What is the Cthaeh in Wise Man's Fear?

Bast has an almost absurd fear of it. From how they described it, it sounds like by simply talking to the tree, it would make you notorious in history, being single-handedly responsible for bringing about plagues and starting wars.


You can ask it anything and it must tell the truth, and by the things it tells you, it will make you be the worst kind of person you can be? I'm not sure I completely understand the idea.

And what is it that Kvothe does that is so horrible? Didn't they sort of imply that he was the cause for the war?

Is this Cthaeh supposed to be the prophetical "Broken Tree" that he mentioned in his first book?

  • 3
    "Broken Tree" refers to Kvothe himself.
    – apoorv020
    Commented Sep 15, 2011 at 8:31
  • 1
    There's got to be some relationship there. It can't be a coincidence that he runs into a terribly evil tree and is named "Broken Tree".
    – Neil
    Commented Sep 15, 2011 at 12:30

10 Answers 10


The insidious thing about the Cthaeh's influence is that you cannot escape it. If you know it's danger, and think "I have to kill myself instantly to protect the world" --well of course, the Cthaeh knew what your reaction would be, so if you kill yourself, that is what will cause the damage in the end. And if you realize that, then you must realize that the Cthaeh knew you would. Thus no matter what you do, it is going to be the worst possible thing--at least so far as it is influenced by the Cthaeh's words.

This creature is one of the greatest and most chilling 'monster' creations in literature. The more you consider it, the better it is.

One question I have is: What effect does its bite have? That was the instant worry of Felurian--that he was bitten. What an excellent touch by Rothfuss! It's unseen so the imagination of the reader supplies the most horrifying interpretation--Lovecraft-style. And the effect of its bite is unspoken but suggested to be really, really bad and scary, so the reader's imagination is once again fueled to provide the most frightening and disturbing possibilities. Love it.

  • Maybe being bitten is what turns a person into one of the Chandrian. :)
    – Neil
    Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 7:55
  • 8
    Bast's fear assumes that the Cthaeh's position of privileged foresight grants it leverage to dramatically affect the course of the future for the malevolent. For example, the range of possibilities of evil resulting from Kvothe's possible futures may range from 'saves the world' to 'the price of butter increases 1.2% faster year over year for about the next decade and a half'. Just seeing all possible futures does not mean that a few minutes of interaction permits one to program the universe to one's will.
    – Lexible
    Commented Feb 21, 2015 at 20:22

The Cthaeh is a Fae creature described as an omniscient being having the ability to see all possible timelines. It is also said to be perfectly malicious/malevolent, in that when given an opportunity to do so it will always choose the timeline that causes the greatest amount of misery/suffering/despair for the greatest number of people.

Thus the Cthaeh is a perfect manipulator. It does not do anything directly, but if there is something that it can say to a person to cause them to bring ruin and destruction to themselves and others then that is what it will do without fail. So it won't bring the plague itself, but it may convince a plague-infested person that they need to return to their home city and confront their spouse over the affair that they have been secretly having for the past year, resulting in a bloody confrontation that ultimately brings the plague into the city.

However this doesn't mean that the Cthaeh can turn anyone into an unstoppable instrument of destruction. For instance, if we imagine a person dying of poison who stumbles upon the Cthaeh with only minutes or hours left to live, there is very little malevolent purpose that it might bend them towards. However the Cthaeh works in subtle ways, using the people it manipulates to manipulate other, more influential people perhaps years or decades down the line. This can be exceedingly dangerous, particularly when it is given the opportunity to manipulate a young, healthy, powerful, and short-tempered subject like Kvothe.

The thing to take away from this is that everything that Kvothe does after his conversation with the Cthaeh is essentially tainted by its influence. We don't know exactly what it is that he does yet, but it's probable that he kills a king (possibly Denna's yet unnamed patron) thereby starting a war. It's also possible that he may be directly or indirectly responsible for the demons (the scrael, the demon that possessed the soldier and killed Shep) that have been appearing in the mortal plane. Plus it appears that whatever happens he ultimately ends up losing Denna, his ability to make music, his ability to perform sympathy, and perhaps also his Ademic combat ability and his skill at naming. And the Chandrian remain at large. Given this, it seems that the Cthaeh is quite dangerous indeed. It set the world in turmoil, and robbed Kvothe of everything he held dear.

