The Tawny Man Trilogy: Book III
I was in no position to even think about writing a post immediately after finishing this (the tears would have been in the way) and, even after a night’s sleep, I feel emotionally crushed and somehow hollow. Yes, I’ve read it before, but that was ten years ago and I scarcely remembered any of it: the essence, rather than the detail, of the end. No doubt I’m going to lose my equanimity at some point during this post and start talking about fictional characters as if they’re real… I apologise in advance for that, but it can’t be helped.
In the last few days, reading this final book after a virtually a month spent in Hobb’s world, I’ve been so deeply immersed that on occasion it’s felt far more real and vital than reality itself. And no other fictional character causes me the same degree of frustration as Fitz does; my reading of both The Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies has been accompanied by a regular litany of, ‘Fitz! You’re such an idiot!’ (which faded away in the final book to a simple whimper of ‘Nooooo’ every now and again). But that frustration is born from the fact that this loyal, flawed, stubborn, lonely man is so entirely plausible. I can’t do with Fitz what I do with other characters, which is to sit back and wait to see what the author does with him. I find myself constantly berating him, urging him on and occasionally resisting the urge to thwack him. As I said back at the beginning of Assassin’s Apprentice, I started reading The Farseer books when I was twelve. Rather embarrassingly that means that I’ve ‘known’ Fitz and the Fool for longer than I’ve known most of my friends (an occupational hazard as a reader). You see why I find it difficult to be objective. I trust that no one here would dream of saying, “It’s only a book,” but just in case… Books, good books, are never only books. They open up a part of the soul and leave their imprint there.
The book begins with the final preparations for Dutiful’s mission to the ice-island of Aslevjal. He has been charged with slaying the black dragon Icefyre, whom Outislander legend says slumbers beneath the glacier, in order to bring his head to the Narcheska Elliania and win her as his wife. In these last days, Fitz busies himself with a number of pressing issues: melding the Skill coterie under his command; trying to prevent his adopted son Hap from making the same mistakes Fitz once did; and, above all, ensuring that the Fool has no way to follow them to Aslevjal and the death he prophesies for himself. With a little help from Chade and the city guard, he seems to have succeeded in the latter, at least.
The journey nevertheless has its own issues. Thick’s fear of water results in powerful Skill-sendings that threaten to overwhelm the entire crew. Fitz’s dream contact with his estranged daughter Nettle is increasingly invaded by the dragon Tintaglia, seeking further information about Icefyre. It soon becomes apparent that the Narcheska’s challenge has driven a wedge between the Outislander clans. And then, as the ships finally approach Aslevjal, in a brilliantly cinematic moment, Fitz sees a lone figure standing on a headland, watching them approach. Waiting for them. And he realises that it will take more than human endeavour to keep the Fool from fulfilling his destiny.
Fitz. Please. Do not tempt me to follow you and interfere in the future I saw for you. Do not tempt me to step out of my time and try to take something that was never meant for me.
If you haven’t read the book, stop now. If you have read it, then please do come along and help me try to unravel my feelings about it. First, I loved the way that Hobb brings yet another culture in her world to life: the Viking-like Outislanders with their powerfully matriarchal culture, their motherhouses and their superstitious belief in the Black Man and Pale Woman – figures who turn out to be far more than mere myths. I’ve always commended Hobb’s world building and this was another excellent example. I should also note here, which I forgot to mention last time, about her humanity as a writer: she has always, even in The Farseer trilogy, emphasised that the Skill runs strongest in those who are somehow different, and she makes that point more strongly here with Thick. She allows us to see the cruelty and lack of understanding that her world presents to him, and yet at the same time she shows us his remarkable strengths, while treating him with the same gentle irony that she does her other characters.
And there was one other thing that particularly struck me. I had forgotten, since my first reading, the scene in which the Fool restores to Fitz all the pain and shame and youthful agonies which he poured into Girl On A Dragon in Assassin’s Quest, and this took on an intriguing new light in view of my recent reading of Ship of Destiny. To what extent, I wonder, can we draw parallels between Fitz and Kennit in this respect? (There is an amusing but possibly coincidental aural similarity between their names, if we go with the name by which Fitz’s mother called him – Kennit / Keppet.) Both have reacted to their painful childhoods by literally pushing the memories out of their minds and both have ended up as less than whole men, because ultimately humanity is the sum of everything we have within us, good and bad. Having seen Kennit’s miserable end, the Fool is presumably determined not to let Fitz suffer in the same way and to give him back everything he needs to know himself as a whole person. And in this particular case, perhaps painful memories are the greatest gift one person can give to another.
