The Farseer Trilogy
|Cover artist||Jackie Morris|
|Publisher||Voyager (UK), Spectra (US)|
|Followed by||Liveship Traders Trilogy|
The Farseer Trilogy is a series of fantasy novels by American author Robin Hobb. Often described as character-driven and introspective, and also as epic fantasy, the trilogy follows the early life of FitzChivalry Farseer, illegitimate son of a prince and melancholy hero. In a shift from the author's earlier work as Megan Lindholm, the Farseer novels were penned under an androgynous byline, Robin Hobb, and met with critical and commercial success.
The trilogy is narrated as a first-person retrospective, an unusual style in fantasy, with an older version of the protagonist Fitz recounting his memories of the past. Prominent plot elements include the bond between Fitz and a wolf, which has drawn attention for its themes of otherness, as well as the dichotomy between two forms of magic, the socially acceptable Skill and the despised Wit, viewed by some scholars as an allegory for queerness. The series has received praise for its characterization; it has also garnered broader recognition in the fantasy genre, with The Times describing Hobb as "one of the great modern fantasy writers" for her Elderlings novels.
The Farseer trilogy is the first of five series set in the Realm of the Elderlings, which began in 1995 and concluded in 2017. It is chronologically followed by the Liveship Traders Trilogy, which takes place in a different part of the same world, albeit with some crossover, and subsequently the Tawny Man Trilogy, where Hobb resumes Fitz's viewpoint. The three trilogies – Farseer, Liveship Traders and Tawny Man – have sold over a million copies as of 2003.
The Farseer novels were the first works written as Robin Hobb, a pseudonym of American author Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden. Her earlier writing appeared as Megan Lindholm, and was critically well-received, including Hugo and Nebula Award nominations for her short fiction, but did not do as well in terms of sales, motivating a change in byline. Another factor was a shift to writing secondary-world fantasy; as Lindholm, she had been better known for urban fantasy and science fiction. "Robin Hobb" was an intentionally androgynous pen name chosen to match the Fitz novels, which were written in a first-person male narrative voice.
The series incubated over a number of years, with the core idea being: "What if magic were addictive? And what if the addiction was destructive or degenerative?". The first book had the working title Chivalry's Bastard, which was later changed to Assassin's Apprentice. Fitz's narrative was structured as a trilogy from the beginning, with Hobb stating that the story was too complex to fit in one book and naturally broke into three parts. The relationship between Fitz and the wolf Nighteyes was based on a half-wolf called Bruno that moved into Hobb's home in Alaska in the 1950s. The enigmatic character known as the Fool was initially not a big part of the series' outline, but grew into a major character as the novels were written. The Farseer books went on to be critically and commercially successful, and became the first of five series set in the Realm of the Elderlings, which concluded in 2017.
Narrated in first-person by the protagonist FitzChivalry Farseer, also known as Fitz, the trilogy recounts his memories of early life in the Realm of the Elderlings.
As a child, Fitz lived in obscurity with his mother in the remote west, not knowing that his father was Prince Chivalry, next in line to be king of the Six Duchies. The first book, Assassin's Apprentice, begins when a six-year-old Fitz is brought to the kingdom. While Fitz is an illegitimate royal, his Farseer bloodline makes him of interest to the throne, and he is trained in secret as a royal assassin by master Chade. His bloodline also grants him access to a form of telepathic magic called the Skill, which he ostensibly trains in under the tutelage of Skillmaster Galen; however, Galen proceeds to telepathically torture Fitz and blunt his ability to use the Skill. This is later revealed to be at the behest of Fitz's uncle Prince Regal, whose political and personal machinations against him propel the plot of the trilogy.
One of the plot threads in the series concerns Fitz's ability to use the Wit, a type of magic used to form an intellectual and emotional bond with animals. This is, however, ill-regarded by the society of the Six Duchies, and Fitz's early attempts at using the Wit are discouraged by his guardian Burrich. His first Wit bond, with a dog named Nosy, ends when the dog is sent away by Burrich to the neighboring Mountain Kingdom. Nosy later dies at the end of the first book after foiling an attempt by Regal to assassinate Fitz, who also thwarts his attempts to kill his older brother, Prince Verity, and his wife Kettricken.
