Notes on Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy: Royal Assassin

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What is a life for? This is the question that Fitz is asking again and again, in one form or another, as he tries to find his place in the world and wonders whether it’s all worth it. It’s easy to despair in a cynical world of court intrigue, treachery, and division in the kingdom. By the middle of the book, Fitz sees the situation as so hopeless it is almost funny. So the question becomes an urgent one: what to do with the life you have, despite the fact that success is so far from assured?

Royal Assassin is the second book of Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy, and so it deals with all the trouble set up in the first book – the ambitions of the treacherous Prince Regal, the destruction wrought on the coastal towns by the Red Ship Raiders, Fitz’s struggle to contain his forbidden “Wit” or “beast magic” – with some more problems thrown in on top of that. By the end of the book we’ll be expecting to find some of these issues resolved, with plenty left unresolved to take us into the final book of the trilogy.

In many ways this is a classic tale of a hero struggling against impossible odds. The whole story is told from Fitz’s point of view, and we’re with him through every trial. So much so that the question of What should I do? becomes really what the book is about, its main theme. So we find Fitz being lectured by the King’s Fool:

“‘This, more than anything else, is what I have never understood about your people. You can roll dice, and understand that the whole game may hinge on one turn of a die … But a man’s whole life, you sniff at, and say, what, this nought of a human, this fisherman, this carpenter, this thief, this cook, why, what can they do in the great wide world? And so you putter and sputter your lives away, like candles burning in a draught.’

“‘Not all men are destined for greatness,’ I reminded him.

“‘Are you sure, Fitz? Are you sure?’”

The answer to the question What is a life for? is: to change the world. To bring hope and joy to others. To make a difference. In other words: to be a hero. The Fool’s speech comes at about the midpoint of the book, when things are looking bleak. And throughout the rest the reader can only hope that Fitz will remember the Fool’s words, remember that it’s down to him, just as it’s down to everyone else, not to give up in the face of evil.

Something I like very much about Hobb’s approach to storytelling in this book is her decision to focus on Fitz, and tell everything from his point of view. In other novels of this kind, tales of cynicism and treachery, it can all become quite tiring, as character after character is introduced and then sacrificed to the ambition of the villain. It’s difficult not to get detached from the story when you don’t have a single character to follow all the way through to the end. Of course there is plenty of treachery and murder in this book, but Fitz at the centre gives the whole thing a beating heart, a point of view and even a certain idealism by which we can evaluate the horror of what is going on around him. And by which we can measure him when his courage slips and we find ourselves, as readers, urging him on to find his best self again.

The best thing about Royal Assassin is it’s a fantasy story that’s about something, which has a meaning and a moral you can take away from it. Perhaps that’s true of any story that you enjoy – it resonates and that’s why it sticks to you. It’s more than just entertainment, however easy and enjoyable it is to read. Either way, this is what makes Robin Hobb, for me, one of the best and most interesting fantasy writers.

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Notes on Bleak House: “Bell Yard”

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Mr Skimpole reflects on “how things lazily adapted themselves to purposes.” There’s no other way things can adapt. Let nature take its course. Principle of non-resistance. This is how Mr Skimpole lives his own life, never working or worrying.

Mr Gridley is naturally very angry at the way he’s been treated by the courts. A question of three hundred pounds has been turned into endless time and costs, and he lives now in ruin. If I were not angry I would lose my mind. He keeps fighting though it’s hopeless, and in this way preserves himself.

Anger is often seen as a failure to adapt, a failure to accept the situation, a futile railing against unchangeable circumstances. But here it’s presented as the natural way of things. Mr Gridley is going with the flow. “I am not polite,” he says. That’s just the way I am and I accept it.

It’s easy to see why things never change for Skimpole: he does not resist, does not strive, just enjoys sunshine and good company when it comes. But Gridley’s passivity – his acceptance of the anger the courts inspire in him – is harder to detect, clothed as it is in the ceaseless activity of his struggle against injustice. But his outward resistance fuels the legal machine, gives it just want it needs to go on, and even in his red-faced rage he lowers his furrowed brow and submits to its infernal authority.

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Notes on the Magic Mountain: “Mynheer Peeperkorn”

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A more than usual appreciation of – linked to his need for – alcoholic drinks. He appears to chew the liquid before it goes down, he spends so long savouring it.

His head must be blurry from all he drinks – at least one full bottle of wine with every meal, sometimes two or two and a half, and always a drop of gin. Perhaps for this reason, he talks incoherently.

But he talks marvellously, inspiring wonder with his hands as he speaks. Hypnotic these hand gestures, thumb and forefinger in a circle and palm outspread, so that whatever nonsense he speaks his audience, watching those hands, cannot doubt they have heard something wonderful, true, perfect, the very best. Close your eyes as he talks – if you can! – and you’ll hear he’s said precisely nothing.

