21 June 2011

Wizard's First Rule, Chapter 1

The Sword of Truth series of books by Terry Goodkind has most of the hallmarks of the fantasy genre: magical swords, damsels in distress, fire-breathing dragons, and a chosen hero. On the strength of these staples and a distinctive narrative voice, the first book, Wizard's First Rule was highly successful. Each of the succeeding ten books built on that success by dishing up more of the same winning formula.

Distinctively, however, the books began to increasingly incorporate more and more Objectivism, the philosophy created by Ayn Rand. Goodkind is an unapologetic Objectivist, and with each successive volume in the series, they increasingly began to illustrate those values. By the end of the series, the great villain is the Imperial Order, a monstrous empire that advocates altruism and communism, while hero Richard fights for capitalism and the virtue of selfishness.

I already dished out some hurting to The Sword of Truth in this essay, but now I'm going to look in-depth at the books. First up on the line is that first effort, the only semi-crazy Wizard's First Rule.

If you have the book (hey wow what is this), you can follow along week by week, as I do one chapter and then the next. I will spoil the future for you, though, so be warned!

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We begin with the protagonist, Richard Cypher. He's a simple woods guide, and he sees a vine.

It was an odd-looking vine. Dusky variegated leaves hunkered against a stem that wound in a stranglehold around the smooth trunk of a balsam fir. Sap drooled down the wounded bark, and dry limbs slumped, making it look as if the tree were trying to voice a moan into the cool, damp morning air. Pods stuck out from the vine here and there along its length, almost seeming to look warily about for witnesses.

Look at Terry Goodkind writing! He is writing all kinds of words there, with a bitchload of imagery and all kinds of literary devices! He is writing so hard for you! He's got the pathetic fallacy all up in your face!

Okay, so the first paragraph is overwritten. Trust me, you still better take the time to appreciate it. These first bits are the last time that Goodkind is going to trouble himself to put out this kind of effort. He's much more comfortable with cliche, which combines with crude emotional manipulation to churn out his reams of books. Don't look for a whole lot more "variegation" in the future. Goodkind has a formula, and he'll soon be using it exclusively.

It was the smell that first had caught his attention, a smell like the decomposition of something that had been wholly unsavory even in life. Richard combed his fingers through his thick hair as his mind lifted out of the fog of despair, coming into focus upon seeing the vine. He scanned for others, but saw none. Everything else looked normal. The maples of the upper Ven Forest were already tinged with crimson, proudly showing off their new mantle in the light breeze. With nights getting colder, it wouldn't be long before their cousins down in the Hartland Woods joined them. The oaks, being the last to surrender to the season, still stoically wore their dark green coats.

Don't worry too much about remembering these places in Westland. It won't be too long before Richard departs these areas forever.

The geography of these books is fairly fuzzy. Goodkind drew a map himself for the first and second book, but he refused to do so for the next nine in the series, and the map quickly became irrelevant. Generally speaking, he adopted the flat earth strategy, bounding his little countries with oceans and mountains and vagueness. What happens if you get on a boat and sail west out of Westland? It's a mystery!

Having spent most of his life in the woods, Richard knew all the plants-if not by name, by sight. From when Richard was very small, his friend Zedd had taken him along, hunting for special herbs. He had shown Richard which ones to look for, where they grew and why, and put names to everything they saw. Many times they just talked, the old man always treating him as an equal, asking as much as he answered. Zedd had sparked Richard's hunger to learn, to know.
This vine, though, he had seen only once before, and not in the woods. He had found a sprig of it at his father's house, in the blue clay jar Richard had made when he was a boy. His father had been a trader and had traveled often, looking for the chance exotic or rare item. People of means had often sought him out, interested in what he might have turned up. It seemed to be the looking, more than the finding, that he had liked, as he had always been happy to part with his latest discovery so he could be off after the next.

Richard has spent most of his life in the woods. He will often (very often) call himself a "simple woods guide." And yet he is extremely eloquent, philosophical, and knowledgeable (except for the MacGuffins of magic that move the plot). Most peasants of a medieval society who spent their lives in the woods would tend to have a little rougher social graces and be a little more limited than Richard, especially since he is not a big reader (we only ever see him read two books and many official documents).

Now, it's true that Richard's father is a trader and his brother is a courtier and his best friend is an elite warrior and his mentor is the only wizard (Richard is the underachiever of the group). All these elite people around a person tend to make them a little broader. But then that just undercuts his faux humility - but I guess it isn't as impressive to save the world if you're more than a simple woods guide.

From a young age, Richard had liked to spend time with Zedd while his father was away. Richard's brother, Michael, was a few years older, and having no interest in the woods, or in Zedd's rambling lectures, preferred to spend his time with people of means. About five years before, Richard had moved away to live on his own, but he often stopped by his father's home, unlike Michael, who was always busy and rarely had time to visit. Whenever his father went away, he would leave Richard a message in the blue jar telling him the latest news, some gossip, or of some sight he had seen.

We're on the first page, but we're already seeing big billboards about the plot. The wise old man Zedd can't just be a wise old man. Brother Michael doesn't visit his father, so he must be a bad guy.

Also notice that this jar is a blue jar. We've dropped the fancy language, so it's not cerulean or dusky. Didn't take long, did it?

Anyway, blah blah blah... Richard finds a sprig of vine in the jar, and for three weeks he looks for the vine. Eventually he finds it in the Ven Forest, near the boundary.

So, this doesn't make very much sense. His father was a trader, which means he must go from one populated area to another. Why was he going to the unpopulated haunted Ven Forest that bordered the deadly boundaries of the kingdom? What opportunities for trade existed in an area that had no people but a whole lot of danger?

