Saturday, June 5, 2021

Robin Hobb's Ways of Magic and Dreaming

Notes from a Reading Life

I don't know why it took me so long to start reading the exceptional fantasy novels of Robin Hobb. Since I devoured Assassin's Apprentice,the first book in her Farseer trilogy,I have been cracking a new novel in the vast cycle every week or so. I might have finished the 13 novels by Hobb that I have in my current reading pile (she has published many more, under more than one name) except that I have just a few other reading assignments. I must also confess thatI have a polyamorous relationship with books, hopping in and out of bed with many in a single night.
     The names of her characters - King Shrewd, Prince Chivalry, Lady Patience - looked silly to me before I started in, but within a few pages I had made the adjustment. I wasn't sure to begin with that I wanted to give time to yet another neo-medieval series, replete with swords and sorcerers and dragons, but soon she had me in her spell, and her dragons are most superior..
     I am fascinated by the ways of magic described in Hobb's splendid series and by the wildly shamanic and moving treatment of human-animal bonding. Best of all, as her protagonist deepens his practice, he - and the reader - learns more and more about the power of dreaming.

At the start of Royal Assassin, Book 2 of The Farseer Trilogy).we are told we are in a world where there are three kinds of the magic.

The first is the Skill, inborn in royals of the Farseer dynasty and sometimes appearing as a "wild strain" in people whose ancestors came from outside the settled lands of the Six Duchies. "One trained in the Skill is able to reach out to another's mind, no matter how distant, and know what he is thinking. Those who are strongly Skilled can influence that thinking, or have converse with that person. For the conducting of a battle, or the gathering of information, it is a most useful tool."

The second magic is the Wit, denounced by many as "beast magic" and sometimes punished by a gruesome triple execution by hanging,cutting and immersion in water.  We are told by a cautious chronicler that "The Wit, it is said, gives one the ability to speak the tongues of the beasts. It was also warned that those who practiced the Wit too long or too well became whatever beast they bonded to. But this may be only legend." We will learn much more through the voice of the protagonist-narrtaor, FitzChivalry as we enter his deep bonding with a wolf, which gives us some of the most powerful writing and most moving scenes in the cycle.

Then there are the Hedge magics: potions and palmistry, skrying and spell-making and herbal remedies.

 The force of the Skill is dramatized when Fitz comes to the tower room where his master, King-in-Waiting Verity, has been using it to confuse the minds of the terrible Red Ship Raiders. Startled by his entrance, Verity "turned to me and his face was like heat, like light, like wind in my face. He Skilled into me with such force that I felt driven out of myself, his mind possessing mine so completely that there was no room left to be myself in it. For a moment I was drowning in Verity, and then he was gone, withdrawing so rapidly that I was left stumbling and gasping like a fish deserted by a high wave." The Skilled royal steadied him and apologized.

Our hero Fitz, a royal bastard, is both Skilled and Witted, though he is given no useful training in either magic. He learns the depth of animal bonding after he purchases an abused wolf cub from a vendor who has been keeping it in a cage. The wolf hates and distrusts humans. But with time and exquisite care Fitz is able to grow and gentle their relationship until they are closely bonded, able to converse mind to mind, to protect and heal one another and even to share, for a time, each other's bodies. The country folk who are Witted call themselves Old Blood. Hobb's description of what evolves between Fitz and the wolf he comes to call Nighteyes is wildly and truly shamanic, also so deeply human and canine 

In Assassin's Quest (Book 3 of Farseer trilogy) we learn more of the risks of the "magic of minds"known as the Skill. 
 "It requires a great deal of energy to wield it on a daily basis, and it offers to its practitioners an attraction that has been misnamed as a pleasure. It is more of a euphoric, one that increases in power proportionately with the strength and duration of Skilling. It can lure the practitioner into an addiction to Skilling, one which eventually saps all mental and physical strength, to leave the mage a great, drooling babe." 

We are given further ruminations on the magic of the Old Blood: "The Wit seems to be a form of mind linking, usually with a particular animal, which opens a way for understanding of that animal's thoughts and feelings...What the Wit may be is a man's acceptance of the beast nature within himself, and hence an awareness of the element of humanity that every animal carries within it as well." 

