“Finding Nothing Can Be Finding Something”: Medievalism, Book History, and Accessing the Archives in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle

By Grace Catherine Greiner

This story begins with a book that was given, and then taken away.  It was Christmas Eve, the night my family and I traditionally exchange gifts.  My youngest sister took her turn doling out packages, many of them small, rectangular—the size of books.  My brother and I were recipients of two such similarly-sized, book-shaped packages.  We were instructed to open them simultaneously (with the caveat that they might be mixed up, that I might be holding his, and vice versa).  I tore off the wrapping paper from my book and behold: it was the wrong book. 

This is how Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind (NW) first made its way into my hands:[1] briefly, and only to be snatched away and swapped with another mainstay of contemporary fantasy writing—Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings.  This first encounter, however, is hardly inappropriate given the particular place of books—the ways they circulate, the value they hold, the physical spaces in which they’re stored—in Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle, a trilogy whose third installment has yet to appear on shelves (though an off-shoot novella, The Slow Regard of Silent Things, has offered readers an interlude while they wait for no. 3).

The Chronicle is, from its earliest chapters, exactly what it says on the box: a chronicle—events which are being written down by the appropriately-monikered Chronicler, who records, by hand, the life events of the narrator, Kvothe—musician, student, and would-be arcanist-turned-innkeeper by the time we meet him in the outer narrative frame of The Name of the Wind.  Kvothe’s life story, as told in The Name of the Wind and its sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear,[2] follows his development as a young boy who grows up among an itinerant troupe of performers (thespians, musicians, and magicians) and is singled out, at a young age, as a prime candidate for education at the (apparently singular) University and instruction in the arcane (read: magical, but also scientific and plastic) arts.  Before the troupe’s massacre by the mysterious Chandrian (a traumatic event which kindles his desire to enter the University in order to gain access to its famous Archives and learn more about his family’s killers), Kvothe begins his training in the art of sympathy with the skilled arcanist who travels with the troupe.  From this arcanist, he inherits a book—a book that he later hocks to fund his first term’s tuition at the University, where he undertakes study in a variety of subjects, quickly passing from one rank of the Arcanum to the next whilst also facing an inordinate number of extracurricular trials and adventures along the way.

As the title of the trilogy and its first installment suggest, names, stories, and storytelling should be at the forefront of our minds as we read the Chronicle—stories which we witness literally coming into being as stories as we listen to Kvothe tell them and watch Chronicler write them down on one broad sheet of paper after another.  But it’s not only stories themselves which fascinate Rothfuss and his characters in the Chronicle.  It is also the physical forms through which stories and histories are transmitted that matter.  That is, for Rothfuss and his characters, books matter

For Kvothe, a single book opens the doors to institutions and archives—locales of learning and knowledge, within which he hopes to find still more books that might contain the answers he seeks.  The book he rescues from the wreckage of his troupe’s caravan becomes a form of currency—both a material good he can exchange for hard coin (when he needs to buy essentials like food, clothing, shelter, paper, and ink) and an object that, through its particular material configuration, its status as a repository of knowledge, affords him the prerequisite know-how that itself functions as a kind of intellectual currency—the scientific (“scientific” in the sense of “related to knowledge”) ante that allows him to pass his admissions exam and enter the hallowed halls of the University. 

In truth, it’s not so much the University as its Archives and their contents that Kvothe desires, something that is apparent in one of his earliest attempts to set foot in the Archives in The Name of the Wind.  Having just passed his admissions exam and (crucially) having had his status as a member of the University confirmed within the Archives’ ledgers (your average civilian can’t just stroll on in, as he discovers when he first arrives to the city), Kvothe passes the front desk and finds himself face to face with “two sets of double doors leading out of the antechamber, one marked STACKS and the other TOMES.  Not knowing the difference between the two,” he tells Chronicler, “I headed to the ones labeled STACKS.  That was what I wanted.  Stacks of books.  Great heaps of books.  Shelf after endless shelf of books” (NW 275).

Books, in the Chronicle, are thus catalyst and currency, wildly desirable and (just as often) wildly disappointing.  Kept under lock and key within pawn shops and archival walls, they are hard to get a handle on in more than one sense: downright difficult to translate, interpret, or oftentimes even locate in the first place.  The price of admission is steep.

I come to the books of the Kingkiller Chronicle from the perspective of someone whose vocation is precisely this: handling, translating, and interpreting books and their history.  I am interested, in my work as a medievalist and book historian, in how books get made, how they circulate, how they’re passed from one set of hands to the next, how they’re sometimes taken apart, reconfigured, repurposed (Fig. 1), given new life (Fig. 2), or (more often than not, in the case of medieval manuscripts) mutilated or destroyed (Fig. 3).  My laboratory—my Arcanum—is the modern archive: that climate-controlled, secured space where books made from animal skin, plant fibers, rags, and wood pulp are carefully stored, catalogued, and consulted.   But the archive—like Kvothe’s idea of the Archives before he arrives at the University—is also an imaginary and imagined space: it is a collection of texts, ideas, and images, thoughts which were once written down, recorded, made into records and artefacts, but that exist no longer, or not always in a way we can access.

Fig. 1.  Recycled parchment leaf containing Latin text and musical notation; originally from a medieval liturgical text (a fourteenth-century Sarum breviary), later disassembled and repurposed as a paste-down in the bindings of one of the earliest manuscript copies of Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century work, The Canterbury Tales, known as the “Hengwrt Chaucer” (Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, Peniarth MS 392D).  By permission of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru/The National Library of Wales. View the full manuscript at http://hdl.handle.net/10107/4628556.
Fig. 2. A particularly well-loved, much-used manuscript copy of the late-antique, Pseudo-Ciceronian rhetorical treatise, the Rhetorica ad Herennium (Ithaca, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library, Misc. Bd. Ms. 145, fol. 3r).  Note the careful post-medieval repairs made along the diagonal, with text from the previously missing or damaged portion of the leaf (upper righthand corner) meticulously supplied in a different (Renaissance humanist) script. Courtesy of the Hathi Trust and the Cornell University Library.  View the full manuscript at https://hdl.handle.net/2027/coo.31924098996089.
Fig. 3. Medieval manuscripts like this early copy of Chaucer’s works (Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, MS Gg.4.27.1, fol. 174v) sometimes had partial or entire pages featuring rich decoration, illustration, or illumination cut out by later owners or booksellers.  Here, one of the portraits of Chaucer’s pilgrims has been excised.  Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.  View the full manuscript at  http://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/MS-GG-00004-00027-00001/1.

