Patrick Rothfuss Reread

Rothfuss Reread: Speculative Summary 7: “There isn’t anything worse than the Ctheah!” Speculations on the Ctheah

We’re half way through our excessively detailed re-read of Patrick Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear, and we’re going to pause here for another speculative summary. After we’ve summed up some of the speculation we’ll be moving on. These posts assume you’ve read all of both books The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear, and they are absolutely full of wild speculative spoilers for all of both books. Please don’t go beyond the cut unless you want that!

Abbreviations: NW = The Name of the Wind. WMF = The Wise Man’s Fear. DT = Day Three, the forthcoming final volume. K = Kvothe or Kote when I can’t figure out what to call him and I’m feeling Kafkaesque. MT: Myr Tariniel. D = Denna

Useful links: The Sleeping Under the Wagon post, in which there are lots of theories. The re-read index. The map.

We will have one more speculative summary posts after this one, on Master Ash. Then we’ll get on with WMF from the meeting with Felurian.

The Ctheah

Lions Rampart wants to know why the Ctheah is there at all:

I would love to know why the reader was exposed to the Cthaeh. As a character, the Cthaeh is amazing. A manifest of evil and grace with no apparent tangent agenda is always fun. But I felt that the argument with Bast and Chronicler was a story derailment on purpose. The argument of fate and the ability to change it at first seemed so far off the path to Kvothe’s tale, but maybe fate is at the heart of his story. Kvothe’s interaction with the Cthaeh is brief and fleeting, but I can get on board with Bast’s opinion that a meer sentence from the Cthaeh is more that enough to affect one’s life, as it changes view, motive and reaction. What in those few sentences would derail Kvothe to actually affect him in the long run, and in fact, affect the story? Simple or complex, the Cthaeh could be one, both or neither, simply a rock on the road or a compass.

Daedos thinks the Ctheah is the real enemy:

I definitely think the Cthae is the “enemy” spoken of during the creation war (or someone that controls it). We are told that seven were poisoned and that only one didn’t betray his city (not sure who this is – could somehow be Lanre).

So? Who protects the worlds from the Cthae’s poison? The Sithe. Who do the Chandrian fear? The Sithe. We haven’t been told anything about the Sithe other than their occupation – guarding the Cthae’s tree and killing those who come into contact with it. Like Kvothe (another parallel between him and a mythical / legendary figure) and the Chandrian.

Mr Awesome has a good point:

I think that I prefer the Cthaeh to Haliax. A sadistic world is better than no world at all. I hope that Rothfuss outlines a similar argument in his book at some point.

Greyhood connects it with Puppet:

The Cthaeh is a story-teller. (A central theme.) One with a particular style, and with a particular purpose. It uses stories to write stories. By telling K about D, he is writing the story of K’s life. How? Because it can see what it needs to say to make a certain outcome inevitable. This is like the magic writing that becomes true once you read it. What is the effect of someone speaking to the Cthaeh? They become its puppet.

Hm. That reminds me of a character named…Puppet! Puppet is also a story teller. He actually uses puppets to tell the stories. (I think this is a bizarre hidden-in-plain-sight device. His actual puppetry somehow distracts us from the deeper significance of his nickname.) And what was the story the puppets told? A young woman being struck to the ground by a priest on a mission. She even begs him at some point.

The mysterious thing about this is that he tells this story before the Cthaeh tells K the same story about D!

So I wonder if Puppet has one-upped the Cthaeh. This is like time-travel. It’s conundrum-ridden. Does the Good Seer’s story trump the Bad Seer’s story, who also must have seen the Good Seer’s story of trumping his story? Or are there two more levels to this I-know-that-you-know-that-I-know-that-you-know-that-I-know…

Wastmarch continued on these lines:

that they at least are the symbolic leaders of the two factions that have fighting since the beginning of the creation war. That I think they are Teccam and Iax is a stretch, admittedly, but I definitely agree that they are foils in an actual sense, given their shared seeing/listening/shaping ability. The Cthaeh scoffs at being called an Oracle by K, meaning he sees himself as much more than that, like a Shaper. Puppet seems to be more laid back about it, likes to listen, and tells stories.

DislexicRiter has an interesting thought on what the Ctheah’s power might be, not so much seeing the future as shaping the stories people will tell:

Maybe the Ctheah (while confined to Fae) with unknown magic (a knack?) is able to change/shape naratives as they travel through the Four Cornners population.

Daedos thinks it might have caused the Chandrian signs:

I think their signs come from the Cthaea. We know the Cthaeh is poisonous (probably both literally and figuratively). We know the betrayers of the seven cities were poisoned by “the enemy”. It stands to reason that the Chandrian are the betrayers (Lanre is among them and has reportedly visited the Cthaeh), and they have been altered somehow by the Cthaeah (bitten?).

