Welcome back, constant listen-readers. Jeremy here with the latest, greatest installation of the Page of the Wind blogstravaganza! In this sequence, Kvothe (and us, the people) get our first look under the hood at the principles and inner workings of Sympathy – one of the main fantastical elements of The Kingkiller Chronicle.
Now, in the fantasy literature world, there’s a lot of talk, by fans, pros, and writers, about magic systems. What makes a magic system a system? What makes a good one? What are the advantages and disadvantages of defining magic and it’s limits? Everyone, I think, can agree that there has to be enough limit put on magic that it cannot be used as a deus ex machina, but not everyone agrees on where that line needs to be drawn.
On the one hand, there are those those who favour magic that is not super well explained. Often, it’s seen from an outsider’s perspective, and exactly how it works or what it can do is not clear. The other camp tends to favour detailed magic systems, where reader and character both have a good idea exactly how magic works, and what it can do.
Sympathy falls into the second category. In The Name of the Wind, Ben and Kvothe lay out for us how one would go about learning sympathy, the kinds of things sympathy can do, and more or less the way it works. As Patrick Rothfuss has said in interviews, this has one real advantage for him – once the reader understands how sympathy works, it also allows us to be impressed by Kvothe’s cleverness when he does something clever with it. We pretty much have to take it as read that Gandalf is an impressively powerful magician, but because we know how sympathy works, we can see how Kvothe is bending, twisting, and breaking the rules. And when something scary, like “binder’s chills” happens, we understand why it’s frightening.
(Full disclosure: I tend to really dislike well-explained magic systems. The more I understand magic, the less magical it feels to me.)
As we talk about on the podcast though, Rothfuss does a great job of allowing sympathy to feel both plausible and incomprehensible, by showing us the various complicated mental exercises Abenthy gives Kvothe. Some of them remind me of the kind of counter-logical thinking you find in 1984’s “doublethink” – having to believe something is both true and not true all at once. Or for those of you more nerdily inclined – “there are four lights”!
As Nick points out, these mental exercises help us cement the idea that sympathy could be possible to learn, if we could only master the art of believing a stone could fall up. They achieve a feeling of authenticity, of realism without reality, that only the best fantasy novels manage to capture.
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