Questions about books, about access to knowledge—institutionalized or otherwise—seem never not to be on Rothfuss’ mind in the Chronicle, and these are questions, too, that preoccupy many medievalists nowadays, particularly those who study how the Middle Ages are perceived and repackaged in contemporary medievalist productions.  As a medievalist, I endeavor to do my due diligence where fantasy and science fiction are concerned.  These are the contemporary genres, after all, on which modern medievalism still has perhaps its strongest grip.  I admit that neither genre has ever held particular interest for me, except, perhaps, fantasy when, as a child, Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy first made me want to become a writer.  But the more I teach and write about forms of medievalism that the academy deems worthy and acceptable objects of study (for instance, nineteenth-century Victorian medievalism or, most recently, Arthurian literature and film), the more I feel compelled to expand my own personal library—both physical and metaphorical—of medievalist fantasy texts.  And there’s no doubt about it: The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear, are medievalist fantasy texts. 

This might seem like a somewhat curious assertion to make, given what Patrick Rothfuss himself has stated in interviews: that Four Corners, the world in which the Chronicle is set, is a time and place built in the image of the Renaissance, not the Middle Ages, as we often expect of fantasy writing.  “Fantasy” and “medieval(ist)” often seem (or, indeed, become) interchangeable for consumers of popular medievalisms; the tavern encounter with a wayfaring stranger one might experience in a game of Dungeons & Dragons (or rather, listen in on, if one follows livestream games of DnD like Critical Role) hardly makes one think, “Ah yes, a good, old-timey Renaissance tavern, a tavern from the time of Shakespeare and Elizabeth I.” No—the place one imagines is a space with a decidedly medieval character—or what we have learned, from fantasy literature, film, television, and video games, to associate with “the medieval.”

Rothfuss’ claim that the Renaissance looms large in his world-building has been utilized—to great effect—in one of the (very) few serious scholarly articles published on the Kingkiller Chronicle,[3] where the author, Anca Rosu, explores the magical art of sympathy and the secrets of the Arcanum in relation to Renaissance conceptions of magic and science.[4]  But this claim hardly jettisons the possibility that, while the setting might very well be “Renaissance-esque” or Renaissance-inspired, the text as whole—and even elements of its setting—might be medievalist, and that the Kingkiller Chronicle functions as a hybrid blend of medieval and Renaissance ideas and iconography. What, after all, is fantasy if not a world of hybrids and hybridity, a blending of tropes and teknē from across temporal and geographic boundaries? (What, after all, is medievalism if not these same things?)

Rothfuss’ medievalism, I would contend, prevails nowhere more strongly than within the Archives of his University, a place where Kvothe, a student and rising member of the Arcanum, meets with many of the same conundrums, mysteries, dead-ends, and discoveries encountered by the modern book historian.   Among the dark and dusty shelves, he finds manuscripts from which key names or entire passages have been scraped away and erased; he reads texts with systematic commentaries and marginalia; he finds gaps in the textual records, and evidence for witnesses that must have been lost or damaged, or texts that were once bound together but later became separated.  In the course of learning to use the Stacks, he gets a lesson in archival history and organization, and he learns the hard way (in the form of being denied archival access for nearly a year) how great a threat to the Archives’ holdings open fire is perceived to be.  (If this rigorous aversion to flame reminds you of a certain prestigious library in Oxford, it should.)[5]

In other words, Rothfuss’ medievalism is the medievalism of a book historian, of someone who is fascinated by and possesses a fairly impressive knowledge of premodern book production.  As I implied earlier, fantasy does not usually hold my attention for long. But my medievalist ears perked right up when Kvothe finally maneuvered his way into the Archives and I witnessed him handling books and objects that reminded me very much of the objects familiar from my own archival expeditions.  “Patrick Rothfuss,” I said to myself, “knows some stuff about book history.”

In what follows, I would like to explore some of the ways in which Rothfuss’ medievalism—by which I mean an engagement with an idea of the “medieval” (here, particularized to the idea of the medieval book)—comes across in his construction of the Archives in The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear.  As I have suggested, the Archives as first imagined and later engaged with by Kvothe underscore issues of access and questions about the production of knowledge, its material artefacts, and their stewardship, protection, preservation, and organization.  Restricted to members of the University (and with further restrictions and obstacles to access in place even for its patrons), the books and manuscripts of the Archives in the Kingkiller Chronicle collectively tell a story that might be an allegory for modern archives where objects and artefacts like those in Rothfuss’ imaginary Archives are kept.  By telling this story within an archival space populated by decidedly medieval books, Rothfuss undertakes a project focused around access that participates in two of the most important and impactful modes through which the Middle Ages continue to be made both more immediate and more accessible to nonacademic audiences: 1) popular medievalist productions and 2) archival initiatives aimed at opening up libraries and archives through means like manuscript digitization, public outreach, and crowdsourcing projects.[6]  Teasing out the connections between Rothfuss’ Archives and medieval literary study and premodern book history as disciplines that both shape and are shaped by modern archives complicates Rothfuss’ larger story about stories and their transmission, and the place of archives in that story.

