Robin Hobb – Fitz and the Fool

assassins-apprentice-new

Where to start? It feels like a lifetime ago when I read Assassin’s Apprentice, the first of a nine-book series, excluding the Liveship series which ran parallel to the main series. Published in 1995, a year before I was born, I haven’t read every book as it came out, but I did start reading them when I was about the same age as the protagonist, Fitz, in my early teens. With the publication of the last book, Assassin’s Fate, this spring, I finished the story after my exams, closing almost a decade relationship with the characters of the Farseer universe. Not only is this real-life timeline epic, the fictional timeline Hobb uses is also epic, in all senses of the word. She takes us through the whole life of our beloved Fitz, and his “Beloved”, The Fool, from scrawny teen to world weary old man. Prolonged by the ancient, royal Farseer magic of the Skill, Fitz lives longer than most of the other characters, appearing no older than his oldest child in her middle-ages. This really is a character whose life you live to the fullest.

Down the centuries, artists and writers have struggled to put onto canvas and page the reality of the world, of nature, of beauty, of the emotions. It is an immortal task but one which Hobb has undertaken profitably, but which I, even in the simple duty of reflecting how I feel and how I have felt about reading her books, am struggling to do. So, I will trace the shadows of the story, giving you the essence of the book and the characters and a glimpse, to the best of my ability, of the feelings I have for each of them. If you do not wish the series to be spoiled, I’d suggest a quick retreat with the knowledge that this was, by far and away, the fullest, deepest and greatest fantasy, nay, book(s), I have ever read. Through the character’s I have felt every emotion I have ever felt, and although it is in some way an illusion of emotion, for who could ever truly seek and relish sadness, the tears and smiles brought about by these books immortalise them.

His full name is Prince FitzChivalry, the “Fitz” part indicating he was born on the wrong side of the blankets, and the “Chivalry” part from the name of his father, the eldest son of King Shrewd. Shrewd is king of the Six Duchies, the largest region in Hobb’s universe, and his family is the Farseer family, who are recognised by their names, which are taken from a specific virtue, and the inherited ability to “Skill”, a magic of the mind which allows users to communicate with each other, as well as influence the thoughts of others. Although not limited to the Farseer family, it is rare that laymen have the ability, and it manifests most potently in the royal family. The other magic in this universe is the Wit, the ability to communicate with animals. The Witted attach themselves to one animal, and if it dies, often return to a similar animal of that species, one that suits their personality and whom they get along with. This ability is seen as debased and immoral, particularly since a group called the Piebalds, before our hero is born, killed a king and forever tarnished the reputation of those folks who had the Wit. The Wit was also never associated with the Farseer royal family, so never had the high reputation of the Skill. in the last trilogy in particular, the Wit is rarely referred to as Fitz is the only significant character with the ability in the story by that time. However, the Wit is the principal magic the reader is familiar with at the beginning because it is the first magic Fitz is conscious of due to his bonding with a dog, and, when the dog is taken away from him by the conscious and fatherly stable master Burrich, who fears the price he’d pay if Fitz was discovered to have the treasonous magic, he bonds with a wolf cub.

Although their relationship begins as antagonistic, Fitz and his wolf, Nighteyes form an inseparable bond. We cannot help but fall in love with the wolf’s perpetual focus on the present and disregard for the past. To live in the “Now” is the life of a wolf, and the simplicity and grounded nature of the animal focuses Fitz with the awful gravity of sensibility. The first two trilogies feature the adventures of this pair around the Six Duchies as they do the dirty work of the royal family. Trained as an assassin, in secret, by the bastard brother of King Shrewd, Chade, Fitz becomes a weapon for the Farseer’s but, unfortunately for him, a disposable one. This becomes an important fact as not long into the trilogy he becomes accused of treason and is suspected by everyone, including his foster father, Burrich, to have died. Even after having saved the Duchies, and helping the new King, Verity, reawaken dragons into the world and defend the Farseers throne from Outislander enemies, Fitz is forced to abandon the capital, his pregnant partner, Molly, and all the remnants of his old life. Time passes between each trilogy as Fitz and his wolf claim a hunter’s cabin near a forest and spend years of their life abandoned and rejected. The heartbreak I went through during this period is hard to rationalize and Hobb, knowingly, tests the emotional endurance of the reader.