  • So there's no hope for a happy ending? :)
    – Neil
    Commented Jan 17, 2013 at 16:50
  • 1
    Well, we are seeing the "ending" since the start: Kvothe hides in a tavern, fakes its own death, and loses all his powers. Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 22:17
  • There is nothing about his situation that implies he has lost his powers. Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 6:53
  • 2
    @NappingRabbit - Except for one instance where he explicitly tries to use them and fails, and gets beaten to a pulp as a result. And one where he implicitly doesn't use any powers while hunting scrael, again sustaining injury as a result. He's either lost his powers, or become a masochist.
    – aroth
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 7:32
  • it may seem silly but I actually considered it the latter. I am on my second pass through the pair now, but I thought he had some yet to be told 'moral or ethical or whatever' compunction to not use them. Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 9:15

The thing is, I get the feeling that while the Cthaeh is horribly powerful in its manipulations, it is not as all knowing as Bast made it out to be.

Think about it. If it were truly omniscient and malevolent, why would it have performed any action that would have led the Fae to blockade its tree? In its very essence, that prevents it from manipulating people to accomplish the greatest malice. If it were all knowing and wanted to accomplish the greatest harm, it would act more subtly so as to never alert those around it to its true nature, thus freeing it to speak to more people and accomplish more harm. And if you know EVERYTHING that can possibly happen, it wouldn't be hard to cause extreme amounts of harm without letting people know you caused it.

So, the way I see it, there are four major possibilities:

  1. The Cthaeh can see the future, but is not all knowing--there is a limit to how well he can know what to do and how to manipulate.

  2. The Cthaeh is all knowing, but the nature of Rothfuss's universe is more fluid and quantum--nothing is set in stone. The Cthaeh can merely influence events to be more likely to result in the greatest harm, but not assure that it happens.

  3. The Cthaeh is all knowing and can manipulate to assure the most harm--but it nature was known from the very beginning, perhaps before it was born, and so the Fae set out to limit it.

  4. The Cthaeh is not malevolent, or at least not totally.

There are two other possibilities that spring to mind--the first, the Cthaeh is all knowing and can assure the future it manipulates towards, but cannot control its impulses, and tries to do the most harm as fast as possible, which allowed its nature to be known. This doesn't seem likely as its nature seems to be patient--after all, if instant gratification was its thing, wouldn't it simply enrage Kvothe to do violence to the nearest possible person?

The second--The Cthaeh is all knowing, it can assure the future it selects, and it only let its nature be known...because being trapped is part of its overarching plan that in the end causes more harm. I don't want to think about this one. I can't see any ending to the story that won't break my heart if that's true.

  • Well, perhaps it is the myth surrounding the Cthaeh because of all the harm that has been caused by people leaving the tree that it is all-knowing, but perhaps that is not the case. Perhaps it has limits that we don't yet know about (without which, there can be no happy ending to the king chronicles).
    – Neil
    Commented Jan 17, 2013 at 16:55
  • That's why I think option 1 or 2 is the most likely.
    – John
    Commented Jan 19, 2013 at 20:47
  • Who says that it's tree is not precisely where it wants to be because there it can do the most damage?
    – Lexible
    Commented Feb 21, 2015 at 20:23
  • I am convinced the Cthaeh cannot be both perfectly omniscient and perfectly malevolent. There must be a limit to one or the other, otherwise how did it get stuck in that tree? (Also, why do the tree's guardians not simply kill it?)
    – J Doe
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 21:52

The power of the Cthaeh is

to see all the possible futures. This means that through the butterfly effect, he has the power to change the world dramatically. Since he cannot leave the tree, his only tool to effect change is the conversations he has with people. So for example, the Cthaeh could inflame Kvothe's opinions of Ambrose and it may later cause Kvothe to kill Ambrose, thus causing Ambrose's father to kill Kvothe, thus causing a civil war between the Maer and King of Vintas.

However, I personally believe that the Cthaeh is not as powerful as he is made out to by Bast.

Sure, it can see all the possible futures. But that does not necessarily mean that it can make that future occur via its words. For example, if a person is dying of poison and Cthaeh talks to him, can the Cthaeh really accomplish anything?

As to what Kvothe does, it seems that he kills a King (in Imre) because of Denna, and that plunges the world in a devastating civil war.

  • It's defended for that very reason. What damage can the tree do if people leaving it are killed no questions asked? I wonder why they don't try to destroy the tree once and for all.
    – Neil
    Commented Sep 15, 2011 at 11:23

More spoilers.