Again, taking Rothfuss at his word that Four Corners and its University and Archives are Renaissance-inspired need not undermine this sense of the degree to which a very medievalist fascination with books and book history underpins his work.  In fact, reading the setting of the Chronicle as a Renaissance-esque time period in a place that witnessed something like the Protestant Reformation some time before Kvothe and his fellow students and archival partners-in-crime are searching for answers related to that tumultuous period in history only further bears out Rothfuss’ attentiveness to the repercussions of large-scale cultural change like the Reformation as something illuminated specifically by medieval and Renaissance book history.  Indeed, these repercussions are something felt and explored firsthand by Kvothe and his friends when they encounter books in which certain textual material seems to have been altered or erased to remove traces of “heresy.”  And these are realities which post-Reformation Renaissance readers would have faced (or indeed, have themselves promulgated) in their encounters with many medieval books, encounters which were necessarily filtered through and mediated by their own historical situatedness.

I have used the term “medievalism” at various points throughout this essay so far to refer to Rothfuss’ project in the Kingkiller Chronicle, specifically as it relates to books and book history.  Like the terms “medieval” and “Middle Ages,” its origins postdate the time period we refer to as the “Middle Ages” by several centuries, but as a practice, medievalism has a history that goes back to the Middle Ages.  Arguably, however, medievalism only really gets going in the Renaissance when, after the dissolution of the monasteries (after innumerable books were defaced, burned, or—when we’re lucky—secreted away), the Middle Ages become, as a period, a possible topic of study.  Medieval manuscripts become simultaneous sites of mystery—for what they hide or obscure, either through their erasures, their fragments, or the increasingly steep linguistic barriers they presented to early modern readers—and discovery—for what they might still reveal, despite their gaps and losses.  The very first societies dedicated to the studies of antiquities, which appeared in Elizabethan times, concerned themselves first and foremost with the material artefacts of history and culture; these included medieval manuscripts, which were often traded and lent among members of the Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries (a handful of whom were involved in the production of some of the earliest printed books containing medieval literary works).[7]

That books—and particularly, medieval manuscripts—might either be sources of mysteries or provide answers to them is a theme and trope that extends well beyond but is particularly rife within medievalist and fantasy literatures.  The framing fiction that an author “stumbles upon” a heretofore undiscovered manuscript and faithfully transcribes or translates its contents has made its way into everything from eighteenth-century Gothic novels like Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto to J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose.  But like many tropes linked to medievalist creative projects, this fiction can be traced back to medieval literature itself.  There, we already find authors fabricating the source-texts and circumstances by which they supposedly came to write a particular poem or history, cheekily referring us to books and manuscripts that never, in fact, existed.[8]

Rothfuss’ framing of the Kingkiller Chronicle as a manuscript-in-process thus plays to both medieval and medievalist literary traditions, while simultaneously setting it up to be read as we might read a medieval manuscript: as a physical artefact, written by hand and therefore unique, but also dangerously prone to error.  The possibility of error inherent to all manuscript production is not inappropriate to the Chronicle either thematically or narratologically, given their and Kvothe’s tendency to err—which, if we delve into that word’s etymological thickets, literally means “to wander,” as well as to make an error or mistake.  The “wandering” tendency of these novels—a tendency most pushed to its limits in the series-linked novella, The Slow Regard of Silent Things, where there is no singular plot event or narrative shape, only us watching the third-person narrator, Auri (an enigmatic character from the Chronicle), wandering the tunnels beneath the University for the space of a few days—has been remarked upon by Rosu and Rothfuss’ reviewers.  Some regard this wandering as frustrating or a nuisance.  But such wandering is, in fact, part and parcel of the work of the medievalist and book historian.

Archival discovery occurs most often only when the reader allows herself to wander—sometimes aimlessly—among archival objects, lingering in the odd, in-between spaces of manuscript margins, in flyleaves and endleaves, places where readers and owners left their traces—be that in the form of marginal notes and glosses, in pen trials or doodles, in ink smudges or rings of liquid from an ill-placed beverage (Fig. 4).  This is where the tiny, but substantial riches of the medieval literary archive are to be found.  And given the limits of library cataloging and metadata management, these manuscript witnesses are often the only places the evidence of such riches exists.  You often can’t or won’t know what you’re looking for until you find it.  You must do a bit of wandering and sometimes not finding something equates to having, in fact, discovered something, or, as Kvothe puts it “[s]ometimes finding nothing can be finding something” (WMF 378).

Fig. 4. A treasure trove for the book historian: marginalia, scribbles, and readers’ marks in the endleaves of a fifteenth-century manuscript containing the popular medieval travel narrative Mandeville’s Travels and John Lydgate’s historical poem, The Siege of Thebes (Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.4.20).  Reproduced by permission of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge. View the full manuscript at https://mss-cat.trin.cam.ac.uk/manuscripts/uv/view.php?n=R.4.20#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=0&xywh=-1146%2C-1%2C4793%2C3227.  

We can make a ready leap from the book historian or medievalist’s archival wandering to the kind of intellectual wandering required for learning and the pursuit of knowledge in general.  This is in fact one of the hardest lessons Kvothe must learn in one of his most unusual courses at the University, where he is first sent on exploratory bibliographic missions into the Archives by his instructor Elodin in The Wise Man’s Fear.  In Elodin’s course (facetiously named “How Not to Be a Jackass,” and promising to instruct a group of hand-selected students in the  mysterious art of “naming”), Kvothe and his peers are told, on their first day, basically, to go read a book:

Elodin strode toward the large slate mounted on the wall and began to write a list of titles.  His handwriting was surprisingly tidy. “These are important books,” he said.  “Read one of them.”

After a moment, Brean raised her hand.  Then she realized it was pointless as Elodin still had his back to us. “Master Elodin?” she asked hesitantly. “Which one should we read?”

He looked over his shoulder, not pausing in his writing at all. “I don’t care,” he said, plainly irritated. “Pick one.  The others you should skim in a desultory fashion. Look at the pictures. Smell them if nothing else.” He turned back to look at the slate.

The seven of us looked at each other.  The only sound in the room was the tapping of Elodin’s chalk. “Which one is the most important?” I asked.

