resumes, with Reyn offering more details about how things are going and what preparations are being made against the attack that is expected to come. In effect, the Rain Wilds and Bingtown are caught in an internal Jamaillian conflict.

The pair are interrupted by the intrusion of the healer’s assistant, who had come to ensure that Malta rose and walked. Reyn noted that he would address the matter, acknowledging the scandal that would attend on his doing so–and his having intruded upon Malta’s convalescence. He proposes to her anew, and she defers. She asks him about his “drowning in memories,” which takes him aback; he explains why, linking it to the dragon Malta also heard in her dreams and noting the arrangement he has made as a result–which frees the Vestrits from their debt for the Vivacia. Malta finds herself continuing to reassess Reyn and accompanies him on a walk.

Elsewhere in Trehaug, Traders confer about the fate of the Satrap, whom they hold hostage. Keffria is among them, internally questioning her inclusion, and she speaks up in support of the Khuprus position amid the ongoing arguments about what to do with Cosgo: trade him soon, chastise him before trading him, or send him back to Jamaillia and let the nobles there fight over him. As discussion continues, Keffria volunteers to be an emissary and scout for the Rain Wild Traders in Bingtown, citing her situation as useful cover. After some more discussion, her plan is approved, with some minor modifications.

That evening, Malta prevails upon Selden to take her into the underground parts of Trehaug; he hesitates but agrees. She soon passes him up, pressing further underground than he dares, and she is soon separated from him, alone in the damp darkness.

Early in the chapter, the idea of urinating on wood to protect it against the water of the Rain Wild River is noted. It is an interesting detail, not least because of the scatological humor it necessarily provokes (and, indeed, is seen in the chapter as being, among other things). It suggests that the waters of the Rain Wild River are exceptionally acidic; urine tends to be more alkaline than acid, so it would neutralize acids and mitigate their corrosive effects more than would be the case if the Rain Wild was corrosively alkaline. While water is often slightly acidic naturally, and there are areas where life has adapted to relatively high levels of acidity (here, for example), more acidic water tends to be worse for life. That said, peculiarly acidic water can be found in an area that might generously be included within the Pacific Northwest, the coincidence helping to align the Realm of the Elderlings with North America rather than more “typical” fantasy milieux. So there is that.

New month, new need for support.

A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 172: Mad Ship, Chapter 34

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

The next chapter, “Oracle,” begins with the Vivacia expressing her dislike of the situation as Wintrow lies upon her foredeck, recovering further from his earlier injuries and recalling the current state of affairs. He affirms the ship’s dislike of being moored at Others Island, with the Marietta not far off, and he comments regarding his ambivalence towards prophecy. The ship voices some recollection of the place, and they posit that Kennit’s earlier visits have entered her memory from his blood soaking into her wizardwood planking. They are further discussing the matter when interrupted by Etta summoning Wintrow to board a ship’s boat and go ashore.

creature from the black lagoon
I always imagined the Others looking like this, or close enough.
Image from this page on Universal Monsters Universe, used for commentary.

As the ship’s boat makes for shore, Kennit observes Wintrow and muses over the disposition of his crew and followers, focusing on his provisions for Divvytown. Sorcor’s surprising depths and reaffirmed tie to the place receive attention, and, as they make landfall and Kennit orders those other than Wintrow and Etta to remain with the boat, he reflects on Wintrow’s similarities to his earlier self. The pirate realizes that the Others do not want him present, and he sends Wintrow ahead to collect an item, noting that he and Etta will be present for the revelation. After a brief hesitation, Wintrow obeys, and Kennit and Etta follow after, Kennit puzzling over why the charm at his wrist had insisted he bring her with him.

As Wintrow obeys Kennit, he muses over his earlier instructions and the events surrounding Divvytown and its reconstruction. As he presses on across the island, he comes across detritus that he rejects as unimportant before happening upon a treacherous path that leads him to a barred cave. A stunted serpent is constrained within it, and Wintrow finds himself examining its confines, looking for a way to free it, working against the stone that has been built up around it.

