A Grim (and Fantastic) View of Law
posted by Dave Hoffman
In a series of posts several years back, I interviewed fantasy authors about their work, including the role that law plays in the “hard fantasy” genre. My favorite interview was with Pat Rothfuss, then the author of the best-selling “The Name of the Wind“. Here’s what he said about the relationship between law and fantasy:
[DH] You’ve talked in interviews about the need to build a world in exhaustive and thoughtful detail, but leaving most of that information on the cutting room floor in the final draft. When you built Kvothe’s world, did you think (at all) about the background rules of tort, contract, obligation, and property that enabled the relatively sophisticated economy that you envisioned?
[PR] Yes and no. I thought of the legal system, but not in those terms. Mostly because I don’t know what a lot of those terms mean. It’s the same way that a person can be a good cook without necessarily knowing how to calculate how many joules go into melting butter using delta T.
The big reason you don’t see much of that in the book is that it isn’t relevant to the story being told, or the experience of the main character. He’s a street urchin for most of the book. If a sailor catches him with his hand in his pocket, he’s not going to press charges. What’s the percentage in that. He’s going to fetch the boy a sharp smack alongside his head, and get on with his day…
Now if Kvothe got brought up on legal charges somewhere, that would be different. Then the reader would see the horrible, corrupt wheels of justice creaking ponderously along. We get a glimpse of that in book two, as a matter of fact.
[DH] If you have imagined a common law system, what sources did you draw on to flesh out what it looks like in the “book behind the book.”
[PR] In the commonwealth, their legal system is based loosely on England in the 1500-1700’s. In short, it’s a huge, tangled, unfair clusterfuck of a system. There are courts that enforce church law, and courts that enforce the Iron Law of Atur. Each court operates under its own authority, and of course their spheres of influence overlap… It’s a real mess, but it’s the only system that they have…”
“Book Two” was released earlier this month, titled “A Wise Man’s Fear.” Pardon the pun, but it is a fantastic read. Well worth your time. And, lo and behold, on pages 328-329, there’s an actual trial. In fantasyland! But rather than get into it, glorying in how the rules of procedure and magic might interrelate, or examining how a system of logic and nuance (law?) would interact with one of fantasy and whim, Pat does this: ”What started as a terrifying experience quickly became a tedious process filled with pomp and ritual. More than forty letters of testimony were read aloud … There were days filled with nothing but long speeches. Quotations from the iron law. Points of procedure. Formal modes of address. Old man reading out of old books.” And later, when a character voices an objection to this cursory treatment (and who I dream to be a stand-in for me), the main character replies that a full account of the law “Would be tedious … Endless formal speeches and readings from the Book of the Path. It was tedious to live through, and it would be tedious to repeat.”
Tedious? Has he never heard of Erie? Of Jacobs & Young? Of Pennoyer, for lord’s sakes? The law isn’t tedious – it’s the stuff of drama!