As his faculties come more fully alive, Fitz finds himself able to enter the perception and seemingly the bodies of people at a distance, initially without control. When the coastal duchies are plagued by the raiders, his dream self joins a boy in a desperate battle ."I do not think the boy could sense me. This was not my Skilling out but his reaching to me with some rudimentary Skill sense of his own. I could not control his body at all, but I was locked into his experience. I was riding this boy and hearing his thoughts and sharing his perceptions." . Before he can figure it out, the boy's throat is cut and for a moment he is joined in the rapture of a bloody death. 

Later he Skill-dreams into another desperate fight against the Red Ship Raiders. He enters the body of a Duke's daughter and wields his battle ax, through her, with amazing effect. The cost of his unplanned Skill dreams is terrible headaches and fatigue for which he takes a dreadful remedy. 

He has to learn discernment, targeting, how to set up walls so he is not open to anyone, Skilled or Witted, who leans his way. The urgency becomes clear as we witness the continuing raids, which deploy a mode of psychic warfare that reduces opponents to ravening zombies, and a vicious struggle for the Farseer throne. We learn that the Skill unlocks powers initially beyond imagination. Ancient masters created portals and highways into a deeper universe and sculpted living dragons from black memory stone, and the arts can be revived. 

In Fool's Errand (book 1 of The Tawny Man trilogy, the sequel to the Farseer threesome) Fitz discovers the treasures of hypnagogia. experiences in the liminal space between sleep and awake: "I lingered in the hinterlands of sleep. Sometimes I think there is more rest in that place than there is in true sleep. The mind walks in the twilight of both states, and finds the truths that are hidden alike by daylight and dreams. Things we are not ready to know abide in that place, awaiting that unguarded frame of mind. " 

SPOILER ALERT: You may want to skip the two following short paragraphs if you have not already read Fool's  Errand

His communication and bonding with the wolf deepens. He escapes death by fleeing the "battered husk" of his physical body and sharing the wolf's body, with his consciousness, for a time. "I shared residence with the wolf in his body, perceiving his thoughts, seeing the world through his eyes."

Later, when Nighteyes is near death, Fitz risks everying by projecting himself into the wolf''s body again, to heal his heart by becoming his heart, moving it back to a regular pattern. You have a hard head indeed if either of these passages leaves you dry-eyed. 

 In Fool's Fate (Book 3 in The Tawny Man trilogy) we learn more, with Fitz, about traveling in dreaming and joining others in their dreams. Without giving away too much of the plot, a character who is richly endowed with the raw power of Skill but has very little brain is bringing down the energy and spirit of a whole ship's crew through his nightmare visons. Fitz can't contain this alone. He must travel into the dream space of a young woman who is a more powerful dreamer. He gets through the dark thorny woods that oppose him, finds her in a glass tower and begs her to help calm the dark dreams that are afflicting many. He tells her, 
"You are very strong in the magic that lets one person go into another person's dreams and change them." 

Together they enter the space of  man who is drowning in his dream. The girl is able to change the dream. "Now it's my dream, and in my dream we can walk on the waves." She helps construct a pleasant new dreamscape woven from the dreamer's happy childhood memories, where he can lie safe and warm on an immense bed. She tells him -in the new dream - that he can return to this sanctuary whenever he chooses. All he has to do is think of a pillow on the bed.

Robin Hobb is weaving some true dream magic here, even as her character says, "This dream-changing is not magic. It is just a thing I can do."

My favorite character in the series,the Fool (no room to explain him here) says early in the stories,  "You can only understand a thing when you become it." As we follow what this means for Fitz, we come alive to what it may mean in our own lives.



RealDream said...

Well, if that is not the best Robin Hobb book review I ever ready ! Thank you. I am a fan of Tolkien world, I think I have a new one to discover here :-)

North said...

thanks Robert for noting these books. I am really enjoying the series.

Unknown said...

The Fool is my favourite Character too.
Barbara Clarke