Greyhood connects it with the Book of Genesis:

The Tree of Knowledge (of Good and Evil) that occasions the fall [the Cthaeh];

Herelle has a cool thought:

because the Chandrian are called Rhinta in Ademre and the flower of the Chteah is called Rhinna, which is a panacea, they could have had it and that´s why they are immortal. Apart from the fact that Haliax himself should be immortal because of Selitos curse already it makes sense to me. Maybe Cinder stole it from the Chteah that´s why he (?) is still angry (“did me a wrong turn once”).

That really fits.

Mr Awesome:

If the Cthaeh is a ’broken’ tree, was it whole at some point? That must have been long ago, if so.

Shalter quotes “no more a tree than a man is a chair” and concludes

the Cthaeh is some sort of creature that has been confined to the tree.

Greyhood wonders what it was like before:

What if the Cthaeh was like a skin dancer before they caught it. He would take over people’s bodies temporarily and they would speak disaster into their friends ears, and then it would move on. I somehow doubt it was a guy.

Artful Magpie has an interesting speculation:

Okay, so the Creation War. According to Skarpi’s story, Lanre and Lyra and Selitos all fought on the same side at first, defending the great cities of the now-lost empire from their great enemies…enemies never specifically named. In the battle of Drossen Tor, when Lanre slew the uber-Draccus and was killed and brought back to life by Lyra, the “enemy was set behind the doors of stone.”

WHO was that enemy? Who was the “other guy” in the Creation War? I wonder…could it have been the Cthaeh?

Except that the Ctheah isn’t behind the Doors of Stone, it’s sitting in a tree being malicious.

Mr Awesome:

The Creation War was Namers vs. Shapers. We don’t have anything that suggests the Cthaeh was a Shaper…

We also know that “Iax spoke the the Cthaeh before he stole that moon, and that sparked the entire creation war”.

Thus the Cthaeh is definitely not a Shaper.

The Enemy is Iax. Felurian says that the one who “is shut beyond the doors of stone” is the same person who “he stole the moon and with it came the war”.

Artful Magpie:

there is still nothing that says that the Ultimate Enemy pulling all of the strings cannot be the Cthaeh. It sparked the Creation War. It poisoned Lanre, turning him into Haliax. It is the precursor of all doom everywhere, according to Bast and the Fae…

Shalter:

I picture the Ctheah as being the one causing the Shaper/Namer war and probably interfering on both sides. The game is more beautiful by getting everyone else to do the dirty pieces for you (or so the Ctheah might think.)

N8love:

I picture the Ctheah as being the one causing the Shaper/Namer war and probably interfering on both sides. The game is more beautiful by getting everyone else to do the dirty pieces for you (or so the Ctheah might think.)

Herelle:

maybe Fae was created as a prison for the Chteah and that was the trigger for the Creation War. Could be the Chteah was responsible for the Battle at Drossen Tor which led to his imprisonment and the creation of Fae and then the Creation War. The tree itself is like a prison in a prison, making sure nobody comes close to the Chteah. How better to isolate someone than by making a whole new world? Until now we only speculated that the shapers created things and especially Fae just for fun, but they might have had a reason for creating Fae then. And certainly the confinement of a creature like the Chteah was disputed which would be a much better reason for a war than just the creation of some playground world called Fae.

The Sithe are a fraction of the Fae people who are responsible for guarding the tree. At the same time they are hunting the Chandrian, so are they some kind of Fae warriors?

This works with the excessive way Bast reacts to K’s mention of it. But as GBrell points out:

We know that the Cthaeh talked to Iax before he stole the moon (if we believe Bast), so it likely predated the creation of Fae.

But he goes on:

what if his creation of Fae was to trap the Cthaeh? We know that the Fae-people (at least some of them) predate the creation of Fae-realm, but we don’t know the origin of the Fae people (or how they relate to the pre-humans).

I’ve always been struck with a weird vibe by the Fae, one of constrained will. Were the Sithe created to guard the Cthaeh (either pre- or post-creation of Fae-realm)? What keeps them performing their job? Is it imperative? Is it a choice?

Interesting point that was brought up a couple threads ago: we always assume that the listener in Hespe’s story is Teccam – who could also be Taborlin/Tehlu – but there is no Cthaeh analogue in the story. The character that we paint as the white hat (if only Jax had listened to him) is the one who gives him the advice, albeit seemingly unintentionally, that lets him steal the moon. Going further, this either means that a) Hespe’s story omits the Cthaeh; b) Hespe’s story merges the Cthaeh with Teccam; c) the Cthaeh and Teccam are the same; or d) the Cthaeh appeared and we didn’t catch it.

