This is the first in what may be a series of posts speculating on characters and events in the Kingkiller Chronicles.
SPOILER DENSE! Contains tons of things from the first two books in the series. Please don't read unless you've read both books carefully yourself.
As has been noted, the Kingkiller Chronicles leave open the unique opportunity of an unfinished epic fantasy series with a solid and fixed resolution. We know that whatever happens in the third book will bring us to the Waystone Inn. We know that Kvothe will trick a demon and kill an angel, and then kill a king, and somehow start the entire war with the Penitent King. We know that something is going to happen to unleash fairy creatures in to the world. The whole series has already been written (and is just being revised), so there are definite hints and foreshadows and the material can be trusted to lead somewhere. It's like a murder mystery in that regard.
Seeing the unique opportunity, I decided to wildly speculate, as have so many other fans.
In this post, I will focus on Denna. It is long.
Before I do anything else, let's talk about her backstory.
In Wise Man's Fear, while in Severen, we have a scene where Kvothe follows her to an alley, where he is surprised to see her attacking a man at knife point who was apparently in the middle of raping a young woman. Afterwards, the two women go to a tavern and discuss what the assailed should do. Options are laid out, and Denna suggests becoming a "courtesan", a job which she describes as being basically how Denna's character was behaving through the entire book; getting close to rich men, having them give you gifts, going to fancy restaurants with them, etc.
Throughout the overheard conversation, it seems rather obvious (implicitly ad explicitly) that Denna is helping the young woman out of sympathy, having been in a similar position herself. Denna seems familiar with the story; a rich young noble came to the country girl's village and seduced her. He brought her with him to the city, and now acts as though he completely owns her and can have sex with her whenever and however he wishes, apparently up to the point of violence. Denna guesses this, and the young lady confirms it. That is when Denna lays out the options.
The young lady could go back home, but she will be surrounded by rumors and will not be able to have her old life back.
The young lady could go and become a prostitute, which Denna warns will lead to the same problem; men will think they have bought her like packaged goods.
She presents the courtesan option instead, because then men will have to think they are wooing her and trying to earn her.
When asked by the young woman if being a courtesan will keep her from having to have sex with the men, Denna replies that of course it won't, but it will be gentler and on her terms, not in dirty alleys where he thinks he can beat you if he wants. When then asked if she refuses sex with courters, Denna tells her if she wants to refuse, then she'll have to leave the town at night when no one is watching and lay low and change her name before coming back.
All this fits exactly with how Denna is known to behave back in Imre.
This backstory is also exactly what Deoch tells Kvothe about her when the two commiserate in NotW. Further, it seems corroborated by the later scene at the river, where Denna speaks of a boy who teaches a girl to throw stones; the girl falls in love with the boy and gives herself to him, and then he throws her away, too. Some readers have connected this to Kvothe when he first meets Denna on the road and their scene by the lake at the inn, and that may be the true application, but it doesn't seem to fit as well as the idea of some past suitor winning her heart and then abandoning/abusing her, in light of the scene in Severen.
At any rate, Denna has been hurt in the past by men and now walks a slippery line of getting close enough to get stuff but not close enough to be abused by them, with terrible social consequences. That is established.
Having touched on where she came from, then I think it is profitable to look at the other major mystery surrounding her, and that is her patron, Master Ash. When I first read this, it was so obvious that it was Cinder. I mean, he's called Master Ash, he's mysterious and secretive, he has white hair. Come on! I believed this right up to the point where I learned that the bandit leader was Cinder. See, at first I thought the bandit leader was Bredon (I guess because of his "pagan frolics" in the woods?), but when that was shot down, I knew Bredon's character had still been given way too much detail for him to just be some guy in Severen, and that is when it connected.
I know Cinder is a popular choice, and an obvious choice, but with some reflection it doesn't quite add up. Cinder is inherently magical; he has matte black eyes and causes the air around him to become cold. He does have white hair, but also porcelain white skin. Desriptions of him don't seem to make him seem either old or gentlemanly, but strong, young, cruel, and also otherworldly. Denna seems to find her patron almost silly with his level of secrecy, describing him as bored and dramatic - you wouldn't say that about one of the Chandrian, even if you didn't know what they were. One of the Chandrian wouldn't walk into your bar asking for a woman you used to love, and you'd point to her and casually bring it up later.
|"Hello, I am looking for a young lady to-" "AGH! NO!!! NOOOO!!!!"|
|Boring photo of ash bark|
More significantly is the cruelty described by the Cthaeh, that Master Ash beats Denna and thinks it's some kind of game.