Elodin made a disgusted noise. “I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t read them.” He wrote En Temerant Voistra on the board and circled it. “I don’t even know if this one is in the Archives at all.” He put a question mark next to it and continued to write. “I will tell you this. None of them are in Tomes. I made sure of that. You’ll have to hunt for them in the Stacks. You’ll have to earn them.”

He finished the last title and took a step back, nodding to himself.  There were twenty books in all.  He drew stars next to three of them, underlined two others, and drew a sad face next to the last one on the list.

Then he left, striding out of the room without another word, leaving us thinking on the nature of names and wondering what we had gotten ourselves into. (WMF 129)

Setting aside for a moment the telling commentary on access suggested by Rothfuss’ decision to delay Kvothe’s first extended licit entry to the Archives until the second book of the series, Elodin’s assignment reads as a lesson in several things at once.  On the one hand, half the challenge—half the point—of Elodin’s bibliographical exercise seems to be in the search, in his students’ learning to navigate and utilize the rich archival resources at their fingertips: “None of [the books] are in Tomes […] You’ll have to hunt for them in the Stacks.  You’ll have to earn them” (my emphases). A “book hunt” is, in fact, precisely what Kvothe’s friend Wil calls this assignment, and this description proves apt, given what Kvothe soon learns is a complicated and often inconsistent method to the Archives’ organizational madness (WMF 132).  As Wil puts it, in response to Kvothe’s suggestion that they divvy up Elodin’s book list, divide-and-conquer style: “You think you can just walk around and find books by yourself?” (WMF 132).

Elodin’s mention of “tomes” and “stacks”—two different physical spaces in the Archives—and Wilem’s laughing remark remind readers of the elaborate institutional organization of the Archives first described in The Name of the Wind.  Tomes, Kvothe recounts, is the reading room of the Archives and the place where students usually study; in Tomes (or “tombs,” as the students refer to it), you can call up books by entering your desired texts or topics into a ledger, and the books will be fetched for you by the roving “scrivs” who see to the Archives’ day-to-day operations.  In Stacks, finding a book—let alone reading it—proves much trickier, which Kvothe’s friends and fellow students (two of whom are also scrivs) like to remind him.  The challenge is partly a matter of quantity, partly a matter of format, cataloguing, and use: “There are so many books in the Archives,” Wil tells Kvothe, “that merely reading all the titles would take you a full span […] Eleven full days without pause for food or sleep” (WMF 133). “There are books without titles too,” he continues,

“And scrolls.  And clays.  And many languages.”

        “What’s a clay?” I asked.

        “Clay tablet,” Wil explained. “They were some of the only things to survive when Caluptena burned. Some have been transcribed, but not all.”

        “All that’s beside the point,” Sim interjected. “The problem is the organization.”

        “Cataloging,” Wil said. “There have been many different systems over the years. Some masters prefer one, some prefer another.” He frowned. “Some create their own systems for organizing the books.”

        I laughed. “You sound like they should be pilloried for it.”

        “Perhaps,” Wil grumbled. “I would not weep over such a thing.”

        Sim looked at him. “You can’t blame a master for trying to organize things in the best way possible.”

“I can,” Wilem said. “If the Archives were organized badly, it would be a uniform unpleasantness we could work with.  But there have been so many different systems in the last fifty years.  Books mislabeled.  Titles mistranslated.”

He ran his hands through his hair, sounding suddenly weary. “And there are always new books coming in, needing to be cataloged.  Always the lazy E’lir in Tombs who want us to fetch for them.  It is like trying to dig a hole in the bottom of a river.”

“So what you’re saying,” I said slowly, “is that you find your time spent as a scriv to be both pleasant and rewarding.”

        Sim muffled a laugh in his hands.

        “And then there are you people.” Wil looked at me, his voice dangerous and low. “Students given the freedom in the Stacks.  You come in, read half a book, then hide it so you can continue later at your own convenience.” Wil’s hands made gripping motions as if clutching at the front of someone’s shirt.  Or perhaps a throat. “Then you forget where you have put the book, and it is gone as surely as if you had burned it.” (WMF 133–34)

Elodin’s selection of books that can only be found by going “hunting” for them in these complicated, conflictingly organized Stacks flags the fact that, by nature of the Archives’ structure and systems of classification and cataloguing, some forms of knowledge, some books, are easier to come by than others.  Kvothe, even before taking Elodin’s class and before his access to the Archives is reinstated, experiences this firsthand during his own furtive forays into the Stacks while prepping for his start-of-term admissions exam.  “Every term,” he recounts,

each master put a selection of books on display in Tomes, the reading room in the Archives.  

There were basic texts for the low-ranking E’lir to study from, with progressively more advanced works for Re’lar and El’the.  Those books revealed what the masters considered valuable knowledge.  Those were the books a clever student studied before admissions. (WMF 68)

Of course, at this point, the only part of the Archives Kvothe can access in his secret expeditions (he sneaks his way into the library by crawling through a system of tunnels and air ducts beneath the University) are the Stacks, which are darker and more deserted than Tomes.  As he describes,         

Tomes was the only well-lit room in the whole building, and during admissions there

were always people there, reading.

So I was forced to find copies of the masters’ texts buried in the Stacks.  You’d be amazed how many versions of the same book there can be.  If I was lucky, the volume I found was identical to the one the master had set aside in Tomes. More often, the versions I found were outdated, expurgated, or badly translated. (WMF 68)

What Kvothe describes here with his account of the books in Tomes is essentially the fantasy version of course reserves—the (typically non-circulating) textbooks a professor sets aside for students in a particular course to use in the library.  His efforts to find acceptable editions of those reserves meanwhile finds its analogue in the modern university student on the hunt for affordable or used copies of required textbooks; cost is a very real barrier to access for many students, including Kvothe, who, almost always strapped for cash, painstakingly allocates the precious little he has for necessary school supplies like paper and ink.