Etta and Kennit continue across the island, trailing him; neither can see him for a time, and Kennit grows impatient. He demands Etta help him hurry along, and she does. Meanwhile, Wintrow continues working against the serpent’s cage, making some progress as the tide begins to come up. The serpent surges against the incomplete opening, sharing the experience of pain with him, and he struggles to complete his work of opening the serpent’s enclosure. He frees the serpent, sustaining substantial injury in the process, and remains in mental communion with the serpent as she makes it to the water–“The Plenty”–and purposes to rejoin her kind.

Etta and Kennit are summoned by the screams of pain and proceed towards their source. The Others seek to interdict them, and the pair press on as rain begins to fall. Kennit and Etta reach the gravely injured Wintrow as the Others attack, and melee is joined. The serpent flees, as do Kennit, Etta, and Wintrow, who make for the Vivacia, scrambling aboard the ship’s boat. The crew begins to tend to Wintrow in awe as he drifts in his mind and worries about what the ship will learn from him. Kennit defies the storm, and the freed serpent pushes the ship’s boat swiftly towards the liveship; the Vivacia calls out to her kindred serpent, recognizing herself and her in the same moment. And in the aftermath, as Wintrow rests and begins to recover from the new exertions, Etta and Kennit realize that she is pregnant.

If “The Storm” is the climax of one narrative thread in the book, this chapter is for the pirates and serpents. If nothing else, the revelation of Etta’s pregnancy denotes a major change; becoming a parent certainly changed my life enough, and if Kennit purports to be a king, he has a decided interest in ensuring the continuation of his dynasty. That there is an apparent heir serves to secure his ambitions–at least to some degree; the perils of pregnancy, childbirth, and youth still wait, of course. More, Etta seems herself to undergo something of a transformation in the chapter, although there is some critique to be read into her reliance upon Kennit’s urging and Wintrow’s exigency to enact it; increasingly removed from academe as I am, I am not positioned to do the work myself, but I can see that it needs to be done. Too, a looked-for messianic figure (noted here and here, among others) has emerged, which seems pretty solidly climactic.

If there have been climaxes, though, and ones into which some lewd humor might be read, what Freytag calls falling action is soon to follow–and falling down is not always or even necessarily often a pleasant thing.

Your kind contribution to my ongoing efforts is greatly appreciated.

A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 170: Mad Ship, Chapter 32

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

The succeeding chapter, “The Storm,” opens with Keffria retrieving Malta and Delo for their formal presentations; the girls had been gossiping amiably as more of the preliminaries of the ball went on. Malta purposes to reflect well on her absent and elided father as she is announced and formally presented to the Bingtown Traders. She does well enough until Restart ostentatiously signals her over as the music, set to begin, waits, and Malta finds herself being presented by Restart to Satrap Cosgo–and she is humiliated to be associated with him thus.

Perhaps something like this?
Image is Wilhelm Gause’s Hofball in Wien, which I am told is in the public domain and which I get from here

After a brief, somewhat barbed exchange, the Satrap descends from his dais to dance with Malta; she is struck by his differences from her and from what she has known, and she is taken aback by the innuendo he voices as they dance together. But as he withdraws and she casts about afterward, Reyn encounters her; after a brief query, he escorts her back to Keffria at her own insistence. As they confer about what has just happened, Reyn threatens to kill Cosgo, and Malta rebukes him sharply. After a moment, Reyn offers a considered apology for his overreach; it is not accepted, and Malta finds herself in mind of her father again, thinking about the lapsing opportunities before her. As attention accrues to them, they spin off into the next dance, and they are almost at accord when Reyn offers what Malta recognizes as “patronizing words”; she extricates herself from him and fumes briefly before Delo’s brother, Cerwin, sweeps her into another dance.

Cerwin suffers in comparison to Reyn, and Malta continues to fume internally about the affair as she pays compliment to her dance partner, watching Reyn confer closely with his own–Serilla. She accepts a glass of wine and finds a seat.

Reyn, for his part, had been advised by the disguised Grag Tenira that a conspiracy brews against Cosgo, one in which the Chalcedean mercenaries are complicit and which will be used as a pretext to assail Bingtown and bring it under not just its current economic colonization, but under overt dominion. As Reyn dances with Serilla, he is briefed on such details as she has puzzled out; she suggests that he take Cosgo, herself, and the other Companion hostage as a way to thwart the coup. After, Reyn tries to convince Malta to leave the ball as he begins to make his way out to see to the abduction; she refuses, not understanding the reason for his urgency, and he departs, not without effort.