I am speaking, I am speaking – so even to say nothing is to say something, even the mere act of speech signals one’s own existence, and can even, spoken loudly and confidently enough, seem to assert one’s own importance. Hans Castorp calls him a “blurred personality”: you can’t deny he’s there, but what is he exactly? He must be something, but there is nothing to grasp.

Blurriness within, blurriness without: it is as if he projects his own inner drunken muddle outwards, and in this way intoxicates his audience.

(I’ve been reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter.)

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Notes on The Magic Mountain: “By the Ocean of Time”

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Not to deny reason, but to set limits to it. Beyond the limit of reason is life. If reason were allowed to dominate all, there would be no room for life, which after all needs room to experiment, and see for itself, and be itself.

Not to deny the value of reason. But outside of its appropriate sphere, reason becomes monstrous in its confusion disguised as certainty, knows not of what it speaks and yet does so volubly.

Kant wanted to limit reason to leave room for faith. Thomas Mann is suggesting we do so to leave room for life. Perhaps these amount to the same thing, since what is life without faith? Life is always uncertain, and so a certain faith and optimism is required to live well.

Imagine walking beside an ocean, and far out at sea you see a boat. How far away is that boat? Impossible to tell in that glance; just looking at it, the distance might be infinite. Beyond a certain limit there is no longer any visual frame of reference to allow any answer with certainty. So it is with reason when it moves outside its sphere.

And yet in some things, things distant and transcendent yet essentially human, certainty is required. Things of the soul and human purpose. Reason can’t help us with these things having no frame of reference, and so faith is required.

This is not to take a medieval view, where everything confusing is deemed illusory, and the only reality is “an abiding present.” Faith without reason would send us back into a dark age. And even as reason finds its limit, and the need for faith is accepted, reason will continue to push outward, tentatively and experimentally, into the realm of faith. No longer content to merely glimpse that sail in the distance, ways and means are learned to calculate its location, when this is required. The mystery remains, and perspective, as experienced in the moment of glancing, is still a mystifying thing. Reason’s sphere will be extended, gradually and over time. The appeal to faith and the limit of reason is, after all, an appeal to our thinkers to use reason well, and carefully, and with due patience and respect for the mysteries they would solve.

(I’ve been reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter.)

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Notes on The Magic Mountain: “A Soldier, and Brave”

“I am glad to see that despite your enthusiasm for freedom and progress, you have some feeling for serious things.”

So says Naphta to Settembrini as they stand at the deathbed of the young man. What could be more serious than death? And what greater refutation of liberal optimism, than the fact that every life must end in death? For the moment, as they mourn the deceased, Settembrini, the progressive, lets Naphta, the reactionary, enjoy his morbid victory. There is nothing to say in the presence of death itself.

Just as in Hans Castorp’s vision: while the fact of death calls for kindness and reverence for one another – why not be kind, since life is short? – the actual sight of it, and experience of it, sends a shockwave through us, and we recoil in sorrow and despair just as Hans fled from the murderous witches in his vision of the inside of the temple.

If Hans really did see the truth in his vision, then Naphta has it precisely backwards. It is by taking death seriously that one learns reverence for one’s fellow human beings, and this reverence leads to our insistence that there are such things as human rights, and such rights must be respected. Settembrini, silent as his opponent scores his point, shows the reverence for the fact of death that must lie at the heart of any humanistic world view.

(I’ve been reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter.)

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Notes on The Magic Mountain: “Snow”

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“What he had dreamed was already fading from his mind.”

So vivid the dream, so full of meaning, and as he lay there in the snow he had vowed to live for love and virtue, and never to let death enter his thoughts.

But already the dream fading, will any trace of it be left the next morning? Some remnant of it visible in his disposition, which perhaps even he will not recognise for what it is?

What he had seen most vividly was the smiling reverence of those people for each other, a seriousness veiled in joyfulness, never austere or sombre. Except in that one boy’s glance back at the temple, where he had seen in that face a look of sadness like grey stone, as momentarily he saw the horror that goes on behind those bronze doors. He realised that all these joyful and gracious people knew full well of these horrors, and that this was the reason for their kindness and respect for one another. How could unkindness be possible, knowing what darkness finally awaits each and every one of us? Pity we might feel, and from this follows tenderness and love for our fellow sufferers. A taboo on all solemn talk of death, since death we will all know soon enough.

Already the dream fading, and what he saw so clearly he could articulate it, and declare himself for love over death, virtue over despair and abandon, is now become perhaps something instinctive that belongs to him, that will perhaps be visible in a joyfulness and tenderness almost imperceptible.

And yet … Hans was already full of good will and kindness for his fellow sufferers, with his friendly manner and compassion for the sick and dying. So what can have changed? Perhaps the dream was never a sign for him to change, but a reflection of what he already was.

(I’ve been reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter.)