Fitz's bond with his next Witted partner, a wolf named Nighteyes, forms a significant part of the plot of the series. Rescued as a young wolf from an animal hunter, Nighteyes' partnership with Fitz occurs in Royal Assassin and develops at the same time as his friendship with the Fool, the court jester, and his romantic relationship with Molly, a young maid. Fitz attempts to keep both his Wit and obligations as an assassin a secret from Molly, but their relationship later ends with a conflict over his duties to the throne, with Molly pregnant with their child.
A parallel plot thread deals with the conflict between the Six Duchies and the neighboring Out Islands, who attack the shores of the kingdom using the Red-Ship Raiders. The raiders have the ability to turn the people of the Six Duchies into Forged ones; a form of zombification which makes them emotionless. Prince Verity attempts to wage war on the Red-Ship Raiders through his use of the Skill, and recruits Fitz as an apprentice, creating a Skill link between them. While Fitz's ability to use the Skill was blunted by Galen, he nonetheless helps in the war through the Wit, going into a berserker state where he and Nighteyes kill the Forged. They are however unable to turn the tide of the war, with Verity departing on a journey in search of Elderlings, beings from myth who may be able to help his people. In Verity's absence, Regal plots to kill his father, King Shrewd, and blame Fitz for the deed. He succeeds, resulting in a public trial where Fitz is exposed as a practitioner of the Wit, tortured and hanged.
Fitz is about to accept death, but at Nighteyes' plea, retreats to the wolf's body to survive. Burrich and Chade later exhume his human body and persuade Fitz to return to it, which he does with regret.
Fitz spends the next several months fighting trauma and seizures, but eventually recovers. Taking on a new identity, he retreats to the edge of society and finds a community of Witted practitioners known as the Old Blood, who he stays with and learns from for a period. Fitz then attempts to take vengeance on and kill Regal, but is instead captured by his Skilled coterie who deceive his mind using illusions. He narrowly escapes with the help of Prince Verity, who uses the Skill through their link; bleeding and injured, he collapses in the Mountain Kingdom where he is found and tended to by the Fool. There they meet Kettricken, who fled from the Six Duchies after Regal took over as King, and journey to the distant west in a quest to aid Verity.
On their journey, the group find a strange road paved with smooth stone, which Fitz terms the Skill road; it entraps Skilled users with memories of the past, making him wary about crossing it. At one point, he is consumed by the road's illusions and teleports through a Skill pillar to an abandoned Elderling city, but eventually finds his way back. The group find Verity in a quarry of Skill stone, surrounded by stone dragons, where he attempts to carve a dragon himself. They assist him, but discover, however, that awakening a dragon requires Verity to sacrifice his memories and all that makes him human. They thwart Regal's attempts to stop their efforts, awaken the stone dragons and fly to the Six Duchies.
The trilogy ends on a bittersweet note for Fitz, who defeats Regal, the raiders and the Forged with the aid of the stone dragons, but loses his beloved Molly and their child to the care of Burrich. He masks his identity and stays an outcast, living with Nighteyes at the edge of society.
While classified as epic fantasy, the Farseer novels have frequently been described as character-driven and introspective, with greater focus on the characters' internal conflicts over the external. The protagonist Fitz has been variously termed a melancholy hero, an anti-hero, as akin to Hamlet and a liminal being. The series is narrated in the first-person and couched as a retrospective, with an older, adult version of the protagonist looking back at his memories of the past. This has been described as an unusual stylistic choice in fantasy. The choice of narrator colors how the story is told: rather than act as an impartial observer, Fitz reflects on and wrestles with his past experiences in an attempt to reconstruct his identity.
Self and the other
Through its portrayal of otherness, the Farseer trilogy is seen by scholars as challenging boundaries between the "self" and the "other". According to scholar Justyna Deszcz-Tryhubczak, the protagonist Fitz comes to appreciate "the animal Other within his own personality" through his bond with the wolf Nighteyes. She views Hobb's use of the wolf as deliberate, and as a reflection of the fact that "humankind's relations with the wolf are more complex and intimate than any other wild creature" (from critic Peter Hollindale). Scholar Lenise Prater highlights the symbolism of the wolf in Western literature as representing nature, and the werewolf as representing "slippages between" nature and culture. Unlike in a werewolf, Nighteyes' bond with Fitz is portrayed as a relationship between two independent beings, with the wolf valuing his privacy and independence. There is an element of otherness in how Nighteyes perceives the world, which continually shapes his bond with Fitz; the wolf views the world with more immediacy and is attuned to survival.
