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In Robin Hobb series about Royal Assassin FitzChivalry there are described at very least 3 types of magic: the Skill which allows to communicate with other Skilled or influence thoughts of other people, Wit which allows communicating with some animals and Hedge aka low magic, involving creating small amulets and trinkets. Both Hedge and Skill magic are tolerated (well, Skill is even revered as a sign of royal bloodline) but Witted people are treated as medieval witches and burned at stake. As far as I remember it had to do something with Piebald Prince but I don't know the details, I've recently jumped into "Fitz and Fool" trilogy and can't remember this information probably located in the firsts books of the series.

EDIT: to clarify: I believe that there was a moment in history when Witted became vilified, changing them from "bit weird" to outright "evil worshipers". All the stories fragments from "Old Blood tales" suggest that indeed in the past Witted were accepted.

EDIT2: It seems that the coup d'etat of King Charger aka the Piebald Prince who was Witted marks the beginning of the persecution - marking all Witted as evil would give rightfulness to the coup. Could someone please confirm that?

  • Are you asking this question purely "in story" or in terms of how and why Robin Hobb treats themes in her stories? – KorvinStarmast Aug 18 '15 at 20:17
  • @KorvinStarmast in story: I understand that there is a nasty human nature that makes us fear and and hate people that are "different" (akin to the way Motley the crow is treated by other crows), but I am wondering why Witted in particular are so hated while hedge witches/Skilled are not and was there a tipping point that turned the mistrust into open hate. – Yasskier Aug 19 '15 at 20:24
  • There doesn't have to be a why. If I ever run across a why, I'll edit it into my answer. One thing an author does is create a secondary world that is a lot like our primary world, with a few differences. Were creatures, or creatures with certain "bad" magic (vampires, lycanthropes) are in most fantasy worlds shunned, just as "witches" were shunned in our world. R Hobb presents the familiar social theme "but these kinds of people are evil/dirty/wrong" in her secondary world. Any of us recognizes it from the primary world. It makes our immersion into the story world easier. – KorvinStarmast Aug 19 '15 at 20:40
  • I think you're still not getting: early Christians were viewed as a "yet another crazy Jewish sect" until the great fire of Rome for which they were blamed - and suddenly: Christians are evil in the eye of law because they don't worship Caesar! Jews also don't worship Caesar and are even more different but are tolerated, the blame Christian taken for the fire turned them into convenient villain. Same thing happened later i.e. in Nazi Germany where Jews were blamed for German surrender in 1918. I am wondering was the same approach taken to Witted after the Piebald Prince death. – Yasskier Aug 19 '15 at 20:51
  • In short, no. See my following comment under the answer. Have you read The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince? – KorvinStarmast Aug 19 '15 at 20:59
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This answer is a little bit "meta" as regards the story.

A way to understand Robin's (Meagan's) uses of the Wit as major theme in the Fitz stories (I have read them all, and am now enjoying the Fool trilogy's second book) is to look at allegory or "the bigger message" themes embedded in her writing. She writes with a lot of layers of complexity and meaning, which is a reason I enjoy her books so much.

Examples:

  1. The Skill

    On her sff.net home page discussion board, over ten years ago, Robin shared an insight (may also have been shared in an interview) about the Skill along the lines of her story question for the Farseer Trilogy: "What if magic was addictive?" She used that as a jumping off point in her world building for the Six Duchies to see what toll was exacted on users of magic. The price Prince Verity pays for his use of the Skill is an interesting description of a someone addicted as seen through eyes of someone (Fitz) who loves him. Learning that from her changed how I saw the Skill in her stories. It got me looking at other larger themes. (No digressions to Liveship Traders).