Of course, the Stacks themselves are mystifying for more reasons than just the multiple and sometimes difficult-to-use, “outdated,” “expurgated,” or “badly translated” copies of texts they contain.  At an institutional level, obstacles to access proliferate even among members of the University.  Nowhere is this clearer than in the moment cited earlier in this essay, when Kvothe, having just passed his first admissions exam, gets to enter the Archives for the first time and instinctively heads for the double doors marked STACKS, only to be told by Fela (another scriv and soon-to-be friend of Kvothe), “The stacks are Arcanum only” (NW 275).  Only once Kvothe ascends through the ranks of the Arcanum—moving, fortunately, rather quickly from the novitiate rank of E’lir to Re’lar, official member of the Arcanum whose archival access extends to the Stacks—and only once his access has been officially reinstated (after an older student tricked him into carrying an open flame in among the precious books, resulting in his being banned from the Archives in his first term) can he come to that inner sanctum of learning.

Returning to Elodin’s mysterious assignment, there we can detect several lessons which build upon Elodin’s insistence that his students actively “earn” access to the knowledge contained in the books on his list.  That Elodin resists his students’—and specifically, Kvothe’s—attempts to impose a hierarchy of value on his book list—“Which one is the most important?” Kvothe presses—reinforces his first lesson about the value being in the search, while also teaching a second that seems to have something to do with literary canonicity and the kinds of value often implicitly ascribed to texts deemed “canonical” (or, in this case, worthy of being on display in Tomes).  

Elodin’s books are decidedly not the course reserves-like books in Tomes, those that “[reveal] what the masters considered valuable knowledge.” Instead, Kvothe and his fellow Stacks-scourers find themselves locating and reading a wide array of texts and genres, left to “[speculate] as to why Elodin considered these books important” (WMF 135). Kvothe, who finds nineteen of the twenty books on Elodin’s list, starts off reading with enthusiasm:

I wanted nothing more than to start this class with my best foot forward, and I was determined to read every book he had given us.

The first was a travelogue I found rather enjoyable.  The second was some rather bad poetry, but it was short, and I forced my way through by gritting my teeth and occasionally closing one eye so as to not damage the entirety of my brain.  Third was a book of rhetorical philosophy, ponderously written.

Then came a book detailing wildflowers in northern Atur.  A fencing manual with some rather confusing illustrations.  Another book of poetry, this one thick as a brick and even more self-indulgent than the first.

It took hours, but I read them all.  I even went so far as to take notes on two of my precious pieces of paper.

Next came, as near as I could tell, the journal of a madman.  While it sounds interesting, it was really only a headache pressed between covers.  The man wrote in a tight script with no spaces between the words.  No breaks for paragraphs.  No punctuation.  No consistent grammar or spelling.

That was when I began to skim.  The next day when confronted with two books written in Modegan, a series of essays concerning crop rotation and a monograph on Vintish mosaics, I stopped taking notes.

        The last handful of books I merely flipped through, wondering why Elodin would want us to read a two-hundred-year-old tax ledger from a barony in the Small Kingdoms, an outdated medical text, and a badly translated morality play. (WMF 135)

While Kvothe’s catalogue of this increasingly tedious (and apparently disconnected) array of books primarily works to convey his dwindling enthusiasm for Elodin’s book hunt, the items on this list also tell a story of archival riches, of miscellaneity and mystery—of the challenges (and possibilities) archivists-in-training like Wil and Fela and patrons like Kvothe face within the Archives.  The multigenre list reflects the reality both of the library as a kind of treasure house, a plentiful hoard of all kinds of materials (which, of course, must be accounted for and organized within some kind of system of cataloguing and classification), and that of the literary landscape of the Middle Ages—a landscape populated with a huge variety of literary forms and genres, and to which Rothfuss gives a nod with Kvothe’s reading list.

Oftentimes the complexity and seeming randomness of this landscape, in the world of medieval manuscript studies, applies to the single manuscript.  In my own work, these are the kinds of books that interest me most: books that freely intermingle genres, authors, and textual materials within a single physical space.  In particular I find myself repeatedly fascinated by hybrid books; these were books, created during the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, amidst the gradual spread of print in Europe, that in fact combined within their bindings media and material from across both manuscript and print culture.  Such books, perhaps surprising and unusual to us, were anything but for the medieval or early modern reader.  Medieval people encountered most forms of writing, but especially literary texts, in a manner vastly different from how we are accustomed to encountering them.  A medieval person reading a text like, say, The Name of the Wind, would probably expect to read that text not in its own standalone volume as we are used to; instead, it would likely be read from a book that contained multiple literary (or religious, legal, philosophical, theological, or scientific) texts within it—a kind of book often referred to as a “miscellany.”  The closest modern analogy we have to the medieval miscellany would be something like a literary anthology, a book that contains a collection of texts alongside one another.

But the medieval miscellany, as the name implies, was oftentimes much more miscellaneous than the modern anthology.  Many miscellanies (or “compilations,” as they’re also called) did adhere to more or less strict compilational principles; manuscript compilers and bookbinders selected texts sometimes with an overarching thematic, generic, or (less commonly) authorial organizational framework in mind, and scribes often copied texts with a particular order in mind.  But there were other reasons you might bind texts together in the Middle Ages.  It might, for instance, be a matter of convenience, or protection and preservation.  Smaller booklets of parchment, perhaps containing a shorter work in verse, were much more prone to damage, wear, and page loss if left separate or unbound; stitching them into a larger volume with other texts helped protect against those eventualities.  A given manuscript owner or bookbinder might just happen to have a miscellaneous collection of texts that they wished to have bound for these reasons, and so no structural or thematic principle necessarily applied; by the same token, since texts were often written and exchanged in booklet form and acquired gradually, the texts that appear bound together in a miscellany might (rather excitingly) reflect the literary tastes and proclivities of a given book owner, offering a tiny glimpse into his or her intellectual biography.