Yet even now, when the pain presses most heavily and none of the herbs can turn its deep ache, when I consider the body that entraps my spirit, I recall my days as a Wolf, and know them not as a few but as a season of living. There is a comfort in their recalling, as well as a temptation. Come, hunt with me, the invitation whispers in my heart. Leave the pain behind and let your life be your own again. There is a place where all time is now, and the choices are simple and always your own.
Wolves have no Kings.
—Royal Assassin, Epilogue.
Toward the end of Royal Assassin, when Fitz is persecuted for his Wit, tortured and buried alive, he takes refuge in Nighteyes' body in order to escape death. This results in a dissolution of the boundary between self and the other. When Fitz eventually returns to his body, it takes him several months to recover from trauma and regain his sense of self, but even afterward, he is not the same person as before, and is irrevocably changed by his encounter with otherness. Deszcz-Tryhubczak describes Fitz's experience as a "bold initiation into self-knowledge", with his rebirth involving the other as a key component of his personality.
The stone dragons at the end of the trilogy represent a different form of otherness, which Deszcz-Tryhubczak terms "a sense of mightiness generated by the numinous". The awakening of the dragons, involving a transfer of consciousness, can be seen as an example of existence outside of the self. They may also be viewed as a cautionary example of taking the self/other integration too far, since Fitz's Wit-sense perceives the stone dragons not as people, but as predators. By submerging himself in the Skill-stone, Prince Verity gains the power to save his people, but loses his humanity and self-identity.
The people of the Six Duchies view the Wit as a despised "beast magic", condemning its practitioners to persecution and a life in hiding. While this can be seen as a depiction of social injustice, scholar Peter Melville describes it more specifically as an allegory for queerness and homophobia. Early in the series, Fitz's guardian Burrich aggressively disciplines him each time he uses the Wit, viewing it as emasculating and shameful; this is despite Burrich being Witted himself. Burrich finds it difficult to speak of his Wit, having suppressed it all his life; he views the shame of being Witted as worse even than being Forged, which involves the loss of one's humanity. Scholars have described this as akin to internalized homophobia and queer panic. This treatment of Fitz causes him trauma, with Fitz internalizing Burrich's sense of shame; his experiences with other folk, including Lady Patience, cause him to retreat further into the (Witted) closet. Melville describes Fitz's internal trauma as giving shape to "his identity in shame", and as negatively affecting his relationships with his loved ones, including Molly.
Fitz's trial and execution at the end of Royal Assassin expose the shame of his being Witted to public scrutiny; as a consequence, after his death and rebirth, he is forced to withdraw from society. This event is accompanied by a change in how Fitz perceives his Witted identity: he more openly explores his bond with Nighteyes and encounters a community of the Witted at the edge of society. Comparing the Old Blood to a queer support group, Melville views the sense of belonging they impart to Fitz as essential to the self-acceptance of his identity. The storyline then transitions from Fitz's personal struggle to the larger struggle for equal rights for the Witted, which is explored in The Tawny Man trilogy.
Another form of queerness that has been the subject of scholarly study is Hobb's portrayal of the Fool, a subversive aspect of which is hinted at in Assassin's Quest when the minstrel Starling states to Fitz: "The Fool is a woman. And she is in love with you". The Fool alternately presents as masculine and feminine in different segments of the Elderlings series; this blurring of gender boundaries is explored in the Liveship Traders, Tawny Man and Fitz and the Fool trilogies. The dynamic between Fitz and the Fool, described in the Farseer trilogy as "two halves of a whole, sundered and come together again" when they connect via the Skill, has also been a subject of study, and is developed further in subsequent trilogies.
The class structure and gendered attributes of the Skill and the Wit are studied by scholar Lenise Prater. The Skill is practiced by the ruling class, while the Wit is associated with lower classes; the Skill also has stereotypically masculine uses, such as a weapon, while the Wit, used to bond with animals, is a more feminine magic. Prater states that the series deconstructs these stereotypical expectations and hence "queers" magic: Fitz, who possesses both forms of magic, is both an outcast and a subject of the throne; the gendered attributes are blurred by the fact that the Skill can be used to heal and create melodies, while the Wit can also be used to influence humans (who are, after all, animals).