Malta continues on at the ball, dancing repeatedly with Cerwin before Keffria recalls her. Keffria presses for departure, noting that many of the Bingtown and all of the Rain Wild Traders have left. Restart hinders their departure, in part by requiring a formal farewell to the Satrap, which leads to the Satrap inviting himself to depart along with the Vestrit family. The ensuing departure is cramped and awkward, with Cosgo treading the line of boorishness all too closely until the party is beset by attackers.

In the fracas, Restart is killed, and Ronica struggles for her family. Keffria is injured but present and alive; Selden is in shock at the event. Malta is alive, as well, though others have died; the carriage in which they had been riding had rolled at least twice as a result of the attack.

It is only as I look back to compose this entry that I recall the title of the preceding chapter and the joke embedded therein; it was the calm before the storm. I delight in such things, of course, but I am somewhat annoyed not to have recognized or recalled the joke sooner. Then again, it has been an interesting few days, so…

Far less humorously, the promise of the previous chapter that the narrative climax was coming is fulfilled–and emphatically. The outbreak of violence, begun and not hindered, is a clear marker of the shift in power going on. The fallout therefrom cannot help but be severe; how much it will be, and for whom, will be seen.

I should note that I write this as more-than-winter conditions prevail across the part of the world where I live; the Hill Country is far, far from accustomed to such snowfall as I see from my window today, and I even had to abandon a car. (“Don’t go out unless you have to” still leaves “have to,” after all.) I hope to have another post up as scheduled on Monday, 22 February 2021, but I cannot make such a promise…it’s a hell of a way to mark my daughter’s seventh birthday, to be sure.

Anything you can put towards helping recovery will be appreciated.

A Quiet Joke in Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie

The freelance work I have noted doing (here, here, and here) has continued, as might well be expected; I continue to have bills to pay, so I am continuing to work to earn money with which to pay them, and writing lesson plans is work congenial to my skills and talents. As I write this, I am working on a lesson plan for a work of early US literature, Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie, or, Early Times in the Massachusetts. I’d heard the author’s name during my graduate coursework–one of my exam areas was early American literature–but hadn’t read the book, and I have to note that I found it a largely enjoyable read.

A portrait of Sedgwick, from the 1902
Literary Pilgrimages in New England to the Homes of Famous Makers of American Literature;
I am told the image is public domain,
and I assert that it is used for commentary.

Reading to draft a lesson plan demands reading with a particular level and type of attention; writing a lesson plan demands thinking like a teacher, and for me, thinking like a teacher works in tandem with thinking like a scholar. That is, when I taught, I did so with an eye towards helping students to find their own information in the texts they read, and that meant doing the same thing, myself. Thus, as I read, I look for little puzzles in the works I read, small puzzles from which meaning can be teased out. And, because I am the person I am and I had some success with using the approach in the past, a focus of that search is on jokes and quips of one sort or another. They stand out to me in many instances–and I go hunting for them when they do not. Sometimes, the hunt takes some doing; often, it needs but little searching to find such quarry as I would pursue. Sometimes, too, it pops up unexpectedly (although I expect to see it more often than I think most people do), and such was the case for Hope Leslie as I read it.

Some of that humor, particularly the way in which it manifests in the novel, is folded into the lesson planning; it allows for focus on particular literary techniques that I think students will benefit from investigating. But I also keep in mind that I should not be doing students’ work for them, even as I used to offer models (such as this) and now continue to indulge my own interests and inclinations by drafting the occasional essay (or something like one) that addresses one of the “little puzzles” I find in a lot of what I read. Accordingly, there is (at least) one thing that I am keeping out of the lesson plan in favor of addressing it myself, and it inheres in the name of the Fletcher family dog: Argus. That name is a lovely little bit of irony, one that offers a humorous setup for the tragedy that soon after befalls the Fletchers in the novel.

The namesake is not the dog…
The image is Jacob Jordaens’s 1620 Mercury and Argus, which I am told is public domain and which is used here for commentary.