I offer this digression on multigenre medieval books because, again, I think Rothfuss deliberately engages with an idea of the medieval (and Renaissance) book which has important implications for Kvothe’s search for information about the Chandrian.  The arcane, the miscellaneous, the multigeneric, the malleable and manuscript-based all factor into Kvothe’s quest, which leads him back through history to the time when the University was first founded, and the Arcanum was not merely a community of students and scholars, but in fact intimately involved with matters of religion.  It is only through encountering, deep within the Stacks, books and manuscripts whose contents appear to have been altered in order to expurgate any (apparently heretical) mentions of one particular sect that Kvothe begins to realize the larger stakes in the construction of history, culture, and knowledge that a place like the Archives has.

Leaving, for a moment, these bigger-picture considerations, it’s worth noting that despite his eventual boredom and frustration at reading across Elodin’s booklist (itself a bizarre kind of miscellany or assemblage, though, as we’ve now seen, also archivally and historically informed in its treatment of genre), Kvothe still remains excited about the physical and mental gymnastics required to find them in the Stacks: “While I quickly lost my fascination with reading Elodin’s books,” he says, “I still delighted in hunting them down” (WMF 135).  When Elodin fails to show for the class session after Kvothe and the others spent hours “searching and reading” (“nearly fifty hours,” in Kvothe’s case), Kvothe expresses frustration at the “wasted” time, but nevertheless acknowledges that he “emerged from the experience with a solid working knowledge of the Archives.  The most important thing I learned,” he recalls, “was that it was not merely a warehouse filled with books.  The Archives was like a city unto itself” (WMF 135, 137).

The city-like Archives, with its “roads and winding lanes,” its “alleys and shortcuts” and different “neighborhoods,” quickly absorb Kvothe in precisely the ways Elodin, I think, intends.  Kvothe enters the Archives searching for answers about the Chandrian, but even as he fails “to find anything factual about the Chandrian,” this lack of success doesn’t manage to “sour [his] experience.” “As I hunted,” he describes, “I became increasingly distracted by other books I found.  A handwritten medicinal herbal with watercolor pictures of various plants.  A small quarto book of four plays I’d never heard of before.  A remarkably engaging biography of Hevred the Wary” (WMF 140).  In a similar vein, Kvothe’s favorite places in the Stacks quickly become what he calls the “bad neighborhoods,” those “[s]ections of the Archives that were forgotten, or neglected, or simply too troublesome to deal with at the moment.  These were places where books were organized under old catalogs, or under no catalog at all” (WMF 138).  In contrast to what he labels the “good neighborhoods” where “[i]t was nice to go strolling,” “pleasant to go looking for a book and find it exactly where it should be,” the “bad neighborhoods” contain books that are “dusty and disused.” “When you opened one,” Kvothe says, “you might read words no eyes had touched for hundreds of years.” Naturally, it’s these “dark and dusty” “bad neighborhoods” where Kvothe has to apply Elodin’s lessons in search and discovery that he finds most “fascinating.” As he puts it: “[t]here was treasure there, among the dross.”

This narrative of archival discovery and distraction, of Kvothe finding “treasure […] among the dross” tells us that Elodin’s book hunt evidently has instilled in Kvothe the traits of the bibliophile and the book historian. (I wonder if Elodin is not himself a bit of a secret book historian or bibliophile, despite his avowals never to have read any of the books he sends his students in search of.) Kvothe reads widely; he delights in the obscure, the peculiar, and the particular precisely because he has been taught to wander archivally—sometimes without aim—and, by this point in the Chronicle, finally has permission to do so freely.  Kvothe’s only barrier to access to knowledge at this point is the complicated, sometimes conflicting, or entirely absent system of archival organization with the Stacks; but the books and manuscripts (though themselves slippery in the ways we have seen—because of their structure, their layout, their inconsistent orthography or difficult to read languages and scripts) are his for the finding.  “Now that I finally had easy access to the Archives,” he tells Chronicler, “I made up for lost time” (WMF 138).

Kvothe’s archival forays, first for Elodin’s class and later for his own pleasure and edification, are some of the earliest and most important instances where we witness the handling of old books and manuscripts in The Kingkiller Chronicle, and in those instances, we, alongside Kvothe, are taught lessons about how to use archives, what weird and wonderful riches they contain, and the complex interplay of access and obstacles to access found within archival spaces.  But, as mentioned before, we, the readers, meet a manuscript face-to-face from the earliest pages of The Name of the Wind.  We witness Rothfuss’ emphasis on his book as a manuscript, as a text in the making (something which is true at the metatextual level, given the trilogy’s state of incompletion at the time of writing) in both the characters and props with which he starts to build his world. 

One of the earliest named figures we meet in the Chronicle is, appropriately enough, Chronicler—a young man who attends the University several years after Kvothe—and some of the first objects we see are objects explicitly related to manuscript production:  paper, pens, a bottle of wood alcohol for cleaning the pens, a jar of ink with a silver talent hidden within, and a flat leather satchel to protect these writing materials.  Chronicler’s writing accoutrements are objects which, like Kvothe’s rescued book, prove precious, related to commodity and exchange (though not deemed valuable enough to be stolen by the soldiers who rob him in what Chronicler calls “probably the most civil robbery he’d ever been through”) and also his profession: scribe (NW 22). 

Traces of the scribal profession resurface in Kvothe’s description of the city-like Archives in The Wise Man’s Fear.  The more he explores the Archives, the more places and spaces within that building, “featureless, grey, and square as a block” on the exterior, he discovers, which collectively let us glimpse books being made and used in all manners (NW 246).  In the very medieval-sounding Scriptorium he sees         

rows of desks where scrivs toiled over translations or copied faded texts into new books with fresh, dark ink.  The Sorting Hall buzzed with activity as scrivs sifted and reshelved books.

The Buggery was not at all what I expected, thank goodness.  Instead, it proved to be the place where new books were decontaminated before being added to the collection.  Apparently all manner of creatures love books, some devouring parchment and leather, others with a taste for paper or glue.  Bookworms were the least among them […]

Cataloger’s Mew, the Bindery, Bolts, Palimpsest [a favorite term of book historians!], all of them were busy as beehives, full of quiet, industrious scrivs.