The political systems in the Farseer trilogy have been described by scholar Deszcz-Tryhubczak as a "utopian critique of the present". While the Six Duchies is a kingdom in the traditional sense of the word, the Mountain Kingdom is what Deszcz-Tryhubczak terms a "functional anarchy", with a diverse set of people scattered over farms, including hunters and migratory traders. It also employs a democratic notion of rule called Sacrifice, where politics is limited by holistic ethics. While Fitz initially views Kettricken's description of this concept as "a girl's idealistic notion", he develops over the course of the Farseer and the sequel Tawny Man trilogies an appreciation for this utopian political ideal.
The Farseer novels have received praise as works of character-driven fantasy. Writing in The Times, critic Amanda Craig praised Hobb's characterization of Fitz, and stated that the bond between Fitz and the wolf Nighteyes was as "passionate as the deepest romantic love". The Los Angeles Review of Books described Hobb's novels as offering "complete immersion in Fitz’s complicated personality", and remarked on the psychological complexity of Fitz's characterization, as well as Hobb's depiction of trauma. The LARB also praised the portrayal of Fitz's internal conflicts, stating that his emotional scars shape the perspective through which the story is told. Some aspects of the series were received less positively by critics: the early novels were described by John Clute as a "painfully confessional memoir", while the third book's length was panned by David Langford. Both critics nonetheless praised other facets of Hobb's writing, with Clute regarding the series as ambitious, and Langford asserting that "Hobb writes achingly well", remarking on her construction of a "convincingly textured society" with strong characters, including women.
The novels have also received broader recognition in the fantasy genre. Comparing the first nine Elderlings novels with the works of Le Guin and Tolkien, The Times described Hobb as "one of the great modern fantasy writers", and stated that her novels were "grown-up fantasy". A similar description in The Telegraph called Hobb "one of the pre-eminent writers of modern fantasy fiction" for her Six Duchies novels, while The Guardian described her as "the writer to press on those who turn up their noses at fantasy". The Elderlings series has also been commercially successful, with the first nine novels having sold more than a million copies as of 2003.
The Realm of the Elderlings series comprises a total of 16 novels, divided into five parts. The first trilogy, Farseer, is followed chronologically by the Liveship Traders trilogy, written in the third-person and set in a different segment of the same world, but with a recurring character. The third trilogy, The Tawny Man, follows after the events of the Liveship novels, and is narrated again in the first-person and from Fitz's point of view. They are then followed by the four novels of the Rain Wild chronicles, and finally the Fitz and the Fool trilogy, which concludes the series.
- Clute, John (October 29, 2021). "Hobb, Robin". In Clute, John; et al. (eds.). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (3rd ed.). Gollancz.
- Blaschke (2005), p. 55.
- "Megan Lindholm Awards". Science Fiction Awards Database. Locus Science Fiction Foundation. Retrieved November 7, 2021.
- Blaschke (2005), p. 58.
- Flood, Alison (July 28, 2017). "Robin Hobb: 'Fantasy has become something you don't have to be embarrassed about'". The Guardian.
- Adams, John Joseph; Kirtley, David Barr (April 2012). "Interview: Robin Hobb". Lightspeed Magazine. Vol. 23.
- "Robin Hobb: Behind the Scenes". Locus Magazine. Vol. 40 no. 1. January 1998.
- Pomerico, David (June 21, 2010). "25 Years of Spectra: Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb". Suvudu. Random House. Archived from the original on March 26, 2016.CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
- Blaschke (2005), p. 57.
- Craig, Amanda (September 17, 2005). "Hits and near myths". The Times.
- Teitelbaum, Ilana (September 8, 2014). "Bright Home, Dark Heart". Los Angeles Review of Books.
- Flood, Alison (September 10, 2014). "Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb – a melancholic hero fights again". The Guardian.
- Deszcz-Tryhubczak (2006), p. 187.
- Craig, Amanda (August 14, 2015). "Fool's Quest, by Robin Hobb – book review: More swords and sorcery from a Dame of Thrones". The Independent.
