Why we hate Denna, or the curious case of the mismatched love interest

Of late my husband and I have been rereading through the Kingkiller Chronicle — not together since I read so much slower than he does — making a pass reading for clues. Like good detectives we are sharing what strikes us an interesting (How many times does Kvothe mention stone, or the moon?) Now that I am in the editing phase of Deus Hex Machina, it’s great to see the brilliant craft underlying this book from a reader’s perspective. But there’s one nagging issue I had the first time I read The Name of the Wind, and I found myself cringing in anticipation of hitting it this time around as I began chapter 48 — Denna is coming.

Warning: There be spoilers ahead (I think). At the very least I am about to talk of the general aspect of an important character in the series, and if you haven’t read it yet, now’s the time to stop.

For years I have been among the select group of readers that detest this character, this girl that sweeps in and out of Kvothe’s life leaving little more than scars on his heart and the mystery as to how he came to be Kote (cut-flower sound anyone?). She doesn’t ring true when so many other characters feel completely fleshed out with just a few words description — Skarpi and his driftwood skeleton come to mind. But while I have despised Denna, and generally roll my eyes when she enters a room (or a scene), I have not been able to put a finger on why she inspires such vehemence until today.

Because today I realized why this girl irritates me: She’s not Irene Adler, but Kvothe is definitely Sherlock Holmes. We are introduced to this woman — “the woman” as Kvothe says — rather early on in the story, but it’s in chapter 48 where we see the new and improved grown up slayer of men’s hearts sweep back into Kvothe’s life. By this time in the book we are starting to get an inkling that Kvothe may have earned most if not all of the wild legends surrounding him. We’ve certainly gotten an explanation of why they call him Kvothe the Bloodless. So we’ve established this is a brilliant young man, destined for greatness, able to play colors to a blind man, etc. About halfway through the book we have finally accepted that he really is this amazing, and we’re settling in to find out how the stories about him match up with his actual life. And we are told that he loves a woman, and are disappointed when she is nothing even remotely special compared to our hero.

Because as far as I can tell in reading these books Denna is far from special. He calls her beautiful, but that is subjective based on how entranced Kvothe is with her. Now maybe she is literally ensorcelling him, charming him with magic to see her as the most amazing woman on the planet — but I have yet to see hard evidence to that fact. That’s the trick. Kvothe tells us she is amazing, but we never see anything in her character that proves to us that she is a match for him in wit, in talent, in ability. She’s beautiful (Bast denies this by the by). Simply put we have fallen in love with Kvothe, and this woman just isn’t worthy of his love.

Why isn’t she worthy? Because she isn’t Irene Adler. Irene is another character deemed “The Woman” by another brilliant man who was considering the best at what he did — Sherlock Holmes. She outsmarts the smartest detective alive on multiple occasions. When she sweeps into Sherlock’s life she leaves a wake a mile wide that the reader can follow. She leaves him cases he cannot solve. She bests him at his own game. She earns our respect by being better than Sherlock at his own game.

Denna does none of these things. She comes into Kvothe’s life, makes him moon at her a little (okay, a lot), and then leaves again. She plays music the way he does, but not better certainly, and it comes off as an excuse for Denna to show up in Kvothe’s life rather than a methodical reason for her to be in the plot. But what, say, if the day he sits down to earn his pipes she steps up during the performance and plays better than he? Then you know she is worthy of his respect because she bests him at his own game. So far as we can tell from these first two books, Denna is only good at playing Kvothe.

Or, for instance, what if she were suddenly at the University as a student who rises faster than he? Actually captures Elodin’s attention and gets the coveted mentoring that Kvothe so desires. She becomes an intellectual rival in the book, a counterpoint to the nemesis relationships Kvothe has with Hemme and Ambrose.

This is the reason that Denna sticks out like a sore thumb. In a host of realistic characters, she is the one person that seems to be given more esteem than she earns. She is called “The Woman” and we expect her to be so brilliant that she outshines the most brilliant man in the world, but she is not. She could steal the pipes out from under his nose, instead she gets music lessons and abuse at the hands of her mentor. She’s a bauble and a victim and a liar, a trophy to attain rather than the ultimate partner for the greatest man in history.

I have hope however. Rothfuss is currently in his editing phase on Doors of Stone. He has grown in the 20 years since he first wrote the beginning of this series, since he first introduced us to Kvothe and Denna. And the joy of a framed narrative is that you can add elements from without the story and bring the inner tale in a completely fresh perspective. That make people run back to the first two books to see what was really going on with Denna. I mean, if it turns out she really was manipulating him this whole time, that she knew his true Name and was able to control him, that makes her evil, but also awesome. And you need to be awesome to be the woman who is worthy of Kvothe. You need to be better than awesome. You need to be Irene Adler.


One thought on “Why we hate Denna, or the curious case of the mismatched love interest

  1. I can’t say I disagree with your assessment or comparison to other fictionals. I know Tiffany will agree with you 100%. :) Seriously, we need that next book. haha

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