Admittedly, “early American literature” and “humor” are not necessarily closely yoked in popular conception, with the possible exceptions of Irving and Twain. Certainly, such early American literature as treats the early Puritan colonists does not tend that way; Hawthorne and Edwards are perhaps the most frequently taught authors, and their works do not lend themselves to people rolling on the floor, laughing. Even such critics as focus on humor in such works–Pascal Covici in Humor and Revelation in American Literature: The Puritan Connection, Gregg Camfield in Necessary Madness: The Humor of Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, and Michael Dunne in Calvinist Humor in American Literature offer examples–note the tendency to be taken aback by the emergence of humor within such works. Then again, popular conception does not tend to make much of early American literature–or any early literature, really, “that old shit” being something many folks avoid when they can (likely a result of having been taught it badly early on–but that’s a different discussion entirely).

Hope Leslie is not an exception to that, really. Again, I had not read the novel previously, and I sat for a doctoral comprehensive examination in early American literature (about which some information appears here and here); if even I did not read the book, it can hardly be thought that a great many of my contemporaries would have done so. Too, even the scholarship that focuses itself on the novel–which, again, I enjoyed reading; I commend said reading to others, as well–does not much treat its humor, although there are nods towards Bertha Grafton as being a focus for many of the in-character jokes made, as well as others towards comments about sexual and gender politics at work in the novel. But the extensive introductory notes Carolyn L. Karcher leaves in the edition of the book I read–the Penguin 1998–do not treat the topic of humor at all, and that despite being directed towards Karcher’s “students at Temple University, the imagined readers [she has] kept in mind while preparing the introduction and annotations,” a group that my experience suggests might well benefit from such attention, as would more general readers.

Springfield (The Simpsons) - Wikipedia
This one? Maybe…
The image is from The Simpsons Movie, hosted here, and is used for commentary.

That said, there are humorous bits to be found throughout the novel, not only those centering on Bertha Grafton and sexual and gender politics. One example of such appears relatively early in the book, in Volume I, Chapter IV. At that point in the novel–and it was originally published in 1827, so I think spoiler warnings no longer meaningfully apply–Everell Fletcher and Digby are on watch at the Fletchers’ estate, Bethel, which is at some distance away from the fortified village of Springfield and which has received some warning of an imminent attack by remaining members of the Pequod people, whom the colonists had driven nearly to extinction in a sneak attack perhaps a year earlier. They have reason to be wary, obviously, the more so because Digby had fought in the earlier conflict and therefore has direct experience with the people in question (and would himself be an appropriate target for revenge). Amid their wariness, the Fletchers’ dog, Argus, gives notice of having perceived some interloper; Everell calls off the dog, which then returns to where it had been sleeping and, presumably, to sleep.

The name derives from Argos Panoptes, the many-eyed watchman into whose keeping Hera gives the transformed Io. He is supposed to be ever-vigilant, although he is bored to death by the interloping Hermes; he is commemorated in the peacock’s tail. The character is therefore associated with watchfulness and (gaudy) splendor, making the assignment of his name to a sleepy Puritan hound something of an irony in itself, much on the level of calling a big person “Tiny.”

Part of humor, however, is in its layering of meanings that do not necessarily accord with one another. In the case of Argus in Hope Leslie, there is reason for watchfulness, as has been noted; the threat of attack is specific and imminent, and there is no mercurial figure to afflict the hound with fatal ennui. (Indeed, both Everell and Digby are commented upon as being steadfast, the latter with some aspersion). The dog therefore fails to live up to his namesake–partly, because Argos Panoptes faltered in his own vigil, if under much more compulsion than the dog. The failure adds another layer of meaning to the irony or enriches that inherent in the name.

For readers aware of that irony, who can find in it a bit of laughter, there is a break in the tension of the passage, something not unlike the porter scene in the Scottish play (with which Sedgwick appears to have been familiar, due to the inclusion of quotation from and reference to the same throughout the novel). Prior to the fleeting mention of the hound–it is named only thrice in the novel, and those three times are in close proximity in the text–those on watch are apprehensive in the night; immediately after, Everell confronts Magawisca, one of the last surviving Pequods and a servant in the Fletcher home, regarding the imminent attack; and not long after, Bethel is ravaged by Magawisca’s father and people, Everell abducted along with another, and several members of the Fletcher family killed. The irony offers a short-lived respite from the stress of events in the plot, highlighting the impact of the tragedy that follows by the juxtaposition–for at least some readers.