  2. The King as Sacrifice:

    Robin shared on that same discussion board, during a thread that rambled into how people were or weren't tolerant of homosexuals, that she was born and raised Catholic. (The rest is off topic, so I won't digress beyond remembering her PoV as being about opening our hearts to those we know and those we meet). As soon as I learned that last about her background, I "got" her Big Theme treatment of the Mountain Kingdom culture and Princess / Queen Ketricken. Catholic theology makes a big deal of Jesus as King, Jesus as High Priest, and Jesus as Sacrifice. What Robin did was apply that last theme, and folded it into a mortal kingdom: how would a royal family behave if they tried to "be Jesus" to their people, to be their Sacrifice, to be their servant? (There are numerous tropes about benevolent kings/sovereigns in Western literature ... many of which find their ways into fantasy and Swords/Sorcery stories as tropes). With that insight, how the social structure of the Mountain Kingdom comes across changed the story for me, and made me appreciate the characterization of Ketricken even more. (She was a favorite of mine from the get go).

  3. The Wit

    As a theme, it's a metaphor (or used in allegory) dealing with prejudice and bigotry. You can see in it very familiar themes of "burn the witch" and about how different/strange/the other people are treated in a given society. (Robin explores similar themes in the Soldier's Son books, but that's off topic).

You first see this play out in a Large Theme sense when you read Assassin's Quest, then much more in the Tawny Man trilogy.

Before Fitz meets Black Rolf, the Wit is this "thing" that Fitz and Burrich deal with, and of course use to get Fitz out of town/prison. Fitz feels very much the outsider for a lot of reasons, but one of them is society's attitudes. He may be of royal blood, but he knows he's not welcome as he truly is, and not just because he's a bastard.
He almost goes feral after the jail break, so he at least finally comes to terms with himself.

When Fitz encounters Black Rolf (man and bear bond) whose wife has a lady and bird bond, he finds them comfortable with their unusual trait, but all isn't happy. They live as "outsiders." (The other side of the tracks, the (insert minority) side of town.)
(Aside: While I saw this as an off angle look at being 'in the closet' that may be me reading too much into what she was writing. It may have been gender or racial discrimination/bigotry from RL being used as a model).

They are ostracized from society. Fitz' meeting them shows you their humanity through his eyes, so that you the reader get past that 'other' boundary that people in the story can't seem to. (Quick cut scene to Martin Luther King and "Content of our Character" in his "I have a Dream Speech.")

During the course of the Tawny Man books, Fitz is a champion for the cause of the witted, but he has to work within the system. He addresses a Royal with "tainted blood" in a society bigoted against him. Wait a sec: JFK was born and raised Catholic. That was for some grounds to not vote for him. "What, can a Catholic be a President?" (In 1960, this was an affront to WASP society -- yes, I am that old).

The Wit is a vehicle that Robin uses in part to enchant us with a magical tale, to provide internal monologue for Fitz/Nighteyes, but also to address prejudice and bigotry being deeply ingrained in a culture.

To answer your question:

Why is the Wit a source of such hatred and powerful emotion?

There's more to it than just in-story elements. It's a way to explore human behavior that still persists: intolerance and bigotry. Part of what makes Fitz and his friends heroic is their effort to change this long standing prejudice in the story that had lasted for centuries in the Six Duchies. This is a form of conflict resolution for the story, and perhaps is offered as a model for any reader for their own lives in dealing with mundane reality, warts and all ... which includes dealing with bigotry.

Fitz, as Mal Reynolds might say, really is a big damned hero, even if reluctantly, and not just because he kills bad guys.

  • Thank you for your answer! Could you please confirm (or deny) that indeed the assassination of Piebald Prince was the tipping point similar to the burning of Rome which started the persecution of Christians? – Yasskier Aug 19 '15 at 20:12
  • That is beyond the scope of this answer. Based on my reading of the Farseer books, the Piebald Prince stands out due to the Witted Prince being Royalty. Commoners can hide their "blood defect" more easily than Royalty. The aversion to the Wit in that world well precedes the story of the Piebald Prince. Changes in the approach to the Witted seem to happen in story in the positive sense, contemporary to the stories of Fitz and his friends. The background and history isn't that granular. – KorvinStarmast Aug 19 '15 at 20:44
  • If you look here you will note that while King Charger (Pieblad prince as he was growing up) was growing up, his Witted status was kept a secret by family and friends. The aversion to the Witted before he became king is thus attested as being present in canon. It wasn't his assassination that was the threshold for that piece of bigotry, it was people acting on what was already there in the society/culture. – KorvinStarmast Aug 19 '15 at 20:54
3