Fitz is time and time again recalled to help the Duchies and, as the “Catalyst”, the man who changes the world for a certain generation, he is the tool of the “White Prophet” of the same generation. The White Prophet for Fitz also happens to be his closest friend, The Fool, or “Beloved” as he is later known. The two change the world for the better but in the last trilogy they come up against the arch enemies of the Farseer universe. The journey begins as a quest of vengeance, to wreak havoc on the ones who have caused the world and The Fool so much pain. It transforms into a rescue mission as Fitz’s youngest is captured, and finally ends up as “the final hunt” for the pair. By this time, Nighteyes has died, living on only as a whisper of his former self within Fitz. Fitz, Nighteyes, and The Fool complete their quest, save everyone but themselves, help everyone but themselves, and then find a proper resting place to pass from their injuries. In typical fashion, the self-sacrifice and selflessness of the main character is truly heart-wrenching, as Hobb rarely lets Fitz be happy, or content with his life, despite those around him loving him, which he cannot see.

Although this hasn’t even hinted at the depth of the narrative, I hope it has shown somewhat of the very human story Hobb is capable of writing. She not only indulges the fantasy genre in clever and interesting magic, in a reserved and limited fashion, but most profitably, she explores the human condition to fictional events, how ordinary people might cope with extraordinary circumstances. It is that aspect which makes the books so engaging; we can empathise and pity Fitz to no end, and Hobb knows it and exploits this link through the suffering of our hero. The book’s achilees heel also adds to this empathetic link; it is evident in the writing that the author is female, as the male characters are overly emotional and fluent in their expression of emotions, particularly with each other, as, from my own experience, even between the best of friends, does not happen to this extent. However, at the same time, it allows the reader in. It allows us to more comprehensively understand the protagonist and his relationships.

Another point I would add, in regard to the final trilogy, is the emergence of a second narrator. Throughout the first two trilogies, and the first book of the last trilogy, Fitz is the only narrator. It is through the first person that our empathy with Fitz strengthens but in the final two books, Hobb allows his youngest daughter, who his captured, more and more of the chapters to tell from her perspective. Although it is perhaps childish of me, I felt almost betrayed, that the daughter, Bee, was stealing Fitz away from me. That every chapter with her was a chapter lost of our hero. I hadn’t known her nor ever could know her as well as Fitz, and the introduction of this new perspective added an unwelcome change of pace. This won’t stop me reading the books again in the future, and I understand Hobb’s decision to afford Bee half of the chapters to tell her own story, isolated from the other characters of the books, but it did not add anything, in my opinion, to the series. It did not want me to pick up the book. What it did make me do was savour the moments we were given with Fitz, and look forward to the familiar thoughts and habits of our beloved Farseer prince.

The most profound moment in the whole series has to be that moment when Fitz is finally recognised for all that he had done for the Farseer family, for all three King’s he’d served, and for the Six Duchies he had protected. This comes in the second book of the final trilogy and I struggle to choke back the tears after each time I re-read the small chapter. The great sadness of Fitz was that he never received any recognition but from the one or two people who also knew his tale. To finally see him greeted by the warm rapture he always deserved, to hear the heartfelt words of his long gone King, who pronounced Fitz heir if the hour beckoned it so, was an indescribable moment of happiness. Such a feeling sounds mad isolated from the grand and great story of Fitz and The Fool, but for those of you that have read the series I’m sure you too understand, and went through, this experience.

The series is a marathon and it will certainly leave you breathless by the end, yet, as I look back, it has softened my own edges and influenced my own emotions vicariously through this quasi-biography of Prince FitzChivalry Farseer, the fictional character whose life I feel I have observed from an ivory tower like an invisible father. It is sad to leave him and the Farseer universe behind, and I doubt I ever will, for as The Fool says, “all know that tales never end, and the happy ending is but a moment to catch one’s breath before the next disaster.”

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