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Notes on The Magic Mountain: “Operationes Spirituales”

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There is no chance that Ludovico Settembrini and Leo Naphta, the intellectuals portrayed in The Magic Mountain, will ever agree with each other. If one of them says something, you can guarantee that the other will say the opposite.

It reminds me of what Hegel says about the absurd notion that truth is found in opposing “thesis” and “antithesis”: it’s like two children arguing, each determined only to contradict the other.

Is it possible that anyone could consistently hold either of these extreme positions? Agree fully with either Settembrini or Naphta? It seems they can’t even agree with themselves: in their desperation to contradict each other, they fall into self-contradiction.

Confusion arises. And at the height of the confusion, the name “Hegel” is mentioned. Appropriate to reference the great thinker, at the very moment that all oppositions blur and every logical distinction dissolves away.

This conversation could go on forever, it has no limit. Argue long enough and a soupy chaos is created. And still the conversation continues. So was it all for nothing? Perhaps chaos was the point, all logical preconceptions now laid low, and out of the resulting turmoil something new can emerge.

(I’ve been reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter.)

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Notes on The Magic Mountain: “An Attack, and a Repulse”

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Hans Castorp knows something we don’t. You might wonder why a book like The Magic Mountain is so long: well, it treats of a subject impossible to put into so many words. So you need to sit with it a while, take your time reading it, and gradually the lesson sinks in. Or perhaps it doesn’t, and never truly can. Perhaps we’re all too much of “the world below.”

Have you learned to laugh when the subject of “time” is brought up, the way Hans does? When people talk of “wasting time” and seem to be in so much of a hurry. This is the way of the world below, concerned with business and getting on. Hans now thinks of three hundred years ago as recent history. And even the people of a couple of thousand years ago are near enough that he can see them clearly, as if in the near distance, when he thinks about them.

Have you learned to be serious on the subject of time when it’s just you and your own thoughts, and you’re free to contemplate, and you lie horizontal on your balcony, looking up at the stars? It’s your hard-won deep understanding of time that allows you to shake your head at the worldly, or shrug it off and let it fall away.

By the end of this section of the book, Hans has won his freedom. His uncle, who came to bring him back down to earth, has given up his quest and fled the mountain, fearful that if he remained an hour longer he would be drawn too into its alternate time, and he would lose the world below altogether. Hans is now past this fear in himself. No one will return for him, and he is free to dwell up here in his alternate reality, close to the stars and those highest and most mysterious truths that hold him fascinated.

(I’ve been reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter.)

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How Wrong We Are

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I’ve been reading Will Storr’s The Science of Storytelling. Aspiring writers might want to read the book in full, but here’s some ideas I found interesting:

Stories are about change. In other words: something happens. The best stories gradually transform a reader’s understanding of what is happening, as the mystery slowly unfolds, even to the last page. Human brains have evolved to notice change, and so people are naturally curious when they encounter something new. Where change is happening, the brain is likely to pay attention.

It’s not just you against the world, but you against yourself. Each of us has a story, and the most interesting stories are about people. Each one of us is flawed, and it’s difficult to see your own flaws. Though the premise of a story may revolve around some external event – a murder that must be solved, a dragon that must be defeated – in the best stories these external circumstances force the hero to confront their own flaws and perhaps change themselves for the better.

To truly describe someone is to describe their flaws. So make your characters flawed and interesting!

“The lesson of story is that we have no idea how wrong we are.” By telling stories of flawed heroes, writers remind us that none of us are perfect. We’re all trapped inside our own skulls, and perhaps it will take a catastrophe to jolt you into a new way of thinking. Or if no calamity is forthcoming, pick up a good book and get outside your own head that way.

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Fools Reproach

William Blake’s infernal wisdom: that evil is the energy of the body and acts upon desire. Good bounds this energy, and wants to restrain desire.

That if your desire can be restrained, then it was a weak desire.

That desire, once restrained, becomes even weaker, a mere shadow of what you once felt. You end up in a state of absolute detachment. You don’t even desire what you think you desire. All you can do now is think about desire, since you are incapable of feeling it.

Blake is saying this from the point of view of the Devil, because both sides have to be heard.

Nothing else has worked so we’ve got to try this.

The infernal is very different from the satanic. The infernal recognises the necessity of evil as part of the universe contained within every individual. The satanic is the self-righteousness that, refusing to recognise that a universe is enclosed in every living creature, would impose the restraint of the Good uniformly on every soul.

Reason alone sits still, is “self-enclosed,” incapable of activity. Everything is already done. The perfection of God. In Blake’s vision Moses and Christ are rebels against Reason, standing for the energy of the body. For the individual’s right to their own vision, to find their own balance, to follow the winding path of their own desire towards the Good.

(I’ve been reading The Complete Poems of William Blake, edited by Alicia Ostriker.)

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