On beginnings: The prologue to The Name of the Wind

I’ve often heard people who give writing advice say “don’t write a prologue.” If I were someone qualified to give writing advice, I’d say, “don’t write a bad prologue.” The prologue at the beginning of Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind is a beautiful and necessary part of the novel.

NameOfTheWindIf The Name of the Wind were a song, the prologue would be a melancholy note played through the entire piece, an emotional resonance that would otherwise be absent. The prologue also pulls us into the mystery central to the story, and paints a vivid picture of Kvothe, the main character. It begins like this:

“It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.”

The prologue describes the three silences, and how they interplay. The first is a silence made by the absence of the things you’d normally expect in an inn, patrons laughing and drinking, for example. Music is also absent:

“If there had been music… but no, of course there was no music.”

This line is repeated in the epilogue. The lack of music is the most startling thing about Kvothe’s current state, and although we don’t realize that until we read the line again at the end of the book, the construction of the phrase here subtly informs our understanding of the importance of music in Kvothe’s life.

The patrons sitting in the inn are subdued and worried, creating an insular silence of their own:

“They drank with quiet determination, avoiding serious discussions of troubling news.”

The presence of troubling news and this pervasive sense of unease is a clever way to begin worldbuilding. We know immediately something’s not right in this world. And although we get lost in Kvothe’s story, this unease about the present state of things lingers.

There are also metaphors for Kvothe himself that become powerful tools for character building:

“It (the silence) was in the weight of the black stone hearth that held the heat of a long dead fire.”

Fire is an apt metaphor for the man Kvothe once was, but now, like the hearth, only a trace of the heat remains. The sentence so simply conjures up a sense of melancholy, of something lost, that fits Kvothe’s current state, without so much as mentioning his name.

Throughout the prologue, neither of his names are mentioned. I have to imagine this is deliberate, considering the importance of names throughout the novel. Kvothe has forsaken his name, along with the spirit of the man he used to be, and that leads us to the third silence in the inn.

“The Waystone was his, just as the third silence was his. This was appropriate, as it was the greatest silence of the three, wrapping the others inside itself. It was deep and wide as autumn’s ending. It was heavy as a great river-smooth stone. It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die.”

MuseuMusicaBCN_8859This paragraph is beautifully written. Rothfuss’s prose is amazing, and the final line of this paragraph is one that has always stuck with me as one of my favorite lines in literature.

But this prologue is more than just beautiful, as an effective prologue must be. Here in this final sentence, Rothfuss has strummed the chord of Kvothe’s sorrow, one that we will hear throughout the book. Because the story takes us to the past, where none of this tragedy has happened yet, it’s important he set this melancholy tone in the beginning, and do it in such a powerful way that it’s always present in the back of our minds as we read Kvothe’s early adventures.

It also creates the compelling mystery that drives people to beg Rothfuss for the third book–what happened to Kvothe to bring him to this place?

The epilogue is constructed similarly to the prologue, and the last paragraph of the book is the same one I’ve quoted above. This works to bring the book full circle. It reminds us that the entire book has been a story told over the course of a day, and when night comes again and the storyteller is done listening, the silence remains. We realize nothing has changed.

What can be learned from this? I think the most important lesson is that if you have a beautiful prologue that’s essential to the telling of your story, then keep it. But only if it’s well written and adds something that would otherwise be lacking—in this case, an emotional subtext and character building both symbolic and overt.

This is the third part of a series on beginnings. Part one deals with worldbuilding and setting, and part two dissects some of Stephen King’s brilliant first lines.

MuseuMusicaBCN 8859” by Amador Alvarez. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Featured Image: “Houghton MS Mus 71 – Bach, title” by Johann Ernst Bach – MS Mus 71, Houghton Library, Harvard University Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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