But other parts of the Archives were quite the opposite of busy.  The acquisitions office, for example, was tiny and perpetually dark. […]

Tomes was like a great public garden.  Any student was free to come and read the books shelved there.  Or they could submit a request to the scrivs, who would grudgingly head off into the Stacks to find it not the exact book you wanted, then at least something closely related. (WMF 137–38)        

The proliferation of books and the various activities that gather around them, and Rothfuss’ constant reminders that the book before us is, in fact, a manuscript-like book, a physical object that we hold, is one more way in which his particular brand of book historicist medievalism seeps into The Kingkiller Chronicle, much like the scrivs’ “fresh, dark ink” sinking into the paper and parchment as they copy down texts.  His emphasis on the status of his Chronicle as a made textual object, and Kvothe’s own narration as a form of history in the making recalls, in more ways than one, the material culture so crucial to understanding the literature of the Middle Ages.  In my own work, I study not only medieval books and manuscripts themselves, but also the texts contained within where medieval authors, like Rothfuss in The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear, reveal a persistent attentiveness to the materiality of the book.  An author like Geoffrey Chaucer, most well-known for his compendious, generically complex, and somewhat miscellaneous masterwork, The Canterbury Tales, shows us such an attentiveness when he tells us somewhat cheekily in the prologue to one of the more bawdy tales that we are free to “turn the leaf and choose another tale” if we don’t like the one we’re reading.[9]  Literature—in Rothfuss’ mind and in the mind of his medieval predecessors—is thus intimately bound up with the material forms by which it circulates.  Put another way (though this may seem glaringly obvious), histories and stories exist in a large part because of books.

The many values books hold in the micro-archive of the Kingkiller Chronicle, and the obstacles to access, but also preservation, organization, and use that they usher in (and at times, render irrelevant) collectively point to Rothfuss’ broader project in writing the Chronicle, a project which is intimately and creatively related to access.  We see those on the outside of the University—first Kvothe, and later, the moneylender and ex-Arcanum member Devi, who tells him she’ll pay anything if he shares his secret way into the Archives—trying to get into the Archives, to discover its secrets, and struggling even once in with the several barriers to access that permeate this imaginary institutional space.  Rothfuss wishes to open up that access to us, and he does so in a number of important, book-related ways, one of which has to do with the very format in which his books come into our hands.

Fantasy readers are almost always reminded that they are reading fantasy.  Fantasy “knowledge,” its science and secrets, its way of seeing—and knowing—the world is always mediated through book form—be that a mass-market paperback, a trade hardcover, an e-book, or a library book with its taped-on cellophane or laminated wrapping, reminding readers that the dust jacket is not to be removed, that this book is not theirs to do with what they please (in a sense, the modern equivalent of the chained medieval book).  Fantasy books look different from other genres of writing, they announce themselves differently, and readers notice.  One of the best-known examples of this codicological curiosity is to be found in visual correspondences between the mass-market paperback copies of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings I grew up reading and the edition of his translation of the Middle English poems Sir Gawain and the Green KnightPearl, and Sir Orfeo[10] I now assign to students in my classes (Fig. 5).  From the cover art and the physical dimensions of the book to the typesetting to the paper stock, Tolkien’s translations look like works of modern fantasy—or, what we expect modern fantasy books to look like.  

Fig. 5. Side by side: cover art on mass market paperback editions of Tolkien’s The Two Towers from The Lord of the Rings and his translations of three Middle English poems: Sir Gawain and the Green KnightPearl, and Sir Orfeo.  Photographs are my own.

Given the circumstances of the Christmas gift debacle described earlier, I first read The Name of the Wind as an Overdrive loan on my Kindle.  As I read, I met with the usual peculiarities of reading a book—particularly a 700-plus-page novel—electronically.  At any given moment, I had little sense of how much I had read, and especially how much more text followed.  Sometimes I ran into highlights or passages marked by other Kindle readers.  And sometimes, if I accidentally turned one page too many, by the time I’d located my lost spot, the pixels of the e-ink almost magically reconfigured themselves, resulting in a completely different layout of text on the “page.”

These gaps in the experience of reading The Kingkiller Chronicle across different media (as I write this, I’m now the proud owner of the most diminutive, and therefore most affordable mass-market paperback copies of The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear, which present their own miniature meta-commentaries on obstacles to access with those characteristically tight bindings that keep forcing the books to close on themselves) remind me further of another feature Rothfuss seems to lift from medieval literary culture and carefully interweave into his text, and that is the orality of the Chronicle.  The Kingkiller Chronicle is a manuscript-in-the-making—it is bookish to its bones—but a large part of its story is also a story about oral literary (and, by relation, musical) culture.  Kvothe, we must remember, is a student and scholar, a reader of books and searcher-out of arcane secrets; but he is also (and this is intrinsic to his identity as a Romany-like Edema Ruh and as a young man making his way in the world) a musician.  The songs he plays and sings on his lute weave stories of a size and scale not unlike his life-story as narrated to Chronicler.  With Kvothe the consummate performer, it is no surprise that Rothfuss should repeatedly inject reminders that we, like medieval audiences would have, are hearing the Chronicle as well as holding it in our hands.

Perhaps it is this simultaneous bookishness and orality that allow Rothfuss and the characters of The Kingkiller Chronicle to participate most fully and effectively in a serious project related to access, to meditate in such complex and codicologically-sensitive ways on the place of books, archives, and institutions in the construction, preservation, and discovery of knowledge.  

I think back to my own experience of reading and rereading the Chronicle: having access to electronic library loans in the midst of a pandemic made it possible for me to encounter Rothfuss’ stories when accessing them in book form was more difficult, but I would not have known of (let alone been persuaded to read) The Name of the Wind were it not for the enthusiastic oral reviews my siblings shared with me.  And it’s in this spirit of sharing, of opening access—not only to the mysterious, Arcanum-like world of real-world university libraries, archives, and special collections, but to the worlds and ways of seeing the world unique to the world of fantasy literature—that I think The Kingkiller Chronicle most vigorously participates.  As Kvothe cracks open the Archives of the University, that place that smells “of leather and dust, of old parchment and binding glue”— “of secrets”—Rothfuss, in a small but significant way, opens up contemporary archives and the archive of the medieval and early modern literary past to us—whether we are medievalists, book historians, Renaissance scholars, or audience members simply there to hear a good story (WMF 132).


