Assassin’s Apprentice, by Robin Hobb: in defense of Fitz

Michael Whelan's cover art - often uncredited

This is more a rambling on the subject of the books than any sort of proper review. My review is, basically: I love this trilogy and feel strongly enough to stand in defense of the main character. Far be it from me to recommend any book to any one – I’ve been painfully cured of that – but when I did I used to recommend this strongly. What I meander on about here assumes some familiarity with the storyline and characters, and there may be some spoilers, hopefully minimal.

Continuing in the tradition of rereading old favorites, this one sparked by a group read on Goodreads… Ah, Fitz. One day an old man deposits a small boy on the doorstep of Buckkeep with only the curt statement that he was no longer going to be feeding his daughter’s bastard by Prince Chivalry. And from that moment the boy is the epitome of the rock dropped into (relatively) still waters, or maybe even more appropriately the butterfly stepped on by the time traveler that wipes out the future: he has no more control over anything that happens to him than the butterfly does, and the disturbance he unwittingly (so to speak) and unwillingly causes changes absolutely everything.

I was surprised – shocked, actually – when I participated in this group read and read others’ adverse reactions to Fitz. One disgusted comment was “he pushes people who care for him away and then complains to himself that he’s alone” – and I don’t understand where that comes from. The complaints were about how he sends mixed signals to Molly, how he makes some stupid choices and mistakes, and that over all a few people just couldn’t seem to stand him. I was taken by surprise because I’ve “known” Fitz for almost half my life, and I’ve always felt nothing but empathy.

He’s like an abused animal in a lot of ways, having been so neglected a child in so many ways – fed and clothed, and nothing more for the most part – and most of his life is spent purely reacting. There are not a lot of situations when he sees a way that he can take action of his own; either he’s constrained by his oaths, or by the secrets he carries, or by a lack of information or of a clue how to proceed.

He is the one who has been pushed away all his life, and treated with anything ranging from casual friendship among the town children to carelessness to outright contempt and loathing – the latter through no fault of his own, just because of what he is. The way he is treated almost across the board, it seems, is because of how he is taken at face value. The children perceive him as, basically, one of them, and accept him as such without question, indifferent to anything beyond whether he could hold his own in the games and whether he contributed to or detracted from their fun. The hatred he is met with – in particular, of course, by Regal – is because he is a bastard interloper, born in some filthy village to some anonymous girl. He is simultaneously beneath notice and an active threat. Any other qualities of personality or spirit are irrelevant, because of where and how and why he was born. He is never even given a distinctive name of his own (or if his mother gave him one it does not follow him into his new life, though – perhaps – he hears it just once in his later life). What people call him is not an ordinary name like ordinary folk nor an attribute name like noble folk, just something in between, just a label: Fitzchivalry, meaning literally Chivalry’s bastard. It’s a very long time before anyone with fewer than four legs bothers to look beyond that label. (Patience, probably unable to face calling him by that label, does stick a name tag on him reading “Tom”, but it means no more than if she had dubbed a cat.)

That labeling is something significant in this world. Among the nobles – the world Fitz has been dumped into, will-he/nil-he – names are not simply something to replace “hey you”. Names are aspirations, goals, characteristics which the name-bearer is hoped if not expected to espouse. Verity: a truthful man, honest to a fault. Chivalry: a man of great honor, in all dealings but one. Patience: a woman who when all is said and done is remarkably persistent and tolerant. Shrewd: you’ll never get anything past him. Regal … well. Depends on how you look at it. By his own lights, he is regal.

So to drop a boy into this mix and fix a name like Fitzchivalry on him is to in a way place a limit on him. He is Chivalry’s bastard: end of sentence. Nothing else about him, it seems to say, matters.

Add to the weight of that name the burden of a secret life – two, really, one a secret shared with only Shrewd and Chade, and the other shared with no one – and a terrible covert duty, and in many aspects Fitz matures very quickly. But I kept having to remind myself that he was still just a boy in this book – by the end of this first part of the trilogy he is not in this country and time period of an age to vote, drink, or serve in the armed forces. With all of his responsibilities and duties and experiences, he is barely more than a boy, and has had no kind of “normal” childhood. Every aspect of his life has been touched – marred – by what he is. I’d forgotten how painful it was to see him become interested in an apprenticeship that would have suited him down to the ground – only to have to turn away from it because of the accident of his birth.

Such a strange cover ... I don't *think* Fitz ever learns telekinesis

I don’t think it should be so very surprising to anyone that he does not handle himself or present himself like, say, an adult, or even a well-socialized tenth-grader would. There’s no way he could. For me the surprise lies in the fact that he is as strong and positive – and sane – as he is at sixteen.

This entire trilogy is one of the pillars of fantasy for me. Unfortunately the same does not hold true for others of Robin Hobbs’s books, but these three are special, not least because the characters that inhabit them are living, breathing people with lives and minds of their own. Fitz, the boy trying to claw out his own existence. Burrich, the hard man who was not always hard. Patience, painfully conflicted, and Lacey, ever faithful (and dangerous with a knitting needle). The Fool. For me, the Fool is one of the best characters in fiction. Steeped in mystery and surrounded by questions (and enveloped in enigma), he – or is it he? – has a magic all his own. The Fool alone makes this a great trilogy; the fact that the rest of the characters and settings are superb doesn’t hurt.