It is a small thing, perhaps, and in some senses, any such look at literature is a small thing. But it is of small things that the world is made, and even if it is small, a delight is still a delight.

No joke: I could stand a bit of help to keep doing this kind of thing.

Some More about Why I Am Still Doing This

A couple of months ago, I wrote a bit about my reasoning for maintaining this and other webspaces, as well as keeping a journal and doing the other writing that I do. I note in it that I had not at that time poured a slab for any kind of concrete answer to why I do this kind of thing. I suppose that, in making the comment, I dug a bit of a hole, opening space into which I could lay a foundation.

Maybe I’m taking the metaphor too far?
Photo by Rodolfo Quiru00f3s on Pexels.com

As I think on it, I am reminded of such questions from my teaching days. (I am, perhaps, stretching a point to speak of that work as quite so far gone, but 2020 has seemed to extend interminably.) I would not seldom get the question of why I studied what I studied; I usually replied with “the jokes,” and it is the case that there is a lot of humor–some overt, some more subtle, some quite vulgar–in the works written in older Englishes. (Yes, plural.) But that is not the whole of it; the jokes themselves are not enough, or there is more going on than wry comments and ribaldry, much as I enjoy both.

I have long enjoyed puzzling out what’s going on in what I read. For me, tracing the references and exploring their meanings is satisfying. (I was going to type “fun,” but the connotations of that aren’t really applicable; “fun” employs greater physical activity and less restraint.) It is enjoyable in the same way that building something is enjoyable, at least for me; it is not play and would not be mistaken for such, but it is an accomplished thing, and, when traced out as an essay in one medium or another, it is something that can be pointed to as having been done, some record of the actions undertaken.

Leaving such a record here and elsewhere and undertaking the actions that support my doing so seems as good an answer as any to “Why do I keep doing this?” (So is the “for you” I gave when I announced the earlier piece online.) I enjoy doing this stuff, in the main; I enjoy reading and discussing what I have read and what I find in what I read, and I enjoy laying out something like my thoughts where others can see them, as doing so helps me to form them more fully for myself. And I am vain enough to be flattered when I see that others are viewing what I put out into the world, to think that they might be of some help to somebody, somewhere, sometimes. (I have direct attestation that something I’ve done was helpful, which was nice.)

I cannot speak to the walls that will rise. But I think they’ll have something to rest upon, at least.

The holidays are coming; help me make it through them?

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.

A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 80: Assassin’s Quest, Chapter 21

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

The next chapter, “Confrontations,” opens with a brief musing on diplomacy. It transitions to Fitz’s convalescence amid the Fool having to handle those who seek to approach him as a sort of religious figure–and Starling, whom he rebuffs adroitly.

It’s a chilling image…
The White Prophet by Michelle Tolo (Manweri) on DeviantArt, here, used for commentary

Amid the disjointed conversations, Fitz learns that Kettricken knows of his daughter and is moving towards legitimizing her as a Farseer heir. Fitz lies to the Fool to disclaim the child in the interest of preserving her from the internecine politics of the family. He determines to see Chade and Kettricken, though with regrets.

Fitz dreams strangely and wakes at least once to see Kettle watching him. He wakes later at Starling’s intrusion, and he learns that Starling has seen Kettricken and told her of Fitz’s child. Fitz’s lie to the Fool comes unraveled, but following the implications of the unraveling is interrupted by the entrance of Kettricken in anger. Chade enters also, and is overjoyed to see Fitz alive. Fitz has to challenge him over the child, however, and Chade replies as he must. Nighteyes inserts himself and offers through the Wit to kill the lot of them, and Fitz, overwhelmed, confesses his compulsion to go to Verity. All save the Fool, whose house it is, leave.