That's when the vine bit him.
One of the pods struck out and hit the back of his left hand, causing him to jump back in pain and surprise. Inspecting the small wound, he found something like a thorn embedded in the meat of the gash. The matter was decided. The vine was trouble. He reached for his knife to dig out the thorn, but the knife wasn't there. At first surprised, he realized why and reprimanded himself for allowing his depression to cause him to forget something as basic as taking his knife with him into the woods. Using his fingernails, he tried to pull out the thorn. To his rising concern, the thorn, as if alive, wriggled itself in deeper. He dragged his thumbnail across the wound, trying to snag the thorn out. The more he dug, the deeper it went. A hot wave of nausea swept through him as he tore at the wound, making it bigger, so he stopped. The thorn had disappeared into the oozing blood.

Ah, yes. This plant is moving, but the big surprise here is that you forgot your knife, Richard. You live in a world where there is no magic - where even the rumors of magic are kept to whispers and set aside in their own paragraph. You have finally found your mystery vine, and it turns out to be some kind of monster. It moves and sinks a thorn in you, and then the thorn wriggles in deeper into your flesh.

You, Richard, react with "rising concern."

I live in a world without magic. So let me tell you right now that if a vine moved and attacked me, and then a thorn was wiggling magically to attack me further, I would be more than concerned. I would be bugging the fuck out.

Looking about, Richard spotted the purplish red autumn leaves of a small nannyberry tree, laden with its crop of dark blue berries. Beneath the tree, nestled in the crook of a root, he found what he sought: an aum plant. Relieved, he carefully snapped off the tender stem near its base, and gently squeezed the sticky, clear liquid onto the bite. He smiled as he mentally thanked old Zedd for teaching him how the aum plant made wounds heal faster. The soft fuzzy leaves always made Richard think of Zedd. The juice of the aum numbed the sting, but not his worry over being unable to remove the thorn. He could feel it wriggling still deeper into his flesh.
Richard squatted down and poked a hole in the ground with his finger, placed the aum in it, and fixed moss about the stem so it might regrow itself.

If, after I found a monster vine and possessed thorn, I happened to find some eucalyptus nearby, I would not care. I would not smile as I remembered my buddy who taught me about eucalyptus. My thoughts would instead be, "Omigod omigod that vine fucking moved and now I can't get this demon thorn out!" Richard is, it seems, mildly worried.

This is the start of what will be a pattern: incredible unrealistic reactions from characters.

So blah blah blah, Richard sees something big and red with wings fly overhead. Golly, what could it be? Still, this sighting of some nightmarish impossible monster doesn't bother him. He chills for a while.

Winded, Richard slumped down on a granite boulder at the side of the trail, absently snapping off dead twigs from a sapling beside him while he stared down at Trunt Lake below. Maybe he should go tell Michael what had happened, tell him about the vine and the red thing in the sky. He knew Michael would laugh at the last part. He had laughed at the same stories himself.
No, Michael would only be angry with him for being up near the boundary, and for going against his orders to stay out of the search for the murderer. He knew his brother cared about him or he wouldn't always be nagging him. Now that he was grown, he could laugh off his brother's constant instructions, though he still had to endure the looks of displeasure.
Richard snapped off another twig and in frustration threw it at a flat rock. He decided he shouldn't feel singled out. After all, Michael was always telling everyone what to do, even their father.
He pushed aside his harsh judgments of his brother; today was a big day for Michael. Today he was accepting the position of First Councilor. He would be in charge of everything now, not just the town of Hartland anymore, but all the towns and villages of Westland, even the country people. Responsible for everything and everyone. Michael deserved Richard's support, he needed it; Michael had lost a father, too.

Let me pause here to praise the egalitarian nature of Westland. This poor benighted land is not under a feudal system, which will make it singular in the world of Terry Goodkind. Almost everywhere else is ruled by royalty or other hereditary groups (although I believe a few tribal people are ruled by "elders.") The son of a country trader has risen to become what is essentially their President.

Despite this marvel and excellent example to the rest of the world, and even though it's the only system Richard has ever known, you will never see him question the rigid and vicious hierarchies of the other lands he goes to visit. It's very sad, particularly when he has such immediate personal knowledge of the system.

Anyway, Richard sees someone on the other side of the lake.

He hopped down off the rock, tossing the twigs aside, and took a few steps forward. The figure followed the path into the open, at the edge of the lake. It wasn't Chase; it was a woman, a woman in a dress. What woman would be walking around this far out in the Ven Forest, in a dress? Richard watched her making her way along the lakeshore, disappearing and reappearing with the path. She didn't seem to be in a hurry, but she wasn't strolling slowly either. Rather, she moved at the measured pace of an experienced traveler. That made sense; no one lived anywhere near Trunt Lake.
Other movement snatched his attention. Richard's eyes searched the shade and shadows. Behind her, there were others. Three, no, four men, in hooded forest cloaks, following her, but hanging back some distance. They moved with stealth, from tree to rock to tree. Looking. Waiting. Moving. Richard straightened, his eyes wide, his attention riveted.
They were stalking her.
He knew immediately: this was the third child of trouble.

Ah, our first glimpse of vicious D'Haran soldiers.

Let me tell you a secret, folks. Richard will, some day very soon, be in charge of these soldiers. So as we move into the book and you see them depicted as monstrous raping murderers, keep that in mind. Because they will be seen as absolutely vicious scum right up until the moment that Richard is in charge.

Til next time!

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