You can tell what Kvothe does from the title of the series, which is The Kingkiller Chronicles. He kills a king, which causes the political chaos that we see in the framing narrative. It's not yet clear which king he kills.


I'm sure we'll be getting more about the Cthaeh in the third book, but don't underestimate the power of being able to reveal any truth, and knowing exactly how things will work out if you do.

  • Damn, at some point in the second book I was certain I knew which king was meant. Now I can’t retrace my reasoning any more. Commented Oct 7, 2012 at 11:36
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    I would wager that the king he kills would be Ambrose, given that he keeps moving closer to the throne all the time. Commented Oct 7, 2012 at 20:04
  • Also remember that it has a fruit that can cure any wounds or heal any disease, which many of the Fae seem to desire. This might be worth keeping it alive. Commented Dec 28, 2012 at 19:39

The Cthaeh is the loss of free will. Because of its ability to see all available futures and choose among them, anything you do afterwards will be because the Cthaeh either planned it or allowed it.

It does seem to me that the Cthaeh's power is incompatible with quantum uncertainty. There will be events over which it has no control e.g. quantum or geological; and thus its ability to control would diminish over time.


On the nature of its power.

Let's go off what we observe and draw a set of conclusions, rather then a single overarching theme.

I perpose that The cthaeh gains some power after each level of interaction with what ever it comes in contact with. Listening to it, talking to it, asking it a question, asking it a favor, etc..

This happens explicitly and Felurian asks Kvothe about these "did you speak, did you ask of it, did it bite you (touch you)"

I suspect that the Cthaeh isn't all knowing, instead at each level of interaction it gains power over the subject. After Kvothe asks its a question it becomes very talkative and knows a lot about Kvothe's life. I believe it gained the power to know everything Kvothe does, but like a machine it sees everything all at once, it can piece things together Kvothe couldn't.

It flowers in couple well informed guesses (e.g that denna was hurt using a cane recently) to mask its true nature or maybe just to steer things in the direction it wants.

  • There's no evidence to suggest this being the Cthaeh's power. We have two reliable characters both explain what the Cthaeh is and how it works.Honestly, if it could only make decisions based on the knowledge of its victim, it's not all that dangerous - but if it was omniscient, then it becomes a much greater threat because now it knows exactly what to say to guide you towards the worst result possible - not just for yourself, but globally.
    – Mage Xy
    Commented Aug 20, 2019 at 19:25
  • @mageXy Then why does Felurian make a big deal about "asking of it" vs "talking to it". The Cthaeh itself emphasis those two states. It prompts kvothe several times to ask it things. We can ignore that, and call it omniscient, but that ignores the only true account we have of it. It knew things about Kvoths life, it gave no proof it knows everything. Flurean says it has the "gift of seeing". I surmise its a powerful seer, not omniscient. It's just got a blown up reputation because thats how stories work, thats theme of this entire series. It's called out explicitly in this case. Commented Aug 20, 2019 at 23:24
  • Felurian specifically states the the Cthaeh only speaks truth. A guess is not the truth, it merely an assumption (that can be completely wrong). So if it only speaks the truth, how could it tell Kvothe about Denna and the beatings if Kvothe himself didn't know for sure? And again, a creature that can "read" a person's mind/memories is not nearly as dangerous as one that can see every future. As Bast says, "an arrow only hits one person... Anyone influenced by the Cthaeh is like a plague ship sailing for a harbor." And Bast seem quite sure about his knowledge of the Cthaeh.
    – Mage Xy
    Commented Aug 20, 2019 at 23:57
  • @MageXy your right of she says it only speaks the truth. So taken literally that would contradict that it lies directly. Though it certainly tells half-truths. But regardless, the mind-reading is probably the lesser of the interesting parts of this. The larger part being the theory that gains more power the more you ask of it. Something like: 1. listen 2. talk 3. ask advice 4. ask for an object of power Mostly, I'm saying it's not an all-seeing god. Again, it's probably a very powerful seer bound to the tree as a form of prison. It has rules and limitations. Commented Aug 21, 2019 at 4:02

The problem here, and this explains why the answers range from 'the cthaeh is the total worst' to 'potentially not that bad', is that the entire story makes use of the unreliable narrator writing effect.

In the same way that the books highlight just how a legend of a hero or villain can be over exaggerated with Qvoth's retelling compared to the patrons of the pub's retelling of his various exploits, its possible that the Cthaeh also experiences the same misinformed legend.