After more odd dreaming, Fitz wakes under the Fool’s care again. They talk together, not entirely comfortably in the wake of Fitz’s lie. Fitz apologizes as best he can, and the Fool lays out what he knows and has reasoned out of the situation. The Fool also lays out some of his prophetic powers reasonably plainly.

The next day sees Fitz suffer having the arrowhead removed from his back. His convalescence continues, perforce, and slowly; he uses it as an excuse to delay doing what he knows he must. He also reconciles with the Fool, as well as handling visits from Starling and Kettle; during a visit form Starling, he learns a fair bit about Chade’s activities. Thoughts of what will come beset him, and it is clear he is not yet recovered.

As I reread the chapter, I find myself amused by the way in which the Fool lampshades existence within a world governed by fate–and a world in which prophecy is possible is one that is thus governed. The wry humor in the Fool turning to puppet-making seems in line with the Fool’s literary antecedents, certainly, and something that fan-artists such as Michelle Tolo, above, take advantage of in their depictions of the Fool. It is an easy enough image to access and understand, that of being puppets on strings, even if it begs the question of who pulls those strings. (Hobb’s treatment of religion in the Elderlings corpus is something about which I spoke at the 2019 International Congress on Medieval Studies; I imagine I’ll be working on that paper a bit more as I move further through the reread–and, indeed, working on the conference paper helped spur the project.)

Another note, though: Chade’s cruelty. I have noted before the unsettling expectation of loyalty to an oath that passes beyond death. To have it reaffirmed and reinforced…it is not a comfortable thought.

Now, as ever, I can use your support.

A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 79: Assassin’s Quest, Chapter 20

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

The following chapter, “Jhaampe,” opens with a description of the titular city, one familiar from earlier. It passes after to Fitz proceeding deliriously under Nighteyes’s guidance to a dimly glimpsed figure who takes him.

I was wondering when we’d get here…
Awakening by Atrika on DeviantArt, here, used for commentary

Fitz wakes intermittently as the figure who took him and others tend to his injuries, which range to frostbite in addition to the arrow wound and overall fatigue and ill treatment. As Fitz assesses himself and returns to his senses, he asks about his situation. He recognizes the Fool as he slips back out of and into consciousness, and the two exchange tidings as best they are able at the time. Among those tidings is that the child Kettricken had carried when she fled Buckkeep was stillborn, and she has mourned Verity as dead, but the Fool notes that Fitz’s emergence has provided new hope to him. Chade has been at work, as has Patience, but matters remain grim, and there has been no sign of Starling or of Kettle that the Fool knows of.

Fitz asks the Fool not to report his survival to Kettricken or Chade. The Fool reluctantly agrees, and the two begin to fall back into their old amity and ease, despite the pain.

In the chapter, the Fool makes one of his wryer comments about Fitz in response to being addressed as a revered figure: “‘Holy one?’ There was bitter humor in [the Fool’s] voice. ‘If you would speak of holes, you should speak of him, not me. Here, look at his back.'” There is a part of me, one steeped in the humorous writings of the past, one that looks for sometimes-subtle bits of wordplay such as this, that wonders if the previous chapter’s action, hunting and shooting Fitz, was plotted out for no other purpose than to make the pun in the Fool’s comment. Hobb borrows from Asimov throughout the series, as noted here, and Asimov several times wrote pieces specifically to put puns across–such stories as “About Nothing,” “Death of a Foy,” and “Sure Thing” in The Winds of Change and Other Stories come to mind as examples–so it is not outside the realm of possibility that another such borrowing has taken place in the present chapter. Whether intended or not, it does seem a useful setup for such a joke.

More broadly, I’ve argued that Hobb borrows freely from fools in Shakespeare in informing her own Fool, and the kind of word-play evidenced by the Fool in the present example is decidedly present in Shakespeare, both from “fools” and from other jokesters. Mercutio’s comment that calling on him the day after he is stabbed will find him “a grave man” is but one easily accessed example, while no few of Benedick’s remarks in Much Ado about Nothing are of similar sort, and even Othello‘s Iago expounds similarly. It may seem a strange thing to have the kind of pun at work that is at work in the chapter, but if it is strange, it is a strangeness with no small precedent.

Don’t joke around; send a little my way!