We know the Cthaeh is malicious and evil and seeks only to destroy as much as possible, yet we also know that the Cthaeh only tells the truth. I believe the Cthaeh only tells the truth, because that makes a sort of weird, storybook sense. If the Cthaeh was known to have ever once lied, it would vastly diminish its sway over people and diminish how dangerous it could be - truth is always more powerful. It would not be as terrible a monster if it might have lied.
Because the Cthaeh is telling the truth, however, does not mean that the Cthaeh is telling the entire truth or telling it in a way that the hearer will understand. In fact, we know that it only presents those portions of the truth that it chooses, and it chooses based on what will cause the listener to do the most possible harm. If Denna's patron is one of the Chandrian and actually physically abusing her as a leisure activity, then leading the 'big damn hero' right to the door of one of the more notorious forces of evil to save his girlfriend isn't sinister; it's actually noble. However, if Denna's patron is actually helping her in some way and is not the cruel brute he is made out to be, the Cthaeh's words have gone to convince Kvothe, who seemed already to suspect this anyway, and now imagine the harm that can be done from this. Alerting to real threats is not malicious, but tricking people based on their prejudices to attack fake threats is very malicious.
Moreover, if Master Ash were Cinder and the Cthaeh wanted Kvothe to attack Master Ash for some reason forseeable only to it, the Cthaeh would have just said that Master Ash is Cinder. Tehlu and all his angels could not have stopped Kvothe from attacking Denna's patron if Kvothe had known that it was Cinder. But the Cthaeh did not say it was Cinder, and the Cthaeh only ever tells true things.
I think there might be another way to read the Cthaeh's words, then, in light of all that. I'll get to that later.
Lastly to the arguments for why Cinder is Master Ash, is the song. Surely, if not Cinder, then at least one of the Chandrian is behind this. We know the Chandrian are evil; they killed Kvothe's entire troupe just for singing songs about them. We have heard two different and re-enforcing versions of the fall of Lanre, both from "good guys", and he was certainly a traitor. The song then is clearly propaganda sent out by the Chandrian, and Master Ash is coaching Denna in making this song
However, we don't actually know any of that. Master Ash didn't write the song or even hear the song; he's been helping her find historical information, but that doesn't mean he approves of Denna's spin of the song. Denna seems to have come to that interpretation all on her own. For all we know, as soon as he hears it he sadly lets her know of how wrong she has gotten everything and tells her the true story; or maybe he has no reaction because he's some guy who knows nothing about the Chandrian at all. By the time we join back up with Denna after her fight over it, she hasn't sung the song and seems to have forgiven Kvothe for contradicting her on the song. Now, she may have forgiven Kvothe because time had passed and she realized she cared too much about him to stay angry over a song - but she hasn't sung the song yet. If she had it finished and her patron was hoping it to be a song sung for a hundred years, why hasn't it gone on yet?
To be clear, I don't understand the song. It throws a monkey wrench in what would otherwise be a very smooth theory. But it is not proof-positive that Master Ash is Chandrian.
I do, however, think that Master Ash is Bredon. I will try to treat the two characters separately and then show that it makes sense to connect them.
To start then, Bredon is plot significant. Obviously. If his only job is to explain rings and say "beautiful game", anyone in court (like random gossipers) could have explained rings, and the Adem or Felurian or someone could have said "beautiful game" to him. He takes up way too much space in the story to just drive the plot along through Severen. Remember: there is an entire story arc of Kvothe escaping from treachery and pirates and shipwreck and other dangers at sea, getting washed up penniless on the shore of an island and begging his way to Severen that didn't get included in the final cut. I think "tak" and some cryptic advice about how to play a beautiful game could probably have been cut, too (great as these scenes were, when books get cut it is usually publishers and publishers know I'd rather read about pirates than board games if it's all the same). Whoever Bredon is, he is important to Kvothe's story of how the entire world got broken.