In the Fool's Errand, Starling Birdsong tells Fitz the history of King Charger aka the Piebald Prince who went up on the throne and imposed a cruel reign with the assistance of armies of Witted. The kingdom suffered under his cane until the day he is killed by his cousin, a pure blood Farseer. The way he was killed is now used to all the Witted (hung then crossed into pieces which are burned above the water). In the legend of the chapter 5 it is mentionned that it's only after the reign of the Piebald Prince that we started to speak about the Wit with repulsion.

2

From The Complete Farseer Omnibus;

Generally, the wit is held in low regard, especially by those in rural areas;

The Wit is held in much disdain. In many areas it is regarded as a perversion, with tales told of Witted ones coupling with beasts to gain this magic, or offering blood sacrifice of human children to gain the gift of the tongues of beasts and birds. Some tale-tellers speak of bargains struck with ancient demons of the earth. In truth, I believe the Wit is as natural a magic as a man can claim. It is the Wit that lets a flock of birds in flight suddenly wheel as one, or a school of fingerlings hold place together in a swiftly flowing stream. It is also the Wit that sends a mother to her child’s bedside just as the babe is awakening. I believe it is at the heart of all wordless communication, and that all humans possess some small aptitude for it, recognized or not.


Note that attitudes seem to have changed over time. Note also that the common belief is that the Skill comes from the lineage of Kings:

‘But I’ve heard that was the way of it, with those who had the old Wit. That from the beginning, they were never truly children. They always knew too much, and as they got older, they knew even more. That was why it was never accounted a crime, in the old days, to hunt them down and burn them. Do you understand what I’m telling you, fitz?’ I shook my head, and when he frowned at my silence, I forced myself to add, ‘But I’m trying. What is the old Wit?’

Burrich looked incredulous, then suspicious. ‘Boy!’ he threatened me, but I only looked at him. After a moment, he conceded my ignorance.

‘The Wit,’ he began slowly. His face darkened, and he looked down at his hands as if remembering an ancient sin. ‘It’s the power of the beast blood, just as the Skill comes from the line of kings. It starts out like a blessing, giving you the tongues of the animals. But then it seizes you and draws you down, makes you a beast like the rest of them. Until finally there’s not a shred of humanity in you, and you run and give tongue and taste blood, as if the pack were all you had ever known. Until no man could look on you and think you had ever been a man.’ His voice had become lower and lower as he spoke, and he had not looked at me, but had turned to the fire and stared into the failing flames there. ‘There’s some as say a man takes on the shape of a beast then, but he kills with a man’s passion rather than a beast’s simple hunger. Kills for the killing …

  • Disclaimer - I've not read this novel. – Valorum Aug 16 '15 at 22:45
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    Thanks, but thats not exactly what I had in mind - as I understand until certain point Wit was accepted, then something happened and Witted from "bit crazy neighbors" became "evil worshipers" – Yasskier Aug 16 '15 at 22:50
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    @Yasskier - It seems to have been the other way around, those with Wit were historically feared and vilified. In recent years, there seems to be something of an acceptance that it's not a curse meritorious of instant death, although there's still some suspicion about split loyalties and the propensity for the witted to become animalistic. – Valorum Aug 16 '15 at 22:58
  • Indeed in recent years (as described in the books, thanks to Fitz and Queen) the attitude started to change, but the fragments of "Old Blood tales" that reach hundred of years before the book series suggest that until time of Piebald Prince Witted were at least tolerated. Then something happened (I believe it was attempt of coup d'etat) and Witted became marked as evil. – Yasskier Aug 16 '15 at 23:06
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    @Yasskier - Ah, I get you. It would appear that the throne was usurped from the Piebald Prince who was killed (with the justification that it was because he was a Witted). The kingdoms seem to have become less tolerant at that point, at least for the next couple of decades. – Valorum Aug 16 '15 at 23:27

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