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9 Responses to Assassin’s Apprentice, by Robin Hobb: in defense of Fitz

  1. tmso says:

    That last one is a strange cover…

    I completely agree with your assessment of Fitz. I, too, empathized with him and hate it when people say he’s ’emo’. Ahem! Did you even read what the kid went through?

  2. stewartry says:

    I know! It really took me off guard. There are so many obnoxious characters out there with no excuse, and here’s poor Fitz, not obnoxious at all despite lots of cause. “Emo”. Grr.

  3. Pingback: Royal Assassin – Robin Hobb « Stewartry

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  5. Amber says:

    I also completely agree. I love Fitz, and considering all the things he has been through, he has a right to feel the way he does.

    I fell for him, and me who hardly ever cries, bursts into tears at the end of Royal Assassin and Fool’s Fate. (Even though i was eleven when i first read them. (I still feel numb four years on)

    It’s hard to put into words how much i love The Farseer Trilogy, and all Robin Hobb books in general.

    Thanks for the article

  6. stewartry says:

    Thank you for the comment!

  7. thomvil says:

    Just a little clarification.

    FitzChivalry does not literally mean ‘bastard of Chivalry’. Fitz is a prefix that means ‘son of’. So Fitz without a name following the prefix means ‘son of no-one’, or bastard. FitzChivalry just means ‘son of Chivalry’. Verity did not look at Fitz as his brother’s bastard, but as his full son and rightful heir. That is why Verity recorded him as FitzChivalry Farseer in the official records. A favor that was never granted to other bastards, like Chade.

  8. stewartry says:

    I – really? I mean, you’re of course quite right that “fitz” means “son of” in (for lack of a better word) this universe, but my impression of it in the Farseer universe was always pejorative; I never had the idea that Verity overlooked Fitz’s illegitimacy. He didn’t concentrate on it, and treated him as a human being, but … The fact that he wasn’t given a proper name, just an epithet labeling him – as you say – “son of Chivalry”, was telling to me. “Chade” isn’t a royal name, but it is at least a name, rather than just something not much more impersonal than “hey you”.

    I think I need to go read it again.

    Thank you very much for the comment!

  9. thomvil says:

    Fitz does mean ‘son of’ not just in the Elderling realm, but also in our universe. FitzPatrick is a common Irish name, meaning son of Patrick. Or FitzGerald…
    A variant of this is Johansson. This also means son of Johan and is a proper name. Don’t you agree?

    Fitz as such is not pejorative at all, only when it is used without a parents name. FitzChivalry like FitzPatrick is a proper name, not just a label.
    When the people that loved (or liked) him called him Fitz, it was meant as a short version of FitzChivalry. When people like Regal called him Fitz, obviously it was meant to put him down.

    I think you’re also mistaken about the notion of a royal name. Members of the royal family receive a name that enforces (or reinforces) a certain future or qualities. Verity and Chivalry are nobel names, and should have enforced these qualities upon those characters. The binding of the qualities of the name to the baby is done by a ritual of exposing the newborns to wind, water and fire.
    The Catholic church (and also other religions?) has a light-version of this ritual (baptism).
    The training in the Skill (and the mastering thereof) is believed to complete the fusion.

    In this sense, Chade did receive a royal name (although not the most flattering of names), as he was destined to walk in the shadows as a royal assasin. FitzChivalry is not a common royal name.

    But what is more important is the fact FitzChivalry carries the name Farseer, entitling him to the throne.
    If you recall the period of time when Verity was training Fitz in the Skill in his tower. At a certain point he literally tells Fitz to stop regarding himself as a bastard. He says that he never viewed Fitz as a bastard and for that reason named him FitzChivarly Farseer in the official records. Both were then fully aware that Fitz could make claim to the throne. That was one of the reasons Regal hated him so much.

    At the end of the Tawny Man trilogy prince Dutiful wears the crown, but Chade still makes all the decisions. At a certain point (at the end of the trilogy) Fitz and Chade are communicating by Skill. Fitz then uses his authority as rightful heir to the throne (he is still above prince Dutiful who is his son) to force Chade to step down. He acknowledges that this was the first time he was confident enough to use that authority, that is was the first time he actually felt like he was entitled to the authority. And that he would only have to use it once, to put his son on the throne for real.

    I really liked that moment because of the selflessness of the action. Fitz never used his royal lineage, except once to protect his son. Like a lion protecting his cub.

    The fact that Chade (who is the uncle of Fitz) would allow Fitz to overrule him like that, proves that FitzChivalry was not viewed as a bastard (by Verity) and Chade was.
    Chade had a good relationship with Fitz because they both were bastards, but Chade has also always been envious of Fitz for the fact that Fitz was actually ‘less’ of a bastard.

    Discussing this makes me want to reread the whole series too. :-)

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