Having established that Bredon is significant somehow, let's look at what we know about him.
He is old, has white hair, and is a gentleman to his bones. We know that he is rich and a noble. He is also eccentric, preferring to play board games than get involved in court politics. He walks around with a wolf's head walking stick and has other attentions to physical appearance that suggest eccentricity. He is relatively unknown and secretive. He doesn't tell Kvothe who he is, really, or his title, or what he's doing, or any of that sort of thing. He is currently out of favor in the court, though he hopes to ride on Kvothe's coattails (or so he says) to get back in the Maer's good graces. Bredon has at least two servants who carry his tak table around, and humors them by leaving it in Kvothe's room when the servants complain about lugging it around everywhere. We know there are rumors that he is involved in pagan frolics out in the woods (which when I read it made me think of the greystones and doors to the Fae) - but then not all rumors are true. Certainly he is mysterious, eccentric, intelligent, wealthy, and likely involved in some sort of deeper and subtler power that comes across as pagan rituals to superstitious Vintans.
What about Master Ash?
He is older, has white hair, and comes across immediately as a noble. He is described as "the noble type" by pretty much everyone who sees him. Master Ash is overly secretive; it comes across to Kvothe (who is a hormonal male in love) as a cloak-and-dagger sort of thing, but it comes across to others (Denna and Deoch, for example) as him being bored and/or eccentric and pretending to have things to hide. That Denna finds him eccentric rather than sinister (especially with the beatings) suggests that he might be kind rather than cruel. It is suspected that "Ash" is a fitting name for him due to Kvothe's naming abilities and Denna's reaction to the moniker. Further, Denna tells Kvothe that her patron is in the Maer's court in Severen and that Kvothe has actually probably met him already (do you really think a Chandrian is strolling around the Maer's court and no one, least not Kvothe, has noticed?).
|"Hello, your grace, I wanted to dis-" "AGH! NO!!! NOOOOO!!!!"|
We also know Master Ash is attached, somehow, to the Chandrian. We do know, positively, that Master Ash had Denna attend a wedding where an ancient vase depicting the Chandrian was to be given as a gift, that he sent her there to scope out the joint, that he called her out from the wedding to the woods right as the fire started, that he physically injured her on purpose so that it would not be suspicious that she lived. We then know that when Cinder is in the Eld north of Severen, Master Ash is also in Severen at about the same time (which is also why Denna is in Severen at that time).
We know from the Cthaeh that Master Ash beats Denna, thinking it a kind of game, and that he uses his walking stick to do so.
It also seems Master Ash, whoever he is, is very likely teaching Denna more than music, in particular the history of the Chandrian and writing-magic. Denna asks about the latter at the Eolian and is disappointed to see it is false; she is later brought by her patron to Yll where she learns the knot language, and then starts tying those knots in to her hair. The first knot we know of is "lovely" (on her date with Kvothe, which seems to work) and the second one is "don't speak to me" (during her fight with Kvote, which also works). The writing magic is explained by Denna (in the form of a question) as being something you write down, and if anyone reads it later, even if they can't read the language, it comes true for them. I initially thought this was some story from Denna's past that had been guiding her or scaring her somehow, but it seems now this was something her patron was promising her and she was testing with "real" magicians to see how real it was, and was disappointed to learn it was false. Now she knows how to use it in Yllish knots and is taking every opportunity to do so. And as stated, Denna's patron has access to information about the Chandrian. He has old books and histories that aren't even in the Archives that talk about the Seven.
One last thing, is we are given an illustration by Manet about how patronage works in the world, and Master Ash is asking for literally none of these things, in fact refusing them by demanding secrecy; whatever his motivations for sponsoring her, they have a much deeper implication than is typical.
Does Bredon sound like he might fit the bill for Master Ash? Yes. They're both old, white-haired gentlemen who carry walking sticks, they are both eccentric and secretive, and they are both in at least one place at the same time (the Maer's court). Bredon's house colors being black and grey; "Master Ash" would make a suiting name for him (even if it would also fit Cinder). Bredon's "pagan rituals" might be connected to his knowledge of the Chandrian, and it might also be connected to the writing-magic that Denna has picked up. More importantly, both are important characters and it is good storytelling for two characters, one introduced as a cruel and brutal antagonist and another as a kind and helpful wisdomly figure, to turn out to be the same after the hero has dashed off on revenge against the first. It's common storytelling for the same bad guys to be behind every single bad thing that ever happens, but it's also sloppy and kind of silly. (If you dislike Doylist reasoning, then Kvothe would have passed over the Bredon interactions just like all the others if they weren't important.)
