Welcome back Pagerinos, to your weekly edition of Page of the Wind’s Windbag Blog! Jeremy here, talking about pages 160-166 of Patrick Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind. This week, I want to take a step back and talk about a beloved fantasy trope featured within these pages – and that is … fantasy cities.
Every great work of fantasy features iconic cities – from the soaring mountainside metropolis of Minas Tirith in The Lord of the Rings to King’s Landing the capital of the Seven Kingdoms in A Song of Ice and Fire, to your local D&D campaign, authors of the fantastic populate their fictional worlds with fictional metropolises. Some fantasies are set entirely in cities – like Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, set entirely within the city of Camorr. Fictional cities tend to feature some tropes we can all identify. The specifics might change, but there are some things that seem universal – shadowy slums brimming with thieves and murderers, taverns where our heroes spend a cozy evening or learn some useful information, aristocratic manors where schemes and plots are laid and unmade.
The world of The Kingkiller Chronicle is no exception.
The fantasy city usually features a sharp divide between the rich and poor. Tolkien wasn’t exactly interested in social commentary, but even his Minas Tirith is a city of seven tiers. Kings Landing features the slum of Flea Bottom, while the royal family dwell high up in the Red Keep. Tarbean is divided between Hillside and Waterside. Furthermore, fantasy cities are usually divided up into various districts, often with colourful names. These varied districts represent huge opportunities for storytelling, and even when our characters never visit or spend much time in them, the names tell us a lot about the world.
In fact, fantasy cities represent a rich opportunity for unobtrusive worldbuilding. Rothfuss definitely does that with Tarbean. He implies that the Tehlin Church does some kind of charitable work in the city, that there aren’t really any other social services except the ad-hoc ones that Trapis provides. He shows that while Tarbean has some kind of city watch, the law is not distributed evenly – though it’s never on the side of the poor, as witness by Kvothe’s multiple abuses at the hands of the city guard. There’s enough demand for books that there’s a bookstore – implying that many people are literate and that printing is cheap enough that books are affordable consumer products. They use tar on their roofs! These little details may not seem important, but taken as aggregate they tell us a lot about the world we find ourselves in – without Rothfuss front-loading a bunch of expository text. It feels natural.
Kvothe’s impressions of Tarbean are also important for putting it in context. Tarbean is incredibly huge from Kvothe’s perspective – but remember, Kvothe is a child, and he comes from a largely rural or ex-urban context. In a world like the Commonwealth, which is sort of late-medieval/early Rennaissance-y, most people still live in farms or small hamlets – so even the largest cities probably don’t compare in size or population to the cities we have.
That’s it for our blog this week. Wanna rant at us about your favourite fantasy cities? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org! Tweet or Facebook at us @pageofthewind! Or drop a comment on this here blog! Until next week, may all your stories be glad ones!