Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Everything in Its Proper Place: Patrick Rothfuss’s The Slow Regard of Silent Things

“Some places had names. Some places changed, or they were shy about their names. Some places had no names at all, and that was always sad. It was one thing to be private. But to have no name at all? How horrible. How lonely.”
It was dangerous for Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Kingkiller Chronicles novels, to release a side project in the midst of a highly-anticipated release schedule – something that fellow fantasy author George R.R. Martin knows all too well, being constantly hounded by fans to quit lollygagging and finish his own long-awaited series. The risk these authors run is to alienate loyal fans left unfulfilled by an incomplete narrative – a “what’s this new book, and why isn’t it the sequel we’ve been waiting for” situation – which is a valid concern, but one that I think devalues the creative spark which led to the work that fans crave in the first place. Authors, like any artist, are led by the collar by their own inspiration, and must follow where it leads. It’s not hard to imagine that after inhabiting the same world, the same characters, and the same story for years on end that their brains would cry out for creative release in any other direction.

The vocal minority, unfortunately, directs the ebb and flow of narrative trends (just look at popular Hollywood films for proof). The problem is that the vocal minority is just that – the smaller group – and doesn’t really represent what many people want. Formulaic “excitement” has a short shelf-life, and risky, unconventional fare can be surprisingly successful based on the needs of this silent majority. It was uncommonly brave for Rothfuss to take the risk he took and devote a novella to a side character of little significance to the Kingkiller series’ plot. It speaks to his love for her, and his willingness to go wherever his creative instinct takes him. Auri had things to tell him, and he had the presence of mind to listen. That he had to interrupt his blockbuster bestseller series in order to transcribe her tale speaks to his strength as an artist, and his remorse at keeping the vocal minority waiting (with apologies to his fans spilling out both online and in the liner notes) speaks to his fine character as a person. The Slow Regard of Silent Things, then, is a gift – not asked for, but gratefully accepted both for its own beauty and for the peace of mind it doubtless brought its creator.

The Name of the Wind and its sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear, depict a fantastical realm in which an extraordinary boy named Kvothe lives and travels and discovers the wonders of his world and his own heart. During a tenure at the institution referred to only as “The University,” he studies the arcane arts and is subjected to a great deal of attention from his peers and teachers for his innate talent and his wild, uncontrollable nature. Observing him from the shadows of the tunnels underneath The University is a creature who shuns attention, and so takes a shining to this flame-haired young man, who often seeks solitude to play his lute in a courtyard under the stars. She likes to hear his music, and she can sense the purity of his heart. Her name is Auri, and she is one of the more captivating characters that Kvothe encounters on his journey. The Slow Regard of Silent Things is her story.

Or, part of her story, anyway. It’s a novella as slim and waifish as its heroine, depicting a short run of days in which Auri occupies herself with the business of her surroundings – the brick-and-mortar tunnel system she calls the Underthing – padding about in bare feet, her shock of fine golden hair framing her slight, childlike body, attending to the needs of the objects and spaces of her home. She gathers gifts in anticipation of a meeting with Kvothe, who has come to enjoy her presence (though she is mostly silent). She ventures into new and undiscovered areas, which she has not yet gifted with names. Her knowledge of magic and alchemy betray a past from which she has escaped into the dark of the Underthing, and so she lives a life apart from other humans, content with the company of… well, silent things.

Auri’s voice is unique, although she doesn’t speak aloud. Rothfuss gives her a bright and generous personality that brims over with curiosity and a kindness for things often neglected, and a petulant rage when they are lost or wrong or out of balance. She describes a derelict mirror vanity, dust-covered in some long-forgotten subterranean room, as “a rakish thing, garrulous and unashamed,” which is highly instructive: she sees this object as being prone to talking too much. Things speak to her, and her to them. Is it insanity, making her self-imposed exile to the Underthing a blessing for those above? Is it harmless eccentricity, a form of mental fallout from her years spend alone? Or is it something more – an awareness of and connection to the deeper rhythms that vibrate through the fabric of things?

“Sympathy” is a term used in the Kingkiller novels to describe what we’d call “magic” – a sympathetic energy-connection between objects that a skilled user can manipulate. It has its narrative uses in the novels, providing intrigue and excitement as Kvothe learns its exacting art (not dissimilar from the thrill of reading about Harry Potter’s ever-growing skill with a wand). It was a concept, however, I admit I didn’t fully understand until Auri. She is truly sympathetic to all things, living or inanimate; she is attuned to their needs and desires in not just an anthropomorphic way, but an emotional way. Early on she finds a key, easily identifiable to her as “the most restless” of her treasures, “near howling for a lock.” She perceives a “tiny hidden wrongness” in a certain room that keeps it “from ringing sweetly as a bell.” She can feel the contentment of the stones under her bare feet, or the joy of a long-disused broom at sweeping across the floor again. This – understanding the purpose of silent things, and guiding them along their right path – is at the heart of sympathetic magic. Auri is unfettered by the complex distractions of societal life. She has the time and the patience to sit, and listen, and look, and touch. In this, she is perhaps one of the most powerful beings in the Kingkiller canon. And her attention to these unnoticed stirrings around us are reminiscent of those transcendent moments we sometimes experience, at the edge of awareness, when we sense things that can’t be explained or quantified.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things is first and foremost a novel for Rothfuss’s fans (or at least those who are gracious enough to accept it). But I think its poetry and simplicity are accessible to any reader, regardless of whether or not they’ve read his other novels. It is as free of plot or driving narrative as Auri is, in her unattached life underground. As a fan of The Kingkiller Chronicles, I can hardly control my excitement at the prospect of the final installment, but I don’t begrudge Rothfuss this excursion in the slightest. He is rightly proud of it, too – when Auri describes an area she calls “The Twelve," you can hear him defending his indulgent little side project: it is “wise enough to know itself, and brave enough to be itself, and wild enough to change itself while somehow staying altogether true. It was nearly unique in this regard, and while it was not always safe or kind, Auri could not help but feel a fondness for it.”

An observer may not understand, to watch her as if in a nature documentary, why Auri would laugh to hear a bird sing, or pause before exiting the Underthing, motionless there at the entrance to a grate. They wouldn’t know, as she does, that birdsong is a language unto itself, or that the moon can look sharply down on those below, and is sometimes a thing to bask in, and sometimes a thing to hide from. The Slow Regard of Silent Things is Rothfuss’s love letter, sweet and short, to the secret dramas playing out all around us as we float on with life, oblivious. Auri’s story goes unnoticed by most, and understood by few. But it is only Auri who knows the stories of rock, and water, and wood, and twine, and light. And we delight, as she does, in this secret covenant with silent things, which to her are deafening in their vitality.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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