Grace Catherine Greiner completed her doctorate in English Language and Literature at Cornell University, and also holds degrees from Columbia University and the University of Cambridge. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer in medieval English literary studies at the University of Texas at Austin, where she teaches courses on Chaucer, history of the book, Victorian medievalism, ecopoetics and ecocriticism, and the art of love.


[1] Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind (New York: Daw, 2007).

[2] Ibid., The Wise Man’s Fear (New York: Daw, 2011).

[3] Scholarly engagements with the Chronicle at the time of publication include: Stefanie Giebert, “Boxes within boxes and a useless map: Spatial (and temporal) phenomena in the Kingkiller Chronicles [sic],” komparatistik online (2013) 106–114; Anca Rosu, “Magic/Science in Patrick Rothfuss,” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 31:3 (2020): 381–403; and Patrick Schmitz, “‘true Music in the Words”: A Comparative Analysis of the Function of Music in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles” in Music in Tolkien’s Work and Beyond, ed. Julian Eilmann and Friedhelm Schneidewind (Zurich: Walking Tree, 2019) 435–445.

[4] As Rosu suggests, “Rothfuss’s magical knowledge of magic traditions may come from his studies of the Renaissance. His education, according to his website, was lengthy, explorative, and varied, and in an interview at the SCI-FI London Film Festival, he declares himself a ‘professional dabbler’ with a keen interest in alchemy and its philosophical underpinnings. He also emphasizes that the historical period he emulates in the novels is not the Middle Ages but the Renaissance. In another interview, he mentions anthropology as one of his interests. There is a slight possibility that he is only inspired by what we may call a fantasy megatext and that the connection to the Renaissance is indirect. In either case, the evidence in the text suggests Renaissance occult sciences as a model” (“Magic/Science in Patrick Rothfuss,” p. 382).

[5] To this day, new readers admitted to the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford must read and sign an oath (originally in Latin, now read in readers’ mother tongues) wherein they promise, among other things, “not to bring into the Library or kindle therein any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library.”

[6] One such recently completed digitization project aimed at both scholarly and public access is “The Art of Reading in the Middle Ages” project, for which seven European institutions collaborated to create a database of 34,000 new images of medieval items, including manuscripts, books, and coins. View the full database at https://www.europeana.eu/en/exhibitions/the-art-of-reading-in-the-middle-ages. Large- and small-scale digitization efforts continue to be carried out by several key European and American archives and repositories; select notable examples where medieval English manuscripts are concerned include: the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts database (https://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/); the Digital Bodleian (https://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/); the Cambridge Digital Library (https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/); and the Wren Digital Library of Trinity College, Cambridge (https://www.trin.cam.ac.uk/library/wren-digital-library/). All of the digitized materials in these databases are freely viewable by the public.

[7] For a brief account of the Society of Antiquaries, its members, and activities, see Christina Decoursey, “Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries (act. 1586–1607)” in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[8] Medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, perhaps best known for his Canterbury Tales, in another work (Troilus and Criseyde) makes up a classical author, “Lollius,” whose (imaginary) text he claims to be translating from.

[9] In the Chaucerian narrator’s words (speaking of his promise to recount all of the Canterbury pilgrims’ tales to his readers), “I moot reherce / Hir tales alle, be they better or werse, / Or ells falsen som of my mateere. / And therefore, whoso list it nat yheere, / Turne over the leef and chese another tale; / For he shal fynde ynowe, grete and smale, / Of storial thyng that toucheth gentillesse, / And eek moralitee and hoolynesse. / Blameth nat me if that ye chese amys” (“I must tell all of their tales, be they better or worse, or else falsify some of my matter. And therefore, whoever doesn’t wish to hear it, turn over the leaf choose another tale; for he will find enough true things, of every sort, that treat nobility, and also morality and holiness. Don’t blame me if you choose poorly.”) See Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Miller’s Prologue” in The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 66–67, ll. 3173–81.

[10] Anonymous, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo, trans. J. R. R. Tolkien (New York: Del Rey, 1975).


Figure 1. Paste-down from Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, Peniarth MS 392D

Figure 2. Folio 3r from Ithaca, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University, Archives 6400 Misc. Bd MS 145

Figure 3. Folio 174v from Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, MS Gg.4.27.1

Figure 4. Endleaves from Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.4.20

Figure 5. Photographs of cover art from personal copies of the Del Rey editions of Tolkien’s The Two Towers and Sir Gawain and the Green KnightPearl, and Sir Orfeo.


Anonymous. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. Translated by J. R. R. Tolkien. New York: Del Rey, 1975.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Miller’s Prologue.” In The Riverside Chaucer. Edited by Larry D. Benson. Third. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. 66–67.

DeCoursey, Christina. “Society of Antiquaries (Act. 1586-1607).” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2020.

Giebert, Stefanie. “Boxes within Boxes and a Useless Map: Spatial (and Temporal) Phenomena in the Kingkiller Chronicles.” Komparatistik Online, 2013, pp. 106–14.

Rosu, Anca. “Magic/Science in Patrick Rothfuss.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol. 31, no. 3, 2020, pp. 381–403.

Rothfuss, Patrick. The Name of the Wind. Daw Books, Inc., 2007.

—. The Wise Man’s Fear. Daw Books, Inc., 2011.

Schmitz, Patrick. “‘True Music in the Words”: A Comparative Analysis of the Function of Music in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles.” Music in Tolkien’s Work and Beyond, edited by Julian Eilmann and Friedhelm Schneidewind, Walking Tree Publishers, 2019, pp. 435–45.

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