The only other character in the story (besides Jax and Ludis) is the Tinker and it’s perhaps telling that his “speaking” to Jax started him on the path that led him to steal the moon. Isn’t that the predestination attributed to both Tinkers and Cthaeh? The ability to provide something that will be useful in/affect the future (the strawberry wine, the rope, etc.; a rhinna flower that starts a war). We seem to assume that Tinkers are a force for good; what if they’re not? What if they are playing an incredibly long con (just like the Cthaeh appears capable of)?

Westmarch thinks we shouldn’t believe Bast:

That parenthetical is very important, because Bast believes that from stories he’s been told of the Cthaeh, and we know that not all stories are true. Kvothe handled Bast’s dread of the Cthaeh so nonchalantly in response it makes me believe that he knows something Bast does not.

The theory I’ve laid out before is that we do not have two prehistoric malevolent forces in Iax and the Cthaeh, but a single one, Iax. He at length becomes the Cthaeh through some corruption, perhaps the very foresight he gains. Through stories passed down years, and his own influence, he obscured his true history (most likely to escape imprisonment.)

and Shalter builds on that:

The Cthaeh being essentially Iax’s mouthpiuece to the world while most of him sits imprisoned would be an interesting twist. It could go either way on that one (Cthaeh is a mouthpiece to Iax or Iax was a puppet to the Cthaeh) both could be an interesting story.

RobTCore asks:

What direct evidence do we have of the Cthaeh’s evil intent? What if the intent is more in line with the Amyr’s own motto – “For the greater good?”

I don’t disagree that the effects of interacting with the Cthaeh are misery and strife, but is the creature simply causing suffering for its own sake, or is there an ultimate goal in mind?

To mangle Freud: “What does the Cthaeh want?

and Shalter responds:

At this point we only have Bast’s word for it that the goals of the Cthaeh are malicious. It could be trying for a “best of all possible worlds” and just has to do a lot of bad things to get there.
It is interesting to see how the intent of the story changes if we ascribe various goals to the various actors.

Mr Awesome thinks Teccam’s razor makes the Ctheah evil:

To some extent, this is an unanswerable question. It’s nonfalsifiable, as any objection can be responded to by asserting that the Cthaeh presented itself that way in order to manipulate Kvothe or the Faen, perhaps in some unmentioned and indetectable way.

However, I still think there are substantial problems with any theory that doesn’t believe the Cthaeh is malevolent.

1. The Cthaeh killed the butterflies. Rothfuss doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who thinks that insects have absolutely no moral value. Killing the butterflies is almost certainly of no service to any greater good. Therefore the Cthaeh is almost certainly evil, or if not evil at least what is generally thought of as evil.

2. To say that the Cthaeh is secretly good and is only causing bad things for the greater good assumes that the Cthaeh is constrained so that it can only cause the greater good by causing bad things, which isn’t plausible.

When you’re omniscient, it’s unlikely that you’d have to adopt such a specific role in order to manipulate the world around you. Imagine if Maud’Dib had time to learn of every possible prescient outcome, instead of only the one which lead to the Golden Path. Given the complexity of all dynamic systems, it seems like he’d have been able to create a utopia within only a few dozen years. Maud’Dib, of course, failed, but it’s emphasized within the Dune books that his failures were largely caused by his inability to percieve ALL of the possible futures in time for him to act to cause those futures to come about. If the Cthaeh is like an uber Maud’Dib who can choose between all possible futures and is aware of all of those futures, then it would be able to cause the good outcome without causing all the suffering along the way.*

Therefore the consistency of the Cthaeh’s actions with bad outcomes suggests malicious inten rather than some mysterious hidden purpose.

Reasonably Important Sidebar:
It’s intuitively implausible that any non omniscient being would act so consistently if it were dedicatedly pursuing a certain end. It seems likely that the Cthaeh would have varied behavior if it had to adapt to external circumstances on a case by case basis.

The Cthaeh therefore either doesn’t care about any ultimate end and is concerned only with the short term gratification of its evil desires, or it percieves itself as all powerful and so it thinks it can cause every possible instance of suffering.

Of course, there’s a third option: the Cthaeh could also know about the limits of its predictive ability and simply not care, because it knows that worrying about what you can’t control is silly. I think this is the most likely. It can’t cause total evil and it knows it, but it’ll do its best to try.