The things about Bredon that do not seem to fit are the descriptions of his interactions with Denna. I will try to enunciate these.
Denna's patron is described in a way that makes him seem abusive. For instance, beating Denna after the wedding so that others won't question why she was alive. This sounds like an extremely Amyrish thing to do - "for the greater good". Denna defends him on this (the townsfolk were already suspicious with the bruises). The idea of hitting a woman repulses me, but if it is to save her from being lynched as a mass murderess, I could see how someone might find it justified, with her consent (personally I'd have run off with her and avoided town, but I'm not an Amyr). Whatever you think about it, Denna herself said it was right and that it probably saved her life.
What the Cthaeh says exactly is as follows:
Her patron beats her. Not all the time, but often.
Sometimes he beats her in a temper, but mostly it's a game.
Her patron wonders how far he can push Denna before she tries to leave and he has to lure her back - but it's nothing grotesque; it doesn't involve scarring or burning.
At one point he used his walking stick, which left welts.
Denna thinks of Kvothe during these times.
Denna is tied in tightly to her patron and thinks it is all she is good for, and wouldn't leave if Kvothe asked.
Here's the thing; Denna is not an abuse victim.
I put the speculation about her patron after speculation about her backstory on purpose. The only things we know about her past is that she was apparently abused physically and sexually by a trusted male in the past, that she ran away from it, and that she now lives a tumultuous and ill-balanced lifestyle as a courtesan just to keep men from exerting power over her. We know that she has no problem putting on trousers and walking in to an alley in the bad side of town to perform acts of vigilante justice on rapists, protecting other women from male abuse and setting them on the right path to defend themselves from abusive men.
She is not the sort of woman to let a rich man beat her because he gives her money and then claim she fell off a horse. She is explicitly not that sort of woman. Her entire character - everything in Imre with the men and the changing names and vanishing suddenly and fighting back when being pushed - everything about her character would make zero sense if Master Ash was abusive to her.
|"Hello, I'm looking for a place to da-" "AGH! NO!!!"|
Also, the exact words that "he beats her" and "thinks its a game" and tries to "lure her back" could all just as easily apply to tak. The Cthaeh doesn't lie, but it chooses its words carefully to have the most possible damage.
And think about this: why does Denna go back to Trebon? It's not to find Master Ash, or not really. Denna is investigating the Chandrian, too, and her patron is helping her to do this (like with historical references). She goes back to see what the Chandrian have done, and that is why she is every bit as intrigued as Kvothe in the rust and decay.
So my thesis on Denna's patron is that Master Ash is Bredon from Severen, that he has some unknown interest in the Chandrian (likely to stop them), that he knows some form of martial arts and writing-magic that he is teaching Denna, and that Denna is not just a singer he is employing, but some sort of apprentice to whatever larger order he belongs to.
It is possible that Bredon is one of the Amyr, but he might not be.
That theory then expands Denna's character tremendously. She isn't some aggravating Mary Sue who goes from guy to guy and yet strings Kvothe along the whole time with "enchanting beauty" and "mystery" - she only comes across that way because of the aggravating circles the narrator takes around getting to know and trust her. Rather, Denna is from a broken past working towards some greater goal, maybe of revenge. Kvothe's story is about the Chandrian and the Amyr, and it turns out Denna's story is directly intertwined with his own, more deeply than either of them can guess at due to their refusal to communicate openly. Denna is working to become as powerful a figure as Kvothe, and seems to have succeeded where he has failed in finding information on the Chandrian and the power to stop them, sacrificing much to get there.
Or her patron is the same bad guy behind everything else who is really just cruelly abusing her and she inexplicably lets him in total defiance of everything else established about her character, and the Cthaeh saw fit to kindly guide the hero to her rescue.
You can take your pick of theories there, I know which one I'll go with.