- Kaveney, Roz (1997). "Liminal Beings". In Clute, John; Grant, John (eds.). The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. St. Martin's Griffin.
- Elliott (2006).
- Elliott (2015), p. 188.
- Deszcz-Tryhubczak (2006), p. 185.
- Deszcz-Tryhubczak (2006), p. 188.
- Prater (2016), pp. 26–27.
- Deszcz-Tryhubczak (2006), pp. 187–189.
- Larsson (2021), p. 134.
- Deszcz-Tryhubczak (2006), p. 189.
- Deszcz-Tryhubczak (2006), pp. 190–191.
- Prater (2016), p. 24.
- Melville (2018), p. 283.
- Melville (2018), pp. 285–287.
- Larsson (2021), p. 130.
- Melville (2018), p. 288.
- Melville (2018), p. 289.
- Larsson (2021), p. 132.
- Prater (2016), p. 29.
- Melville (2018), p. 294.
- Prater (2016), pp. 23–24.
- Prater (2016), p. 25.
- Deszcz-Tryhubczak (2007), p. 316.
- Deszcz-Tryhubczak (2007), pp. 324, 328.
- Deszcz-Tryhubczak (2007), p. 330.
- Langford, David (April 1997). "Robin Hobb: Assassin's Quest". SFX Magazine. No. 24 – via Ansible.
- Langford, David (September 1995). "Robin Hobb: The Assassin's Apprentice". SFX Magazine. No. 4 – via Ansible.
- Shilling, Jane (August 23, 2014). "Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb, review: 'high art'". The Telegraph.
- O'Neill, John (April 23, 2017). "Robin Hobb Wraps Up the Fitz and the Fool Trilogy with Assassin's Fate". Black Gate.
- "Robin Hobb Awards". Science Fiction Awards Database. Locus Science Fiction Foundation. Retrieved November 7, 2021.
- Templeton, Molly (June 7, 2019). "Assassins, Pirates, or Dragons: Where to Start With the Work of Robin Hobb". Tor.com. Macmillan.
- Blaschke, Jayme Lynn (2005). Voices of Vision: Creators of Science Fiction and Fantasy Speak. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 978-0-8032-6239-3.
- Deszcz-Tryhubczak, Justyna (2006). "Lessons of Tolerance in Robin Hobb's The Assassin's Quest and The Tawny Man Series". In Deszcz-Tryhubczak, Justyna; Oziewicz, Marek (eds.). Towards or Back to Human Values? Spiritual and Moral Dimensions of Contemporary Fantasy. Cambridge Scholars. ISBN 978-1-904303-73-2.
- Deszcz-Tryhubczak, Justyna (2007). "'... Sacrifice. To Whatever Was to the Good of My Land and My People': The Utopian Political and Social Perspective in Robin Hobb's Fantasy Trilogies". In Ousley, Laura (ed.). To See the Wizard: Politics and the Literature of Childhood. Cambridge Scholars. ISBN 978-1-84718-233-3.
- Elliott, Geoffrey B. (2006). "Shades of Steel-Gray: The Nuanced Warrior-Hero in the Farseer Trilogy". Studies in Fantasy Literature. 4: 70–78. OCLC 133466088.
- Elliott, Geoffrey B. (2015). "Moving beyond Tolkien's Medievalism: Robin Hobb's Farseer and Tawny Man Trilogies". In Young, Helen (ed.). Fantasy and Science Fiction Medievalisms: From Isaac Asimov to A Game of Thrones. Cambria Press. ISBN 978-1-62499-883-6.
- Larsson, Mariah (2021). "Bringing Dragons Back into the World: Dismantling the Anthropocene in Robin Hobb's The Realm of the Elderlings". In Höglund, Anna; Trenter, Cecilia (eds.). The Enduring Fantastic: Essays on Imagination and Western Culture. McFarland. ISBN 978-1-4766-8012-5.
- Melville, Peter (2018). "Queerness and Homophobia in Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogies". Extrapolation. 59 (3): 281–303. doi:10.3828/extr.2018.17.
- Prater, Lenise (2016). "Queering Magic: Robin Hobb and Fantasy Literature's Radical Potential". In Roberts, Jude; MacCallum-Stewart, Esther (eds.). Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Popular Fantasy: Beyond Boy Wizards and Kick-Ass Chicks. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-317-13054-3.