We can safely assume that the retelling of Qvoth's story by Qvoth himself is reliable, because although its fantastical it is also accepting of several basic truths behind the mystical elements. In Qvoth's retelling of the encounter with the Cthaeh, the Cthaeh admits to having to make assumptions about what Qvoth has been thinking of Denna: "youve thought of her too, im guessing".

There are several ways of explaining this, maybe Qvoth incorrectly remembered the events, maybe the Cthaeh carefully chose its words, maybe the Cthaeh cannot read events as accurately when they occur in Felurian's domain but taken at face value its possible to assume that the influence the creature has is not as strong as the rumours.


The Cthaeth's control is as described above by Kushana. Because of quantum uncertainty it can only vastly increase the probabilities involved. For instance it cant change Kvothe causing him to kill some king but it can change him to the point where there is a 90% chance he will kill a king. Also the more that incredibly small parts of the 90% do not occur (which would occur over time) the less influence the Cthaeth has. Therefore it eventually loses the influence from 1 interference.

In other words there is a chance for a happy ending.


I thought it was a solid creation, but not believable. The Cthaeh is a good example of PRockfuss' stylistic "weaknesses" (which don't need to bother you), which is being emphatic and emotional or rhetorical rather than proving. If he tells you that something is really, really bad, he can be insistent enough that the reader just goes with it. But the horribleness of the Cthaeh can't be that great for reasons of probability. Since it is bound to actual conditions, there is obviously a limit to what it can do and how bad it can be.

The thing tells you only the truth. So either it needs to coincidentally meet a person which is haunted by traumatic experiences (and unable to overcome them, so the Cthaeh might not even make a big difference), or knows somebody who currently undergoes a horrible treatment; or the author buys into an idea of truth that is less informative, useful, necessary or neutral than actively harmful, or can freely be given a harmful bent, and is ultimately impossible for any average individual to bear. Which is contrary to the necessity of (relevant) information, even bad one, in life, and therefore extremely strange (albeit convincing in a minor, melodramatic tradition).

The second reason why the Cthaeh is the most horrible thing in existence, which is not limited to the hearer's psyche, is that it tells you things which will come to pass as long as it gauges the hearer's reactions correctly (which it always does) and so makes the hearer part of the events. Now that is a really cool concept, but it doesn't work either. The likelihood that any hearer is or can be made an important actor in events, again relies on the hearer, their background, capabilities and interests, and the set of conditions in the world, and what difference a piece of information can actually make in it. The suggestion is that the Cthaeh of course chooses the worst possible outcome, but that doesn't make it any more likely that the consequences are momentous or so incredibly harmful.

And the two evils pretty much don't work together, as the first one (traumatise until you lose your personality...) has to fail a little in order for the second one to work, and if the first one can fail, it is admitted that the second one can (since the conditions are related), and in fact both failing contains a gigantic likelihood, making the Cthaeh practically an unscary "mean" fairytale spirit.

It might actually work within his world (which is why one can go with it), even always, but only in a fictional world. Even if it is all-knowing and evil, it is is still completely dependent on the conditions and factors, i.e. the persons and what they could/would actually do (and what difference it can play for the worst outcome).

  • 1
    Your answer could use some editing. I would suggest less verbage and more source quotes to back up your answer.
    – Joe L.
    Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 12:16
  • "Source quotes"? Show me others using source quotes. Have you even read the book?
    – Mathias
    Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 12:17
  • I'm making an argument. The information is intrinsic common knowledge about the thing.
    – Mathias
    Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 12:20
  • Interesting argument. With everything that happens in this world (or the world of the Kingslayer Chronicles), the good and the bad kind of averages out, though we honestly can't say with any certainty what happens when the very worst possible thing happens. It's a bit like a bad luck explosion centered around one person's timeline, with a small chance of creating a chain reaction. It's difficult to say really.
    – Neil
    Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 15:29
  • The idea of people doing something because of being told something, and that action necessarily being profoundly negative, just seems like a total exaggeration to me, and completely fictional. There is in fact no proof or argument made that it would be very bad, it is just suggested by "worst possible" information, but that alone doesn't mean much. No matter how bad it is, it seems rather limited in its likelihood to be extremely bad, and worse than, say, a fairy killer squad. The likelihood would of course be higher and more complicated if anyone had free access.
    – Mathias
    Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 16:58

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