*This assumes that the Cthaeh can see and choose between all possible futures, rather than assuming that the Cthaeh is just a pawn of fate; I know. The former assumption is necessary to make sense of the Cthaeh’s intentions though, so I think the assumption is justified.

and I kind of do too, if only because I dislike typing its name so much. Nothing so hard to spell could possibly be benign!

and Shalter has a really good point:

I agree that the butterfly killing signals “evilness” on the part of the Cthaeh. I suspect it also serves a purpose—call it the butterfly effect. The buttflies give the Cthaeh a method of exceeding some effect upon the outside world. It could know for example that Felurian would have spent 1 second looking at this particular butterfly and by it not being there she later is slightly early to something and so on

No matter how much the Sithe try to prevent interactions with the Ctheah, it’s interacting and it can predict how those interactions will work out on subtle levels.

Sabotenda queries whether it’s telling the truth about omniscience:

has anyone mentioned the possibility that the Cthaeh is lying about its prescience? What better way to spread mischief and misfortune than to lie? I know it can at least read the past, with its specific knowledge of K’s life, but has it said anything that has come to pass, or even anything about the future in the first place? Even then, if you’ve got an encyclopedic knowledge of someone, you can usually predict pretty accurately what they’ll do in reaction to something you say.

and DT considers its plan:

What we know about the Cthaeh
1. It knows all the futures
2. It is trapped in the tree
3. The only way it can effect the world is by manipulating the future actions of someon it comes into contact with

We have also been told that it is responsible for basically every major disaster and that it is totally malicious, however I am skeptical. I feel that it is playing its own game with the possible goal of getting freed from the tree or seeing something interesting happen.

So we must look at what it says to Kvothe very carefully. I wish I had my copy of the book in front of me so I can qoute it. Essentially the Cthaeh tells Kvothe to stick with the Maer to find the Amyr. He tells Kvothe this knowing that the Maer will throw him out and pay for his tuition at the University, in Imre (Amyr-re). Then the Cthaeh laughs about some inside joke only it can understand. The Cthaeh laughing makes sense if Kvothe has been searching for the Order Amyr in their headqauters. Then the Cthaeh goes on to goad Kvothe back into his hunt for the Chandrian and hints at the Adem connection. It might be that the Cthaeh wants Kvothe to learn the sword and the Lethani, but I think that it helps percipitate the falling out of Kvothe and the Maer. The final bit of taunting the Cthaeh lays on Kvothe is about Denna. The Cthaeh wants Kvothe to HATE her patron. I don’t feel like hate was a strong enough word so I put it in caps. Above all the Cthaeh wants Kvothe back in the mortal world and out of the Fae. Since the Cthaeh sent Kvothe to learn the Lethani I don’t think the Lethani is a defense against the Cthaeh’s influence since the Cthaeh would have forseen that. If Bast is to be believed then the most disasterous outcome would be a confrontation between Kvothe and the Chandrian.

Freelancer queries point 3:

We do not know that the Cthaeh is trapped in the tree. We know that there are forces charged with keeping everyone else away from where it is. We know that Kvothe initially mistakes its voice as the tree itself speaking to him. We know that Kvothe never sees it, except as a blur or some sinuous movement about the tree. We know that Felurian was concerned that it might have bitten Kvothe, or that its words may have injured him psychologically. We know that Bast, referring to stage plays among his people, refers to “the Cthaeh’s tree”. Beyond that is conjecture. Some readers have chosen to believe that it has possessed the tree. Some have decided that it is invisible because it wasn’t seen. Some have concluded that it is magically bound to the tree by unidentified means. But there is no explicit information from the text to support any of these suppositions.

Also, you said that the Cthaeh knows “all futures”, but this is not what is written. Bast says to Kote “It sees all the future”. Rothfuss isn’t promoting a multiverse concept in this story. There is one future, and there is plenty enough to know about one future for it to be mystical beyond comprehension. There is a difference between saying that it can see “Everything that can possibly come to pass, branching out endlessly from the current moment”, and suggesting that there actually are multiple futures. As I said, a nit, but philosophically notable.

Bast is horrified to hear of the encounter, and in the midst of that, is very curious at Kvothe “just happening” upon the Cthaeh, whom the Sithe guard against precisely what Kvothe has become, a potential plague, a time-bomb of destiny. Why does Felurian not wonder about the same thing? She is rightly concerned that Kvothe might have had his psyche badly damaged by the thing, but doesn’t ever question how Kvothe got within range of the creature’s tree. It seems that any Fae would think twice before releasing the Cthaeh’s work into any society. I am left to conclude that she isn’t very interested in the consequences to the lands of men, as long as Kvothe, her “sweet poet”, seemed to be himself.

“What’s its plan” seems like a really good question to be asking. What does the Ctheah gain by what it does?


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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