Fool’s Fate is full of Hobb’s characteristic skill, but it’s a cold, hard book and not just because of the barren icy landscapes the characters find themselves wandering through. There are levels of physical brutality that we haven’t seen since Royal Assassin, including some truly horrific moments. This is coupled with a new sense of emotional detachment as Fitz, already parted from Nighteyes, finds himself increasingly estranged from the Fool. It felt as though Hobb has suddenly realised how interdependent she has made her two main characters and, knowing what will come, tries to make the bond lighter. The result is that, on the one hand, Fitz suddenly gains a place in a community, as he is tied into a network of relationships with his fellow Skill-coterie members, Kettricken, Dutiful and the members of the court who make their way to Aslevjal. On the other hand, I couldn’t help feeling that the warm thread of the relationship between him and the Fool, which provided the glowing heart of the previous books for me, was here more muted, making an uncomfortable void at the centre of the story.
Although I know that there are many people out there who love these books as much as I do, none of my friends ever read them and so I would love to know what other readers feel about the end. I think that to some extent your feelings will differ depending on which aspect of the story you’ve taken to heart. If you see The Farseer, The Liveship Traders and The Tawny Man as a trilogy of trilogies about the return of dragons to Hobb’s world, then I suppose you’d have to feel that the ending is a triumph (and in fact the story wouldn’t even be over yet, because there are more dragons in the Rain Wild Chronicles). If you see the two Six Duchies trilogies as telling the story of Fitz’s efforts to find the peace and comfort in life that has eluded him so far, well, then this too is a happy ending. He becomes valued not for his skills as an assassin but as an adviser, companion and friend to Kettricken and Dutiful; he rebuilds his filial relationship to Patience (who I think is such a wonderful character); and he finally manages to find contentment in a simple, sweet relationship with Molly, his much-longed-for childhood sweetheart. He is finally at peace with himself. So yes: I read the final pages and my mind told me, ‘this is a happy ending. I should be happy’.
But my heart didn’t share that conviction. Throughout the books, both on my first read and particularly on this reread, the most captivating and moving aspect of the story for me has been Fitz’s connection with the Fool: the comfort that two outsiders have found in a friendship that is, literally, strong enough to change the course of history. And I’ve always believed that it was the Fool, rather than Molly, whom Jinna ‘saw’ when reading Fitz’s palm in Fool’s Errand. I had forgotten quite how this part of the plot ended and, by God, it upset me deeply. The moment which shocked me most, oddly enough, was that in which the Fool takes away the Skill-fingerprints on Fitz’s wrist, thereby severing the last vestige of their connection. (That was a “Nooooo” moment.) I couldn’t believe that either of them could genuinely contemplate a future in which they would neither meet again nor have any sense of each other through the Skill bond, after all they’ve been through for each other. Yes, I can follow all the justifications which Hobb implicitly makes through her characters. I can see the decision as a final gesture of selflessness by the Fool. I can rehearse all the arguments to myself and they sound as if they should make sense – that sometimes it’s precisely because you love someone so much that you need to let them go – but it doesn’t help the situation. It’s still not fair.
I know it’s wilful, but I won’t – I can’t – believe that this is truly the end.* It would break my heart to believe that. Fortunately Hobb is generous enough not to make any conclusive statements. She leaves a tiny sense of possibility flickering in the final lines of Fool’s Fate. And so, left with that little flame of hope, I take comfort in knowing that the story isn’t over. I don’t necessarily want to read any more of the official version, to be told once and for all what does happen. On the contrary, as it stands, we can all decide for ourselves how we secretly think Fitz’s story should end.
I want to believe that many years further on, when Fitz is old and his family are dispersed and self-sufficient, he finally does what he’s always talked of doing, and makes his pilgrimage to the Mountain Kingdom to carve his dragon. And I want to believe, when he finally arrives there, that the Fool will be waiting to help him.
And so, time for another of my beloved Hobb Cover Features, with beautiful, creative or just simply odd editions from around the world.